The Anatomy of Action: How to Write a Fight Scene

Doug Landsborough
April 27, 2022
May 19, 2023

So you want to write a fight scene, huh? Well, the first rule about writing a fight scene is that we don’t talk about writing a fight scene.

No wait, that’s the first rule of Fight Club. Okay, the first rule about writing a fight scene is we do talk about writing a fight scene. How else are we going to become better writers?

Depending on what you write and how you want to write it, fight scenes can be exciting drivers of plot, revealing character moments, quick and dirty bursts of action, or completely avoided. Unlike some other writing topics we’ve delved into–I’m looking at you, character motivation–fight scenes are not mandatory in most stories and can be as frequent or infrequent as you want them to be. Similarly, they can be as short or as detailed as you’d like.

Despite the arguments from some readers that fight scenes are unnecessary, a good fight scene is much more than a burst of action. Fight scenes, like everything else in your book, need to be important to the plot and the characters. They are much more complex than you might think.

To understand the anatomy of action, we’re going to dissect your writing and make sure your fight scenes have all the guts they need to make your readers crave more.

Fight Scenes Need to Matter

First and foremost, fight scenes need to matter. This is true of every single scene in your book, so why shouldn’t it be true for these?

The last thing that you or your readers want is a filler scene just to make your book longer. That’s called book bloat (trademark pending), and we’ll have none of that here, thank you. To understand if your story is suffering from book bloat, take a step back and look at your fight scene. If you were to remove the scene, would your story still progress the way it needs to?

If the answer is yes, then you’ve got a case of book bloat on your hands. Get your scalpel and remove that scene.You must understand that all scenes in a book, even fight scenes, must serve the plot or a subplot (and, consequently, subplots should also help move the main plot forward). Readers will sniff out a fight you wrote just to include a fight scene. They’re actually really good at that.

So, when planning your fight scene, ask yourself the following about the action you’re about to write:

  • Why is this fight happening?
  • Who is involved in it?
  • What led both sides to this point?
  • What are the potential outcomes for both sides?
  • How will the fallout of the fight impact your characters and your story?

Be objective about your answers and whether this scene is helping the plot. Some genres, like fantasy and sci-fi, are a lot more forgiving about the number of fight scenes you can include. But no genre will tolerate unnecessary book bloat.

How to Write a Fight Scene: Fights need to matter, Fights influence character, think about pacing, embrace the senses, revise, revise, revise

Fight Scenes Influence Characters (and Vice-Versa)

Just like the plot, fight scenes should also influence the characters involved. Your two warriors are not just the swords they are wielding, but they are living, breathing beings (on your page, at least).

Why did your character choose to get caught up in this fight? Or did they choose at all? What impact does the fight have on their arc? The characters you write are just as important to your story as the plot, so make sure the conflict here is meaningful and has consequences.

Your characters might be fighting for vengeance, love, to protect something, or just to have fun. Whatever the reason, the fight scene should make sense based on who’s involved.

At the same time, you can use the action to reveal important parts of your character or let your reader know how your character has developed. What lengths will they go to in order to win the fight? Are they nervous or confident? What are the stakes for them?

Think about the lasting impact of a fight, too. Very few writers have experienced the sort of violence a lot of us write about, but being shot, stabbed, knocked out, concussed, or having bones broken all create lasting physical and emotional trauma.

The human body, while resilient, isn’t invincible. That goes for both the winner and the loser of your fights. Let the visceral nature of fights have a tangible impact on your characters.

Fight Scene Pacing is Important

Plot and character are like the organs of your fight scene’s anatomy. Now we’re going to dive into the real inner workings of these scenes and look at how the description, flow, and overall word choice impact your fights. Up first is pacing.

As you dissect fight scenes–and writing in general–you will find there is no one right way to pace your writing. A number of factors determine the pace of your story:

  • What is your genre?
  • Who are your readers?
  • What is your writing style?
  • What is your current scene?

So how do we figure out what pacing you should be using? Here are some tips:

Study fight scenes in your genre. And pay close attention to the way your favorite authors write their action. There are certain patterns and styles expected or common among genres. See how the best of the best pace their writing.

Know your audience. Are your readers the kind of folks who live for fight scenes or just gloss over them? This might be tough if you’re writing your first book, but hang out in some reader groups and writer hangouts like the Story Craft Café. You’ll start picking up on what kind of scenes your readers want.

Focus on your own style. While our writing styles are a beautiful Frankenstein’s monster of all the books and writers we’ve read over the years, it is ultimately uniquely your own. Make a habit of writing and do it as consistently as you can; you’ll soon find out whether faster or slower fight scenes are more up your alley.

Mix it up! Some fight scenes take a few pages, while some fight scenes take a single line. Some fight scenes ebb and flow in their pace, switching between tension and explosive action. Especially if you’re still determining your own style, mix up your pacing to see what works best for that particular scene.

Characters fight differently. The pace of your writing will differ depending on the characters involved in your fight. Intelligent, calculating characters will have wordier fight scenes as they logic out their next move. Those who struggle with impulse control will have punchier (sometimes literally), more dynamic fights. How does your character go into battle?

Embrace All the Senses in a Fight Scene

Unless you’ve gotten a lot of practice writing stories for public consumption (and criticism), you probably rely on one sense at a time when describing something in your writing. Maybe you add a second sense every now and then, and you’ll probably notice how much more immersive it is when you read that description again.

Truly immersive scenes, fights or not, make use of multiple senses to pull the reader in and keep them hooked. This is especially true when you are highlighting how tense or brutal a fight is.

Sight is the go-to sense when describing basically anything in a story. We want the reader to be able to “see” the world we have built and the characters we’ve populated it with, but remember that more detail describing what a character sees slows down the pace, while less detail quickens it.

Most writers, especially newer writers, rely almost exclusively on sight to describe their fights and other scenes. This isn’t necessarily bad, but don’t forget the other four senses you have available to you (or five if you see ghosts)

Touch is the other most obvious sense to use after sight. Though not all fight scenes are physical, the majority are, which means your characters touch and will be touched. Consider:

  • Fiery pain from getting stabbed
  • The cold bite of ice magic
  • Pavement scraping against skin when someone is knocked to the ground
  • The snapping of ribs

Hearing is a versatile way to add tension or movement to a fight. Consider:

  • Ringing in your hero’s ears when they are clubbed on the side of the head
  • The steady thumping of a heartbeat pumping adrenaline through a character’s veins.
  • The slight scuff of a footstep sneaking up behind a character in the dark
  • Sheer terror from a gunshot in a crowded market

Smell slows down the pace of your fight while adding a very under-used sense. Consider:

  • The smell of singed hair from a fireball your hero barely dodged
  • Perfume that reminds your hero of their love, inspiring them to fight on
  • The contrast of fresh, salty ocean air with the violence before your characters
  • The pungent smell of gunpowder from your hero who just killed someone with a pistol

Taste is one of the more unusual senses used in a fight scene, but it can add a level of detail that will pull your reader in. Consider:

  • The taste of blood after your hero is punched
  • Gritty sand from an underhanded villain throwing a handful of the desert in a character’s face
  • A necromancer’s spell that fills the air with the taste of death or magic
  • The taste of defeat (not really a taste, but I couldn’t leave this one out)

Make use of more than just sight when you’re writing a fight scene. Next time you pit two characters against each other, choose one or two other senses to splash in the mix. No, you don’t want to describe an entire fight by its smells, but including more senses can go a long way in improving the experience for your reader.

But don’t overdo it. You don’t need to cram all five senses into your fight scene just to have them all there. It will become a muddled mess. At the same time, don’t be too heavy-handed with those one or two extra senses you toss in. They are there for flavor and depth, not to be the star of the scene.

Revise Your Fight Scene (More Than Once)

Just like every other scene in your book, you are going to need to revisit and revise your fights. In fact, I’d argue that you should revise them more than once.

Once you’ve written your fight, revise once for choreography. Even if your scene doesn’t have sword fighting that borders on fluid dancing, your fight needs to make sense. Get up and recreate what you’ve described. You’ll immediately know if something doesn’t make sense. Some authors check out YouTube videos to help with this step.

After your first revision, go back again and make it better. Maybe that sounds a little blunt, but first drafts can always be improved. Specifically, look for places to use powerful, dynamic verbiage and adverbs to enhance or slow the pace (whichever floats your boat). Keep an eye out for passive voice, too. Passive voice has its place in writing, but there are very few instances where it works in fight scenes.

You might have to improve your wording or change your pace multiple times before you’re happy.

And then give it another pass for any obvious errors before sending it out. Maybe that’s just the editor in me talking.

Don’t Fight With Your Writing Software

Listen, let’s keep the fighting for the made up characters, okay? When you’re writing, you shouldn’t be bogged down by clunky software, confusing menus, or any other hurdles cluttering your writing space and getting in the way.

With Dabble, you get all the features you need until you need them to go away to let you write. It makes writing a fight scene a breeze and, with tools like Character Notes, you can easily keep track of how your characters fight, what motivates them, and how their fights impact them.

If you want to try a novel-writing software that makes writing easier and more fun, just click here to get Dabble’s premium features for free for fourteen days, no credit card required.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.