Reality Check- Things to Know before Writing a Fight Scene

Genuine hand-to-hand combat lasts seconds or a few minutes at the most for good reasons. Unless the fighter is trained and actively familiar with hand-to-hand combat, an actual fight can become exhausting and tire the fighter quickly. The fighter could still win with luck, but they won’t be running from a firing squad, bomb, or evil assassin any time soon.

Everyone has something called a “flinch response” when they fight. This is the brain’s natural way of saying “move or get hurt.” Trained fighters or people with a history of abuse adapt to suppress the response. How much experience does your character have with fighting, and what style of combat is his opponent using? A character new to fist fighting will be hit a few times before their survival instinct overrides the “flinch response.” Until then, that character could be in too much shock and indecision for them to fight back. Don’t count on an adrenaline rush to save the day; in reality, adrenaline works against you, naturally tiring the human body during battle and makes fighters shaky and inaccurate. During that time, adrenaline focuses the human brain on surviving, not winning, the fight. In short, don’t think adrenaline makes your character Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.

During Combat

Use your character’s perspective to describe the event. What do they see? What are they blind to? What’s their focus? Don’t be afraid to write short and uneven sentences, stating one action and then another. Purposefully edit your words into shorter syllables. Apply this technique to words and sentences, keeping the perspective short, simple, and strong in the thick of battle. When there’s a lull in the fight, take a moment to utilize longer phrases to analyze the situation– then dive back in.

Delete as many adverbs as you can. Characters do not dwell on things when they are in the heat of the moment. Being distracted results in injuries. Focus on actions, not thoughts or observations. Search your vocabulary with more descriptive verbs, such as
-Bellow, bolt, charge, claw, crumble, thrash, heave, hurtle, shatter, shriek, snarl, splinter, tackle, raze, roar. Use and to double-check your definitions.

Remember to think about ALL of a characters’ senses. People remember more about how they felt in response to senses other than sight during battle.

  • Touch/Feel: hands too sweaty to grip the enemy, muscles tense in preparation. Torn by strings or other injuries that flare white-hot with pain.
  • Taste: Dry mouth, salt from sweat, copper tang from blood, etc
  • Smell: anything familiar or jarring about that cigar musk on the opponent’s coat? Does the smell of alcohol or urine make your character cringe?

According to a character’s experience or exhaustion, things like sound and sight may blur or sharpen during a skirmish. Loud sounds or noises from behind may be the fighter’s only alert of an incoming attack. Quick movements and vivid colors will catch the eye, perhaps distracting them. Eyes might start to sting from sweat or blood pouring into the open eyelids. Do everything you can to keep the fight here and now.

Expanding on Physical Details & Minimizing the Theoretical

Writers using cool calculative characters struggle with keeping scenes immediate and casting away the character’s theories. If you have difficulty writing from a strategist’s perspective or someone who needs to think ahead, try keeping the strategy to before-and-after fights. Layout plans in calm periods; try to guess what enemies are thinking or what they will do. I watch Robert Downey Jr fight as Sherlock Holmes for inspiration. Here’s a character who evaluates his enemy for potential weaknesses, observes his surroundings for weapons and other aids, and considers every likely scenario or option he has. Above all, a strategist thinks of the terrain in immediate terms. This includes obstacles that might put him at a disadvantage or provide a means of escape.

However, during combat, the character should consider his options in immediate terms. He’ll focus on his opponent and terrain as it changes throughout the fight. Look at the examples below:

♣ Large enemy rushing me; dive left, circle around.
♣ Two foes helping each other, separate them.
♣ Scaffolding on fire, pool below me.

After the Battle

Fights are chaotic, fast-paced, and self-centered. Characters know only themselves, their goals, what’s in their way, and the quickest way around those threats. It’s only after the danger has passed that details resurface. This stage allows characters to pick up things they cast aside during the fight, both literally and metaphorically. In the aftermath, characters can regain their emotions, rationality, introspection, and anything else they couldn’t afford to think or feel during the confrontation. Lastly, after writing, read it aloud. Anyplace your tongue catches up on a fast-moving scene, edit. There will never be a smooth first draft, so don’t be discouraged.

If your character has been stabbed or is losing blood quickly, refer to Assessing Fictional Injuries- Bleeding Wounds. This can give you insight into how someone thinks while experiencing serious or minimal injuries.