Crafting a perfect fight scene might feel like a fun time or might feel super intimidating. You’re already having to research so much for world building, do you really need to become a martial arts expert as well?
Probably not (though, there are lots of benefits from training in a martial art!) But fear not, I’ve got some very easy basics and tips to help you prep and write killer fight scenes—all based on my real world experience owning a Thai boxing gym. (In fact, I’m going to reveal one move that’s practically always perfect.)
Like all action scenes, fight scenes can be intimidating to write. There’s a lot of moving parts (body parts included!) Here are some basic ways that I tackle writing them.
1. Block out the scene
Actors do this for stage productions and film, right? It also helps tremendously in writing. First, I try to figure out all the external factors: Where are the characters when the fight happens? What’s around them in the setting? Who else is around / Are they in a crowd? You need to know all of these things because your characters will still be interacting with everything. Maybe they use the environment to their advantage. Or maybe they have to avoid certain things.
Second, I visualize the stages of the fight. Example: If one character is in X location when another attacks, how and where do they move next? Sometimes I draw maps or diagrams on paper. A lot of times, I will physically get up and move around to test things. Sometimes, I even rope other people into helping me by standing in place of another character or throwing a punch so I can see how their body’s positioned.
2. Consider physics and body size.
I hate watching movies where some tiny girl does like a judo throw on a much larger opponent and flips them feet over head. I am a small girl (5 ft 2 inches) and I would probably not try and throw someone much larger than me over my head or back. I could get injured. Or smushed. There are lots of other moves that I would do before trying something like that.
The same goes for your characters. If one character is small, they should have different moves than someone much larger. A larger person can throw a haymaker and knock someone out much easier than a small person. I wish it was different, but really it’s just physics. (Remember that whole formula “force equals mass times acceleration”? Applies here!) But while a big person can hit harder, a smaller person can move faster, so there’s pros and cons to everything.
3. Remember that fighting effectively is hard.
Most fights in real life happen quickly because fighting is pretty exhausting. One thing to consider is whether your characters have training in some kind of martial arts or not. Experienced people will always move more fluidly than non-experienced ones. They will be able to fight longer and more effectively. If you need examples, you can watch YouTube videos to see what that looks like in reality. (You could search for something like, “street fighting versus cage fighting” to see the differences.)
Actively training also improves cardio and stamina which helps so much! Even if you’ve written a character who’s a judo master, if they haven’t been training, they’re going to get tired faster than someone who has. Even a person with a bit of training won’t react as quickly as someone who’s been training longer. So, when you block out those scenes, keep your characters’ training background in mind. Someone new to fighting would have a really tough time taking on a character who’s an expert, no matter how much of a natural they might be.
Bonus Tip: Getting knocked out is a lot different than it looks in the movies.
It happens in film and TV all the time, right? Someone gets clocked on the head and they’re out for like hours. This is just…not the case usually.
Knock outs can be devastating! (Again, YouTube has endless examples of this.) GENERALLY, people are not completely unconscious for very long (if they are, it’s really dangerous). Sometimes, a knocked out person won’t even go fully unconscious.
However, someone can be incoherent after being knocked out. The intensity varies and the effects could last a few minutes or even hours and it depends on lots of factors: how hard the hit was, what part of the head the blow landed, the person’s own physical fitness or training levels. Sometimes, it’s totally random how a person reacts to extremely hard blows. A trained fighter is usually going to be harder to knock out than someone with no experience. I realize that’s a lot of unknowns, but it’s something to consider when you’re writing fight scenes.
These are just some basics of how to set your fight scene up for success. In future newsletters, I’ll dive deeper into line by line recommendations for fight scenes as well as really effective techniques your characters could use. 👊
Have fight scene specific questions? Comment below or find me on social media. I love to test out book techniques in real life! :)
A version of this post appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.