Quick! A fight scene breaks out! Which one of these guys started it?
Chances are, you picked the first guy. Why?
He looks more aggressive. He’s punching the camera, where the other guy is just sitting. He’s staring you in the eye, where the other guy is looking down.
When writing a fight scene, body language and other nonverbal communication cues are vital. Here are the basics to keep in mind:
1. Fists are offensive.
If Dave gets in Bob’s face waving his fists around, Dave will look like he’s playing offense in the fight. Even if Bob throws the first punch. We have this subconscious impulse to assume whoever looked meaner when the fight started was the aggressor, whether or not they actually attacked first. Keep this in mind when trying to indicate good guys and bad guys in a fight scene.
2. Open hands are defensive.
Open-hand strikes can deal a lot of damage. They still look more defensive than a clenched fist. If you have a character fighting with flat hands and another fighting with fists, readers will probably assume the fist-guy is the aggressor.
3. Taking up space is offensive.
When a character widens their stance, stretches out their arms, moves into another character’s personal bubble, or otherwise spreads out their body mass, this is seen as territory-grabbing and looks aggressive. Be careful when having good guys do this, or they might come across as jerks.
4. Smaller people are defensive.
No matter what other nonverbal cues you use, if one character severely outmatches another character in size, the smaller character will look like the defender. Thus, you probably can’t write a convincing fight scene where Meg the Axe-Wielding Waif bullies Groug the 300-pound Warrior King.
5. Weapons are offensive.
Whoever pulled a weapon first started the fight. Doesn’t matter if the dialogue goes on for another two pages before the punches start. Weapons escalate tension, which means anyone who draws first looks like the aggressor.
6. Dialogue is defensive.
In the heat of a fight scene, you might want to have your characters stop and talk for a bit. Whoever starts this conversation will look a tiny bit less like the aggressor. Starting dialogue implies that the character needs a break, needs to distract the opponent, or doesn’t want to continue fighting for some reason. This isn’t a gigantic cue to the reader, so don’t fret too much about who starts mid-fight dialogue, but you can apply this idea in tandem with the others in order to build the right feelings into your fight scenes.
If these tips are too granular, just keep in mind that anything that escalates the tension in the scene will come across as aggressive, whereas anything that reduces the tension will come across as defensive. Use these strategies and your own knowledge of nonverbal communication to correctly guide the reader through your fight scenes. You want them to picture it the same way you do, and to see the offense/defense parties the way you envision them. Body language gives you tools to do that.
This information is provided for assistance in writing fight scenes only, not for real-life application.