A good fight scene can underscore the themes and character development in your book. Much of the advice in my Write Like a Fighter series has focused on the actual fight and how to leverage psychological components to make the scene more dynamic and offer greater character development. (I’m a firm believer that big action scenes—be they fight scenes or sex scenes—need to push both plot and character arcs forward.)

We’ve also talked mechanics, and what really works. We’ve tackled how a smaller person can defend themselves against a larger attacker reasonably, why punching people in the face shouldn’t be your fight scene default, and the like.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about how our characters assess the situation before and during a fight to determine their behavior. Your character’s background and past experiences will inform the way they behave in a self-defense scenario. If they train regularly, it can shift some of that, but our brain is still taking stock of the situation.

If you’re working on a scene where your protagonist is in a situation where self-defense is necessary, these are the types of questions can help your characters (and you) determine what the next steps should be. These questions should also open gateways for descriptors that indicate what needs to happen without you saying “he knew how to throw a punch.”

What should my character think about in a fight scene? 10 Questions.

Am I alone? If not, who is with me? Is that person capable of helping me? If it’s a child, I’m going to need to behave differently as to protect them. If it’s a friend who is an FBI agent, I’m going to be more confident and potentially take more risks to defend us.

Is my opponent alone? If not, how many potential attackers are there? Do they outnumber the people on my group? If your character is trained in self-defense, we would want them to “scan” the visible area for additional potential threats.

Can I run? This is often the best option in any of these scenarios. Safely running away > having to defend yourself.

Is there an immediate threat? Has this opponent just done something horrible? Is my role one of a protector (e.g. law enforcement)? Do I have a duty to respond? Am I convinced not responding immediately will put me (and others) at risk?

Is there a vehicle nearby? Is it mine? Is it theirs? If theirs, I do not want to go to Crime Scene B.

Are there other people near? Are we in an alley or a crowded bar? Do I have the option to enlist others to help diffuse or protect? Would people be able to come to my aid?

Do I have a weapon?

Does the attacker have one?

What items nearby could be used as a weapon if the attacker advances? (Look for items like rebar, rocks, shoes, purse, bottles, trash cans… or I guess if your character has elite training a magazine like Jason Bourne, but I find that one tricky as hell.)

Does this attacker look like they know what they are doing?

  • That’s a vague question if you’re not trained in some martial art or contact combat, though, right? We would look for body language cues Let’s break it down with more questions. (This is the question post. You were warned.)
  • Did the person drop his weight into his heels? We want to see if this person is aware of their center of gravity, and anyone who lowers that instinctively may have had training or experience with combat.
  • How are they holding objects? If they’re drinking a beer or a coffee, are they winging their elbows out wide or are they close to their ribs?
  • Are they facing me? When the threat presented did they square their shoulders and/or hips toward me? Did they “blade” their body to keep hands and feet oriented to me, but turn some of their torso away from me to minimize targets?

We all want to fight like Jason Bourne - Write Like a Fighter

These are all clues that let us know if the person may know how to fight. To be clear, there are many bar fights that could have people who think they know how to handle themselves, but because of drunkenness, bravado, body size, or a number of other reasons are going to open the fight with a wild haymaker punch (we’ve talked about sucker punches before). Arm up and out to the side, leaving the face, ribs, sternum, and groin completely unprotected.

Watching to see if someone leaves openings to their ribs, neck, chin, etc. in the verbal sparring prior to the real fight will help your character determine if there might be a wild punch coming. Those punches can be lucky shots, but if your character knows what to watch for, they’ll see the strike coming and act first.

None of these choices are bad for your fight scene, but thinking through the snap decisions we make both about our protagonist’s and antagonist’s capabilities and intentions will make the scene more evocative.

You don’t need to address all of these questions for a fight scene. (Answering them all may slow down your book.) But be aware of the answers. Incorporate the observations leading up to the scene, during, and after, and use what fits your book, your characters, and your plot.

As always, comments are open to additional questions and you can email me if you have other fight scene questions.

Hat-tips to Alex Hughes, Joseph Brassey, and T.G. Shepherd for this post idea, and a ridiculously fun Twitter thread.