Anatomy of a Fight Scene

A recurring question that I keep seeing is, “How do I write a fight scene?” This is easy and difficult, simple and complex, depending on what needs to be conveyed.

Allow me to explain.

Is the fight scene a pivotal moment? Or is it something that sprung up, a surprise of sorts? How long does the fight last? Is the fight between two masters, or between a novice and experienced fighter? What kind of weapons do they use? Is this a battle scene, or is it a duel? What is the energy level of the fighters?

If you’re attempting a David vs Goliath type battle, with the underdog pulling out the win, that’s cool, and makes for a great story, but needs to be done right. Make it believable. A seasoned warrior could become overconfident when it’s a size/build issue. Underestimation in a fight is a powerful weapon in its own right. Overconfidence can often be someone’s undoing. So can rage.

These questions and many more, need to be hashed out prior to figuring out how the scene is going to go forward. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to flesh out a fight scene:

  • Only in rare and extreme cases does a fight last longer than a minute. Keep in mind this is in more of a duel setting, one pitted against another.
  • A war may last for many years, but a battle can be determined in minutes.
  • Have both parties been eating well? Are they both at peak performance? A tired warrior is prone to rash decisions in the heat of battle due to wanting to get it over with quickly, and can make a costly choice. However, the endurance of a battle-trained/hardened warrior is far beyond the endurance of a traveling mercenary.
  • A battle hardened warrior doesn’t need to size up his opponent… He did that the moment he saw his opponent. Hence, there will be very little walking around each other, staring into each other’s eyes ominously. No, they’ll just try to end the fight as quickly as possible.
  • If there’s an opening, the skilled fighter will go for it.
  • A purely defensive fighter will most likely lose. Seeking the right opportunity usually means you miss it. Instead, an advanced warrior will make the opportunity present itself, predicting his opponents’ moves beforehand and dictating the outcome of the fight. And yes, this can fail under the right circumstances. For instance, if, defensively, the opponent is using terrain to trip the assailant, this can result in an opportunity.
  • Acrobatics mean nothing. Except maybe a quicker death.
  • Just because one doesn’t want to fight doesn’t mean he won’t still be killed. It just means he has no chance of defending himself when he throws down his sword in an effort to make a point. Unless he’s an amazing fighter and can incapacitate his opponent, he’s dead.
  • With fighters of equal skill level, the fight can go either way.
  • A fighter isn’t necessarily the same thing as a killer. A warrior who’s seen the battlefield can be hardened and calloused to the horrors, but a trained fighter who’s never seen blood will be affected. A killer seeks the killing stroke with every strike, a fighter will seek to incapacitate – the victor will most likely be the killer.
  • What is the purpose of the fight? Have tensions risen to the point of boiling over? Are they mortal enemies? Is it an inevitable battle between the forces of your protagonist and the opposing forces?

Magic. Or Magick. Or Magicka. Or Magecraft. You get the point.

The idea of magic throws a standard fight into an uproar. A sorcerer or wizard has the ability to cast a spell that can hurt or confuse or kill an opponent. So how does someone fight against that?

Well, this is just me speculating, and every person’s magic system should be taken into account, but here goes:

  • Is there previous knowledge of the arcane within your world? If a warrior faces off against a mage of any type without knowing, he’s more than likely dead.
  • What resistances are there to the arcane, if any? Might be a specific race of people (or non humanoid), or perhaps a certain trinket or flower that holds magical properties.
  • Does the sword-bearer have the ability to get within striking range of the caster in a very short time?
  • Stealth abilities? An ability to catch a sorcerer unaware would be incredible, and very rare (at least to me, keep in mind this is speculatory).
  • How does the caster fight? Does he use illusions or tricks? What is the length and breadth of his control over his craft?
  • Spell effects? What are they, and what do they look like?
  • Weaknesses? Does magic drain the caster? Does it draw from their life-force? Can there be a mastery over magic that makes the caster immune to any weaknesses?

Anatomy of a Fight (one on one)

The normal fight consists of a few events.

  • Reason, or cause
    1. There has to be a reason for the fight. Even if killing is just purely fun for the individual, this has to be established, and does suffice as reason.
  • Meeting
    1. This might be a fateful meeting of chance, or one that was set up by one or both of the characters
    2. Some martial arts forms teach to fight before you fight (a choreograph of the fight within one’s mind). Would your characters have this kind of upbringing? Or would they just rely on their sheer strength or weaponry?
    3. Is there a dialogue? Or are there no words as they just get to hacking at each other?
  • The fight itself
    1. What is going on in the fight? Sights, scents, thoughts, the feel of the weapon clashing against the opponent’s shield, for instance, and the odd thudding sound it made.
    2. Is there pure hatred? Or is there cold calculation? The power of emotions within a fight can either make or break the fight. A cold, calculated individual may have presence of mind over any actions of his aggressor, being able to remain calm in the face of rage. Keep in mind, there is no easier way to piss off an already irate individual than with a lack of emotion…
    3. What is the end goal of the fight? Is it to the death? Or is it to make a point? Are they killers? Training? Whatever the goal, make certain it’s clearly defined.
  • Resulting circumstances
    1. Every fight has an outcome. Whatever happens will have circumstances that need to be dealt with. This is important. What are the repercussions of my protagonist losing? If the protagonist wins, what will happen now that he’s won?

As writers, it is our job to bring our readers into our world, help them experience what our characters experience, and build up the excitement and tension within the story to draw them further into it. A well-executed and well placed fight scene can help us do just that.

His eyes were welling up, a solitary tear finding its way out of his deep brown eyes as he contemplated the monster that now stood before him was once his brother. His hair was unkempt, and had grown long in his chase, having reached his shoulders and covering the left side of his face. He stood squared with his opponent, a dark cloak draped over the left shoulder where his sword lay in wait.

There was no speaking to this monster, no reasoning with him, all words were wasted, he knew, and so moved his hand to the hilt of the sword sitting off his forward hip in anticipation.

It was then that his brother attacked with such ferocity and power that even in expectation it took him by surprise. But he knew the attack sequence – he had already seen how this fight played out in his mind, and deftly sidestepped the incoming thrust, moving his right foot back and twisting the same shoulder in turn, quickly returning to his initial position and ducking in the next movement to avoid the downward swing aiming for his chest.

It was then he drew his sword, just after dropping, pulling his sword out of its sheath and across the stomach of his unguarded adversary. Having drawn his sword in reverse grip (Zatoichi), he pulled the sword to full arm length, using the momentum of the sword to switch grips in one motion, then stepped back on his left foot, crouching with his sword above his shoulder, point facing toward his nemesis. 

His brother may have become a monster, but he was still as predictable as ever, and with this one swipe the fight was over as he realized that a monster’s entrails spill as easily as a hero’s…

He stood up, brought his sword back to Zatoichi style, and bowed.

He had to hand it to the man that stood before him. Even with the intensity of the bleeding and his entrails becoming extrails, The Man with No Name was adamant, his eyes gleaming in hate. He watched from a safe distance as the man he once called brother dropped to his knees, his body weakening by the second.

He came around then, drew his brother’s dagger from the monster’s side, and stuck it so deeply into his neck that he bled out in seconds, whispering in the monster’s ear, “I love you, my brother.”

He left then, knowing he would be unable to overpower the others who would soon find their master dead. Somewhere deep down he realized that the war wasn’t over…it had just begun.


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