How much detail should go into a fight scene to make it vivid but not oversaturated with information? If the battle is between two trained fighters then should the descriptions be more quick and to the point since the fight would likely be quick? Or would it be better to focus on quick thoughts and strategies leading to the action? How does change with sparring practice or novice attackers?
The best way to think about fight scenes is that they are a cathartic end to prebuilt tension. That tension can be created in a few paragraphs, a couple of pages, possibly even a few chapters, but the fight itself (no matter how tense it is) translates to catharsis for your audience. You build to the scene, have the fight, release the tension, and then new tension seeps back in as a result of the characters dealing with the consequences.
Regardless of how you stylistically choose to approach fight scenes on a sentence by sentence level, it’s important to understand how the scene itself behaves in broad strokes so you’re not accidentally releasing your narrative’s tension out of order.
As for how to write fight scenes, there’s no right way to do it except practicing to find the tempo that works best for you and for your individual characters. Personally, I find that clear images and short visual descriptions work best for both experienced characters and for novices. One of the main differences isn’t just the speed at which the fight is ended, but the level of comfort and confidence a character expresses in their narration. (Knowledge of advanced strategy and tactics on the part of the author also helps, but, remember, what you don’t know can be learned.)
Here’s a short snippet I wrote for two characters in a practice duel. Aysun, a well-trained young woman but inexperienced and has never fought a live battle, versus Leah, an experienced swordswoman who grew up in a rough environment fighting for her life.
Blade lit, Aysun hurled herself across the chasm between pillars.
They met in the center.
Aysun rushed forward.
Leah sensed the rising arm, the flaming blade pointed straight into a thrust; Aysun ready to let forward momentum carry her strike to victory. She slowed as Aysun landed, pivoted onto a diagonal as the blazing sabre seared past into empty air. Blade up, she struck.
The sensor on Aysun’s chest glowed red.
A horn blared.
So, what does Aysun do wrong? In her overconfidence against an unknown opponent, Aysun rushes in. Rushing is a common tactic you’ll see in martial artists who’ve only ever fought in safe environments because they don’t worry about getting hurt. This is a novice mistake, but also one you’ll see from people who should know better. When I set out to write Aysun, I decided she’d fight via tournament rules. That’s what she knows.
Meanwhile, Leah, being experienced, takes advantage of Aysun’s mistake. She starts by running and looks to Aysun like she’s also rushing, but this is just to lure Aysun in. As they get closer, Leah incrementally slows her pace to allow herself more control over her own momentum. The problem with rushing is that if you close the distance too fast, you can’t stop in time and you run into your opponent. Leah doesn’t bother to block or parry Aysun, as it’d put her at risk of being on the receiving end of Aysun’s momentum. Instead, Leah steps out of line, allows Asyun to go past, and utilizes Aysun’s overextension to claim victory.
(We are, of course, missing the entire setup where Leah baited Aysun into this bout.)
One of the major differences you see between experts, intermediates, and novices isn’t the usage of advanced techniques, but adept use of very basic ones. They don’t game out a fight on the fly because that takes time, instead acting on prebuilt strategies and relying on trained reflexes. With advanced fighters who regularly see combat, they’re more miserly when it comes to showing the audience what they can really do. They’re aware of the exterior consequences that persist outside of the fight.
Some common personality traits of advanced characters versus novices:
- Decisive - what it says on the tin. They’re unlikely to hesitate when given openings and go straight for the kill.
- Explosive - they shift from resting into violence quickly and without hesitation when they decide the situation calls for it.
- Selective - probably saw this fight and that one coming and will move early to avoid as necessary. Injuries mean you can’t fight when it matters.
- Confident - confidence comes from experience. They know what they do, and they know they’re good at it. Can be mistaken for overconfidence until seen in action. More likely to talk shit pre-game. They know the value of psychological warfare. Some variants may get a kick out using this confidence to piss off their opponents so they fight angry.
- Practical - experience leads to realistic expectations. Experienced characters don’t need to prove themselves and know to save themselves for when it matters, so baiting is harder. Most of the usual shit talk will wash off. Also, more likely to punch someone in the shoulder because punching with a now swelling bruise hurts and slows them down.
- Brutality - not guaranteed, but not uncommon either. Here again, we have psychological warfare.
- Fatality - unless you’re looking at a situation where killing is not allowed, they’ll lean into this if circumstances require it.
- Sophisticated Bodily Knowledge - they know where all the major arteries, important nerve clusters, and internal organs are. (Yes, this includes knowing that stabbing someone in the armpit or groin can cause them to bleed out.) Also what hitting them does and what hitting them feels like. They’re going to be more pointed and technical with their strikes depending on what they want. More likely to break the human body down into joints and ligaments. Understands small damage leads to big results.
- Sophisticated Psychological Knowledge - less experienced characters are not likely to surprise them because they’ve seen the same tactics before. Humans aren’t that unique. A clever idea to a novice is an old song for the experienced fighter, and one they’ve probably tried before. Fighting is more than technical, its pattern recognition, and being good at it requires understanding people on a behavioral level to predict them.
- Room to Play - this is simultaneously a do and don’t which depends on how strict the character is. May play with a less experienced character or character with no experience if they believe they can get away with it. They know their limits. Not advised, but nobody’s perfect.
- Spends Time Practicing - the more skilled a character is, the more rigorously they practice and the more time they devote to developing their skills. While some characters are inclined to rest on their laurels, truly advanced characters know their edge falls off without training and understand the ceiling is without limit. They’re dedicated to their skills.
- Chains Techniques - unless you have a character fighting with a bladed weapon, and even when they do, they’re unlikely to be one and done. Blocks create openings for counters. One strike opens the door to another three and so on. (Lots of writers mistakenly try to ping pong fight scenes to draw them out. Combat isn’t turn based. If an opponent isn’t providing suitable resistance to slow them down, they won’t.)
- Considers Long Term Consequences - familiarity with techniques means understanding what those techniques do, what the long term consequences are, and how long it takes to recover from them (if they can be recovered from at all.) The same goes for battle. Violence is escalation. Characters who solve problems with violence should face escalating problems further down the road as a result of their actions.
You might be thinking male characters, but this list is gender agnostic. It’s important as a writer not to buy into a skilled character’s bullshit. They’re working very hard to convince the world they’re invulnerable, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
- Optimistic - trends for a more romantic, rosier view of martial combat. Experience with the human condition hasn’t knocked it out of them yet.
- Indecisive - for most people, it’s not easy to hurt another human being. To see their pain and suffering and to know you caused it. Novices are more likely to hesitate, more likely to ignore openings given if they don’t like the potential outcome, more likely to extend fights to their own detriment, and take hits they don’t have to. Less likely to seize the initiative and, if they do, not great at holding onto it against experienced opponents. They haven’t fully realized they can’t afford to be nice outside of safe, training settings.
- More Tells - everyone has tells, but the less experienced a character is then the more obvious their tells are and the more they have. This can be everything between the way they stand to their techniques generally being larger in motion, more obvious in the early movements of the musculature, less energy efficient, and, comparatively, much slower than their experienced counterparts.
- More Likely to Flinch - combat hurts coming and going. It hurts to receive hits, but it also hurts to hit someone. The closer you are to bone, the more it’s going to hurt. The harder you hit, the more return vibrations you receive. Beyond movement, these vibrations are what wears out your muscles in prolonged combat. (It only gets worse with weapons.) Proper technique diminishes some of these damaging returns, but not totally. Inexperienced characters will stop to go, “ow, that hurts.” You’ve probably seen characters on television shaking out their hand after hitting another character, that’s what this is. Pain. Inexperienced characters and novice characters are both less capable of pushing past the pain because their training hasn’t covered it or they don’t know to expect it.
- Plays Around - there’s a point between novice and intermediate where someone’s learned enough to be dangerous (mostly to themselves)but not yet realized how little they actually know. This leads to overconfidence and overconfidence leads to playing around.
- Less Advanced Body Knowledge - more likely to demonstrate less sophisticated knowledge of the human body, unlikely to break the body into pieces, and focus only on the major points like stomach, heart, head. Less focus on exterior limbs and joints, not a lot of thought given to pressure points outside the groin, less common arteries, or damaging musculature to debilitate. Might realize preemptive opening blow to the throat is good, but probably not thinking in those terms yet.
- Less Advanced Psychological Knowledge - they don’t have the experience to pick up on the more subtle psychological games and are more likely to be baited. (If you’ve got an MC like this, it’s important to let them make their mistakes. Mistakes build experience and audience street cred.)
- One and Done - most martial schools will train blocks and counters early, along with technique sets, but for true beginners chaining unfamiliar techniques won’t feel natural and there’s more likely to be gaps in their combat flow.
- Easily Overwhelmed - much more likely to not understand what is going on or for the pacing of combat to fly out of their control.
- Few Considerations For Long Term Consequences - novices have the luxury to be hot headed. They haven’t learned about the debilitations of long term injuries or even just the damages caused by small ones. They’re easier to write because they’re more likely to jump in with wild abandon, are met with more surprises, and have an easier growth trajectory for their character arc.
As a writer with no combat or limited martial experience, you’re more likely to start out thinking like a novice when structuring your scenes. While humans are very impressive creatures, it’s easy to overestimate what the body can fight through in comparison to damage received, especially against skilled opponents.
Ultimately, clarity and specificity in how you deliver the visual image combined with the sensation of the character’s combat can provide an entertaining fight scene. This is dependent on your writing, if you focus too much on technical details like sentence structure and not enough on the content and building up character’s decision making then the scene itself might fall completely flat.
Fight scenes are an extension of a greater whole. They’re the frosting on the cake, but the cake’s got to be tasty to begin with. Like martial combat in the real world, there’s no shortcuts, just a lot of hard work. Try, fail, reassess, try again. With practice, you’ll find your rhythm.