When I consider fight scenes, I see three areas where a narrative needs to excel: Pacing, environment, and secrecy.
“But gee Rosalind, what gives you authority to speak on good fight scenes?”
Well you see, I’ve been orchestrating fight scenes in my head ever since I heard my first anime opener, I know exactly how to fight you to the beat of Linkin Park’s Breaking the Habit, I am trained in gorilla warfare and I’m the top sniper in the entire US armed forces, and… wait, er, what was I talking about? Oh, right, I’m a big nerd for a cool fight. So how do they WORK?
First, pacing. You don’t want to just say “they had a big fight”, nor do you want to get into ridiculous detail for each muscle twitch. Vary your pace, spending more time on the things that your character is focusing more on. For an example:
She grabbed his hand, focusing her fingers on his tendons, digging in her fingernails as hard as she could. She felt his pulse, felt his muscle spasm as she dug deep. His scream echoed behind her own heartbeat in her ears. With this hand out of commission, he was that much weaker. How much could he do with one–
Sharp pain. Sharp pain in her side. She looked to her side, where blood was starting to gush. He swung his broken arm, she ducked to the left, but she couldn’t pretend that she hadn’t just collapsed in a convenient direction. Kicking her legs out at him, she knocked him out of his stance. He toppled to the ground, but she was standing before he had a chance to land. She pulled the knife from where it hung in her side, drowning out the terrible squelch with a tortured scream. She needed to get out of her, get out now. She threw the knife at him, not waiting to see if it hit its mark, and scrambled away.
Going from slow and calculated to oh god what the fuck there’s a knife in my side keeps your reader engaged. Sure, some characters are all meticulous thinkers, and some panic with little provocation, but I think most people are kind of all over the place in a life or death situation. Be all over the place with them.
Next up, space. I can’t think of any situation where your environment won’t impact your fight. Even if you’re fighting the big bad in a complete vacuum, that unique environment would influence the fight. Assuming there’s scenery around your character, you need to use that scenery. Let your characters dig their heels into the dirt. Let them smell the blood of their rivals. Let them look around for a blunt weapon, lob it at their opponent, and hear it crash through a nearby window as they miss. Your character’s shouldn’t be punching and kicking in a void.
Finally, secrets. I don’t mean like Chekhov’s gun; you don’t need the MC to reach into their bag and pull out the revolver from act 1. But I find that it helps to have a healthy portion of “oh shit” moments on each side of the fight. They throw a hook from the left, but you duck at the last moment, catching them by surprise. They’re thrown off balance, giving you a chance to pin them to the ground and oh my god you didn’t notice the knife in their sleeve. Or maybe, and that’s when their cronies grab you from behind. Let me as the reader have these moments with the MC, where we’re shocked by unforeseen circumstances. And at the same time, let me anticipate some things. Maybe a shadowy group is walking up behind the MC, or we see the glint of something in an enemy sleeved. Key word is “some things” though. A healthy mix of surprise and anticipation is best, in my opinion.
I hope this helps my fellow author, and gives insight to how I try to write my scenes! Combined with a good bit of research and planning, you’ll be writing some kick-ass scenes. Fight on!