“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
— Mike Tyson
Every good story needs conflict—and nothing screams conflict quite like a fistfight.
Because, hey, fights are exciting! That’s why westerns end with shootouts and duels at high noon, and why superhero movies wind up with dudes in tights leveling CGI cityscapes as they punch each other into oblivion.
Negotiations can be boring. Moral debates can get confusing. But violence—oh, that’s the universal language. The minute somebody decides to throw a punch, the stakes and sides are clear. Adrenaline starts pumping, blood starts flowing—and your readers are happily along for the ride.
So why is something so simple to read so complex to write?
6 Essential Techniques for Writing Violent Scenes
Writing fight scenes has always been a bit of a sticky wicket for your garden-variety fiction author. Most (myself included) have never actually been in a fight, much less a bullet-riddled showdown with twenty well-armed insurgents, or a brawl with a war-crazed super soldier. And yet, that’s the exact kind of experience we’re tasked with simulating for our readers.
What’s the tender-hearted writer to do?
Lucky you—we’ve got your back. Catch an eyeful of our top 6 rules for crafting blockbuster fight scenes, and get a taste of why they call fighting “the sweet science.”
1. Keep It Simple
Life comes at you fast. So does a karate chop to the throat.
Despite what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might have taught you, fighting is not anything like ballet. Real-life fights usually don’t last any more than 30 seconds or so. They’re ugly, dirty, unchoreographed—and above all, quick.
While the temptation to lovingly describe every bone-breaking blow is powerful, the way you write a fight scene should reflect the wild, frenetic pacing of a real fight.
This means simple language. Direct language. Active voice, strong verbs. Short sentences—or sentence fragments, if you feel like it. In a scene where characters are beating the tomato juice out of each other, each sentence should feel like a punch in the teeth—or a knife in the neck, or a bullet to the shoulder.
However, that’s not to say that you should use such choppy language exclusively. Fights can ebb and flow like any other scene.
Consider using your language to slow down a particular moment in the encounter—like if a character’s hand gets slammed down on a hot stove, and we hear the flesh sizzling. After so much fast-paced action, a “slow-motion moment” can put a “cap” on a great fight, and make it stand out in readers’ memories.
2. Serve Your Story
Something a lot of inexperienced writers forget is that fight scenes are just that: scenes. They get so wrapped up in the punching and kicking and biting that they forget to tell a story in the process.
But the fact is, unless your fictional scraps move your narrative forward, they’re just unnecessary violence.
Fights should be plot points. What are the stakes going into the fight? Why are the characters fighting? And what will happen if a particular character wins or loses? What new situations does the fight’s outcome create, and what new information can your readers learn?
And that’s not all. Not only should your fight scenes serve your story, but each fight can actually tell a story in its own right. A fight has a beginning, middle and end, and follows a character trying to overcome obstacles—in this case, a formidable opponent—to achieve a certain goal.
Of course, it can be tricky to actually convey a sense of narrative in an action scene. Most people don’t stop and chat during a fistfight. So how do you tell a story using only kicks and punches?
The key here is escalation.
What starts as a simple physical conflict can end almost in a battle of wills and wits, with both parties constantly trying to figure out how to gain the upper hand. Maybe one character grabs a weapon, or tries to cheat, or uses a dangerous technique she isn’t really comfortable with. Not only do these escalations inject narrative elements into your fight, but they can demonstrate what your characters are like when their backs are against the wall.
3. Fight in Your Genre
Not all fight scenes are created equal.
Some are quick and dirty. Some are flashy and choreographed. Some are gritty and brutal, while others are almost artful—more of a dance than a fight. Some are one-on-one duels, some are sprawling war-zone battles, and others pit a few key characters against a horde of grunts.
Fight scenes take many shapes, and what shape a fight takes depends a great deal on genre.
For instance: A climactic showdown in a sword-and-sorcery novel is going to read a heck of a lot differently than a gentlemen’s pistol duel in a 17th-century historical romance. One’s going to feature a healthy amount of spell-slinging, while the other might end anticlimactically with a backfiring flintlock blowing off somebody’s hand.
Certain conventions are pretty well established for most genre fights, and audiences will find it painfully distracting if your middle-grade schoolyard bully antagonist busts out some legit kung fu moves against the protagonist.
Of course, genre conventions are meant to be broken. Don’t let limitations get in the way of your creativity. Feel free to have a broadsword fight in your western, or a superpowered brawl in the middle of your spy thriller. Just be prepared to back up your decision to do so with some logical explanation—or some serious star power.
4. Treat Violence Like Dialogue
Writing a fight scene? Want to give each blow a little extra oomph?
Three words: react, react, react!
Writing a fight scene shouldn’t just be a play-by-play account of each punch and kick. Remember that most people won’t come to blows without significant emotional impetus—fights are hot-blooded, passionate affairs, and your writing should reflect that.
Treat every fight scene like a conversation—one that uses blows instead of words.
Don’t just have a character get kicked in the teeth, describe his reaction! How does he react to pain? To the sight of his own blood? If he breaks a finger punching somebody’s jaw, does the agony distract him, or give him focus? What if he starts losing the fight? Does he panic, or reconsider his strategy—or fly into a berserker rage?
Make every elbow-drop and head-butt more than an attack. Make them responses, rebuttals, retorts, manifestos of purpose. Remember: when your characters decide to quit yakking and talk with their fists, they never really stop communicating.
5. Consider Your Deeper Goals
As soon as one of your characters throws that first punch, ask yourself: Why is she fighting?
Or even better: What does she want?
In any physical conflict, winning the fight is only a surface-level goal. If every fight scene serves the narrative, then it stands to reason that every fight should serve your characters’ goals in some way.
Consider adding an alternate “win condition” to a fight. Maybe victory isn’t about your character defeating her opponent, but to buy time for her friends to escape… or to claim a valuable object her opponent is guarding… or to cause a distraction or disturbance.
And never forget the emotional reasons for a fight! In this case, the question isn’t so much Why is she fighting? but Why does she fight at all?
By this reasoning, a fight scene can be a character moment as well as an action beat.
What if your character fights not to win, but just for the thrill of combat? Does she enjoy the rush of adrenaline, or just inflicting pain—or receiving it? Maybe she fights to distract herself from a painful memory… or to prove her courage—to somebody else or herself… or simply to feel something other than an overwhelming numbness.
So by all means, use fight scenes to satiate your readers’ thirst for blood—but never forget to satisfy your characters’ needs as well.
6. Do Your Research
Like I said before: a lot of writers lack actual combat experience, and this is where a bulk of their problems with fight scenes come from. Their fights come across as too choreographed, too over-the-top, or too silly, and none of the punches have any real weight to them.
But this is understandable: How can you be expected to accurately render physical conflict on the page if you’ve never thrown a punch?
Thankfully, you don’t have to go out and actually fight somebody to learn what fighting is all about. Like any writing topic, this is a chance to do your research. Sit in on a martial arts or self-defense class. Watch a boxing match or an MMA cage fight. Find footage of real street fights on YouTube.
Or, perhaps best of all, look to the silver screen. Chances are, no matter what kind of fight you’re trying to write, there’s a movie out that features an action scene that’s at least a little similar, if not downright comparable.
There are plenty of Top 10 lists for fight scenes in all genres, including television and animation. Fight scenes in Japanese animation can be particularly useful for inspiration, as the pacing of the fights usually allows for more emotional storytelling—even if the action itself is pretty overblown.
A little research goes a long way. Even if you’re writing an epic fantasy showdown with magic and medieval weaponry, injecting even a touch of realism can give your fight some much-needed street cred.
What about you, authors at home? Have you ever written a fight scene? What are your “forbidden techniques”—and where do you go to look for inspiration? Let us know in the comments section!
And for more hard-hitting tips on finding inspiration for your writing, check these out:
- Writing Prompts: How to Boost Your Creative Writing Skills with Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Ideas
- Is Explicit or Edgy Content Okay in Young Adult Books?
- What to Do When You Get Writer’s Block, Feel Stuck, or Just Don’t Know What to Write
Jacob Mohr relishes the opportunity to work closely as an editor with the authors of tomorrow, creating new stories and exciting possibilities—and making the world a little more awesome, one book at a time.
When he’s not editing someone else’s writing, Jacob can usually be found reading Stephen King, riding rollercoasters, or crafting his own stories.