His fist collided with my chin, knocking my head back. Before I could recover, he’d hit me again. Hard strike, left temple. He rode me down to the ground, yanking on my hair as blow after blow left my ears ringing. All I wanted was for him to stop, but I couldn’t do anything other than whimper as he kneed me hard in the ribs.
I rolled over. He backed away. “Don’t even think of getting up.”
A good fight scene is one of the hardest things to write. In the midst of a fight, there’s a veritable bevy of details to notice: blows being thrown, pain shooting up from odd places, sweat beading in your eyes, blood pulsing through your ears. As anyone who’s ever heard a firsthand story about a fight can attest, even those who’ve been through the real deal can have a hard time summarizing what happened.
In writing a fight scene also you have the added pressure of timing, where the form of your language must follow the feeling of what’s happening. As above, you might have noticed how the rhythm of the words picks up toward the middle. Hard strike, left temple. We all know what that means, but the drought of explanation implies that the narrator had a hard time thinking.
The same is true for the end. I rolled over. He backed away. The narrator is thinking in simple sentences, implying pain even without having to tell the reader. If you get one thing from this post, that’s what I want you to remember: a fight scene is about depth of language more than it is about breadth of language. It’s poetry of a kind, in which you try to pack as much meaning as possible in every single word. Sure, you could spend pages upon pages describing a single strike. She kicked out in a karate-style strike that connected halfway between my bottom rib and pelvis, igniting a shooting pain that reminded me of the time I had to have my appendix removed. But in a fight scene, you should imagine every word costing you a thousand dollars. Spend your money—and your reader’s attention—well.
Fight scenes are about focus too. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is to shift back and forth. I did this, then he did this. It smacks of the way most people describe fights, but it wastes valuable time. More importantly, a fight doesn’t feel like that in the moment. Even if you’ve never been in a fight, you’ve probably felt what it’s like to get hurt. In that moment, we don’t think about the details of where the pain is coming from; we think about the pain and what we can do (or not do) to stop it. To return to the fight above, the focus is on the attacker because the narrator has essentially become a victim. They’re not fighting back, so any description of what they’re doing beyond feeling pain would be essentially worthless.
This is another point worth mentioning. In a fight, people tend to take either an active or passive role; in an active role the focus is on their own actions, while in a passive role the focus is on the other’s actions. To rewrite the fight from an active standpoint would look something like this:
I dodged to the side of a blow meant for my chin. Quick jab forward, hitting him in his throat. I grabbed his overextended elbow and aimed for his shoulder. A loud scream of pain. I could feel the arm go limp.
One look in his eyes and I could see he was done. I let go of his arm and used my knee to push him away. “Sorry about your arm, dude.”
See the difference? While both scenes mention the other combatant extensively, the action is almost exclusively attributed to one person. The other person in the second fight could be doing all kinds of crazy stuff, but it goes unnoticed because the focus is on what our narrator is doing.
Vocabulary is also really important here. You have to know the difference between a hook, jab, cross, roundhouse… basically any terminology you plan on using, or else you could wind up describing something impossible. Also, the type of blow will inform the other person’s reaction. For example, a powerful cross could knock someone out, but a jab would only push them back a bit. I’ll admit I’ve never boxed or fought in my life, but I’ve been to enough classes and learned enough about the differences that I can use them in my writing. You don’t have to be MMA-caliber to try it; you just have to do your homework.
In conclusion, fight scenes are best kept short and focused. Longer fight scenes (like a battle) could be a string of smaller fights linked together, but the individual fights themselves shouldn’t be a word salad unless that’s intended to be part of the narrator’s characterization.
If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. If you’d like a free copy of Ashes to Ashes (my latest novel), you can also subscribe to my newsletter. Thanks!