I love martial arts movies and action flicks. So naturally I'd write action scenes.
I discovered that it takes a slightly different writing style. These are some of the things I learned, although this list isn't exhaustive by any means.
A fight scene is always Action-Reaction. He punches, she staggers back. She kicks, he blocks and swings a fist at her. Watch out for putting your reaction before your action:
She staggered back when he slammed his fist into her shoulder.
The rule of thumb is to have each action-reaction have its own paragraph, although that’s not always possible. Sometimes the sentences are too short for their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to the writer how to format it:
He swung a roundhouse punch.
She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.
He swung a roundhouse punch. She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.
Short sentences = fast reading flow
Use short sentences and phrases to make reading flow run faster. Long, descriptive sentences slow the reading pace. In a fight scene, you want your reader to be skimming the page, rolling with the punches, swinging with the kicks. Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase or a sentence for each move, at most two short sentences. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action gallop along:
He paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to his left. He turned, lashed out blindly, felt his fist connect with muscled flesh, heard a soft “Oomph.”
Vary sentence length
Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other:
He punched. She ducked. He kicked. She twisted.
He turned at the sound of running feet. A body ran into him as he stood there. He hit the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.
Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:
Running feet. He turned. A body ran into him, throwing him into the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.
Be creative, be efficient
Be creative with your sparse prose. Since you only have a sentence or so for each move, you need to be innovative with how you describe it. Use imaginative verbs to convey more than just the action. “He crunched his fist into her face” paints a vivid picture of both the blow and the pain it causes.
Most readers can extrapolate from what you’ve written so that you don’t have to describe every nuance of motion. Even a simple phrase like “a flying roundhouse kick” will convey powerful images of a graceful martial arts student in mid-flight. You don’t have to describe the arc of motion, the angle of the foot, the twisting of the torso. Give your readers credit and let their imaginations fill in for you.
Momentum and moves
Martial arts fighting is usually about momentum. The next move flows from where the last one ended. If your heroine swings a roundhouse kick, where is her weight when she lands, on which foot? Is she straight up or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum. If she kicked in a clockwise motion, her next kick will also probably be clockwise.
I am not ashamed to admit I’ll often try to act out fight sequences (not very well) in order to figure out momentum and balance (just make sure no one can see you :-). I will mimic a kick and observe how my weight shifts, or what area of my body is exposed.
Use variation. Lots of punches will look the same after a while. Vary hand blows with kicks. However, make sure each movement will naturally follow the previous one in terms of momentum and body balance. If she steps into a right handed punch, it will be difficult for her to follow with a right front kick because her weight will be on that foot, but a left front kick would follow easily.
Watch lots of fight scenes on TV and in movies. Granted, they are all choreographed, but it allows you to observe the flow of momentum and get ideas for moves. Be wary of the more unusual moves--they’re sometimes a bit too unrealistic or too difficult to describe. Remember, each move should only take up a sentence, and phrases need to be short. If a really cool move is so complex that you can’t describe it in a sentence, maybe it needs to be simplified or cut out of the scene.
There’s also several reality fighting shows on TV these days that give you a better idea of the rhythm and flow of a true spar. It’s definitely not as pretty as a choreographed fight scene. The writer can choose to mimic the nature of a real fight or to suspend reality and describe a smoother flowing fight. Most readers will follow either method.
If you have any other tips and tricks, please e-mail me! I can always use more ideas and I'd love to add to this list.