Tag Archives: fighting groups

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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I’m writing a character that’s a professional dancer. I read your post about not being able to be masters in both dance AND martial arts, but is it possible for him to be good /enough/ to take down a couple of other guys with the use of his agility and possibly weapons, as well?

I’m going to sound like a broken record here, I know. Dancing doesn’t help. Asking again won’t change that. It’s like asking, “how does my day job as a pasta chef help me fight crime?” These things are completely unrelated. I know, with dancing it doesn’t seem like they are, but trust me, they have nothing to do with one another.

The only martial artists that benefit from dancing are exhibition artists. These are the performers that put on the floor shows. For them, acrobatics, gymnastics, and dance routines are nice supplements that allow them to spice up their routines, and they make it look good.

But, looking good, and being effective in a fight are completely different animals.

If you try to use dance moves in a fight it will get you killed.

Second: taking multiple fighters is seriously hard. The upper human limit is six to eight opponents at one time. The upper limit. If you are Batman, you can take eight. If you’re someone that actually ages, and hasn’t been getting into random slap fights with a menagerie of bizarrely themed villains for 80 years with a history of beating the snot out of gods and winning, taking on groups is basically not happening.

Also, I hate to break it to you, Batman, Chuck Norris, and Buffy cheat, in a lot of ways. TV and film presents multiple combat as far easier than it actually is because it wants you to see how utterly badass the hero is. Unfortunately, if that’s your baseline, it completely messes up your zero point. Taking two guys is hard. Juggling three or four requires a phenomenal amount of skill. Handling six is the realistic limit for someone with decades of combat training and experience.

Now, if it’s seven of you, and you’re exhibitionists who are putting on a martial arts floor show, or stunt performers choreographing a major fight for that movie you’re in… but that’s not a real fight. I’m sure it will look cool, but that’s not how combat actually works.

There is one major caveat with this: weapons change everything. If you’re willing to start a fight by burying a crowbar in the back of some mook’s skull, dealing with three two opponents is quite possible. If you’re willing to leverage one against another, or tangle them up in each other, or just flat out kill them before they can respond, you can deal with two opponents. But, even with a weapon, this is tricky, and you’re going to need a plan. The weapon just makes it possible. That said, if your opponents also have weapons, you’re back where you started, and the odds of you living through the fight just got a lot lower.

-Starke

What would be the best way to capture someone who is a skilled, experienced fighter with a very high pain tolerance?

A tazer. It doesn’t matter how badass your character thinks they are, when your nervous system is shorted out by an electrical current, you cannot fight.

After that, anything you can use to cripple them quickly, like a crowbar or sledgehammer to the knee will work.

Pointing a gun at their head along with with ten or twenty of your buddies and giving them a choice between becoming the new flavor of chunky salsa sweetmeat or coming quietly is probably your best bet.

If that fails, numbers will end your lone experienced fighter. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jack Bauer or Chuck Norris, you cannot fight a crowd. Combat experience and training can give you the tools to briefly juggle a few people, effectively, but the key word there is, “briefly.”

It doesn’t matter how awesome or badass you think your character is, they can’t take a crowd and win.

Pain tolerance only keeps them going when they’ve suffered an injury that doesn’t actually impair their ability to fight. But, when you’re receiving injuries that are going to make fighting impossible, like breaking an arm, for example, the pain isn’t actually important. You can’t use that arm, no matter how strong your will to fight is.

You can’t make a character superhuman without actually saying, “screw this, I’m giving them superpowers.” The way you take out a lone combatant is basically going to be the same. Overwhelm them.

-Starke

I have a fight scene where there is my protagonist against four other characters (two girls, two boys). My protagonist is a girl who has grown up in a world where you need to know how to fight to survive. If she was taught how to fight, what do you think she would know? Also, my four other characters are all decently strong physically but they are all a little weak from not enough food. What would be a reasonable outcome in the situation and how would an organized group of four fight?

That’s… really vague. The part about what she needs to know. Knowing nothing about your world, I can’t actually answer the question of what she does or doesn’t need to know how to do. Think about the threats she faces on a regular basis. Think about her support network. What resources does she have access to to defend herself? Who is/are the enemy? If there are multiple ones, which does she face the greatest threat from on a regular basis? Is she in a privileged position in her culture or a gutter rat? Does she have a solid connection with friends and family or does she have to go it alone most of the time? What threats are there in her environment? Gangs? Organized Crime? Corrupt Police? Invading military? Local Military?

For all I know, the major enemy she has to be on the lookout for are man-sized, bipedal rats that crawl up out of the underdark.

Someone had to teach her how to fight, if she’s any good at it. The question is: what did they teach her? The answer is: whatever is the most basic and common skill set readily available that is necessary to ensure her survival. If so, somewhere in there, this someone probably taught her the virtue of running and hiding which is a skill all children who live in dangerous societies must learn because fighting adults head on is a losing proposition. This brings us to the most inglorious and useful skill when fighting groups: the art of running away.

The problem with groups is that working together is the natural human state and, even with no actual combat skill, they can be very dangerous just working off of base instinct

Have you ever just stood back and watched a game of keep away? It’s a really cruel thing young bullies like to do, some of you out there have probably been on the receiving end. That is, at it’s most basic, the basic strategy employed by groups in combat. Distract the target up front, then keep them off balance and having to chase the object as it moves from person to person. When you add violence into the picture, one individual distracts while the others flank outside the range of peripheral vision. This may be by talking, it may be by attacking, but the goal will be to pen in the target and attack the areas where they are most vulnerable (the back, the kidneys, the spine). Once the person falls (which happens very quickly), they continue the assault by stomping them and kicking them until they pass out/die.

The real world/self-defense advice for dealing with groups is: don’t. Run.  If you’re forced into a fight, cripple your opponents so you can extract yourself and then run. If you have to fight them and know the terrain, run so they get strung out and you can take them individually. Remember the eight move limit until physical exhaustion. The individual can only throw eight moves total without, at least, a small amount of rest. Each member of the group can make eight moves and by switching between fighters (pressing in two on one), the other two (or three) can take moments to rest which allows the entire group to fight longer.

In these articles, I go into it in more depth.

FightWrite: The Individual Versus the Group

Fightwrite: Emotions, Physical Reactions, and the Flow of Combat

This ask, where we talked about gangs.

This ask, where we talked about raising kids to fight.

This ask, where we talked about militarized communities and child rearing

Hopefully, these will be enough to get you started.

-Michi