Writing Tips: Choreographing Combat

May 6, 2021

Whether it’s an assembly of fantastically powered superheroes facing off against their world-ending foe, or a pair of sweaty, down and out boxers squaring off in front of a cheering audience in some dingy, underground gambling den, a well-written combat scene can be a tense, exciting, and rewarding experience for your reader to enjoy. But there’s more to writing good action and combat scenes than just choosing the right words. The key to a terrific motorcycle chase, barroom brawl, or space battle is the choreography.

Check out a behind-the-scenes or making-of video for your favorite sci-fi, fantasy, or action movie, and you’ll see that good creators will put as much thought into the planning of the action and combat scenes as they do into the script, costume, and special effects. They’ll get input from experts like stunt coordinators and fight choreographers to help them pull it off.

You should be putting in that same work. Does that mean you should hire a fight choreographer too? Maybe not. But you should put as much thought into planning and researching your combat and action scenes as you do laying out your plot and dialogue.

Make It Plausible

Writing science-fiction, fantasy, or other speculative fiction stories requires balancing the tension between the real and the unreal to help your reader suspend disbelief enough to engage with your story. That’s why I find it helpful to lean into plausibility more than realism. I may have created parameters in my world-building outside what we currently understand to be the laws of physics. I may have created gravity manipulation tech or given a character magical powers. Those things aren’t realistic. But I still have to write about them in a way that seems plausible. If your superhero can fly, do they have to squat to lift off? Are they impacted by wind resistance? Are they bothered by the cold?

Perhaps the combatants in your fight scene are experts at hand-to-hand combat, but you’re not. How do you write that scene? You could consult or hire an expert for help. You could research different fighting styles and apply them as appropriate. You could watch training videos for inspiration. You could act it out yourself.

Think about what a particular move looks like and how it could be plausibly countered or blocked. Consider what kind of damage your fighter would take from impacts to different parts of their body. If your character is strong enough to punch through a concrete wall, then they’re strong enough to severely hurt someone when they hit them. What are the best follow-up moves for a roundhouse punch vs. a forward palm-heel strike? Is there even enough room in your setting to do a backflip?

As a reader, I’m willing to accept that a character can do unreal things like punching through walls. But if they follow up with a backflip where they should hit the ceiling but don’t, you’ll lose me.

Make It Personal

Arguably, you’ll find some of the best visual fight choreography in the John Wick movies. It’s highly unrealistic. The character is practically an unkillable demi-god. But it’s still plausible, even relatable. We know that Wick is a skilled combatant. But he still has consequences. He gets tired. He runs out of ammunition and needs to reload. He gets injured. And all of these things affect what he’s able to do. If he’s got no more bullets, he throws the gun. If his right shoulder is impaired, he favors the other arm. If his leg is injured, he limps. These conditions are what help us, as viewers, understand that there are stakes to these fights. While we know that he probably won’t lose, we still appreciate that he could.

As a writer, you have the advantage of also including what your character is thinking. Are they confident or scared? Are they tired or pumped up? Are they bored or impressed? Or, are they like me, and thinking about their next move while also thinking about what they need to do later and the stupid thing they said earlier?

You can use this point of view to bring your readers right into the scene. Have your character size up their opponent and adjust their choices accordingly. Share how your character is annoyed that there’s still another Security Bot to deal with after taking down all the others. Have your character make mistakes because they’re tired or misread a situation.

Make It Grand

There’s just something breathtaking about a well-executed, high-stakes action sequence. They can be exhilarating. Filmmakers achieve this visually through skillful editing and shifting of perspectives. The final car chase in Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent example of this, blending wide, long shots with close-ups of the characters and action that keep it lively and engaging from start to finish. You can do the same in your writing.

Set the scene to outline the stakes. Is it a fair fight or a one-sided battle against an overwhelming force? Keep your pacing brisk, but vary it enough to maintain your readers’ interest. If you’ve just plotted out a sequence of crashes and explosions during your action sequence, switch back to a single character’s perspective and their reactions to give your readers a moment to catch their breath. But don’t slow down for too long, or you risk losing your momentum. Think of it like a roller coaster and how it will sometimes go back up a hill to briefly slow down before launching back into a series of loops and hairpin turns.

Make It Yours

My action and combat scenes tend to be fast-paced with a few quick pauses. I usually write them from a single perspective, which helps make them relatable to readers and easier for me. That way, even when I’m crafting a sweeping space battle, I only have to include what the character experiences. I’ll still plot out what’s happening overall to keep things plausible, but I don’t have to relate every detail to the reader.

But you should use these tips and any others you may like to develop your own style. Giving it your personal touch will help make your writing stand out.