How to write a fight scene

How to Write a Fight Scene (in 11 Steps)

How to Write a Fight Scene in 11 Steps | Better Novel ProjectI recently received this e-mail about fight scenes:

Do you have any advice for creating a fight? I am writing an action/fantasy novel, and I am inexperienced with this particular type of scene. Thank you for any advice you may have! -Sara

Thanks for the question, Sara! I agree that its tough to “write what you know” when most of us have never been in a life-or-death physical brawl with a fantasy villain.

Let’s lay out the blow-by-blow action in these three fight scenes to see what similarities we can find:

  • Harry Potter’s fight against Quirrell/Voldemort in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone (Ch. 17).
  • Bella Swan’s fight against James (the tracker vampire) in Twilight (Ch. 22).
  • Katniss Everdeen’s fight against Clove (District 2 girl tribute) in The Hunger Games (Ch. 21).

What Actually Happens in a Fight Scene

Quirrell demands Harry give him the stone James gets into crouch Katniss runs toward backpack on table
Harry attempts to run away Bella attempts to run away Clove throws a knife and Katniss deflects it
Quirrell grabs Harry’s wrist on Voldemort’s instruction; Harry feels pain in scar James blocks Bella and hits her in the chest Katniss shoots Clove in her upper left arm
Harry struggles and Quirrell lets go Bella is knocked down and hits head on mirror Clove pulls out arrow and Katniss continues to run / reload
Harry searches for Quirrell and sees Quirrell’s hand is injured Bella is stunned/can’t breathe Katniss gets backpack
Quirrell knocks Harry down on Voldemort’s instruction Bella crawls on hands and knees to other exit Katniss attempts to shoot arrow but Clove hits her with a knife in the forehead
Quirrell puts his hands around Harry’s neck James steps down and breaks her leg Katniss is partially blinded from blood in her eye
Harry & Quirrell both feel pain from the touch Bella screams and James hurts her leg again Katniss staggers, shoots loaded arrow and misses
Quirrell lets go of Harry but holds him down with his knees Something smashes in Bella’s face, and her head hits mirror again and is cut by glass. Clove knocks Katniss down and holds her down with her knees
Quirrell attempts to curse Harry Bella feels blood. She sees James’ weakness as he loses control. Katniss wishes it to be quick
Harry grabs Quirrell’s face / sees Quirrell’s weakness Bella wishes it to be quick Katniss yells and Clove punches her in the throat
Harry gets up and hangs on to Quirrell’s arm James growls and approaches her Katniss struggles as Clove taunts her and selects a knife
Quirrell breaks free and Harry passes out Bella raises hand to protect her face and passes out Katniss attempts to bite Cloves hand
Clove yanks Katniss’s head down by her hair
Katniss spits blood/saliva in Clove’s face
Clove begins to cut Katniss’s mouth
Thresh rescues Katniss (she eventually passes out in cave)

I left the exchange of dialogue out of this chart so we could really focus on the physical action.

Word Count of a Fight Scene

Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone fight scene 348 words 28 sentences
Twilight fight scene 515 words 42 sentences
The Hunger Games fight scene 844 words 74 sentences

The word count and sentence count begins with the first moment of physical action and ends at the moment of rescue.

One thing is clear– the fight scene is short! That means every sentence must count. Now let’s examine the content of those sentences . . .

Deconstructing the Action in a Fight Scene

1. The villain escalates a tense scene into a physical one.

Often, the villain spends time explaining himself before the fight begins. The hero’s primary goal is not to kill the villain, so he isn’t the one who starts the violence. The villain might also take this opportunity to threaten or taunt the hero’s loved ones.

  • After Quirrell explains himself, Harry Potter’s fight begins when Quirrell/Voldemort makes a threat: “Now give me the Stone, unless you want [your mother] to have died in vain.”
  • After James explains his intent to film Bella’s death and send it as a message to Edward, he changes from conversational to animal-like. “Then he slumped forward, into a crouch I recognized, and his pleasant smile slowly widened, grew, till it wasn’t a smile at all but a contortion of teeth, exposed and glistening.”
  • As Katniss runs to the feast table to get a backpack of medicine for Peeta, Clove goes after her. “I sprint for the table. I can sense the emergence of danger before I see it.”

2. The hero runs from the fight.

The villain is trying to stop the hero, but hero is not neccessarily trying to stop the villain.  The hero’s goal is to get what he needs and get out of there.

  • Harry attempts to run away with the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Harry sprang toward the flame door, but Voldemort screamed ‘SEIZE HIM!’ . . .”
  • Despite showing up to the fight on her own accord, Bella attempts to run away from James. “As useless as I knew it would be, as
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    weak as my knees already were, panic took over and I bolted for the emergency door.”

  • Katniss does not stop running even though Clove is attacking her. It is more important that she gets Peeta’s medicine than it is for her to kill Clove. “I keep moving, positioning the next arrow automatically, as only someone who has hunted for years can do.”

3. The villain attempts to block the hero (with varying success).

Harry Potter and Katniss are able to put up a fight against their villains. Bella just gets beaten up.

  • When Quirrell grabs Harry’s wrist to stop him, both Harry and Quirrell feel the pain from contact. “At once, a needle-sharp pain seared across Harry’s scar; . . . he yelled, struggling with all his might, and to his surprise, Quirrell let go of him.”
  • James blocks Bella from leaving and hits her hard in the chest. “He was in front of me in a flash. . . . A crushing blow struck my chest . . .”
  • Clove throws a knife at Katniss, but Katniss uses her bow to deflect it. “Fortunately, the first knife comes whizzing in on my right side so I can hear it . . .”

4. The hero loses track of the villain’s location.

With everything happening so quickly, the hero doesn’t always know exactly where the villain stands.

  • Harry doesn’t know where Quirrell is after Harry breaks free from his grasp. “— he looked around wildly to see where Quirrell had gone, and saw him hunched in pain, looking at his fingers . . .”
  • James moves so quickly that Bella literally does not know what is hitting her. “I didn’t see if he used his hand or his foot, it was too fast.”
  • After Clove hits Katniss in the forehead with a knife, Katniss does not know exactly where Clove is.  “I stagger backward but still manage to send my readied arrow in the general direction of my assailant.”

5. The villain knocks the hero off his feet.

The villain has the advantage once he gets the hero to the ground. Note that Quirrell and Clove keep their hands free by using their knees to pin the hero to the ground.

  • Quirrell tackles Harry to the ground and attempts to choke him. “Quirrell lunged, knocking Harry clean off his feet, landing on top of him, both hands around Harry’s neck . . . . pinning Harry to the ground with his knees.
  • James knocks Bella into the mirrored wall. “A crushing blow struck my chest — I felt myself flying backward, and then heard the crunch as my head bashed into the mirrors.”
  • When Katniss is staggering after getting hit with the knife, Clove takes the opportunity to tackle her. “And then Clove slams into me, knocking me flat on my back, pinning my shoulders to the ground with her knees.”

6. The hero experiences intense pain.

The villain is inflicting real damage on the hero. Note that Katniss only describes what happens to her, not her actual pain.

  • Harry’s pain is described with intense language: “At once, a needle-sharp pain seared across Harry’s scar; his head felt as though it was about to split in two.”
  • Bella screams from her pain: “I heard the sickening snap before I felt it. But then I did feel it, and I couldn’t hold back my scream of agony.”
  • Katniss’s injuries are described, and it is up to the reader to imagine the pain. Katniss is too tough to describe it. “It slices above my right eyebrow, opening a gash that sends a gush running down my face, blinding my eye, filling my mouth with the sharp, metallic taste of my own blood.”

7. The hero responds to the villain’s trash talk while on the ground.

The villain enrages the hero — so much so that the hero takes some swings at the villain, even if the hero knows it is pointless.

  • Voldemort yells for Quirrell to finish Harry off, but Harry keeps his hands on Quirrell. “. . . . Harry, by instinct, reached up and grabbed Quirrell’s face — “AAAARGH!”
  • James comments about the dramatic effect of the mirrors breaking while Bella makes another attempt to run away. “I ignored him, scrambling on my hands and knees, crawling toward the other door.”
  • Katniss spits in Clove’s face when Clove asks if she wants to blow Peeta a kiss. “I work up a mouthful of blood and saliva and spit it in her face.”

8. The villain attempts to hit the hero again.

The villain appears to have the upper hand during the fight.

  • After Quirrell tackles Harry and attempts to choke him, Quirrell tries to curse Harry. “Quirrell raised his hand to perform a deadly curse . . . .”
  • James breaks Bella’s leg in a second spot and then throws her against the mirrors again. “Over the pain of my leg, I felt the sharp rip across my scalp where the glass cut into it.”
  • Clove begins to use her knife to cut Katniss’s mouth. “I brace myself for the agony that’s sure to follow. But as I feel the tip open the first cut at my lip . . .”

9. The hero loses all hope.

The hero is in such a bad place that she just hopes her death will be over soon.

  • Harry tries to hold on to Quirrell but cannot. “He felt Quirrell’s arm wrenched from his grasp, knew all was lost . . .”
  • Katniss doesn’t want Prim to see her tortured. “This is it, I think, and hope for Prim’s sake it will be fast.”
  • Bella hopes her death is not drawn out: “Let it be quick now, was all I could hope as the flow of blood from my head sucked my consciousness away with it.”

10. The villain shows a point of weakness.

Just as the hero is about to lose, he notices the villain’s “Achilles’ heel.”

  • Harry realizes that Quirrell’s skin is getting burnt when he touches Harry. “Quirrell rolled off him, his face blistering, too, and then Harry knew: Quirrell couldn’t touch his bare skin, not without suffering terrible pain.”
  • Bella realizes that James cannot continue to torture her because the smell of blood is making him lose control. “The blood — spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor — was driving him mad with thirst. No matter his original intentions, he couldn’t draw this out much longer.”
  • Clove announces that she and her allies killed Rue. This ends up being the reason that Thresh kills her (and rescues Katniss). “We’re going to kill you, Just like we did your pathetic little ally . . . what was her name? The one who hopped around in the trees? Rue?”

11. The hero makes a last hurrah.

Before he is rescued, the hero makes one last ditch effort to fight.

  • Harry attempts to use Quirrell’s weakness against him. “. . . his only chance was to keep hold of Quirrell, keep him in enough pain to stop him from doing a curse.”
  • Bella just covers her face with her hand when she sees James coming toward her. “With my last effort, my hand instinctively raised to protect my face.
  • Katniss wants to look strong on camera. “As my last act of defiance, I will stare her down as long as I can see, which will probably not be an extended period of time, but I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated.”

Why it Works

Wait, how does the fight end? In Harry Potter and Twilight, it’s a mini cliffhanger and the hero is rescued “off-screen,” after the hero passes out. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is awake for her rescue by Thresh.

This fight scene works for two big reasons: First, the hero remains on moral high ground. Not only did he not instigate the violence in the beginning, he also is not the one to kill the villain in the end.

Second, this fight taps into the reader’s desire to root for an underdog. The hero is physically weaker than the villain and suffering a horrible beating, but the hero never truly gives up.

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