Writing fight scenes can be tricky for many screenwriters. How exactly do you lay out a fight scene on the page? Do you describe every blow and gunshot? Or do you leave most of it to the director? And if so, how much?
We’ll be answering all these questions and more in this post. And, along with a ton of fight scene writing examples, show you the five pro techniques every writer should use to create a kickass fight scene.
So let’s dive on in.
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1. How to write a fight scene in a script: switch between the macro and micro
- The most common question we get on how to write a fight scene is, How detailed does it need to be?
- Let’s start by taking a look at both extremes:
- Example #1
Jonah stumbles into the clearing to find himself face to face with Max. They fight to the death and Jonah wins.
Jonah stumbles into the clearing to find himself face to face with Max.
Max immediately strikes the side of Jonah’s neck with all his fingers held straight and tightly together. Jonah responds by using the heel of his palm to strike up under Max’s nose. He throws the whole weight of his body into the move causing Max to cry out in pain as his nasal bones CRACK.
But Max rallies and brings up his knee and swiftly turns his hip over, snapping his right leg outwards from the knee to deliver a strike to Jonah’s head with the ball of his foot…
- And so on.
- Neither of these two styles are recommended.
- Example #1 tells us what happens on a macro-level, but nothing about what we’re actually supposed to see on screen.
- It’s all summation and no emotion.
- All responsibility is handed over to the director and stunt coordinator, while the reader is left to imagine what happened themselves.
- Example #2, on the other hand, tells us everything that happens on a micro-level and too much about what we’re seeing on screen.
- Nothing is left to the director, stunt coordinator or reader’s imagination.
Switch between the macro and micro.
When writing fight scenes, the trick is to combine both examples and describe the fight scene on a macro as well as a micro-level.
Describe a similar series of blows, parries, gunshots, sword thrusts, etc. over a short period of time.
Think of this as a general overview that gives the reader a strong sense of the style of the fight taking place, but without describing every little detail.
Jonah and Max trade blows at a furious speed.
Follow this with a micro-level description of the culmination of these blows when something significant happens that moves the scene in a new direction.
Jonah and Max trade blows at a furious speed before —Jonah uses the heel of his palm to strike up under Max’s nose. Max’s nasal bones CRACK as he collapses to the ground. Jonah stands over him.
Here’s some fight scene description from The Bourne Ultimatum that perfectly illustrates this technique:
Note how we constantly switch between the macro and micro-levels here. We get a general sense of what’s happening followed by a specific detail whenever something important happens.
- • “The two men tiring now”
- • “Bourne has the upper hand now. Desh’s reaction’s slowing”
- • “No longer the match he was”
- • “He’s finished. Bourne’s won”
• “Desh grabbing for the bag. The pills. Bourne kicking them away”
- • “Bourne drags him to the ground”
- • “Desh — shivering — convulsing”
- • “In the struggle, Bourne strangles Desh”
- Here’s another fight scene example that demonstrates this technique from the Lone Survivor screenplay:
- Again, we go from a general overview:
- “Crawling, shooting and covering…”
- To a specific event that’s worth highlighting:
“Axe shot through the left shoulder. Ignoring it he keeps firing.”
- Using each sentence as either a macro or a micro viewpoint, switching between both—macro > micro > macro > micro—can be a very effective way of communicating the style and flow of a fight scene.
- Which brings us to technique #2…
2. How to write a fight scene in a script: use one line per camera shot.
- This technique can be used while writing all kinds of description, but it’s particularly useful when writing fight scenes:
- Become close friends with your return key.
- Tab down to the next line every time the action switches perspective so that each line becomes a camera shot.
- For example, in the Lone Survivor example above, we have three implied camera shots:
- • Shot #1: A wide-angle as the four SEALs make their way to the side of the ambush
• Shot #2: A reverse angle on the Taliban
- • Shot #3: A closeup on Axe getting hit in the shoulder
- Here’s another fight scene description that perfectly illustrates this technique, this time from Kill Bill:
- Here we see six implied camera angles as we shift between Vernita, the Bride and the bullets.
- And all without actually writing ANGLE ON, CLOSE ON, REVERSE ANGLE, etc.
- We don’t need to have the camera shots spelled out because they’re put in our mind by the “one line, one shot” writing style.
There’s nothing stopping you from writing in the actual camera angles but, overall, omitting them makes for a more free-flowing reading experience. (Or at least, using them sparingly.)
A word on ellipses, all caps and white space.
Note too how this Kill Bill fight scene description employs ALL CAPS to highlight sound effects and the big moments. And how ellipses are used to draw the eye down the page. Em dashes (- -) are a great alternative option.
As each line represents a new camera shot, the effect is to leave a lot of white space on the page—all of which makes for an easier reading experience that suppresses the urge to skim.
The alternative Kill Bill fight scene description would look something like this:
How to Write a John Wick Fight Scene in 5 minutes
The best TV or movie fight scenes take into account story structure. This means that any fight scene in your screenplay should at the very least follow a three act structure…
Even if the fight is rather brief and one sided.
The Red Circle | John Wick
- I’ve created a sample fight scene for reference throughout this post.
- What I've written is actually quite large when you compare it to other fight scenes in scripts, but it'll help to better illustrate the main points.
- To begin, you will want to set up ACT I:
ACT I – INTRODUCE COMBATANTS
Understanding how to write a fight scene in a screenplay begins with logic. If we want to care about your fight scene, we have to care about the characters, or at the very least know who is about to fight.
See how I introduce the JAN at the start of the scene below:
Introduce Combatants – Screenplay Made In StudioBinder
How to Write Action Scenes
By Glen C. Strathy
Knowing how to write action scenes is an essential skill for writers in many fiction genres.
After all, what would a Suspense or Horror novel be without a chase scene in which the heroine is pursued by the villain? What kind of hard boiled detective doesn't find himself on the losing side of a fistfight while on a case? What would the Western genre be without saloon brawls, train robberies, horseback chases, or shootouts? Not to mention action scenes are essential in any story involving Adventure, whether it's a Thriller, Fantasy, or Science Fiction .
As with any scene, what makes an action scene emotionally gripping has to do with the right combination of external and internal factors, as well as sound dramatic structure.
So let's start by defining an action scene, and then consider some of the issues you should address if you want to write a scene that will keep your readers turning pages…
What are Action Scenes?
First, let's define what an action scene is…
An action scene depicts characters engaged in a high stakes physical challenge in order to achieve a goal. The challenge is competitive, urgent, and fast moving.
Let's unpack this definition a little:
- High stakes: The main character needs a strong motivation to win the contest. Most of the time this means creating a threat, which could come from other characters (as in a battle or fight scene), or from the danger inherent in the activity itself (such as a horse race or a car chase). Sometimes the threat is to someone the main character cares about.
- Competitive: The action should involve conflict with other characters who are trying to defeat, stop, or outperform the main character. Occasionally, a force of nature, such as a hurricane, is the opponent, but usually it is a human being.
- Urgent: The characters should be racing against the clock, or a competitor to achieve their objective.
- Fast moving: the urgency generally creates pressure on the characters to accomplish their goals quickly. You may use shorter sentences and fewer descriptive words in actions scenes to create the sense of a fast pace.
Types of Action Scenes
Roughly speaking, there are nine types of actions scenes found in stories, as noted in part by Ian Thomas Healy in his book,
Action!: Writing Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques
These nine types are…
- Chase (an effort to capture, intercept, or prevent an escape)
- Fight (close combat)
- Shootout (a fight using ranged weapons)
- Battle (a fight involving large teams of combatants)
- Sports Competition
- Heist (evading security measures in order to commit a theft)
Of these, the Heist stands apart for relying less on fast action (because of the need for careful timing and precision) and a greater use of suspense. However, it is still a race against the clock.
Preparing to Write an Action Scene
Before you write an action scene, helps to do some planning. So here are seven questions you should ask yourself before you start writing…
1. What's the scene about?
Good scenes always illustrate an event.
By event, I don't mean just a physical act, such as “a fight” or “a chase.” Stories that are strongly action-driven generally rely on tight plotting, which means that every scene must describe a turning point in the story. That's what an event is: a turning point, a change. Something must be different by the end of the scene, and that change will send the story in a new direction.
- Events can be external, such as the death of a character, the destruction of something important, a capture or escape, a change in circumstances, or the obtaining of an object or bit of information.
- An event can also be internal, such as a decision, realization, or epiphany.
- Or an event can show a turning point in a relationship, such as a bonding or a betrayal.
- Either way, you want to make sure something happens in the course of the action, such that things are different going forward.
2. Where will it take place?
Where you set your action scene matters because the terrain has a big affect on what your characters can do. For this reason, a chase scene involving cars on a freeway will have a different feel than one in which two submarines chase each other in deep water or two students chase each other through a crowded library.
Of course, you have to choose terrain that makes sense for your story, but sometimes it helps to ask yourself what is the most interesting place you could choose to set your action. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's classic film North by Northwest ends with a chase scene on Mount Rushmore, a setting chosen for its uniqueness.
But even if your terrain is less exotic, it is important to have a clear picture of it in mind.
For instance, is it indoors or outside? Does it take place in mud, or on stairs, carpet, or gravel? What time of day or season is it? Must the characters be on foot or could they use vehicles? Is the space empty or filled with objects that offer possibilities? And how will these factors affect the action?
About those possibilities, what does your terrain offer in terms of…
- Hazards or barriers to escape.
- Exits or shortcuts.
- Hiding places or cover.
- Materials that could be become makeshift weapons, traps, or tools.
- Things to be protected, such as bystanders or valuable objects.
- Things that might be destroyed in the course of the action (such as bystanders or valuable objects).
- Impediments, such as weather, lighting, traffic, dangerous animals, or booby traps.
- The time and effort required to cross the terrain.
In fact, it is often a good idea to create a map or diagram of the terrain to help you envision the action as it will unfold.
3. Who are the people involved?
You can't write an action scene without knowing something about the characters involved. So get clear on what they have to offer in terms of their relevant…
- Skills or training
- Physical fitness or traits
- Clothing or props
4. What sort of odds will you give your characters?
In action scenes, and especially fight scenes, the odds generally favour the character with superior…
- Body size
- Equipment or Weapons
However, that doesn't mean your main character must have these traits in his/her favour. In fact, readers often prefer stories in which the main character wins when the odds are against him.
In a David vs Goliath type contest, you may need some way to give your David a realistic chance of winning. To even or at least improve the odds, consider having one or more of the following turn out to be in his favour…
- Knowledge of the terrain
However, there's something even more important than the actual odds of your character winning…
5. Who Should Have The Moral High Ground?
How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes
Today’s guest post is by J. M. Robison.
After watching the final episode of Grimm, it occurred to me that being realistic in fight scenes is not as obvious as I had believed.
Before I start making claims that I know what a realistic fight scene is, I need to prove why I know it: I’ve been in military police for twelve years in the US Army, as well as held a full-time job for five years as a deputy sheriff in Elko, NV.
In the final episode of Grimm (no worries, names are protected to prevent spoilers) Bad enters the room. Good, Joe, and Bill are in this room. Joe fights Bad briefly before Bad kills Joe. Good rushes to Joe’s side and sobs over his dead body for a good minute.
Enraged, Good then rushes Bad. Bad deflects Good, then kills Bill. Good sees Bill fall mortally wounded and races to his side, sobbing over his dead body a full minute and then—enraged again—rushes Bad.
Bad deflects Good again, knocking him unconscious, and Bad leaves.
Someone who hasn’t been in the military or served as a police officer might not see anything wrong with this. It was certainly allowable in Grimm, which is netting money on Amazon Prime. But I’ve vowed that everything I write will be as accurate as possible, and I plead for you to ingrain that same standard into yourselves.
The Reason That Scene on Grimm Is Not Realistic
I’ll explain by using a real event that happened in my life. My local city police force was asking for volunteers to help them train how to respond to a mall shooting. I volunteered to act as one of the victims in this faux shooting.
Once the police officers entered the mall to neutralize the threat—guns up, body armor on—I was to run directly at them, screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot!” and then collapse to the floor directly at their feet.
Which I did.
The police officers walked around me. One even stepped over my body and kept going. They did not stop to render aid. They didn’t say anything to me. They all moved on deeper into the mall as if I wasn’t there.
Now I’m hoping you see a massive problem with this. I’ve been shot, right? Every second I come closer to death if I don’t receive aid immediately, right? Yes and yes.
However, the shooter is still in the mall, and every second he is not neutralized is another second he might shoot someone else.
Further, if those officers had stopped to render aid, taking their eyes off their objective and lowering their guard, that shooter could step around a corner and shoot the officers.
A dead police officer won’t render aid and won’t stop the shooter from killing anyone else. So the shooter must first be stopped, and then, only when the scene is secure, will the officer come back and render aid. The military teaches this as well. I might be dead by then, but at least no one else will have died as a result of the shooter.
In that episode of Grimm, Bad kills Joe, and Good sobs over Joe’s body a good minute. While Good is distraught over the death of his friend, Bad is still standing there and could have killed Good while he was distracted with his dead/wounded friend.
If Good hadn’t been sobbing over Joe’s body and had neutralized Bad instead, Bill may not have died. But Bill did die because the threat was not neutralized. Because Good was distracted by his wounded friend.
To make a realistic fight scene, your character must first neutralize the threat, because if the threat is not neutralized, the threat will next attack other people or your character, whether your character is sobbing over their dead friend or whether your character is prepared to meet the attack.
Who Did It Right
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: when Harry, Hermione, and Ron are playing the life-sized chess game and Ron sacrifices himself to make a vital move. Ron gets badly hurt, and Harry starts to step off his chess square to help him, but Hermoine stops Harry, saying they were still in the game. They left Ron there, finished the game, and then went to Ron’s aid.
Return of Jafar: Final scene when Jasmin is magicked into an hourglass, and sand fills the bottom. Aladdin doesn’t rush to save her because Jafar is still trying to kill him. Aladdin fights Jafar first, and once he is neutralized he breaks the hourglass and frees Jasmin.
Why Writers Ignore What I Just Said
Death shakes us to our souls, whether it’s a justified killing (police officers, military) or the natural death of a loved one. Death sticks with us, which is why we have funerals and a marked grave to find the dead again. Which is why military and police officers get PTSD from taking a life.
This is realistic. We transfer this realism into our books and movies and cause characters to weep over the death of a good friend, which is what Good did during the final episode of Grimm. Death is beautiful in a sadistic way.
We glamorize this death in books and movies by using slow motion, by spending a minute to air our griefs and acknowledge the passage from life. That is what Good did. That is why the producers of Grimm did it. Because it’s realistic.
However . . .
Good is featured as a police officer in Grimm. If he’s trained as a police officer, he should know that he needs to neutralize the threat before he attends to the wounded, just as I, a real-life police officer, have been trained. So his not neutralizing the threat goes against his training. Not realistic.
But Your Character May Not Be a Police Officer
Tips for Writing Fight Scenes in Your Novel
You know what’s dangerous? Writing a fight scene. In theory, it sounds so right. What can go wrong when writing a high-stakes, intense confrontation between two or more characters?
It turns out that everything can go wrong.
In practice, writing a realistic fight scene for your novel is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. That’s because fight scenes can be boring to read. A movie allows the audience to take a passive stance and have the action wash over them.
In contrast, reading a fight scene requires the audience to activate their imagination. The audience must participate in constructing the fight scene from your clues and seeing it play out in their mind’s eye.
That’s a lot more difficult than getting it fed to you visually.
But never fear—if you’re aiming to write a fight scene that’s capable of captivating your reader’s attention, this guide will help. Below, we’ll discuss the best strategies for creating fight scenes with bite. Let’s get ready to rumble.
Rule #1: Fight Scenes Should Move the Story Forward
The very first rule for fight writing (and writing any scene in general) is to ensure that it moves the story forward. Say “no” to gratuitous fight scenes that only show off fancy moves or writing skills.
Here’s the easiest way to find out if your fight scene moves the story: Delete it. Now, read the scene before and the scene after. Can you still make sense of what happened?
If the fight caused some type of transition in your story, keep it in.
And remember: Not all transitions are physical. Some are mental. You don’t always have to discuss the physical aftermath. You can also explore the mental fallout after a fight. This can be how the fight moves the story forward.
Because reading a fight scene can get boring quickly, it’s important that you focus on more than the bare-knuckle action. Use fights as a way to explore your character(s) and provide more insight on the following:
- Why does the character make the choices that they make in the fight?
- How does each choice reinforce their characterization?
- How does each choice impact their internal and/ or external goals?
- Is this conflict getting the character closer or further away from their goals? How?
- What are the stakes for each character? What do they stand to win? What will they lose?
- What type of fighter is the character? What are their physical or mental abilities? (Remember that not every protagonist will be a trained assassin, so they’re prone to make sloppy mistakes during a fight.)
Use the fight scene to reveal necessary information about the characters. Be sure to give the reader a glimpse into the character’s soul and not just into their fighting skills.
In movies and especially in real life, fights go by quickly. But in literature, fight scenes can slow the pace. That’s because you have to write all of the details and the reader has to reconstruct the scene in their minds.
This is the reason why many people simply skip over fight scenes in novels. I’m guilty of it. How about you? There are only so many kicks and punches you can read before yawning.
However, if you employ certain literary devices into your narrative, you can actually create a taut fight scene. Here are some tips:
- Write in shorter sentences. Shorter sentences are easier to digest. It also speeds up the pace of a story.
- Mix action with dialogue. Don’t just write long descriptions of what’s happening. Also, share the verbal exchange between your characters.
- Don’t focus too much on what’s going on inside the character’s mind. Introspection happens before and after a fight, not during.
- Keep the fight short. Fights should never go on for pages (unless you’re discussing an epic battle between armies, and not individuals).
Rule #4: Hit ’Em With All the Senses
One of the best ways to get visceral when describing a fight is to activate every sense possible. This includes sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Think of how you can use these five descriptors in your writing to immediately transport the reader to the scene.
Sight is perhaps the most obvious. You’ll describe exactly what the characters are seeing and what the reader should pay attention to in the scene.
How to Write a Fight Scene
I came to the realization last year that I didn't really know much about writing action or fight scenes. I knew some basic things like how you should keep your sentences short and use words with few syllables (because that gives the scene a fast pace), how you need to make sure your action sequence is realistic, and how you shouldn't give a blow-by-blow description because that gets boring.
But I wanted to know more. I wanted to dig deeper.
I wondered, what really makes an action scene great? What makes one better than another? What makes one bad? Not in the writing style, but in the content itself. Are there cliche action scenes? Is it bad to use one? And how do you improve an action scene?
I didn't know.
I asked people for references, blog posts, books, anything, about writing great actions scenes. And then I decided to start studying action scenes instead of just reading or watching them.
And I quickly ran into my first problem.
I've learned I have the tendency to zone out during most action scenes. Yes, I'm weird. While everyone is on the edge of their seats watching Iron Man flying around fighting villains, I start to slip into day-dreaming mode after a few minutes.
I'm kind of watching, but very passively, not actively. I think my subconscious realized that it didn't need to get the details of the action, that my brain only needed to be completely engaged when a character was seriously injured or a dangerous object was stolen by the bad guys.
All the jumping and swords swinging wasn't that important to me.
I've also realized whether or not I zone out depends on how long the action sequence is and how much I care about the characters. If I don't really care about the characters, I don't pay much attention to them.
I had to retrain my mind to pay attention, to watch and read action scenes actively and not passively. I had to learn how to focus.
And you know what I'm finding?
Yes, yes, action scenes do have cliches! Yes, there are cookie-cutter fight scenes! And yes, there are ways to make your action scenes better!