I’m fortunate that I’ve never been in a real physical fight, but I’ve been in plenty of sparring matches. Sure, I lost most of them, but I’d like to think I learned a few things from the various martial arts instructors screaming exasperatedly at me while I was getting my ass kicked. If nothing else, I like to think I know what goes into a fight scene.
There are a few notable and brilliant examples of literary novels with great fight scenes: Leonard Gardner’s 1969 boxing novel Fat City and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Chain Gang All Stars come to mind. Another standout is Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot. Kitamura is a trained dancer with an avid interest in MMA, so she understands physicality in a way that few do. If one reads what’s dubbed “genre fiction,” then fight scenes are more commonplace, executed to varying levels of success. One stellar example is the work of Fonda Lee, who holds multiple black belts across various styles.
But generally, one doesn’t encounter a lot of fight scenes in literary fiction. I find this absence puzzling, as most people I know have been in some sort of physical altercation, at the very least with siblings. Maybe it’s because, like sex scenes, no matter how much experience you have, they can be weirdly difficult to write.
Few things annoy me more than a fight scene that’s simply a blow-by-blow account. He threw a right jab, which she parried and countered with a left knee, which he dodged by rolling out of the way. But to what end? The beauty of literature is it’s not a movie. Certainly, one should help readers visualize movements, but good prose can do so much more.
At a minimum, fight scenes should advance plot and character. Moments of extreme stress like a fight can be revelatory in terms of character. Is this someone who can adapt to the environment, using tools at their disposal? Someone who insists on fighting honorably or who throws sand in their opponent’s face? A friend of mine once successfully fought off an attacker, but instead of, as many self-defense classes teach, running away once the attacker was on the ground, she kicked him in the ribs a few extra times so that the attacker wouldn’t get up and chase her down. I can assure you my friend’s thoroughness extends to many other areas of her life.
Plus, fights have consequences, and those consequences advance plot. Perhaps there are physical injuries, or punishments for inflicting physical injuries. Perhaps the wounds are “merely” mental, in the form of PTSD or a deflated ego or even an inflated ego that leads the character to get into more fights. The possibilities are endless.
The best fight scenes also let the reader experience the feeling of being in the character’s body: the roar in the ears, the tingling in the hands, or maybe the paralysis of the limbs if the character is a “freezer.” Consider this great scene in John Irving’s classic The World According to Garp wherein a nurse stabs a would-be rapist with a scalpel that she carries in her purse (as one does):
The soldier screamed. On his feet and falling back, he swiped at Jenny’s head with his uncut arm, boxing her ear so sharply that her head sang. She pawed at him with the scalpel, removing a piece of his upper lip the approximate shape and thinness of a thumbnail.
The verb choices here reveal character: he, a soldier, “swipes,” whereas she, a nurse, “paws.” I also love being grounded in her body—I can hear the ringing in my ear, feel that wooly, vertiginous feeling that comes with head trauma. Irving is a former wrestler and wrestling coach, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s had a couple of head injuries himself or at least witnessed them.
Of course, there is also a cognitive element at play: when I listen to skilled fighters talk about their process, it always strikes me how much of a fight happens mentally, before the first blows are even exchanged. For instance, what a fighter does with their hands speaks volumes. Closed hands suggest a boxer. Open hands suggest a grappler. Information like this can win or lose you a fight, and there can be a lot to gain narratively from walking the reader through the fighter’s thought process. But let Kitamura explain it better than I can:
Fighting wasn’t down to chance. It wasn’t even down to heart. It was down to skill, size, conditioning, preparation. Mental state. Nine times out of ten Riley knew the outcome of a fight before it happened. Everything was there to know. A fight was just a series of logical conclusions.
If a fight is a series of logical conclusions, then give the reader the antecedents, the conditionals, and the propositions so that when the conclusion happens, it somehow feels both surprising and inevitable. Reading about a fight may not be as exciting as watching one, but it can be so much more satisfying.
This piece originally appeared in Literary Hub.