What Makes a Fight Scene Good?

Stacey Kite

Stacey Kite

Since our “Learn to Write by Reading Challenge” this month is about writing fight scenes, I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. Every story needs conflict, all kinds of conflict, but I do admit to having a soft spot for literary violence. I love a good fight or battle scene, but the operative word is good.

Obviously, everybody has different tastes. Some people like high camp fights while others prefer gritty, realistic scenes. What I appreciate in a fight scene may be the opposite of what you like. I loved the action and fight sequences in the Borne movies, but would prefer to be trapped in coach, on a coast to coast flight, rather than sit in a theater watching a martial arts or superhero movie. That’s just me. If you have different tastes, you’ll probably disagree with a lot of this post.

But unlike movies, in books, when a fight scene starts feeling like a looooong drum solo in the middle of a song, I can skip ahead. And yes, though I say I love good fight scenes, in about a third of the books I read, I lose interest partway through the action sequences and start skimming. However, in other books, every word and phrase in a fight scene rivets me to the page. So what makes the difference?

To find out I’ve been comparing fight scenes in different books, trying to spot the elements that turn the physical conflicts in them from snore to score. In all the cases, I started with stories where I really liked the characters and the plot, and the only difference were my feelings about the fight/action sequences. After re-reading a lot of fight scenes, I think I’ve come up with some dos and don’ts that I might be able to apply to my writing.

A good fight scene changes the direction of the story.
If the scene feels to me like it’s only in the book to make things harder for the protagonist, to fill out the story, or just to up the tension without actually turning the direction of the plot, it feels fake and falls flat. Cool fight scenes aren’t cool if they aren’t important and integral to the plot.

A good fight scene serves more than one story purpose.
Engaging fight scenes move the plot forward and also reveal important things about the characters. The more things a fight reveals, the longer it can be and still hold my interest. Which leads to the next one …

Less is more.
Long fight scenes start to drag—fast. A blow is a blow, a stab is a stab, and repeated actions become redundant. Just like long descriptive passages can make my eyes glaze, so can long fight scenes. If the event wouldn’t take much time in real life, then I don’t think the scene should take a long time to read.

Break it up.
The longer a fight goes on, whether it’s between two characters or two armies, the more important it is for the narrative to break away from the actual fighting every once in a while. In the best battle scenes, the big fight becomes setting and a ticking clock for quests, reveals and betrayals.

Better fight scenes are believable.
This point is probably the one that people will disagree with the most. Personally, I like more realistic fight scenes. That doesn’t mean they have to be brutal. It just means they need to make sense for the characters and the story world.

One of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie was in one of the Bridgette Jones films. I think it was the first movie, but I’m not positive. Anyway, the fight takes place between two men Bridgette’s been dating. It is brilliant and hilarious because of its realism. It’s a comedic fight, appropriate in a comedy, but not at all slap-sticky. Clearly, neither character knows how to fight—keep in mind, most people don’t—and the scene shows that, beautifully. They slap, grapple and flinch away like little girls as they try to land blows and wind up missing each other most of the time.

Good fight scenes are surprising.
We all know the classic climactic fight scene. The hero gets her tail kicked, taking more and more damage as the fight progresses—enough physical abuse to turn a real person into a puddle of mush on the floor—until she’s finally down on the ground, battered and beaten. And then, when defeat is imminent, she finds her inner strength and surges up to kick the bad guys butt. And as a reader, I think … predictable, which usually equals boring.

So how do some writers take that classic final confrontation and make it fresh and exciting? One way is to turn the battle into a risky and clever setup, but withhold that information or a key element of the plan from the reader. The protagonist suckers the antagonist into a trap. At first, it looks to the reader like the bad guy is winning and the fight is going to take the classic route. But when the scene gets to the point where, in the classic version, the protagonist is at her lowest, she springs the trap, revealing it to the audience at the same time. Those types of reveals are unique for each story because the trap is tailored to that unique story world.

I’m sure there are a lot of other elements that make a fight scene work, but this is a good starter list for me. Now it’s just a matter of actually writing that great fight scene.

2 responses to “What Makes a Fight Scene Good?

  1. I just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, a fantasy heist novel, with some great fight scenes featuring its gritty, criminal protagonists. It had some fantastic examples of the setup-and-reveal technique you described. That’s one of my favorites, too.

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