Superhuman powers, with the exception of psionic abilities like telepathy, are primarily an element of visual spectacle. This is primarily why fiction with people with some form of superhuman abilities have proliferated in film, comic books, and anime/manga, because it is something the audience can see rather than feel/visualize.

However, in a written medium (i.e., books), visual spectacle is downplayed. I have often heard it said the meat of a visual work is the typically the spectacle or action, whereas in a written work it is dialogue and thought. This, in turn, is influenced by the traits of the work, in a visual medium the viewer can see flashy scenes or more easily notice subtle cues in the actor's voice or body language, whereas in written mediums the reader is able to get an internal look at the characters' thought processes.

I have a story that involves people with supernatural powers getting in fights with one another. The problem I'm noticing is that the action scenes feel boring to write and like filler. There are moments in the fight that result in character development (or how the supernatural powers affect their character), yet I find myself only interested in writing those parts and not the proper build-up to make the scene paced appropriately. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that most superpowers are visually oriented and thus what would be a big-budget fight scene in a visual medium ends up just being a line of text in a written work.

However, it is not possible to simply excise these parts from the story, as they are key in influencing the character's thought processes and development. E.g., a lot of the actions the characters take are influenced by the fact they live in a dog-eat-dog world or are expected to fight to survive, and if I don't show this it feels like there are no stakes or conflict. How can I make fight scenes with superpowers interesting when I do not have visual spectacle to fall back on?

4 Answers 4


Frame Challenge

Visuals have nothing to do with the problem. On of my favorite books of any type is VE Schwab's Vicious, which is explicitly about superheroes and superpowers.

Reader Expectations and Tension

When a superhero and supervillain fight, it generally doesn't end in death. The genre doesn't work that way, and the reader knows it.

This means it's really easy to write a super-powered fight scene with zero stakes. They're fighting, but the reader knows that the hero will get away, or stop the bomb from going off, or whatever. Any scene without stakes is boring. A flashy scene without any stakes is even more boring.

This is probably your problem.

Finding Stakes

Strangely, the solution to this problem might be to find lower stakes. What if the fight was taking place in the hero's own laboratory, and a priceless, one-of-a-kind prototype of a crime-fighting tool was sitting on a table?

The stakes are lower here, so it lets you build some tension. The prototype might actually end up destroyed - that's not something that would break with the reader's expectations. The point at which the hero is willing to risk the prototype tells us something about his character. (Will he let some henchmen get away to save it? What about the main bad guy?)

This is why so many classic superheroes are obsessed with redeeming their villains. We know the hero will win, but the question of whether they can redeem the villain provides tension. Likewise, classic heroes don't want their secret identities revealed, but it's not catastrophic if it gets out, so this is another common risk.

Grim Dark Answer

Some authors have gone the route of explicitly defying the genre conventions. Anyone and everyone can die - violently and senselessly - so it adds tension back into the story. Watchmen, Invincible, and The Boys are all examples of this that recently made it to streaming services.

It works... but it might be hard to find something original to say in that space given all the action its seen recently.

Flip a Coin

You have outcomes that your fights need to have - this person is injured, or that object is stolen - but there can be secondary stakes too. Someone gets captured, or some other minor setback for the hero.

Imagine if for every fight, you picked those secondary stakes, and then flipped a coin to figure out if your hero "won" or not. If you recoil from the thought because "I couldn't do THAT" then your reader isn't going to believe that it could happen either. There will be no tension, and therefore nothing interesting about the scene.


Tell, don't show

(I've always wanted to say that)

An often-neglected principle in writing advice is that you can compress uninteresting or expected events down to brief remarks, either by the narrator or by an in-story observer.

If two mighty superheroes, who have easily plowed through other opponents, meet, and find themselves evenly matched, you can just say that they pummel each other for an hour, with neither of them gaining an advantage over the other. If an hour of action has a paragraph worth of interest, only give it that much. (And if 10 seconds of action are worth half a chapter, that's fine, too.)

Be clever, of course. If you talk about dust sifting from the ceilings in buildings near the fighting when SuperGuy punches GenericThunderGod, or how SuperGuy comes back from the battle limping, with torn clothes and bruises, that's great. But a litany of every punch thrown? Heavens, no. Not unless every punch is important to the story.

And if you're doing what's actually important (making the reader care about what happens to the characters), what matters is that SuperGuy does come limping back. (Or that he doesn't.) Again, not every punch is important.

Yes, when you're first introducing a character (or the world where super powers are a thing), you might need to give a more thorough description of what's happening, just to lay down a general impression of what can happen. After it's old hat, it's old hat. Even comics and animated/live action portrayals often skate quickly over less important or repetitive aspects of the action.

On the other hand, writing gives you a uniquely strong ability to be coy, or vague. Don't overuse it, but remember: "Yes, I saw what she did. I saw the blades and the chains and the torn flesh and bodies and..." he stopped, shuddering. "I don't want to talk about it."

Sometimes what you leave out speaks more loudly than what you put in


So I like to think of myself as a great writer of action sequences and I'm working on Superhero fiction myself. In my fight sequences, I always try to visualize and "block" out my character's movements as if scripting the fight in a blockbuster. Some great techniques are that in writing, you can describe an action that takes less than 5 seconds in a series of actions that take way longer to read... watch some high speed footage to get an idea of how your world is breaking in the fight and describe as appropriate.

A general rule I've found that for fast paced action sequences, shorter sentences work to better capture the speed. Longer descriptions tend to highlight a build up of something and should be used for big actions or game changers (For example, if I was writing Star Wars in a novel form, I would describe at great length the sequences of what happens as the Death Star builds up power for the fatal shot at Alderaan... in the film, this is maybe a minute of screen time, but the noises, the lights, the laser's combining together, the sickly yellow green energy, ect... they're all spectacle and all important to the shot).

A good exercise to write these scenes is to go watch the final battle sequence from Avengers (Marvel). There's one scene that's an uncut tracking shot of the heroes through the fight (Joss Whedon loves these and has them in several of his films, including the opening scene in Serenity and a follow up in Avengers 2 in the intro scene). But watch these scenes a few times and describe the action as it happens in film.

Don't be afraid to knock your heroes around too. Typically some of the best Superman fights in any medium are the ones where the writer realizes that the heavy hitters of Superman's rogues gallery can toss Superman through buildings and into tractor trailers or buses, causing the vehicles to deform, jack knife, or veer off course. The forces of a 200 lbs+ man hitting something at several times the speed of sound are insanely powerful and can do some good visual damage.

And remember, your medium is not visual only in that the information is conveyed through words and letters... most readers imagine the scene in their minds eye... which is why the book is almost always better than the film: Everyone sees the book's world in their own experience and when the film is made, it'll always look different. And those big budget action sequences in film? Someone had to visualize it, then write it down, then describe it to others.

Research your locations too. Get maps if you're fighting in the streets of famous cities (It would be embarrassing for your heroes to have a fight in D.C. and have a lengthy car chase that goes from the Verizon Center Through the Zoo, then around DuPont Circle, and finishes miles away at the J. Edgar Hoover building (FBI HQ) as those things (Why? DuPont is closer to Verizon than the Zoo, and the Hoover Building is walking distance from Verizon Center... and in the wrong direction of the former ( DuPont and the Zoo are west of the Verizon Center. Hoover is south of it.).

If your fighting in a famous building, floor plans are helpful as well.


Make the fights more cerebral.

It's all too easy for fights involving superpowered individuals to end up manifesting as two people trading punches or firing coloured beams of energy at each other, and to thus be decided by whoever can punch the hardest or fire the biggest, most powerful energy beam. I like a nice fight scene as much as the next guy, but when every fight scene in a work boils down to the same thing, it gets old pretty quickly.

You need to make your protagonist(s) think. You need to give them opponents that they can't beat by simply unloading their superpower directly into said opponent's face. You, and your characters, need to get creative.

This way, you can leverage the strengths of the written medium as mentioned in your question. Instead of focusing on the visual spectacle of the fight itself, you're focusing on the thought processes behind it; instead of describing a bunch of explosions, you're describing the protagonist's attempts, in real-time, to outwit their opponent.

This is a problem I've faced when writing my own superhero series. If my protagonist can fire 50,000 volts of electricity from his palms, then how do I stop him from just tasering every villain he meets and defeating them in five seconds flat? I have to bear that in mind when I'm creating villains, and ensure they pose some kind of unique challenge.

One villain had steel skin that acted as a Faraday cage and made him immune to electricity. Another wielded a powerful energy weapon that could discharge accidentally if its wielder was tasered. On top of that, the hero is willing to try negotiating with villains and talking them down peacefully, so he generally doesn't just zap first and ask questions later.

You can also refer to anime, as many of them rely on the protagonists using their abilities in unorthodox ways to win battles, or otherwise outsmarting their opponents instead of merely overpowering them. One Piece, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and My Hero Academia are all great examples of this. At the other end of the scale, you have Dragon Ball Z, which to me is the quintessential example of a show where the fight scenes are all about who can fire the largest energy beam.

  • You need a lot of exposition to get this level of chess game. Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 14:31

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