When any writer worth their salt offers you advice, they’ll also be sure to warn you that you can disregard anything they say for any reason whatsoever if it doesn’t end up working for you. That being said, they’ll caution you against a whole bunch of things that they say are life-threatening to your career. They’ll have their own hard-and-fast rules to make your way as a writer.
So, because I consider myself a writer worth what little salt I have, any of these top 10 tips can be be made null and void at a moment’s notice. That being said, I have found these tricks to be insanely helpful in my own writing, and I ask only that you hear me out. As usual, these are in no particular order.
#10: Amputations Make The Reader Pay Attention. An amputation is a form of serious injury, one that will make the reader snap their attention back to the page asking “Whose hand just got cut off now?” Kind of like in Resident Evil 8 you’d be cool with all kinds of monster until one cuts your hand off. It lends to a feeling of realism: it’s a brutal and obvious way of making the consequences of a fight lasting.
#9: The Reader Only Cares About a Fight Inasmuch as They Care About the People Involved. Stakes, people. Stakes. I’ve never been to a boxing match in my life, and I’ve never cared. But if my martial arts-trained brother decided to compete in some such contest, you can bet your bum that I’d pay to fly across the country just to see him and some other guy slug it out. I care about the people involved (or in this case, person), and so I have an investment in the fight. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care who wins or loses. This is why I never watch football: I just don’t have a stake in any of the games. I don’t care who wins or loses. But if you make me care, I’ll watch football–just like if you make me care about your characters, I’ll read your fight scenes.
#8: Uncertainty is your friend. The hero raises his sword for the kill…but the villain knocks it out of his hand with a powerful strike of his own! The villain deals one, two, three strikes at the unprotected hero, and prepares for the final blow…but the hero rushes him and goes for the tackle! Now the two are on the ground, rolling and punching. The villain’s got a mouthful of blood, and the hero’s punches are powerfully delivered. The villain sputters, reaching for his leg holster–and out comes a gun!
One thing you may have noticed with good fight sequences is that you never can really be sure that either side’s going to win until they’ve already won. Keeping a the outcome in a state of uncertainty is one of the best things you can do while writing a fight scene, if not the best.
#7: Periodically Tip The Power Balance Both Directions. Ah, but how do you keep the reader uncertain of the outcome? Simple: give the villain the upper hand, then the hero, then the villain, then have him beat up the hero, then have the hero snatch back the advantage and batter the villain for a bit, then keep rotating the power dynamic until the hero manages to eke out a victory. Do that, and your reader’s gonna be clueless about the outcome of the battle. And if they care about the characters in it, they’ll read to the end to find out.
#6: Always Have a Purpose in Mind When You Write a Scene. Never write a scene “just because you feel like there should be a fight here”. That’s not a good enough reason for its existence. Fights are always means to an end: never do you have a fight for the sake of it. You have a fight to establish or introduce characters, to kill off certain people, to advance the plot, or for some other topical reason.
#5: If You Want Your Hits to Have Meaning, Always Describe More Than Just The Punch. This is a blow-by-blow tip. Which sentence has more oomph? “John punched Sam in the stomach.” or “John punched Sam in the stomach, who doubled over and clutched his midsection in pain.” In a real fight, there is no such thing as just a punch. There’s the windup, the blowback, the effect on the victim, the effect on the surroundings, the reactions of passersby, and a million other things. Whenever a character hits someone, describe more than just the punch.
#4: Visualize Your Scenes in Slow Motion. This helps when you’re trying to connect moves together, especially in a one-on-one fight. After Valk whips his sword back into a neutral-sword stance, what’s his next move? Say he goes for a chop to his opponent’s leg. How does Lord Mordenmothe answer? Maybe he blocks. Maybe he parries. Maybe he sidesteps. Maybe he jumps over the blade. What does Valk do next? Literal blow-by-blow is usually not a good idea when it comes to fiction of any kind, but visualizing the fight in slow motion can help you to write it.
#3: Give the Reader Credit. This is true of all writing, but fight scenes especially. C’mon, man, we’re in the spur of the moment! You don’t need to describe literally every single move the hero is making! Let the reader make little logical leaps in fight scenes to avoid overblowing it and making it needlessly complicated.
#2: Focus on Emotion. Don’t get too focused on the fight itself to neglect the fighters themselves. Remember, this is a novel, and that means you’re always writing from some kind of perspective. Internal dialogue, emotions, and misgivings voiced during a fight give it more flavor and remind the reader of the stakes.
#1: Use Perspective Like a Hammer. Brandon Sanderson says that you need to play to your strengths when writing fight sequences. What are those strengths? Instant communication of what the characters are thinking and feeling. In other words, perspective. What does the character see? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What advantage do they seek? What strategy are they going for? Answering these questions in the midst of a fight (to the extent that it does not interfere with the fight itself) is playing to your strengths as a writer of novels.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!