One of the best ways to learn how to write is to learn by imitation.
So if you want to write a fight scene, you should look at writers who have come before you.
Below are a variety of fight scenes: some just with fists, some with weapons like swords, spears, and knives. All of them are two-person fights.
Read all ten fights and then read my commentary afterwards on what writers can learn from these examples.
Also, if you want to read my extended post on how to write a fight scene, look at my 21 Rules for Writing a Fight Scene post.
And happy fight writing!
1. Sword Fight
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The businessman reaches across his body with his right hand, grips the handle of his sword just below the guard, draws it out, snaps it forward so it’s pointing at Hiro, then places his left hand on the grip just below the right.
Hiro does the same.
Both of them bend their knees, dropping into a low squat while keeping the torso bolt upright, then stand up again and shuffle their feet into the proper stance—feet parallel, both pointed straight ahead, right foot in front of the left foot.
The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese, but it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo. He charges directly at Hiro, hollering at the top of his lungs. The movement actually consists of a very rapid shuffling motion of the feet, so that he stays balanced at all times. At the last moment, he draws the sword up over his head and snaps it down toward Hiro. Hiro brings his own sword up, rotating it around sideways so that the handle is up high, above and to the left of his face, and the blade slopes down and to the right, providing a roof above him. The businessman’s blow bounces off this roof like rain, and then Hiro sidesteps to let him go by and snaps the sword down toward his unprotected shoulder. But the businessman is moving too fast, and Hiro’s timing is off. The blade cuts behind and to the side of the businessman.
Both men wheel to face each other, back up, get back into the stance.
“Emotional intensity” doesn’t convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word “zanshin” is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.
And Hiro thinks, frankly, that most of it is pseudomystical crap, on the same level as his old high school football coach exhorting his men to play at 110 percent.
The businessman makes another attack. This one is pretty straightforward: a quick shuffling approach and then a snapping cut in the direction of Hiro’s ribcage. Hiro parries it.
Now Hiro knows something about this businessman, namely, that like most Nipponese sword fighters, all he knows is kendo.
Kendo is to real samurai sword fighting what fencing is to real swashbuckling: an attempt to take a highly disorganized, chaotic, violent, and brutal conflict and turn it into a cute game. As in fencing, you’re only supposed to attack certain parts of the body—the parts that are protected by armor. As in fencing, you’re not allowed to kick your opponent in the kneecaps or break a chair over his head. And the judging is totally subjective. In kendo, you can get a good solid hit on your opponent and still not get credit for it, because the judges feel you didn’t possess the right amount of zanshin.
Hiro doesn’t have any zanshin at all. He just wants this over with. The next time the businessman sets up his ear-splitting screech and shuffles toward Hiro, cutting and snapping his blade, Hiro parries the attack, turns around, and cuts both of his legs off just above the knees.
The businessman collapses to the floor.
It takes a lot of practice to make your avatar move through the Metaverse like a real person. When your avatar has just lost its legs, all that skill goes out the window.
“Well, land sakes!” Hiro says. “Lookee here!” He whips his blade sideways, cutting off both of the businessman’s forearms, causing the sword to clatter onto the floor.
“Better fire up the ol’ barbecue, Jemima!” Hiro continues, whipping the sword around sideways, cutting the businessman’s body in half just above the navel. Then he leans down so he’s looking right into the businessman’s face. “Didn’t anyone tell you,” he says, losing the dialect, “that I was a hacker?”
Then he hacks the guy’s head off. It falls to the floor, does a half-roll, and comes to rest staring straight up at the ceiling.
What can we learn from this sword fight?
- Take some time to set up your fight at the beginning. This builds tension. They don’t launch directly into the fight, they have some conversation (preceding this excerpt) and then slowly unsheathe their weapons. The reader gets pleasure from anticipation.
- Talk about proper technique. I love the description of their footwork, how they both adopt a certain sword fighting stance.
- During the first fight exchange, it’s not just action: Hiro describes the body language of the attacker (a word that translates roughly as “emotional intensity”).
- We learn about two competing philosophies of sword fighting: kendo vs. samurai. The opponent knows kendo, while Hiro knows samurai, and he knows he will win because his fighting philosophy is better.
2. Gun Fight
Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch
“The rasp of a door opening slow on its hinges and board squeak from the men stealing in. Faller stood and turned and collared the little girl beside him with his left hand and lifted her out of the grasp of her mother clean into the air. He hoisted her in front of his body and he turned towards the door and little girl screamed and her mother scrambled the air with her hands towards her. Faller kicked her back down and then the men from outside were coming in, their rifles pointed in the door and the first man paused as he came through to take in the sight of the girl hanging in the air in front of him and in the moment of his hesitation Faller shot him dead.
The man’s legs collapsed from under him and Faller dropped the child into a swing and launched her into the air at the other man taking aim with his gun and the man recoiled in horror as the child flew towards him, dropped the weapon to catch the child as she crashed into him and Faller was already on top of him as they fell to the ground and he smiled into the man’s eyes and fired the other round into his head. He looked up towards the hall and took the man’s rifle and swung smoothly upwards on the ball of his foot and then he was out the door.
Here’s what I like about this short gun fight scene:
- The villain Faller uses his brain. It’s not just a shoot-em-up scene, he uses strategy. The first thing he does is grab a little girl to use her as a shield. He knows this will distract his opponents.
- We get to see his personality in this fight as well. He “smiled into the man’s eyes” just before he kills him. Faller is a villain as terrible as the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” who frequently smiles as he kills people as well.
- And it’s pretty short. One noted different between fight scenes in movies and fight scenes in books is that book fight scenes are usually shorter. That’s because movies/television are visual mediums that lend themselves to action scenes, while in books you have to work harder to keep the action interesting.
3. Fist Fight
Jesmyn Ward, “Salvage the Bones”
I am on him like China.
I fought Skeetah and Randall for play when we were younger. Once I punched Skeet in the stomach when we were wrestling and my arms felt like noodles, like he had no muscle to hit and I had no muscle to hit him with. I kicked Randall in the chest when he was picking with me and knocked the wind out of him. Once I fought a girl in the middle school locker room for laughing at my budding breasts; she sneered that I needed to tell my mama that I needed a training bra. My mama was four years dead then. That girl plucked my shirt where a bra strap would be and pushed me, and I turned back on her and swung blind, trying to smash her face in, kicking at her legs, elbowing her, beating with my whole body. She was twice my size, but I surprised her before she was able to push me off. I fell over the bench and the lockers cut a gash in my arm, but I left that girl with a knot rising purple on her head and a lip pink and tender as a pickled pig’s lips in a jar. She always says hello to me when she sees me in the hallway, three years after the fact. I am fast.
I am slapping him, over and over, my hands a flurry, a black blur. His face is hot and stinging as boiling water.
“Hey! Hey!” Manny yells. He blocks what he can with his elbows and forearms, but still I snake through. I slap so hard my hands hurt.
“I love you!” “Esch!” The skin on his throat is red, his scar white. “I loved you!” I hit his Adam’s apple with the V where my thumb and pointer finger cross.
“I loved you!” This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting. I rake my fingernails across his face, leave pink scratches that turn red, fill with blood.
“Stupid bitch! What is wrong with you?” “You!” Manny grabs me under my armpits, picks me up off the ground, and throws. I fly backward. My toes land first, skimming the road, then my heels thud, but I am moving too fast to stop and I hit the ground with my butt. I try to catch myself with my stinging hands and then they sting more. I’ve scraped the skin off.
What can we learn from a fight like this?
- There’s great motivation for this fight. Don’t ignore motivation when creating a fight. Esch fights Manny, her boyfriend, because she’s just told him she’s pregnant and he denies that he’s the father.
- I like that the fight begins, and then we go into a full paragraph of backstory, of all the fights she’s ever been in (two small fights and one big fight. It gives context to this fight.
- The dialogue is perfect. She says that she loves him, present tense, and then revises it to past tense, because she’s hating him so much in this moment.
- We have a big differential in power between the two opponents, and yet, because they’re not strangers but boyfriend/girlfriend, and she is livid and he doesn’t have anything to fight for, she’s winning for most of the fight.
- Pay attention to the momentum of the fight. She’s slapping, and choking and scratching (all the momentum of the fight is on her side) and then it switches and ends when he picks her up and throws her.
- The reference to Greek mythology (Medea) gives the scene some weight. It’s not just a random fight, she’s identifying herself with a powerful Greek goddess.
4. Knife Fight
Dune by Frank Herbert
Jamis called out in ritual challenge: “May thy knife chip and shatter!”
This knife will break then, Paul thought.
He cautioned himself that Jamis also was without shield, but the man wasn’t trained to its use, had no shield-fighter inhibitions.
Paul stared across the ring at Jamis. The man’s body looked like knotted whipcord on a dried skeleton. His crysknife shone milky yellow in the light of the glowglobes.
Fear coursed through Paul. He felt suddenly alone and naked standing in dull yellow light within this ring of people. Prescience had fed his knowledge with countless experiences, hinted at the strongest currents of the future and the strings of decision that guided them, but this was the real-now. This was death hanging on an infinite number of miniscule mischances.
Anything could tip the future here, he realized. Someone coughing in the troop of watchers, a distraction. A variation in a glowglobe’s brilliance, a deceptive shadow.
I’m afraid, Paul told himself.
And he circled warily opposite Jamis, repeating silently to himself the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. “Fear is the mind-killer …” It was a cool bath washing over him. He felt muscles untie themselves, become poised and ready.
“I’ll sheath my knife in your blood,” Jamis snarled. And in the middle of the last word he pounced.
Jessica saw the motion, stifled an outcry.
Where the man struck there was only empty air and Paul stood now behind Jamis with a clear shot at the exposed back.
Now, Paul! Now! Jessica screamed it in her mind.
Paul’s motion was slowly timed, beautifully fluid, but so slow it gave Jamis the margin to twist away, backing and turning to the right.
Paul withdrew, crouching low. “First, you must find my blood,” he said.
Jessica recognized the shield-fighter timing in her son, and it came over her what a two-edged thing that was. The boy’s reactions were those of youth and trained to a peak these people had never seen. But the attack was trained, too, and conditioned by the necessities of penetrating a shield barrier. A shield would repel too fast a blow, admit only the slowly deceptive counter. It needed control and trickery to get through a shield.
Does Paul see it? she asked herself. He must!
Again Jamis attacked, ink-dark eyes glaring, his body a yellow blur under the glowglobes.
And again Paul slipped away to return too slowly on the attack. And again. And again.
Each time, Paul’s counterblow came an instant late.
And Jessica saw a thing she hoped Jamis did not see. Paul’s defensive reactions were blindingly fast, but they moved each time at the precisely correct angle they would take if a shield were helping deflect part of Jamis’ blow.
“Is your son playing with that poor fool?” Stilgar asked. He waved her to silence before she could respond. “Sorry; you must remain silent.”
Now the two figures on the rock floor circled each other; Jamis with knife hand held far forward and tipped up slightly; Paul crouched with knife held low.
Again, Jamis pounced, and this time he twisted to the right where Paul had been dodging.
Instead of faking back and out, Paul met the man’s knife hand on the point of his own blade. Then the boy was gone, twisting away to the left and thankful for Chani’s warning.
Jamis backed into the center of the circle, rubbing his knife hand. Blood dripped from the injury for a moment, stopped. His eyes were wide and staring– two blue-black holes-studying Paul with a new wariness in the dull light of the glowglobes.
“Ah, that one hurt,” Stilgar murmured.
Paul crouched at the ready and, as he had been trained to do after first blood, called out: “Do you yield?”
“Hah!” Jamis cried.
An angry murmur arose from the troop.
“Hold!” Stilgar called out. “The lad doesn’t know our rule.” Then, to Paul: “There can be no yielding in the tahaddi-challenge. Death is the test of it.”
Jessica saw Paul swallow hard. And she thought: He’s never killed a man like this … in the hot blood of a knife fight. Can he do it?
Paul circled slowly right, forced by Jamis’ movement. The prescient knowledge of the time-boiling variables in this cave came back to plague him now. His new understanding told him there were too many swiftly compressed decisions in this fight for any clear channel ahead to show itself.
Variable piled on variable–that was why this cave lay as a blurred nexus in his path. It was like a gigantic rock in the flood, creating maelstroms in the current around it.
“Have an end to it, lad,” Stilgar muttered. “Don’t play with him.”
Paul crept farther into the ring, relying on his own edge in speed.
Jamis backed now that the realization swept over him–that this was no soft offworlder in the tahaddi ring, easy prey for a Fremen crysknife.
Jessica saw the shadow of desperation in the man’s face. Now is when he’s most dangerous, she thought. Now he’s desperate and can do anything. He sees that this is not like a child of his own people, but a fighting machine born and trained to it from infancy. Now the fear I planted in him has come to bloom.
And she found in herself a sense of pity for Jamis an emotion tempered by awareness of the immediate peril to her son.
Jamis could do anything . . . any unpredictable thing, she told herself. She wondered then if Paul had glimpsed this future, if he were reliving this experience. But she saw the way her son moved, the beads of perspiration on his face and shoulders, the careful wariness visible in the flow of muscles. And for the first time she sensed, without understanding it, the uncertainty factor in Paul’s gift.
Paul pressed the fight now, circling but not attacking. He had seen the fear in his opponent. Memory of Duncan Idaho’s voice flowed through Paul’s awareness:
“When your opponent fears you, then’s the moment when you give the fear its own rein, give it the time to work on him. Let it become terror. The terrified man fights himself. Eventually, he attacks in desperation. That is the most dangerous moment, but the terrified man can be trusted usually to make a fatal mistake. You are being trained here to detect these mistakes and use them. “
The crowd in the cavern began to mutter.
They think Paul’s toying with Jamis, Jessica thought. They think Paul’s being needlessly cruel.
But she sensed also the undercurrent of crowd excitement, their enjoyment of the spectacle. And she could see the pressure building up in Jamis. The moment when it became too much for him to contain was as apparent to her as it was to Jamis . . . or to Paul.
Jamis leaped high, feinting and striking down with his right hand, but the hand was empty. The crysknife had been shifted to his left hand.
Jessica gasped. But Paul had been warned by Chani: “Jamis fights with either hand.” And the depth of his training had taken in that trick en passant. “Keep the mind on the knife and not on the hand that holds it, ” Gurney Halleck had told him time and again. “The knife is more dangerous than the hand and the knife can be in either hand.”
And Paul had seen Jamis first mistake: bad footwork so that it took the man a heartbeat longer to recover from his leap, which had been intended to confuse Paul and hide the knife shift.
Except for the low yellow light of the glowglobes and the inky eyes of the staring troop, it was similar to a session on the practice floor. Shields didn’t count where the body’s own movement could be used against it. Paul shifted his own knife in a blurred motion, slipped sideways and thrust upward where Jamis’ chest was descending-then away to watch the man crumble.
Jamis fell like a limp rag, face down, gasped once and turned his face toward Paul, then lay still on the rock floor. His dead eyes stared out like beads of dark glass.
“Killing with the point lacks artistry,” Idaho had once told Paul,”but don’t let that hold your hand when the opening presents itself.”
This is one of the best fight scenes in any novel I’ve ever read.
What can we learn from it?
- There’s a full page preceding this scene with build up. They grab their weapons. They talk to their friends. They prepare for battle. Don’t rush into a fight scene. Let the anticipation build up in the reader.
- The voice of Duncan Idaho, who is not present but who trained Paul in knife fights, offers a wonderful philosophy of fighting.
- We have a special weapon in this fight. It’s not just a knife, it’s a crysknife. This is a knife made from the tooth of a dead sandworm.
- It’s ritualized — this is a ritual battle, one there are rules for (hence: there is no surrender. It’s a fight to the death).
- Nice snappy dialogue, especially: “I’ll sheath my knife in your blood” and the reply: “First, you must find my blood.”
- There’s a wonderful story escalation here.
- Near misses
- Fails to adjust for a fight where there isn’t shields
- Paul draws first blood
- Crowd thinks Paul is toying with Jamis.
- Climactic scene of strike and counterstrike
- The climax is wonderful. It’s mental — there’s trickery involved. Jamis switches the knife from one hand to the other, and feints an attack. But Paul reads it and is able to bury his knife in the man’s chest. Your fight scenes need to be mental, not just physical.
5. Fist Fight
Louis L’Amour, “The Tall Stranger”
Lamport faced him in the dust before the saloon, a huge grizzly of a man with big iron-knuckled hands and a skin that looked like stretched rawhide.
“Come and get it!” he sneered, and rushed.
As he rushed, he swung a powerful right. Rock Bannon met him halfway, and lashed out with his own right. His punch was faster, and it caught the big man flush, but Lamport took it on the mouth, spat blood, caught Bannon and hurled him into the dust with such force that a cloud of dust arose. Rock rolled over like a cat, gasping for breath, and just rolled from under Lamport’s driving boots as the big man tried to leap on him to stamp his life out.
Rock scrambled to his feet, and lunged as he picked his hands out of the dust, butting Lamport in the chest. The big renegade jerked up a stiff thumb, trying for Rock’s eye, but Bannon rolled his head away and swung a left to the wind, and then a driving right that ripped Lamport’s ear, starting a shower of blood.
Lamport now charged again and caught Bannon with two long swings on the head. His skull roaring with pain and dizziness, Rock braced himself and started to swing in a blind fury, both hands going with every ounce of power he could muster.
Lamport met him and, spraddle-legged, the two started to slug. Lamport was the bigger, and his punches packed terrific power, but were a trifle slower. It was nip and tuck, dog eat dog, and the two battled until the breath gasped in their lungs and whistled through their teeth. Lamport ducked his battered face and started to walk in, stemming the tide of Bannon’s blows by sheer physical power.
Rock shifted his attack with lightning speed. He missed a right, and following it in with the weight of his body, slid his arm around Lamport’s thick neck, grabbed the wrist with his left hand, and jerked up his feet and sat down hard, trying to break Lamport’s neck. But the big renegade knew all the tricks, and as Rock’s feet flew up, Lamport hurled his weight forward and to the left, falling with his body half across Bannon. It broke the hold, and they rolled free. Rock came to his feet, and Lamport, catlike in his speed, lashed out with a wicked kick for his head.
Rock rolled away from it and hurled himself at Lamport’s one standing leg in a flying tackle. The big man went down, and as they scrambled up, Rock hit him with a left and right, splitting his right cheek in a bone-deep gash, and pulping his lips.
Lamport was bloody and battered now, yet he kept coming, his breath wheezing. Rock Bannon stabbed a left into his face, set himself and whipped up a right uppercut to the body. Lamport gasped. Bannon circled, then smashed him in the body with another right, then another and another. Lamport’s jaw was hanging open now, his face battered and bleeding from a dozen cuts and abrasions. Rock walked in, measured him, then crossed a right to his chin. He followed it up with two thudding, bone- crushing blows, and Lamport reeled, tried to steady himself, and then measured his length in the dust.
Rock Bannon weaved on his feet, then walked to the watering trough and ducked his head into it.
I am a fan of Louis L’Amour, but this is not one of my favorite fight scenes.
Still, I think it’s instructive: this is what happens when a fight scene is all action. Did you get tired while reading it?
To me, there’s no variation. It’s just action after action after action. This type of thing works much better in film than in a book.
6. Spear & Sword Fight
“A Storm of Swords” by George R.R. Martin
The Dornishman slid sideways. “I am Oberyn Martell, a prince of Dorne,” he said, as the Mountain turned to keep him in sight. “Princess Elia was my sister.”
“Who?” asked Gregor Clegane.
Oberyn’s long spear jabbed, but Ser Gregor took the point on his shield, shoved it aside, and bulled back at the prince, his great sword flashing. The Dornishman spun away untouched. The spear darted forward. Clegane slashed at it, Martell snapped it back, then thrust again. Metal screamed on metal as the spearhead slid off the Mountain’s chest, slicing through the surcout and leaving a long bright scratch on the steel beneath. “Elia Martell, Princess of Dorne,” the Red Viper hissed. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.”
Ser Gregor grunted. He made a ponderous charge to hack at the Dornishman’s head. Prince Oberyn avoided him easily. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.”
“Did you come to talk or to fight?”
“I came to hear you confess.” The Red Viper landed a quick thrust on the Mountain’s belly, to no effect. Gregor cut at him, and missed. The long spear lanced in above his sword. Like a serpent’s tongue it flickered in and out, feinting low and landing high, jabbing at groin, shield, eyes. The Mountain makes for a big target, at the least, Tyrion thought. Prince Oberyn could scarcely miss, through none of his blows was penetrating Ser Gregor’s heavy plate. The Dornishman kept circling, jabbing, then darting back again, forcing the bigger man to turn and turn again. Clegane is losing sight of him. The Mountain’s helm had a narrow eyeslit, severely limiting his vision. Oberyn was making good use of that, and the length of his spear, and his quickness.
It went on like that for what seemed a long time. Back and forth they moved across the yard, and round and round in spirals, Ser Gregor slashing at the air while Oberyn’s spear struck at arm, and leg, twice at his temple. Gregor’s big wooden shield took its share of hits as well, until a dog’s head peeped out from under the star, and elsewhere the raw oak showed through. Clegane would grunt from time to time, and once Tyrion heard him mutter a curse, but otherwise he fought in a sullen silence.
Not Oberyn Martell. “You raped her,” he called, feinting. “You murdered her,” he said, dodging a looping cut from Gregor’s greatsword. “You killed her children,” he shouted, slamming the spearpoint into the giant’s throat, only to have it glance off the thick steel gorget with a screech.
“Oberyn is toying with him,” said Ellaria Sand.
That is fool’s play, thought Tyrion. “The Mountain is too bloody big to be any man’s toy.”
All around the yard, the throng of spectators was creeping to get a better view. The Kingsguard tried to keep them back, shoving at the gawkers forcefully with their big white shields, but there were hundreds of gawkers and only six of the men in white armor.
“You raped her.” Prince Oberyn parried a savage cut with his spearhead. “You murdered her.” He sent the spearpoint at Clegane’s eyes, so fast the huge man flinched back. “You killed her children.” “The spear flickered sideways and down, scraping against the Mountain’s breastplate. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.” The spear was two feet longer than Ser Gregor’s sword, more than enough to keep him at an awkward distance. He hacked at the shaft whenever Oberyn lunged at him, trying to lop off the spearhead, but he might as well have been trying to hack the wings off a fly. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.”
“Be quiet.” Ser Gregor seemed to be moving a little slower, and his greatsword no longer rose quite so high as it had when the contest began. “Shut your bloody mouth.”
“You raped her,” the prince said, moving to the right.
“Enough!” Ser Gregor took two long strides and brought his sword down at Oberyn’s head, but the Dornishman backstepped once more. “You murdered her,” he said.
“SHUT UP!” Gregor charged headlong, right at the point of the spear, which slammed into his right breast then slid aside with a hideous steel shriek. Suddenly the Mountain was close enough to strike, his huge sword flashing in a steel blur. The crowd was screaming as well. Oberyn slipped the first blow and let go of the spear, useless now that Ser Gregor was inside it. The second cut the Dornishman caught on his shield. Metal met metal with an ear-splitting clang, sending the Red Viper reeling. Ser Gregor followed, bellowing. He doesn’t use words, he just roars like an animal, Tyrion thought. Oberyn’s retreat became a headlong backward flight mere inches ahead of the greatsword as it slashed at his chest, his arms, his head.
The stable was behind him. Spectators screamed and shoved at each other to get out of the way. One stumbled into Oberyn’s back. Ser Gregor hacked down with all his savage strength. The Red Viper threw himself sideways, rolling. The luckless stableboy behind him was not so quick. As his arm rose to protect his face, Gregor’s sword took it off between elbow and shoulder. “Shut UP!” the Mountain howled at the stableboy’s scream, and this time he swung the blade sideways, sending the top half of the lad’s head across the yard in a spray of blood and brains. Hundreds of spectators suddenly seemed to lose all interest in the guilt or innocence of Tyrion Lannister, judging by the way they pushed and shoved at each other to escape the yard.
But the Red Viper of Dorne was back on his feet, his long spear in hand. “Elia,” he called at Ser Gregor. “You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children. Now say her name.”
The Mountain whirled. Helm, shield, sword, surcoat; he was spattered with gore from head to heels. “You talk too much,” he grumbled. “You make my head hurt.”
“I will hear you say it. She was Elia of Dorne.”
The Mountain snorted contemptuously, and came on… and in that moment, the sun broke through the low clouds that had hidden the sky since dawn.
The sun of Dorne, Tyrion told himself, but it was Gregor Clegane who moved first to put the sun at his back. This is a dim and brutal man, but he has a warrior’s instincts.
The Red Viper crouched, squinting, and sent his spear darting forward again. Ser Gregor hacked at it, but the thrust had only been a feint. Off balance, he stumbled forward a step.
Prince Oberyn tilted his dinted metal shield. A shaft of sunlight blazed blindingly off polished gold and copper, into the narrow slit of his foe’s helm. Clegane lifted his own shield against the glare. Prince Oberyn’s spear flashed like lightning and found the gap in the heavy plate, the joint under the arm. The point punched through mail and boiled leather. Gregor gave a choked grunt as the Dornishman twisted his spear and yanked it free. “Elia. Say it! Elia of Dorne!” He was circling, spear poised for another thrust. “Say it!”
Tyrion had his own prayer. Fall down and die, was how it went. Damn you, fall down and die! The blood trickling from the Mountain’s armpit was his own now, and he must be bleeding even more heavily inside the breastplate. When he tried to take a step, one knee buckled. Tyrion thought he was going down.
Prince Oberyn had circled behind him. “ELIA OF DORNE!” he shouted. Ser Gregor started to turn, but too slow and too late. The spearhead went through the back of the knee this time, through the layers of chain and leather between the plates on thigh and calf. The Mountain reeled, swayed, then collapsed face first on the ground. His huge sword went flying from his hand. Slowly, ponderously, he rolled onto his back.
The Dornishman flung away his ruined shield, grasped the spear in both hands, and sauntered away. Behind him the Mountain let out a groan, and pushed himself onto an elbow. Oberyn whirled cat-quick, and ran at his fallen foe. “EEEEELLLLLLIIIIIAAAAA!” he screamed, as he drove the spear down with the whole weight of his body behind it. The crack of the ashwood shaft snapping was almost as sweet a sound as Cersei’s wail of fury, and for an instant Oberyn had wings. The snake has vaulted over the Mountain. Four feet of broken spear jutted from Clegane’s belly as Prince Oberyn rolled, rose, and dusted himself off. He tossed aside the splintered spear and claimed his foe’s greatsword. “If you die before you say her name, ser, I will hunt you through all seven hells,” he promised.
Ser Gregor tried to rise. The broken spear had gone through him, and was pinning him to the ground. He wrapped both hands about the shaft, grunting, but could not pull it out. Beneath him was a spreading pool of red. “I am feeling more innocent by the instant,” Tyrion told Ellaria Sand beside him.
Prince Oberyn moved closer. “Say the name!” He put a foot on the Mountain’s chest. Whether he intended to hack off Gregor’s head or shove the point through his eyeslit was something Tyrion would never know.
Clegane’s hand shot up and grabbed the Dornishman behind the knee. The Red Viper brought down the greatsword in a wild slash, but he was off-balance, and the edge did no more than put another dent in the Mountain’s vambrace. Then the sword was forgotten as Gregor’s hand tightened and twisted, yanking the Dornishman down on top of him. They wrestled in the dust and blood, the broken spear wobbling back and forth. Tyrion saw with horror that the Mountain had wrapped one huge arm around the prince, drawing him tight against his chest, like a lover.
“Elia of Dorne,” they all heard Ser Gregor say, when they were close enough to kiss. His deep voice boomed within the helm. “I killed her screaming whelp.” He thrust his free hand into Oberyn’s unprotected face, pushing steel fingers into his eyes. “Then I raped her.” Clegane slammed his fist into the Dornishman’s mouth, making splinters of his teeth. “Then I smashed her fucking head in. Like this.” As he drew back his huge fist, the blood on his gauntlet seemed to smoke in the cold dawn air. There was a sickening crunch.
There is so much you can learn from a fight scene like this.
- The repeated dialogue is excellent. He keeps on repeating the Mountain’s crimes of killing his relatives. It reminds me of the repetition of Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.” “You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
- We have a wonderful twist at the end. We think Prince Oberyn has won. The spear is in his opponent’s chest and he has a foot on top. But then we have a sickening twist as the Mountain starts wrestling and kills him with his bare hands. Use this technique: make your reader think someone has won the fight, and then reverse the outcome.
- The point of view (POV) is very curious. It’s not from the point of view of either of the fighters. Instead, it’s from someone watching the fight, Tyrion. He’s not just a spectator — his very life depends on the outcome of this fight. So we know there’s a lot at stake for him.
- We have a wonderful mismatch between these two fighters. One is slow, ponderous, and yet strong. The other is nimble and quick, but small. At first it seems as though the small quick man will win the fight, but in the end, it’s the giant’s strength that wins.
- Pay attention to the pacing. Most of the fight is told in scene, in real time. But there’s a section where George R.R. Martin summarizes the fight, skipping through time. Look at the paragraph beginning, “It went on like that for what seemed a long time…” That allows Martin to skip the boring repetition parts, and yet by signaling time is passing, he stays true to what would actually happen in a battle like this.
7. Fist Fight
Lee Child, “Persuader” (A Jack Reacher novel)
His face darkened. He seemed to swell up. He exploded at me. Just launched himself forward with his right arm scything around in a giant roundhouse strike. I sidestepped his body and ducked under his arm and bounced up again and spun around. He stopped short on stiff legs and whipped back toward me. We had changed places. Now I was nearer the guns than he was. He panicked and came at me again. Same move. His right arm swung. I sidestepped and ducked and we were back where we started. But he was breathing a little heavier than I was.
“You’re a big girl’s blouse,” I said.
It was a term of abuse I had picked up somewhere. England, maybe. I had no idea what it meant. But it worked real well, with a certain type of guy. It worked real well with Paulie. He came at me again, no hesitation. Same exact move. This time I crashed an elbow into his side as I spun under his arm. He bounced straight off of locked knees and came right back at me. I dodged away again and felt the breeze as his giant fist passed an inch above my head.
He stood there, panting. I was warming up nicely. I was beginning to feel I had some kind of a chance. He was a very poor fighter. Lots of very big guys are. Either their sheer size is so intimidating it stops fights from ever starting in the first place, or else it lets them win every one directly after their first punch lands. Either way, they don’t get much practice. They don’t develop much finesse. And they get out of shape. Weights machines and treadmills are no substitute for the kind of urgent, anxious, breathless tight-throat high-speed high-adrenaline fitness you need to fight on the street. I figured Paulie was a prime example. I figured he had weight-lifted himself right out of the frame.
I blew him a kiss.
He swarmed through the air at me. Came on like a pile driver. I dodged left and put an elbow in his face and he connected with his left hand and knocked me sideways like I weighed nothing at all. I went down on one knee and got back up just in time to arch around his next crazy lunge. His fist missed my gut by a quarter-inch and its wild momentum pulled him past me and downward a little which put the side of his head right in line for a left hook. I let it go with everything I had from my toes on up. My fist crashed into his ear and he staggered back and I followed up with a colossal right to his jaw. Then I danced back and took a breather and tried to see what damage I’d done.
I had hit him four times and it was like I hadn’t hit him at all. The two elbows had been solid smashes and the two punches had been as hard as anything I had ever thrown in my life. There was blood on his upper lip from the second elbow, but there was absolutely nothing else wrong with him. Theoretically he should have been unconscious. Or in a coma. It was probably thirty years since I ever had to hit a guy more than four times. But he showed no pain. No concern. He wasn’t unconscious. He wasn’t in a coma. He was dancing around and smiling again. He was relaxed. Moving easy. Huge. Impregnable. There was no way to hurt him. I looked at him and knew for sure I had no chance at all. And he looked at me and knew exactly what I was thinking. He smiled wider. Got balanced on the balls of both feet and hunched his shoulders down low and held his hands out in front of him like claws. He stamped his feet, left, right, left, right. It was like he was pawing the ground. Like he was going to come and get me and tear me apart. The smile distorted into a terrible wide grin of pleasure.
He came straight at me and I dodged left. But he was ready for that maneuver and he landed a right hook in the center of my chest. It felt exactly like being hit by a four-hundred-pound weight-lifter moving at six miles an hour. My sternum seemed to crack and I thought my heart would stop from the shock. I came up off my feet and went down on my back. Then it was about choosing to live or choosing to die. I chose to live. Rolled over twice and pushed with my hands and levered myself upright. Jumped back and sideways and dodged a straight drive that would have killed me.
After that it was about staying alive and seeing what the next half-second would bring. My chest hurt badly and my mobility was below a hundred percent but I dodged whatever he threw for about a minute. He was fast, but he wasn’t talented. I got an elbow in his face. It cracked his nose. It should have punched it out the back of his head. But at least it started bleeding. He opened his mouth to breathe. I dodged and danced and waited. Caught a huge roundhouse punch on the left shoulder that nearly paralyzed my arm. Then he near-missed with a right and for a fraction of a split second his stance was wide open. His mouth was open because of the blood in his nose. I wound up and let go with a cigarette punch. It’s a bar fight trick I learned long ago. You offer your guy a cigarette and he takes it and lifts it to his lips and opens his mouth maybe three-quarters of an inch. Whereupon you time it just right and land a huge uppercut under his chin. It slams his mouth shut and breaks his jaw and busts his teeth and maybe he bites his tongue off. Thank you and good night. I didn’t need to offer Paulie a cigarette because his mouth was already hanging open. So I just let go with the uppercut. Gave it everything I had. It was a perfect blow. I was still thinking and still steady on my feet and although I was small compared with him I’m really a very big guy with a lot of training and experience. I landed the punch right where his jaw narrowed under his chin. Solid bone-to-bone contact. I came up on my toes and followed through a whole yard. It should have broken his neck as well as his jaw. His head should have come right off and rolled away in the dirt. But the blow did nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. Just rocked him back an inch.
Even though this book has a ton of action in the fight scene, I think it’s much better than the Louis L’Amour example above. And here’s why:
- The action sequences are broken up with observations. “It was a bar fight trick I learned long ago.” “I had hit him four times and it was like I hadn’t hit him at all.” So most of this fight scene isn’t action, it’s mostly thoughts. We’re in Jack Reacher’s head listening to what he’s thinking as the fight happens. It seems counter-intuitive, but most of your fight should happen in the thoughts of your characters.
- Wonderful dialogue. The dialogue is used in the fight. Reacher deliberately insults him (“girl’s blouse”) in order to provoke a response so he can win the fight. Don’t just have dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Make dialogue one of your character’s weapons.
- Once again we have a huge discrepancy in the fighters. One is big, but one is far, far, bigger. One has extensive training, but the other is physically unbeatable. One has fight intelligence, but the other has stamina. The two fighters are about as different as can be, and the more differences you have between your fighters, the easier your fight scene will be to write.
8. Gang Fight
Roberto Bolano, 2666
It was absolutely the last straw for Espinoza, who stepped down and opened the driver’s door and jerked the driver out, the latter not expecting anything of the sort from such a well-dressed gentleman. Much less did he expect the hail of Iberian kicks that proceeded to rain down on him, kicks delivered at first by Espinoza alone, but then by Pelletier, too, when Espinoza flagged, despite Norton’s shouts at them to stop, despite Norton’s objecting that violence didn’t solve anything, that in fact after this beating the Pakistani would hate the English even more, something that apparently mattered little to Pelletier, who wasn’t English, and even less to Espinoza, both of whom nevertheless insulted the Pakistani in English as they kicked him, without caring in the least that he was down, curled into a ball on the ground, as they delivered kick after kick, shove Islam up your ass, which is where it belongs, this one is for Salman Rushdie (an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent), this one is for the feminists of Paris (will you fucking stop, Norton was shouting), this one is for the feminists of New York (you’re going to kill him, shouted Norton), this one is for the ghost of Valerie Solanas, you son of a bitch, and on and on, until he was unconscious and bleeding from every orifice in the head, except the eyes.
When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they’d finally had the menage a trois they’d so often dreamed of.
Pelletier felt as if he had come. Espinoza felt the same, to a slightly different degree. Norton, who was staring at them without seeing them in the dark, seemed to have experienced multiple orgasms.
This is one of my favorite fights, and one of the first I remembered when compiling this list.
This is an example of:
- This is an example of a fight in summary, rather than a scene. Most of the fights on this page you could replicate in a movie, but this type of fight is specific to a novel, to the written word. We don’t get the blow by blow action but more of the general impression of how the fight went down.
- The long sentences accelerate the fight, make it seem like it’s happening all at once. It gives a dramatic fluidity to the whole scene.
- I like the way that dialogue is interspersed throughout the violence. But the text doesn’t focus on the specific acts of violence (punching, kicking, etc.) but rather what they are shouting during the fight. Islam, Rushdie, Feminists, Solanas, etc.
- It’s not explicit at all. The only explicit mention of body parts are the kicks, and the “bleeding from every orifice in the head.”
- What started the fight was that the taxi driver called their woman a whore. And in the end, the fight becomes a metaphor for their sexual desire, to have a threesome. So the fight isn’t just an act of violence, but an action as a result of their sexual frustration. Look for places where your fight isn’t just a fight, but is a metaphor for your character’s desire.
9. Fist Fight
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The people behind Ender grabbed at him, to hold him.
Ender did not feel like laughing, but he laughed. “You mean it takes this many of you to fight one Third?”
“We’re people, not Thirds, turd face. You’re about as strong as a fart!”
But they let go of him. And as soon as they did, Ender kicked out high and hard, catching Stilson square in the breastbone. He dropped. It took Ender by surprise he hadn’t thought to put Stilson on the ground with one kick. It didn’t occur to him that Stilson didn’t take a fight like this seriously, that he wasn’t prepared for a truly desperate blow.
For a moment, the others backed away and Stilson lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead. Ender, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse. Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.
So Ender walked to Stilson’s supine body and kicked him again, viciously, in the ribs. Stilson groaned and rolled away from him. Ender walked around him and kicked him again, in the crotch. Stilson could not make a sound; he only doubled up and tears streamed out of his eyes.
Then Ender looked at the others coldly. “You might be having some idea of ganging up on me. You could probably beat me up pretty bad. But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you’d be wondering when I’d get you, and how bad it would be.” He kicked Stilson in the face. Blood from his nose spattered the ground nearby. “It wouldn’t be this bad,” Ender said. “It would be worse.”
- What I like about this fight is that it’s more psychological than physical. Ender fights not because he doesn’t want to be beaten, but to instill fear in his opponents.
- This fight is not about winning this single fight. It’s about winning the next fight.
- There’s great characterization happening in this fight. We have a hero behave wickedly, but we believe he’s justified, because he’s trying to prevent violence in the future. The purpose of the fight is to show that he’s willing to use violence for certain purposes. The end justifies the means.
- This tiny fight is a foreshadowing of the huge battle at the end of the novel. The end of the novel is about this same idea on a much larger scale: is it right to kill off an entire species in order to protect mankind?
10. Gun Fight
James McBride, “The Good Lord Bird”
That roused the Old Man, and quick as you can tell it, he throwed off his barber’s bib and flashed the butt end of a Sharps rifle beneath his coat. He moved with the speed of a rattler, but Dutch already had his pistol barrel at the Old Man’s throat, and he didn’t have to do nothing but drop the hammer on it.
Which he did.
Now that pepperbox is a funny pistol. It ain’t dependable like a Colt or a regular repeater. It’s a powder cap gun. It needs to be dry, and all that sweating and swearing must’ve sprouted water on Dutch’s big hands, is the only way I can call it, for when Dutch pulled the go switch, the gun hollered “Kaw!” and misfired. One barrel exploded and peeled sideways. Dutch dropped it and fell to the floor, bellowing like a calf, his hand nearly blowed off.
The other three fellers holding their Colts on Old Brown had stepped back momentarily to keep their faces clear of the Old Man’s brains, which they expected to splatter across the room any minute, and now all three found themselves gaping at the hot end of a Sharps rifle, which the old fart coolly drawed out all the way.
“I told you the Lord would draw it out your hand,” he said, “for the King of Kings eliminates all pesters.” He stuck that Sharps in Dutch’s neck and drawed the hammer back all the way, then looked at them three other fellers and said, “Lay them pistols down on the floor or here goes.”
They done as he said, at which point he turned to the tavern, still holding his rifle, and hollered out, “I’m John Brown. Captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles. I come with the Lord’s blessing to free every colored man in this territory. Any man who stands against me will eat grape and powder.” […]
He grabbed my hand and, still holding that Sharps at the ready, backed toward the rear door. I heard horses charging down the back alley. When he got to the door, he released my hand for a moment to fling it open, and as he did, Pa charged him.
At the same time, Dutch lunged for one of the Colts laying on the floor, snatched it up, pointed the hot end at the Old Man, and fired.
The bullet missed the Old Man and struck the edge of the door, sending a sliver of wood about eight inches long out sideways. The sliver jutted out the side of the door like a knife, straight horizontal, about chest high—and Pa runned right into it. Right into his chest it went.
He staggered back, dropped to the floor, and blowed out his spark right there.
- We have a nice reversal in the beginning. We think the Old Man is about to be killed, but the gun misfires. Always a fantastic decision to have equipment malfunction in a fight.
- And then we have a reversal when the Old Man gets the drop on them. And suddenly the person who was about to be killed is in charge. Try to fit two – four reversals in your fight scene. They are essential.
- Then we have a third reversal at the end, when the Old Man gets almost shot at the end, going out the door, but instead of the bullet hitting him, a splinter rams into his chest. It’s such a fantastic detail, and an odd one as well.
11. Fist Fight
Elena Ferrante, “The Days of Abandonment”
Here we have a wife who has been abandoned, and she sees her husband out in public with his mistress and she attacks him.
I came up behind them. I struck him like a battering ram with all my weight, I shoved him against the glass, he hit it with his face. Perhaps Carla cried out, but I saw only her open mouth, a black hole in the enclosure of her even, white teeth. Meanwhile I grabbed Mario, who was turning around with frightened eyes, his nose bleeding, and he looked at me full of terror and astonishment at once. Hold the commas, hold the periods. It’s not easy to go from the happy serenity of a romantic stroll to the chaos, to the incoherence of the world. Poor man, poor man. I grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him so violently that I tore it off the right shoulder, found it in my hands. He stood bare-chested, he wasn’t wearing an undershirt, he no longer worried about catching cold, about pneumonia, with me he had been consumed by hypochondria. His health had evidently been revitalized, he had a good tan, he was thinner, only a little ridiculous now, because one arm was covered by a whole, nicely ironed sleeve, with part of the shoulder still attached, and the collar, too, at an angle; while otherwise his torso was bare, shreds of the shirt hung from his pants, blood dripped amid the grizzled hairs of his chest.
I hit him again and again, he fell down on the sidewalk. I kicked him, one two three times, but — I don’t know why — he didn’t defend himself, his movements were awkward, with his arms he sheltered his face instead of his ribs, maybe it was shame, hard to say. […]
He grabbed me and pushed me away as if I were a thing. He had never treated me with such hatred. He threatened me, he was all stained with blood, distraught. But now his image appeared to be that of someone speaking on a television in a shop window. Rather than dangerous, I felt that it was sordid. From that place, from who can say what distance, the distance, perhaps, that separates the false from the true, he pointed at me a malevolent index finger, fixed at the extremity of his single remaining shirtsleeve. I didn’t hear what he said, but I felt like laughing at his artificial imperiousness. The laugh took away every desire to attack, drained me. I let him carry off his woman, with the earrings that hung from her ears. For what could I do, I had lost everything, all of myself, all, irremediably.
“Violence: A Writer’s Guide” by Rory Miller
And if you haven’t yet seen my post, 21 Rules for Writing a Fight Scene, that’s the perfect accompaniment to this post.
Do you have a favorite fight scene that I didn’t mention?
Please list it below in the comments!