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Writing for Your Life

How to write realistic fight scenes

By S. A. CrawfordPublished about a year ago 8 min read
Image: Coco Championship via Pexels

Just like in real life, fights in fiction tend to represent a dramatic change of atmosphere and pace. Even if you're writing an action-packed thriller or a war-filled epic, the reality of close combat is something that should stand out starkly on the pages. Getting the balance right, keeping your reader up to date with the position and condition of your characters, maintaining a realistic pace... it can be daunting.

The Bare Bones: Identifying Your Contenders

While fiction is fiction and your character's limits are set by the story, there's something to be said for understanding how fights work in the real world. If you're writing fantasy fiction, for example, martial realism may not be the highest agenda (though you will get people moaning about it, especially if the winner is a woman). Of course, if it's an action-oriented spy novel in the modern age... well, that may need a bit more detail.

Whatever you're going for, three foundational elements have to be in place. Your reader has to be able to visualise the characters, their positioning, and the setting - and it has to make sense when they put it together.

While I wouldn't personally recommend long monologues discussing the appearance of each character in depth, it's generally a good idea for the reader to know what the character's general build is, if nothing else. But there are exceptions. For example, if your hero/heroine comes face to face with a single opponent it's expected that they will have a good idea of that person's size and build. A few sentences as simple as,

"Joy stared at the behemoth before her with trepidation. One of those ham-sized hands could wrap around her throat, but his beady eyes, set in a brutal face, were sharp and intelligent."

can give your reader the basic idea that Joy is:

a) much smaller than her opponent

b) he is possibly an experienced fighter

c) he isn't just big, he seems smart (or at least cunning)

These simple takeaways give the reader an idea of what to expect from a fight between the two people.

By contrast, if you're writing a grand battle scene with thousands of people involved, it would be hard to describe every enemy - even in these simple terms. Instead, you could match your writing to the frenetic rhythm of a battle, blurring the details until one enemy or point sticks out.

An example of this could be,

"Every slash of John's sword hit flesh, the screams of the dead and dying surrounded him as he twisted and pushed at the ever-encroaching enemies. Three faceless men fell, stacking like stones, and a light-footed warrior with bright green eyes and flashing teeth lept over their forms to swipe at him with vicious finesse."

There's very little detail in this when you look at it, and yet you can see the scene it describes; the confusion and fear of war are embedded in it and the green-eyed warrior brings it back into focus.

Nose to Nose or Wide View: Choose Your Style

As is so often the case with writing, there really is no 'right' style to choose. As long as the basics are in order and coherent, you can make your fight scenes as gritty, punchy, flowery, or literary as you want. There are two main paths you can take in my experience; matching your style, or contrasting it.

Going with the Flow

For many writers, and readers, consistency of style is preferable. This means writing your fight scenes in a way that feels cohesive with the rest of the story.

If you prefer smooth, descriptive writing and you want to stay consistent this means writing your fight scenes with that same detail and flow. Even as your characters scramble and panic and bleed, the narration may seem a little distant, like the watchful eye of the narrator, is above the fight, reporting every movement.

If you prefer to write in an up-close, feel-the-scene way it means keeping that dedication to immersion even when you're sacrificing details of the wider environment.

Fighting the Current

The alternative is to switch your style for combat scenes, marking them out clearly. This is my preferred method for two reasons. Firstly, the change of pace feels intuitive when characters are going from peace to violence. Secondly, I think it helps to grab and immerse the reader (almost forcibly).

The most common way to do this is by switching from a smoother, more descriptive form of prose to clipped, sharp writing that mimics the rhythm of the fight as it unfolds. For example,

"The road wound ahead like the tail of a great snake. For miles, only the shifting sea of sand broke the stillness as light breaths of wind rustled a million stalks. It should have been impossible to sneak up on anyone, here, but the men that slipped onto the path had done just that. Jayce stopped, neck prickling with apprehension; they didn't demand money, or even speak before they sprung forward. Assassins.

His feet tangled, sending him sprawling. As the greyish dirt kicked up, he rolled, scrambled, fingers aching. The first blade bit the dirt by his side. The second found its mark in his shoulder. With a sharp yell, he turned and kicked out blindly. When his foot made contact, a brutal crunch filled the air. Wheezing, spit on his lips, he threw himself at the injured man and drew his knife. The flesh gave way like butter. Blood bubbled to the surface. Where was the second man? The thought came seconds before blinding pain."

The difference in tone, sentence length, and pace is enough to mark this scene out and change the atmosphere. This can be really effective in increasing reader immersion.

Of course, the opposite is equally possible; changing to a more descriptive, detailed style during fights can be just as emotive. While the first option brings the sense of chaotic combat, fearfulness, and struggle to the fore, going the other route can show how cool, collected, and efficient a character is in combat. Play with style to see what you like best!

Keep it Coherent: Plan Your Scene

While a finished fight scene can feel fast-paced, the process of writing one can actually be fairly slow. This is because of the need for planning; like writing a great sex scene, writing a great fight scene is about knowing where your characters are, and what position they're in so you can communicate that to the reader in a way that makes sense.

If your reader has to stop and double-check how a maneuver is possible, you can break immersion and ruin the effect. Remember these four basic points:


Where are they fighting? In an open field? A cramped corridor? A shallow stream? The possibilities and environmental dangers of your setting are both limiting and inspiring.

While your character may not be able to pull of an elegant front flip in a cramped inner corridor or an unstable stream, they can use the walls or water to their advantage.

Likewise, becoming trapped in a corner, or being thrown down into the water presents unique dangers to your character.


How your characters are positioned matters. Whether they're standing, sitting, crouching, or running, whether they're facing each other or shoulder to shoulder. After all, it's hard to punch someone in the stomach if your back is to them, but more than possible to elbow them where it hurts.

Keep the position of your characters in mind at all times and ask yourself whether what you want to do is feasible or not. This will help keep readers immersed.


Arm span and stride length, these things make a difference in physical confrontations, but so do the length, weight, and nature of weaponry. A two-handed sword might serve you well on the battlefield (might), but in a corridor or small room, it can hinder any movement. A dagger can move quickly and silently in most spaces, but you need to be nose-to-nose with your opponent to use it.

Keep space, reach, and movement directions in mind when writing a fight.


As your characters fight, their bodies will tire and likely take damage. Depending on the nature of the damage, just what they can do will change. A knife directly through the palm of a character's hand isn't likely to leave no issues, after all; broken bones, nerve damage, and torn muscle will leave that hand impaired or even useless.

While some characters are superhuman, it pays to remember that even with a high pain threshold and superhuman healing, a broken leg will limit sprinting and cracked ribs can puncture lungs.

Finding the Opportune Moment; Pacing for Success

Finally, think about pacing. Though finding the right pace is important for any scene, fight scenes arguably rely on it more heavily than most. A good rule of thumb is that a fight should not take longer to read than it would take to play out in real life.

Of course, this rule can be broken; if you want to hammer home how injured and weary your character is, it can be helpful to draw out the fight scene. Go blow by blow and slow the writing pace to drag it out and let that heavy exhaustion settle on the reader, too.

More than this, remember that there are very few, if any, hard and fast rules in creative writing. If it works, it's a good technique; play with your descriptions and style to find a voice that gives you the effect you're looking for.

Other Writing Resources:

I am a freelance copywriter and ghostwriter with ten years of experience. Writing for a variety of niches across hundreds of projects, I'm still learning and always looking for new opportunities. Those looking for original, organic content can contact me on PPH.


About the Creator

S. A. Crawford

Writer, reader, life-long student - being brave and finally taking the plunge by publishing some articles and fiction pieces.

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