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Q&A: Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

Hotheads to who jump into fights at a moments notice over a slight or insult with something to prove are beginners. They’re not (usually) seasoned soldiers. Seasoned combatants understand the costs and consequences of violence, both to themselves and the people around them. They’re more likely to make mental calculations regarding risk, assess risk, and decide whether they will or won’t fight. The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

This doesn’t sound like its a duel, but if you were thinking it might be then I’ll lay down some facts.

Duels are highly ritualized as a form of combat, and come with very specific rules of what does and doesn’t constitute a duel. (Much less the people who can take part in them.) Duels, Code Duello, Medieval Duels. If you’re up for reading some Medieval Charters in regards to dueling as a legal means of settling disputes, here’s some. In some cases, they’re a means of settling a dispute or challenge to ones honor.  We still have duels today as a point of fact, it’s just the duelists and their swords have been replaced with lawyers. For a duel to be a duel, they’d both need to be armed. Usually with the same weapon, otherwise its not a test of skill or fair. Weapons inherently offer advantages over each other, and if you’re not fighting with the same weapon then that would be cheating. This fight between these two is not be what we’d call Right Honorable Combat, and its probably illegal.

“Daggers and such” covers a lot of ground.  It could mean one of these characters has daggers, swords, polearms, or even a flail. Also, when fighting with weapons, you’re usually fighting with intent to kill. If that wasn’t the other character’s intent, they might put their weapon away when facing off against the character who is unarmed. I’m going to assume this unarmed character is squaring off against an opponent who carries a dagger. However, I did note the plurality of weapons. You will immediately run into trouble if you don’t hammer down which weapon the unarmed character is facing, or if they decided to dual wield with the second weapon as defensive. Different weapons require different approaches as each comes with its own concerns. Distance is a major one. The only universal rule is: don’t get hit.

Start with the assumption one of these characters is actively trying to kill the other, if he wasn’t then he’d put the weapon away. Outside of highly ritualized and carefully moderate dueling structures where one might call for time at first blood, a highly skilled character will understand weapons are for killing. With weapons, especially bladed weapons, skill level isn’t a matter of deciding when you kill and when you don’t. It is a matter of deciding whether or not you care to risk your opponent’s death. If they were interested in a test of skill or even just a friendly hand to hand bought, they wouldn’t pull it to begin with. Your main character needs to win this duel because if they don’t, they’ll be either grievously wounded or dead.

Working under a predetermined outcome when writing a fight scene is the worst decision. What we want in our heads won’t necessarily translate to the page, and more importantly characters who know they’re going to live will behave differently from characters who don’t know they will. Simulating the chance of death in your mind by entertaining death as a possible outcome will force them and you to work harder. They’ve got to earn their right to survive.

Now, your character isn’t planning to win because the plot needs to progress. He’s fighting because he wants to live.

Feel the difference? We’re now six inches closer to real tension.

Highly skilled doesn’t translate to guaranteed survival, it just means you’ve got a better grasp of what’s happening, how screwed you are, and potentially have more tools to escape a bad situation. They allow the character to recognize the danger their facing, what the intent of their opponent is, and, hopefully, act accordingly before its too late. There is, however, only so much training can give. Weapons are one of the situations where an unskilled character can make up the difference against one who is highly skilled. Weapons are the great equalizer. A guy with a knife is a guy with a knife. Whether you’ve been training for five minutes or eight years, there’s a extremely high chance of death if you’re unarmed and unarmored. The difference between the person who has trained for five minutes and the one who trained for eight years is that the experienced one has a better understanding of what it means when someone pulls a knife. They know it means they’re at an 80% or greater chance of death. They know a wrong move could, at best, result in an injury they may never recover from. Their chance of victory is razor thin where the margin of error is next to none. This is why smart warriors don’t fight other people with weapons without weapons of their own or, if they cannot avoid it, change the rules.

I’m going to assume too that you’re going with the old Defeat Means Friendship trope. You want Character A to be fought to a standstill by Character B who disarms them, then when put under threat to their life surprises Character A by letting them live and giving them back their weapon. (Which promptly causes Character A to stab them if we’re being realistic, but that’s not what the trope is about. If you want this trope, please give the weapon back later.) The problem, of course, is you’ll completely undercut Character A’s combat ability if you do it wrong.

Personally, my favorite rendition of this trope is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland where Robin Hood dueled Little John on the bridge with a staff after Little John called him out over his bow. Robin took Little John’s challenge (he can’t resist a challenge), dueled with a weapon he was less familiar with, lost, and got dunked in the river. Their friendship was born out of Robin Hood’s good humor over his bath and his appreciation for Little John’s skill. (This is a great foreshadowing for the archery competition later in the movie.)

In the film, we had plenty of opportunities to see Robin’s skill earlier. Little John needed to establish himself. By having him beat Robin with the weapon that is his specialty, we as the audience understand how skilled he is. Just as when Friar Tuck fought Robin to a standstill later as Robin attempted to recruit him. (And his men pranked him about the good friar’s skill with a sword, aka they lied.) Robin’s friendships with his men evolve not from his skill or how he’s better than they are, but in his ability to handle defeat gracefully and genuinely appreciate their skills. In both moments, we see him duel to test out these potential recruits. In both, he gets a good dunking in the river that is entirely his own fault.

You see, Robin establishes his ability much earlier in the movie when he lays claim to the deer killed by Much the Miller to protect him from Sir Guy of Gisborne. He then carries it into Nottingham Castle. (Saxon taking an illegally killed deer into a castle full of Norman knights alone.) Dumps the deer carcass on Prince John’s table in the Great Hall during dinner, and proceeds to tell Prince John, Sir Guy, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marian, the Bishop of the Black Canons, and all his knights over the dinner he’s invited himself to that he’s planning sedition to fight John’s rule. After hearing him out, John attempts to have him killed by the castle’s men at arms and all the knights present. Robin, still alone, then fights his way out of the Castle.

In the process he shows off his sword skills, his archery skills, his moxie, his fluency with treason, his strategic/tactical ability, and his quick thinking. (The fight scene that follows is probably one of the best if you ever want to write one person versus a whole room full of people. It involves the fine art of running away with purpose and the occasional murder.)

We know about about Robin. We know he’s brash, reckless, and incredibly skilled. That’s why the later fights with Little John and Friar Tuck have so much meaning when it comes to establishing their skills. They can go toe to toe with the guy who strutted into Prince John’s castle as a wanted man then got back out again while the heavily armed and armored inhabitants tried to kill him.

Whatever purpose you have for this fight scene, it’s important to remember what it is establishing in the relationship between these two characters. Take the lesson from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and understand it isn’t enough just to win. The fight scene needs to be there for a reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the kinds of fight scenes you write must revolve around what you’re trying to say about these characters abilities. Two characters you want to be seen as evenly skilled need to fight evenly. Friendships aren’t built on superiority. The protagonist being beaten is a different category from all other fictional defeats, it doesn’t delegitimize them the way it will a character we spend less time with. For the protagonist, defeats they survive are learning experiences and we learn far more about a person by how they handle defeat than we do when they win.

Robin Hood isn’t less awesome because he loses to Little John at the bridge, he’s actually that much more incredible than he was before. We learn its not just his skills he appreciates, but those of the people who best him. We know Robin is willing to fight others on their terms for the fun of it, rather than his own. Little John being better than Robin at one skill doesn’t take away from Robin’s previous victories. Robin’s acceptance shows his abilities as a leader better than being superior with a staff he made five minutes prior.

A character fighting another character when they have a weapon and the other character doesn’t isn’t showing that both are equally skilled. It’s actually showing one with a significant advantage over the other. When the underdog beats him, the underdog is shown to be much more skilled. That’s the point of unevenly balanced fights in fiction.

Little John: “I’ve only a staff and you threaten me with a long bow and a gray goose shaft. Are you not man enough…?”

Robin Hood: “Give me time to get myself a staff.” – The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Two characters fighting with the same weapons are on an even field, this is a battle of skill. Two characters fighting with different weapons are unevenly balanced, the shifting advantages make the combat difficult and the scene becomes about one character problem solving around their disadvantage. A scene where two characters are highly skilled but one is armed and the other is not will end with the unarmed character either dying or proving they are that much more skilled than the one with the weapon.

Disarms are difficult against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. There is no room for error, especially with a knife which can cut six different times in six different ways before you’ve a chance to grab it. Disarming someone who knows what they’re doing with their weapon is much harder.

A knife offers no room for error, every strike has the potential to be deadly. In order to disarm your opponent, you need to catch them by the wrist (not the knife) which puts one in direct line to get stabbed. You’ve got to catch the knife while simultaneously keeping yourself outside of stabbing distance. You can kick a knife out of someone’s hand, but then you don’t control it. You can attack the person instead of the knife as some self-defense disciplines encourage, with the theory being the person can’t use their knife if they’re disabled but so long as the knife is in hand that’s the present danger. Understand that inside their range the knife is as dangerous as the gun, if not more so. The knife is still as relevant today as a weapon as it was a thousand years ago. Think about that.

Daggers are essentially short swords, but the same principle is here. To stop a knife when one is unarmed, you need an immediate and brutal response. You need an immediate and brutal response when you’re armed too. This is not a weapon where you’re given time, consideration, and distance. It is fast, brutal, and over quickly. Any hit, even a glancing blow, has the potential to be end game. Character B can’t allow themselves to suffer no injuries, otherwise they’ll spend the next few months hoping their stitches don’t get infected or they’ll bleed out before they can get medical attention. This can be a problem as, against a knife, it’s often necessary to give up a body part in order to take it. It can’t strike other, more vital places if it’s in your hand. (Not a great option.) Or buried in the bone in your forearm. (Better.)

When fighting, one actually has to work around the knife. This is easier said than done, again knives are fast. They’re near modern fencing levels of fast while also much more deadly. They’ve got a lot less distance to cover and they’re very sharp. Forget about catching the blade unless your character has solid leather gauntlets (though those might get cut), metal is better.  They’re going to need to stop the arm long enough to take hold of the wrist and twist the dagger out of the enemy’s hands.

Disarms against weapons, especially when you have none of your own, are always incredibly dangerous. Skill means you can do them at all, but it doesn’t make them any safer or any more of a good idea. Gun disarms are for when you were going to get shot anyway, and you might as well go down fighting because there’s less than a 50/50 of success. Knife disarms are the same way.

The sad truth is that disabling someone is much more difficult than killing them, it is much riskier, and you’re much more likely to die in the attempt. We double that against someone who knows what they’re doing. Weapons are serious business and they’re designed around killing human beings.

Good fight scenes are about progressing the story forward. They teach us about the personalities of the characters involved, how they work, how they think, what their morals are, and they communicate more through the character’s actions than you think. Be careful with what you’re attempting to say.

An unarmed character disarming a mook with a knife will tell us a lot about their character without damaging anyone (except the mook we may never see again.) An unarmed character encountering and disarming another major character with a knife is a very different story, especially when this is the first time we meet them.

By and large, the rules of action are these:

  1. The protagonist is the baseline for understanding all narrative violence. They are the net point, all audience understanding of skill within the narrative begins with them. You want a character the audience understands is better than the protagonist? They beat the protagonist or beat someone established as being better than. (The villain murdering your martial arts master.) By constantly winning the protagonist undercuts everyone else.
  2. Have your protagonist lose or fight opponents to a standstill, usually on mostly even ground.
  3. They can defeat and disarm an important enemy, but only that enemy has thoroughly proved their worth in battle and you don’t wish to use them anymore. It can be a redemption kickstarter, but we need to witness their villainy and skills first. The hero better earn this win.
  4. Keep your characters on a relatively even playing field for tension unless there’s a very specific reason not to. Unarmed characters versus armed characters may seem like an easy way to establish skill, but you are catapulting them into a level of action you and they may not be prepared to make good on. (Also if one character beats another at the previous character’s specialty, what’s the point of that character?)
  5. Violence escalates and your story will escalate with it. Unless utilizing a different sort of action (see: Robin Hood), you can get caught in a cycle of enemies ratcheting ever higher in skill in order to maintain tension.
  6. Your villain is either more skilled than your hero or on an even keel with their own advantages that ensure they remain dangerous, no matter the humiliations they may suffer throughout the story. (Robin Hood steals Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s tax collection while he’s traveling in the forest, kidnaps him and his men, humiliates them, and makes them walk home. Sir Guy sets up an archery tournament and takes him captive, planning to hang him. He is saved by Marian, who sneaks out of the castle and visits his men with a plan.)
  7. Set your hero at the disadvantage, but stay within the realm of reason even when that reason may feel ridiculous. (Wesley fighting Fezzik in The Princess Bride.)
  8. Understand the kind of action you want in your story. Realism is the rules of reality within your setting. Worry about abiding by them and maintaining suspension of disbelief.
  9. Do not be afraid to humiliate your hero in order to set up the skills of other characters. If Character A is the protagonist, then Character B taking the knife from him could result in a good life lesson. (This is a traditional plot point when the protagonist meets their martial arts master. Not so great for showing two characters of equal skill level.)
  10. Inside out, rather than outside in. The justification of a fight is character driven as the character justifies the narrative. Violence is a means of problem solving, if your characters are not problem solving then they’re not using their skills effectively.
  11. Fight scenes are there to support your narrative, they do not have to be there. Don’t let the fight scene override the rest of your story. Act to maintain your tension.
  12. All violence must be paid off with resulting character interaction later in the narrative. Violence almost causes more problems than it solves.

Saying two characters are highly skilled is not enough, you need to show it and show it as a means that undercuts neither. A character who has already been proven as a great fighter earlier can lose to another in order to bolster that character’s cred with the audience. Remember, the POV character and protagonist always have more starting cred to their name than any other character.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it helps.

-Michi

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Q&A: Spears and Scythes

heya. I sent an ask awhile back about two people engaged in fighting with staffed weapons. one with a cross-spear, and the other with a scythe. i should’ve mentioned it is not a farm scythe, but the war scythe (i just assume when i say scythe people know you mean not the strictly meant for farming one, but i digress). anyway, i just wanted to throw that up since im sure the thought of someone fighting with a farm scythe makes your eyes bleed by this point.

Our eyes do bleed a little bit when it comes to scythes, though I personally have no issues with the scythe as a magical weapon or a space fantasy/science fiction one. I don’t have a problem with Deathscythe from Gundam Wing. The best way to get past the scratch and sniff test is to call it a “war scythe” because then we’ll know what you’re talking about. However, if one really wants to fence with a traditional scythe, 16th century aristocrat Paulus Hector Mair has you covered. (It should be pointed out, this section of the manual is for dueling with the farm scythes rather than using it as a preferred weapon. If you look at the drawings, you’ll understand why.)

Let me start by saying that staff combat is going to look fairly different depending on culture.

It can look like this (Joachim Meyer) or like this (Andre Paurenfeindt) or like this (Paulus Hector Mair, peasant staff) or like this (Monkey Staff) or like this (Jo Sparring , Aikido), or like this (Kalaripayattu), and so on. You’re asking about European polearms so a site like Wikitenaur that catalogues and translates manuals from European masters is going to be your friend.

When discussing martial combat with polearms, the staff is important. Whether you’re talking about a spear or a war scythe, remember they’re in the same weapon family.  The staff is their base weapon.  Both build off those training techniques, and the differences come in with the weapon’s head. When you’re setting out to write any fight scene, you want to begin with understanding the base or fundamental weapon. If we don’t grasp how a staff works or functions in single combat then we won’t understand how the spear, poleaxe, halberd, or war scythe do either.

A single leap carried Varien to wall above the Templar’s courtyard, and he dropped inside. The magical barrier rose behind him, rippling in the air as Sariel circled overhead. The first Templar in the yard stood with his back to him, an old gruff man with a craggy face. Varien thrust the tip of his spear through his neck, severing the spinal column and exiting the esophagus— a single clean stroke. Planting his bare foot on the Templar’s padded back, Varien kicked him forward.

“Rolf!” cried a wide eyed, flaxen haired youth on the training sands.

The Templar stumbled, gurling. His hands clawed at his throat, blood rushing down his neck and collapsed on the green.

One of the girls closest to the wrought iron gate leapt for it. Her hands flashing with the dispelling magic Templars prided themselves on. She lay her hand flat against it, then released. Grabbing the bars, she gave it a hard shake. The gate stood firm. Her eyes widened.

Well, well, there may some life in them after all, his lips twitched.

A step forward and he crossed the courtyard, re-appearing between the trainees practicing sword technique on the sands.

The first boy cried out.

Varien struck him hard across the jaw with the butt of his spear. Leaning back as the second boy lunged, blade sweeping into a downward hew, he rolled around behind him. The boy stumbled. A single, one handed thrust sent the spear point through his chest. Whipping it free, Varien spun his spear round and sent it on an upward diagonal through the first boy’s neck.

Together, they died without a sound.

In a written fight scene, the importance doesn’t lie in being technically accurate. What helps is understanding how the weapon is supposed to work and, as a result, how it moves.

As you see in the example of above, Varien thrusts with the spear but he also utilizes the butt of the spear to strike. Switching up between various angles to strike between the first and second boy. He uses both sides of his weapon. He strikes the first with the butt of his spear to take him out of the fight, gets out of the way of the second boy’s strike, rolls around behind him and kills him with a thrust. Then, we see him switch the spear back over to strike in the other direction.

The danger with a polearm in a fight scene is focusing too much on the spear point and forgetting the shaft. In dueling, the staff is dual sided. We use the tip and the butt with the shaft itself for blocking.

The staff is a dynamic weapon, it moves. Sweeping arcs rolling into thrusts, striking with both sides of the weapon, changing hands, you’ve got a full eight point strike pattern that has the possibility to constantly be in rotation.

The major difference between a spear and a scythe is the spear point utilizes thrusting as the weapon focus while the scythe makes use of a heavier head for slashing (see also: the naginata). Both the spear and the warscythe can cut and thrust, but each has moved toward a single specialty. A weapon’s specialty drives it’s strike patterns, how it moves, and that dictates how we translate it on the page.

The spear wielder is going to stab and the war scythe is going to cut, and both will make use of the basic staff patterns for striking. If they come from the same culture or master’s style then they’ll use the same staff patterns, if they come from different schools then they won’t. What matters for you as the writer is learning how to visualize their move sets so you can choreograph them on the page.

Cut translates into: down, across, diagonal, around, rotate, swing. This is a circular pattern, you’ve got to line up the blade on to the strike, so if you’re going to swing it sideways, the whole weapon must rotate sideways so the blade points at the opponent. One hand guides the weapon, the other yanks back to create leverage for the blow.

Stab translates to: thrust, forward, jab, stab, drive, etc.  You want words that exhibit forward and direct momentum. The attack lines will be direct, and the spear is not going to move much off it’s focal point.

The war scythe is going to make use of leverage while the spear comes at you directly.  If it helps imagine one as a sabre and the other as a rapier. Circular versus direct.

Also, consider the hands. These weapons are both predominately two handed weapons. Though the spear can be used one handed, and it is in some schools of thought.  However, it’s thrusting power is diminished because one arm does not equal two. You can couch it like a lance. One handed will allow for some angles that can’t be reached otherwise. The spear can be dual wielded, but (and this is the big but) if you have trouble imagining one spear in motion then good luck trying it with two. They can also be thrown, but if you throw it remember that needs to be recovered.

We utilize our hands on a staff weapon in a manner similar to the longsword, one hand acts as the guiding hand and the other is the rotational hand or the power hand. With the war scythe, that second hand is going to be important because the second hand is where we get our leverage. Hand position on these weapons is often fluid, you can move up or down. The further from the center of the staff weapon you get, then the more reach you have. There’s also more power in the swing, but you also have slightly less control.

Remember, you can strike to all points of the body so going for the lower body like the feet and the legs are options.

Head (both sides and to), throat, chest, stomach, groin, arms, hands, legs, and feet.

The cross on the spear is just a cross-guard, it keeps whatever you’re poking from climbing up the weapon to reach you. There’s no special move set associated with it, really. A cross-spear won’t over penetrate, and the defensive measure keeps you from losing it in your target.

-Michi

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One versus Group: Writing that Wuxia Action Scene

Having spent some time watching the pilot episode of AMC’s Into the Badlands with Daniel Wu, I was inspired to talk about writing the one vs group scenario. We’ve talked about the realistic side of the individual versus group combat in the past, and how difficult it is to pull off in real life. However, I’m sure most of you dream of writing your own action heroes someday (if not right now) and the hallmark of the action hero that sells them hardest is not the end fight. It’s how well they handle the group.

Group combat is difficult, both on the real world side and creation side. The logic of the 1vX scenario is that facing the multiple grunts is too difficult for the standard combatant to handle. Only “one of the best” can do it. Thus, it puts those combatants who can in a league of their own.

On the creation side, the 1vX is also one of the most entertaining types of fight scenes. It’s fast paced, visually rich, and designed to showcase a character’s skills. They are never, and should never be, one size fits all. After all, in a fictional context, the purpose of these fights are expository. They’re there to inform you of who the character is, very quickly, in a very perfunctory show vs tell. A choreographer or writer who can put together an entertaining 1vX fight scene will sell their character’s creativity, ingenuity, and skills to the audience without them ever realizing that’s what was happening. Even if all the character does is run away, we learn a lot from how they choose to handle groups.

In a martial arts movie, these sequences are used for bonding the audience and the protagonist. They do this more quickly than any other fight scene type. While also pulling the double duty of elevating the villain and their skill level as we wind our way toward the final fight.

Action cinema like all other media has coded tropes that communicate information to you without ever saying it. The group fight in an action movie, especially a finely paced one, is essential for selling a master combatant to the audience.

In film, the 1vX is a common standard for action heroes, and I’ve seen novels where the author has attempted to imitate it. Some have success and others not so much. Success generally depends on understanding the tropes they’re trying to imitate, both how combat works and how the narrative of the fight presents the character to the audience.

This is why learning both sides of the martial arts world, from practical to performance, is necessary for building your narrative. While understanding how a group fight functions in reality is essential, storytelling is built on easily communicable tropes. Every culture has assigned flags that indicate who a character is and their purpose to the story, and those change over time. With film, it can be a myriad of visual items and one of the big ones is color. When written, it can be character actions, objects, clothing, anything really. So inured are we that, most of the time, when we’re consuming we don’t even notice they’re there and in the beginning when we’re writing we don’t even notice we’re making the same choices. These tropes are easier to recognize in the media of other cultures but, at the same time, when we don’t know their purpose we miss them entirely.

In a real world sense, fighting a group is about time, how much you have and how much you lose, where the enemies are, and how to balance them. This translates to the screen and into the language of the scene.

See, kung fu action movie group fights are not about trading blows as much as they are about tempo.

Yes, tempo.

Like a properly choreographed dance sequence, it’s rhythm.

You want a kung fu style action sequence in your novel, you’ve got to find a way to translate the rhythm into text. And where is the rhythm, you may wonder? It’s in the exchange of blows. In the thrust, and block, and kick, and fall. In the loosening and tightening of muscles, in inhale and the exhale. Do you hear it?

There’s a drumbeat in your character’s soul.

Traditional martial arts counts beats by breath, on the inhale and the exhale. The inhale marks the beginning of the movement, and the exhale is on the end. The inhale before and the exhale on the strike, when all the muscles tighten up, then you move again. You can count your strikes by number, on the breath, like in dance. One, two, three, and kiap.

Hear it.

That’s the sound of a combination.

Block, punch, and grab. Pause to sweep the ankle. Yank their hand to your waist. Against their will, they slide on; shoulder to hip. And you turn into the throw.

Your opponent flies into their incoming fellow.

Kick backwards as the enemy rushes in behind, hear them stumble, and spin to face them. Roundhouse to the head, pause, give the audience a moment to breathe then… Twist sideways as your next opponent lunges in, the blade passes your waist. Seize the wrist, step back, and yank them with you. Free hand to their elbow, thrust into joint break.

Elbow crunches. Appropriate scream follows.

Kick them away.

Remaining opponents have paused from fear. One clutches his busted arm, fingers coated in blood. Another helps the fallen to his feet.

Face them, and smile. Gesture ‘come’ with fingers.

Say, “Let’s go.”

You count the pieces of the technique, on the inhale and the exhale, and break them apart to create that tempo. Notice, the action comes from all sides. Often, from the direction the camera wasn’t pointed so you get the moment of, “oh crap!”

Now, it’s important to remember there’s a stunt actor que. There was one in the piece above. You notice it best in the terrible movies and shows, where you see them line up one at a time and wait their turn. A scene with a truly skilled performer and choreographer is such you won’t even notice the que because the action is happening so quickly it feels simultaneous.

If your character has a goal that involves protecting someone else from muggers, it’s important to remember that the muggers or whoever won’t all turn to fight when they leap in. When you have a good scene, this is an important source of tension for your hero. It gives them a reason to clear through the mob, forces the audience to focus on the necessity of speed, and a point to work towards. It also lets you do humorous things like throw one enemy your character is fighting into the other when they get too close to the protectee or stuck dragging them backwards. (This is also why you should never fight around an official protectee.)

Your characters aren’t puppets hanging still on their strings, they’re moving even when you’re not focusing on them. This is important because it lets you have moments of surprise in the scene. Like the character being seized from behind, or someone screaming as they’re about to be killed and the character has disengage, kick someone into a wall, and leap the other direction. They don’t have time to finish them forever, you see.

You build up your beats, mixing them all in together.

Your character gets thrown across the bar. (Beat.) Lands hard. (Beat). Rolls top over end. (Beat.) Notices a bottle of whiskey in hardened glass (like Jack Daniel’s. In a funny scene, they maybe take a drink. Also, that’s two beats.) Up they come (beat), crack their attacker across the face. (Beat).  Back over the bar. (Beat.) With a kick. (Beat.) Swing their club. (Beat. Beat.) Think they’re done, turn to yell at a friend still fighting, get clocked across the back of the head. Stumble, turn, and off we go again.

Then there’s the myriad of little beats in between the actions. Count every fall, every hit, every roll. The length of your sentences changes the rhythm. You’ve got to count. the time. it takes. to finish your scene. Fast, fast, slow, fast. One (breathe), two (chamber), three (strike), four (recoil), five (reset). When you get faster, they combine together into one, two, three. Remember, slow is for exhaustion, injuries, recovery, and long actions. Fast is for the quick hits.

Slow gives the audience time to refresh, catch up, time to breathe, just like the character. When the scene is unbalanced, it overwhelms. You’ve got to give your audience time to follow the action. That means breathers. Those breathers can come at any point, they’re where the action slows before rolling back into the rush.

Commonly, these are in the injuries, the received hits by the primary character. In group fights, they happen when a character is knocked from the fight (whether permanently or temporarily), they happen when the character runs, dodges into another room, or moves to a new scene location, does a slow transition between combat partners, or gets a moment where they fight one on one instead of in a rush of multiples.

There should always be a moment in the middle where you’re character is ducking and dodging being attacked from multiple sides all at the same time. This is going to be a challenge, especially if you are a neophyte and know nothing about either combat or action. It’s difficult enough to imagine one fight, but controlling a battlefield, moving between your dance partners, and fighting from all four sides is not how most of us are trained to think.

Unless we’ve practiced martial arts.

This is part of what katas are for, you know.

And choreography? It’s just a kata. There’s the kicker in it all. Understanding martial arts, traditional martial arts, is what’s most important to grasping the magic behind a wuxia style action scene. It’s performance martial arts. It’s all martial arts, at its best and worst. It isn’t what you want to be dealing with in real life, and that knowledge is precisely why these characters are held up as supremely skilled in their narratives.

So, how do you translate a visual medium into a written one?

When it comes to the page, the length of your sentences dictates the amount of time each technique takes. The longer the sentence, the longer it takes to read and absorb then the more time the action takes in the reader’s mind. You control the time it takes with your words, with the form of the paragraph, with the rhythm of language.

Punctuation exists to punctuate. Cut unnecessary words. Learn to be specific. Pinpoint. Figure out which techniques take more time, more energy, and budget techniques for those moments. Standing is quick, grapple is slow, and ground wastes time. It costs time to get up again. The time you took writing your character running over a wall to avoid a hit is the time it took for an enemy to kill their protectee.

What?

Yes, simultaneous action is happening that the reader doesn’t see. That’s the sleight of hand. As the writer, you control the amount of time your character has, but janking that time around screws with the audience and the character. Thus, we up both tension and tempo.

Time, baby. It’s all about time.

Where are you losing sentences? When is an action unnecessary? What is distracting from your action? Is that distraction what you want? Sometimes, it can be helpful.

When you’re writing action the time it takes for you to write a character did a thing is the amount of time it takes to do the thing. Sometimes, long sentences are good. Remember, those moments you take to describing scene or setting changes as the fight moves can act as breathers. As can the moments it takes for the fighter to reassess. Too much action too quickly is mentally exhausting for the reader. Difficult sentences are harder to follow, long sentences give you that moment to relax the mind. Knowing that, at a more advanced level, you can pace them to experience what your character is experiencing in the structure.

So, there is no one size fits all.

The only usual rule is that wilder, less trained combatants are more uncontrolled, more sloppy, more loosey goosey. The more crisp and controlled a fighter is, the more mechanical they are, then the better they are. The untrained fighter and noncombatant fights can be just as fun to write as the upper echelon, they’re also easier.

“I’m unpredictable.”

“I’ve predicted the unpredictable before, kid.”

If you’ve heard that one before, take a drink.

The less a character knows, than the less skill you need to fake. The more advanced they are, then the higher the limit. A character isn’t good just because you say they are, they need to prove it. So, that’s all up to you. The good news is that while good action is hard to come by, bad action is so prevalent that general audiences can’t tell it’s not bacon.

When writing action sequences, choreography is what you want. Learn to fake so well it becomes a kind of reality inside your story. So you never disrupt your audience’s suspension of disbelief, so the more they know the more willing they are to suspend it.

This is where action movies and wuxia films are important, the more you consume, the more you think critically, the more you try to understand what is at play then the better you will get. You’re not looking at them for realism, you’re looking at them for entertainment and how to transfer those techniques onto the page.

The good news for you: you don’t need wires. You just need imagination.

-Michi

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How do roundhouse kicks work? Are they actually combat efficient?

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howtofightwrite:

skypig357:

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The roundhouse kick is a common kick seen in street fights, and for this reason lots of counters have been developed for it. So, it does work, it is effective, and easy to do compared to other kicks. It’s powerful (though not as powerful as the sidekick or back kick), but is the riskiest because it’s easy to trap.

Of the four beginning kicks, the roundhouse is the only kick that comes across the body. The others all strike directly. The roundhouse targets the side of the body or enemies in the fighting stance. This is part of what makes the roundhouse more visible than the other kicks. Your peripheral vision is great for noticing motion coming in on the edge of your vision, and circles are eye-catching. The roundhouse kick is an arc. Like all kicks, it’s one big body movement coming at you in flashing neon lights.

As a general rule, kicks are always riskier than punches. They’re reliant on speed and balance, and they come with obvious tells. Still, kicks are much more powerful than a punch, delivering more force at high speeds directly into the body. After all, with more risks come more rewards.

A single well placed kick can end a fight before it begins… if you can land it.

As for whether the roundhouse is combat efficient, that really depends on the individual and how limber they are. Cold kicks will punish you, pull your hamstrings, and wreck your legs if you’re not stretching on the regular. Your success with using kicks in combat is almost entirely dependent on your flexibility. When jumping into straight into a fight, you don’t get a time out for a five to ten minute warm up.

With that covered, let’s get down to the basics for the roundhouse.

The roundhouse is the second kick you’ll learn in most martial arts systems, after the front kick and before the sidekick. It relies on the rotational power of the hips to bring the leg across the body, striking with either the top or the ball of the foot. The attack comes on a diagonal, with points at either the head, stomach/ribs, or (in some variation) the legs/upper thigh. The structure of the roundhouse is as follows:

1) Beginning Stance:

Unlike the front kick which can be done from any forward facing, standing position, the roundhouse requires you be in a fighting stance.

A stance is a basic part of martial arts, but usually skipped over by Hollywood and beginners for strikes. Strikes are the big flashy moves that get attention because they are flashy. As with everything, the building blocks are often skipped.

Stances are what we call your “base” or how you set your body and your feet. Most martial arts disciplines will have a full set of stances from the front stance to the horse stance, and they will be referred to by different names. The fighting stance is easily recognizable. As it is the stance you’ll see everyone drop into on or off screen when they’re getting ready to fight.

The fighting stance is meant for basic defensive positioning, allowing you to move quickly. In Taekwondo, the fighting stance is one foot forward and the other foot is a step behind (about the width of your shoulders) on a diagonal. The back foot twists sideways roughly to a 45 degree angle, the front foot points forward. Your upper body turns on a diagonal following your back foot. Your hands clench to fists, and rise to your face. The hand over the front foot extends out, the other hand hovers beside your cheek. Your elbows come in, just inside the silhouette of your body. Your knees bend. Weight will adjust in a tilt slightly forward or slightly back depending on attack vector. The bouncing seen in sparring tournaments or boxing is meant to cover these weight shifts. In the fighting stance, you should never stand flat footed.

This is the basic protective stance for sparring. The It is more difficult to strike someone when the

Body Reader Note: Elbow, hand, upper body, and feet placement are all dead giveaways when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. Failure begins with your feet. The hands especially, most beginners do not keep their hands far enough apart, their elbows come out too far from the body. Beginners will often leave the front foot flat on the ground with their weight unbalanced, slowing their reaction time.

On Weight Shifts: Leaning back generally means a kick as the upper body tilts backward
for balance when the leg extends. Forward for hands. Settled on the back
leg can also be a defensive posture, versus weight forward which is
more aggressive. You want to be on the balls of your feet because that means quicker response times.

2) Chamber

The chamber is the intermediary step between the fighting stance and the kick. This is when you lift your leg off the ground with knee bent. The transition between chamber and kick is where most of the classic mistakes happen. You chamber with either the front or back leg. For the roundhouse kick, the foot left on the ground twists on a ninety degree angle. Your foot to your body should form a perfect right angle. (This is why the roundhouse kick is easy, you only shift another forty-five degrees rather than the full 180 for the sidekick.) The knee is on a similar forty-five degree, ready to extend across the body.

The upper body doesn’t move that much with the roundhouse, unlike the sidekick where the whole upper body tilts onto a forty-five as the leg extends. It tilts ever so slightly to retain balance as you kick and your hips twist.

3) The Kick

As I said before, the roundhouse strikes horizontally or diagonally across the body. It is true to its name. It comes around in a circular motion. The leg extends and swings across/through the opponent’s body as the hips simultaneously twist. When done in a simultaneous motion, the supporting foot twists to a ninety degree angle at the same moment the hips turn over. The upper body tilts with the hips. The leg swings through.

If the hips don’t turn over, then the kick is what we call a “snap kick”. In the case of the roundhouse, this is a kick than snaps up off the knee on a forty-five degree diagonal. It is fast but without power, and usually performed with the front leg only.

Power comes from the hips. You can lay in as much speed as you like, but without turnover there’s no power. (Snap kicks find their best use as openers in point sparring.)

The second problem with most kicks is visualization. You don’t stop when you reach the enemy, you kick through them. This carries the impact and force further.

The roundhouse strikes with either the top of the foot or the ball of the foot. Ball of the foot requires you pull your toes back, or else you’ll break them. Top is the speed kick (light, fast), ball is the power kick (can break ribs). Top of the foot is generally only seen in sparring exercises when your feet are protected by pads, but it’s a good option when you’re wearing shoes and your toes can’t bend.

4) Recoil

This is the return to the chamber. After extension finishes, the leg snaps back out of danger. If your opponent doesn’t catch your leg in the moment before the full extension, they can still catch it after the fact. Quick recoil is as essential to a kick’s success as the extension. It’s also necessary to keep us from overextending.

After they’ve mastered the chamber and extension, beginners will often have difficulty with this step. It has all the same problems as the chamber, just going in the opposite direction. A good recoil is a sign of strong control over the leg.

5) Plant

Return to start or prepare for transition into the next kick. The leg comes down, plants itself on the floor, and the fighter is ready to either continue attacking or begin defending.

A poor plant means that you’ve now messed up your fighting stance. If the foot comes down in the wrong place, the stance becomes unbalanced. A stance that is either too wide or two shallow creates opportunities for your opponent to destabilize you and make it difficult to attack again without over extending.

Those are the steps of the roundhouse. Throw them all together and you’ve got the full kick. The roundhouse has a very specific usage in martial arts that makes it valuable. The purpose of the roundhouse is simple: it’s a kick built for striking an enemy who is also in a fighting stance.

When our bodies are turned on a diagonal our vitals are better protected than they are when we’re forward facing. It becomes difficult, or more risky for a direct forward strike to land. The roundhouse attacks in a circle, coming around from the side and on angle. It creates a new vector attack those protected vitals like the stomach.

This is why the roundhouse is a popular kick. It is simple, and effective at ghosting around the first, opening opposition. (It’s also easily blocked with both hands and legs, but that’s a story for another day.) However, this is not why Chuck Norris’ roundhouse became the stuff of legend.

Perhaps more so than the sidekick, the roundhouse is iconic in popular culture.
The roundhouse looks fantastic on film. 

It has a beautiful silhouette, it’s eye catching but also easy to follow. It looks more dynamic than most of the other basic kicks, and it’s simple. An actor you’ve only got three months to train before filming can learn the basics of this kick. They won’t look great, but no one can tell. It doesn’t require the same flexibility as the more advanced kicks like the axe kick. Nor does it require the finesse, balance, or control of the sidekick. It’s the sort of kick where general audiences can’t tell if the practitioner is new or their technique sucks, and blends easily with the stunt doubles. Audiences have a difficult time telling the difference between a kick with power and a kick without power.

The roundhouse is the most common kick seen in taekwondo tournaments, and very common in kickboxing for its speed. It is faster and easier than the front kick and the sidekick due to the twist necessary to throw the leg across the body. With the roundhouse, momentum will do most of the work for you. This is why it’s the most common kick to see untrained fighters attempt to mimic, and why it gets used on the streets.

It can be effective without much training, but that person can be totally screwed when paired against someone who knows what they’re doing. Due to it’s vector, the roundhouse is the easiest kick to catch. Whether it’s caught and hooked under the arm for a knee break or the full thing gets caught and lifted into a throw, it doesn’t matter. A poorly performed or unlucky roundhouse can really screw you over. The other problem is that the circular motion of the roundhouse makes it the least camouflaged by the body and the easiest to see coming.

So, yes, the roundhouse can be combat efficient. They’re also dependent on your ability to follow through the steps on rough terrain where friction is not amenable to foot twists. They come with obvious tells for when the kick is about to happen, and there are a lot of counters developed to deal with them.

Whether coming or going, for one side or the other, the roundhouse has the potential to wreck your day.

 -Michi

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Are you differentiating between a Thai style cut kick and a TKD style? Are you lumping both under roundhouse?

And obviously target selection is huge. Common peroneal thigh vs side of waist, for instance. Or brachial plexus.

Low TKD roundhouse kicks below the belt are usually feints with a switchover to strike high in the same action, they combine into a double kick.

I tend to put the Thai kicks in their own separate category from the general roundhouse because the hip movement (specifically turning over to go downwards instead of lateral, which makes sense given the stabilizing foot stays mostly pointed forward), rotation, foot placement, and points of contact are all different. The Thai cut kick has its own name, it’s separate from the roundhouse though they’re visually similar… I guess? The traditional roundhouse will have difficulty targeting the legs due it’s chamber, which is the Thai kicks’ specialty. I understand the confusion, the snap kick version of the TKD roundhouse that is mostly seen in sparring doesn’t move the front leg much but it also lacks turnover. You lift the knee in a front kick chamber and strike on an upward diagonal rather than horizontal. It’s a point sparring kick rather than a combat kick. Thai kicks can be used at much closer ranges with hip turnover, which you know.

Still, we’re getting into the variant ranges of kicks that are visually similar (I guess?) but very different in execution. There’s more than three different versions of the TKD roundhouse. The one I’m talking about is the roundhouse you see on television, the general roundhouse. This is the basic martial arts roundhouse with slight, minor variations between styles from TKD to Shotokan. It’s going to be the most recognizable to the widest audience.

The Thai kicks are unique, even in comparison to modern kickboxing with the way they move. The major difference between Muay Thai kicks and kicks from other martial styles is the range at which they function, which you know. Thai kicks work in the hand range versus the traditional kick range. Plus, the option to strike with the shin.

Krav Maga is the same way, it’s a different kick.

Muay Thai is a creature all it’s own, and deservedly so. In twenty years (or less) do its proliferation in the West and adoption in MMA/Hollywood, it’s going to have it’s own recognizable and famous version. That’s probably going to be one of the versions of the low kick that utilizes the shin.

Roundhouse tends be used as a catchall for lots of martial arts kicks, including kicks that have nothing to do with each other. I went with the generic. If I was doing the straight TKD kick, I’d mention the variety of different chambers for it depending on stance. I’m going with the one most people outside the martial arts community will be familiar with.

Call it the Chuck Norris roundhouse if it makes you feel better.

-Michi

Got it. I was thinking they were roundhouse kicks, but different variants. Cousins maybe. Both work in similar arcs but with different mechanics. But those different mechanics maid them markedly different kicks.

I’d always been taught there are four kicks – front, side, round and oblique. And lots and lots of flavors of each

Yeah, those are the four basic kicks. (Though some systems just lump the back kick in with the sidekick as a spinning sidekick, the difference depends on the chamber and whether you’re striking with the blade of the foot or the heel.) There’s also the hook kick, the crescent kick (inside and outside), the axe kick, the mule kick, the push kick, and so many others.

The mule kick, for example, might initially look like a back kick because you look over your shoulder and strike with your heel. The difference is in the chamber which looks like a mule or horse preparing to kick backwards. It comes straight back and then drives up into the stomach, more similar to an elbow than a sidekick. The use for the mule kick as a combination kick in TKD is with the front kick. You kick the opponent facing you then, utilizing the momentum of the recoil, swing your leg down straight backward into the mule kick. You do it all in one, singular motion. The kicking leg never touches the ground.

We can’t do this with a back kick. Or, at least, we can’t without readjusting our hip position. The chamber is slightly to the side of our body rather than directly underneath it. The hips still need to turn over. With the mule kick, the hips are in the same position as the front kick. You just roll one into the other.

The push kick sort of looks like the front kick, but the chamber pulls the knee to the chest and then uses the whole foot to push forward. It’s a shove with your foot.

This makes sense when you realize TKD mostly focuses on the feet and legs as the primary weapons rather than the hands. When combat constantly progresses inwards and you’ve got an opponent moving into punching range, you need to force them back to where your kicks are effective.

It’s the opposite of a martial art like Muay Thai where the kicks are all about successfully using powerful legs strikes in close-quarters.

TKD is all about being able transition between and utilize multiple kicks with one leg, sometimes without ever planting between strikes. You can do an entire combination off just your front leg. Begin with an axe kick (top of the head) transitions into a roundhouse (side of the head), which transitions back across into a hook kick (heel strikes the other side of the head) then you can follow up with a more powerful roundhouse off the back leg to the head.

Traditional TKD is the art of how to win slap fights with your feet. It builds off the idea you’re going to be throwing three or four kicks in a row rather than just one. Blocks with your knee transition into kicks with the blocking leg or jump kicks off the back leg. If you come out of a non-kicking tradition then TKD and other martial arts like it are going to be a little weird, confusing, and possibly nonsensical. TKD uses its kicks like a boxer uses a jab. The kicks themselves aren’t finishers, they’re the set up for a powerful final blow. Spin kicks and jump kicks are chancy as hell by themselves, but if you’ve successful destabilized your opponent first then the risk drops. A TKD master should be able to create a 360 degree defense with just their legs.  As a discipline, it’s the “Look, ma! No hands!” of martial arts. 

“Let me feint with a roundhouse to your head, and then switch to a
roundhouse off my back leg while my front leg is still in the air.” 

I know, it sounds utterly ridiculous. If you ever wanted to know why TKD became one of Hollywood’s staples for stunt martial arts or it’s worldwide popularity, it’s due to the fact it is ridiculously fun to watch.

A hook kick with the front leg drops to become a slide sidekick with the front kick, then we roll into a roundhouse with the back leg and from there swing right into a wheel kick. The back leg becomes the front leg, and the front leg becomes the new power leg on the spin. ((If any of our followers are wondering, this is where most fictional fight scenes involving kicks fail. The author doesn’t understand kicks or their transitions well enough to make sense of the chain.))

For you writers, this is what I mean by thinking with your feet: front leg/lead leg roundhouse into a hook kick into a slide sidekick then into a running jump sidekick. ((If you missed it, that’s an entire combination on one leg.)) You lead with your feet, rather than your hands. We go feet first. Or, from a basic standing position, front kick into a popup jump front kick. The standing front kick steps forward into the fighting stance, from the fighting stance we with jump with both legs to pop up. The back leg switches, chambers, and strikes with a front kick. Then our leg tucks in recoil and we land back in a fighting stance, what was once our back leg becomes the new front leg.

Popup jump kicks are done from a standing position. You jump off both legs, and then your legs switch midair.

This is what makes the popup different from the standard pump with the front leg and jump off the back leg in a regular jump kick. If that wasn’t enough in the way of fun, popups can be done together quickly in combination. They just switch back and forth between legs.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

Lots of these kicks are referred to by different names in different systems or even within the same system but different schools. What differentiates kicks into their own family is basically hip position, strike vectors, and points of impact.

If anyone is wondering why I’m continuing this discussion it’s because I love talking about TKD kicks and what we can do with them.

I’m a huge nerd, and they’re so much fun.

-Michi

How do roundhouse kicks work? Are they actually combat efficient?

The roundhouse kick is a common kick seen in street fights, and for this reason lots of counters have been developed for it. So, it does work, it is effective, and easy to do compared to other kicks. It’s powerful (though not as powerful as the sidekick or back kick), but is the riskiest because it’s easy to trap.

Of the four beginning kicks, the roundhouse is the only kick that comes across the body. The others all strike directly. The roundhouse targets the side of the body or enemies in the fighting stance. This is part of what makes the roundhouse more visible than the other kicks. Your peripheral vision is great for noticing motion coming in on the edge of your vision, and circles are eye-catching. The roundhouse kick is an arc. Like all kicks, it’s one big body movement coming at you in flashing neon lights.

As a general rule, kicks are always riskier than punches. They’re reliant on speed and balance, and they come with obvious tells. Still, kicks are much more powerful than a punch, delivering more force at high speeds directly into the body. After all, with more risks come more rewards.

A single well placed kick can end a fight before it begins… if you can land it.

As for whether the roundhouse is combat efficient, that really depends on the individual and how limber they are. Cold kicks will punish you, pull your hamstrings, and wreck your legs if you’re not stretching on the regular. Your success with using kicks in combat is almost entirely dependent on your flexibility. When jumping into straight into a fight, you don’t get a time out for a five to ten minute warm up.

With that covered, let’s get down to the basics for the roundhouse.

The roundhouse is the second kick you’ll learn in most martial arts systems, after the front kick and before the sidekick. It relies on the rotational power of the hips to bring the leg across the body, striking with either the top or the ball of the foot. The attack comes on a diagonal, with points at either the head, stomach/ribs, or (in some variation) the legs/upper thigh. The structure of the roundhouse is as follows:

1) Beginning Stance:

Unlike the front kick which can be done from any forward facing, standing position, the roundhouse requires you be in a fighting stance.

A stance is a basic part of martial arts, but usually skipped over by Hollywood and beginners for strikes. Strikes are the big flashy moves that get attention because they are flashy. As with everything, the building blocks are often skipped.

Stances are what we call your “base” or how you set your body and your feet. Most martial arts disciplines will have a full set of stances from the front stance to the horse stance, and they will be referred to by different names. The fighting stance is easily recognizable. As it is the stance you’ll see everyone drop into on or off screen when they’re getting ready to fight.

The fighting stance is meant for basic defensive positioning, allowing you to move quickly. In Taekwondo, the fighting stance is one foot forward and the other foot is a step behind (about the width of your shoulders) on a diagonal. The back foot twists sideways roughly to a 45 degree angle, the front foot points forward. Your upper body turns on a diagonal following your back foot. Your hands clench to fists, and rise to your face. The hand over the front foot extends out, the other hand hovers beside your cheek. Your elbows come in, just inside the silhouette of your body. Your knees bend. Weight will adjust in a tilt slightly forward or slightly back depending on attack vector. The bouncing seen in sparring tournaments or boxing is meant to cover these weight shifts. In the fighting stance, you should never stand flat footed.

This is the basic protective stance for sparring.

Body Reader Note: Elbow, hand, upper body, and feet placement are all dead giveaways when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. Failure begins with your feet. The hands especially, most beginners do not keep their hands far enough apart, their elbows come out too far from the body. Beginners will often leave the front foot flat on the ground with their weight unbalanced, slowing their reaction time.

On Weight Shifts: Leaning back generally means a kick as the upper body tilts backward
for balance when the leg extends. Forward for hands. Settled on the back
leg can also be a defensive posture, versus weight forward which is
more aggressive. You want to be on the balls of your feet because that means quicker response times.

2) Chamber

The chamber is the intermediary step between the fighting stance and the kick. This is when you lift your leg off the ground with knee bent. The transition between chamber and kick is where most of the classic mistakes happen. You chamber with either the front or back leg. For the roundhouse kick, the foot left on the ground twists on a ninety degree angle. Your foot to your body should form a perfect right angle. (This is why the roundhouse kick is easy, you only shift another forty-five degrees rather than the full 180 for the sidekick.) The knee is on a similar forty-five degree, ready to extend across the body.

The upper body doesn’t move that much with the roundhouse, unlike the sidekick where the whole upper body tilts onto a forty-five as the leg extends. It tilts ever so slightly to retain balance as you kick and your hips twist.

3) The Kick

As I said before, the roundhouse strikes horizontally or diagonally across the body. It is true to its name. It comes around in a circular motion. The leg extends and swings across/through the opponent’s body as the hips simultaneously twist. When done in a simultaneous motion, the supporting foot twists to a ninety degree angle at the same moment the hips turn over. The upper body tilts with the hips. The leg swings through.

If the hips don’t turn over, then the kick is what we call a “snap kick”. In the case of the roundhouse, this is a kick than snaps up off the knee on a forty-five degree diagonal. It is fast but without power, and usually performed with the front leg only.

Power comes from the hips. You can lay in as much speed as you like, but without turnover there’s no power. (Snap kicks find their best use as openers in point sparring.)

The second problem with most kicks is visualization. You don’t stop when you reach the enemy, you kick through them. This carries the impact and force further.

The roundhouse strikes with either the top of the foot or the ball of the foot. Ball of the foot requires you pull your toes back, or else you’ll break them. Top is the speed kick (light, fast), ball is the power kick (can break ribs). Top of the foot is generally only seen in sparring exercises when your feet are protected by pads, but it’s a good option when you’re wearing shoes and your toes can’t bend.

4) Recoil

This is the return to the chamber. After extension finishes, the leg snaps back out of danger. If your opponent doesn’t catch your leg in the moment before the full extension, they can still catch it after the fact. Quick recoil is as essential to a kick’s success as the extension. It’s also necessary to keep us from overextending.

After they’ve mastered the chamber and extension, beginners will often have difficulty with this step. It has all the same problems as the chamber, just going in the opposite direction. A good recoil is a sign of strong control over the leg.

5) Plant

Return to start or prepare for transition into the next kick. The leg comes down, plants itself on the floor, and the fighter is ready to either continue attacking or begin defending.

A poor plant means that you’ve now messed up your fighting stance. If the foot comes down in the wrong place, the stance becomes unbalanced. A stance that is either too wide or two shallow creates opportunities for your opponent to destabilize you and make it difficult to attack again without over extending.

Those are the steps of the roundhouse. Throw them all together and you’ve got the full kick. The roundhouse has a very specific usage in martial arts that makes it valuable. The purpose of the roundhouse is simple: it’s a kick built for striking an enemy who is also in a fighting stance.

When our bodies are turned on a diagonal our vitals are better protected than they are when we’re forward facing. It becomes difficult, or more risky for a direct forward strike to land. The roundhouse attacks in a circle, coming around from the side and on angle. It creates a new vector attack those protected vitals like the stomach.

This is why the roundhouse is a popular kick. It is simple, and effective at ghosting around the first, opening opposition. (It’s also easily blocked with both hands and legs, but that’s a story for another day.) However, this is not why Chuck Norris’ roundhouse became the stuff of legend.

Perhaps more so than the sidekick, the roundhouse is iconic in popular culture.
The roundhouse looks fantastic on film. 

It has a beautiful silhouette, it’s eye catching but also easy to follow. It looks more dynamic than most of the other basic kicks, and it’s simple. An actor you’ve only got three months to train before filming can learn the basics of this kick. They won’t look great, but no one can tell. It doesn’t require the same flexibility as the more advanced kicks like the axe kick. Nor does it require the finesse, balance, or control of the sidekick. It’s the sort of kick where general audiences can’t tell if the practitioner is new or their technique sucks, and blends easily with the stunt doubles. Audiences have a difficult time telling the difference between a kick with power and a kick without power.

The roundhouse is the most common kick seen in taekwondo tournaments, and very common in kickboxing for its speed. It is faster and easier than the front kick and the sidekick due to the twist necessary to throw the leg across the body. With the roundhouse, momentum will do most of the work for you. This is why it’s the most common kick to see untrained fighters attempt to mimic, and why it gets used on the streets.

It can be effective without much training, but that person can be totally screwed when paired against someone who knows what they’re doing. Due to it’s vector, the roundhouse is the easiest kick to catch. Whether it’s caught and hooked under the arm for a knee break or the full thing gets caught and lifted into a throw, it doesn’t matter. A poorly performed or unlucky roundhouse can really screw you over. The other problem is that the circular motion of the roundhouse makes it the least camouflaged by the body and the easiest to see coming.

So, yes, the roundhouse can be combat efficient. They’re also dependent on your ability to follow through the steps on rough terrain where friction is not amenable to foot twists. They come with obvious tells for when the kick is about to happen, and there are a lot of counters developed to deal with them.

Whether coming or going, for one side or the other, the roundhouse has the potential to wreck your day.

 -Michi

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i’m not sure that you’d have an answer to this but how feasible are the fighting scenes in attack on titan? How difficult would it be to use the ODM gear featured in the series? What type of muscle would you need and what physical toll would it have on your body? Would it even be possible to go that fast and maneuver around as easily as they show it?

You ever been on a rollercoaster? Not the traditional wooden ones, but the kind of rollercoaster that hates you and wants you to die horribly? Where the track is above you and you’ve got some serious neck protection as you go round, and round, and round on high speeds? The one that tries to turn you into hamburger? Yeah, good.

Now, imagine that combined with the Nasa centrifuge.

Or, just watch ShoddyCast’s “The SCIENCE! Behind Power Armor in Fallout 4″

That’s what the fight scenes in Attack on Titan would be like. You’d break your neck and liquefy your internal organs in fairly short order. The amount of damage done to the human body via deceleration at high speeds is rather insane. So, no it is not possible. (Spiderman isn’t real either.)

However, realism is not why we watch anime. Anime characters don’t worry about physics. Neither should you.

Except whenever you get into a car.

Drive safely.

-Michi

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So I’m going to write this character who grew up for a major part of her young life in a fighting pit without an arm, she mainly relied on the “that girl without an arm can’t be a threat” and then beat their butts when their backs were turned, and I’d like her to be able to wield a sword and shield, and I’m trying to work out the logistics of that, like would it make sense for her to have a piece of wood attached to her stump to better support the shield and stuff, or am I wrong?

lillybean730:

promptsblog:

So I’ve kept this in my askbox for a while because I’m not sure how to respond to it. I give prompts and some writing advice on this blog.  This question is way outside my limited expertise. I’ll throw it out there in case someone has an answer.

@howtofightwrite this might be up your alley

So, one armed fighters.

We’ve brought up Nick Newell before who is a professional UFC fighter who was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm. The difference between him and this character is he’s not missing his arm, it ends at his elbow. He uses his left arm as a way to provide holds and pressure when grappling that make it almost impossible to escape from due to him not having a full sized arm.

There’s also
Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen (1480 – 23 July 1562)

otherwise known as
Götz

of the Iron Hand. He was a mercenary who lost about as much of his arm as Nick Newell in battle and replaced it with an iron prosthesis that he used in combat. He held the sword with his prosthetic and used the shield in his left hand. (He could even write with his second prosthetic. Yes, with a quill.) This guy was real, successful, badass, and died of old age. I’d read his bio. He’s an awesome bit of history.

However, when looking to write a character with any disability (whether physical or mental) it is important to not imagine them performing the exact same way as everyone else (otherwise called full-bodied, able-bodied). You’ve got to write from the perspective of someone who has a disability, who is missing their arm. They’ve got to come up with new ways to fight that work for them rather than trying to force them to fight like someone who has two working arms. It is absolutely possible for your character to fight professionally and be very successful at it, but she will do it her own way.

Look at two examples above, these are men who turned their disabilities from what most people would consider detriments into assets. By coming up with unique solutions suitable for them, their approach to combat became extremely difficult for others to counter.

In the grapple, Newell can apply pressure on angles that cannot be gotten to.

Götz figured out how to use his sword in battle without wrist movement. Think about that. That’s incredible.

Unless we’re dealing with futuristic (or even just modern) tech, there’s no way for this character, who is poor and a child, living in a pit to rig up a full prosthetic that functions to the same degree as an arm. And, who else would pay for someone to create it? Their manager has other mouths to feed.

They don’t need that second arm to sword fight. They’ll just use one of the many swords meant to be wielded one handed. They’re going to learn how to fight without that second arm.

The problem is you’re coming at this from the perspective of what you want then trying to jury rig to it instead of from the perspective of what would make sense to this character and what they would choose for themselves. This is usually the major failure of any able-bodied person writing a disabled character: you don’t think the way they do.

They are a character who has grown up without a second arm. A second arm is what other people have, it is not part of their regular life. They’ve learned to live without it. They’ve had to. Everything you think about doing with two arms or hands, they do with one. In training, they’d simply learn to compensate for that arm not being there. They also don’t have to worry about it or defend it when it combat, opening them up to potentially being more aggressive.

There’s also a high likelihood she’d use her feet a lot more.

This is the “not a martial artist” problem. Most people who’ve never done martial arts only consider two limbs, they don’t think of all four (and the head).

Then, there’s the fact she’s a child. Children fighting adults are automatically at a disadvantage. It is one hell of a gap, one she’ll need to be very quick and aggressive about overcoming. (I won’t ask why she’s not fighting in her age group. Take them by surprise works more reliably on children and young teens than seasoned adults.)

So, as a treatment, we’ve got a hyper-aggressive child combatant who wields a sword and uses their feet via kicks and footwork to make up the difference. They’ll have spent a lot of time learning counters to attacks focused on the side of their body without an arm. (If you want common tactics, the perceived area of weakness is where the initial attacks will be focused. That is the behavior this girl will turn to her advantage.)

You’ve got to learn how to re-examine and see the world from their perspective, just like you would if you were writing someone from another culture or ethnic background.

Lastly, I know gladiatorial arenas are popular as a place for characters to get their fighting chops but here’s the thing:

They’re a business.

Assume for a moment this is a fantasy setting that is following a medieval or roman archetype. For someone to be a functional pit fighter, you’ve got to feed them, clothe them, board them for years. You’ve gotta invest in them and it will be years before you see a return on that investment.

So, say your city is dystopic fantasy like Lankhmar from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. You’ve got an entire city of urchins and orphans to pick from when yanking kids out of the gutter to stick in an arena, so why her? This may sound cruel, but think about it from the perspective of an investor. Why do you pick the girl with one arm versus the girl who still has both but is missing an eye or the kid you just caught trying to pick your pocket?

The truth is (this is where we come back to Nick Newell) it is really hard to stage fights against someone with one arm.

For the other competitor, either they just got beat up by someone with one arm or the fighter with one arm has demonstrated that they’re better than someone with two. (This is the reason why Nick Newell had difficulty getting fights in the UFC, after the years he spent trying to convince multiple gyms to take him on before locating one that would.)

From a business perspective, matching anyone against her is a lose/lose for them. For the competitor, for their manager, and possibly for the arena itself.

Pit fighting is entertainment. All gladiatorial combat, all bloodsport is entertainment. That is its primary purpose and why it exists. If the fight is not entertaining to the audience then it is worthless. If the fighter does not make money, they are worthless. Like all entertainment, there’s a threshold of cruelty the audience doesn’t want to see.

They aren’t going to want to see an able-bodied adult (especially male) beating up a one armed girl. There’s nothing fun about watching that. There’s nothing fun about betting on that. If there’s no audience for it, she has no career and they kick her out of the pit. Any experienced professional would know that going in, you’d need another character who overcame their own good business sense in order to give her a chance.

This kind of manager character will fly directly in the face of your Dickensian fantasy of the self-made little urchin girl who overcame the ills and evils of the world.

Now, Newell did manage to get fights but it took him awhile. He was a great fighter. He met a
lot of other fighters who considered their careers and said no. They
didn’t want to fight him.

The problem is entertainment sports are not about ability, they are about image.

There is a real reason why the UFC is not booking female fighters versus male fighters. They could, but they won’t. Not because a woman couldn’t fight a man or potentially win, but because it’d be a lose/lose for everyone involved. It’d be a lose for the male competitor if he lost to the woman or won against her (he needs to think about his career), it’d be a lose for the woman because if she lost then she’d confirm gender stereotypes and if she won then she couldn’t go back to women’s league. Both their salaries and winnings are paid for by the people who come to their next fight.

Bare-knuckle boxing in the 19th century had female fighters, they fought men, they fought women, they fought everyone. They were adults not kids, and this was backdoor street fighting rather than organized gladiatorial business with promotion.

There were female gladiators in Rome. On a business level, Roman gladiators worked in a manner very similar to modern boxing and the UFC.

In fantasy we’ve got our Gurney Hallack’s and our Feyd Rautha’s.

None of this means this character you’ve created can’t have a career, it just means that you as the author needs to sit down and figure out what your in setting audience considers entertaining, will put down money for, gamble on, and wants to see.

This is going to take some legwork on your part.

None of this is to say this female character can’t become a pit fighter or is invalid or the story idea stupid, it just means there are considerations to make from a setting perspective outside the character herself.

You’ve got to think from the perspective of the people who took her on, their needs, their wants, their desires, and what they saw in her that made them go “yeah, this one works for me.”

If you had any dreams about an angst filled romp where this character was forced into this life and didn’t want to be there then I’ve got some bad news. In the world of professional fighting, if you do not figure out some reason to fight then your career will be short and end swiftly. It may simply be the three square meals a day and the safe-ish place to sleep at night.

The people who are successful at bloodsport are the ones who dedicate themselves to it. This is especially true for women in a sexist environment, where everyone is telling them, “no, this isn’t for you. No, you can’t do it.” If you’ve got a woman breaking barriers then its due to her sticking a big, fat middle finger in society’s face.

Here’s some things to consider:

1) Unless these fighters are coming out of extreme isolation where they hear nothing about the outside world, “that girl without an arm can’t be a threat” is a mistake that’ll be made once. It is not persistent, and it is not an advantage after the first victory. Once she proves herself, they will begin looking for new ways to defeat her. A snake lying still only gets a surprise on their first strike.

2) Don’t assume she’ll get special treatment because she’s female or underestimated because of her gender. Female fighters aren’t rare or special. If you haven’t considered other women in the pit, you may want to redraft. If they’ll pull one girl, they’ll pull more. (A little girl with one arm isn’t going to be anyone’s first choice. So, where are the others who came before her?)

3) There are plenty of men who won’t care she’s a little girl and fight her seriously. Men aren’t stupid. Gender and a disability are not the advantage you think they are. Whatever advantage in expectation they might’ve brought will die on the table very quickly and you’ll never see it from the skilled professionals. Once they realize she’s dangerous, the gloves come off. (This is especially true if their life is on the line.)

4) If she’s pit fighting, she’s not the only fighter missing a limb. So, don’t treat her as a unique snowflake no one’s ever seen before. If they’re fighting with edged weapons then losing limbs will be fairly common.

5) Pit fighting, like any form of gladiatorial sport, is entertainment. Historically, bloodsport is connected to gambling and has more in common with cinema than an actual battlefield.

6) If you’ve got a pit where the star performers are getting killed, where are they getting the replacements from? (And why are they killing them in the first place? That’s bad business. It was actually uncommon in Rome for gladiators to die in the arena, especially popular ones with fans. Oh, did they have fans… and advertising gigs. Why kill your investment?)

7) The goal of a business is to make money. A pit is a sizeable operation that takes a lot of money to keep it going. Even if everything is above board rather than illegal, you’ve still got to have a lot of people on payroll beyond what your fighters cost (whether they’re free or slaves, you have to put money into them). You need to secure money somehow. Whether that’s gambling, wealthy patrons, or prostituting your fighters out to women and men who’ll pay for an hour in the sack, it doesn’t matter. (Rome did all three.) Figure out the economics.

8) A character who trains to fight in bloodsport is not comparable to a trained soldier. They have different motivations and different needs. Don’t assume one is the other.

Give Gladiator a re-watch if you haven’t already, it is surprisingly accurate to history and what you should be considering when setting up any kind of professional bloodsport or arena.

Also Spartacus, and if you’re over eighteen Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

The UFC’s reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter is probably worth a look for research purposes, also great for character reference as there’s a lot of professional fighters and wannabes training to become professionals. It is a reality tv show though, so keep that in mind.

There’s also the history of various fighting sports from all over the world from muay thai to to sumo to pankration to sambo. That’ll help you too when it comes to imagining other fighter types.

We have tags for gladiators and bloodsports.

Good luck.

-Michi

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Nine Steps for Training Techniques

So, we get a lot of training questions on this blog and, personally, they’re almost always hard to answer. Not only is training a very involved process, it’s also fairly difficult to break down even when you’ve been on both sides of the teacher/student relationship before. There is no set way to do it, and every technique varies in complexity. However, let me lay down the steps of learning a new technique.

Step One: Explanation

After warm ups, your instructor calls you over and gathers you together. They tell you what you’re going to be learning and, often, why you’ll be learning it. The “why” trends towards programs that focus on practical application (military or self-defense) or a simple basic explanation of what the technique is. Explanation is often coupled with demonstration.

The point is to get the intent behind the concept down.

Step Two: Demonstration

After they’ve finished, they’ll usually call on the assistant instructor or (depending on safety) a favored student from the audience. This student is usually one of the ones who have excelled in their training. The teacher is comfortable with them experiencing the technique firsthand without seeing it, and trusts them to follow instructions without questioning or putting up a fight.

Teacher then proceeds to demonstrate the technique. First, they show it fast and at full speed for effect. The student will rarely be able to follow fully, because they don’t know what they’re looking at. Then, they break the demonstration down step by step and run through it slowly so the students can follow while explaining each step in technical detail.

Then the teacher will perform the move again, so the student will get a better understanding and better conceptual idea.

You will always see the teacher demonstrate first before practicing yourself, even for very basic techniques like stances or footwork. Step by step demonstration, or call on a student who knows the technique to demonstrate before the class while they explain.

All combinations will be broken down step by step first before they’re brought together. A student will not learn the cross-step axe kick or slide front kick for example until they’ve learned the cross-step and the axe kick separately, and never will they begin with a partner unless the situation calls for it. (Exemptions being: grappling, chokeholds, joint locks, and others that require hands on for practice.)

Step Three: Step-By-Step Practice

Unless the technique (like some grappling or throws) specifically requires practice with a partner, this practice will be done without a partner. The student will begin performing the technique in its broken down form, step by step as their teacher calls out the number or name associated with each part.

For example, when you’re first learning to kick it’s often broken down like this: (from the beginning fighting stance) chamber, kick, recoil, plant. Each step pauses and holds, this serves a double purpose of not only teaching the student how the kick works but also building strength in their legs and allows them to work on their balance. Some kicks like the sidekick require a full foot rotation of 180 degrees on the stability leg that is simultaneous to the kick itself in order to remain balanced and to turn over their hips. Slow reduces strain on the muscles and limits chance of injury.

While the student might prefer to rush, the step by step practice is where they gain the fullest understanding of the technique and where they will come back to when they want to tweak or correct mistakes they’ve been making at full speed. It does a better job of building up their strength and flexibility due to forced full second holds, ensuring they are less likely to injure themselves when moving on to the next stage.

Step-by-step comes before you get to hit anything or swing in the direction of your partner. Sometimes, step-by-step can be the entire half hour practice.

Step Four: Put It Together, Slowly

What was practiced in pieces is now put together, and still usually performed in lines and on a count. The student practices the technique, sussing out the new problems that come from acting in a single smooth motion. The beginning stages are practiced slowly, and how fast a student grasps the technique will define how quickly they get to move on to the next stage.

Again, slow reduces the risk of injury and allows the student to get in tune with their body, finding out where in the technique they’re having trouble putting thought into action. They may understand the concept, but whether they’re body can follow is another question entirely.

Step Five: Put It Together, Quickly

Now that the student has gained understanding and can move with relatively less chance of hurting themselves, they get to go at full speed. Whee! Practice over, and over, and over again.

Step Six: Practice With A Partner, No Touching

Then, the students pair off and practice their new techniques together. This helps the student get a better grasp of distance between themselves and an opponent. The other student gets practice watching the techniques, memorizes the pattern, and grows more comfortable with fast moving objects coming near their face.

Step Seven: Hit the Pads

Hitting pads can come before partner practice. (And there are many different kinds. Big shields, handhelds, etc.) The point of pads is to allow the student to go full out without risking injury to themselves or someone else, they get a sense for what physical resistance and impact feels like so they can suss out the other problems they have with their technique or inside their own minds.

This is also where practicing with wood or other dummies comes in. You want to get around to punching or blocking hard objects, you’ve got to learn how to punch first.

Step Eight: Spar

A free spar is different from only being allowed to spar with specific techniques. There are many different kinds of sparring, all with different rules. The point of sparring is not just to simulate a real fight, but also to get the student used to the feel of physical resistance in a less tightly controlled environment. The point of sparring is practice.

Step Nine: Conditioning

I’m kidding, this isn’t a step. This is built in at every step. We’re taking a break. Time to… RUN WIND SPRINTS. Pushups. Situps! Burpees! Perform front stances around the track. Go jog it out. Come back, now when you’re body’s nearing exhaustion, to practice all over again.

Trust me, it’s harder when you’re tired.

Rinse lather repeat for every single technique in the character’s arsenal, and rinse, lather, repeat for when they practice them together as combinations.

Some Myths and Misunderstandings:

“Best In Class”: this is what that status earns you, by the way. You get more responsibility and taking a turn at being the test dummy getting thrown around the room. This is who the most popular kids in the dojo are, what their popularity gives them, and why they’re looked up to. If you just paused and imagined a couple characters squabbling over who sensei’s going to throw this week, congrats. That’s it.

I’ve been on both sides; the one who looked up at the school’s shining stars, and eventually became a star others younger than myself looked up to. A person whose skill they envied and who they wanted to be like. Status in a martial arts school isn’t like high school. Popularity is based on respect, and that’s decided by time, effort, and investment. Usually because you’re the “last man standing” i.e. still here after everyone else quit.

Often times, the most popular members of the school will be those out of reach. These are the older students who work as assistants for the instructor on the floor, or are seen practicing while waiting for their class to start. What draws attention to them is their enviable skill, and how easy they make advanced techniques look. I suppose we’ve all dreamed about beating up the seniors as freshman, and eventually came to realize how silly that was. If you want a rival for your character, this is the wrong place to look. You want a contemporary who is good but still at the same level they are.

Talented? Let’s Work You Harder: It doesn’t matter how talented a character is, they still have to go through the same steps as everyone else. They might move through them a little faster and get more frustrated with the process when their instructor takes them back to basics, but it’s worth knowing that the more talent one has then the more responsibility they will given both for their own training and that of others. There will also be higher expectations. Status is earned on the floor through the acquisition of skill, dedication, and effort. The one who persists and keeps at it will come out on top in the end. Talent offers a leg up on the competition, but it doesn’t secure victory.

My Master is Sadist: It is not uncommon to feel this way, though it’s usually only true in the same way as your well-intentioned gym teacher or coach. Physical exercise sucks all around. It’s messy, it’s sweaty, and at some point (no matter how good you are), you’re always going to feel like your arms are giving out. Huffing and puffing up and down the hill, freaking out about missing a step when climbing bleachers, etc. There are masters who are sadists, but this is not what they look like. We don’t attain skill or endurance through osmosis. The truth is our biggest barriers are in our minds and we often don’t know ourselves or our capabilities as well as we think we do.

Understanding Violence Makes One More Violent: Not in those who gain a real understanding of it, when you’ve proven your ability to yourself then you don’t need to with others. Demystifying violence is on the same level as demystifying sex, once you understand how it works it’s a lot less magical. The idea of punching out the high school bully is a lot less appealing when you know the consequences (and the bully is a lot less terrifying), just like waking up to an electronic baby squalling at one in the morning reminds us that safe sex might just be the best way to go.

-Michi

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Hi, Aunty Scripty! Thanks for running this blog! It’s such an amazing resource, and I appreciate all the hard work you put into it! On to my question, my character is in a bad situation, and as a last resort, because his hands are bound behind his back, bites his attacker’s throat. Would it be possible for him to actually tear out his attacker’s throat with his teeth? Sorry that it’s such a gruesome ask! Thanks again!

scriptmedic:

Probably not, but it’s certainly worth trying.

The throat is pretty well protected. The skin is thick and tough, the trachea itself is made of hard cartilage rings, and it’s actually surprisingly difficult  for a human to get a good mouth-hold on another human’s neck. (If you have a significant other who is okay with this, give it a try; don’t actually bite down though).

Hunters who do the throat-ripping thing usually have longer mouths than we do, which helps them get a grip on their prey. Humans have fairly short mouths by comparison, and really aren’t evolutionarily adapted for this task.

Now, that is not to say that having a human try to rip out your throat is not an absolutely fucking terrifying thing, because it is, and flesh missing from the neck can be psychologically devastating even if it’s not actually physically lethal. Your character could probably significantly damage the musculature and the skin, and possibly cause a severe venous bleed from the external or internal jugular.

If your character is going to get any better of a bite than that they’ll need their hands to hold the neck in place while they bite.

(Also, bites in fights is proooobably more @howtofightwrite‘s territory much more than it is mine 😉 ).

Best of luck!

xoxo, Aunt Scripty

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We’ve answered this kind of question before on several occasions, they’re in the biting and the only unfair fight tags. For a better exploration of this topic, read this ask answered by Starke about biting off fingers.

The short answer is that physically you certainly could take a good sized chunk out of their neck with your teeth (terrifying enough in and of itself), the problem is the psychology necessary to follow through with it. Biting is straight up nasty and, when it comes to other humans, runs up hard against a whole bunch of self-preservation instincts that any protagonist would need to fight past in order to pull it off.

More than that, with his hands bound he’d have no way to hold onto his opponent thus not enough time to get a good bite off. He’s got to get to them, lunge in fast enough to get his teeth around their throat or (possibly) lure them close enough to get the bite off, and hope they don’t stop his head with their hands (or head) before he gets there. Attacking the throat, even with the element of surprise, is a great way to get someone to guard it.

The truth is in the heat of battle you’re more likely to come up with
ramming your head into your attackers throat (more effective) to a
temporary stun, then follow up with a headbutt to their face or move on
to using your shoulders and legs before thinking of your teeth. (It’s
difficult, but you can kick with your hands tied behind your back.)
Strikes to the throat can crush or halt your ability to breathe entirely
with enough force, but are more often used as stunners, to distract via
fear (brain freak out, vital place has been attacked, internal screaming) and temporary loss of breath. These create what we call “openings” as in openings in defense.

As @scriptmedic says, the throat is
fairly well defended by your physiology.  This is going to be true of
the most obviously vital places.

You get far more mileage out of convincing someone they’re being attacked there in order to strike elsewhere because your instincts will move to defend those places at all cost. Like your hands automatically rising to your throat if it feels like someone is going to hit it. (This doesn’t make you good at blocking, it’s just instinctual order of operation. Sacrifice the less necessary body part for the essential one. This is why we never fight on instinct.)

And frankly, depending on his position, a fake out headbutt to the
throat while actually hitting the stomach (rising on that upward
diagonal into the diaphragm) will probably be more effective. Then, if
they’re still standing, headbutt to the face.

The first question is: can he bite?

No, really think about it. He cannot hesitate, not at all. A split second hesitation and he’s done for, he must complete the act in one simultaneous move. He can’t drop the moment he tastes the dirt and sweat coming with their flesh, then the blood running over his tongue, and get enough for a lethal rip away while his opponent is trying to get away. (And the attacker is, he started backing up the second the protagonist came at him, and the protagonist has no way to make him stand still.)
Remember, we humans don’t have the sharp teeth of a carnivore to sink in and keep our prey from running.

I mean it, spend some time thinking about what it’d feel like, taste like, and smell like. Then think about it from his perspective, it’s a dramatic idea but can he follow through?

The second question is: can he move in and bite in .5 seconds?

This is the sort of attack where he doesn’t get a second shot, and the kind where threat level is upgraded into automatic kill territory. Biting is socially unacceptable, dishonorable, and offensive.

The four scenarios for the victim are terrified enough to be paralyzed into inaction, terrified into action, so terrified they run, and righteously pissed. The protagonist has got to kill before fight, flight, or freeze takes effect. (And they can’t, really, unless they somehow manage to take out the carotid.)

The third question is: will the attacker be shocked enough by this bite to not retaliate while it’s happening?

The problem with the mechanics of a bite is you’ve got to get your teeth on the other guy’s throat for a solid rip away (and not miss because they moved their head or the teeth slip off), this takes time. The worst thing if he gets seized by the hair, punched in the face, stabbed by a knife, or gut checked by a sword pommel in the middle of (or slightly before) this bite going down. The protagonist needs to be mostly through the process of tearing by the time this antagonist realizes what’s happening. Even then, he’s in just the right range for some vicious retaliation. Even if he gets enough of a bite to kill, the other guy isn’t going to die right away. That could easily lead to an “I’m Taking You With Me” scenario.

The good news is that if he does manage a bite, he doesn’t need to take their windpipe. The human mouth is a vile, dirty, disgusting place and his victim will most likely die from either blood loss (depending on where he bites) or an infection.

The downside is his mouth will be full of their blood, and he’ll probably get sick too. If he doesn’t manage to escape, whoever else is working with his attacker will probably kill him because biting another human is as feral as it gets and automatically shifts whoever does it from “human being” into “animal”. While dehumanizing yourself to terrify your victims is a great strategy for psychological warfare, it doesn’t work so well when the shoe is on the other foot. In writing, you also run the risk of dehumanizing the character for the audience too. If it fails or the other guy lives, then he’s still the crazy idiot who tried to grab a guy’s throat with his teeth.

The trick to writing good fight scenes is being able to see and plan from the perspective of both parties in a fight. When trying to figure out whether something is possible never assume the guy they’re doing this action to is just going to stand there and take it. Everyone wants to live.

When talking about fighting, you’ve got to go through two steps. The first is the purely theoretical of “would it work?”, if the answer is maybe then ask “what would the other guy do in response?”

Most of the stupidest fighting ideas in real life die in this second stage (sometimes on the battlefield itself) because a live actor is much more difficult to deal with than lifeless dummy or someone whose given you permission to put your teeth around their throat. If the idea doesn’t float or sound good when pit against resistance then it’s usually no good, even if you’re crazy enough or desperate enough to try.

If rapid escalation into sudden, terrifying brutality isn’t in this character’s skill set (eye crushing, biting, and others) then this approach probably won’t work out for him. Does he think about ripping people’s throats with his teeth on a general basis? Has he ripped throats out before? Does he find the idea repulsive? If there’s a no to any of these questions or a yes to the last one then this approach may not be right for him.

Alternate approaches:

1) With only his head, shoulders, and feet, your protagonist could put his attacker on the ground and then crush his throat with their foot. It would take slightly longer, be less shocking, and require a finer grasp of tactics, but that’s possible.

This has the potential to be exciting. I understand, however, that it is very difficult for someone without a martial arts background to think with their feet or plan a fight scene around kicks or anything other than fists.

2) Ram their attacker and drive them both to the ground, and give their head a few solid hits with their forehead if they manage to land on top. Then run for it.

This one would be much easier to go with, though their chances of killing via this method are slim unless they manage to land a concussion or damage the brain some other way. However, it could provide them with a chance to make an exit if they can do enough damage so their attacker doesn’t try to stop them from escaping.

There’s also the risk of what the other guy does with his hands. However, the one who lands on top is usually in the best position.

3) The environment surrounding your character and where they are fighting can become a weapon they utilize in their escape.

This is often overlooked in fight scenes, but utilizing the environment and terrain is a huge factor in combat. There may be a way for your protagonist to kill their attacker sitting right next to them, or they can take advantage of.

Throwing your body weight around is something anyone can do because your utilizing your core and momentum to destabilize the enemy’s balance. This can be done with just your shoulder and feet planted in the right place. Knock ‘em into walls. Use this force to create new, creative means of attack and opportunities in the environment.

4) Stun this guy, duck past, and run for a crowded area to make his escape.

This is what it says on the tin.

5) Or wait and plan an escape later when he’s in a better position.

This may not work depending on what’s about to happen to him in prison. The best time for a prison break is not from the prison itself but while the prisoner is in transit. Try to remember, depending on the situation, your character needs to escape in a way that keeps his pursuers from following him. This doesn’t necessarily they have to die. (At least, in this exact moment.)

6) He tries it and fails.

He tries it, he fails, or might be mildly successful but not successful enough, gets caught and the situation plays out another way.
Sometimes, scenes don’t go the way we want but that doesn’t mean the
story ends. Another interesting path is waiting right around the corner.

7) You ignore all advice and just do it. YOLO.

Try it and see what happens.

-Michi

Did you see Wonder Woman? The fighting that the Amazons did was extremely choreographic and really beautiful to watch for a plebeian like me, but did it seem grounded in reality?

There’s nothing about Wonder Woman that’s grounded in reality. This is an intentional design decision and, to be fair, the likes of Atomic Blonde and Haywire aren’t either. In Haywire’s case, it’s because what makes for a good MMA fight is about as far from SpecOps as you can get.

The combat seen in Wonder Woman is stylistically designed to be superhuman because Diana and the Amazons are superhuman. They’re immortal, godlike beings who live on a paradise island hidden from the rest of the world. Their combat style and choreography emphasizes that aspect of their characters. It’s part of the visual storytelling ongoing to show us who and what they are.

Wonder Woman is the sort of archetypal character meant to inspire, who we look up at in wonder, who inspires us to be better, and to believe in ourselves.

The combat isn’t grounding in reality and it doesn’t need to be. In reality, we can’t reflect bullets with gauntlets and walking across No Man’s Land with just a shield would just lead to Diana’s legs being shot out from under her by a gatling gun. Realism isn’t the point of the movie though.
Besides that,
Wonder Woman
is no more realistic than Captain America fighting Nazis with a shield or Batman doing whatever Batman does in the Dark Knight. Or Athena kicking Ares keister in the Illiad.

Wonder Woman walking into the No Man’s Land is thematic not realistic, and that’s the same for the movie’s fight choreography. Hear it: Wonder Woman walks into No Man’s Land. You don’t even need the visual to feel a sense of awe. This woman walking where soldiers are scared to go.

This is archetypal, mythic storytelling with mythic heroes.

The problem is that “grounded in reality” has become the new version of “believable” or “suspension of disbelief” or “relateable” except with much more restrictive rules. Usually because this justification is really “I don’t like it, therefore”. Used more often to shut down conversation than start it, because “realism” sounds more legitimate than personal preference or inherent bias. If you’re ever in a discussion with someone and they can’t elaborate on why it isn’t “realistic” with a genre that was never about realism anyway, then you can usually say this is why.

Realism as an argument gets brought up a lot with superheroes, and the idea that anything in the superhero genre (and this includes superspies) is real is laughable. It’s called “superhero fiction” for a reason, and DC’s heroes from the Gold and Silver Age are all archetypal, mythic heroes who are better than humanity and through which we find the best of ourselves.

What’s real are the emotions and beliefs Wonder Woman inspires in you, the sense of awe, the wonder, and the hope. To hope for and fight for a better future than the one we see before us. To inspire our dreams so we find the courage to chase them. To look up at the stars instead of down at our feet.
To believe we’ll find victory so long as we keep getting up again.

To remind us we can change the world.

Sometimes, we just need freedom reality’s constraints to find the best in ourselves. Inspire us to see who we could be, beyond what we’ve previously believed to be possible.

You know how many glorious scientific inventions we have because of science fiction? Like hoverboards from Back to the Future. Or flip phones from Star Trek. They weren’t grounded in reality either when they were imagined. There was only the possibility they might, maybe exist… someday.

When discussing anything creative try and remember this: no is not a shut down nor does it remove the idea’s value.

Rather, any explanation on the subject is meant to help us gain a better understanding of the subject. The more we know then the more choices become available, and we’re able to pick the one best for us. 

The choreographers, directors, and producers who put together the Amazon’s combat style are people who have a firm grasp of how combat is supposed to work both onscreen and off it. They chose this route because what we see on screen is representative of the themes they had in mind and the story they were trying to tell. It was intentional, not accidental. They knew what they wanted.

The point is don’t be discouraged from chasing after a feeling or a dream just because fiction is what inspired you. The difference between fantasy and reality is the will we have to take ourselves there.

-Michi

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