How to write heart-pumping fight scenes that engage readers.

Writen by Olga Gibbs, author of the “Celestial Creatures” series.

When I was faced with a blank page at the beginning of my fantasy series, I didn’t know what it would become in its completed form. I knew the “A” and the “B” of my story, i.e. where, with whom, it will begin and where it will end, but I didn’t know how this journey, that “Highway to Hell” would actually look.

Having completed the series, I now know my strengths and my weaknesses. Now I know that I am great at writing action scenes, fighting and battles scenes, but not good at all with the romantic, fluffy stuff.

So, based on readers glowing feedback of emersion, I am happy to share with you how I write my fighting scenes.

For example, take the final chapter in the third book, “Harbinger”. The entire chapter is one big fight scene: the protagonist, female, is confronted by a several male assailants with weapons and, in order to escape, she needs to fight them. (The excerpt of that fight scene is available below).

When I was asked by a fellow author how I write such realistic and immersive fight scenes, where she, as a reader, felt sweat rolling down my characters’ backs as they swung their swords, whilst ducking and diving, where she could smell the iron tinge of spilled blood on the ground, I said: “I imagine it clearly in my head first, then closing my eyes, I visualise it, playing it as if on a screen in front of my closed eyes, and then I describe it, blow by blow, dive by each dive and slash by each slash”.

The fighting scenes not only add excitement to a story, transforming a book into a bestseller, but often they becoming a turning point in the story, used as a tool to resolve a conflict. The fight scenes are tricky to write and not easy to work with, mainly because of the complexity of them, of the amount of “moving parts”. There are the actions of your heroes, which are offset by the actions of assailants, the location and surroundings to keep track of, a dialogue during the fight, which should add depth to your characters, sometimes revealing a backstory or past.
The fighting scenes are not thrown into a story just to fill the void, like you can do with, say, landscape descriptions. The fighting scenes are too tricky for that and too much work.

A tightly written fight scene can influence readers’ perspectives on characters, enhancing their enjoyment of the story, and is the excellent tool to ramp up the stakes or resolve the conflict.

Now, what I find to be the main issue when I come across a boring fight scene that doesn’t engage me is the lack of the visualisation on an author’s behalf, with the subsequent failure to breakdown the entire scene (the fight) into a clear sequence of events of tight and neat components.

So, when you write your fighting scenes, first of all, slow the action down in your mind, way down, and then describe it.
Press the “slow” button on the image which plays in your mind. Don’t rush when describing your fight scene. Imagine everyone’s action, everyone’s facial expression, as they dish out or receive blows, imagine your characters’ surroundings, listen to and hear everyone’s heartbeat, as the slowed-down image plays in your mind, and notice every small detail, from a flip of her hair as your character swings underneath a slashing sword to a fat droplet of blood that lands on the ground from a cut of her cheek, because then, your fight scene will emerge with full, bright colours. You don’t need to describe every detail to a reader, but by noticing every detail yourself, you would be able to bring the best and most dramatic moments of that fight to your readers.

Choose your opponents and make sure to write actions of every character involved in that fight.
Make sure to describe actions of every participant involved in your fighting scene. If your book is written from 1st POV of your hero, then write the actions of the hero AND the actions of his opponents: every action your hero sees, hears or senses, while remembering to utilise all five senses. If your character is scared and has decided not to take part, that’s fine too, as long as you’ve mentioned it, noting that “James cowers under the desk, watching the feet and legs in front of his eyes dance”.
Your fight scene could be a “one on one” duel style or one against many brawl, but irrelevant of the chosen set-up, make sure that an action of each character echoes with an answering action, or reaction, in another character and that is recorded.
If your assailant advances, taking a step forward, your hero must retreat, either taking a step back or maybe jumping to the side, or salto backwards, landing on top of the bar, whatever his response is, visualise it and then write it down.
If there are a few characters involved in a brawl, make sure you keep tabs on all of them and know the locations of the each one at every moment of the fight, noting that for your readers. The main character could be surrounded by five gang members, swinging his gun from one gangster to the next, glancing behind him, and but when the fight explodes, your character should be aware of his surroundings, and as the writer, you should too.

When describing a battle, or a fight, use all five senses.
“War is a terrible trade and it smells”. If you ask anyone who was in a battle, in war, they will tell you of the cacophony of noises and of the smell surrounding that pain and suffering. So when you write your fight scene, immerse your reader in it by engaging all five of the readers’ sense. Your character must feel the weight of a sword’s hilt in his hand, feel and hear grinding of sand on his teeth, hear the sword’s slicing the air above his head, smell sour sweat and iron blood, as well as see his opponent and the surroundings. The better you utilise the five senses in describing your fight scene, the bolder and more realistic the fighting scene will feel to a reader.

Notice and use the settings.
This one is important. The surroundings are your stage and it needs to be set. You need to describe it, so readers can feel inside it, and once you’ve set the scene for your readers, you’ve set it up for yourself too. Make sure to use and utilise these settings during the fight for your hero and for his assailants just as anyone would during a fight. Your character could hide behind a trunk of a wide oak tree or jump over a chair in a bar, or maybe dive off a sharp cliff into a running river below, but whatever the setting and surroundings are, imagine them in full, describe all relevant details to your reader and then use them.

If giving your characters weapons, learn how these weapons are called, held and handled.
Of course, at some point there might be a need to write a character fighting his way clumsily out of a bind, using unknown or a never used before weapon, but most of the time, your characters come loaded with their past experiences, knowledge and backstory, so if you’re writing a medieval fantasy for example, make sure to learn the parts of a sword and how that sword could be handled, swung, what would be its reach etc. Or if it’s a contemporary crime thriller you’re writing and your character is “packing”, make sure to check the basic info about that gun: how many rounds it holds, how heavy it feels, the force of a kickback etc.
For example, in the first book, my hero was given a whip to use against her assailant, so I had to read on the types of whips, how they are handled and as it turned out, it takes practice to learn how to crack a whip correctly, without hurting yourself, so armed with that knowledge, my hero’s first throw of a whip forward had resulted in a cut on her own cheek.
Make sure to watch videos, read up on your weapons – the basic research in this is highly advisable.
Your knowledge will make your fight scene more realistic to readers, enhancing their reading experience, and before long they’ll be calling you “an incredible wordsmith”.

“In fight” dialogue.
There will be a dialogue in your fight scene, very rarely a fight scene comes with none.
While writing a fight, you will note your hero’s surroundings, the location of your hero and his assailants, maybe your hero’s mental state, his and his assailants’ weapons, their actions, and then you will add a dialogue.
It might be a short (or long, depending on needs of your story) taunting or tearful exchange prior to the explosion of action; it might be clipped and “out of breath” exchange of words in the heat of the fight, as participants exchanging their blows; it might be a short grunt from a looser or a remark from a winner at the end, but more often than not, there will be a dialogue, and as a writer you need to place yourself into your hero’s, and assailants’, mind and write that dialogue following the story and your hero character’s arc.

Be careful of clichés.
Clichés annoy a lot of readers. It portrays certain groups in a certain light, often following misconception.
For example, not all women would cry after a fight, just as not all men would smoke before a battle or punch each other on a shoulder, while calling comrades “bastards”. The world is changing and now readers don’t expect to see damsel in distress in every female character or a “strong and silent” type in every male. The world is growing and our characters should to. But no matter what you decide to do with your character, make sure that your characters’ responses to the fight itself, before and after, follows your character behavioural pattern, his or hers mental and emotional strength and state. Make your characters’ response consistent and genuine.

That is my a bare-bones version of the advice on writing fight scenes. But if you want more, if you are after detailed explanations with some examples and suggestions, watch this space, as I am in the process of writing a book on guiding writers through the entire process of writing exciting and engaging fighting scenes.

Yours truly, Olga Gibbs, author of the “Celestial Creatures” series.

Below is the promissed excerpt from “Harbinger”, Book 3 in the “Celestial Creatures” series.

I cross over my arms, and just as I’m finishing the turn, my arms fly open and wide at the sight of the leather-clad body, as if inviting him into my embrace.

The two deep slashes blossom across his leather tunic and his white chest underneath, and within a second, blood fills the cuts and he cries out a short surprised gasp, before dropping to the ground.

Now I’m awake.

My blood had woken me and his blood energised me.

I spin around, counting five more Butcher’s soldiers, scattered around the room like the settees.

They are smaller, projecting less hate and lethality than their fearless leader, but just like him, they are sealed in black, sleeveless, leather butcher tunics, with tightly stocked weapon belts criss-crossing their torsos. All five of them flaunt a pair of grey wings behind their backs, just like their commander.

Fleetingly, at the back of my mind, I wonder why their wings are grey, identical in look and the colour of the Butcher’s? Why Baza’s soldiers from the clearance had grey wings too? Were these angels bred or changed when they joined his service? Is there a reason for it, a deeper meaning or just a coincidence? Although I have to say, these heavenly worlds don’t operate in sloppy realms of coincidence.

My musings are interrupted by the movement of the angels, who slide closer, quiet and agile on their feet.

I spin around. My gaze darts between the six of them: Butcher and his five “helpers”.

But Butcher doesn’t move.

Patient, he stands by the door, waiting for his minions to do his job, and I wonder if I’m a training tool, seemingly an easy prey to catch that was not taken seriously, as otherwise he wouldn’t be away from the action, by the door, cleaning his nails. He would’ve been in the middle of it.

But lately, I’ve found a bubbly rush in the freedom of being underestimated.

I’ve found a heady excitement in it, the excitement of seeing their wide-open surprised eyes the moments before the life leaves their bodies, the excitement of over-powering the enemy that is larger and more experienced than me, the excitement of being the last one standing, as if proving them wrong.

It gave me the edge.

I push at the nearest armchair and it slides away. I nudge at the settee. I pick and throw a gilded chair, for shits and giggles aiming at the one of the minions, and I’m pleased to see him duck, when the chair flies above his head and I smile.

Now, I have the space I need.

“Not bad, girl”, Butcher calls from by the door.

I don’t know what he’s talking about. It might be about my killing of his soldier, but maybe my area clearance skills have impressed him, or maybe something else, but I can’t afford to stop and chit-chat.

I can’t be distracted. I can’t afford to pull my gaze away from the tightening ring of his soldiers on me.

“You grew two pairs since the last time I saw you”, he says with approval.

Surprised, I glance at him only to see that he is looking at my wings.

Oh…wings…

“Did you honestly think you would get away with coming here?” Butcher calls to me. “With causing trouble, stealing Baza’s troops? Baza knows everything that happens in his domain, little human, everything! That’s how he stayed in power for all these GA.”

Butcher maybe feels relaxed and chatty, but I can’t afford to stop my spinning. I’m back to my spinning “Ottoman whirling dervishes” dance.

His soldiers are silent and restless. Their advance is ceaseless and unremitting, and before long, with a peripheral vision, I notice one of them on the left, dashes towards me, jumping on the back of the settee I just pushed away.

I turn in time with his landing.

His black axe is raised above his head, and the second his feet touch the floor next to me, the axe screeches through the air, flying towards me.

I twist at the waist and sideways, away from the axe’s wheezing blade, which cuts the air where I stood only a second ago, and when after missing the target, the leather-clad angel rises his axe again, coming closer this time, I drop to my knees and cross my arms over my chest.

I breathe out, letting my arms spread and my swords glide.

In a slight downwards trajectory, my glowing swords fly through the air, cutting through the muscle and bone of the angel’s legs, and just like the lizard before him, he roars.

But his roar does ring in the air for a while before his body crashes to the ground, and without looking at him, at his so human face, I reach somewhere to the side of me and sink my sword into flesh.

“That was impressive”, Butcher calls to me, and then to his minions: “Hey, useless slugs, watch her and learn, and for Arllu sake, do better.”

The remaining four minions take it as an instruction to crank it up a notch, as suddenly all four take to the air, their bodies and grey wings obstruct the light from chandeliers and from the windows...

“Harbinger” is available to purchase via all major retailers.

Published by Wordly Ambition

Wordly Ambition is UK-based Literary and Writing competitions.

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