Fight Write: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality

In this post, I’m going to break Martial Arts down into four subcategories: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality. These are general distinctions that relate to the practitioner’s outlook and what they’re training for as opposed to the styles themselves. The reason behind why someone is training and what they are being trained to do is actually much more important than what the style or techniques were originally intended for.

Styles evolve and change over time, the effective ones stay and the ineffective ones go as combat itself evolves. A good place to study up on rapid martial evolution is in the history of Europe, where the countries were in near constant war over a limited set of highly valuable resources. European combat evolved and changed quickly and constantly because it was necessary to for the different countries to keep themselves from being conquered by their neighbors. There was a nearly constant discarding of any traditional forms for something more practical to the times. This is part of why it’s important to study the cultural background of any MA you look at, no matter where it’s from, and compare that to what you need from it. Styles change with the cultures they’re part of, even ones that were imported from elsewhere. The techniques themselves are more easily ingrained by body and mind than the philosophy that spawned them.

Usually when talking about Martial Arts, you see the styles broken down into hard and soft, hard is an aggressive straightforward style like Karate and soft is an inward, philosophical style that revolves around not subduing your opponent, but allowing your opponent to subdue themselves through “gentle” redirection. We leave the term gentle open to negotiation depending on both viewer and outlook, sometimes there is nothing soft about a soft style. For reference: Chinese Tai Chi and Japanese Aikido are two of the more recognizable soft styles. Personally, we find this terminology to be misleading, because it does not cover all the myriad of ways these two cross over as the different styles influence one another through cross-contamination.

No Martial Artist exists in a vacuum, they are constantly influenced by their fights, their opponents, their training, and their own philosophy regarding their fighting and fighting in general. Every MA has an outlook and a personal philosophy, even if their philosophy is just that having a one is unnecessary.

It’s also important to note that hard and soft relate to Asian Martial Arts, more specifically to those from China, Japan, and Korea. These Martial Arts are intensely tied up within their own cultural traditions and because any discussion of this terminology generally revolves around Eastern philosophies, the terms do not relate well to Western MAs like boxing, fencing, M.A.P., Systema, Krav Maga, and Sambo or South American MAs like Capoeira, all of which come with a very specific outlook relating to their own country of origin. It also doesn’t function well with outside understanding of forms like Ninjutsu, Judo, and Jiu-jutsu that incorporate both hard and soft movements respectively. Some would say that Jiu-Jutsu is just the hard version of Aikido and some would not, this is why this distinction gets sticky.

Not just that, says the well-informed author, but didn’t the Marines appropriate a great many techniques from Judo and Chin Na during their time stationed in Japan and China as they developed M.A.P.?

Indeed they did, but it’s important to remember that the Marines don’t care about the outlook or the cultural philosophy that provided the basis for those techniques. While they may share their techniques with other styles, the way the Marines condition and train soldiers to use them bears almost no similarity to the original intention.

Martial Styles represent the culture that surrounds them, so let’s break it down into something simpler.

Art: Art is for a practitioner with a spiritual outlook. Many Martial Arts masters fall into this category, regardless of style. It’s the study of the body, the spirit, and the mind and developing those connections through meditation and intensive training. This outlook is a lifestyle that involves constant self-improvement and introspection. Its intention is non-combative, though the practitioner can also train for that. Aikido and Tai-Chi can fall into this category (though a practitioner can land in other categories too), but this can also include any Chinese MA from Shaolin to Wushu, or any MA where the training focus is on self, on beauty, and perfection.

Common Artistic/Spiritual Martial Arts:

Tai Chi (China), Aikido (Japan), Capoeira (Brazil), Kalari (India), Kyudo (Japan), Wushu Kung Fu (China), Karate (Japan), etc

Sport: This is the Martial Artist who trains primarily for the arena, whether that’s professional prize fighting, death matches, or the Olympics. The trainee is prepared around a certain set of rules of what they can and cannot do. Authors who wish to write these characters will have to study up on the specific rules behind the intended training. This should be self-explanatory, but it can get confusing when the same Martial Arts like Sambo, Muay Thai, and Krav Maga fall under this label and the Lethal one. The difference is not in the techniques, but the type of preparation the trainee receives from their instructor. Someone who trains for matches does not do so with the likelihood of death as an immediate part of the equation. While they know it may happen, they also know it’ll probably be accidental or a result of their (or their opponent’s) stupidity. Actively murdering an opponent in the ring is detrimental to most fighters’ careers.

I also include work out Martial Arts in this list.

If you want to write Gladiators, it’s important to remember that Gladiators themselves are an investment of time and money on the part of their benefactor. Death matches are uncommon not because people don’t want to see it (there are more than a few who would watch), but because the number of people out there who will come back again and again to watch their favorites participate next week outnumber them. The tournament officials can’t earn money off a dead or crippled gladiator, even when there are more than enough eager replacements. When modern MMA first began, they tried the “Anything Goes but Death” mind set. They learned quickly that it wasn’t worth it on a financial level. Professional Gladiator deaths in Ancient Rome were actually pretty uncommon for the same reason. Always follow the money, it’ll usually lead you to the right place.

Common Sport Martial Arts:

Boxing (America/Europe), Kickboxing (America/Europe), Savate (France), MMA (Mixed Bag), Sambo (Russia), Judo (Japan), Muay Thai (Thailand), Tae Kwon Do (Korea), Karate (Japan), Pancratium/Mu Tau (Greece), Capoeira (Brazil), Krav Maga (MMA), etc.

Subdual: This is the outlook that focuses on subduing the opponent over killing them. These Martial Arts often focus on joint locks, throws, pressure points, and breaks over general striking, some of them are designed around easy understanding and application; others take much longer to learn. It’s important to remember that the outlook of these practitioners is to injure their opponent just enough to stop them, while they may be prepared to kill, this is not their primary objective nor the goal.

Common Subdual Martial Arts:

Aiki-Jutsu (Japan), Jujutsu (Japan), Tai Chi (China), Chin Na (China), Sambo (Russia), Hapkido (Korea, Korean Law Enforcement), American Law Enforcement Hand to Hand (America), American Law Enforcement Self-Defense (The style taught to civilians in HtH), General Self-Defense (Multiple Non-Military Strains of above MAs), Brazilian Jujutsu (Brazil), Krav Maga Self-Defense, etc.

Lethality: Almost all martial styles were originally lethal ones and with the right training most can be again, but this is about outlook. The practitioner of one of these styles is someone who has been trained to kill, this is their primary objective. So, these are the martial arts that are designed specifically around killing the opponent as quickly as possible. They are the most actively combative of all the different Martial Arts and have suffered the least from degradation into the above sport styles. These are all killing styles and if you choose any of them for your character, it’s important that you understand what that means. There’s nothing worse than a dissonance between a practitioner and their style, especially given what it says about what they were trained to do. A character that practices any of these is trained to kill, full stop. They may be able to restrain themselves, but killing quickly and efficiently once threatened or on command will be the first instinctual reaction. Most of these will be Martial Styles practiced by the Military and Special Forces divisions from around the world.

Common Lethal Martial Arts:

M.A.P. (Marines), Krav Maga (Israeli Defense Force), Sambo (Spetznaz), Systema (The System, Spetznaz), Pentjak Silat (Indonesia), Ninjutsu (Japan), Military Strain Self-Defense, etc.

Always remember: your character’s Martial Art is a reflection of who they are and depending on the background you choose to give them, a part of that will be non-negotiable if they are to be believable. I’ve experienced some training in a Lethal MA (Ninjutsu) and these are very different styles when compared to the rest of the above in both utility and purpose. So please, prepare yourself appropriately.

Hey! I’ve been backreading your blog and I love it–I’ve gotten a ton of useful advice already! However, I’m curious about your “fight scenes should be a page or less” guideline, since I know you’re referring to prose. As it happens I’m writing a comic–what do you think is a good guideline for length in a fight scene that’s visual rather than written? Thanks so much.

Thanks for the ask!

Since this question is pretty general, we’ll give a few suggestions. If you’re looking for gritty realism with unpowered characters then try to keep it under 2 pages, but remember you’ve got to provide enough detail that show the fight is clearly choreographed. You’ll need to be able to convey the action to the reader so that they can follow along, while also being able to keep the narrative tension high. The longer the fight, the harder this is.

For most powered characters, superheroes, etc, you can double it to four pages. Though, I strongly encourage you to still look for a way to end it quickly. There’s nothing worse, from a narrative and reader perspective than a fight that goes: and then, and then, and then. It can be easy to get caught up in the flow of the action, both written and visual, and become excited over your creation. This is natural and understandable, after all, you created it! But I encourage restraint.

Also, it’s a good idea to check out artists in the genre that you admire and see what they do, not even in art style but just in planning and conservation of the action in the way they tell their story.

And remember, the action always serves the narrative, not the other way around.

Good luck!

Stupid Gun Mistakes Every Writer Makes

heyrph:

by Chuck Dixon

THE SILENCED REVOLVER

If you’re dumb enough to put a silencer on a revolver then you’ll discover that all the noise you hoped to suppress will escape from around the cylinder. See, an automatic is a sealed system allowing gas to vent only from the end of the barrel. So all your sound is coming from the barrel as well. A revolver is not sealed. There’s a gap twixt the cylinder and the barrel where they meet. This gap allows the cylinder to turn. It also allows gas and noise to escape.

THE “EMPTY” AUTOMATIC

We’ve all seen the scene where on adversary has the drop on another at the end of a gunfight. One guy holds out an automatic to the other guy’s head, says a take away line (“This is where the rubber meets the road, scumbag.) and then…click. The gun’s empty! Well, when an automatic has fired its last cartridge the slide atop the action locks back. They would both know the gun was empty. At the same time the firing mechanism locks back as well so no “click”. If you need to have a scene like this make sure your character’s armed with a revolver.

Read More

Women Are Not Weaker Than Men

Divorce yourself from this idea right now, author. While I’m sure it is the narrative you’ve been presented with your entire life, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t true. Women do find building up muscles in the upper body more difficult than men, but since power does not come from the arms, it’s actually a superfluous distinction. Women build up muscles in the lower body and in the core muscles (abdominal) very rapidly.

Skill in combat is not a matter of biology, but in training and dedication. Remember, if your female character fights, she’s neither unique nor special. In my experience as a martial artist and a martial arts instructor, there are on average per class 2 girls to every 10 boys, with the female number either remaining constant or doubling as the class goes up in age. While there are fewer female combatants around than male, it’s not hard to find 20 women to every 100 men. Extrapolate that out and think about it, women who fight are not as rare as you might have previously imagined.

Here are a few things to consider:

Power comes from the hips.

I will harp on this until the end of time until everyone shakes the myth of punch strength being decided by arm muscle strength out of their heads. The strength of the strike comes from the pivot of the hips and guess what? Women have wider hips than men, thus a greater opportunity to generate more power and hit their opponents harder. Combine this advantage with a low-center of gravity and the ability to push that center even lower  and you have a fighter capable, not just in power, but able to topple much larger opponents.

Women have a lower center of gravity.

This is the advantage of the short fighter, it’s the same for short men and short women, a tall woman fighting a shorter woman will encounter the same resistance as a tall man fighting a short one. I list this as a female advantage because most women will always find themselves facing larger opponents. So, it’s important for an author to keep in mind.

So, how does this work? A center of gravity is the height difference from the ground to your core, around the belly button. The shorter the fighter, the lower their center of gravity, the lower the center of gravity the closer they are to the earth, the closer they are to the earth the better their ability to generate a stable base and the harder they are to knock over. A fighter who knows where to put their feet and weight to make use of their center is a hard one to take to the ground. This is one way for women to overcome the height and weight disadvantage.

Women are naturally more resistant to pain and fatigue than men, have a greater potential for stamina, and can fight harder for longer.

It’s important to note: it’s not just that men cannot biologically carry a child to term and survive the birth, but if they did with their current make-up, they would die. So, you may call it the miracle of childbirth, but a woman’s body is gifted with a much greater level of resilience than their male counterparts. While these abilities must be honed and improved through training, the natural talent is already present in every woman’s body.

The only combatants who ever actively terrified me were women.

I’ve met a great many master martial artists from a great many different styles, all of whom I deeply respect, and can trust in their ability to utterly annihilate me. But the female black belt sparring division, my first thought on encountering those women as a teenager was: “I want to spar with the boys.”

Women live in a very different world than men do, they live in a world that is comprised of dangers even in places that are supposed to be safe. A woman cannot walk down a street alone, never mind if it’s at night, without wondering if an attack will happen. Rape and other acts of violence are very real, every day threats, and women live with the knowledge that the places they have been told to go to for protection will disregard them, laugh at them, and judge them on their worth for “allowing” these acts to happen to them. Every woman, even the ones like me who began at a young age, will eventually be faced with the realization that they may have to use what they know against another person one day. This is not fantasy assessment full of wishful thinking, but a cold reality. What if one day I have to hurt someone else? What if one day I have to kill them? The women who practice and prepare through forms of combat do so with that in mind, with the knowledge that they are the underdogs and that one day, they may have to use that training to fight for their lives.

The ferocity with which they beat on each other in sparring matches is a reflection of that. Remember, these are women who have shaken off the socially ingrained idea of ’I can’t hurt anyone’ and moved on to ’I will break you if you hurt me’. They follow that up with: you will never walk right again.

Unless your character comes from a very different society, this attitude will be part of who they are. Women who are trained and dedicated have the capacity to be terrifying, especially in a patriarchal society. Why? It’s not the behavior that most men expect.

-Michi

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reference for writers: Female Serial Killers

reference for writers: Female Serial Killers

“‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” by Kameron Hurley — A Dribble of Ink

“‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” by Kameron Hurley — A Dribble of Ink

Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

In this post, I’m going to talk about basic strikes using the upper body. I’m breaking up blocks, kicks, and the body strike zones to make the information absorption easier. My major caveat here is that all the techniques I’m going to talk about are based from my own Tae Kwan Do/MMA/Muay Thai background and therefore not always applicable depending on which Martial Art you plan on using. While they are similar, all Martial Arts techniques are unique to each individual style, so research the Martial Art you plan on using, even if it’s just a trip to Wikipedia.

Okay?

Good.

The basic strikes I plan on talking about in this post all relate to using the fist. These strikes are: the punch, the hammer fist, the backfist, the uppercut, and the hook.  While it’s common for martial artists to list all these strikes underneath the punch header, I’m separating them out as distinctively different for writers because movements of the body (arm position, hand position, hip pivot, and striking range) while performing them varies depending on the individual strike.

Always remember that there are more than just these and extensive variations of each, so research, research, research. But the basics are the building blocks of any solid Martial Artist and they will save your character’s life when all the fancy tricks fail. And as tempting as it can be, the most important thing for any good writer to realize is this: there is no “best” in the world of Martial Arts, only what works best for you/your character’s physiology, style, and personality. If your character’s mind is not prepared to do what the style is asking them/training their body for, then it’s no good. If the style is meant/built around a different body type and is difficult for your character to modify to the point of them being subpar then it’s no good.

Onwards!

The Punch:

The punch is the most basic technique of any fighter’s arsenal. Every martial art in the world has some variation of the punch and because it’s simple, it’s easy to use. So, let’s talk about it.

The punch involves pulling all five fingers into a fist, with the thumb acting as a bracer for the others. When it strikes, it drives the two front knuckles into the opponent’s soft tissue. It’s actually a common fallacy that the punch involves the whole hand. Practice forming a fist and you’ll notice the knuckles on the fore and index fingers extend forward while the others pull back. The rest of the fingers brace the hand. The reason why the punch is often taught first is because it’s a basic builder for training someone to make a fist and teaching their muscles how to tighten properly in conjunction with the blow.

A punch always drives forward with three variations: the face (the neck, the upper lip, the nose, and sometimes (in boxing) the eyebrow), the solar plexus (the midpoint in the chest), and the stomach itself (around the belly button). The height of the character and the height of their opponent will dictate their comfort level in striking to these areas. The punch is commonly taught to beginners from the waist, standing or in a horse stance (feet facing forwards, both knees bent to a 90 degree angle), or from a fighting stance (one foot forward, one foot back the length of the shoulders, shoulders and hips on a 45 degree angle). There are several variations on the punch for the more advanced writer and I will detail them in a post dedicated to them.

Common Advanced Technique: It’s not really an advanced technique, but in boxing the punch is broken up into two separate categories: the jab and the cross/straight. The jab is performed by the leading hand in the fighting stance (usually the left), it’s a fast strike that pivots off the front foot with minimal shoulder cranking, in a boxing or UFC match it’s usually the first punch thrown to test the opponent’s guard. Because of its speed, the strike is designed around stunning the opponent when it connects, thus disorienting the opponent and leaving them open to a follow up strike: usually the cross. It can also be used to keep the opponent on the defensive. The cross (right or left) is the secondary strike that follows the jab. It’s performed with the rear hand in a fighting stance, the one by the cheek that’s guarding the face, and uses the back foot to pivot the hip and create power. The cross is the power punch. Together, these two strikes create a basic combination that’s known as the double punch.

Common Beginning Mistake: When most beginners start out, they stick their thumb inside the fist in order to protect it. This will break the hand when it connects; always keep your characters fingers tight in a punch.

So, how do you write it? Here’s an example:

Alex lunged forwards, his right fist striking high. Knocking the hand away at the wrist, Anna stepped in, her back foot pivoting as she slammed her own fist into her opponent’s throat.

The Hammer Fist:

This is one of those attacks that works exactly as the name describes.

No, really.

The hand tightens into a fist, but instead of turning over to punch, it remains vertical and strikes downwards to the center of chest in the same manner as we would use a hammer to strike a nail or an anvil. This strike comes in two flavors, direct, to the nose, the wrist, the back of the head, the sternum, the groin/testicles, and the collarbone. It also works on a forty-five degree angle to the neck, usually the soft pressure point underneath the ear or the occipital bone, the mandible, or slightly lower to the carotid artery. The hammer fist does not risk the bones in the hand to a break and it spreads the force of its strikes more evenly across a small surface (the size of the fist or a small golf ball).

 Common Advanced Technique: The Hammer Fist doesn’t really have one, it can however be performed on a diagonal for easier access to more sensitive areas.

Common Beginner Mistake: The hammer fist is a fairly safe strike, so long as the beginner remembers to keep their fingers tight with their thumb bracing their fist and their wrist aligned with the hand. Also, because of the hammer fist’s wind up, the beginner often forgets to keep their free hand up, protecting their face. The hammer fist is a powerful strike, but it leaves openings that can be exploited by a clever opponent. Remember, because it’s slow, this strike is not an opening move unless the opponent is already prone.

Example:

Alex came in low, shooting forwards with his arms spread wide. He’s going to tackle me, Anna thought. He had the height and weight advantage. If he got her on the ground then the fight would be over. I can thrash all I want, but it won’t do much good. Still, going forward also left him vulnerable. He’s expecting me to attempt a sprawl, but why risk the timing? Swinging her leg sideways, she turned her body completely one hundred and eighty degrees to his. By the time he was able to stop, it would be too late. Drawing her arm back, she struck downwards with the bottom of her fist. Her hand slammed into the back of his neck, into the vulnerable point where skeleton joined with skull, with the force of a hammer.

The Backfist

 As the name suggests, the backfist uses the back of the hand, specifically the knuckles, to strike the opponents softer regions. Like with the above punch the backfist strikes with the tops of the front two knuckles, pulling the leading arm back diagonally across the body and striking outward to the temple or the throat. The advantage of the backfist is that it’s fast. When it lands, the backfist disorients the opponent and like all strikes to the head, it may cause them to stumble.

In Tae Kwon Do, this strike is also commonly used as a distractor to create an opening in the opponent’s guard by striking within the opponent’s outside field of peripheral vision, thus tricking the brain into attempting to block high while simultaneously striking low with a punch to the gut or ribs. The backfist/cross combination is one of the most basic techniques taught to new trainees. It’s also useful, in sparring circumstances, by instructors who wish to remind a lazy student to guard their head.

Common Advanced Technique: The spinning backfist. Using a technique similar to spin kicks such as the wheel kick, the fighter spins 360 degrees to either the right or left and strikes their opponent with their leading hand (the side they spun to the left or right with). This increases the power of the strike by including the extra momentum of the spin. However, it is very easy for the beginner to become disoriented and for the user to be knocked off their feet by their opponent’s counter.

Common Beginner Mistake: If the student is wearing hand-guards (brass knuckles, UFC fiberglass gloves, handwraps, wrist-wraps) the backfist is very useful in a real world situation. If they’re not, they risk breaking their knuckles on their opponent’s skull when they miss the temple. The backfist is one of those attacks that requires a higher level of accuracy than most of the other strikes on this list for that reason. It’s a powerful strike, but carries with it a greater risk versus reward.

 Example:

The instructor dropped his hand in front of them. “Go!” He yelled.

Anna lunged in. Her opponent, Regina had strong legs, but like all those new to sparring, she had some bad habits regarding the protection of the head. Drawing her left hand back to the side of her face, Anna struck out with the back of her fist. Landing an easy, visible hit to Regina’s head, she slammed her right hand into the other woman’s chest pad.

“Three points!“

The Uppercut

 The uppercut is a very specific strike most commonly seen in variations of boxing and kickboxing. This technique involves driving the fist upwards, usually to strike under the opponent’s chin and knock the head back. The uppercut can also be driven forward on a diagonal into the stomach and solar plexus, also though more uncommonly to the nose and eyes (though only when wearing hand-guards). Unlike the backfist, the punch, and the hammer fist, the uppercut requires the wielder be within fairly close proximity to their opponent.  Like most punches in boxing, the uppercut can be thrown with either hand.

Common Advanced Technique: Like the Hammer Fist, there really isn’t one.

Common Beginner Mistake: The most common beginner mistake with the uppercut is a timing failure, knowing when and how to use a technique is a matter of practice. Like all strikes, the uppercut can leave the user open to exacting counters when used improperly or when they miss. If your character is new and decides to use this technique, do not be afraid to punish them for it.

Example:

It was supposed to be an easy follow-up to the hook, just drop her weight low and pivot her back foot while thrusting her left arm and hip upwards. If she was lucky, well, she’d score a knock out and the round would be over. But Alex’s hand came down and knocked her arm sideways, his other fist slammed into her nose. She heard the crunch of cartilage ringing in her ears as blinding white hot pain shot through her brain. Then, his knee drove forwards into her belly. Knees hitting the floor, she grasped her stomach.

It hurt more than she thought it would.

The Hook

The hook is another specialized strike that’s common mostly to boxing and kickboxing. It’s a horizontal blow that comes in sideways, swinging around to connect with the ribs or the jaw. When it connects to the occipital bone in the jaw it’s a knockout strike. It can be performed with either hand.

Common Advanced Technique: The check hook. The difference between the check hook and the regular hook is entirely a matter of footwork, much like the spinning backfist, it’s what the feet are doing that makes the difference in the attack. The check hook is performed in boxing when the opponent lunges, the boxer pivots their left foot and swings their back foot 180 degrees sideways, driving the hook  into the opponent’s jaw as they rush past.

Common Beginner Mistake: A failure to connect the lower body with the upper body. Please remember: always think about the feet and the hips in conjunction with the upper body.

Example:

 When his right-cross came, she slipped underneath it. Stepping sideways, head low, she twisted her front foot and swung her left fist around, driving it straight into his ribs.

 Fist Strikes and Damage:

The hand is full of many small, delicate bones and the front of the face (the forehead and the cheekbones) is the most heavily armored part of the human body. The brain is the most important part of keeping us alive, so it makes sense. So please, unless your character is some variant of a boxer or UFC fighter don’t have them punch to the face. If their hands are unprotected or unarmored, they’re going to break something. When most martial artists talk about punching to the face, they usually mean it in a “sport” capacity, not a self-defense one. Always make sure to research the martial art you are using and modify it appropriately if you mean to use it in a self-defense context.

It’s often a misnomer of non-practitioners that the boxing gloves, fiberglass gloves, or handwraps seen in most professional boxing/kickboxing sports are there for the safety of the opponent. They are not, they are there to reinforce a fighter’s fist and minimize the risk of a metacarpal injury.

When striking with any fist strike, the wrist must be aligned with the hand to prevent injury. Your fighter must keep the muscles of the fist and the wrist tight.

I’ll link the other primers on the open hand strikes and elbows together for easy viewing when I get them up.

As always, happy writing!

Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.