Whether they’re heated arguments, hand-to-hand combat scenes, or massive battles, fight scenes show up in most genres, and they’re really hard to nail!
Let’s talk about what makes a good fight scene, look at examples, and then discuss some tips for writing your own.
What makes a good fight scene?
While all writing, and what makes it good, is typically subjective, what you can find are similarities and “rules” that primarily make for an exciting fight scene.
#1 – Relevance
Your fight scene shouldn’t just be there for the sake of being there. It should intertwine with your plot and characters, just like any other scene. How does it up the stakes in the writing?
Why are those characters involved? What are their goals?
#2 – Excitement
BUT it should still be exciting! Just because your fight scene is relevant, doesn’t mean it’s allowed to be boring.
Fight scenes are one type that should always be to get your audience hyped up or entertained. They can be dramatic or upsetting, but never boring.
#3 – Subtext and depth
As with all scenes, there should be something deeper than what is happening on the page.
What is going unsaid? Why are your characters fighting? Do any of them have a secret goal or agenda that they’re covering with some other excuse? What do they stand to lose? What do they stand to gain?
#4 – Characterization
Fight scenes should have a strong character presence. If you could replace one of your characters with another character and the scene would end up the same, your characterization is not strong enough.
Even in a large battle, it should be balanced with closer shots of your main characters (or the characters we should care about most in that fight scene).
Examples of fight scenes
One of the best ways to learn what works is to dive in and learn from examples. Below are some examples of great fight scenes along with what makes them great.
When reading, start to notice what is working with a fight scene, what you like and how you can emulate it.
Fight Scene Examples #1
Here’s an example from I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. The main character beating up Gavin Rose for his own good–he doesn’t want to do it. It is very focused, nearly sterile.
There is no passion or anger, or really any emotion at all. This is a good example of how tone can affect a scene.
My hands reach down and grab him by the collar.
I feel like I’m outside myself.
I watch myself drag Gavin Rose into the bush and beat him down to the grass, the dirt, and the fallen tree branches.
My fists clutter on his face and I put a hole in his stomach.
The boy cries and begs. His voice twitches. “Don’t kill me, don’t kill me…”
I see his eyes and make sure not to meet them, and I put my fist onto his nose to eliminate any vision he might have had. He’s hurt, but I keep going. I need to make sure he can’t move by the time I’m done with him.
I can smell how scared he is.
It pours out of him. It reaches up and stuffs itself into my nose.
I see his eyes and make sure not to meet them – he doesn’t want to be associated with this. He is doing it out of duty, for Gavin’s own good. It’s clearly not something he takes pleasure in. He might even be ashamed of it.
I can smell how scared he is. It pours out of him. It reaches up and stuffs itself into my nose. – this description really shows how much the main character does not want to be doing this. The tone is evident throughout that this isn’t something enjoyable or validating. It’s business.
This scene is relevant, exciting, characterizing, and has a subtext and depth.
Fight Scene Example #2
This next excerpt is from The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. Four people fight a serpent witch:
The instrument dropped from her hands. Her arms appeared to be fastened to her sides. Her legs were intertwined with each other, and her feet had disappeared. The long green train of her skirt thickened and grew solid, and seemed to be all one piece with the writhing green pillar of her interlocked legs. And that writhing green pillar was curving and swaying as if it had no joints, or else were all joints. Her head was thrown far back and while her nose grew longer and longer, every other part of her face seemed to disappear, except her eyes. Huge flaming eyes they were now, without brows or lashes.
All this takes time to write down; it happened so quickly that there was only just time to see it. Long before there was time to do anything, the change was complete, and the great serpent which the Witch had become, green as poison, thick as Jill’s waist, had flung two or three coils of its loathsome body round the Prince’s legs. Quick as lightning another great loop darted round, intending to pinion his sword-arm to his side. But the Prince was just in time. He raised his arms and got them clear: the living knot closed only round his chest — ready to crack his ribs like firewood when it drew tight.
The Prince caught the creature’s neck in his left hand, trying to squeeze it till it choked. This held its face (if you could call it a face) about five inches from his own. The forked tongue flickered horribly in and out, but could not reach him. With his right hand he drew back his sword for the strongest blow he could give.
Meanwhile Scrubb and Puddleglum had drawn their weapons and rushed to his aid. All three blows fell at once: Scrubb’s (which did not even pierce the scales and did no good) on the body of the snake below the Prince’s hand, but the Prince’s own blow and Puddleglum’s both on its neck. Even that did not quite kill it, though it began to loosen its hold on Rilian’s legs and chest. With repeated blows they hacked off its head. The horrible thing went on coiling and moving like a bit of wire long after it had died; and the floor, as you may imagine, was a nasty mess.
This fight scene tracks several characters, describing what is necessary. It doesn’t randomly hop around to tell us irrelevant things the characters are doing; it describes the important details of their interactions with each other and with the enemy.
The scene acts as a turning point for Rilian, who was previously under the serpent witch’s spell. It is relevant, exciting, and–since we see Rilian have such a big change–it is characterizing.
Fight Scene Example #3
Here’s the final battle scene from Redwall by Brian Jacques. This shows a large scale fight scene.
Cluny plucked the blazing torch from Killconey’s grasp. He flung it at the face of the oncoming warrior. Matthias deflected it with his shield in a cascade of sparks and went after the horde leader. To gain a brief respite, Cluny pushed Killconey into Matthias. The ferret grappled vainly but was cloven in two with one swift stroke. Matthias stepped over the slain ferret, whirling his sword expertly as he pursued Cluny. Ignoring his unprotected back, Matthias failed to see Fang-burn stealing up behind him. The rat raised his cutlass in both claws, but, before he could strike, Constance had hurled the net over him.
Fangbura struggled like a landed fish as the big badger picked up the net and swung it several times against the gatehouse wall. Dropping the lifeless thing, Constance plunged with a terrifying roar into a pack of weasels.
The thick tail of the Warlord flicked out venomously at Matthias’s face. He covered swiftly with his shield as the poisoned metal barb clanged harmlessly off it. Cluny tried again, this time whipping the tail speedily at the young mouse’s unprotected legs. Matthias leaped nimbly to one side and swung the sword in a flashing arc. Cluny roared with pain as it severed the tip of his tail. The bloodied stub lay on the grass with the barb still attached. Hurling the Abbot’s chair at his adversary, the rat seized an iron spike. Metal clashed on metal as the Warrior Mouse parried Cluny’s thrusts.
They battled across the green Abbey lawns, right through the center of the maelstrom of warring creatures. Oblivious to the fighting around them they sought to destroy each other, hacking, stabbing, lunging and swinging in mortal combat.
Meanwhile, teams of Sparra warriors were jointly lifting struggling rats and flying high to drop them into the middle of the Abbey pond. Ferrets had cornered a band of shrews and were threatening to massacre them when a column of otters sprang to the rescue. Keeping heavy pebbles locked in their slings, they battered continuously at the ferrets.
Cluny stood in the center of the room, his one eye straining to catch sight of Matthias in the belfry. Blood dripped from the dozen wounds die mouse warrior had inflicted upon him during the course of their battle. But now he knew he had won; the voices had been right; he would soon see the last of the mouse Warrior. “Come on down, mouse, Cluny the Scourge is waiting for you,” he cried.
Matthias stood up on the wooden beam. With one mighty blow from the blade of the ancient battle-scarred sword he severed the rope holding the Joseph Bell. It appeared to hang in space for a second, then it dropped like a massive stone.
Cluny remained riveted to the spot, his eye staring upwards. Before he had time to think it was too late. . . .
The Joseph Bell tolled its last, huge knell. The colossal weight of metal smashed Cluny the Scourge flat upon the stone floor of the bell tower.
Wearily, Matthias the Warrior descended the spiral stairs, sword in hand. He led the sobbing little friar out of his hiding place. Together they stood and stared at the Joseph Bell where it lay, cracked clean through the center. From beneath it there protruded a bloodied claw and a smashed tail.
Matthias spoke, “I kept my promise to you, Cluny. I came down. Hush now, Friar Hugo. It’s all over now. Wipe your eyes.”
Together the friends opened the door and walked out into the sunlight of a summer morning. Redwall had won the final battle.
The bodies of both armies lay scattered thick upon the grass and stones where they had fallen. Many were sparrows, shrews and woodland defenders, but they were far outnumbered by the slain rats, ferrets, weasels and stoats.
Nowhere was there one of Cluny’s infamous horde left alive.
Jacques tells a cohesive, intelligible narrative–he describes in a way that makes logical, linear sense. It isn’t just random description of random characters fighting. We stay on the main characters, we know what they’re doing and why, and he intersperses with description of the rest of the army, so we can feel the tension growing, and, eventually, know who’s winning. This shows a good balance between narrow and wide battle description.
Now that we know what different kinds of fight scenes look like, let’s look at some tips for how to write our own!
5 tips for writing a great fight scene
Want to write an epic fight scene of your own? These are some top tips to make sure your scene is received with sweating hands and hammering hearts.
#1 – Make sure you need a fight scene
Fight scenes are fun, but they shouldn’t be included just for the sake of having a fight scene. Like any scene, it should be imperative to your plot, characters, or (ideally) both.
Your character should have an actual motivation to fight. If they don’t, you likely don’t need to include the scene. Even if they’re acting in self-defense, there needs to be a reason that your character is being attacked.
Once you make sure you fight scene is necessary:
#2 – Nail the pacing
If your scene is too brief, you might confuse the reader. If your scene is too drawn out, your reader might get bored.
Give enough detail for it to make sense and engage, but not so much that it’s a pain to read.
#3 – Make it interesting
Instead of describing every single punch or kick or stab just to make sure your reader is following along for every muscle twitch the characters make, try to describe actions that are interesting and exciting, and actions that characterize.
For example, anyone can slap someone in the face. But if your character is fierce, and maybe a little nasty, they might BITE someone. That is a more unique move, which characterizes, and it’s much more interesting to read than a slap.
Maybe your character is resourceful, so their fight scenes involve heavy interaction with the environment–grabbing weapons or using objects to trip up their opponents.
If your character is prone to panic, maybe they overthink and hesitate too much, inevitably losing the fight.
Think about your character, why they’re fighting, how they’d fight, and then make it interesting.
#4 – Work in interior thoughts and dialogue
This is a good way to break up fight scenes so they aren’t straight action (which can get boring), and it will give you another opportunity to show why the scene matters.
What’s happening with the characters internal struggle? What are they saying to each other? Maybe they have allies they’re communicating with to add a layer of action and interaction?
Their interior thoughts can also help to guide the scene and clarify your characters’ motivations.
#5 – Avoid being unintentionally repetitive
It’s easy just to describe a character, beat-for-beat, in the same sentence structure:
She grabbed a brick. She slammed it into his head. She punched him. She tripped over her own feet. She died.
So make sure you’re varying sentence length, the type of sentence, and the first words and last words of sentences.
Here’s a video that illustrates these five tips with real life examples.
Keep your fight scenes relevant and exciting, and, like with any scene, layer them to be as dynamic and characterizing as you can!