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Fiction Friday: 8 Things Writers Forget When Writing Fight Scenes

October 5, 2012


Recently, I attended VCON, a science fiction and fantasy conference in Surrey (part of Metro Vancouver) and attended a session called “Writing About Fighting.” 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. (I lost my program, so if you remember who else was there, please leave it in the comments, below)

For me, this talk was so fascinating, it was worth the cost of admission to VCON. In fact, 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 technical you go to try to appeal to a technical audience, the more likely you’ll turn them off. Avoid the use of jargon.

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

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

By this, I mean, if you have a character who’s knocked out by one punch. People are seldom knocked unconscious by a single punch. 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, consult an expert.

3. Lack of visceral detail

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 missing 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. However, the Princes Bride’s famous sword fight on the cliffs of insanity 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.

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 good fighter. You’ve got to account for that.

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 there.

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, that person doesn’t want to hit anyone. In fact, when fighters first start to train, the 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 gender. Most people aren’t violent).

Even the most experienced fighters don’t like hurting people.

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.

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.

50 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2012 1:55 pm

    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 .:)

    • lvoisin permalink*
      October 5, 2012 2:27 pm

      I’m so glad you found it helpful, Cecilia! Good luck writing your fight scene! Can’t wait to read it!

  2. October 5, 2012 8:00 pm

    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. January 29, 2013 1:18 pm

    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.

    • lvoisin permalink*
      January 31, 2013 11:55 pm

      I’m so glad you found it helpful. It is very difficult to make characters hurt each other. Especially younger ones.

  4. June 9, 2014 4:32 pm

    Reblogged this on AWritersLife781's Blog and commented:
    Eight Things Writers Forget When Writing Fight Scenes

  5. Emery Carter permalink
    June 9, 2014 6:56 pm

    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)

    • June 9, 2014 8:27 pm

      Hi Emery, Thanks somuch for dropping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  6. June 12, 2014 3:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Vampires, Crime and Angels…Eclectic Me and commented:
    This is some awesome info we should all keep in mind.

  7. June 20, 2014 6:44 am

    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.

  8. June 25, 2014 11:05 pm

    Reblogged this on ladyofthepen and commented:
    There’s some useful information here.

  9. August 14, 2014 11:56 am

    Great and informative post! I’ve always enjoyed Tamora Pierce’s fighting sequences as well, especially in The Song of the Lioness Quartet and the Protector of the Small Quartet.

    • August 18, 2014 3:38 pm

      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!

  10. Chistessa Matthews permalink
    August 20, 2014 11:32 pm

    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.

  11. Anni permalink
    September 8, 2014 11:47 pm

    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!

  12. September 22, 2014 11:52 am

    Great stuff! Thanks for sharing this – much useful advice.

  13. October 2, 2014 9:22 pm

    Great suggestions that are often times overlooked. Thanks.

  14. October 10, 2014 12:52 pm

    I just found this on pinterest – thank you!

  15. November 14, 2014 8:11 pm

    All true except for the one punch knockout. Not only “possible”, I’ve seen it happen.

    If you need excellent examples of how it should be done, read Louis L’Amour (or my book)

    • November 19, 2014 10:42 am

      Thanks, Jack! Good to know! I wonder if the one punch knockout happens as often in real life as it does in books and movies.

  16. Whitney permalink
    November 17, 2014 8:04 pm

    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 |

  17. November 22, 2014 5:39 am

    Reblogged this on Barbarian Writer and commented:
    I do believe I might need to rethink some of my scenes, based on this report. Thanks, Lisa!

  18. November 22, 2014 5:46 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Lisa! I will have to go back and reconstruct some of mine, as well. I thought I did pretty well, but this article hits on tactile senses I had not considered.

  19. Laura permalink
    December 17, 2014 9:44 pm

    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.

  20. December 22, 2014 6:43 pm

    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!

  21. January 2, 2015 3:20 am

    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.

  22. January 14, 2015 8:27 pm

    Reblogged this on .

  23. February 3, 2015 4:26 pm

    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.

  24. February 3, 2015 5:11 pm

    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.

  25. February 4, 2015 2:17 pm

    Reblogged this on On the Edge of Enlightenment and commented:
    Now, I have to say that 5 can be difficult to balance with the pacing of many stories, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense for someone to become an expert in less than a week.

  26. outandin permalink
    February 6, 2015 8:15 am

    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!

  27. February 6, 2015 3:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Gayle Mullen Pace ~ Author and commented:
    Not all historical novels will have fight scenes, but when they do, here are eight tips from YA author Lisa Voisin to help us write better and more realistic battle scenes, whether it’s between two characters or a cast of thousands.

  28. ladyelasa permalink
    February 11, 2015 9:12 am

    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

  29. February 13, 2015 1:25 am

    I met the Historical fantasy author Mary Gentle some years ago and she brought along some of her own chain mail armour and swords, and explained some of the moves.

  30. February 17, 2015 8:48 am

    Reblogged this on Jim McDonald and commented:
    Great article, and good reminders!

  31. March 26, 2015 7:49 pm

    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?


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