Tag Archives: writing reference

I’m writing a fantasy novel right now in which one of the characters is a monk who uses martial arts. One of the problems that authors writing different worlds come up against often is that they must make up a lot of the details that others can just research. So my questions are these: is there a good way to make up a fighting style? What are some pitfalls to watch out for? Should authors describe real-world fighting styles instead? Any more tips you have for how to approach this would be great!

I wouldn’t recommend building your own martial art, even in a fictional sense unless you have a few black belts underneath you. The problem is that the innate understanding of how techniques are put together, which techniques are used and taught and how they feed into each other and build off each other as you advance up the tree just isn’t there.

It’s just going to be easier in the long run to find a martial art that fits your purposes and warp it’s history to suit the history of your setting. Preferably, it’ll be one whose history already mirrors the themes and philosophies your story supports. The quickest way to figure that out is by deciding what you want from the martial art, like everything it may require a lot of research into different martial arts and their backgrounds.

You might also want to look where you’re drawing your inspiration from for your story to begin your search. For example: while monks in both Europe and China did go into battle and learn the fighting arts, if you’re pulling primarily from D&D you want to go with Shaolin. The reason is that the basic philosophies of Shaolin, The Tao, and Confucianism are already present in the way D&D structures and puts together the monk class. Your monk may subconsciously end up reflecting those tenets even if you didn’t intend for that to happen.

When you know what went into something and the inspirations it took from , you can extract what you need back out. You can strip away the superfluous elements that are unique to the setting you took inspiration from and keep the idea you wanted to take without the risk of someone pointing to you later and saying: oh, this came from X. Most monks in modern fantasy fiction are drawn from the D&D mold, because of the Tao and the use of Chi (energy). Because of Star Wars chi is often accidentally translated into magic. If you want a Christian monk, you need to use European styles of fighting. Christian monks often carried staffs, cudgels, maces, and even swords (Friar Tuck is an example) because they would often be facing armed and armored opponents even among the peasantry. By the time the Catholic Church had spread across Europe, hand to hand techniques would have been mostly useless to them. This doesn’t mean they were less skilled, different circumstances call for different tactics.

Remember: martial combat is reactionary, what feeds the creation of a style is the challenges the practitioner will face in the world around them. By figuring out what those challenges are, you can then turn to a society that also faced similar challenges and find a martial art with a philosophy that will fit your setting.

Most writers start at the end point, the results are what they see. Don’t start there, back up to the beginning: what are the pieces at work and what sort of world do they build together to create. Know your world and you’ll find your combat style.

-Michi

I have a question, I’m wondering how to write a fight between two people using their fists. How do they defend themselves what are the right movements? I just wonder what is needed to be taken into account to write such a scene. I’m sorry if this has been answered before.

Don’t be sorry! Writing about fighting when you have no practical experience is a difficult challenge and writing fight sequences when you do is still time consuming. There are a lot pieces working together and figuring out how they function is difficult and something very few writers actually do well.

Here are a list some of our posts that may be helpful to you:

Five Simple Ways to Write Convincing Fight Sequences

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

Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

Fight Write: The Art of Stepping

Fight Write: The Art of Blocking

Tip: Fights Start for a Reason

ObsidianMichi’s Real World Fight Facts

Fight Write: The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose Part 1

The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose Part 2 (Brutality)

Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Fight Write: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality

Also check anything in our Michael Janich tag, he is a very good instructor who teaches self-defense. I refer people to his videos for the work he does with concepts, where he actively explains what a technique is, what it does, and why it’s used before teaching the technique. As a writer, you need both technique and concept before you can put it on the page.

I plan on doing a write up on both elbows and knees in the near future. There’s a lot of misconceptions about how these techniques work.

Also check out Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series particularly First Test and Page in The Protector of the Small quartet. Tamora Pierce is one of the few authors that write fight scenes I feel comfortable recommending for reference.

Good hunting!

-Michi

One of my characters is an agile and skilled fighter with a short blade, but needs both her lower legs amputated above the knee. With prosthetics, what difficulties or differences would this cause to her fighting ability?

Hoo boy. We’re not medical professionals and haven’t done a lot of research into prosthetics or their effect on combat. A lot of it is going to rely on the available technology in the setting and how good the prosthetics are. There are paraplegics who train in martial arts, run martial arts dojos, and teach others self defense. So, if it’s something you really want to pursue, I’d suggest doing extensive amounts of research.

But she’d have to learn an entirely new way of fighting. The feet, the ankles, and the lower legs handle our mobility, our weight adjustment for strikes. Fighting relies on footwork, not just for speed and agility, but to be able to perform complex strikes at all. It would take her years of work to be able to recover her fighting ability and she would never really achieve the level of prowess she had before in a competitive sense. There’s a huge difference between being able to defend yourself from an untrained combatant and a fight between two professionals.

This is just on the physical level and doesn’t touch on the psychological struggles that she’d face. Athletes and injuries aren’t a good combination, they have a habit of pushing to hard to fast during recovery and often injure themselves more. Someone that has been used to high levels of physical activity will face significant struggles when they’re suddenly forced to stay in bed for six weeks, when they can’t get up out of bed without help, when an orderly has to help them go to the bathroom, when their wheelchair (which she’ll need while she’s learning to use the prosthetics) won’t fit inside their house because the specifications weren’t built for it, when they can’t climb the stairs, when they’re looking at six or seven months of recovery and have to watch all their friends going off to do the things they used to do without them.

Could she retain enough mobility to continue in her current line of work? Probably not, unless you’re working with a futuristic setting. She’s going to have to figure out what else she can do with her time. I suggest looking up Oracle Year One by John Ostrander, before the New 52 reboot, Oracle was the most well known disabled superhero, you might be able to pull some inspiration from her journey and her transition into a different kind of superhero.

Here’s a personal story that might be helpful to you:

When I was twelve, I broke my left leg. I was training for my first degree black belt test at the time, that day our instructors were teaching us the tornado kick. It’s a jump spin kick where you perform a roundhouse, spin into a turn and perform a followup jump roundhouse. Do it fast enough and you start to turn sideways in midair. Anyway, it was on my third try, I’d finished the first kick and as I went into the spin, I felt my foot get caught on mat. My leg stopped moving but my body kept going, there was pain and then I was on the floor. I tried to get up, but my leg gave out like there was nothing there and I fell down again. I remember saying “I can’t walk”. It took two instructors supporting me on either side to carry me to the bench. My parents weren’t there and my mom didn’t arrive until the end of class, fifteen minutes later. One of the adult students gave me their jacket to use as a pillow, they took it back when they were leaving about five minutes before my mom came.

My master instructor carried me out to the car and my mom took me home, this was before cell phones. I waited in the car outside our house while she talked to my dad. Then, she took me to the emergency room where they put me in a cast and sent me home in a wheel chair because I didn’t know how to use crutches.

Our house isn’t ground level, every walk way into it has stairs. My room was on the back end of the house on the second floor, up a set of very narrow steep steps. The hallway leading back to my room was not wide enough for a wheel chair to fit. So, I slept in the guestroom in the front room for two months before my surgery. The guestroom was the only bathroom in the house with a standing shower that could fit a stool for me to sit on while I bathed. I wouldn’t have been able to take a shower in a tub and even with my leg wrapped in plastic bags to protect the cast (and later the external fixator) it would have been hard to take a bath. The shower didn’t have a handrail, so if I slipped and fell, there was no way for me to get back up. My wheel chair could not fit inside the bathroom, so I had to support myself by gripping the sink and the wall to the towel rack while hopping on one leg to get into the shower. Then, I had to sit on the toilet while my mom wrapped my cast up in a plastic bag. I also had to sleep on my back with my foot elevated on a cushion, I couldn’t roll over, and I couldn’t turn to find a more comfortable position in the bed.

My leg itched constantly.

For the first two weeks or so at school, people were very nice to me. They constantly offered to push my wheelchair from class to class, carry my books, hold the doors open for me, etc. After that, they stopped noticing, stopped doing nice things, mostly forgot about me. I’d always been a bit of an outsider, the weird smart kid with ADD but the difference between a mental disability and a physical disability is that you can’t hide from the physical one. People will see it and they will react to it: pity, disgust, curiosity are common. Mostly they don’t look at you, or when they do, they’re condescending to you, trying to be helpful without really being helpful like holding open one of the double doors instead of both and not really getting out of the way (you’d have to turn the wheelchair on a diagonal to get through and they were standing in the way). If you don’t take their help with gratitude (even when it’s not helpful) they get upset.

Things people say and do when you’re disabled that are really annoying: they use the handicap stall even though they’re not disabled and there are other stalls available, especially when they take the stall right in front of you because they’re ahead in line and didn’t see you, they tell you how lucky you are that you don’t have to participate in PE especially when all you want to do is to participate in PE, they ask to take rides in your wheelchair, often in inconvenient places such as while on the tennis courts, complete strangers ask to see your injury because their friends told them about it and when you show them they go “ewww, that’s gross!”. When someone takes your crutches and hides them outside the classroom because they think it’s “funny”. When people are nice to you because you’re in a wheelchair. When people think you can’t do anything for yourself because you’re in a wheelchair. When people think your mind got broken the same time as your legs because you’re in a wheelchair.

Things that are really annoying about being in a wheelchair: traveling between classes feels like going a few miles, you notice every crack and uneven piece ground, a slight diagonal in the ground feels like Mount Everest, having to roll all the way around a building to find a ramp, when a building doesn’t have wheelchair access, having to sit at the back of the class, having to get a new locker lower to the floor because you can’t reach your old, cherished one, not being able to go get a Christmas tree with the rest of the family and having to sit in the car while they go pick, having to sit in your wheelchair while other people bring you the presents even though that used to be your job. Having to wait for someone to pick you up and drop you off, because you can’t get home by yourself anymore. Not seeing the inside of your own room for two months because you’re in a wheelchair.

It all adds up and it’s a huge change in your life. Everything you once took for granted is gone and you have to find an entirely new way to live. If you’re really serious about having your character be a paraplegic, these are all things that you have to consider seriously for your story. It’s ultimately what the story is going to be about: finding a new way to live against the backdrop of who you used to be and what you used to do but can’t any longer.

I don’t know if that’s helpful, but it’s what I’ve got.

-Michi

(I should probably point out also this happened when I was twelve, I spent an entire school year in a wheelchair and then on crutches. I’m twenty-six now, but I still double check every building I walk into for wheelchair accessibility.)

l’enfer, c’est les autres: 60 Awesome Search Engines for Serious Writers

l’enfer, c’est les autres: 60 Awesome Search Engines for Serious Writers

Hey there, folks! Be welcome home! Have a question for ya, here it is: How can one with a simple knife or dagger fend themselves against an user of swords/clubs/any longer weapon, really. Also, this same dagger user, fighting against someone who uses swords and shielf. Thanks in advance, for everything :D

Shank them. Shank them before they see you.

You can stand and fight, but a dagger or even a short sword/long dagger is at a significant disadvantage against someone wielding a long sword. The problem isn’t necessarily a better weapon (it is) or a more skilled fighter, the trouble is reach. When it comes to weapons, reach and weapons that are further up the technology tree will have a significant advantage over one that’s further down. We don’t tend to think about medieval weaponry and swords, particularly long swords as technology but they are.  So, let’s break weapon lengths down. Someone working with a sword or club will be at a disadvantage against someone wielding a staff or spear, particularly if that staff or spear is metal plated and can take someone hacking at it. They did actually do this in Europe. When facing someone carrying a weapon that is the same as your own, spear versus spear, sword versus sword, then it becomes an actual contest of skill. The long sword has greater reach than a short sword and the dagger, putting the dagger wielder at the disadvantage because to win they have to fight their way past a very dangerous weapon before they can even get into striking range. Throwing a shield in on top of that is just unfair.

For you, the comparison is similar to punches versus kicks, someone who primarily uses kicks will keep the other person out of range and if they’re kept at range, they can’t do damage (unless they can catch the leg). Cun Lee does very well on the MMA circuit, for example, because most of the fighters he faces come from a boxing/wrestling/jiujutsu background and he uses a mix of taekwondo and muay thai kicks to keep them at range and knock them out.

So, how do they fend off an opponent with superior force? The best answer is: don’t fight on their terms. Stop and think about the strengths of the dagger as a weapon, it’s either a supporting add on used in desperate circumstances or its a weapon of surprise. It can be hidden fairly easily and does incredible amounts of damage swiftly in close quarters, in the ranges where the sword and staff become less useful (if you’re working against a European long sword watch out for the pommel, it’s a close quarters weapon if the sword is already out of it’s sheath…a shield can also be used as a bashing weapon to knock someone back). The character just has to figure out how to get there.

So, disengage, run away, come back later when they don’t expect it and shank them. Or take them by surprise the first time out, then run and hide. It’s not noble, it’s not pretty, but it works.

-Michi

Hello New Followers!

We passed 1,500 today which is pretty much one of the best presents we could have during this very difficult and stressful time. So, thank you! We’re still not in any kind of financial state to be doing giveaways, but here is are some resources for those of you interested in working with swords and European forms of fighting:

Samantha Swords: A practitioner of European forms of Martial Arts, she recently became Champion of the Longsword at the Harcourt Park Invitational Jousting Tournament. She seems like a good resource for you blade minded people.

I picked this one up off one of her asks: Wikitaneur run by the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance. These folks are looking to ressurect some of the extinct European forms of combat. This is their library of European manuscripts detailing some of those forms. Could be worth a look.

Hope that helps!

-Michi

Zombies, Zombies, Zombies

ljsalazarofficial asked howtofightwrite:

Hi guys. Thank you for your amazing work! I have a female character who needs to fight zombies. She’s not used to any kind of weapons and I’m thinking abut giving her something with a blade. I thought of a machete, but I’m not sure it’s the right weapon for her. She’s not particularly strong or skilled, but she’s a fast learner. Do you have any advice? Thank you.

The answer to this one got eaten by a grue when we were on vacation, so apologies for taking so long to get back to you. This is a great question! I love zombies, but it’s important to consider the kind of story and the kind of zombies you’re working with before choosing your weapon. In modern popular fiction, there are a couple different kinds of stories to work with. I’m assuming we’re talking Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead (comic)and Resident Evil (movie) type apocalypses and not the singular, got back up from the grave zombies of mythology and folk tales. Both are fun, but infect ya zombies come with their own considerations when choosing a weapon.

First: figure out what kinds of zombies your characters will be facing and the way they transmit the disease. You’ve got a couple of choices, there’s biting, fluid contact, death, and all of the above. You’ve also got your  traditional shamblers, runners, jumpers, and really anything else you want. But it is important to have that nailed down before you pick your weapon, because it limits the available choices.

A melee weapon is no good if it’s fluid contact, there’s too much chance of being infected by the back spray or the ooze that’ll leak down the weapon when it connects. You also don’t want any sharp edged melee weapons like swords or machetes because there’s a chance they’ll get stuck in bone and leave the character helpless to the zombie coming in behind them.

Remember, survival horror and even adventure survival horror isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. You can’t really kill zombies in any sufficient number to ever be free of them, there are just too many. So the kinds of melee weapons you need are good, solid bashing weapons that are long enough (at least initially) to keep the characters out of biting range and give the characters an opening to escape. Because we’re working in a survival horror genre, you want to pick a weapon like a tire iron or crowbar, a weapon that is easy to pick up anywhere but doesn’t seem like a real weapon. Improvised weapons lend a sense of desperation to characters, while traditional weapons make the reader feel safer, like the characters are more in control of the situation. You don’t want that in the beginning, you want weapons that reflect the situation and force the reader to feel their desperation as the world crumbles in around them.

You can upgrade later to something more real as the characters settle into this new way of life, I’d still pick something that’s fairly easy to come by in any sports store or Walmart like a shotgun loaded with deer slug (a good room sweeper) and a police baton, a tactical baton, or a fire axe. Staffs are also pretty good because of their ability to create a solid 360 degree defense against attackers and are very easy to learn to use. You want weapons that are good for handling numbers, not single targets and weapons designed for providing escape routes over victory. A character who stands and fights against the zombie horde is a character who is doomed, survival is key.

It’s also good to remember that zombies aren’t so much an exercise in combat as they are one in problem solving and teamwork, the fact that your character is intelligent and learns quickly is a good thing. She might become the planner on how to get what they need without pulling ten to a few hundred zombies down on them. If the zombies react to sound, setting something like a battery powered alarm clock or timer to go off in another room or house while they raid someone’s kitchen. The survival of the group won’t be based off of a single individual, but in the individuals ability to work together.

This is pretty standard stuff, but I hope that’s helpful. If you’re not already looking at some of the many different mediums surrounding zombies it might be worth it to take a look there. The Zombie Survival Guide, The Walking Dead (comic), Resident Evil (movies), 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, Warm Bodies, etc are all useful for figuring out what you can bring to the genre either feels fresh or is just a very solid zombie survival horror story. The more information you pull down and a wider net you spread, the better a story you’ll write.

Hope that helps!

-Michi

Five Simple Ways To Write Convincing Fight Sequences

Writing relies on ‘where, what, how, and why’ to develop a convincing narrative. This is a rule that is an umbrella over of both the entire narrative and the individual scenes that hold the plot together. A fight scene has to fulfill those requirements and it must do so within the greater context of the narrative while supporting the underlying logic of the setting as well as remaining functional and relevant on its own. This should always be your primary goal: making sure that all your sequences work together to support a cohesive and coherent whole. Knowing how to write fights and fighting characters is an extraction and extrapolation from the skills you’re already developing as a writer. Remember, it’s not a separate skill or knowledge: it’s a supplementary one. In American popular culture, martial combat tends to be mystified and it’s ironically done in the same way whether we’re working with the military or overlaying orientalism in the martial traditions of “the mysterious East”. Many writers, ironically or not, treat combat skills like they’re magic or a superpower. Often: it just happens. The discussion of what happens in the scene is vague and often anatomically incorrect. The characters are incapable of supporting their own backstories with important details and outlooks. Violence and its effects are segregated out as unimportant because again the character’s ability to fight isn’t treated as an important part of their personality or a skill they possess but as a tacked on superpower that the author doesn’t feel they need to explain. It just is. It just happens. They’re just amazing. Don’t ask questions.

As easy as this approach is, it doesn’t work and it will handicap both your characters and your writing in the long run. Like so many other skill sets, knowledge of combat isn’t something we can actually fake in our writing. Well, we can’t by being vague about the particulars. You need research and for research, you need a place to start. So, here are five simple pieces of advice to improve both your descriptive writing of your fight scenes but also line the sequences up with your characters.

Remember: your characters are the driving force behind your narrative, if the skills they’re using do not jive with their personality then that’s like throwing a rock through the reader’s suspension of disbelief window. Everything must sync together, a character can only do what they know based on their own experiences, these actions have to be justified by the setting, the narrative, the character’s backstory, their personality, and their outlook. These tips are just as applicable to character development as they are to the single scene on the page.

1) Develop a Functional Grasp of Anatomy

Fighting is all about the body and the body is all about anatomy. You can’t write a strike without understanding where that strike can go and what it’s designed to disrupt once it gets there. A punch to the windpipe will have different results than a punch to the stomach or a punch to the kidney. But what does that mean in the long run? You can only know that if you know what the organs are necessary for in the first place. A punch to the windpipe will either disrupt or destroy someone’s ability to breathe depending on the level of force, a punch or any strike to the kidney risks death from internal bleed out over the course of three days and that’s part of the reason why strikes to the back are outlawed in most forms of professional sport fighting (Muay Thai is an exception), a punch to the stomach will knock their wind out. When working with fighting, it’s good to know the end result and since we’re working with fiction we control what happens. This is both a gift and a trap. So, ask yourself before you sit down to write a scene: how does the body work together? What makes it function? What openings can be exploited? How does your character keep from killing someone?

Anatomy combined with technique is a nice cheat sheet.

2) The Trick is in the Application

Here is where anatomy comes in and becomes important. The trick to convincing your audience is not what the character knows, but in what they can do with the techniques they have. Once you know what the technique is supposed to do when it connects, you can dial it back: is the technique I’m planning to use logical to the beliefs and motives of the character I’m writing. Characters of varying skill level may or may not know what it is that they’re doing in the moment, but the writer better know the difference. I’ve encountered too many well-trained characters who are supposed to be opposed to killing who then turn around and perform kill strikes on a target in the name of subdual. Now, this isn’t bad when it’s intentional but when it’s not? Pitch another rock through the suspension of disbelief window.

If you develop a basic grasp of anatomy you will be more capable of dissecting the strikes and techniques you uncover in books, see in movies, or read about on Wikipedia. Once you know what the technique is supposed to do, you’ll know how the character feels about using it and whether or not they fit into the philosophical and thematic elements their style supports. The writer is responsible for cause and effect in a story, a character is responsible for their actions regardless of their intentions. We have to know what happens to the characters the protagonist hurts and the more skilled the protagonist is supposed to be then the more exacting and greater detail is necessary. You want to write a character that is considered to be the best in their field? They better know exactly what they’re doing and they have to be able to convey that knowledge to the reader. The writer doesn’t need to actually possess the level of skill their character is supposed to have, but they need to support the illusion.

So, stop and consider the techniques your planning on using, what are they designed to affect? How are they applied? What parts of the body are necessary for their application? How does it affect the acting character? How does it affect the character they hurt? Does your character know what they’re talking about?

3) Detail, Detail, Detail

So, you want to prove you know what you’re talking about? Well, the devil’s in the details. Now, you have a functional grasp of how the body works together and possibly some of the techniques you want to use and it’s time to put it all together. Be specific. Be exact. Be ready to explain both the action and the consequences when necessary. For example: what are the intervening steps between someone getting their throat cut from the front: they need to be quick and be able to get close without arousing suspicion, because they are in plain view of the guard or the target, they must keep their blade somewhere where it won’t be visible and drawn quickly, possibly in a wrist sheath as opposed to on their belt. They have to slash before their target can cry out in alarm and also be able to get out of the area before anyone else notices, if escape is part of the plan. A slash across the windpipe reduces the risk of the blade being caught in muscle or bone, it’s also a big strike and more risky.  While a strike to the carotid artery requires the blade go up at an angle, it’s more exact but also difficult to hit without a fair amount of practice in a tense situation.

Remember, detail extends beyond just the action and the description, it’s also important to character. A character’s behavior is based on what they do and don’t know and their outlook. The details you provide about them and in the way they behave will key the reader to the kind of character they are and what they will be willing to do. Violence changes us, a character who participates in acts of violence regardless of what they intend will be changed by it. Their ability to fight will be reflected across every aspect of their personality, inform who they are, and plays a role in what details they notice in the world around them. For example: tensed, hunched shoulders with tightened back muscles in a standing position could be a sign that someone is depressed or angry or it could be a sign that they were in fights as a child, are worried about getting jumped, or that they’ve been to prison. Hunched shoulders and tensed back muscles are a defensive posture used to protect the vitals against assault, someone who has lived a life where they have to worry about being shanked by anyone for anything may stand like this. Whether the character notices will be predicated on their training and their past experiences. A cop will notice, someone else who has been to prison will notice, a military professional or martial artist may not.

These pieces that your character picks up are part of the greater whole of the story. They need to fit into the thematic elements of the narrative and the plot. They are important for creating a coherent picture and part of convincing your audience to trust what you’re saying. Attention to detail for a writer means more than just step-by-step walkthrough of a technique or how many pine needles a branch on the tree has. It is part of putting together a clear picture before the fight ever occurs. Too much information can slow down a fast paced sequence but it can also distract from the story at large with details that are unnecessary. The details you use need to further connect the character to the action, show the character’s personality, outlook, and training, while syncing them together with the setting.

It’s ironic to say that your character fighting, even in a technically well-written fight scene isn’t enough to prove that your character knows how to fight. The believability of your fight scenes is being set up from the very first page and in the first character introduction. I’m not even talking about foreshadowing. I’m just talking about consistency.

4) Know Your Style

So, how do you know what details are going to be important? Well, you need to know what style of combat your character is practicing. This is one of the major problems that writers face when trying to convince their audience that the character knows how to fight. They use terms like “high level martial arts” or “exceptional fighting ability”. Skill means nothing, except when combined with experience. They choose umbrella terms for a bunch of different styles like “karate”, “taekwondo”, or “kung fu”. With the exception of taekwondo, that actually doesn’t really tell the reader anything.

The World Karate Federation recognizes four distinctly different forms of karate: Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu. The World Union of Karate-do Federations recognizes eight different and unique styles that fall under the karate header. Those are the just styles that are officially recognized. They don’t cover the different variations between master to master or between different schools or the outlooks of those schools. There’s a big difference in the training a character receives from a traditional school and the training they receive from a non-traditional school. In America, karate is a catch all phrase by most for any Eastern martial art regardless of the country it comes from. When I was growing up it was easier to refer to the style I was practicing as “the karate school” than it was trying to explain the difference between karate and taekwondo ten different times in a single afternoon. Especially when the people I was explaining it to weren’t going to remember the next time I brought it up.

But, if you’re going to write a character that fights, you need to know the specifics of the style they practice and the social customs of the country they practice in. A karate school in America, even with a Japanese instructor trained by a master in Japan or a master trained by a master in Japan or a master who was trained by another master who was trained by a master in Japan will be different from a school based in Japan. There will simply be different values at play on the social end much less the technical end and those will also have influenced the character.

Be specific. Be exact. Know what you’re talking about to the best of your ability and you’ll be less likely to fall on your face. For example: variations of police hand to hand come from CQC, the Military uses CQB. (CQC stands for Close Quarters Combat, CQB stands for Close Quarters Battle.)

How can anyone take your character seriously if they can’t even tell the audience what style they’ve been trained in? This is an important part of their backstory, they’ll know the ins and outs of it, who trained them, and who they trained with. Even if your character has a supernatural level of aptitude, they’re going to need to learn how to refine that skill somewhere.

5) Stick to the Basics

Many writers think that to write a black belt or an extremely proficient fighter they need to show them using advanced techniques. This isn’t true.  In times of crisis, a character will turn to the techniques they are most familiar with, the ones they practice constantly, and the ones they know best. Those techniques are the first ones they learn, the basic techniques. These are the techniques that you can get an easy overview on in any practical handbook relating to the style, go to your local library or bookstore and dig through the many, many self-help books relating to each individual style. These books will provide you with pictures and diagrams and usually an overview of the style’s history, the reasoning behind its development (or why it was revived). Pretty much most of what you need to start to piece together how the style is supposed to work, with background research and other books or interviews with local schools about the style, combined with an understanding of basic anatomy, you should be able to begin the process of writing a decent fight scene.

This is the stuff you can learn in a short amount of time. If you can use these techniques convincingly and effectively in your writing, then you’re golden. You don’t need anything else. Besides, in a real world fight most of the fancy exhibition stuff will get you killed. It will get your character killed. They aren’t usually appropriate as combat techniques anyway or are the risky kill moves. The basics are the safe stuff and they are the easiest to begin working with. You can learn how to write your character using them quickly and learn how to write them well.

Here’s the thing to remember: being able to fight and being able to write a convincing fight scene are two different skill sets. There’s a point of knowledge that overlaps, but that’s it. A martial artist isn’t necessarily going to be able to write about what they do and writer martial artists have a whole subset of potential flaws that they have to work to avoid. You don’t need to be a master martial artist to write a master martial artist, all you need to know is the steps that go into the creation of a master and what the general results are.  

Breaking the pieces apart from the whole picture and puttng them back together is an important skill in any writer’s toolbox. Writing about fighting is supplementary to the skills you already posses, figure out what something is, how it was created, and what it means in the backdrop of the bigger picture and you’ll have what you need.

It’s as easy as that.

-Michi

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

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

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

So, let’s get down to it.

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

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

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

The Open Palm Strike:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Half-Palm Strike:

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

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

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

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

The Knife Hand:

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

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

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

Example:

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

The Ridge Hand:

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

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

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

Example:

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

The Slap:

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

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

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

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

Example:

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

Other primers that may be of use to you:

The Kicking Primer (Basics) Part 1

The Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

Fight Write: Don’t Underestimate the Slap