As someone who mostly writes and reads fantasy, I’ve encountered quite a bit of fighting in my books. I always loved the thrill of these scenes, pages upon pages of the protagonist fighting the villain, smashing through walls, swords clashing – I think you get the picture. It wasn’t until I started a book (that ultimately is the only one I’ve ever finished) that I realized it was going to be harder to write these types of scenes. I wanted mine to be realistic, which was when I realized most of the fight scenes I had read weren’t.
Understand what type of fighting you are writing. Is it hand to hand combat? Fencing? Sword fighting? Each type has differences. I’m going to focus on fencing/sword fighting, because that’s what I have the most background on, but one thing that is true for each of them is this:
People aren’t naturally amazing fighters. No matter what type you’ve picked, it’s going to take practice. (Unless the point of said character is their innate superpower-esque fighting abilities.) Someone can pick things up quickly, but they aren’t going to immediately excel to the top. They’re going to get beat, and it’s going to hurt. They’re going to question at some point whether all the hard work is worth it. Then, once they’ve achieved some level of greatness, they’re going to have to keep practicing so they don’t lose it. Fighting is not like riding a bike.
Dialogue. There are countless movies/books with witty conversations during the large fight scene. This is completely unrealistic. You simply don’t have the time to talk. If you’re characters are going to talk (especially if they’re taunting each other), try putting it before the scene starts, not during. I will admit it can make for some funny scenes (the scene between Wesley and Inigo in The Princess Bride comes to mind, but also keep in mind neither of them really wanted to hurt the other, and they were fencing, not sword fighting. Don’t confuse the two), but in a real fight, it’s not very realistic.
Adrenaline doesn’t always work in your favour. Lots of books and movies show adrenaline kicking in and saving the character. This does happen, but in a prolonged fight scene, the characters are going to get tired. If anyone’s actually experienced adrenaline in a panicked situation, it gets you through the beginning, but the second it’s gone, you’re going to be bone tired. Also, when fighting with adrenaline, a lot of what you’ve practiced goes out the window. You forget techniques you’ve learned, and lose some sense of rationality. This can be fatal in a fight.
Don’t write technical details if you don’t understand them. It’s possible to write a good fight scene without including terms and technical details. Write key moments in the fights, or focus on the psychological effect of the fight on your characters. If it’s an actual battle, it’s not going to be pretty. Don’t just focus on what the character is seeing. Go into smell and hearing, too. Explore your senses. If you’re not an expert on fighting, it might not be the best idea to make your characters an expert on it either. Lack of knowledge shows in writing.
When I started writing fight scenes, it was sword fighting (don’t confuse this with fencing), and I wanted to understand what I was writing. (A great book I would suggest for sword fighting is The Book of Swords by Hank Reinhardt.) If you’re using a book as a resource, take organized notes you can look back at while you’re writing (especially if this is a book you’ve just got from the library). You don’t want to have to read the entire book every time you have a question. If you own the book, you can tab important sections.
Sometimes reading isn’t enough. One of the first things I learned while researching was that fencing and sword fighting are two very different things. I wanted to understand the differences, but I couldn’t read about fencing because there’s a lot of terms I didn’t understand. For about two years, I took fencing. It was great for me to get the hands on experience.
Fencing is very different from sword fighting. Are you using foil, saber, or epee (Epee is my favourite)? Do you even know what that means? What are the different parts of a sword? Sword fighting is brute force, and quick moves meant to disable your opponent. Fencing is more choreographed. There are certain moves you learn, and rules to each type. Do you understand the armor of each type? How does a fencing mask obscure your vision while fighting? Some of these questions are things I’d never even considered before I started fencing. I still would love to find a way to do some sword fighting, but that’s a lot harder of a goal to attain, which is why I stuck with just fencing.
After the fight. How did the fight affect your character? Most people don’t enjoy hurting people, and there’s a huge psychological side to all of this. Did the character actually kill anyone? That’s a huge thing to deal with. Even in battles, you don’t have to kill someone. Taking out their ability to stand is pretty efficient as well. Is this the first time they’ve fought? What was the purpose of you writing this fight scene? How does it affect the characters?
The other part about fighting I want to talk about is injuries, but I’m going to save that for another post, because this one is already really long, and I have a lot to say about that as well. I hope this was helpful! If you have any more questions about this topic I can (hopefully) answer them in comments.