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Writing Fight Scenes – What an Editor Wants to See

As an editor, something I’ve discovered when I’m editing books for other people is I’m making the same comments over and over again in relation to action scenes. I thought I’d summarize them here in the hope that someone may find it useful for their writing. As always, this is just how I’d do it and what I’d like to see, and your mileage may vary wildly.

1. NOT JUST FIGHTING

Petrodor by davepalumboAn action scene is a scene, right, where action is happening, right, hence the name “action scene”. As opposed to a “sitting down having a cup of tea and a nice chat” scene. It doesn’t just mean fighting. It can also mean running, climbing, swimming, wrestling, having sex etc. If it’s a scene where you protagonist is doing something physical with their body (or possibly someone else’s body), it’s action.

2. MAKE YOUR ACTION MORE ACTIVE

I think anyone who’s ever suffered at the hands of one of my edits will be wincing at this one – I think it’s the editorial note I use the most often. Often the action scenes I see are very mechanical – “Dave hit Brian on the head. Brian fell down, and Dave stabbed him in the neck. Brian died.”

Instead you could try something like: “Dave struck Brian a ringing blow across the helm, denting the metal. Brian’s knees buckled, and he tumbled to the ground. Before he could regain his senses, Dave was on him, sliding the blade of his dagger into the exposed skin of his throat, right up to the hilt. Blood gushed from the wound. Brian gurgled and twitched as the last breath left his lungs.”

Which brings us to point three:

3. MAKE YOUR VERBS DO THE WORK

Holy Smite! by JasonTNVerbs are great. No, really they are. Not all the time, because you can overdose on verbs as you can on any words, but the great thing about verbs is you can employ them to do the heavy lifting in your work. Strong verbs, used well, will take a lot of the effort out of the work for you and make your action more active (see point two).

“Dave hit Brian on the head. Brian fell down, and Dave stabbed him in the neck. Brian died.”
OR “Dave smashed Brian on the head. Brian collapsed, and Dave stabbed him in the neck. Brian breathed his last.”

Look for your weak verbs (went, hit and got, for example, and try to replace them with stronger ones (fled, crumpled, hammered, bludgeoned, retrieved etc) and see if that makes a difference if you feel your writing needs a little more welly.

4. USE ALL FIVE SENSES

Often I see scenes (I’m kind of focusing on fight scenes here because they’re the ones people seem to want help with) where the writer is describing what the protagonist sees and nothing else. Fights, especially battles, are confusing. They’re noisy, they’re muddled, they’re terrifying, there’s a lot going on and your protagonist might well be in the thick of it.

Don’t just stick to describing what they see. What do they hear? The boom of cannon fire, magical explosions sizzling, horses and soldiers screaming, the clash of metal on metal, or the grind of metal on bone?

What do they smell? Sweat, bodily excretions, gunpowder, blood, burning flesh? Can they taste metal in the air, blood in their mouth?

And, vitally, what does your protagonist feel?

Old Fashioned Beat-Down by KaiCarpenter

5. POINT OF VIEW

Which brings us to Point of View (POV). When I’m editing, I want to read something that puts me in the head of the character, looking out through their eyes. I want to see what they see, but, even more crucially, I want to feel what they feel, and a firmly fixed POV will hopefully achieve that. So when Dave goes into battle against poor hapless Brian, I want to feel his arm vibrating from the blow he has just delivered, but I also want to feel his confusion, his terror, his racing heart and his moment of relief that Brian is dead and he’s bought himself a breathing space. In the words of Fighting Fantasy – You Are The Hero. You need to write your hero so I feel I’m in their head, fighting alongside them, feeling their exhaustion, their fear and their elation if they win.

It’s tempting to just write an overview of the fight. I don’t want to see that, as an editor. I want you to get right in there and, instead of telling me about the fight, show me the blood spraying, the crunch of a broken nose under a fist, the slippery mud underfoot, the heat, the smells, the fear. And…

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO OVER-WRITE

Viking vs. skeletons by JonasJensenArtIt’s easier to cut an over-written scene than it is to pad out an under-written one, I’ve always found. It’s ok to go nuts, to immerse yourself in the action and write ten pages of bloody squalor for me to cut. I’d rather see that than you writing, “Dave hit Brian and Brian died. Then he hit Steve, and Steve ran away. Then Steve’s mum arrived, and she hit Dave…” and watch me cry and tell you off… Don’t be embarrassed to let yourself off the reins and have a bit of fun with it – you enjoy writing, don’t you?

7. BRING IT TO A CLIMAX

All this is especially important if you happen to have a big-ass baddie boss fight/battle at the end of your book. A good climax should leave the reader breathless and a little sweaty and exhausted, so you’d better make sure you give them a good one, and not something limp!

Ok, that was a lot to read through, so if you’re still here I hope you’ve picked up some good advice. Feel free to ask questions in the comments and add your own tips!

Title image by Brenoch Adams.

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Writing Fight Scenes – What an Editor Wants to See, 9.5 out of 10 based on 40 ratings
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7 Comments

  1. Awesome post Joanne, I love a great fight scene but sadly have read many that just leave me cold or worse…bored. Some great tips here, well done!

  2. Oli Veyn says:

    Loved the post. It makes me turn back to my manuscript and review the action scenes again an rewrite with the tips above. Thanks a lot!

  3. Anya says:

    I just want to know what happened when Steve’s mom arrived. Oh, it’s on now! “HOW DARE YOU HIT MY PRECIOUS WIDDLE STEVIE.”

    Also, this list makes me happy. I’m doing well with my action.

  4. L.G. Keltner says:

    This is a brilliant post! Action can be difficult to capture sometimes, but when it’s done right, it can shine. Thank you! Now I have some stories to check over, and I’ll be keeping this in mind.

  5. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. AJ Sikes says:

    My wife shared this with me on Twitter, along with the comment “I can hear your editorial voice in this” She gives me too much credit. 🙂 Really well put together post here, and one I’ll be sharing with my clients. I just wrapped up an edit on a spy thriller that suffered from cramming too much action in but without enough clarity to really show it. The author had good details of martial arts moves, but was afraid of overwriting and left out all the necessary visual and aural cues to make his fights scenes really shine.

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