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Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Open Hand)

In this post we’ll be talking about open hand strikes, how they work and what they do. While closed hand strikes are more popular in fiction, the ones working with the open hand are also important. We’ll start by talking about the advantages and disadvantages of the open hand, and then try to give some insight into some specific strikes with some examples on how to write them.

With open hand strikes, there’s honestly not that much to say. Or there’s not much I can say, aside from a few common ones, they’re not my specialty. But try not to let that worry you too much, I’m avoiding the spear hand on principle because it’s finicky and the chances your character would have to use the strike are so limited (and so obvious) that it’s better to just ignore it for the moment.

So, let’s get down to it.

Open hand strikes can be, in the right circumstances, more dangerous than a closed fist because they focus the force of the strike into a much more concentrated point than the fist. It’s important to remember that most of the conventional wisdom about force application we have in popular culture comes from observations made about various sport styles and exhibition fighting, such as in movies and staged fights at martial arts tournaments. The assumption becomes that those moves were chosen to be allowed because they are more effective, not less. The problem though, with that assumption is that while goal of fighting is to win, it’s also to do so with relative safety and not kill the opponent. Injure, wound, and maim perhaps, but again not kill. The same is true for both tournament demonstration and media in general. Many of the open hand strikes are, in fact, designed not just for killing but also screwing with the body’s internal energy flow and its nervous system.

Open hand strikes are useful in that they can transition more easily into blocks than the closed hand strikes.

Below: the open palm strike, the half-palm strike, the knife hand, the ridge hand, and the slap.

The Open Palm Strike:

A common strike in Karate and Tae Kwan Do, the palm strike (open and half) is one that allows the attacker to hit their opponents body with minimal risk to the delicate bones in the hand. The open palm strike specifically hits the opponent with the meaty portion of the lower palm in the vulnerable areas of the body. It is important to remember, that the strike does not use the whole hand. The palm strike uses the wrist as the driving force behind the assault, with the hand vertical to the rest of the arm. It’s important to keep the entire hand and wrist tight to absorb the impact. Like the punch, the palm strike goes upwards at a 45 degree angle to the face (hitting the nose, it drives the cartilage into the brain) and straight to the stomach. If the strike is low enough, it can connect with the throat, but it’s also important not to catch the fingers on the chin. There is, however, a variation on the half-palm strike that goes to the throat and it is discussed below.

Remember, like all strikes, the power of the palm strike comes from the hips, the shoulders, and the pivot of the front or back foot, not the muscles in arm. Martial arts is a full body exercise.

How do you write it? Here’s an example:

Amy stepped in as her opponent’s arm came up. Folding her fingers in until they touched the underside of her knuckles, she bent her hand up to expose the fleshy portion of her palm. There wasn’t enough distance between the two of them for her to strike his nose and he was closing rapidly.

Well, Amy realized, she’d just have to take a chance.

Jaw clenching, her elbow and shoulder pulled back. Then, her hand shot out, slamming her palm into the small, vulnerable opening underneath his chest. As the wind went out of him, she threw herself forward. Her hands rose to clinch the back of his head, her fingers locking together as her elbows folded in around his throat. Drawing him down as her hip came up, she rammed her right knee into his groin. 

The Half-Palm Strike:

The major difference between the open palm strike and the half-palm is that the first one comes in with fingers straight, the second folds the fingers and tucks them in tight against the bottom knuckle of the palm. When the half palm is vertical to the wrist it strikes the same as the open palm. However, when it’s horizontal and in-line with the wrist, it strikes with the joints to the windpipe or the stomach. It can be performed overhand (with the palm facing down) or underhand (with the palm facing up).

Common Beginner Mistake: The open palm strike is commonly taught first, on the basis of beginners risking a finger break. The joints of the fingers are extremely delicate, so if it connects wrong such as the practitioner forgetting to pull their hand all the way back to expose the meaty portion of the palm when the hand is vertical or connecting with a bony part of the body such as the cheek, chest, or chin when doing the horizontal version the fighter risks damage to themselves.

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

Alan’s fingers folded in and he rolled his hand over. Drawing his arm down to his waist, he struck upwards at a forty-five degree angle. The tender joints of his fingers met his opponent’s windpipe, but instead of slamming through, Alan pulled back. After all, this was just a training exercise. Jim stumbled, hands rising to his throat. He hacked and wheezed, drawing air up in through his nostrils. Then, he lifted his head. Narrowed eyes glared at Alan as Jim turned his head to the side and spat.

The Knife Hand:

We’ve talked some about the knife hand and how dangerous it can be in previous posts, but we’re going to talk about it again! Why? Why not! The knife hand is a bread and butter strike from quite a few different martial arts from all over the world, though it was popularized, attributed, and defanged by Hollywood to Karate in the 60s and 70s in the spy genre with “the karate chop”. Contrary to popular belief though, the knife hand isn’t actually a safe knockout strike to the side or back of the neck. It’s a kill strike and when it’s within range, it’s a fairly efficient one. So, be careful with it. If your character is practicing any variant of Karate or more traditional forms of Taekwondo then they will be exceedingly familiar with this strike.

The knife hand or the sword-hand uses the blade of the hand, the outside edge opposite the thumb that runs from the little finger to the wrist when the hand is flat and tightened together. The wrist locks in place to support the hand and the fingers point to create the visual profile of a knife or single edge sword. The knife hand strikes in a chopping motion either up and down or on a diagonal, it doesn’t stab. The knife hand targets soft points on the body from the carotid artery in the neck to the outside pressure point midway up the upper arm between the biceps and triceps. The strike closes the carotid artery and when it aims from the spinal column or the back of the neck, it’s looking to sever vertebrae. The blade of the hand allows for much deeper tissue penetration and more pinpointed strikes.

Common Beginner Mistake: Your character has got to keep their entire hand tightened, if they loosen up before impact they’ll damage their hand and won’t really damage their target. This is where thoughts like “I don’t want to hurt anyone” will really screw you, because it both damages a character’s ability (and yours) to fight effectively (thus ending the fight quickly before anyone is hurt more than they need to be) and the good intentions open the character up to retaliation by the person they’re fighting (who often really does want to hurt them). The knife hand, while a simple strike, doesn’t have a lot of room for error on the part of the practitioner before it’s no longer capable of dealing damage. The mind and body need to be in sync with each other.

Example:

Tightening her hand into a blade, Sonya slammed it on a downwards diagonal into the side of Misha’s throat.

The Ridge Hand:

The ridge hand is the opposite version of the knife hand, it uses the inside portion of the hand to strike on a diagonal arc to different portions of the body, such as the mastoid muscles in the neck, the jugular, the temple, the eyes, the nose, and the groin. It’s a strike that I personally feel is more dangerous to the wielder than the opponent because of what happens if they miss, but that’s why it’s high risk and high reward. Unlike the knife hand, the ridge hand is a very big strike. Much like a haymaker or roundhouse punch, it requires a rather wide arc to be successful and thus is very easy to see. This is not a stealthy strike. Like I said: high risk equals high reward.

 To perform a ridge hand, tuck the thumb against the hand (or under it in some styles). Lock the fingers together, tighten the whole arm up to the shoulder and swing the arm on a diagonal, high or low, to the point of impact. The ridge hand doesn’t strike with the fingers, but with the inside side of the first knuckle on the hand. When on a high diagonal strike, the arm swings up and arcs downwards into the target, even when going across into the nose or eyes. When going to the groin, it just swings straight up between the legs while stepping through the opponent.

Common Beginner Mistake: The ridge hand really requires fairly exceptional accuracy when dealing with an opponent in non-sparring circumstances. A beginner has a greater chance of missing, which means they’ll hurt their hand in the process. It’s better to stick to safer strikes. Safer for the beginner, I mean.

Example:

Sarah whipped her arm up and slammed it downwards in a wide arc, tucking her thumb tightly against the side of her hand. The first knuckle of her hand collided with Ethan’s left temple and he stumbled backwards. Then, his eyes rolled back and he dropped to his knees.

The Slap:

The slap doesn’t get a lot of love and with good reason: there are better techniques out there that work faster and do more damage in a shorter amount of time. The slap mostly plays out in the hands of street fighters, amateurs, and wife beaters because it’s a safe strike for the hand, and spreads the force over a wide area, and is a stunner more than a hitter. But, for a character who is not sure how to fight and is worried about breaking their hand on someone else’s face, the slap is actually a pretty good strike to use when disorienting and distracting an opponent. Its fellow technique is the bitch slap which uses the knuckles on the back of the hand to make more of an impression.

The slap comes with some nasty connotations for abuse, so be careful with it.

The slap uses the whole hand to whack the opponent across the face, it’s usually going for the cheek or, more specifically, the sensitive exposed cheekbone underneath the eye. Places on the body with exposed bone like the shin, the cheek, and the elbow’s funny bone tend to be more sensitive and easy places to produce pain for a stun to lock up the opponent.

Common Beginner Mistake: This one’s more about perception of an opponent than it is about actual fighting failure. The slap is very safe and easy, but because it’s used as a controlling strike and often gets lodged in as the favoured strike of abusers and bullies, writers and their characters often underestimate those who use it. Someone picking on or hurting someone smaller and weaker than themselves is (a bad person) not necessarily a weakling that a stronger character can take out. Sometimes it’s that simple, but often people are more complex than that.

Example:

Do you really need an example for how to write a slap? I didn’t think so.

Other primers that may be of use to you:

The Kicking Primer (Basics) Part 1

The Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

Fight Write: Don’t Underestimate the Slap