I've just been reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books. Although they were the most enjoyable read I'd had in ages I always found myself skimming long segments that described involved battles or fights.

I often find that when the swords are drawn in a story I tend to tune out. A good author always provides a summary of what the hero has lost or gained as the result of a battle after the fight anyway.

As soon as the story becomes paragraph after paragraph of description along the lines of:

Alonso dropped to his right knee swinging the dagger in his left hand up at Bardolph's ribs. He was dextrous but not quite fast enough Bardolph swung his right arm down deflecting the dagger with his grieves, a defiant snarl emerging from between his lips.

Bardolph stepped back, grounding himself with feet shoulder width apart, the left leg slightly back to aid stability. He swung his left hand in a vicious hook and connected with the side of Alonso's head. Pain exploded in the smaller man's ear drums at the crushing blow...

These things can go on for ten or twelve pages when they get really involved. They seem to say nothing of value and they're not even as inolving as the commentator's patter on wrestling shows.

So what makes a good fight scene? Other than brevity, of course? How does one write an epic battle that doesn't have people skipping to the post-match report?

EDIT: The first answer to this question I got from John Smithers makes it seem like you could all put it down to taste, which is fair enough as I first put the question. Let me be more specific on the Dresden thing.

Almost every fight in vols 1-7 of the series I skimmed through. I always start out trying to read them but then get bored and skip. In vols 8-9 something clicked and I read the fights, mostly, without even realising that I hadn't been jarred out of the narrative.It's not 100% but certainly something had changed. I just don't know exactly what.

This is what I'm looking to pin down. What makes a combat scene a compelling read? Some people like any combat scene sure but I'm talking about the kind of person who has no objection to a combat scene in principle but is choosy about which ones they commit to reading all the way through. What are the ingredients of that kind of scene?

  • I skimmed through all the battle scenes in the second half of War and Peace because I got bored.
    – justkt
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 13:26
  • I'd never fast-forward the battle scene in a movie. I'd definitely skip over a gratuitous bit of infidelity in a book, though. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 16:00
  • 5
    @QuickerSnarkerBacker: I'd never wear a blindfold at a fireworks display. Doesn't mean I want to read: "Then one went boom and red bits filled the sky. Then another one went wheee leaving a trail of green sparks. etc."
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 16:33
  • 1
    @monkey.. You don't take the time to savor much? There is of course such a thing as too much, but such a determination depends on the purpose of the piece. I could easily see an apt description of just such a fireworks event in a book, though with a different tone. In a pause. A lull like before a couple are going to be separated, the calm before a storm, or as a part of a contemplative/cerebral treatise. Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 19:46

12 Answers 12


Combat scenes need to be written in a way to engage the reader. They should be more fast paced and emotional. You're not going to want to be describing every little bit of detail like you would in a slower-paced scene. The character isn't focused on the scenery or what's going on around him, he's focused on the fight. Sentences will be shorter and more compact and not include a lot of flowing details. You need to pick and choose your imagery so that your reader's heart is pounding in their chest and they can feel like they're in the fight.

In a way, fight scenes are a lot like sex scenes. They need to be more engaging than the rest of the story or a reader will skip right over them. They should be emotional and full of feeling. You're going to want to make it easy for readers to visualize themselves in the action.

  • I agree with the point about fight scenes and sex scenes being similar. Although when you write a story describing sexual exploits that's called erotica; there is no violence-based equivalent I know of. In many cases sudden scenes of sex or violence, intimately detailed, in a story that's about something other than the sex or the violence distract from the actual story itself.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 11:04

In your example, what's wrong is:

  1. Too much detailed description. We don't need to know how Bardolph was standing, and it takes so long to read it that we lose the excitement. You just described 2 seconds in 2 paragraphs.

  2. Not enough feelings. describe how the characters are feeling: fear as they duck a blade, desperation as they lunge, surging confidence as they push their opponent back, etc.

In a book with good fight scenes like Mistborn, the action description is minimal; just enough so you notice what the character notices about the scene. But there are plenty of clues as to how the character is feeling.

  • I agree, my example was just like fight scenes I have read. Part of my agenda in asking this question was to find out if there was any earthly reason why some authors write out bullet time descriptions of their combat. As we can see above some people eat that up, but most find it tedious. Which is what I thought.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jan 28, 2011 at 13:37
  • 3
    I was going to say that the key to good fight scenes is that they are less about how to fight and more about what it feels like to fight. But you said it better!
    – jalefkowit
    Commented Feb 4, 2011 at 16:36
  • @jalefkowit honestly, I like what you said. Very succinct way to put it. (Mine is just more detailed because it's longer).
    – MGOwen
    Commented Feb 8, 2011 at 0:56
  • i agree, yet David Weber violates rules 1 and 2 in the H.H. series and gets away beautifully with it. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 19:25
  • @Reed Weber manages to make combat interesting for its own sake, almost as if it were a puzzle. Each fight scene introduces something new, a new tactic or strategy, and we want to see what the outcome of that will be. There's a gradual escalation throughout the series that makes it work. If your world doesn't have that, you can't make combat readable using the same techniques Weber uses.
    – Jules
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 19:52

I've recently been reading an anthology of Robert E. Howard stories. He's a pulp author from the 30s who is known largely for his action-packed adventures. In fact, pretty much every one of his stories has at least one fight scene, and in my opinion, he writes them very well.

The REH system for fight scenes seems to go something like this:

  • Start with descriptions of the characters and their emotional states. Are they excited? Scared? Angry? How do they show it?
  • As they leap into battle, give a few sentences of detailed description. Swords clash, parry and counter, guns are fired, etc.
  • After the first few sentences, zoom out from the action a bit. Describe how the characters move and fight in a more general way. Character X fights fast and wild, while character Y stays on the defensive, only counterattacking when he sees an opportunity.
  • Zoom back into detailed description as the fight finishes. What does the killing blow look like? What do the characters feel?

I like this style for a few reasons. The description up front reminds the reader exactly what these characters are fighting for, and it makes the fight emotional as well as physical. The detail at the start of the fight makes it feel visceral. By zooming out in the middle, we avoid having to sit through pages of detailed description without feeling like we missed what happened. Then we zoom back into detail to lend excitement to the finale.

I'd recommend picking up some REH. The anthology I'm reading is The Best of Robert E. Howard, Vol. 1. The stories occasionally feel a bit dated, but they work very well if you look at them as a workshop on crafting fight scenes.

  • A late answer but nonetheless useful. I'm a big Howard fan via Lovecraft and Marvel (the writers of Dr. Strange plundered Howard's Lovecraftian stuff shamelessly). I shall re-read with interest.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Feb 15, 2011 at 8:59

I think the important thing is to keep the combat interesting (as trite as that sounds).

Something like:

Alonso dropped down on his right knee, swinging his dagger upwards, just like the Italian maestros. Bardolph stepped back fractionally, uncannily anticipating the thrust. Bardolph snarled and slammed his fist into Alonso's face. Staggering back, Alonso felt a flicker of fear in his chest. He'd not measured himself against someone with Bardolph's gift for several years. Spitting bloody froth, he swept the dagger, slicing across Bardolph's ribs.

Obviously needs work, but it removes some of the "this is only the mechanics of a fight" and injects a small smidgen of emotion, maybe some back-references and the like.

  • 4
    Mmh, that makes me think. Maybe what's missing is the good old conflict, like in each good scene. Because the author describes an obvious conflict (the fight), he forgets the inner conflicts. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 13:01
  • I like your point about "mechanics". Because I don't like over-long descriptions of anything unless there's a binding to a character development / emotion, either. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 16:02

When I thought about this topic, I came to the conclusion: There are people who like combat scenes, and there are people who don't. That's it. I love these scenes and I know many people who skim these exact scenes I like.

So the easy answer: Know your audience and then write them like other do ;) Even easier: You don't like them, then don't write them.

Which of the LotR books is your favourite? Mine is The Two Towers, because of the battles. I love the Helm's Deep scene. When I needed a battle scene, I read this one again and then wrote it down with my own words. After that I compared it with the original. That teaches you, how to write them. If you want to write a combat scene, do the same thing. Read one which you like and try to rewrite it.

  • 3
    Heresy Alert! I don't really like Lord of the Rings. I admire the work and the intention but I don't like the writing. I find it ponderous, pompous and overly concerned with food.
    – One Monkey
    Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 12:05
  • 3
    I will burn you, heretic, as soon as I catch you! ;) Pick a book with a battle scene you like, @One Monkey. If you don't know one, don't write them. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 12:07
  • @One Monkey: Tolkien is very hard. Incredibly hard. Frankly, I couldn't pick up LOTR until after I'd seen the movies and I understood WTF was going on. Then the characters hooked me, and now I re-read the trilogy every year. It's an acquired taste, and I don't blame you for not acquiring it. Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 12:53
  • 1
    @John: Dude, I read the Unfinished Tales, the Simarillion, and all twelve of the slush books his son edited. I'm just saying that Tolkien is not for the faint of heart. :) Commented Jan 20, 2011 at 15:52
  • 1
    I kinda love/hate LOTR. Some scenes are just wonderful. What I find boring are all the travel bits and the descriptions of nature and hills and valleys and... yawn :D The battles? Great stuff! Commented Jan 30, 2012 at 3:06

Fight scenes involve fast action. A fight scene that's slow to read misses the point. Moreover, the details are mostly irrelevant. I'm not a martial artist, and I don't care what fighting technique those two are using. Like sex, the exact details of who's doing what to whom are much more interesting for the participant than the reader.

Try looking at the fight scene and its relevance to plot and characters. Cut it down to the bare minimum of detail. Something like:

Alonzo launched himself at Bardolph, wielding his father's dagger. With practiced moves, Bardolph defended himself from the furious onslaught, hitting back when he could. After a minute [a long time in a fight], the combatants separated, Alonzo shaking off stars and blood running down Bardolph's arm. "Okay," Bardolph said, "I apologize."

  • You example is, depending, not enough detail. I totally love the fight scenes in Ludlum's Bourne Identity (and similar, he likes his fights up close and personal... and dirty). Quite some detail. So detailed it hurts. And that's what he gets across: in Bourne's case, we quickly learn that he's an expert at hand-to-hand. And he almost kills a man. With no feeling at all. Which shocks him. And us. Commented Jan 30, 2012 at 3:09

In my opinion, these are essential for fight scenes:

  • Motivation. I want to know why your characters (on both sides) are fighting and why. What are the stakes? What will happen if they lose / win? Is there a danger of severe injury or death to make me care about the outcome?

  • Tactics. Reading "he hit him, and then he hit him back, etc." isn't engaging for most readers. What are the more understandable ways that characters are using to try and win the fight? Do they work? Are they countered? What will the character do next and how does it affect them?

  • Emotion. How are the characters who I care about dealing with the fight? Are they afraid? Confident? Angry? Desperate? Emotions run high in battle, and though it's tricky, it's good to play on them and bring them out.

  • Position. In big, complicated fights, where is everyone? Fights need to be written simply, quickly, intensely, but I still need to know who is fighting who and how far away from each other they are because it can get confusing or difficult to visualise easily. (And that's not to mention when characters I thought were in one place turn out to suddenly be in another...)

  • +1 for the comment about visualization. Something that frequently frustrates me as a reader is not being able to visualize at all what the bigger picture is looking like. Even five words can make a big difference here.
    – levininja
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 17:32

Again I think it is mostly about characters. If you really care for at lest one of the characters involved, you will automatically be drawn into the scene, because you have some emotional interest in the outcome.

Another point related to that would be to be detailed, especially regarding the people the reader is attached to. Describe in detail the fight in which you main character is involved, and draw a short, general overview of the rest of the battle.

If you have a group of people attacking, make sure it is "King Dredabloids horsemen" or "Baltrasims archers", not just "a large group of horsemen rode into the battle from the west flank." Attach it to someone whom the reader has an enotional attachment to.


As the other answers here show, to each their own.

Some people enjoy combat scenes, and some don't. But also, different people (in both categories) enjoy different kinds of combat scenes, and there are many different ways to handle them, depending on purpose as well as audience.

For readers who aren't really into combat, the best combat scenes will be brief yet somehow interesting, probably focusing on the effects of the combat on the characters after the combat is over. Or thematic effects, or any number of other purposes. In some stories, the conflict involves combat situations, or power struggles, or relationships between people who lead different units in combat.

For readers who are interested in combat, there are many different tastes. Some are interested in tactics or techniques. Some are historians interested in realistic details. Some are interested in how conflicts between different types of forces might play out. Some are interested in sensational imagination. Some are interested in psychology. Some are interested in the shocking sudden horror of violence as opposed to how it was anticipated before the event. Some are in it for the revenge. And on and on.


I would say that in order to make a combat scene more interesting, there should be some sort of meaning to it, something that lets the reader relate. Ernest Cline's Armada has a good example of this, where when the main character goes into a video game to zap his enemies, he describes it as "It felt like I was venting compressed rage every time I pulled the trigger." In order for people to not skip fight scenes, try to make them engaging and relatable to the reader.
I'm not entirely sure of this next idea, but I think another way to do so that I'm toying around with is to leave some sort of tactical detail inside of the fight. For instance, in my writing, one of the fights includes a scene where the main character figures out the weal point of a certain class of robot. I think that if I mention that tiny detail later in the book, but not word-for-word (like saying instead of "the weak point was in the neck" I would simply say, "I took them down one at a time, hitting that weak and squishy point on their bodies), then it would force the reader to look back to see if they missed anything. It's still experimentation, though.

Hope this helps with your writing.


A good combat scene has risk.

Just think about what you are saying. To skim forward and then just want to read the summery. This means that you are sure that the combat has no real consequence. You are sure you are not going to read how your favorite character died, just about some meaningless injury that will just be pepper at some later point, but by the end of the book will mean nothing.

A good combat scene should keep the reader gripping his chair. Every movement of a weapon can mean life or death. This is something the author needs to establish. First this means that all closely described action needs to have consequences. The moment one filler fight is introduced everything becomes boring. Make the scene change your story, or don't go into great detail.

All this falls away if you are writing something like Tom Clancy's novels. These books are the pornography of weapon combat, and the promise to the reader is completely different. If the reader is there to read about how every spring moves in a gun, then feel free to deliver that to them.


One point that's touched on but left out in other answers - the craft of language choice. High action, fast paced combat scenes, require a change in language and structure:

  1. Use shorter sentences. Short words. Vary the length of your sentences as the speed of the action flows. Think of your reader as taking a breath every period, a shorter breath with every comma or semi colon, and make sure the pace of punctuation causes your reader's breathing to pace along with the combat.

  2. Onomatopoeia Onomatopoeia Onomatopoeia. Use vocabulary that populates the combat with its sounds. Harsh swishing sounds, chopped strikes, clips and cuts.

  3. Alliteration and rhyming to highlight high/low points

  4. Spacing. Add extra blank lines either for pause, or to build tension.

  5. Use the reader's imagination. Explicitly leave out some parts of the description, especially if writing in the first person - ("And somehow my hand was around his ankle. I don't remember turning upside down." ... "I did the typical cut and skewered his shoulder", etc...). Vaguen, blur some of the action (as might be blurred and vaguened in real life).

  6. Neologies. Combat sometimes involves unique motions or effects. Reflect their uniqueness with a neology

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.