Fiction Friday: 8 Things Writers Forget When Writing Fight Scenes


Recently, I attended a session called “Writing About Fighting” at VCON, a science fict ion and fantasy conference. The panel consisted of writers and experts who were disciplined in multiple martial arts, including authors Lorna Suzuki and T.G. Shepherd, and Devon Boorman, the swordmaster of Academie Duello in Vancouver.

For me, this talk was so fascinating, it was worth the cost of admission alone. I spent days thinking about the topics discussed and tried to incorporate them into The Watcher Saga. These are just a few of them as I remember it.

Eight Things Writers Forget About Fight Scenes:

1. It’s not about the technical details

First of all, if you’re not technical and don’t know the details of fighting, you shouldn’t try to write about them. Some writers try to to include technical details of fighting, which only calls out their lack of expertise. If you don’t know what you’re doing in a fight scene, give fewer details, not more. Go for being lyrical or poetic instead. The more you try to appeal to a technical audience with inaccurate details, the more likely you’ll turn them off. A good example of this is the use of jargon. It’s best to avoid it altogether.

Moreover, if you don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable about fighting, don’t make your main character an expert on the subject.

According to the panel, some authors who write fight scenes well are:

  • Dorothy Dunnet (who writes around the fight scenes, describing key moments only, without technical detail)
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky in the Shadows of the Apt series (who, according to T.G. Shepherd, has a lyrical style)

2. Lack of knowledge about the body and injuries

A classic example of this is having a character who’s knocked out by one punch. A single punch from a rookie fighter is seldom enough to knock someone unconscious for long. Or if you have a character who’s in one fight one day and is knocked out, and a second fight the next day and is knocked out, unless that character has the regenerative ability of Wolverine, that character should see a doctor for potential cerebral hemorrhaging. In other words, this is a place to consult an expert.

3. Lack of visceral detail

One thing writers seldom remember is that battle scenes are truly disgusting. There’s the foul smell of sweat and blood, the stench of urine and feces when people die, blood and entrails on the ground (not to mention the psychological impact of that). Armour chafes under the arms. Any of these details brings a sense of realism to the scene.

4. Engaging characters in full out dialog in battle

In a battle scene, there will be little time for conversation. Sometimes, a fight can take a sentence or two, but that’s it.

While it’s a famous scene, the sword fight on the cliffs of insanity, in the Princess Bride, was still done well, because they were having a relaxed fight. Apparently, the moves they talked about were real, but they weren’t being performed in the moment, nor did they claim to be.

However, it’s still a great scene with pauses in the action for fun dialog. So, sometimes, you have to make a call. Good entertainment doesn’t always have to be 100% accurate.

5. Forgetting that people aren’t naturally good fighters

Someone doesn’t become a good fighter overnight (unless there’s a viable reason for it in the story. As a writer that’s your job to figure out).  It takes years to train to become a really good fighter. You’ve got to account for that when you develop your character or story.

6.  Not taking the psychological impact of fighting into account

This is a huge one. If you have a character is in his or her first fight, he or she will crumple and take a beating before realizing he or she must fight. There’s a psychological shift or realization that happens there. It’s a great chance to build tension and character into the scene.

It’s also important to note that most people don’t like to hit people or hurt them. In wars, soldiers shot over the heads of their targets to not be responsible for killing anyone. Some were told to aim for their knees so they might hit the chest and think they just hit the knee.

When someone is first learning to fight, often that person doesn’t want to hit anyone. In fact, when fighters first start to train, they might aim to miss. Some of the women on the panel shared their own process of actually connecting their punches to hit someone for the first time. (Not that I’m trying to make this about sex. Most people aren’t violent).

Even the most experienced fighters don’t like hurting people if they don’t have to.

If pushed far enough, anyone could kill another person. The question is: could they live with it afterwards? If you have a character who has no qualms about killing people, you are dealing with a sociopath or possibly a psychopath. While the military has also successfully trained people to kill, it’s not something the average person does easily. Take this into consideration when you’re writing. How would your character react?

7. Adrenaline works against you when you fight, not in your favor

If you’re like me, you might have held the fantasy that in an emergency situation, your adrenaline would kick in and save your butt. In fact, the opposite is true. Adrenaline is what tires a person out in battle. Battle fatigue comes from the adrenaline of fighting, it burns fast and you get tired. Experienced fighters can go for a long time because they’ve trained to it.

Adrenaline affects a fighter’s efficacy. It makes one’s actions shaky and inaccurate and a person will drop 60% of his or her skill level. So a person will never match  his or her aspirations, but will drop to his or her level of training. So if you trained to 100%, you might actually only fight at 40%.

Experienced fighters work to reduce their ‘flinch response‘. A good fighter will have a lowered flinch response and will be able to recover more quickly and have a better reaction time to recover from attack.

8. Lack of weapons knowledge

If you’re going to invent weapons for your story, be sure to do your research on similar weapons and how they work. The laws of physics still apply. Keep in mind that most swords are 2-4 lbs, which isn’t too heavy for an experienced fighter. Some may be as heavy as 7 lbs. When someone is fighting with a sword, there are resting moments where the sword is down to lessen the load of holding it, so an experienced fighter won’t get tired because of his or her weapon.

Have you seen instances of fight scenes where these mistakes are made? Have you seen other mistakes that the author missed. Please share!

Are you looking for words to describe fighting? Go here. Oh, and if you like this resource, check out my page of Resources for Writers.

Thanks for visiting!

114 thoughts on “Fiction Friday: 8 Things Writers Forget When Writing Fight Scenes

  1. Cecilia says:

    GREAT post! 🙂 Been sitting in front of my computer, trying to figure out the fighting scenes in my story.. Give me tear jerker scene, and I’m in. Fighting scenes? disaster for me.. Thanks for this .:)

  2. Christine Rains says:

    This is an excellent post. You mention a lot of problems I see in books. I write a lot of action and I know I’m not a technical person, so I tend to be more emotional in the scenes.

  3. Katrina Lantz says:

    Just found this! What a gem. Thank you! Mine is an MG superhero and so there is fighting, but it’s generally a lot of grabbing and/or using weapons from a distance. It’s hard to make a thirteen-year-old punch out another thirteen-year-old.

  4. Emery Carter says:

    Awesome post. i tooI the approch of having my guy get trained (beat up a lot) by some guys that were way more powerfull than him and they didnt pull punches so by the time he gets in his first real fight he is ready for it. Still almost gets his butt kicked because he’s not used to people actually trying to kill him though. (my best friend was into martial arts since he could walk and I was always his defacto sparring partner)

  5. Abigail C says:

    Thanks for this post! As a martial artist and a writer I find few things as painful as reading a fight scene by someone who has no idea what they are talking about. I agree wholeheartedly with these points! One of my characters uses knives as her weapon of choice, and I’ve purposefully spent a fair bit of time practicing with twin knives to be familiar with their feel and motion. However, even then I avoid specifics in my fight scenes because I feel it destroys the momentum–and no one else would know what I was talking about anyway. It’s enough for me to know that what she does is realistic.

    • lvoisin says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And thank you for the recommendation. I haven’t read Tamora Pierce, so I’ll have to add The Song of the Lioness to my “to read” list!

  6. Chistessa Matthews says:

    Oh wow. I guess my characters are completely insane… I have several that kill without batting an eye. Good thing crazy is what I was going for.

  7. Anni says:

    By far one of the best posts I’ve read on the subject – I’ve never really written action before but my current WIP has made it a necessary evil – I have two MC’s, one of whom is a mercenary and the other has practically no combat skill or knowledge, so the first (she) has to teach the other (him) to fight.

    One of the first things I realized was that a proper fight (i.e. not playing with martial arts, not warfare, just a good old fashioned fight between folk) is mostly about psychology – you have to identify a potential conflict, and why it’s a conflict – is someone looking to attack you because they think you’re vulnerable, or are they planning to attack you because they see you as a threat? In a fight, are you going to be able to diffuse it in the early stages by backing down and proving you’re not a threat, are you going to be able to scare them off after a couple of blows, or do they mean business?

    Second was how you actually respond to an attack – I had friends randomly attack me over the course of a few weeks and no matter how good a friend they were, how mild the attack was, how much I saw it coming or how little I was hurt, adrenaline ALWAYS kicked in big time, I ALWAYS panicked to some degree, I NEVER reacted the way I logically knew I should have after the fact, and I ALWAYS felt exhausted and tearful afterwards. This was after maybe 20 playful attacks in 6 weeks – after that I was at the point of “screw this, I’ll make ’em pacifists instead!”

    And then there’s what happens when you win – I got in a lucky blow with my partner a few weeks ago and we’re still dealing with the fall-out. Neither of us were prepared for what a good knee to the ribs can to do a loving relationship, even if it wasn’t in the context of any real aggression.

    Thanks again for the epic post!

        • Peter Bowron says:

          True about the laws. However, context is all – in most, if not all, of the one punch situations that I’ve seen reported, the victim was not “in a fight” as such – they are usually punched by an aggressive person who has had too much to drink and the attack comes unprovoked (or provoked by something trivial. The victim may also have alcohol on board. The second issue is that the major damage is rarely caused by the blow itself – the victim goes down and strikes his head on the concrete kerb or similar, sometimes leading to a fatal concussion. So if that’s the fight scene you are writing about, fine. In a regular melee, people will break their falls, be prepared, etc, so while it could happen, it would be far less common.

  8. Whitney says:

    This is pretty nifty. It’s hard being in the thick of a fight with your characters, hoping that you aren’t just manipulating things to work in your favor, rather than going with the natural thing. I haven’t read the other comments, but I think it should be mentioned that beating up your main character and still have them fight (after having bruised ribs, twisted ankle, the works) is so unrealistic and quite the stretch. Even in fantasy, most characters aren’t that immortal. Like you said, give em a rest!

    Whitney |

  9. Laura says:

    Great tips. Another mistake writers make is to over describe. The reader doesn’t generally need to know that the hero drew his fist back through the air to his right side and then sent his fist up into the villain’s left cheek. Too many words. They’re going for realism, but oftentimes overly detailed writing in fight scenes just confuses the reader and creates a ridiculously sluggish action sequence. Sometimes slowing it down to describe a small element of a fight (or to talk about techniques like in The Princess Bride) makes sense, but, overall, keep up the pace in the action.

  10. kevinsstorytime says:

    Very helpful! The one point I had not considered was the visceral detail. Going forward and in my proofreading I will be sure to add this to legitimize my scenes. I very much appreciate your advice and insight!

  11. Sue Bursztynski (@SueBursztynski) says:

    Fascinating post! When I was a member of a writers’ group some years ago, I was lucky enough that one of the other members was a fighter in the SCA(Society for Creative Anachronism). He said that if I was going to write this stuff I had better learn to do it. I went with him to the next meeting and, in borrowed armour and helmet, learned exactly what you can’t do in a fight! I was never any good at it, but I did learn stuff, certainly enough to point and laugh when I see a ridiculous fight scene in a film or TV show. And those characters who are hit over the head, knocked unconscious and then manage to get up and go on without aching and throwing up! You’d be surprised(or maybe not) how many big time writers do this to their characters. I know a fannish doctor who came up with a theory that a character in the SF show Blake’s 7 must have gone crazy because of the number of times he was hit over the head.

  12. Jay Dee says:

    Reblogged this on I Read Encyclopedias for Fun and commented:
    Are you bad at writing fight scenes? Are you too technical? Or do you leave out a lot of detail? Well, someone made a blog post just for you. Lisa Voisin made a list of 8 things writers forget when writing fight scenes. Check it out.

  13. eclecticalli says:

    I always try to avoid fight scenes because I have a very hard time with them. But, I do need to write some, so have been doing a lot of consultation with friends who are far more in the know. It’s very helpful!
    Thanks for sharing this great advice.

  14. outandin says:

    I have a friend who is a blacksmith and also a trained swordsman and martial artist. He says that “real” fights rarely last longer than 10 seconds and if they do last longer one or both opponents aren’t really serious. He also told me that in 98% of samurai sword fights, both opponents died. Something to think about!

  15. ladyelasa says:

    Such a good post! Thank you. I’ve seen a lot of these things scattered about, but you put them together into a concise post. I’ve suspected the adrenaline one. I know it makes you sloppy because it’s like loading yourself up on a lot of caffeine and then you crash. I’m definitely keep this one for future use. 🙂

    Stori Tori’s Blog

  16. quirkywritingcorner says:

    Thank you! I don’t plan to do many fight scenes, but I never know where my characters will go sometimes. My fights are verbal–insisting patients do whatever for their benefit or with the occasional co-worker who lied–and since I’ve been retired, those are gone. Maybe there’s an art to verbal sparring I need to learn?

  17. Nico says:

    This really is a well made list of tips, but there are somethings I found slightly invalid. Number 5, for example. My character is a trained fighter. She wasn’t always a fighter, but during the time I’m writing her at, she is highly skilled. So, in a way 5 is partially valid, but it depends on when in that character’s timeline you are writing them.

  18. kls says:

    Interesting. I will keep this in mind. I like the psychological effects and the weapon weight- definitely something to think about.

  19. Ichabod Temperance (@IckyTemperance) says:

    Great post and great comments, everybody! My first thought was one that Laura made, that is, too much boring detail.
    My books are whimsical in nature, and do not contain graphic violence, however, they are chock full of fight scenes.
    I have over twenty years of karate training, and over fifteen years involvement/training with professional wrestling. I enjoy adding some of the more spectacular aspects of pro wrestling to the action. I prefer dialogue over exposition, therefore I often have a person standing by to give play by play. I did not start this way, but it is a style that I have developed over time.
    Happy Reading and Writing, y’all!
    Your pal,
    ~Icky. 🙂

  20. rrwillica says:

    I think in The Princess Bride you have to consider it was two master swordsmen commenting on style and technique. They were fighting but also testing the skill level of their opponent.

  21. franhunne4u says:

    “Good entertainment doesn’t always have to be 100% accurate.”
    There you said it yourself, need not be 100 % accurate – just enough to be half way believable for the target audience – or to be sooo exaggerated unbelievable that it becomes funny. Which was the Princess Bride-way.

    Take the Monty-Python knight, who lost all his limbs. First, the sword would have probably broken the shoulder bones, not cut the arm off – swords were no butcher knives. Second at the amount of blood loss he would have died of shock, not fought on. Let alone the pain. Or the “rearrangement” of his bones … Third he would have stood in a big, slimy pool of blood – unable to hop along on one leg … But Monty Python did not aim for reliability. That was no documentary. Not even a serious fiction movie. It was absolutely hyperbolic. No reason to be accurate.

    So with fighting scenes it comes back to “Know your audience”. In a serious historical novel you have to be accurate. The nerds will find you out. In a fantasy parody? Not so much.

  22. D. Wallace Peach says:

    Excellent post. I write a lot of fight scenes and have never been in a fight. Most of your points seem intuitive to me, though I hadn’t thought about the way adrenaline causes rapid fatigue. Thanks for sharing your wisdom 🙂

  23. Ali Isaac says:

    Very interesting article! I have fight scenes and battles in my books. I did a bit of fencing in my younger days, so I have a little bit of experience to fall back on… of sorts! 😊 But I’ve never had to fight for my life, none of us have, so we have to rely on our imaginations and our RESEARCH. To write authentically on something though, one needs to have personal experience of it, which is kind of difficult in this area. I agree that writing around it, poetically and lyrically, picking on just a few features of the scene to add specific detail can work really well. Thanks for all the tips, really enjoyed the post!

  24. Teagan says:

    Thank you so much for this post! It really spells out the problems to avoid, and it will definitely help me in the future! If we wanted to consult a professional about wounds and injuries received in battle, where would one look for information about trauma and recovery time? I don’t want to have my characters healing quicker than is possible.

  25. Marshall Miller says:

    Adrenaline is NOT ALWAYS a negative. It is how you use it. If you are well trained, used to fighting, you can use it to give you that extra you need to win. It does not have to kick your ass. 30 years as an LEO, Use of Force/Firearms Trainer. Your training kicks in, then adrenaline gives you that extra speed etc. to save your butt. Fact. Felt it, seen it, Yes, you can be shaky afterwards but guess what? You get over it. Mother Nature always has a reason for the “gifts” we get from evolution.

    • lvoisin says:

      Good to know, thanks. While adrenaline isn’t always a negative, I think some writers err on the side of treating it like a superpower, where an untrained fighter is suddenly superman. I’m sure an experienced fighter does know what to do with it, much like a professional athlete would during a game.

  26. TraumaDrama says:

    I agree with the points that were made by your article. My husband is 6’4″ and trained in two disciplines of martial arts including a more subtle form of compliance with pressure points, which requires minimal energy with maximum compliance. He has been the target of men with a point to prove, drunks, and ones wanting to test his skills. He is a peacekeeper and will do anything to keep from hurting them. Blocking their advances and using their momentum against them and talking their anger down. The well trained look for the openings to strike and if the character drops his shoulder and opens up the area on his jaw then it’s one punch and done. My husband has told me that most physical altercations only last 15 seconds or less and this is why most forms of martial arts focus on this making the best use of force with minimal exertion in the least amount of time. The use of adrenaline can be a negative unless the person is trained to make it a positive.

    It’s true when he says that you are only as good as your training.

    I love point #3. I have worked in the E.R. And can tell you that there are flashbacks as I try to describe the acidic smell of alcohol being thrown up onto your brand new shoes, body odor and the smell of urine from a car wreck or a vagrant. There is a difference between the stench of burning hair that accompanies a house fire and a person struck by lightening. The warm sticky feel of blood when your hand is inside a chest cavity compared to the sharp smell of a bowel injury. A open fresh injury that involves blood and tissue or muscle smells like freshly ground hamburger meat. Talk to an EMT that was pulled a drown victim out of the water or an E.R. Nurse that has to stay in a room where a grieving mom is rocking her SIDS baby to keep her from leaving the hospital with the body.

    Let them read your story and make suggestions to evoke a visceral response to all of the senses.


    • Marshall Miller says:

      Add the effect the smell of a decaying dead body in an enclosed room can have on your clothes if you enter. Opening a room and having the smell slam into you.
      . .

  27. Joshua Cook says:

    I am a writer but also an experienced swordsman and martial artist and I actually like a bit of technical description in a fight scene. S.M. Sterling does this particularly well. The problem some writers have had though is they tend to forget that Occam’s Razor applies especially in combat. The more complicated the technique, the less likely the chance of success. Too much description will also slow the pace and not transfer that sense of urgency.

    • Marshal Miller says:

      Nice Point. That balance of not making it “fakey” but also keep the flow of the story. I have noticed Hollywood now, likes these long fight-flee-fight scenes, oft times with Parkour. After a while. I’m Like END IT already! Then you have the visuals of Game of Thrones. So trying to get that descriptive balance in writing is not easy. As a Retired LEO and Use of Force Instructor, you read something and say “What???” or “Yeah, that’s the way it is.” 🙂

  28. James Ross says:

    Stress does reduce effective skill in the unskilled but studies show that highly skilled people have the opposite effect. I don’t know how that applies to combat, of course, but since often the difficulty is the unwillingness to do the deed it should help. The primary purpose of anger is to fuel those desperate measures called for by desperate moments.

    This is why Sun Tzu says you should cut off the escape route of your own men and let your wnemy think he has a route of escape. Then your men will fight with passion and the enemy will be more distracted by retreat, allowing you to get attrition. Caesar burned his own ships, for example.

    Probably a strategy for a psychopath like Sun Tzu and not for a self commanded action hero, of course.

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