geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?
Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.
On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.
If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.
The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.
A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.
You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.
Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.
“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.
Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.
You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.
Her lips curled.
“Katie!” Nadia yelled.
Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.
He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.
Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.
The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.
“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.
His jaw clenched.
“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.
The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.
Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.
The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.
Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.
“Katie!” Nadia yelled.
The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.
Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”
The vampire in white leapt first.
She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.
The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.
Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.
“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.
“You annoyed me,” Katie said.Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz
Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.
What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.
Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.
This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?
It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.
Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?
Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.
There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.
So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?
At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.
Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.
For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.
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