Courtney Allison Moulton on Fight Scenes

Today I have the AWESOME author of Angelfire here on Squeaky Books talking about her favorite kind of scenes: the fight scenes! Watch yourself, though. I got a little woozy just reading this post! *wink* Enjoy!

My favorite scenes to write are action scenes and fight sequences, because they are so exciting and fun. I love action movies and I long to see more bigscreen-worthy fight scenes in books, especially young adult. I’ve had a lot of praise for my fight scenes, and even when I turn a manuscript in to my editor, there’s very little she fixes up. Publishers Weekly even described them as having “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon clarity” and are “unimpeachable.” How do I pull them off? I don’t write how I’m told and I break all the rules. I do it my way, Frank Sinatra style. Mafia ties included.

I get a lot of questions on how to write fight scenes as cinematic as mine and here’s all I can say about that.

1. Break the rules. A couple of years ago, I came across an article on writing fight scenes and as I read down the list of “don’ts” all I could think was, “Hmm. I do all of that.” And you know what? It works. That’s the great thing about fiction. Language is your playground. Play with it, mess it up. This isn’t your high school rhetoric class. “They” say don’t describe every action or movement, or just avoid fight scenes altogether because they work well on the bigscreen but not on the page. Screw that. You can definitely make bigscreen-worthy fight scenes work in a book, and I’ll show you how.

2. Less is more. If you’ve ever been in a real fight, or an accident of any kind, or performing your favorite sport—basically some kind of intense, high-action situation, you understand that your brain literally shuts off and adrenaline makes your body work on auto-pilot. It’s like tunnel vision where all you can perceive is whatever is happening to you in that moment. I’ve read fight scenes where in the middle of taking hits, the character is thinking about her next move, how much it sucks to have her shirt ripped, who’s watching the fight... No. That sucks. Just make the hit, rip the clothes and quit whining about it, stop staring at everyone who isn’t kicking your butt and kick butt back.

I see a lot of fights that use words, especially verbs, which are a mouthful to say. It’s not that you shouldn’t expect your reader to understand these words, it’s that you don’t want your reader tripping over them and being taken out of the moment. I adore onomatopoeias in fight scenes, words that sound the way they’re said, and words that feel like the action they’re describing. These words are blunt and evoke feeling in your reader. Slap, crack, whip, whirl, spin, slam, crash… When someone slams his fist into someone else, you as the reader feel that slam, feel the weight of it, the caving of soft flesh to hard knuckles. It’s so much more effective than hitting someone. Keep it simple, keep it brutal, and make your reader taste the sharp tang of blood on a split lip.

3. Stop thinking so much. Fight scenes that are especially painful to read have sentences which are 40-something words long and have one actual action in them. Why so much blathering? It takes you completely out of the moment, and that is the last thing you want for your reader to do. For example,

“I stared at her angrily, grinding my teeth. I swung my fist with all my strength, wanting to wipe that smile off her face—”

No. Just stop right there. That sucks.

“I ground my teeth bitterly, reeled my arm back, and pounded my fist into her jaw as hard as I could. Instead of just breaking again, her jaw flung free from her skull and skidded across the pavement in a spray of blood.”

The above gets you straight to the point. No need to whine about wanting to smack your opponent’s smile off her face. Just do it. Punch her jaw off and tada! No more smiling. Combine the sentences; use more compound sentences than simple ones to make the writing flow and not feel so choppy. When Ellie performs the latter example in Angelfire, she gets it DONE. Yeah, she’s mad, yeah she’s done screwing around and she’s ready to end this fight. No whining, no mulling anything over, no wah wah wah. Just DO IT. Describe every action, exactly what “they” tell you not to do. What happens after Ellie pounds her fist into the reaper’s jaw? It goes flying, but it doesn’t just disappear. There’s blood, likely a lot of it, and the jaw bone will probably hit the ground and bounce, or something. If that’s what would happen, write it.

4. Use your environment and your senses. Just because your character doesn’t care about the wall on the other side of the room doesn’t mean someone’s body can’t blast through it. Your characters are fighting in a world, not just a stage. There are trees you can throw someone against, cars you can get thrown on top of—and hey, lots of glass to shatter and metal to dent. And windows. Everyone loves a good window-tossing-through. There’s one scene in Angelfire which takes place in a mansion garden filled with lots of cool statues and topiaries. No, Ellie and Will didn’t sit and admire the pretty. Will punched through a statue and impaled a demonic reaper on another. That’s using your environment creatively. This way your fight scenes, if you have multiples, won’t be repetitive because you have more things to smash up and bleed on. Like the wise Fred Durst once said: Break stuff.

Thanks, Courtney!

All review content © Enna Isilee, Squeaky Books 2007-2011


  1. That's great! Such good advice from Courtney! I love fight scenes, but find them difficult to write. I'll give Courtney's advice a try. (I have her book on my wish list!!)

    I hope you feel better.

  2. Wow, now I really want to read this book! It sounds way exciting and potentially gross. Plus, as I recall from my one experience with creative writing (a class in college that I took on a whim), action scenes are a beast to write. This sounds like good advice.

  3. Love it! One of the main things I loved about Angelfire was the vivid action scenes. It's nice to hear that Courtney put so much thought into them and used real craft in creating those scenes. And I'm bookmarking this page so I can refer back to it when I finally get around to the action scenes in my novel!


Thank you so much for commenting! I read each and every one.

Please be aware that any comments under an "anonymous" user are subject to deletion, as well as cruel or unnecessarily rude comments (because sometimes it's necessary to be rude.*wink*). Comments on posts older than 2 weeks are also moderated, and may take a few days to appear.

Related Posts with Thumbnails