Writing

Six Common Mistakes in Fight Scenes, and How to Avoid Them

Kirk delivering a "double hammer fist" to Khan's back.

In the middle of this action-packed fight scene, Kirk stops to give Khan a back rub.

Stories need conflict, and when that conflict comes in the form of physical violence, it’s time for a fight scene. A well-written fight – whether it’s a fist-to-fist boxing match or a squadron of ace pilots clashing in the stratosphere – can be the highlight of a novel. But these scenes are also really tricky to write. You have to convey a lot of information in a short time. Even the smallest detail can be important, and characters’ lives are on the line.

We’ve written about fight scenes before on Mythcreants, but today I want to specifically address some common mistakes I see in my capacity as an editor. These problems sometimes work their way into published stories, too, even successful ones, but they’re especially likely to trip new writers up. By examining why these problems happen and how to avoid them, you can make sure they never trouble your story again.

1. Too Much Dialogue

Picard from The Next Generation getting ready to fence with an unnamed opponent. So are we gonna talk or are we gonna fence?

Everyone loves a bit of witty repartee during a fencing match, but it’s super easy to go overboard. When characters go from delivering a clever bon mot to having an entire conversation in the middle of a battle, readers lose patience fast.

When characters speak a paragraph of dialogue during a fight scene, it creates the impression that everyone has paused to listen. At best, this just slows the scene down, but at worst, it turns a serious battle into a comedic farce. Alternatively, long dialogue during a fight can make it seem like the hero is so unconcerned with the business at hand that they can divide their attention between fighting and chatting about the migratory patterns of unladen swallows. If the character doesn’t seem to be taking a problem seriously, the reader probably won’t either.

Why This Happens

Sometimes writers inject too much dialogue into their fight scenes out of a misguided belief that it will be dramatic. They remember iconic exchanges from their favorite stories and think they can accomplish the same thing by having the characters voice any thought that comes to mind.

Similarly, authors often use dialogue as a shortcut to establish the emotions and motivations of their combatants. No one wants to read a fight between two unmotivated mannequins, and it’s always tempting to just have the characters say what they’re feeling, especially under the time limitations a fight scene imposes.

Finally, I often see authors try to use dialogue as a way of explaining what’s happening to the reader. This is an understandable urge, as fight scenes are often chaotic and confusing, especially if the POV character is ambushed by an unknown foe. Having the combatants stop to introduce themselves certainly makes it clearer what’s happening, even as it destroys the story’s credibility.

How to Avoid It

First, it’s important to understand what kind of fight scene you are writing, since different types can handle different amounts of dialogue. If it’s hand to hand, you’ll want a few words at most, unless you’re willing to insert some kind of break for the combatants to chat. Gun fights can handle an entire sentence here and there as the characters duck behind cover to confer. Vehicle battles can often support short conversations, as the combatants are further removed from the actual fighting.

Next, think about what information you are establishing with the dialogue, and see if it can be established elsewhere instead. The POV character’s emotional state can usually be established through internal description, and you can use body language for the hero’s enemies. If someone snarls when they raise their weapon, the reader will be able to tell they’re angry.

As for exposition, you can usually manage that through the protagonist’s inner thoughts. If there’s something the hero doesn’t know, mark it as a mystery to be solved later. If a character is attacked by unknown assassins, it’s better to investigate them later rather than pause the fight so they can explain themselves.

Finally, writing dramatic dialogue is a whole article unto itself, but less is almost always more. If the scene is dramatic and tense, readers will view what characters say as dramatic and tense as well.

2. Unclear Positions

A panel from a manga where one character is leaving after images all over the place. Where even is anyone?

In most scenes of a story, it’s not super important to know exactly where each character is. If two people are having a conversation, readers assume they’re close enough to hear each other without shouting. If one character bows to another, they’re close enough for it to be clear who’s bowing to whom.

In fight scenes, position becomes a lot more important. Movement is vital in any battle, and characters can no longer move freely since they have opponents trying to stop them. Readers need to be able to imagine what this looks like. When the reader can’t tell where a character is, it’s like they briefly pop into existence to perform an action, then pop back out when they’re finished. It’s jarring, to say the least.

Why This Happens

A lot of writers simply have difficulty keeping track of where everyone is in their heads, and this difficulty leaks into the story. I personally struggled with spatial awareness when I was a kid, and, unsurprisingly, my early stories were full of characters who were fighting at the ship’s wheel in one sentence and hanging from the bowsprit a line later.

This problem gets worse in bigger fights. The more combatants a fight has, the harder it is to keep track of them, for the writer and reader both. This is even worse if the characters have some special form of movement. Handing out jetpacks to every character sounds like a great idea, but managing their positions is about to become a nightmare.

Occasionally, unclear positions can also stem from the writer needing their character to do too much. If a scene only lasts a few seconds, there simply isn’t time for the hero to pull a switch at one end of a large room, open a window at the other end, and then climb onto the roof to stab the antagonist. Unless they have super speed, it’ll seem like they’re in multiple places at once.*

How to Avoid It

For people with difficulty visualizing a fight scene in their heads, the first step is to shrink it down as much as possible. If a battle is too big to keep track of, see if you can zoom in on a smaller section. If what really matters to your story is the duel between the hero and villain, you don’t need to keep track of the soldiers clashing around them.

If you’re still having trouble, I recommend creating a physical representation of the fight. Sketch out a rough diagram of the battlefield, and then use tokens to represent the combatants. If you have cool minis, now’s a great time to get them out.* Now you can actually see where everyone is and where they need to go. You don’t need to worry about actual measurements, just the relative distances involved. If you need to move one of your minis as you play out the scene, you know the story needs some description of that character moving too.

This method will also help you figure out if you’re making a character do too many things. If that’s the case, you’ll need to revise the scene so there are fewer things to do or more time to do them in.

3. Too Much Description

Bilbo from Lord of the Rings looking at a page of his writing. Yes, just ten more pages and I’ll finally be done describing this tree!

A lot happens in a fight, even if it’s just a punch-up between two people. Sweat drips down the combatants’ brows, their eyes lock, and, most importantly, their fists fly. So many fists. In a visual medium, audiences simply take in all this detail in a glance, but written stories have to communicate everything through text.

That’s where the problem of too much description comes in. It’s really easy to overload a reader with information, especially with something as energetic as a fight scene. Worse, when a story takes a long time describing something, it robs the scene of urgency and creates the feeling of time passing within the narrative. That’s why trying to describe every single blow makes the fight feel like it’s happening in slow motion.

Why This Happens

The biggest motivator I’ve found is that writers often believe more description is better. Authors have a detailed picture in their heads, and they want to show it to you. You see this in other types of scenes as well, with long passages about how cool this castle or spaceship looks, but it’s especially damaging with fight scenes because fights are meant to be fast and exciting.

Another contributor is the number of writers who get most of their storytelling experience from TV and film. There’s a lot to learn from other media, but it’s easy to forget that audiences can literally see what’s happening in a film. In prose they have to read it, which is a lot more effort and so requires that writers be less enthusiastic with the details.

How to Avoid It

The most straightforward solution is to focus on the parts of the fight that matter, especially when it comes to the combatants’ attacks. If the hero throws a punch and all that happens is the villain blocks it, chances are you can cut that punch without losing anything. If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s important, try rewriting your scene so it uses this very simple formula:

  1. The hero makes an attack that the villain counters, showing that the villain means business.
  2. The villain counterattacks, putting the hero in a tough spot.
  3. The hero reverses their situation with some pre-established skill or ability and wins the fight.

You can get a lot more in depth than that depending on the story. You can even reverse the formula if you want the hero to lose a fight. But this is a solid basis if you’re not sure where to start. It even uses the rule of three, for extra storytelling cred.

4. Forgetting Armor

Unarmored Spartans from 300. Seriously? Not one of you has a breastplate to put over those muscles?

When it comes to fighting, armor is a big deal. It’s had to be, because otherwise no one would bother to walk around with metal covering their body. Having armor gives you a major advantage in combat, and if you don’t believe me, try cutting through one piece of metal with another. It’s not easy. Stronger armor offers better protection, and even against anti-armor weapons like maces, it’s better to have armor than not.

That’s why it’s so irritating when characters fight as if armor doesn’t exist. If they aren’t wearing any, it makes them seem incompetent for passing up an obvious advantage. If the characters are wearing armor but it offers no meaningful protection, it just seems like the story is out of step with reality. They might as well be wearing a fancy costume if their armor doesn’t do anything.

Why This Happens

The exact cause of this problem is hard to pin down, but our good friends TV and film certainly deserve a share of the blame. There’s no way around it: armor makes fights less interesting to watch. Without armor, the combatants can whirl around each other in a graceful dance until one of them lands the fatal hit. With armor, the fight is much more about struggling for leverage or finding a gap in your enemy’s protection.

That’s not as interesting to watch, so visual storytellers always choreograph their fights as if no one were wearing armor,* even if the characters actually are wearing armor. Sometimes characters are even portrayed as cool and skilled for refusing to wear armor that would “slow them down.” These tropes then work their way into written fiction.

Another factor is that everyone’s favorite weapon, the sword, is generally pretty terrible at dealing with armor. Anything that relies on a cutting edge is gonna have a really hard time against an armored opponent, and the swords that can deal with armor are either huge and used like spears or short and meant for close-quarters stabbing that doesn’t look super cool on screen. Weapons designed to counter armor, like the mace, hardly get any storytelling love at all.

How to Avoid It

The easiest solution to this problem is simply to craft scenarios where no one is wearing armor. This does limit your setting options somewhat, but there are still plenty to choose from. If your story takes place in a setting where armor is common, then you can have fight scenes happen off the battlefield. No one is wearing their plate mail to the king’s feast, which makes it a great place for assassins to strike.

You can also set your story in a time period where armor is falling out of favor, but guns haven’t yet completely taken over. Flintlock muskets are powerful enough to outmode most armor, but their long reload time means swords and other melee weapons are still perfectly viable. Or you could just have your characters use guns.

Alternatively, you could embrace the way armor changes a fight. It might not be super interesting to watch on-screen, but in writing you can make it just as visceral and dynamic as any fencing match. Describe how armored opponents close in for a grapple, each trying to maneuver a knife into a gap in the other’s armor, or how they use heavy maces to crack steel plates wide open. It’ll be more realistic and give your story extra novelty.

5. Misrepresenting Wounds

Kirk ineffectually shooting at Garry Mitchel. Don’t try it, Jim. I have the high ground!

Fighting is dangerous, and people get hurt. The potential for serious injury is high even if it’s just a fistfight between two untrained civilians, and that potential rises sharply once you introduce weapons, training, and magic. Once a character is injured, it’s a serious problem. Just performing mundane tasks with a serious injury is difficult, let alone fighting for your life.

Or at least, that’s how you’d expect fictional injuries to go. Instead, characters have a tendency to shrug off incredible amounts of punishment like it’s nothing, which makes the violence feel cartoonish and unreal. Worse, sometimes characters do take a serious injury, but then they keep going like nothing is wrong, which badly disconnects the reader from what’s happening in the story. Most people can’t so much as walk on a broken ankle, but this character is fighting with a sword through their lung? Yeah, sure.

Why This Happens

There’s no mystery about why so many stories make this mistake: in most cases, a character getting injured is a major inconvenience. Storytellers want the action and thrills of giant lasers and falling buildings, but they don’t want to have a protagonist hospitalized for the rest of the story with a debilitating injury. That’s why in Marvel films, even the baseline humans can eat godlike punches for breakfast until it’s suddenly plot critical that they be injured.

Writers suffer from the same contradiction. They want to write about characters getting blasted by magical lightning bolts, but those characters still need to be ambulatory in the next scene. What’s more, sometimes writers will injure a character to raise the story’s tension, but then the injury is conveniently forgotten when the character needs to do something important later. Marvel can get away with this because of their special effects budget and charismatic actors, but prose storytellers aren’t so fortunate.

How to Avoid It

The easiest way to reduce the need to ignore a character’s injuries is to reduce the likelihood that they’ll be injured. As with many things in fiction, a little bit of danger goes a long way. If the character is roasted by a building-sized dragon, it’ll be hard to imagine how they survive, let alone keep fighting. But if a single assassin comes at them with a torch, there will still be plenty of action, but it won’t seem like the hero should immediately die.

If you need a character to be injured, you can choose a type of injury that feels serious without being debilitating. While it might seem a little counterintuitive, a wound to the head is often the best way to go here. A glancing blow from the flat of an opponent’s sword can make the hero see stars without causing any catastrophic injury, and a little blood from a head wound will seem serious even if it isn’t life threatening. Likewise, a character can be hit hard enough in the chest to make them gasp for air without breaking anything.

If the character is going to take a serious wound, it should probably happen near the end of the fight. It’s believable that a character could make the final push to defeat their enemy, even with an arrow in their thigh. It’s less believable that they could start the fight that way and still triumph.

6. Taking Turns

A black and white game of "human chess," complete with cannons and horses. Beware, my protagonist can move in any direction.

Fights are a chaotic mess where everyone acts at once. One character swings, another dodges. The first character sprints toward the door while their opponent dives for a low tackle. There’s a lot happening at the same time, and it’s the author’s job to bring that across, since the reader can’t actually see any of it.

Unfortunately, a lot of fight scenes are written so it seems like the combatants aren’t acting simultaneously at all. Instead, one side will do everything they need to do, and then it’s the other side’s turn to act. This type of description creates the comical image of combatants standing perfectly still until their initiative number comes up, like narrating a game of D&D. It’s both comical and frustrating, as the reader wonders why each side lets the other take their actions without interference.

Why This Happens

In my experience there are two main causes of this mistake. First, a lot of writers simply have trouble describing simultaneous actions using linear text. You can only write one action at a time after all, and until authors learn the proper tricks of the trade, it’s easy to create turn-based combat without meaning to.

Second, authors often create scenarios where they need a character to do something that would be impossible if the other side tried to stop them, so they write the scene as if those enemies are frozen in time. This is especially common when the bad guys have the hero cornered and there’s no credible way to escape, but the hero manages to flee anyway. If the villains were acting in real time, they could easily block the protagonist’s path, or maybe just shoot them, but instead they stand still and only react once it’s too late.

How to Avoid It

If you’re having difficulty describing simultaneous actions with linear text, I have a neat trick for you. Try describing one character starting an action, then describe the second character starting an action, then describe what happens when those actions collide. For example:

Sophie leveled her spear and lunged forward. Eidsson raised his heavy wooden shield with a grunt. The spearhead smashed through notched wood, spraying splinters in all directions.

Even though we need to describe each character’s action in a sequence, this trick creates the feeling that they’re all happening simultaneously. There are other ways to create that feeling, of course, but this is a good place to start.

On the other hand, if you find yourself freezing some of your combatants so another character can do what they need to do, it’s probably time to back up and revise the entire scene. No wordcraft trick is going to save you here; you’ll need to craft a scenario where it’s possible for the hero to succeed even in the face of real-time opposition.

Instead of being cornered with no way out, the hero could flee into a dead-end alley and need to get a locked door open before the villain’s soldiers catch up. Instead of running past seemingly paralyzed royal guards to murder the king, a villain might employ some kind of ranged weapon to dispatch his majesty from a safe distance. Whatever the specifics, it’s better to revise a scene than make readers sit through a turn-based fight.


Fight scenes are challenging to write. They require an understanding of weapons, spatial awareness, and knowledge of how the human body operates under stress. They also demand a heightened ability to discern what information the reader needs and what can be left out. Writing a good fight scene takes hard work and practice, but once you put in the hours, you’ll write scenes that’ll blow their socks off.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Great article!

    What I’ve found useful for every action (fighting and much more), is this:

    Stimulus > Physical Reaction > Sensational Perception > Emotional Reaction > Deliberate reaction

    What it means is this: there is a stimulus (like a sword swung at the hero). First come a physical or instinctive reaction, because that can happen even before the hero KNOWS what kind of attack is coming, provided they’re well-trained in fighting techniques. Then comes the sensational perception, when the hero realizes someone swung a sword at them. Emotional reaction is next, because our feelings are only partially conscious and will come up faster than anything we think about. Finally, there’s the deliberate reaction, such as considering which attack now to use on that person who swung that f*cking sword them. Not everything has to be written out, though – it’s important to keep in mind in which sequence all of that happens in a situation. Basically it’s instinct, realisation, emotion, planned reaction, so you don’t put a deliberate countermeasure before the instinctive parry or the realisation that there’s a sword on the move.
    After the deliberate reaction, the other character essentially goes through the same, but only the visible reactions, such as ducking and parrying and their counter attack are actually shown.

    The nice thing is that this sequence works with everything. Piano plunging towards the hero? They jump out of the way, see the piano fall and crash, are sure someone dropped that on purpose, and decide to investigate. Hero on the run? They instinctively take the shortest route through any given obstacle course, they realize there’s a truck backing up from a side road, they hope that it will slow down the people behind them, and they slide right under it and out on the other side. Works just as well as with the sword (or any other fighting example I could make). Even dialogue is, essentially, an action like that. Instinctive reaction to what someone is saying and how their body language comes over (is it true or false, what emotional state is the other one in?), realisation what was just said, shock about that horrible story, and a well-measured answer.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for the tip Cay! I can see this process being super useful for helping a reader really feel like their immersed in a character’s experience.

      One thing I would caution though: Even though you’re right that humans often react without thinking, it can be confusing for the reader if the character does something and they don’t know why. It’s not automatically wrong I’d just be careful how many times it happens and in what circumstances.

      • Cay Reet

        I understand this reaction without thinking as an instinct. Like, you see something approaching from the corner of your eyes and you duck. No complicated reactions, just what everyone would do or what you’d expect from someone trained in, say, fighting (like parrying without thinking). Evading, covering your face, covering your stomach when something seems to come that way. Everything else clearly falls into the last phase, the deliberate reaction.

  2. Dave L

    What books would you say do fight scenes right? What should we read for inspiration?

    What other ways can we study realistic fights, w/out actually getting beat up/shot at/eaten by three dragons at once?

    As far as Too Much Description, in a fight, especially a tough fight, you don’t pay much attention to the world around you. In a first person or close viewpoint, the hero shouldn’t notice most details at that moment anyway.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Off the top of my head I’d very much recommend Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey. Boxing plays a major roll in the plot, and the author does a fantastic job describing all the little details a fight hinges on. She clearly did her homework. I’ll try to think of some other examples and get back to you.

    • Paul C.

      An author who is very good with fight scenes is Jonathan Maberry — his Ghost Road Blues trilogy (first volume got Bram Stoker for best first novel) has some very good katana and hand to hand. His Joe Ledger series presents a wide range of quick moving, intense brief fights as well as longer scenes, many of which are scary for their non-fantasy approach to the bad things that can happen to the human body.

      Maberry’s fights tend toward the realistic — that is, people get hurt (including the protagonists!) and can be over in a few seconds. (Before he wrote novels, he taught and wrote instruction manuals for Jujutsu [sic].)

      Also good is Violence: A Writers Guide by Rory Miller (out of print? but he has more good books).

      Both authors stress that real fights can be — and usually are — finished in a few seconds. Not a lot of time for reflection or poetry — darn it.

  3. SunlessNick

    A seventh mistake is having fights go on too long. Even when you don’t get hurt, you get tired.

  4. Tyson Adams

    On point #5, it is worth remembering that in the moment you are fighting for your life that you are pumped with adrenaline. This dulls a lot of things, including pain. You can fight through very serious injury, but you will crash as the adrenaline wears off, or go into shock.

    You see this in professional fighting and sports all the time. People will break limbs or other bones and keep going. Some will be out for months with major recovery but will have continued on for quite some time in the game/fight before quitting. E.g. If you search for it, you’ll see an MMA fight where a guy has broken his shin and can’t put weight on it half-way through the round. He doesn’t quit until the round ends.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree that when fighting for your life, you will actually be able to function during the adrenaline rush, even with the most severe injuries. I use something like that for the ‘berserker’ trait of one of my lead characters. And, as you say, afterwards comes the crash and the time to pay for what you ignored.

      It depends on the kind of injury a character is getting in a fight for their life, though. For Jane, the aforementioned character, going into berserker mode is a willing decision and then nothing but a shot in the head or the heart (immediately lethal) will stop her from fighting and even severe injury will only slow her down.

      If, however, a character’s dominant arm is shattered, they won’t be able to use it – as that fighter you mentioned couldn’t put weight on his broken shin, because the body can’t keep standing on that bone. If they’ve been blinded, they can still fight by sound and other senses, but if they’re not trained for fighting blind, they’ll still be much easier to defeat.

      That’s why I’ve mentioned various times in the series that Jane can shoot equally well with both hands and is able to read her surroundings even when blindfolded (she was never blinded so far, but blindfolded several times). She’s trained to function despite being wounded and a character for which the same is true would certainly do well in a fight even when severely wounded, as long as the adrenaline holds.

      But with severe and/or multiple injuries, there’s a big chance that the ‘fight or flight’ instinct would point to ‘flight’ – provided there’s a way to get away. For people in sports, ambition may play a role when it comes to continuing despite injury – that and the dulled pain of the adrenaline rush which might make them think the injury is less severe than it is.

  5. Brigitta M.

    I noticed that you put down “Don’t roll for initiative.” For story battles where the end result is either “hero wins” or “villain wins” this logic makes sense because each move has to be planned towards the end result and good or bad rolls can mess that up.

    However, sometimes, especially early on, the point of the scene could be “villain is sending a message” and as long as the message is received at the end of the battle, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses. In this case, D&D style rolls can add a measure of fun for the writer as it’s often a quick and dirty fight with few punches thrown and who gets in those punches depends on the roll of the dice.

    After the short tussle and the message delivered, the minion either gets shot or allowed to return back to base. This is all about character and whether the MC knows the minion is a demon or vampire…or whatever other evil spawn I’ve made it. If it’s a human for some reason…then the minion won’t get shot because they’re probably just trying to pay the bills or something.

    –NW

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