It might just be the genres I like, but it appears that a good ol’ slugging match is rather popular in literature, and why shouldn’t it be? Fights are moments of suspense, action, intensity and hair-raising awesomeness, but not everyone pulls them off perfectly. So, as a practiced writer of such scenes and gauged to be ‘quite good’ by my peers, I’ll try to give a few guidelines for to help.
Step 1: Flow
In real life, fights are quick, brutal and tiring and there should be some kind of reflection of this fact on paper. Combat shouldn’t be a step by step commentary to how the fight goes and each blow should get a few words to it or a line at most for standard strikes. Only in plot-important or particularly grandiose performances should a single blow of any kind take any longer to read, because reading speed dictates the excitement and speed of the action.
Here’s an example from Fate of the Forty Sixth that serves my purposes
Springing into action, Edge began to sprint right at Condor, deftly avoiding the reaching strike of his scabbard, even slapping the blade away. Disconnecting the weapon, the Hispanic warrior barely managed to have his sword up in time to parry his foe’s sword. Edge’s onslaught continued as he slipped the sword into one hand and punched Condor, full force, in the stomach. The cyborg spat, hunched over Edge’s fist, but flipped the tide of the duel with a jab from his scabbard and a barrage of armour breaking punches. Pulling the frontal carapace away, Condor managed another winding strike, reversing his earlier situation.
Verbs, short adverbs and commas make up the majority of these sentences and starting them on participles adds a sense of movement and action. Drawing out your sentences as the fight progresses gives the reader the idea of the combatants slowing down from fatigue.
Step 2: Meaning and Character
Fights should always, always, mean something. Being drunk (the characters, not you) is a perfectly good reason, despite what literary critics might argue, as is revenge or honour. But a fight for the sake of a fight looks tacked on and will detract from the reader’s enjoyment.
In a fight, characters should talk (if it fits their characterisation). Some individuals may want to taunt their opponents, straight-laced coppers might want to interrogate their opposition and a charming villain might goad even the most closed off hero into chatting, for whatever reason. Characters speaking in the direst situations gives the same sort of insight as casual dialogue does, so don’t throw away chances for your readers to learn and care about your characters. The fight itself can be a look at the fighters. Is the winning party playing with their opponent when they could clearly win? Is the normally restrained character attacking carelessly because he/she is distraught? Mould your fights around your characters.
Step 3: Do the Research
Nothing is more jarring in an action scene than when something like a .357 Magnum makes a man’s head explode. Or a Kukri becomes the equal to a sword in a scrap. Extreme, I know, but exaggerations make decent examples. Doing the research can be the difference between Willing Suspension of Disbelief and critical failure. If you have the luxury of writing what you know, then go along with it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time training with a properly weighted wooden sword to judge movement and such.
Step 4: Use your Tools
Listening to the right music works for me and I like to use active, intense music for writing action scenes (right now I’m listening to the Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Soundtrack).
Planning a fight beforehand is very useful if you want it to flow naturally, if the fight is formal and clean. If it’s a back alley brawl you’re telegraphing, writing with no plan gives the impression of the fight going in any direction upon a reread, if done well.
Watching movies/reading books can give you something to work off of. If you like something, you can adapt it with an original idea thrown in.
Remember, the important part is if you like it and if your readers like it.