How do you Write Realistic Fight Scenes?

BLOOD FEUD is the first book in the Stirling Hunt thriller series. In one of the opening scenes, Stirling (a covert MI6 operative) is roped into an underground boxing match. He needs to win in order to pay off a debt he owes to some nasty Chechen gangsters. That scene was the first scene I wrote in the entire book, and readers have asked me, ‘how do you write fight scenes’? This post will try to answer how I came up with it, and how I try to capture the action.  

I think that the subtle and quick action of a boxing match is a particularly difficult scene to write well. Everyone has their own idea of a fight and what it must feel, taste and smell like. The noises and shouting and the intensity of hand to hand combat. I am fortunate that I have been in the same position as Stirling was, only without the Chechen gangsters and the debt.  

While at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (similar to West Point in America or Saint-Cyr Military Academy in France), I was on the boxing team. I received ‘Sandhurst Colours for Boxing’ and I have clear, sharp memories of the ‘boxing night’ at Sandhurst. There was a deafening noise from the fifteen-hundred strong crowd. It sounded like they were a congregation shouting in tongues. A type of barbarity in the cries for blood, all packed into the gym, with a full size competition boxing ring in the middle and the whole place draped in Standards and flags. 

My memories of the event though are silent. I do not remember the noise. A drummer and bagpiper marched myself and my opponent through the crows and to the ring. That too is like a vacuum in my mind. The ring lights were bright and everything outside the ring was darkness. We were both in the heavyweight division, although I was the lighter of the two. My opponent caught me with a short-sharp left hook fired from close range. He hit me hard enough that the referee stopped the match for a moment, to check I hadn’t been sparked out. I was upright and conscious, but sometimes the shock of the blow is enough that you lose a few moments in time. It was one of the best nights of my life. 

Rewind several years. We always had a boxing bag and boxing gloves at the house. My brother and I would wake up at three or four AM to watch Mike Tyson bouts, even as children. I was always interested in self-defence and the mechanics of fighting. Boxing isn’t called the ‘sweet science’ for nothing, the very strict rules and slow and steady back and forth of a tactical battle is an incredibly interesting thing to watch. And that is not to mention the mental toughness and fortitude a person needs in order to step into a ring knowing that their enemy wants to knock them out in front of thousands of people. 

In following my passion and interest in self-defence and martial arts I have trained as a boxer, in Wing Chun Kuen, Muay Thai, and most recently, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. One particular trip I took and one of the places I’ve lived, which I am currently mulling for a setting for one of the future Stirling Hunt novels, is Thailand. I travelled to Thailand before joining the army. I wanted to get fit and to get a tan, and thought ‘where better than Phuket for fight training and sunshine’.

Muay Thai is the Thai national sport. It is on TV every day and big fights are arranged most weekends. Thai people, especially those that attend the fights, also like to gamble. And this relates back to what I was saying about the subtlety of a fight and how it swings from one opponent to the other. You just never know for sure which way it is going to go.

I joined a gym and learned the ‘art of eight limbs’, as Muay Thai is known, for several months before returning to start my military career. Muay Thai is unique in that you use both feet, both hands, both elbows and both knees in a fight. It is an exhausting competition. Opponents concentrate on wearing you down by kicking you in the thigh, just above the knee, making it hard to stand. And, as you tire and your guard drops, a favourite tactic is to swing elbows at your cheeks and eyes to get a TKO through a cut, or knock you out using a knee to the face. 

Part of writing good fight scenes is knowing what it is like to be in a fight. And a street fight is very different to organised competition. As we have seen with the recent riots in some US cities, you have to be able to rely on yourself, as no-one is going to come to your aid. That means being very clear about your objectives in a fight. Disable your opponent, or opponents, quickly and as thoroughly as possible. That sense of fear and survival instinct, I think, is implicit in any realistic thriller novel. It is literally life and death for the character and the reader should be made to feel that. The emotion is more important than the mechanics. If someone is strangling you, you don’t really care how they are doing it, you only care about your windpipe being crushed flat and the sensation of gasping for air.  

I think having been in situations that simulate that, does help, but if you haven’t you could always watch fights and try and pay attention to the action and movements that stand out for you. It is not always necessary to know the exact choreography that goes into a particular punch. It is more important to know what your character might think, feel, say and do if they get punched straight on the nose. 

I am interested to know, who is your favourite author of fight scenes, and what makes it exciting for you as a reader?