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WRITING TIPS: Fighting and Action Scenes

As someone who loves action and adventure stories, fights are something that can make or break a story. Some are technical, detail-heavy slogs and others flash by so fast that you have to reread to understand what happened. It’s clear to see that fight scenes are difficult to get right, but how do you know where to start? Well, from your fellow writer and reader, here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years.


First things first: why is the fight happening? Books are a very internal form of entertainment so it’s important to know where to direct people’s attention. If it’s a fight for fighting’s sake, then go without it. However, there are a lot of reasons to have a fight. Fighting in the background of a scene shows the reader what to expect from a new setting. Having a character watch a fight can establish their expertise and intelligence, and having the characters themselves fight can address conflicts, release tension, or even create new conflict. The possibilities are endless.


So now you have a fight and you have a reason behind your fight. What’s the next step? Writing it, of course! Now that you’re finally to the writing stage there are three things to keep in mind: Pacing, Active Voice, and Details


Pacing is going to be our main dealbreaker. If the pacings off, the entire fight is going to feel wrong and wonky. Therefore, sentence length and subject are going to be your new best friends. Short sentences that are entirely action related are going to keep the movement flowing and keep your reader engaged. If your sentences stretch on and on and on the reader may lose the plot. Your goal is to describe the action as quickly and concisely as possible. Which brings us to our next point: Active voice.


Active voice is something that every writer, creative or otherwise is aware of. Every English teacher has passed along warnings against passive voice, but in action writing it’s even more important. Your goal is to write clear and quick so simple subject+verb+object are optimal for quick processing and allowing the reader to move on.


And finally, we’re gonna talk about details. Now, if you’ve ever been through introductory writing courses, I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of details. They’re what fleshes out the story, right? Well in this case, they may do more harm than good. Pacing is the number one killer of a fight scene, and adding detail upon detail is going to muffle the impact of the key actions. No one cares about the maroon carpet or the crystal chandelier while the main character is getting stabbed. So stick with only the most necessary details and try to pack them in with as few words as possible. This can mean using a word like “wallop” instead of “swing aggressively.” Keep it simple and keep it quick.


And if you get stuck don’t feel bad! Fight scenes are hard, and it happens to the best of us. So here are some tips and tricks to push through it.

  1. Script it out

Sometimes the sentences and sequence of events are what trips a writer up. If this is the case, writing your scene as a script or choreography can help you wrap your head around what’s happening.

A: kicks at character B’s head

B: ducks and sweeps A’s legs out from beneath them

A: rolls away to recover.

Splitting your scene up this way gives you a clear sequence of events and gives you a starting point for when you actually begin the scene.


2. Act it out or find a reference

Other times it's a lack of experience that holds a writer back. Personally, I’ve never even thrown a punch so I’m a little out of my depths when it comes to personal violence. If that’s the case ask a friend to mime a fight with you or look up videos online. There are millions of movies, MMA competitions, and even home videos that can offer you a better understanding of how an IRL fight works. You may even find a new interest in the meantime. (I personally love stunt choreography from movies.)


3. Take a break

And finally, if you’ve tried everything and absolutely nothing you’re writing feels good, taking a break might just be the right choice. Coming back with fresh eyes can give you a whole new perspective, and maybe you’ll see that what you’ve already written is actually pretty good! We are our own worst critics and sometimes you just need to rest and reset.


The final thing I’d like to leave you with is that everything is flexible. The tips and tricks I mentioned above can be used in a variety of ways and for a variety of scenes, but don’t be afraid to push the rules and try something new. Writing is art and just because something works well doesn’t mean there aren’t new and interesting ways to do it. So flex your creative muscles and go crazy! You can’t make something great if you don’t attempt it in the first place.


- Megan Zimmer


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