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.
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.
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.
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’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.