Old joke. What do you say to a man with two black eyes?
Nothing. He’s already been told twice.
It’s a good joke and in a certain sense very true. Actions speak, and fight scenes in a story are no exception. It’s not just a matter of who hit who, where, and with what. Every nuance, every pithy line, every triumph and mistake, the setting, the tone all works together to create a scene that has the potential to quicken the reader’s pulse and draw them deeper into the world of your story. My hope here is to offer you some tips and ideas to get you moving in that direction.
Functionality. At it’s base level, your fight scene needs to be functional. This requires nothing more than some blocking and some good old common sense. You need to know your setting, where the landscape dips and where it rises. Know where the obstacles and furniture are, doors and windows, along with anything that can be used as a potential weapon. Jackie Chan’s precision choreography does an amazing job of displaying this.
In addition to the layout, know all the players present and where they are at all times, both those involved in your conflict and those who are just trying not to get schwacked by the crazy people tearing up the room. And, might I humbly suggest some sort of map to keep you oriented, even if it is just a piece of paper with crude pencil sketches and little paper clip markers moving around as your people.
What you are going for here is a logical flow to your fight so that impossibilities don’t jerk your reader out of this artfully created canvas like a bucket of icy cold water. Specifically, we want to avoid things like non-superpowered Joe crossing a football field of space in a mere second to deliver the coupe de gras to Big Bad Leroy. And for heaven sakes, if there is a particularly helpful windfall in the setting for them to find, like a grenade lying there conveniently in the desk drawer, make sure you’ve mentioned it before the fight.
Artistry. Now that we’ve mentioned the nitty-gritty, shift your thinking away from all the ways your fight scene is useful, and give a bit of thought to how it can be beautiful. Or dirty. Or ironic. Or strange. Look at great movie fight scenes to get a feel for the desired aesthetic of your fight. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The House of Flying Daggers. Movies of that genre go to great lengths to show fight scenes that are more than the sum of their parts. They are beautiful pieces of artwork. A slightly grittier example might be Joss Whedon’s Serenity. The fights in that piece are a little more diverse, walking the line between realism and spectacle, but everything, from the setting to the dialogue to the individual fighting style of each character, comes together to create an overall vision. And that’s really what I’m trying to get you to consider.
Don’t just throw a fight scene together like that outfit from the other morning when you were already an hour late for work. Be deliberate in your choices. Create a tone, a vision for your scene. Let your setting be your canvas, and make it interesting. Keep in mind the fighting styles that make sense for the players involved, at skill levels that are appropriate for them. And throw in some stumbles and mistakes at critical moments. Even the best fighters lose their footing. Choose weapons and fighting styles in ways that not only suit the character, but make an interesting feast for the senses.
And remember, if you can’t envision this scene as a fully alive and saturated event, your reader won’t be able to either.
Personality. Now we get down to the character. Everything you’ve considered up to now has been framing and mechanics, and, no matter how important all that is, without character, your work is wasted. This is the lense through which the whole scene is crafted, and it is the advantage of working with prose. You can get inside the character’s head, experience what they experience, emotionally and physically, up close and personal. Use this to keep an awareness of the stakes of the fight. Keep tabs on your character’s own fears and doubts, determination and limitations. Let the reader fight with them, experiencing the visceral nature of the wounds they take and the wounds they inflict.
A final note on personalizing your fight scenes. Use the entirety of your story, including the other fight scenes, to set up character changes and plot twists for the final confrontation. You can get away with an ordinary or rote fight scene earlier in the book, but, by the time you get to the end, you have an entire book of information backing up the events, and it had better show. If the character was a laissez faire brawler at the beginning of the story, a guy who fought for entertainment and low personal stakes (like Chris Pine’s portrayal of Captain Kirk in Star Trek), he had better be putting those skills to more serious use by the end, and he’d better have a lot on the line. The Harry Potter books did an amazing job with this. Seven books of adventure and intrigue gave Harry the chance to reveal each plot twist to Voldemort with all the power of a physical blow prior to that actual killing shot. That fight scene involved exactly one moment, not even a second, of actual fighting, but because Rowling brought the entire weight of the story to bear on it, it was the most charged scene of the series. A climactic fight scene has to have this. It has to carry the entire weight of the story, and, successfully done, it will have readers clamoring for your next book.