Whether you’re a fan of highly choreographed martial art movies, or super polished CGI superhero battles: as a screenwriter it is always useful to have a set of ground rules on how to write a good fight scene. No matter what type of fight scene you’re writing you need a cheat sheet or playbook that you can refer to and grow from.
Table of Contents
- Your Fight Scene Playbook: How to Write a Fight Scene.
- 15 of the Best Movie Fight Scenes
- Fight Scene Example #1 – Atomic Blonde
- #2 – The Matrix
- #3 – Fight Club
- #4 – Kingsman: The Secret Service
- #5 – Black Panther
- #6 – Kill Bill Vol.1
- #7 – Full Metal Alchemist
- #8 – Shaun of the Dead
- #9 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- #10 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- #11 – Mandy
- #12 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
- #13 – The Raid 2
- #14 – X-Men: First Class
- #15 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
- How to Write a Fight Scene: Conclusion
Your Fight Scene Playbook: How to Write a Fight Scene.
Top tips for writing a fight scene
- Do your research. We’ve done the first part for you by giving you a checklist as a set of ground rules for writing your scene. Now you need to do the research for your plot and characters. It is important to make them feel authentic to keep the audience entertained.
- Does the scene serve your story? Your fight scene should accomplish something for the purpose of your story. The fight should be relevant to the story and not just thrown in as a way to keep the audience engaged for five minutes.
- Does the scene serve your character? This goes hand in hand with servicing your story. If the scene serves your character, then it also serves your story as a reverberation.
- Pacing over detail. Your script is a guideline to work from so try not to make it an exhaustive list of stage directions. Typically, writers work with the director/stunt coordinator and ultimately might have to compromise on what they’ve written.
- Let the tone direct the scene. Think of the tone of your script, does the fight scene still live within the limits that the tone of your film offers, or does it feel out of place?
- In the aftermath of your fight scene, you can tell the audience how to feel. Do you want them to celebrate with the champion, or sympathise with the defeated? It also gives the viewer a second to think about what has just happened and, essentially, catch their breath.
15 of the Best Movie Fight Scenes
So let’s take a look at 15 of the best fight scenes from movies (and one from TV). These are fight scenes that are not only greatly entertaining to watch but also successfully fulfil the story’s needs.
The scenes we have selected are not of a hierarchical structure and may not be considered to be the best fight scenes of all time. However, these scenes are examples of different approaches to writing a fight scene, and all have a lesson to impart.
Fight Scene Example #1 – Atomic Blonde
This scene is strategically placed early in the script and it exemplifies Lorraine’s skill to the audience. She is introduced as the greater fighter to the anonymous antagonists within the scene. The fight scene serves the character‘s portrayal and establishes her as a force to be reckoned with.
Whilst this seems basic procedure for writing a fight scene – getting the protagonist to beat the antagonist– this scene is important to the story in its relation to the progression of the linear narrative.
Later in the script, Lorraine meets her match. Whilst the first scene arguably has basic writing and isn’t the most interesting, when paired with this scene they both serve the script overall.
The scenes amalgamate to ultimately present a development for Lorraine’s character. The audience has experienced Lorraine defeating her previous opponents with little effort. However, when Spyglass (Eddie Marsden) challenges her, she begins to struggle and encounters more immediate and physical consequences, which heightens the stakes, tension, and conflict within the story.
#2 – The Matrix
This example exhibits a combination of elements to make a fight scene that seems to tick all boxes. It’s comprehensive. The choreography and non-diegetic music are a nod to the highly technical martial arts sequences seen in popular martial arts movies that the scene takes influence from.
The scene strategically uses this influence to establish the dynamic of teacher and student between Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Neo (Keanu Reeves). The sound and music eventually return to what is more typically associated with The Matrix and its genre, fast-paced techno intended to amp up the tension.
All elements within this scene supply the story, character, and audience. Morpheus acts as a teacher for the audience as well as for Neo. We learn as he learns.
The tension within the scene builds as new information is offered and Neo becomes more in control of the fight and his situation. This scene not only gives the film a chance to show off its impressive fight choreography and slow-motion but it serves as an important moment in Neo’s evolving journey.
#3 – Fight Club
Does a fight scene always have to include two people (or more) fighting each other? When someone mentions a fight scene your mind might jump straight to a man to man, fast-paced, bloody and violent fight scene.
We don’t blame you because that’s a generic fight scene. This is why Fight Club takes these conventions and throws them out of the window for this ‘fight scene’.
As The Narrator (Edward Norton) explores his newfound arrogance after he is awakened to the grasp that capitalism has on his life, the script challenges typical conventions for the purpose of the character.
Moreover, The Narrator establishes his morals through this fight scene. He exemplifies his limits and morals as he lies and violently hurts himself to gain power over his boss.
Therefore, the fight adds to the portrayal of the character, in turn, adding to the story.
#4 – Kingsman: The Secret Service
Another example that uses elements of the playbook and then grows from it, is Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Firstly, its use of dialogue is explicitly attempting to challenge the morals of the church setting. The purpose of this is to challenge convention and to shock the audience. The purpose of the entire scene is to shock the audience.
From its use of dialogue to casting Colin Firth (as Harry Hart), an older and stereotypical English gentleman, as an action hero; the scene experiments with character, tone and pacing to surprise the audience and hold their interest.
In the final few seconds of the scene, we are forced to experience the consequences of Harry’s actions. The final moments of stillness that follow the action establish an aftermath that will resonate with audiences.
We are familiar with Harry’s morals throughout the script as they align with that of the protagonist. However, in this one moment, they are challenged and his actions overstep the line, this portrayed in the character’s reactions in the scene’s aftermath.
#5 – Black Panther
Now, we could hardly write a fight scene list without including an epic Marvel superhero battle. The tension in the final battle in Black Panther is established through the two opposing sides. That of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and that of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman).
When Killmonger takes T’Challa’s throne he is overpowered. In this scene, the themes of the film reach their climax. They fight for the right to be called Black Panther and to lead the people of Wakanda.
It feels generic to have a final epic battle where the ‘good guy’ is challenged but ultimately defeats the ‘bad guy’. But this scene upends that notion. Killmonger reveals his true motivations, which ultimately helps us empathise with him. This comes just as he has been defeated, T’Challa having stabbed him in the chest. This creates a sense of tragedy.
We are ultimately saddened by Killmonger’s slow death, a clever trick considering we have been rooting against him for most of the film.
#6 – Kill Bill Vol.1
Despite it becoming more familiar to see women’s faces in the ring, there’s still nothing quite like the thrill of seeing The Bride (Uma Therman) taking on an entire cohort of suited enemies in Kill Bill Vol. 1.
The lack of dialogue in the scene directs your focus towards the fighting sequences. As The Bride spins and leaps across the scene the audience know exactly where to look.
The change in colour, sound and style of the scene could become quite confusing without the direction of the camera leading the way. You are situated in the perspective of the character. You are The Bride in this scene.
Through placing you as the character you are engrossed in the fight scene as you feel as if you are the one who is experiencing it. Similarly to Kingsman, in the aftermath of the fight, the audience is forced to witness the consequence of the fight: the people who are injured or dead. It’s a bloodbath.
Whilst Harry was remorseful about his actions, through placing The Bride as superior through the low camera angle, the tone, and dialogue, we as an audience understand that The Bride is proud of her achievement (which informs us of her character).
#7 – Full Metal Alchemist
It is interesting to consider if the rules for a fight scene apply to both film and television. Arguably, in a serialised television narrative the stakes aren’t as high as that of a film. This is because you presumably know more about the characters in question, having spent more time getting to know them.
Therefore, the importance for your scene to have a dramatic effect is lessened as you have more options to repeat a fight over and over again (if that’s what you want).
In Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, there is a fight scene in every episode. How do you stop a fight scene from becoming repetitive in a television series?
This series uses it to their advantage, as a fight scene operates as a character introduction. We are introduced to their skill, their morals, their alliance. There is a lot of information you can consciously and sub-consciously retain from these fight scenes and therefore, every one is important.
#8 – Shaun of the Dead
One rule when writing fight scenes is to not make it one-sided, meaning that it isn’t interesting if you have one champion that wins a fight without any struggle or consequences. You want to make it worthwhile for the audience. If you make things too easy then you’re at risk of losing any authenticity with the scene.
This rule is adapted when you’re writing a comedy scene. The one-sided scene or making the character’s battle too easy can heighten the humour of the scene.
In comedy, pacing and tone is everything. The aspiration of the scene changes slightly. You want people to align with the character primarily through comedy instead of their wins and losses.
The features of the scene no longer need to be realistic. Take this scene from Shaun of the Dead as an example. Is it realistic for Shaun, Liz and Ed to hit a zombie with snooker cues, in time to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now‘ by Queen? Hardly.
But the scene still serves the story. It shows that the characters are extremely out of their depth in their situation. Despite winning, which can be put down to chance, the main focus of the scene is to make the audience laugh.
Therefore, the focus of a kick-ass fight scene doesn’t always need to be the fighting.
#9 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
On the other hand, there are some fight scenes where the focal point of the scene is the fighting. Like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the fighting is what leads the fight scenes. Whilst it sounds pretty basic to prioritise the fighting in a fight scene, it can still be difficult to hold the audiences’ attention.
To make it slightly easier to understand how to write a kick as fight scene, you must understand that a fight scene is just one type of action scene. Action scenes can include any scenes that include an argument to a chase scene.
Action scenes are interactions with consequences. Therefore, what are the consequences of your fight scene for your story and character?
Whether the repercussions of your scene are physical for your characters or have more of a direct effect on your story, you must consider how the scene services your script overall.
This fight shows how the pacing of a scene is important in establishing conflict. In the moments of stillness between the opponents after an intense sword-fight, the pacing creates a whirlwind of emotion as the stakes of the fight are constantly changing.
The scene proves that there is nothing wrong with some old-fashioned one to one combat as long as you think about what is happening between the lines.
#10 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Who doesn’t love a high budget, high pressure, macho fight scene? It doesn’t really matter if it’s to your taste or not, what is important is what you can take from it. Again, the lack of dialogue hones in your attention to the fighting.
The relationship between Captain America (Chris Evans) and The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is what elevates the conflict within the fight scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It is the friendship between the pair that creates the tension as Captain America doesn’t want to fight or hurt his best friend.
To repeat, it isn’t the fighting sequence alone that is important to this story. It is the research. As the characters pre-exist within a whole world of comics, their motivations and timelines are pre-constructed.
Therefore, as well as the basic rules for writing a fight scene, you have to consider the rules when taking characters that exist in their own world already.
This could be an exciting challenge as well as a daunting one, you just need to research your characters and the subtext beneath them.
#11 – Mandy
In a fight scene, you should let the tactics of a character reflect their morals. In this scene from Mandy, you can read that Spider has no hesitation when attacking Red. It shows that Spider has very little remorse, if at all, for the violence and hurt he imposes.
This tells us that his character’s weakness will not be related to his morals. In addition, it suggests that Red will have to overcome Spider physically.
The tone of Mandy is also complex. It has multifaceted layers to what it is trying to achieve through its tone. The film as a whole has very slow pacing. It also doesn’t necessarily strive for authenticity through stressing its more surreal visual elements.
The violence explained throughout the script comes to life in the film. Whilst some details may differ, the overall atmosphere of the grotesque and brutal fight scenes still remain through the consistent tone and pacing in the adaptation from script to screen.
#12 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Rumour has it that on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark Harrison Ford felt too unwell to film the fight scene that was written into the script. In the scene below, Indiana Jones begins battling some anonymous antagonists in the street.
He then meets his match. We assume the swordsman is his match as he is written to be visibly distinctive from any other challenger.
In the script, Indiana Jones was due to defeat his foe in a lengthy battle witnessed by passersby. Instead, in this humorous alternative that serves the story and character, he faces his opponent as if to begin a standoff and shoots him before he gets the chance to move a muscle. This reveals Indiana’s nonchalance, a key aspect of his character.
We put this question to you. Is a fight scene always necessary? Would a full fight scene have served the story or character any more than the end result?
When one page of screenplay equates to one minute of screen time you don’t always have the time to include a fight scene, especially when it isn’t essential to the plot. This also can be taken to mean that if any scene needs reworking due to complications, it sometimes turns out better than the original.
#13 – The Raid 2
Another method to try and keep an audience entertained is by introducing multiple fight scenes that are happening simultaneously in different locations.
It is a straight-forward approach in avoiding a one-sided fight scene. It is a method that splits the attention of the audience, allowing your champions to perhaps win their fight more easily but appearing to have put in more effort than they actually have.
The audience isn’t as focused on one particular fight, but the win of multiple characters. It is also a faster way to explore characters and to progress the story quicker. The Raid 2 is an example of how simultaneous fight scenes are executed successfully.
Whilst researching is not always a priority, it is never harmful. If you’re trying to make your scene interesting and authentic you could look into some specific elements of your scene. For example, for this fight scene in The Raid 2 you could question: how fatal is a hammer wound? Does a hammer or a bat cause more damage in a fight?
Let’s just hope no one finds your search history!
#14 – X-Men: First Class
Similarly to Captain America, the writers of X-Men: First Class had to be mindful of the existing depictions of characters across all previous adaptions across film, television, and comics.
In this scene, it works to the writer’s advantage whether the audience is aware of the climax of this story or not. If the audience is not aware that Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is the cause for Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) being in a wheelchair, they will experience the shock of the conflict for the first time.
Whilst the audience who are existing fans of the story find satisfaction from having the result of their anticipation play out in front of them, it is mindful to consider who are you writing the characters for?
Making an adaptation interesting and new, when the audience might know the story already, can be a tricky challenge to navigate. Try, where possible, to balance between introducing new audiences to this moment and rewarding those who know this story inside out.
It can be thrilling to see a new story come to life, but it can also be thrilling to see a scene you’ve only ever imagined in your head come to life.
#15 – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Can the rules of the playbook apply to a scene when the characters in question don’t fight back? What if the character isn’t even human?
A scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes explores this interesting dynamic. Despite Dodge’s (Tom Felton) superiority complex, we can sense his fear of Caesar (Andy Serkis). He knows that he is physically inferior to an ape and therefore lashes out with his taser.
Whilst we discover information about Dodge’s character through his urgency to fight and control, we discover information about Caesar’s character through his refusal to fight.
It is the shock of Caesar’s ability to speak and retaliate through a deep loud roaring ‘NO’ that forces the scene to reach its climax in preparation for the escape of the apes from the prison.
Caesar’s ability to speak and gain power over others fully serves the story and character. It takes the story into a new direction by revealing a shocking new aspect of Caesar’s character.
How to Write a Fight Scene: Conclusion
Things to remember:
- Do your research.
- Does the scene serve your story?
- Does the scene serve your character?
- Pacing over detail.
- Let the tone direct the scene.
- In the aftermath of your fight scene, you can tell the audience how to feel.
Ultimately, all fight scenes are different. They all might have a different purpose. This playbook is here to help you as you begin writing your fight scene. Use your own initiative when writing and when you gain some confidence in your scenes, then, you can begin to play with expectations and conventions.
Remember that in writing a fight scene, you are not necessarily writing a scene unique or different from any other in the script. Revealing character, themes and moving the plot along is essential in the makeup of your scene. What’s different is the stakes, which, by the nature of physical contact, are high. The pressure is on.
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This article was written by Ellyse Partington and edited by IS Staff.