How To Write Fight Scenes With Alan Baxter

In today’s interview I get very enthusiastic about writing fight scenes with the brilliant Alan Baxter who combines his martial arts life with writing.

Alan Baxter is the author of Realmshift and Magesign, speculative fiction novels published by Gryphonwood Press as well as a podcaster with Thrillercast, on writing and reading thriller novels. Alan is also a martial arts instructor with 25 years experience and has published “Write the Fight Right” in order to help authors write more effective fight scenes.  **warning – there are a few mild swear-words in the interview**Video interview is below the text.

If you want to improve your own fight scene writing, you can also buy the Fight Scene MasterClass for just US$20 with 90 minutes of Alan’s detailed presentation with handout slides. Click here for more details.

In this interview, you will learn:

  • Constant improvement in both martial arts and writing. You never finish becoming a better writer or better at martial arts. There is discipline in both. Alan has always done both and the book has sprung from a workshop he does for writers which combines both of his loves.
  • I went to a Krav Maga class last weekend and got my ass kicked and we talk about this and how I was completely out of my comfort zone. There was a lot of adrenalin and I’m covered in bruises but it was good experience.
  • What is it like when a non-fighter is in a fight? What does it feel like when you don’t have the experience of fighting? From a character’s perspective, you need to understand responses. There is  the classic fight, flight or freeze. If you have no experience and are not aggressive, you will react differently. It is also surprising how people react when threatened. From a writer’s point of view, take the character’s personality and how they would react in other situations e.g. being upset, angry – would they just run away? The situation also makes a difference e.g. defense of a child vs. self-defense.
  • What does a professional see and feel? It’s important to relax which is very difficult when under stress. The more relaxed you are, the more control you have over yourself. Constant training for peripheral vision is important. It happens in normal life but when threatened, there is tunnel vision and you lose peripheral vision. A good fighter will see a punch or a kick coming which comes from practice of watching how the body moves. You can see from other signals how they will move. This will give more time in the fight which untrained people don’t have.
  • The attraction of violence for writers and ‘normal’ people. It is partly escapism as most people haven’t had a fight. Fighting is awful and the first defense is run away. When you are writing action, it is good fun and adrenalin on a fun level whereas if we were actually in that situation it would be awful. It’s also the natural extension of conflict in stories. You don’t need to write what you know. You can write what you find out about. Research is one of the most fun things about writing, especially in thrillers as you can go rent a fast car, or go shooting (and it could be tax deductible!)
  • Movie fight scenes vs writing a proper fight scene. The movies are a visual genre and the fight scenes are awful. They are choreographed for 2 dimensions and so are a turn-based arrangement. People never take turns in fights. People regularly punch each other at the same time. It is chaos, not choreographed. In writing, we don’t have a 2D environment. We can be in the heads of the people, we can explore sounds and smells as well as visceral contact. Fighting is barely controlled chaos.
  • Fight scenes should also not be blow by blow physical description, a bit like sex scenes – don’t make it too clinical. It should be fast and furious and chaotic. It’s good to have a bit of experience through classes or something. Have the writing match the pace e.g. shorter sentences, less detail. When you’re fighting, you don’t have that detail. If you saw the punch coming, you would move or block. The writing cannot be slow.
  • Is there an internal sense when writing fight scenes? There is no dialogue while fighting. It never goes like that. You don’t have time, although there may be a few sharp words but no conversation. An experienced fighter will have a bit more time for internal dialogue but all a novice will do is not think or panic thoughts. There is very little coherence.
  • Training is about knowing how it feels. Something happens, we react without thinking. By practicing, you can understand how adrenalin feels and how to react but most people don’t have this.
  • Gender differences in fight scenes. Alan’s wife is a martial arts instructor as well. In books, women are often beaten on and defended by guys but I have a female protagonist who kicks ass. Can women beat a guy? Yes and no. It depends on training but there is always an advantage in big, heavy and strong. That’s why there are weight differences in pro fights. Skill and training, speed and footwork, learning the right targets to hit – these can all balance out the difference. More vulnerable targets are smaller, harder to find but women would maybe have to hit there. Women can defeat big guys but they are at a disadvantage. Women also take longer to get used to hitting anything, even pads in class. It is more confronting for girls to be violent but once they get into it, they are usually enthusiastic! So give your female protagonist some training and they will have a better chance!
  • Creating a setting that will make a fight more interesting in your writing. Whatever environment you are in, you need to use and make it real. In a bar, you need to have lots of chairs, other people, bottles, glass – use the environment. When writing, you can set up a good place to fight that is more interesting e.g. restaurant means you can move into kitchen with knives, hot water etc vs/ a field with nothing interesting to use.
  • What is the role of bystanders in a fight? How do people react? In this day and age, the first reaction is to pull out a phone and start filming for YouTube. Then some people will have nothing to do with it, they will leave or ignore it. Or the people who will call the police or try to stop it. It depends on the person and also their experience. If you do get involved, it may be dangerous. There are gender differences in reactions as well.
  • What happens after the fight? I was shocked by how exhausted I was and bruised just from a class. How do our characters feel afterwards? (in a fist fight, not a gun or knife) Chinese saying – When two tigers fight, one limps away horribly wounded, the other is dead. If you fight, you will get hurt. You will absolutely have physical results and many movies show people carrying on fine, even after concussion. You need to have a realistic recovery period. Adrenalin also has a long lasting effect on the body. That happens with real fighting too but the adrenalin will always be there. If you even get in the one punch that finishes it, you will likely hurt your hand. Being hit in the face means you can’t chew or eat. The first time a person gets hit, it is a shocking experience and many people break down. It’s unsettling. There are always effects.
  • On writing fight scene cliches. When you write the scene, go back and check whether you have transcribed a movie fight scene and rewrite. Get more chaotic and less removed from the fight. Engage emotion. Some of the cliches are true e.g. tunnel vision – so it’s more about how you deal with them. Keep the writing fast.

You can find “Write the Fight Right” on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can find Alan and his other books and short stories at and on twitter @alanbaxter

If you want to improve your own fight scene writing, you can also buy the Fight Scene MasterClass for just US$20 with 90 minutes of Alan’s detailed presentation with handout slides. Click here for more details.

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  1. says

    This is a fascinating post. I know some fight scenes make you laugh because they are so unrealistic, and some try to sound too expert and give a ton of explanations but lose the story. I’m not a fighter, but 15 years ago, my toddler was knocked down by an adult photographer, on purpose, while watching the “free Willie” whale just before Keiko was sent to Iceland. The absolute surge of adrenalin and rage shocked me. I’d have killed that guy in a heartbeat if he took another move toward my kid. Fortunately the security guard saw and kicked him out, but I’ve never been able to doubt that everyone has a fight in them if the right button is pushed, since that moment. Still my experience is mostly reading other authors and watching movies so writing a real fight would be hard, and writing an original one?? I love the idea of experiencing it at least in a class.

    Dixie Goode

  2. says

    Terrific episode, well done & thanks to you & to Alan. Fascinating stuff, on a topic which most of us would have no clue about.

    Alan’s comments about most people being rubbish fighters due to their inexperience made remember that exact thing being employed to realistic and funny effect in the fight scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary. And that’s (partly) in a restaurant, too :-) (yes, contains some language not suitable for Maiden Aunts)

  3. says

    This taught me a lot. I know little about fighting, so I will use this as a resource. One thing you talk about is getting into the “chaos” of the situation. To a certain extent this is true of all writing. Often a writer, even good writers, will have a character enter a room, survey it, and describe it. We rarely do that. Rather, we go into a room looking for something specific to do: find a chair, look for someone to talk to, remove carpeting. Description should often follow the consciousness of the characters.

  4. Gary A Swaby says

    I am definitely interested in that Webinar, but I will be away on that day, most likely travelling. If I pay I can still access the files though it seems so I’m still interested. Great interview, thanks for all the help Joanna.

  5. says

    Unfortunately, I’ve been in a lot of fights, and not the positive, life-affirming experiences you receive while in a dojo or martial arts classroom setting (though I wish I had). I was bullied and learned early on to stand up for myself. The only way I could do that was through fighting (I’ve lost a lot of those).
    In my stories, I write battle scenes, gangster fights and schoolyard variety scuffles, and I try to go back to that time of how I felt, what the other person looked like, etc. Yes, I do take a lot from films, but I try to take from those fights I experienced as well as witnessed firsthand.

  6. says

    Glad you enjoyed the post and interview, folks.

    Chris – that fight in Bridget Jones’s Diary is my favourite movie fight scene of all time!

  7. says

    It’s a terrific post. Many things to think about. I like it how you draw attention to the things folks usually miss (the by-standers, the recovery period, the shock of being hit).

    I have lots of fighting scenes in my latest book, and I write those from my own experience serving 6 years in the military. I remember the fights as an intoxicating experience, when people say none of the cool stuff they say in books, they look ugly and out of control, saliva dropping, jaws flopping… it’s a messy, painful and profoundly disturbing thing, at least for me, and the mental recovery takes days.

    So when I write my fighting scenes I recall those days, and my heart starts pumping, and even adrenalin shots up, I remember how I could’ve won a fight if I did this or that… :) fun.

  8. robert lofthouse says

    Combat scenes are easier to write if you take a leap of faith and talk to veterans.
    My current novel which is out to tender with potential publishers is based on a rather grim battle during the Falklands War, Mount Longdon.
    One of my instructors when I was in recruit training back in 1994 had been mentioned in dispatches during that particular battle. Reading his citation, the lion share of it was the fact that he fell into a bunker in the darkness, and had to fight for his life with an Argentine conscript who was in there. He eventually managed to head butt him to death, scramble out of the hole and slowly rejoin his Company as they pushed their way up the objective.
    Close combat stinks of piss, human shit, cordite, the copper tang of blood, sweat and filthy unwashed bodies. When a human body is hit with bullets, they dont slam back as Hollywood would lead you to believe, the bullet passes throught like a hot knife through butter, and the body drops like liquid. The body could remain propped up by their own equipment, in which the attacker continues to smash the inert frame with more bullets ensuring the target is dead. Bits of equipment and various body parts flick off the body as the rounds slice through it. I found this to be true whilst serving in Iraq in 2003.
    Keep these facts in mind, you will write great close combat scenes.
    Yours respectfully,
    Robert Lofthouse
    Falklands War novel
    A Cold Night in June.
    Coming Soon.


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