When somebody is fighting, how much space is in their head for thinking? Sometimes you see writers put entire monologues in their character’s head, and that seems a bit excessive, but once moves become instinctive is it easier to notice/observe and process thoughts? So maybe it would be somewhere between “Thinking constantly of my movements” and “Let me theorize about my opponent’s background for paragraphs on end.”
You have enough time to make snap decisions, but that’s about it. If you actually stop and think during combat you’ll get hit because you weren’t focused on what was happening in front of you. The point of training is to internalize combat techniques to the point where they, and even combinations, become reflexive. This is because you don’t have time to think about how a technique is performed during combat where a fraction of a fraction of a second can be the deciding factor between victory and defeat. The goal is to give you the choice to act rather than just react. The time link between your brain and your muscles is dropped to near instantaneous in reaction so you know what to do next without having to think about it because you don’t have time to think.
See > Decide > Act is reduced to See > Act.
There’s no realization. There’s just action.
While you were thinking about what you wanted to do, I hit you. Your indecision is my opening to exploit. The world will not wait for you to be ready, and your narrative shouldn’t be waiting for your character’s either.
In the real world a street fight is over within twenty five seconds. With specific techniques, you can kill another human with your bare hands in seven seconds. That includes both the time it takes to do the technique and the time it takes for them to die. The reduction of time from seconds to fractions of seconds is the ultimate goal because the faster you are then the better chance you have. You want to get out ahead of your enemy’s brain and finish acting before they have a chance to realize what’s happening/happened to them.
All real observations and decisions happen before the fight begins. This is why tactical awareness is a key skill for any warrior, martial artist, or self-defense practitioner. This where your ability to be aware of your surroundings and observe human behavior will help you know when you are in danger. You can get into the necessary mental state where you are ready to fight before the fight begins, saving yourself on crucial seconds which could be the difference between victory and defeat. Being prepared for a fight reduces your reaction time before the first bullet is fired or the first punch is ever thrown. You don’t need to realize you’re in danger, figure out what you’re going to do, come to terms with harming another human being, and try to buy time until you’re ready, at which point the battle is already over. No, you know you’re in danger and you react accordingly in the moment.
“I didn’t really have time to think about what I was going to do. By the time I realized I was in danger, I was dead.
I saw myself falling, I remember that. The world shifted sideways. I hit the ground. My shoulder landed first. Then, I saw his face. Saw him looking down at me.
He grinned, a big toothy grin. The gun barrel moved. A blinding flash, then everything… you know, everything went dark.
I woke up here. With you.”
When you’re writing a fight scene, it’s important to realize that each sentence represents the progression of time and time doesn’t wait for your character to be ready. Speaking and thinking are not free actions, they represent critical seconds where your character could be acting either by attacking or defending. The narrative’s progression shouldn’t stop just because they’re thinking. Their opponents shouldn’t politely wait for the character to be ready.
Now, dialogue can be used as a defensive action and a strategic means of buying time for recovery. However, if your character strikes up a conversation with their enemy understand that what they’ve done is actually end the fight scene, ended the engagement until the start of the next engagement. Dialogue can disrupt the flow of combat as a combat tactic, but thinking can’t.
For violence in the narrative, you actually need to stay on point or you lose your tension in the scene. In a visual medium like comics or movies, violence is often treated as spectacle. In a movie, what you’re actually enjoying isn’t the violence itself but the acrobatic movements of professional stunt performers. Certain types of movement on film are incredibly engaging visually and the film doesn’t lose much by letting these actors go at it for prolonged periods.
As writers utilizing a written medium you don’t have that option. You’re not a professional stunt choreographer and stunt actor, and even if you were you don’t get the perks visual action buys for you. You don’t get spectacle, you get novelty, and you’ve got to keep the scene moving quickly so your audience remains invested.
You want short and sweet with lots of little fights interspersed by running for your life or buying time or getting to cover instead of long, drawn out battles.
Treat each sentence like it’s a second. That’s enough time for an attack and for the attack to be over. Enough for several attacks if you’re good at conserving time.
Attack > Hit > Next Action.
Attack > Deflect or Attack > Deflect + Counter > Next Action.
Character A punches. Character B catches punch, steps forward, uses other hand to strike under the chin with their palm and force A’s head up.
If B sits around thinking about what they’re going to do next from this position then they give A time to attack them and take back the fight’s inertia. Once you have the inertia, you want to keep moving. While you’ve got your opponent off balance you want to make the most of their defenseless state while you still can. Consistent action doesn’t give them time to recover, but waiting does. Drifting into your thoughts while you consider your next move also gives your enemy time to recover.
Notice also, Character B just changed ranges within a single second. They went from punch range straight into grappling range and put A into a bad situation where they can’t see what’s going on. They’ve set themselves up for several options. One is to force A backward by applying pressure to their head until they fall over or transition their hand across A’s face to their ear and put them into a sideways throw utilizing the head, the wrist they captured, and their front leg.
If you just went… what? It’s this:
The hand on the wrist yanks backwards and pulls their opponent forward. This puts them off balance. The hand on the head applies pressure sideways and forces the head sideways. Where the head goes, the body follows. They turn sideways, catching their opponent’s back leg with their front leg and use that calf/knee as the tripping mechanism. This forces all the balance onto the destabilized front leg, which while already on the ball of the foot will give as the ankle twists, and when it does they are put on the ground.
Now, A is on the ground and B is still standing. B can do what they want from here to A, but unless A is very good at fighting while prone and finds a way to take B to the ground with them then the fight is over. Likewise, your fight scene is over in less than a minute.
That’s the other side of training. You don’t just spend your time learning one or two techniques so you can do them without thinking about it. You train to link those techniques together into combinations so when the time for the next action comes you already know what to do.
The character doesn’t have to plot out: “I’m going to catch his punch, put my hand under his chin, and ram my opponent into that wall over there. After, I’ll rest my forearm on his windpipe to apply pressure and cut off airflow but not completely choke him.” They already know because they trained to do all that without thinking about it. This gives them time to perform an entire string of complex actions before their enemy has time to realize what’s happening to them. There’s also the classic, “From the position with my hand under his chin, I’ll transition my arm up and around his throat into a guillotine with my forearm on his windpipe then knee him in the groin before lifting up into the choke.”
“I hit you with the roundhouse to your ribs with my front leg and knock the air out of you, then retract into a chamber, swing my leg across to hit you in the head with a hook kick while you’re stumbling sideways, which dazes you and gives me opportunity to transition into a standing jump roundhouse off my back leg. Bye bye.”
This is the slightly more advanced concept called setup. You use your basic techniques in combination to fire off the large action finisher. This is actually what your characters beyond green belt level are fighting for the opportunity to do. (And… yes, some variants of taekwondo jump kicks and other discipline’s jump kicks can be performed with one foot already off the ground because the power leg that initiates the jump is the one which transitions into the kick. That’s where the momentum is.)
The ultimate goal is to reduce risk for yourself while maximizing the other person’s. Your character should be doing their observations and planning in the moments before the fight begins, not while the fight is occurring. You can get most of what you need through observation, and if you get a chance to observe their fights before you fight them then all the better.
You want your exposition in the moments between fights as a padding out breather for your audience before the next fight starts. Whenever the fight ends, the fight scene part of the scene ends. You’ll probably have multiple little fights which constitute a larger fight, but it’ll be easier for you to think of the scenes as scenes.
What you don’t want to be doing is thinking about what you’re going to be doing in the moment because then you’re not focused on acting and are instead taking a ridgehand to the head, which at worst will cost you two points on the sparring scorecard. This is much better than taking the bladed inside of your enemy’s hand to your temple. You didn’t just give them the opportunity to hit you, you let them hit you with an incredibly powerful but heavily telegraphed strike.
Your body will react for you, but you’re still piloting the vehicle. In some ways, it’s like driving and not driving on a highway. No, this is driving in a winding canyon with everyone around you going sixty to eighty miles per hour. If you space out that could be difference between your survival and you going off a cliff. You’ve got about enough awareness to say, “there’s an asshole tailgating me, and I better ease off the gas ’cause that’s a twenty mile an hour turn ahead.” So, if you’re not focused then your body won’t be either. So, you’ve got to focus on what’s immediately happening in front of you in order to react to it. Training just carves away all the excess thinking which will slow you down, like trying to remember how to do a technique, or trying to decide on which technique, or spend too much time focusing on strategy, or cracking wise. This way your reaction times have been shaved down to .25 seconds and you can perform several actions before the single second is over.
Realize > React > Act.
“I need to fight now” is a sentence you don’t have time for because by the time you’ve said it the punch has already arrived. The air is also now gone from your lungs, so you’ll need to breathe again before you act. On the page, a fight flowing at the pace time progresses while you’re thinking will look like this.
That’s five potential punches per thought, and only if they miss. If you’re very lucky, your character may manage to multitask by thinking and dodge at the same time. However, because their focus is split they will be slower and may miss objects in their environment which can trip them.
So, was the time spent on thinking worth it?
For all that people talk about the simplicity of violence, you should know that hand to hand violence is actually very mechanically complex. You’ve got to be doing a lot of complex actions at the same time, which is why you train to perform them. However, that doesn’t mean the time you rid yourself of thinking of how to perform them is freeing you up for other things. You’ve freed yourself up for near instantaneous action. This is your trade off. If you pack other thoughts in where those previous thoughts were then you’re actually slowing yourself back down. Your focus is spent on the action itself. Your character’s goal is actually to finish the fight within a single sentence rather than an entire paragraph. That’s what all participants of violence want, for the fight to be over as quickly as possible. H2H is also the slowest form of violence with the least amount of risk when it comes to sudden death. With weapons, you better not be thinking because a mistake will result in broken arms, fatal stabbings, and getting shot.
You can think or you can fight.
Trust me, you want to be fighting.