Action Scenes in Novels: How to Write a Good Fight Scene

drafting revising

Fight scenes are an absolute treat when they’re done well. They can speed up pacing, provide huge advances in the plot, and push characters to their physical and emotional limits.

When fight scenes are not done well, however, they can actually make the story drag, causing the reader to skim through it or put the book down altogether. So what makes a fight scene engaging? We’ll show you several techniques in this post.

Pick up the pace

Good fight scenes happen fast. By the time your protagonist is thinking, “What the—" you’re already inside the scene, and introspective processing will have to wait. But it can be easy to fall into the trap of overwriting an action scene, which will slow the pace down.

To avoid overwriting in your action scenes, steer clear of these three pitfalls:

  1. Your character is thinking too much before they act.
  2. There are too many detailed beats we don’t need.
  3. You include too many details outside your point-of-view character’s notice.

Let’s take a look at a short first draft of a passage and see how we might cut these types of overwriting:

Jim took a shortcut through the alley, even though it was close to midnight. It was in the very darkest stretch that a noise caught his ear from behind a nearby dumpster. He spun. His muscles tensed as he caught sight of a knife coming straight at him. He ducked, throwing out his arm and blocking the strike with his right forearm, glad his taekwondo classes had honed his reflexes. With his left hand, he threw a punch that sent the assailant to the ground. That was one down. But there were others. Three more men had come from deep in the alley and were trying to hem him in. Jim knew he needed to even the odds. He threw himself at the closest man, hoping desperately that he didn’t have a knife. A glance to the side showed that the other men were now blocking his way out. Pain shattered his vision as the man struck him with his knife handle. When Jim hit the ground, the attacker beckoned for the last man to keep guard at the alleyway.

Fight Scene Pitfall 1: Thinking too much

During an intense action scene, your character won’t be thinking about where they got their fast reflexes. In the heat of the moment, there’s simply no time to think about these things. When you cut out characters’ thought processes, it makes your character appear to react quicker and more instinctively. The line cuts for this category would include: 

“glad his taekwondo classes had honed his reflexes”
“That was one down. But there were others”
“Jim knew he needed to even the odds”
“hoping desperately that he didn’t have a knife.”

Fight Scene Pitfall 2: Too many detailed beats

It’s normal to write down every dodge, jab, and feint in the drafting process as the scene is unfolding in your mind. But comprehensive play-by-plays can get tiresome for the reader. When you revisit the scene later, look for phrases that overly describe which body part is doing which action, or redundant phrasing like ‘punched with his fist’. As you cut these phrases, the action will flow smoother and faster. Cuts in this category would include:  

“as he caught sight”
 “With his left hand,” 
“A glance to the side showed that.” 

 

Fight Scene Pitfall 3: Too many details outside the point-of-view character’s notice

Just as in the “thinking too much” category, your character won’t have a lot of time to take in details about their surroundings unless they directly impact their situation. If you’re including more info than your character would realistically notice while fighting for their life, it can probably be trimmed back. Cuts here include: 

“the other men were now blocking his way out” 
“the attacker beckoned for the last man to keep guard at the alleyway.” 

You might think that these details do directly impact Jim’s situation, but in the second phrase, Jim has just been thrown to the ground and wouldn’t have time to look up and see the attacker beckoning to the last man.

For the first phrase, between our three categories, we’ve now cut the whole sentence, “A glance to the side showed that the other men were now blocking his way out.” Since Jim gets hit in the face right after this sentence, it looks like Jim’s fault for being distracted at such a crucial moment. But by taking out this extraneous detail, the moment appears to happen too fast for Jim to stop.

Here's the paragraph after revision:

Jim took a shortcut through the alley, even though it was close to midnight. It was in the very darkest stretch that a noise caught his ear from behind a nearby dumpster. He spun. A knife was coming straight at him. He ducked, throwing out his arm and blocking the strike. Then he threw a punch that sent the assailant to the ground. But now three more men had come from deep in the alley, and were trying to hem him in. Jim threw himself at the closest man. Pain shattered his vision as the man struck him with his knife handle. Jim hit the ground.

Does the action seem to happen faster now? It’s already an improvement, but we’re not done. The word-trimming speeds up the scene, but it still feels impersonal. You want your reader to feel like they’re there, in Jim’s shoes, experiencing everything he’s experiencing.

Heighten the tension with sensory details

The next step is to get deep into your character’s head. Add sensory details that accompany these actions, and replace passive-sounding words with active ones:

Jim took a shortcut through the alley, even though it was close to midnight. It was in the very darkest stretch that the ring of metal caught his ear from behind a filthy dumpster. He spun. Distant moonlight glinted off a knife blade inches from his face. He ducked, throwing out his arm just in time to block the strike. He followed it up with a punch that crunched the man’s nose beneath his fist and sent a wash of pain across his knuckles. The assailant dropped.

A scrape of gravel was Jim’s only warning that more attackers had arrived. He turned to bolt for the street, but it was too late; they’d already hemmed him in.

Jim threw himself at the closest man. He only had an instant to see the attacker bring his knife handle down before pain exploded across his face. His vision went white. The ground slammed against his side. The taste of iron flooded his mouth. He couldn’t breathe. 

In addition to adding sensory details, you can highlight moments that heighten the tension by separating them into their own paragraph. In the above example, pulling out the two sentences where more attackers arrive makes you instantly feel a shift in Jim’s circumstances as he realizes that he’s in over his head.

 

 

Create emotional resonance

We now have a fast-moving action scene with vivid sensory elements and a sense of urgency. But action just for the sake of action means nothing. Your reader needs to care about the character involved—to know why this moment is important and how they are emotionally affected. In other words, you need to get personal with your action scene.

Establish the stakes

If your character is wounded or killed during this scene, what consequences will that have? What might your character lose? Does the fear of this loss make your character act more carelessly than they normally would? Or does it make them more focused? The answers to these questions, especially the last one, will depend largely on your character’s personality, which leads us to the next important consideration…

Show your character's personality

How will your character’s personality come through during this critical scene? One character might panic, while another may leap into action the second someone moves. Someone comfortable with violence might crack jokes while they fight. Different reactions from different characters will make your action scenes both unique and memorable.

Demonstrate character development

A high-stakes situation will push your character out of their comfort zone, for better or worse. Maybe they do something they never dreamed they could do. Maybe they freeze at a critical moment, or have a positive or negative connection with another character. Whatever it is, write a fight scene that should have some sort of impact on your character heading forward, rather than just be brushed off and forgotten by the next chapter.

Bringing it all together - Write an Action scene!

Let’s add a few of these emotional beats to our scene:

 Jim took a shortcut through the alley, even though it was close to midnight. Clancy’s phone call had freaked him out more than he cared to admit. Someone watching his house? A strange noise outside? If only he’d answered the phone when Jim called back. This wasn’t like him.

It was in the very darkest stretch of the alley that the ring of metal caught his ear from behind a filthy dumpster. He spun, his heart pounding. Distant moonlight glinted off a knife blade inches from his face. He ducked, throwing out his arm just in time to block the strike. He followed it up with a punch that crunched the man’s nose beneath his fist. He hadn’t even realized how skittish he’d been until the pain hit his knuckles and the assailant dropped.

A scrape of gravel was Jim’s only warning that more attackers had arrived. He turned to bolt for the street, but it was too late; they’d already hemmed him in.

“Clancy said you might be trouble,” the nearest one said.

Jim went cold. “What did you say?”

The man just laughed. Jim threw himself forward, but he was less focused this time and had only an instant to see the attacker bring his knife handle down before pain exploded across his face. His vision went white. The ground slammed against his side. The taste of iron flooded his mouth. He couldn’t breathe. 

Adding just a snippet of context before the action makes us care about how and why this ambush is happening. Jim’s impetuous rush of the man who mentions Clancy gives us insight into his personality by telling us he acts rashly when someone he cares about is in danger. We now have the added stakes of Jim realizing Clancy is in trouble, and that these guys might be after him, too. 

We also have both character development and plot advancement, since Jim will come out of this scene going in a substantially different direction than he was before, one way or another. The result is a brief scene we feel more invested in, which now has a whole story ahead of it waiting to unfold.

With word-trimming, sensory details, and emotional stakes, your fight scenes will play out in your reader’s head as vividly as any movie. Pick a fight scene from your work-in-progress and run it through each of these steps to see how it changes. There’s a good chance you’ll be as impatient as your reader to find out what happens next!


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