Fight scenes in fiction are often heavy dramas loaded with hefty dialogue and lots of circling. They are tense and gripping. They also seldom capture the feeling of a real fight.
Fights are quick and intimate. There is some preening that occurs, usually one or both parties (assuming two people) pumping themselves up: an attempt to build themselves up to the fight. This is because most people don’t want to get hurt, and in the back of their minds a fight holds the possibility they might. They have to convince themselves.
What fights are not are sex scenes. A fight is intimate but in that moment you are not counting sweat beads or noticing pressure points. You are swinging and kicking and hoping you get more damage in than they do. You’re not a ninja (probably), you’re a scared and angry human lashing out against what will eventually turn out to be a minor inconvenience in a long list of minor inconveniences.
I got in a fight in high school many eons ago. There have been more since, but this was my first. There are two versions of this fight: fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is that we fought for ten minutes and were cheered on by a crowd of hormonal teenagers, each voice frothing the row higher. What really happened was I talked a bunch of shit to convince myself to do the thing, swung my foot wildly at his head, and got kicked in the balls. It took less than a minute. I curled up on the ground holding my crotch and moaning, and he patted me on the back and became a good friend. Neither of us even remembered what the fight was about.
One fact I should point out: never once in any fight I’ve ever been in has time slowed. Time sped up. Every fight is a confusing mass of fists and feet and not knowing what is happening. I’ve left the scene of a fight wondering how many times I punched myself.
I would like to see more of the chaos and rapidity written into fictional conflicts. The mess and insecurity makes the fights more believable. A good fight scene is in the buildup and the wind down. The actual slap fest is boring and should only take a paragraph, two at the most.
None of this applies to epic battles. Those we want to last. Massive armies should have massive battles. Few things will kill a good fantasy war more easily than brevity. But with two people, my eyes will cross and I will set a book down if it stretches past a couple paragraphs.
I say this as a reader, but also as a reminder as a writer. Just as an overwrought sex scene can ruin an otherwise good story, so can a time-slowed-down-and-my-instincts-kicked-in slap-a-thon kill a perfectly good book. Keep it brief.