Q&A: Fight Scene Length

Do you have any advice for scene length/impact? I’m realizing that if writing a three page play by play of a sword fight is hard, reading it must be even worse, so I’m trying o shorten it up without diminishing its importance or the impact it’s supposed to have.

Usually, the shorter the better. I’ve talked about this before, but different mediums lend themselves to different approaches to combat.

Film and games thrive on a longer, drawn out, format. In a film, each strike can carry individual drama because you’re getting the responses of the actors. Film can also thrive on spectacle, a visually exciting environment and engaging choreography can sell a fight that, on paper, is fairly dull.

Comics thrive on spectacle. It’s not about how long the fight is, it’s about being able to have dynamic moments that your artist can bring to life. If you have that, your fight can be one panel or it can comfortably go for pages. I haven’t pointed this out before, but in comics, as a writer, you really need an artist who fits what you’re trying to do. You’re equal parts of a team.

In prose, you want your fights to be as brief as necessary. Note: “As brief as necessary.” If it’s just a fight between two characters, that can be over in a couple paragraphs. Even if it’s part of a larger battle, that stuff can be pushed to the side for this individual fight. However, background elements can intrude, extending the fight. For example: If a fight is interrupted by other characters, and one chooses to break combat to escape, you could have a much longer encounter without resorting to a blow by blow.

You want to avoid a rhythm of repetition at all costs. RPGs can easily break down combat into round after round of, “I hit them with my axe,” and the sound of dice rolling. There’s nothing wrong with that in that format. The experience that sells that is three fold: First: You’re a participant. This isn’t something affecting a character you care about, it’s affecting your proxy in the story. Second: The outcome is not preordained, you’re still rolling dice. Third: It was never about the content to begin with, it’s the people you’re there with. So combat that gets repetitive isn’t a problem because it’s not the main event. This is not true in prose, and one of the most dangerous things about transposing combat from a game system into prose.

This may sound a little stupid but, each time your character acts they should be trying to achieve a goal. Yes, “harming my foe,” is a legitimate objective, but if they can’t do that directly, they shouldn’t resort to, “I’m going to repeat the same action a dozen times hoping for a different result.”

If your character is in a fight, they try to attack their opponent, and the attack is defended, they need a new approach.

There are a few things your experienced character should do that will help with this. First, they don’t start with direct attacks, their first goal should be to test their opponent’s defenses. So, they’ll start with probing attacks, looking for weaknesses in their foe’s defenses. They’ll be studying how their opponent moves. On the page, there’s a huge difference between a character simply attacking, and specifically trying to tease their opponent’s parry to get a look at it. Once they have a solid grasp of how their foe fights, then they’ll probably move in for the kill. This could be complicated by other events. This is the background, the environment, or even sustained injuries. This stuff is not safe, and minor miscalculations could result in your character being injured, which then becomes a complication they’ll need to deal with as the fight progresses. If your character can’t exploit their foe’s weaknesses, they’ll need to find a way to open them up. This could include attempting to wound in order to create a future opening, or forcing them into a disadvantageous position. Once they’ve taken control of the fight and gotten it to a position where they have a decisive advantage, then they’ll kill.

While your character is trying to take control of the fight, an experienced foe will be doing the same. Obviously, if only one character knows what they’re doing, it will seriously impact how all of this plays out, and the fight will be very one-sided. It’s entirely possible the veteran will simply disarm and kill the rookie.

Impact is a more complex concept. I think the simplest way to describe it is: Impact is determined by how quickly, and sharply, and scene goes wrong for the characters.

In a fight scene, you want to clean it up quickly because your readers will get bored. When you’re asking about impact, you need to it to resolve fast or the impact is lost. The scene needs to transition from, “thing are going well,” to, “everything’s fucked,” in as few words as possible.

For example: Let’s look at that template above. You start with your protagonist testing their foe’s defenses, finding an opening, and moving their foe to a position where they think they have the advantage. Their opponent is struggling to deal with their assault, and then when they’re about to press and kill them, their enemy lops off your protagonist’s sword arm and executes them.

The part where things are going well can be longer, but it needs to go wrong, roughly, that fast. You can also foreshadow this in a lot of ways. If you’ve established that their foe is a more skilled swordsman than you’re seeing in that fight, you’ve warned the audience that this will happen, but in the moment they’ll think your protagonist is just that awesome, or that the villain’s reputation was unearned. It’s only after the walls are painted in blood that they realize you realize your protagonist walked into a trap.

The second thing about impact is, your audience will acclimate very quickly. You can get away with a hard shift like this, maybe, once per story. If you’re reusing characters, you don’t get that back, you’ve already turned things sideways once. If you want to hit hard again, it needs to be completely different. In the example above, if you started by killing a protagonist, you’re not going to get that kind of impact with another death. You’ve already told your audience that you’re willing to go there, and doing it again isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Fight scenes need to be as short as necessary. Impact has to as fast and hard as possible.

There is no, “this number of words/pages,” for how long a fight should be, because the answer will be different. It depends on the specific scenario. It depends on your style as a writer. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The only universal answer is that you don’t want to waste words in a fight scene.


This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you, and come join us on Discord.