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Fight Write: The Art of Stepping

Learning to fight always begins with the feet, so if you want to write about fighting: learn to start paying attention. It can be easy to get distracted by the hands and start thinking that’s all there is to throwing a good punch, or the feet and think that’s all there is to throwing a good kick. Before a punch is ever thrown, a good martial artist always steps. The step can be forwards, sideways, or on a diagonal, and it can involve the front foot or the back one, but a step is always involved. Let’s talk about why:

A step closes distance.

In a fight, we are normally too far away from our opponent to attack. We need to step forward to reach them. As we close the distance, we bring them (and ourselves) in range for a strike. Each strike requires a different amount of distance from the opponent, so make sure you know how close the character needs to be for them to connect.

A step creates momentum.

The body requires momentum for follow through. Follow through is when a strike connects hard and the arm, shoulder, or leg push farther than they would normally in training. The body uses the step forward to create a driving momentum behind the arm as the hips pivot to strike the opponent, without the momentum the strike is less effective.

A step allows a character to get out of the way.

If someone is charging to tackle, the best option is to get out of the way. The best solution to get out of the way is to step. Even if a character is slipping under a blow, they are going to step first in one direction or another.

So when writing a fight scene, remember to track your character’s steps.

Two verbs, I see a lot in fight scenes are “rush” and “charge”. They are good, powerful, and attractive words. They are perfect to use in a select number of circumstances. However, before you apply any verbs to a scene stop and consider: does a rush require one step? Two steps? Or three steps? Ask: how close will this bring my character to their opponent? Multiple steps, even fast ones, often leave a character open to attack. Rushing and charging both involve running, so a character’s body will be tilted forwards, perfect to be on the receiving blow of a knee, a knife hand, or a hammer blow to the back of their head. Make sure the words you’re using are right for the situation and remember: even tackle isn’t a perfect way of taking someone down. It can be met with a sprawl, which leads to a choke, which leads to a blackout (and death) for your character or their opponent.

Always ask yourself in any scene: where are my character’s feet, what are my character’s feet doing.

Here’s a not at all perfect example:

He came at her, right hand lashing out. There was no room to dodge, nowhere to go other than forwards. So, forward she went. Stepping in, her left hand came up to block. Batting his wrist downwards, she used the force of her momentum to rotate her shoulder and hips back as her right hand formed a fist. Then, she struck. Her fist drove forwards, aiming for the soft flesh of his throat. He gasped as knuckles collided with skin and his windpipe crumpled.

Stumbling back, his hands went to his neck.

Clutching it, he looked up at her as panic spread across his face. She didn’t bother to smile as her knee drew into her chest and her foot struck out, plowing into his belly. When his knees hit the ground, she knew the fight was over.

He wouldn’t be getting back up again.

Unusual Martial Art: Escrima

This is a martial style from the Philippine Islands. It’s a very useful MA to know about, especially since it’s not one that usually appears in western fiction. You may or may not be familiar with it, if not, then here are some basics to whet your whistle.ery

Escrima is a martial art that focuses primarily on wielding a short bamboo stick and a knife, sometimes it includes two bamboo sticks of similar to varying length, or just one. The style strikes at the hand, the wrist, the upper arm, the head, the knee, and the center (the solar plexus and stomach).

The style basis itself around the idea that the opponent is armed, it focuses first on blocks, disarms, and then attacks. It’s style sometimes resembles modern fencing, but it is far more utilitarian.

The basics of this Martial Art, while not fancy, are fairly easy for a beginner to learn.

Something to remember: This is one of the few styles in the world that makes dual wielding attractive and practical, the bamboo stick functions as both for attacking and defending while the knife follows up with fast, lethal strikes.

Tip: Understand the Basics

Much like understanding grammar is a basic for learning how to write, understanding the beginning tenants of any Martial Art is essential to it’s practice. The basics are the building blocks of technique, any technique, from being a excellent painter to handling a firearm. As a writer, we control everything that happens in a character’s universe, so it’s essential to understand not just how something works but what it does and why it’s important.

It’s tempting to want to just jump straight to the action, but for the sake of your characters and writing believable fight scenes, it’s important to walk before you run. Just as How? What? Where? and Why? are important questions to a story’s plot, they are also important to a punch or a kick.

The basics are what teach us the how, the what, and the why so we can perform in the where. Master your basics and you start mastering your character. There will always be someone in your audience who will know if you don’t put the work in and for those that didn’t, they might learn something new.

Fight Write: How Do You Choose a Martial Art?

The weapon choices and martial style that an author makes for their character is just one more expression of who they are. What we choose tells the reader a great deal about them without the author having to spend time a lot of time elaborating on what it is and what that means. So here area few simple questions to ask yourself when picking out a MA:

1) Ask yourself: what sort of person is my character?

Often times, authors choose Martial Arts based on what they look like, not on how well they mesh with the character’s outlook/job. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is actually an excellent example of this, in the first few seasons she uses a basic punching and kicking style based mostly out of Tae Kwan Do because it’s more visually dynamic. But the style rarely reflects the sort of fighting she’s actually doing, nor her personality. Buffy is a heavy hitter, she enjoys beating on others in a very close environment. She enjoys slamming them into walls and doors. She’s not actually a well-trained fighter, instead she relies mostly on her superpowers to get the job done. Comparatively, Tae Kwan Do requires an immense amount of training. It’s a style that focuses on accuracy, control, and speed over physical power to finish the fight quickly. It’s unsuitable for a fighter a) doesn’t spend a lot of time stretching and b) who doesn’t want to put a lot of effort in to become good at it.

Now, compare the choices made in Buffy to those in Avatar: the Last Airbender. In Avatar, the character’s personalities are a reference to the four elements and the styles they practice are based primarily around those elements. Aang as a character can be hyper and flighty, zooming from place to place on his air scooter. Katara is a Yin/Yang like water, capable of both extreme anger and extreme kindness, her personality is built around a complex set of pushes and pulls. Like the water she wields, she can be both stubborn and flexible in her outlook.

2) What does my character do?

If you have trouble with the first question, the second best place to start with a character and an MA is their job. What do they do? Are they a dried up policeman/woman? Then, their training will be based in what’s commonly taught to police officers with possible additions from outside sources that they pick up on their own time. Army/Marine/Air Force are the same, however their training is similar but separate, the hand to hand styles the Military uses are constantly in development and are constantly being updated to stay relevant. If your character is former Special Forces/CIA/FBI then they’re training will no longer be up to date, no matter how good they were initially.

So, make sure you pick a style that is relevant to what your character does for a living or is being asked to do.

3) Research the Style’s History

Every MA is based around a specific ideal, it was designed to counter or combat an enemy and the techniques reflect that history, even if they have been updated for a modern era. Knowing the history of the style will allow you, the author, to understand the philosophy inherent in the style itself and whether or not that will be suitable for your character.

Again, don’t pick based on what looks good or cool to you, choose what’s appropriate to your character and a style that will help you build a better story. The old adage is: Write What You Know and if you don’t know, then it’s time to study up.

Below are some examples to help you get started¸ happy writing!

Krav Maga: This is an Israeli Martial Art taught to their military forces. It’s increasingly being known as one of the best modern combat styles in the world, though that’s up for debate. It is a fighting style that, for the most part, bases it’s strikes in boxing and kickboxing with elbow, kicks, and knee strikes that have a passing similarity Muay Thai. It is an intense and aggressive MA designed around the idea of tight urban combat and close quarters fighting. Krav Maga is a heavy hitter, one that is growing in popularity for self-defense training and in the MMA arena.

Characters Krav Maga is Appropriate For: Aggressive characters and brutal characters, both male and female. It’s useful to characters who fight in an urban environment and worth looking to if you want to create a street fighter who is constantly looking to be in their opponents face all the time. Krav Maga works off the idea that your opponent doesn’t understand what they’re doing and will win by virtue of overwhelming force. Hit as hard as possible, as fast as possible, as quickly as possible while terrifying your opponent into submission. It’s an up close and personal style, if your character likes to constantly be within grabbing distance of their opponent this is one for them.

Tae Kwan Do: Like I talked about above, Tae Kwan Do is all about control, precision, and speed. This MA is for a character who is incredibly limber, small, and light. It’s a fighting style that works very well for both women and men, women especially because it bases it’s strength in kicks as primary over punches and requires an intense level of flexibility. Tae Kwan Do is all about building powerful momentum through a variety of kicks both offensively and defensively. It’s a style built around keeping your opponent away from you and finishing the fight quickly with the body’s strongest weapons. Tae Kwan Do kicks aim for the chest and the head.

Characters Tae Kwan Do is Appropriate For: Tae Kwan Do is best suited to characters who began training at an early age, who have a solid sense of balance, and are very flexible. Tae Kwan Do is a very effective fighting form, even in a modern world, especially when it’s weaknesses (hands) are compensated with by training in additional MAs. But, it is difficult to learn and those who come to it late will have trouble mastering it and/or achieving the required level of flexibility. A character must have near perfect control over their muscles and an almost complete synergy between body and mind to be effective. For reference: a traditional Tae Kwan Do master will be able to perform three to four kicks on a single leg, before that foot ever touches the ground. They will then be able to follow up those kicks with another strike from the same leg, by simply sliding into the next one. If your character is a slacker or doesn’t want to train, this is not the form for them.

If you’re looking to avoid Asian styles, one no nonsense alternate kicking style is the French Savate. It’s one of the major, surviving European MAs and a good style to study up on, especially if you’re interested in having a character from a European background who combines kicking techniques with fencing.

Reference:

 If you want to spend some money and avoid Wikipedia, I recommend picking up Gurps: Martial Arts which is a good primer on a variety of different MAs and some good solid background ideas that you can give to a character to make them realistic. You can usually find it used or on Amazon, if you don’t want to pay full price.

 The History Channel’s now defunct Human Weapon is sadly no longer on the air, but you can find it’s episodes on YouTube. It’s an informative show and an excellent more in depth primer on a bunch of different MAs, including some non-Asian biggies like Savate, Russia’s Sambo, and Greece’s Pankration. They also took a look at the Marines’ hand to hand combat style, if you’re looking to write a military character this is a good resource. It’s also a nice look at fights between fighters trained in one kind of MA learning another and fighting with an unfamiliar style.

 Once you find the style you want to study, it’ll be easier to find information on the web, at your local library, and talking to Instructors who run dojos in your area.

Happy Writing!

-Michi

Tip: It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re going to hurt tomorrow.

The first rule of fighting is:

1) Don’t Get Hit

The second rule of fighting is:

2) You Will Get Hit


Here’s a fact of life: real fights start cold, your character will have zero time to warm up their body or prepare their muscles. They won’t have a chance to get their body into perfect condition before the first attack comes, so the chances of them pulling or straining a muscle is high, even if they win the fight. They will be bruised, they will be battered, and their injuries will stay with them for weeks, if not months.

One of the hardest truths of combat is that no injury ever really heals. Even with medical attention, the injury will stay with the character. For an example: Go watch some of Jackie Chan’s earliest movies and then one like “The Karate/Kung Fu Kid”. You’ll notice that even though he is still an amazing fighter, he cannot really walk straight anymore. And Jackie Chan doesn’t even actually fight, he just practices martial arts and occasionally jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fighting puts constant stress on the body and wears it out quickly, even if your character is taking fewer hits and isn’t stupid, they’re still going to hurt in the aftermath. Whether or not your character takes pride in their bumps and bruises is up to them, but the body will wear out. If you as a writer ignore that, then your characterization and story will suffer.

-Michi

Tip: Fights Start For A Reason

Often in novels and television shows, it can seem like fights start for no reason at all. The author bases their fights around a moral stand point, the other character is a bully, they are a bad person, or evil, and there are often no follow up consequences.

It’s actually rare in life to find a living person who wanders around randomly spoiling for a fight. Now, they do exist, I know people who’ve met a few, but the amount that they actually appear in fiction is actually rather ridiculous.

Someone who’s planning to start a fight will actively assess several different factors. Here are some basic ones:

-They will weigh their chance of injury and death versus success

-They will look at the numbers advantage (does their opponent have more people than they do)

-What is the target’s social connections

-What fallout will occur with victory and defeat

-What they can gain from the fight versus what they will lose

-The cost of victory

Even if your villain is a minor character, spend some time with them, and examine what their motivation is. The same is true for your hero. Most victories are won in combat without ever firing a shot and someone trained and untrained will notice (sometimes subconsciously) the difference between a character who is pretending they know how to fuck someone up and a character who really does.

What one character knows about another will change the underlying reasons for why they are fighting and remember, no fight  is free. There are always consequences.

-Michi

Tip: It’s necessary let your character be afraid.

Fear may be the mind-killer, but it’s a very necessary component of any character. For an action hero or any protagonist who deals with power (physical, psychological, spiritual, supernatural) how they approach fear will be the deciding factor in whether or not they will fall into the category of a bully.

For any true combatant (who isn’t a psychopath) overcoming the instinctual fear of harming themselves and causing harm to someone else is a key part of their training. How they handle the prospect and reality of causing harm to another, especially if that person falls into the category of “us” as opposed to “them”, will be a defining part of who they are. Combat is a terrifying, brutal, and uncomfortable place that is as much based in psychological willpower as it is a physical action.

Remember, fear is much more important than anger. Does your character face their fears? Do they run from them? Or do they inflict their fears on others?

-Michi

Reference for Writers: When you need to do a lot of research on something

reference for writers: When you need to do a lot of research on something