A friend asked me for help with another fight scene in a book she's writing, so I thought I'd share the ideas and suggestions I came up with, in case any other writers are looking for pointers. So, jumping right into it, here are some of the things I do when coming up with a fight scene.
I think about the location. Indoors or outdoors? If outdoors, what sort of setting is it? Could be desert, jungle, a back alley, a city street, a park, or near a cliff. If it's a cliff that the characters are in danger of falling off, are there ledges or outcroppings they could grab onto if they fall over the edge? Or is it smooth with nothing to grab onto to prevent the splat at the bottom, like this one in the Mission Impossible: Fallout trailer?
The rock juts out a bit way down below, but it looks like there's nothing to grab near enough to the top. Someone falling off would hit the ledge hard enough to be killed or at least injured so badly that they couldn't get back up, and since the ledge is slanted a bit, he/she would roll off and hit the next ledge and roll off it because it's also at an angle. Setting a fight in a place like that would give all the characters involved something to try to stay away from during the fight. If one of them isn't paying enough attention to their surroundings, they could fall or be pushed off.
If the fight happens in a place that has a lake or a stream running through it, that'd be a good place for one of the characters to try to drown the other, assuming they're both actively trying to kill each other, and not fighting the other off long enough to escape or subdue them.
If the fight is indoors, there could be all kinds of obstacles or objects that could be used as props, assuming they're not in an empty hallway or room. An image from the same trailer has a dude being smashed through a wall, for instance.
For another example, in the first episode of Burn Notice, the main character's narration points out that punching someone the wrong way can break bones in your hand, so he suggested finding a way to get the bad guys into a public restroom because it's got lots of hard surfaces to smash their body parts into. Also, in movies and TV shows we see characters get thrown out of windows frequently. Another bit in the Fallout trailer has a guy being thrown through a mirror, but he's launched at it from a downward angle that smashes his back across the frame before he tumbles through. You can probably imagine what that sort of impact would do to a person's body, in addition to cuts from the glass shards.
As a side note, the Mission Impossible movies are ridiculous, but the stunts are usually pretty creative, so they're worth seeing just for that. Also, the movie should be subtitled, "Tom Cruise Takes a Beating," because a lot of the trailer shows him falling off things or crashing into things, and during one stunt he pulled a Jackie Chan and broke his ankle.
Just for fun, here's the whole trailer.
Back to the fight scene, if there's any furniture near the combatants, it could come into play unless both characters are fighting by rules of engagement or a code of honor that prevents them from "cheating" by using whatever's in reach. As I've mentioned in another post, my Freelancers character Valeria Terakkis has no such code. For her, anything that isn't nailed down is a weapon, and if she can pry it loose, it's not nailed down.
As an example, a first-season episode of Agents of SHIELD has Melinda May fighting an enemy agent who is using a mask to disguise herself as May. Near the end of the fight, there's a rather interesting use of a coffee table.
Another thing I think about when creating a fight scene is, what types of weapons are they using? Depends on the story's setting, of course. In a medieval or fantasy setting, they're probably using swords. Do they also have shields or just swords? And are both the same type of sword, or different? I know very little about swords myself, and the only one I can identify with a glance is the katana thanks to watching the Highlander movies and TV series, and if I'm not mistaken, it was used just because it looks cool. I'm guessing different types of swords have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Also, if both characters had the same combat training, they probably have the same fighting styles, or at least similar ones. If not, they might have different styles, use different tactics, etc. Sort of like Ahsoka Tano's preferred fighting style is to hold her lightsabers with a reverse grip.
Also, back to the question of whether both fight by the same rules of engagement. If they both have a code of honor, then the fight will play out one way. If one of them doesn't hesitate to resort to dirty tricks like spitting in his opponent's face and then kicking him in the balls while he's distracted, then it'll play out rather differently.
Another thing I like to do is think about what happens during the fight, the moves the characters make, and how it'll end. Will it end with one of them being killed? Or will one of them surrender or turn and run when they realize they're outmatched? I think up a few bits of business that might be cool or amusing, depending on the tone of the scene (is it deadly serious or is there room for a bit of humor here and there?), then I decide where they'll fit in the scene and what needs to happen between each bit. Fairly often I'll come up with a new idea while writing it and then I'll have to go a few paragraphs back and rewrite a little to set it up.
I also play the whole scene, or at least the most important parts, in my imagination, over and over until I can "see" most of it. (I did this a lot while coming up with the fight scenes in Freelancers: A Personal War. I kept going over and over it in my head while doing other things -- grocery shopping, doing mundane tasks at work or around my apartment, and whatnot. Just always had it percolating in my mind, replaying it and refining it until I thought it was right.) Then I start writing it. I describe/show each move, each blow/stab/kick/gunshot/etc., while getting into the POV character's head and showing her thoughts where appropriate (such as her surprised reaction to a move her opponent pulls off, or momentary anger when he manages to land a blow on her), until the scene is over.
I'll give you a quick example. Brief setup for a fight scene: Valeria is facing off against a half-dozen big, badass mercenaries (the mercs are armed, but Val only has a knife and the others are unarmed), with her husband and her family looking on. I originally thought it'd be her husband and several friends, but then decided it might be more interesting if it's her parents since her relationship with them has been a little rocky and they're always a little unsettled when they see her mean streak come out during a fight.
Okay, they're in a corridor on a space station, so their maneuvering room is limited and there are only a few crates full of equipment and supplies resting against the walls. Val needs to get Irving and her parents from Point A to Point B, and the mercs are trying to stop them. Valeria doesn't like to kill people, but let's say either the stakes are high enough or she's been pushed past her limit -- either way, she's had enough of this shit and is ready to unleash her inner monster. Since she has a tendency to use psychological tactics to intimidate her enemies, after taking down a couple of her opponents in a quick and brutal manner to shake the rest of them up, she'll start toying with them to rattle them even more. It'll end with half of the mercs dead and the other half backing down because they're demoralized and all they can think about now is cutting their losses.
Now, to flesh out the scene (bearing in mind that I slapped this one together rather hastily to use as an example). Off we go:
All four of them stumbled to a halt at the sight of the six mercs in their path. Three krogan, an asari, and a couple of batarians. Valeria, Irving, and her parents leaned against the wall and gasped for breath. They had been running for what felt like miles, and all of them were nearly exhausted -- and now this.
"No," Irv whispered.
Valeria glanced at the door at the end of the corridor. Just one more door and they'd be in the docking bay and within reach of their ship. The mercs laughed as she took another moment to catch her breath and push herself upright. She glanced at the others and said, "Stay back. I've got this."
Her parents shook their heads and reached out to her, but she strode toward the mercs, having already settled on a plan of attack. It was time to stop holding back.
The thugs stopped laughing and glanced at each other. Valeria wondered if her move had surprised them or if they'd heard about her reputation. The asari and one of the batarians glanced at the others, nodded at her, and motioned with their hands, as if trying to say, "You first." The biggest krogan shrugged, pulled out a knife despite having a hand cannon on his hip and an assault rifle on his back, and stepped forward.
Smart move. If they knew how she typically fought, they'd know she liked to get right in the middle of her opponents so they couldn't shoot at her without hitting their own buddies. If they didn't all attack her at once, she might have a chance. On the other hand, that guy's knife was the length of her forearm. One solid poke in the wrong spot and she would die right here, and so would Irving and her parents.
"What is wrong with her?" her father muttered. "We need to turn back and find another way around!"
"That'll give 'em time to corner us somewhere else. Once we get past these guys, we're home free." Irving took a slow breath. "Come on, babe. You can do this."
Valeria's muscles ached and felt rubbery from all the running, but she raised her arms into a defensive position and braced herself for the attack. The krogan sneered, then roared and charged her, raising the knife into striking position. Valeria snapped to the left and swept her right leg forward, catching the krogan's right ankle just as he thrust the knife downward. Grunting and snarling from the effort, she kicked upward before he could recover, and he pitched forward with a frustrated growl. She yanked her own knife from her belt as he regained his balance and turned to face her again. She backed up a few steps to keep the rest of the mercs in sight and not let any of them sneak up behind her. The krogan lunged forward, thrusting his knife straight at her heart. She jerked to the right and swiped her blade up, slashing his wrist as the knife hissed past her. Blood sprayed her armor and the huge knife slipped from his grasp.
He clamped a hand over his wound and roared a stream of profanity as he turned to keep her in front of him. Thanks to his physiology, his tissue would regenerate in minutes, so she had to finish him while she had the advantage.
She flung her knife backward, skidding it across the floor behind her, and dive-rolled, grabbing the one he'd dropped and coming up in a crouch. He lumbered toward her again. She sprang, whipped the blade across his neck, and plucked the pistol off his hip while he stumbled backward and clamped both hands over his slit throat. She shoved the barrel under his chin and blasted a half-dozen rounds through the top of his head before he toppled over. She popped the remaining thermal clips out of the gun and tossed it behind her while making eye contact with the other five mercs. They stared back at her, glanced at the guy she'd dropped, and then gaped at her again.
"Who's next?" Valeria snapped back into her defensive stance, gripped the huge knife, and tried not to breathe too heavily.
The mercs glanced at each other again, even the huge krogan, and Val laughed under her breath. Not so sure of yourselves, now?
One of the batarians drew his pistol and stepped forward. Valeria had to fight the urge to panic. If the guy started shooting, all of them could be mowed down.
He raised the gun. Valeria cocked her arm back and threw the knife. It hissed through the air and drilled into the flexible, weaker material in his armor's shoulder joint. He let out a startled grunt, then grimaced when the pain registered. His grip on the gun loosened and Valeria leaped at him. She swung her right arm up, clamped onto the gun from underneath, and twisted it until his trigger finger snapped. He snarled as she wrenched it from his hand and jammed the barrel into the soft spot just above his belt. She pulled the trigger four times before he could do more than open his mouth and widen all four eyes. He screamed and collapsed, reflexively grasping at her clothes on the way down. She batted his hands away and let him fall. He curled into a fetal position and continued screaming until she raised the gun and popped a round through his upper-left eye. There was no point in letting him suffer.
The asari whispered a curse and Val glanced at her. The woman's hands trembled and her wide eyes flicked back and forth from Val to the merc she'd just killed. Valeria ejected the heat sinks, tossed the gun behind her, braced a foot on the corpse, and pulled the knife out.
Time to start fucking with their heads.
She dropped to her knees, placed the knife on the floor in front of her, and glared at the asari while taking on a meditative pose. She took a moment to get her breathing under control again, and then growled, "Step up."
The woman didn't move except to shake a little harder and flick a nervous glance at her three remaining companions. The others hesitated, as well. Finally, one of the krogan shook his head and approached Valeria. "Bunch of pussies." He raised his hands once he was almost in reach as if planning to strangle her, and she held in a chuckle.
Not too bright. Val threw herself forward suddenly, grabbed the knife, and then rolled sideways directly into his feet. He stumbled forward, tried to lift his feet over her, and she caught his left ankle and jerked it upward. He sprawled on the floor, grunted, and started to push himself to his hands and knees. Val jumped onto his back, jammed her blade under his head plate, and pried it up. He sucked in a quick breath and let out a scream at the sudden pain before sliding into a panic.
"No!" He flailed his arms and tried to shake her off, but she drew her hand back and rammed her palm into the end of the handle, ramming the knife in to its hilt. His body turned limp and he whimpered softly. Just to be sure, Val twisted the knife several times and ripped it out. The serrated blade pulled a few chunks of his brain with it and dropped them on the floor with a series of wet splats. The asari hunched forward, almost vomited, and took several long breaths to try to regain her composure.
Valeria pushed herself back to her feet, stepped away from the body, then dropped back into her meditative pose and put the knife down in front of her. She speared the remaining krogan with a cold glare. He stared back with his huge mouth hanging open. No one moved for several seconds.
"Well?" Val held his gaze without blinking and let a few more seconds pass. "I don't have all day."
He stared for a moment longer, stepped aside, and waved a hand at the door. "Bon voyage." He raised his hands slowly, backed up against the wall, and sidled past her and her family. The batarian nodded and joined him. The asari glanced at the bodies, choked back a sob, and followed the other two. Valeria kept her eyes on them as they moved past her. She stood, and the asari flinched and let out a startled squeak at the sudden motion. She turned, shoved the krogan out of her way, and ran through the door at the far end of the corridor. Val waited for the other two to pass through the door. Once it closed behind them, she slumped against the nearest crate and took a few gasping breaths. Irving walked over and put his arms around her.
"That was badass."
"Glad you enjoy it." She hugged him and sighed. "I don't."
"Well, if the survivors tell enough of their cohorts, maybe eventually they'll grow some brains and stop attacking you."
"I can only hope." She glanced at her parents, motioned at the door ahead, and clasped Irving's hand. "Let's get out of here before station security comes to investigate the gunshots."
This is just a rough draft, so if I were to use the scene in Freelancers, I'd go through it again and adjust some details and maybe add new bits and just generally polish it. Now that I've written the first draft of it, I might as well use it, so sooner or later I'll find a way to fit it into the story.
A few notes. A good way to make the scene more visceral in readers' minds is to use "sound effects" such as the "splats" and whatnot, though the degree of vividness depends on how graphic you want the fight to be, which depends on your target audience. A way to "sell" the impacts of each stab, punch, etc., is to show other characters reacting to them. Like, a punch to the face causes the "punchee" to grunt, cry out, etc. Any characters watching the fight can flinch or cringe or blurt comments at a particularly hard-landing blow or a move that breaks bones.
Also, the phrasing you use in the descriptions can add a lot of "punch" (heh) to the action. You can write, "She punched him and he fell." Or you can use a sentence or two to describe the way she swings her fist, the speed of her movements, the "crack" or "pop" when her fist connects with his cheek or jaw, the way the impact snaps his head to one side, the way he spins around and stumbles away from her and collapses. You could even have him remain conscious long enough to try to get back to his feet, but then he passes out and falls over again.
Another thing about characters using objects around them just came to mind. I've probably mentioned the web series Red vs. Blue and, particularly, the late Monty Oum's fight choreography, as a major inspiration for how I write fight scenes. Before I saw his work, I never gave any thought to characters using props in fights, aside from the weapons they already had when the fight started. Once I saw the scenes he choreographed, I started looking for ways to have the characters use whatever is within reach, as well as looking for ways to put a unique spin on the fight.
To show you what I'm talking about, let's take a look at one of the episodes. Near the end of the 10th season, a character named Agent Tex sneaks onto the ship her former teammates are using as a base and ends up fighting another character named Agent Carolina.
Let's take a look at a couple of scenes in particular.
Before they meet, Tex has to fight her way past a random mook in a tank. At one point, the barrel rotates around and hits her, and she ends up hanging by her hands from it as it swings back around. The guy in the tank throws a grenade at her. Instead of dodging, Tex flips herself up and balances on the barrel with her feet ... and then she punches the grenade back to the guy who threw it, and it blows up in his face.
By the way, if I remember correctly, the idea came from something Monty Oum did when he was on a panel at a convention. Someone in the audience threw a lemon at him, and instead of dodging or catching it, he punched it out of the air and sent it flying right back to the guy.
Later in the episode, Tex runs into Carolina in a corridor. The ship's gravity has been disabled, so everyone is floating, but both of them have armor equipped with magnetic boots (or "gravity boots") that allow them to "stand" on any surface. In the fight, Tex ends up on the ceiling and Carolina is on the floor, so both of them are upside-down from the other's point of view while they're punching and kicking each other.
This automatically makes the fight a little more interesting. If you want to make your fight scenes a little over-the-top or make them stand out in one way or another, throwing something like this into it is a good start.
They end up bursting through a hatch into the main control room, which has a huge window/viewport at the front. The hatch is ripped loose from the impact, and Tex uses it as a projectile. While Carolina attaches herself to a guardrail, Tex is standing on one side of the floating hatch. She flips herself over and stands on the end of the hatch, then kicks off, which hurls it at Carolina. It ends up slamming into the window and cracking it.
At this point, the ship has been damaged and is plunging into an alien planet's atmosphere. Tex and Carolina keep fighting, finally ending up standing on the window while the ship is approaching the planet.
Which really looks awesome when the hull heats up and all you can see through the window is flames while Tex and Carolina continue fighting.
Seeing things like this got me to start thinking about how to approach action scenes and look for ways to make them more visceral or compelling or just fun.
And one more thing that comes to mind is to think about the personalities of the characters in the fight. If the scene's tone is more lighthearted and the characters are just sparring, there's plenty of room for adding humorous trash-talking, for instance. If the tone is serious and the characters are trying to kill each other, any dialog between them will likely be more belligerent and threatening. If neither of them likes to fight dirty, they might allow each other time to prepare and approach the fight more as a duel. If one of the characters has a brutal side like Valeria, even if she doesn't like that part of herself and tries to suppress it, she'll do whatever it takes if the bad guys push her far enough.
Thus concludes today's lesson, heh. I hope it's helpful, or at least entertaining.