For a lot of authors, there’s a frustrating hold to the old adage “the best defense is a good offense”. There’s an overwhelming amount of material that focuses on just force on force. Thus, fight sequences in novels end up less like the Matrix and more like when you have two action figures being mashed into each other. It all ends up feeling rather plastic and fake, especially when the reader stops and tries to envision it in their mind. If you’re not careful, fights can end up feeling very mechanical and are often anatomically impossible. Even when they are, the fight sequences often make little sense. The human fighter takes too much damage, they get every lucky break (as in they don’t break anything), the body positioning is all wrong for the strike, the fight goes on too long, etc, we’ve all seen it.
Often, the problem is that the author is thinking too much about how to do damage, how to prove their character is badass. They end up with un-moderated aggression at worst or at best, a character who never defends and for all intents and purposes doesn’t even seem to know how to. This isn’t bad if you are creating a character who is supposed to be an all-out aggressor, who can’t control themselves or their fighting style (such as most street fighters). If you’re trying to create any other kind of character, however, then…oops.
So, in this article, we’ll be talking about why blocking is important to your writing, your fighting characters, and your fight scenes, the principles of blocking, how to implement blocks, and some of the different kind of blocks that exist.
Why is blocking important?
I’ve said this before, but in the real world fighting relies on strategy, tactics, making use of basic body mechanics, and trying not to get hit. A fighter needs to be able to protect their vital areas like their head, their stomach, their groin, and well, any of the soft parts of the body with important organs. Blocking is part and parcel to surviving a fight. It is part of showing not just your character’s skill but also their control and their fighting education. The first response of a trained character when encountering an attack is to dodge or to block, not to attack. The attack is secondary, a counter to the first attack after they have negated the chance of injury. Attacks are what allow your character to win fights, blocks are what allow your character to walk away at the end of them. So, let’s get a little more in depth.
A character who blocks is one who has accepted the idea that they can take damage.
As writers, we control everything that happens to our characters. Sometimes, what hasn’t occurred to us won’t occur to them. This happens a lot in action oriented stories and instead of a character coming off as knowledgeable, they sound arrogant. Often, this arrogance is unintentional on the part of the author, mostly because they’re thinking in gaming terms. Their protagonist is level twenty and the person they’re fighting to get information from is level 6, obviously said person can’t hurt them because they’re so low down the totem pole.
No. Every fight is dangerous. Every fighter, even a wild and untrained one leaves the opportunity for something to go wrong and for them to get themselves injured. If your character is in a setting with guns, then anyone can grab a gun and shoot your character. If your character is in a fantasy setting, then the would be attacker can always leave and get more friends or their family can report your character to the city guard or the Watch for brawling. Unless your character is someone like Superman (and even if they are), any fight they enter into is one where they risk physical harm to themselves. They can die; even a grand master can be killed by the lout with the knife on the street if they aren’t paying attention.
Getting hit hurts, but getting it in the arm hurts less than a concussion.
This one should be self-explanatory, but like I said above any fight is dangerous and there’s a chance that any hit can get lucky. The better the individual your character is fighting against, the higher the stakes get. If they can’t defend themselves from damage, why should your audience believe they can dish it out?
Blocking will let your character manage to control the fight against weaker characters without hurting them.
I’ll be honest. It looks bad when your fifteen year Special Forces/Mercenary badass protagonist is beating the village bully boys into the ground. Even if they are bullies, in a narrative context there’s no reason for your character to become a bully by bullying bullies unless that’s what you want them to be doing. It’s not okay for a stronger character to bully a bully, even when that bully bullied them when they were small and weak. If a hero is what you want, then you can’t have them taking revenge or beating up characters that the audience knows are weaker than they are. It looks bad and it sends the wrong message. Figure something else out, force on force just creates more force and more bad blood. What your character does will ripple outwards beyond just the fight and their negative attitudes can have negative effects on their circumstances.
Remember, the message you’re putting out matters. So, be careful.
The Principles of Blocking:
Blocking is how to take and redirect hits so that the fighter doesn’t die. On a strategic level, blocks create openings in the opponent’s guard by foiling the attack they committed to. So let’s talk about the places on the body where the kinetic force of a strike can be fairly easily disrupted.
The goal of a block is either to redirect the force away from the body, disperse it over a wider area, or take it in a place that will matter less to your fighting ability and let you keep going. Different strikes require different blocks and there are a multitude of different blocks that can be applied to different strikes. If that sounds confusing then congratulations, you’re halfway there.
So, you don’t want to take the force that’s being applied, but to disrupt it. This means that catching the fist or taking the fist with your hand directly is pretty much out. This is the sort of thing that looks cool in the movies, but is actually pretty idiotic. Your character doesn’t have time to deal with the resulting bruise on their hand or broken bones. They’re going to need that hand for punching and blocking.
The goal of a block is to identify the point of power in the strike such as in the hand or the ball of the foot and stop it by moving further up the body to the vulnerable places. Some of these places are:
Cross-Block: The cross-block is basically where you use the opposite side hand (matching your right to their left) to either catch or redirect the strike away from you. This is commonly taught to beginners and young children because it’s easy to learn and doesn’t go against natural instinct. Remember, your brain is cross wired to opposing sides. It’s more natural to block a right side strike with your left side than it is with the same side. If your character is self-taught and they block at all, these are the ones they’re most likely to use. Cross-blocks are more difficult to use against kicks.
Same-Side Block: This is when your fighter blocks a hit in mirror to their opponent, a left is met with a left and a right with a right. These blocks are commonly seen in boxing to take incoming straight strikes by pushing the hands downwards and away from the face. The hand can also drop to defend against kicks by catching the shin or hooking the arm under the knee. A same-side block is trained and it takes less time to execute than a cross-block. However, it takes time to replace the body’s natural protection instinct and difficult to mimic without a lot of practice.
Knee Blocks: This is a common block against kicks like the roundhouse, less useful against the side kick or the front kick. The knee comes up and pushes out against the force of the other kick, usually at the shin or the opponent’s knee.
Elbow Guard: The elbow guard is when you tuck your elbow up into a triangle shape and press the inside of your arm against your head. This is another block from boxing used to protect the head against curving strikes like the roundhouse punch, hooks, and haymakers. The fighter will usually also tuck their shoulders up and tighten against the blow by exhaling outwards.
Blocking with the shin and the forearm: In traditional martial arts forms like Shotokan Karate and some of the others, it’s common to have students block strikes with their forearms or their shins. However, it takes a long time to build up the bone density to be able to take those strikes and because the bone is so close the surface of the skin (unprotected by muscles) it can hurt to take strikes there, students who do often develop a habit of flinching before the hit lands, which is an opening that a clever enemy can exploit. So, the forearm is a great place to take hits, so long as it’s not bone on bone contact or it’s something they’ve gotten used to in their own training. If it is, then make sure you say so somewhere in the text.
Blocks and Counters: It may surprise you to learn that most martial arts have as many blocks as they do attacks, in fact most of the early technique chains that are taught involve blocks and the follow-up counters. They train the students to think about not just what they are doing in the moment, but what comes after. In the second form taught in Taekwondo (or at least the second one we taught in our curriculum), the base technique chain that held the form together was upper defense, front kick, punch. The upper defense used the forearm to block downwards strikes like a knife hand or a hammer fist to protect the head, then a front kick to the chest in retaliation, followed by a punch landing in a front stance to the stomach as the finisher, then you turn and do the same for the other side.
An untrained or self-trained character may be able to block, but it’ll take them a lot more time to counter. They, like most of the population, will be more likely to believe in force on force as opposed to defend and counter. It’s actually one of those all-important distinguishing traits between trained and untrained. Remember, just because your character blocked their hit the first time doesn’t mean they won’t try to hit your protagonist again if your protagonist gives them the crucial few seconds of recovery.
Feints: Your character’s block can also create openings in their guard if they move to block against feint, such as the Taekwondo combination of a backhand and right punch. It’s not common for characters who don’t know what they’re doing to use feints.
I’ll be honest, blocking relies a lot on timing and while there are natural reactions the body exhibits to being struck or threatened, most of those aren’t actively useful without a lot of guiding, shaping, and practice with partners. The tenents are fairly easy to grasp on a conceptual level, but are difficult in actual practice. Until then, your character is pretty much flailing at whatever object managed to get caught in their peripheral vision.
How to Implement Blocks in Your Fight Scenes:
For a character who is trained, blocking is going to be second nature. Their body will be prepping before the strike starts (Michi Note: Refer to our FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body post) and their body may actually start reacting to just about any movement that comes towards them, including someone coming in to pat their head, stroke their cheek, or hug them from behind. Their brain may not catch their body before it has time to catch up or may stop halfway, if you’re looking for humor. Blocking for them has been trained as an instinctual reaction, one that replaced some of their old untrained instincts. So, don’t worry if your character seems uncool if they start the fight on the defense, that’s pretty normal for someone being attacked.
Try to think about your character’s bodies and the strikes you’re having them perform, try to visualize the attacks in your mind before you put it on the page, if it helps sketch it out in an outline format first of what you want to have happen and then try to implement it in your story. Don’t worry about it coming out perfect the first time, everyone edits and rewrites. If writing fight scenes is new to you and you don’t have any real background in combat, it may be hard in the beginning. That’s okay, you’re just learning a new skill and everybody falls on their face the first few times. Track your progress and celebrate when you improve.
Some things to keep in mind:
Dodging is easier to write, because it doesn’t disrupt the flow of combat as much and is easier to visualize. However, dodging is tiring. Fighting is also tiring, your character has a limited amount of stamina, so only have them dodge once or twice, this is why blocking is important.
Blocking is pretty much always reactive. Your character is reacting to another characters action. Then, they take action themselves by attacking. It’s easier to write a block if you know what your other character is planning to attack with, this will also give you the opportunity to think about and work with your protagonist’s opponent. If you get to know who they’re fighting and what that character favors in their style then writing the fight scene is actually lot easier.
Start thinking about the mechanics of your own body and how it all functions together. If you can break apart how the body works then it’s much easier to break apart a strike in your mind and to write it as part of the scene.
Other helpful articles on this blog: FightWrite: Watch the Whole Body and FightWrite: The Art of Stepping