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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

Weapon Primer: The Katana

First off, the katana is a terrible weapon. Traditionally forged ones are worse, to the point of not really even being functional in combat. Modern replicas are just awkward.

And, I realize, this runs counter to almost everything you’ve ever heard or read about the katana. Here’s why: the katana isn’t a combat weapon, it is one of the three holy symbols of Shinto. This is where people who aren’t familiar with Shinto can get into a lot of trouble. The attributes ascribed to the katana are talking about the mystical ideal of a perfect blade, not the sword itself.

When you hear about how a master forged katana can cut a silk ribbon in the air, or a leaf on the wind, this is about the mystical katana. It’s what the katana represents culturally. It’s valid, and something to keep in mind, but it isn’t objective reality.

The physical weapon was a very fragile piece of substandard steel. For the Japanese, it was the best they could do, with the mineral resources they had. But it was designed to be as efficient with metal as possible, at the expense of a durable blade.

The primary forging technique behind the katana was a cold steel folding technique, where the iron is beaten into a thin sheet, folded over, and beaten back out again. The process is repeated around ten times to create the steel billet for the blade.

As with the katana itself, the forging technique gets venerated as part of what makes the katana “special.”  This glazes over the part where it isn’t an advanced forging technique. It popped up in Northern Europe and persisted into the 1200s. It is a good way to strengthen poor quality iron into cold steel, but it the only notable part about the Japanese technique was the number of folds employed.

In combat the katana kinda sucks. There really isn’t any way around it. Even a modern katana is still a substandard, single bladed longsword. The lack of a second edge prevents reverse strikes. The grip is frequently made out of slick, lacquered wood; exactly the kind of thing a character wants to be trying to keep a grip on in prolonged combat; or silk wrappings, which can, and do, slip during prolonged use. Nearly all combat techniques with a katana focus on a single strike kill, which fails to take into account the nature of actual combat, and even dueling.

One of the major problems with the katana is that because the finishing moves with the blade are supposed to be the same as the opening ones, they leave the swordsman open and vulnerable after each strike. This means that the swordsman needs more time to recover to his starting position, time real combat won’t allow for.

Because of the folding structure, a katana can’t parry or block incoming strikes; the blade will chip apart and need to be completely reforged. There’s no true crossguard. The metal sheet that some Katanas possess is a byproduct of the forging technique, and not really a functional guard.

Modern Katanas get around some of this; modern blades can be forged from high quality steel that historical Japanese swordsmiths didn’t have access to. Modern tempering techniques involve using liquid nitrogen to produce some staggeringly hard metal. Even the folding technique has reverted to lower fold counts, resulting in blades that are more durable, and in some cases, can be repaired. All of this makes for a sword that’s, at least metallurgically, more sound.

It doesn’t address the design flaws, the single edge, the slick grip, or the flaws in the traditional techniques, but, none of this really matters to you.

Here’s the thing, you’re not going into combat with one of these things. Your character is. The katana they’re carrying probably isn’t the real sword; it’s the mythical one. Even before you started reading this article, you already knew if your character was going to fight with one or not.

The use of the katana to prove your character is a badass, or peerless warrior is a bit cliché. But, like the katana itself, the weapon is more of a flash card, informing the reader of exactly who and what your character is and what they’re probably there to do. If you want to play with that, get into the grit of how the real weapons splinter apart in battle, or how the character believes they’re something unrealistic; then you’re starting to break out of the cliché.

What I can say is; be aware that the katana exists as two completely separate swords, the physical weapon, and the metaphysical one. And, be aware that the other exists.

-Starke

Let’s Get Physical: Training and Physical Contact

I’ll probably do quite a few posts on training and all the aspects at play there from the perspective of student and instructor, but let’s start with this one. I warn: this post may be a jumbled confused mess, but that’s because while the physical contact aspect is an important part of the training experience, it can be a little embarrassing to talk about. I’ll do more posts on the subject, but I felt like I needed to get this one out there.

I’ll be honest, most combat training (any kind of combat training really) involves a lot of man-handling of the student on the part of the instructor. Whether it’s pushing the student lower in their stretching exercises, gripping the leg to show the path of the roundhouse kick, pulling back their shoulders, fixing their stances, or just offering up your unprotected hands as stationary targets so that the student can get the feel of the double punch, (I should say this is all long before we get into the really sensitive stuff like grappling) training involves a lot of physical contact.

A lot. It’s likely that a child from a household where the culture of physical affirmation is rare will receive more physical affection from their martial arts masters than they do from their own parents. So on any given day in a martial arts school, you may walk in to find adults touching kids in what appear to be very weird places (knees, shoulders, hips), or doing the same with young adults and teens, or the same with each other. They slap each other on the back, give high fives, pats on the head; you may even find complete strangers hugging each other like they’re best friends even though they have nothing in common except their uniforms. I cannot count how many random strangers I have hugged in my lifetime and I never saw again after that, I have hugged men and women of all ages, shapes, and sizes as part of a greeting simply because we were part of the same organization. The people you train with often are more than just friends, they become a second family.

This can be very confusing to an outside observer who doesn’t really have the context to associate what they’re seeing with what’s considered “normal” behavior, especially when it’s between members of the opposite sex (or same-sex). It’s the sort of thing that can be especially confusing for students who begin as teens and young adults, especially if they’re in a school that has head and assistant instructors between their late teens to early thirties. It can be easy to misinterpret the contact in early sessions, but as the student progresses they will adjust and become used to it.

So, let’s talk about the sort of physical contact you see on the training floor:

Adjusting the body:

For a student to learn a technique, they have to master a few different stages. While a student can often mimic their instructor’s movements, they often miss out on key details like hand and foot position. It’s their instructor’s job to catch and fix the student’s mistakes. This means that when working with basic techniques whether as stand-alone or in forms like katas. The head instructor and his or her assistants (usually students they’ve trained who’ve risen to the upper belt ranks) will watch and wander through the group stopping to correct small things: such as pushing the font leg in the front stance wider, adjusting hand position by gripping the wrist, pulling back on or straightening the student’s shoulders to keep them from slouching, telling them to lean further forward. Different instructors in different schools will do different things, but whether it’s a martial arts school or a military academy, you can bet your character has gotten used to people putting their hands on them even if it’s from someone they may not be particularly comfortable with.

So, why is the contact necessary?

A large part of martial training is building muscle memory, but no student is going to be perfect their first time out. The more repetitions (reps) and the more practice a student gets, the better they will perform. But without course correction a student can develop bad habits, in the beginning the body doesn’t want to work and the mind must enforce its will to keep focus during training. The muscles need to remember the appropriate positions so that when the student does the technique at full speed they don’t get hurt. Once you physically correct a student, their body is more likely to remember the sensation and they are better able to push themselves there. Instead of guessing what it’s supposed to look like based on what they’ve seen, they now know what it feels like. The latter is easier to achieve than the former.

It’s especially important when teaching little kids kicks, their body is just developing its sense of balance and the older instructor can quite easily show them what to do by guiding their leg and the position of their body. It’s a very common exercise with roundhouse kicks which, because of the way the leg arcs in front of the body, can be difficult to grasp the first time around. Once the child has the sensation, they pick up the technique and improve their performance very quickly.

Kids Raised in the System:

Kids who have been raised in the system or reared to fight are more used to this level of contact than older students. They relax more easily under their instructors hands, they adopt techniques more quickly, and students who began as children (even in a different style) can learn new styles much more rapidly in just a few sessions than older, less experienced students. There is actually some truth in Cassandra Cain’s ability to effectively learn and adopt techniques into her fighting style that she’s only seen once, though the child in question doesn’t need to have as violent a background. I, for instance, can replicate most of the techniques I see in the instructional videos floating around the internet, whereas they’re pretty worthless to someone without the same level of training.

This is partly because of the way my brain learned, from a young age, how to translate the visual data I receive into a physical form. I start working with the basic underlay of what I’m seeing, the stance, the hand position, the feet position, and then replicate it without needing much guidance.

They can, however, be very dense when it comes to figuring out if someone else likes them. For obvious reasons, many kids who are raised in the martial arts system get used to physical contact as an expression of feelings like friendship, approval, affirmation, etc. Those signals get crossways of trying to physically show someone you’re interested, especially if the other individual is from outside the school or the martial artist lifestyle. Depending on the culture at play, something like a hug can mean anything from “hi! how are you?” to “omg, he/she is touching me!”.

It can lead to misunderstandings and trouble.

The Relationship between Student and Instructor:

I won’t really go into student and teacher relationships here that much other than to say: it’s icky, please don’t. The power dynamic at play can get screwy very quickly. My advice: If you want to combine love interest with teacher, the best way to do it is between two people who are older but of similar age and similar rank, a pair of thirty year old third degree and first degree black belts going out is less squicky than the third degree head instructor and a new white belt.

Or keep the love interest to an assistant instructor instead of the master or head instructor, they have less authority over your character’s training and are less likely to screw up the training of the other characters who are training with your characters.

Or have their love interest training them in a new skill after they’ve already mastered several of their own. This puts the two characters on a more even footing.

The more responsibility that’s at play, like the instructor being responsible for whether the character and their friends live or die (Like Four in Divergent) or responsible for whether or not a character passes their training (Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica), the more quickly the relationships snowball towards uncomfortable territory. Conflicts of interest are nice and drama-filled, but they also run a genuine risk of dismantling what the Instructor character is supposed to be about and what the student is supposed to be learning. It’s a conflict you should think about long and hard before deciding to include it in your story.

-Michi

Character Development: Let’s Talk Snark

Snark can be a great tool in your author’s dialogue box. It can be wielded well and when used well it can be responsible for creating some solid heroes and villains. So, if it sounds like I’m bashing snark, well, I’m not. I’m a fan of snark and of sass, and I enjoy heroes with a healthy dose of sarcastic wit.

But, snark comes with it’s downsides. It’s not appropriate for all situations and used in the wrong ones, it can actually be very damaging to both the tension and the story. Snark can damage the threat level of your bad guys, it can weaken and degrade your minor characters, especially your protagonist’s relationship with them (if they’re your snarker). It can be used in situations where being snarky is senseless, useless, and even stupid. While this isn’t a bad thing on it’s own, it can be very good if that’s the author’s intention in the scene, when the senseless stupid snark is the means of the character achieving what they were after in a situation where such snark would usually be detrimental or downright suicidal, it’s generally very damaging to characters, tension, plot, and the overarching story.

So, let’s talk snark:

1) Know who your character is snarking at:

If you want to prove your character is intelligent (or that they’re self-destructive), they need to be capable of assessing the situation and moderating their behavior appropriately. It’s one thing to be snarky to a friend or someone your character knows well. It’s quite another for them to be snarking off at an authority figure, or any character who is in a position of power that is greater than the character’s own. It’s especially bad if that authority figure is someone the character has come to and needs assistance or permission from. (Like in Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, where her bounty hunter/mercenary protagonist got snarky while trying to convince the head of the area’s Magical Police Force to let her assist their investigation into the death of her mentor.)

It’s one thing to have a problem with authority, it’s another when the character is actually actively sabotaging their own efforts and the author doesn’t realize it. Think about this:

2) Snark is a defensive mechanism: snark is a defensive mechanism used to drive other people away from a character. Unlike other forms of humor, it requires making someone else look stupid to be successful. Someone’s going to have to be the butt of the joke, someone’s going to have to look bad for the protagonist to look good. Most people, especially when they are in the room to hear it aren’t going to be happy. A character whose authority relies on maintaining control of the situation and being in charge, isn’t going to be very happy when they’re mocked to their face. If they’re someone tolerant, they’ll just be more likely to say: “lol no”, when the protagonist comes calling. If they’re someone like the local crime boss, they’ll have to retaliate. Let’s just say, I hope the protagonist enjoys having all their teeth pulled with a pair of rusty pliers.

3) Snark is a sign of control: characters who have leeway to be sarcastic are usually the characters who are in charge or have power in the situation. These are the characters in charge of running the local army base, the jackass cop who is arresting your rebel protagonist. These are the characters who can get away with it, the characters who snark when they know the person they’re snarking at can’t fight back. Nobody really wants to put up with a jackass who makes them feel like shit most of the time. If your hero is constantly snarking off at authority and at their buddies because they feel out of control, maybe that’s a reason why they shoudn’t have friends. So, if your hero is snarking at your villain, it better be because they’re trying to make that villain angry enough to fight stupid or distract them, not because they believe the villain’s not a threat (and they’re proven right).

4) Snark is a good way to make someone angry: Like I said above: someone’s gotta be the butt of the joke. If you’re character’s going all John McClane snarky on someone because their tongue is the last weapon they have in a situation where their outmanned, outgunned, and dragging themselves through a skyscraper on bloody feet then…fine. Snark can be a great way for your protagonist to cover what they’re actually doing by getting the other guy angry. This is a great use of snark, so long as you remember the part about being outgunned and on the defensive. It doesn’t really work when your protagonist is in control of a situation at the end of the fight or just generally acting like an intellectual or emotional bully.

Or…they’re just not funny.

But let’s rewind that back. Snark is a good way to make someone angry. Your reader should never be questioning (unless you want them to question) why someone would ever want help your character, especially if all they’ll get from it is pain and misery. John Constantine ran into this problem on one of his more well handled comic runs, he kept getting his friends killed and he started running out of friends. Now, Constantine is a conartist (and arguably a villain protagonist), he’s a self-centered jerk, he’s an all-around asshole, he’s an adrenaline junkie, and the people in his setting generally respond to him like he is one. Including denying him assistance when he asks for it because they know they’re not going to get anything from it except pain and misery.

He spends a great deal of his time in a few of his comic runs backtracking, capitulating, and trying to talk people around into assisting him before he screws them over and gets them killed. It’s a theme.

I love Hellblazer, but let’s not pretend Constantine’s a nice guy people like. At least, not when he’s in the hands of a competent writer *cough* Garth Ennis *cough*.

5) They’re that damn good: Boba Fett is pretty much the only character I can think of who actually fits this description. He’s the best bounty hunter in the galaxy, everyone quivers at the sound of his name, and he’s actually far too skilled and useful for Vader to annihilate him for the crime of mouthing off. He’s not replaceable. Every other character in the story (including Luke) was replaceable. Yoda and Obi-wan even had a backup ready in case he failed. There are almost no characters in the universe who are so good that they can say: “You need me, so I can do and say whatever I want.” A Chosen One with that mentality who survives is a Chosen One who has the author cheating for them.

Look: Stories have to have an internal logical consistency. This internal logical consistency is what generates suspension of disbelief in the reader. You’ve got to stay inside it, if you break it, you break your setting and your story. Your character, even if they happen to be the better version of you, is someone who has to live in the setting world you create. They have to be responsible for what they do and say, even when they’re saying and doing the things you might wish you could do. Other characters will respond to them based on their own worldview, their own values, and their own needs or desires in combination with your character’s actions.

The local police chief isn’t going to want a newbie nobody assisting on his investigation, mucking around crime scenes, and mucking up evidence. Especially when that newbie nobody has no background in investigation and has a close personal tie to the deceased. It’s all well and good to say: well, they’re good enough so why would he turn them down? 1) Why would he need them in the first place?  2) Conflict of interest is a real problem. Revenge isn’t a legitimate motivation to give to a cop, it’s an understandable one, but it’s just going to get crossways of what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s okay to have a character who is the Constantine level of self-destructive, it can create a good story. But make sure that’s the kind of story you want to be telling first, not “oh shit! I just made my biggest villain look like an idiot, now the tension bubble is gone and the reader might not be afraid of them anymore!”

I can’t worry about your character going into their final fight if I’ve already been convinced they’re going to come out alive.

The Writing Café: Why First Chapters Really Matter

The Writing Café: Why First Chapters Really Matter

Weapon Primer: Basic Kicks Part 3 (Combinations + Your Character)

Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.

This is the third part of the primer on Basic Kicks, go here and here to read the first two. So, we’ve covered the kicks, some of the footwork, and how to do them.  But without basic understanding of where and when kicks are useful for your fighting sequences, they’re pretty much useless. In this section we’re going to talk about how you handle kicks in fight sequences, talk about kicking combinations and the difference between them and exhibition kicks. We’ll also give a few more tips on how to apply them to the characters you craft, some advice for writing them in your fight scenes, review our basic terminology and finally: give you some good reference material to further improve your studies. The more you know; the better writer you will be.

So, let’s get down to it.

Why is kicking important?

Pros: Kicks are a valuable part of any martial style and are well worth the difficulty that comes with mastering them. While more risky than hand techniques, they come with an advantage of speed, power, reach, and exceptional accuracy if your character has the requisite level of training. You can kick much, much harder than you can punch. A character can put more force behind kicks. Kicks can provide superb defense, keeping the other fighters off balance and your character out of arms reach. They can end the fight quickly, causing significant amounts of internal injuries, broken bones, and even death (often through grievous head wounds and concussions). They give you four limbs with which to attack instead of just two and can help make fight scenes more dynamic in the reader’s imagination.

Cons: That said kicks can come with some significant cons to balance them out. Many kicks are virtually useless once an opponent penetrates the fighter’s guard. (See: the Kicking Conundrum) They rely managing the opponent and keeping them far enough away for the vast majority of their arsenal to remain useful. If an opponent catches the leg, the fight is over. I can tell you that hopping across the floor to keep up with someone who has your leg tucked under their arm, even in just a friendly situation, is terrifying. You can’t extract it from them. You just have to trust that they’ll let you go. You can’t do that in a combat situation. Remember, there are no perfect techniques and no guaranteed victories. Each one has a counter and even when you and your character work hard, sometimes it’s just not enough, sometimes there’s someone better. No injury is free.

Common Combinations versus Double-Kicks:

Let’s start with Double-Kicks.

Double-Kicks: You’ve probably seen double-kicks in action if you’ve gone to any Taekwondo tournament. But let’s assume you haven’t. What is a double-kick? A double-kick is a kick, usually using the front leg, where two kicks are done with a single leg without the foot ever touching the ground. Sounds impressive, right? They are an exceptional display of control and skill when executed well. This can be confusing for non-practitioners who see them, because they look impressive and are very advanced. So, using them in a combat sequence will prove how talented their character is. But double-kicks aren’t combat kicks.

Double-Kicks like the low-high (low-high roundhouse, low-high side kick) and the double roundhouse aren’t combat kicks, they’re kicks designed to help the practitioner develop their balance, accuracy, flexibility, and fine muscular control. They’re usually taught between red belt (sometimes at brown belt) to black belt and are included in some of the higher level forms.

So, why don’t double-kicks work for combat?

The reason for this is simple, unlike in Hollywood, humans normally move away from what’s causing them pain. They will stumble, they will move back, or step away. Think back to your physics lessons for your scenes, what happens when force encounters force? Double-kicks are stationary. A character caught in the middle of a double-kick cannot give chase. Kicks generate a lot of force and they need follow-through (complete extension of the leg into the opponent) to be effective. A Double-Kick relies on balance, instead of the character going through the opponent. They have to pull their leg back to try again and don’t take into account the idea of the other person moving. Like I said, they’re not designed for combat. They are a great balance exercise and they will still look damn impressive when showing off to your friends (if you ever show off to your friends, I never did, non-martial artists just don’t understand).

Basic Kicking Combinations: Combinations are a martial artist’s bread and butter. They’re an important part of any character’s martial training. They build the connections in the brain that allow a fighter to transfer easily between different techniques, so instead of just throwing one, they can consecutively throw two, three, or four. Kicking combinations can only be done by characters that are trained, characters with a higher level of training will eventually start switching up their combinations and crafting their own. Remember, combinations are more like guidelines than actual rules. For kickers, they teach what kicks work together and flow naturally into one another, thus saving time and grief on using kicks whose movements (ending hip position, footwork) clash with each other. An example would be: combining a sidekick with a wheel kick as opposed to a sidekick and a back kick.

Now, let’s bring the rest of this guide into play and see how well you can follow along with these basic combinations:

1)      Slide front kick, front kick

2)      Front kick, roundhouse

3)      Roundhouse, sidekick

4)      Roundhouse, slide sidekick

5)      Sidekick, back kick

6)      Slide sidekick, back kick

7)      Slide sidekick, back kick, front kick, double-punch

8)      Front kick, roundhouse, back kick

9)      Slide front kick, front kick, roundhouse, slide sidekick, back kick

10)   Slide roundhouse, hook kick, cross-step roundhouse, wheel kick

I’m kidding on the last one, that’s rather advanced (red belt). You tack on the double-punch to the end of all of the above if it’s being performed in class.

How to Build Your Own:

If you were wondering why this guide in particular is so damn long, this is why. As writers, but (mostly) non-practitioners you don’t have the advantage of being able to experiment with your scenes before you put them down on paper. The reason for the step-by-step instruction is so you can learn the ins and outs of the kicks without having to learn to use them yourselves even if they’re imported piecemeal into your writing. Once you start being able to visualize the kicks in your mind, you can start putting them together into different combinations, combining them with hand motions as you become more advanced in your understanding. Your characters won’t always hit the enemy, but what matters is convincing your audience that you know what you’re talking about. So, some things to consider when putting together your own combinations:

Ignore the legs and ask where did my character’s feet land? What direction are their hips facing? Are they pointed sideways (finished a sidekick) or towards the opponent (front kick, roundhouse, punch)? Is someone coming in from the side (throw sidekick)? Or from behind (back kick)? Do they need to turn or come across (roundhouse)? How close are they to the opponent (punch, grab, or sidekick)?

Think beyond just techniques to the situation. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Remember, there are thousands of different combinations out there. So, don’t worry about it too much unless the scene you’re writing is anatomically impossible or you’re performing a kill strike and calling it self-defense.

Kicking and Your Character:

You don’t have to include kicks if you’re not comfortable with them. In fact, if we’ve gotten this far and it’s all confusion, I really recommend avoiding them. Kicking is a very specialized skill and characters who practice them require specialized backgrounds. Not all martial artists can kick or kick well enough to get away with it in combat. Many of my Instructors, the ones who began training in martial arts at an older age, were only passable. Kicking wasn’t what they were good at, but they were still excellent in every other aspect. So, remember, you don’t need kicks and they’re much easier to screw up even in a fictional context than hand technique.

Kicking is not a required trait for a female fighter. While women do have a better sense of balance and flexibility, any woman who begins her training even into her early teens will have some difficulty with kicks (balance + muscular control) and older than that she’ll run into the same problems her male counterparts have. The older you get, the more difficult it is to master kicks in a combat context. The speed and fine muscle control just isn’t there. Besides, a woman’s only value isn’t in her legs.

Traits of a Kicker:

Beyond the obvious (limber, flexible, etc), here are a few traits that characters who use kicks as their primary offense will have.

They think with their feet:  A character that comes from a kicking discipline will have a “feet first” mentality. They’ll be more aware of other characters and keep a wider circle of awareness around their body (the extension of the leg), they’re usually aware of any other character who has entered into “kicking range”.

The knees go: snap, crackle, pop. This is one of the things they won’t tell you, but fighting is hard on the body. Even just training for it, you begin to wear out your body at an early age. Most kickers have knee problems later in life and even if they don’t, you can hear their body when they kneel down or bend over: snap, crackle, pop, the sound of the cartilage in their joints rubbing together. It doesn’t mean much of anything, but it’s common in most Taekwondo artists. My knees were going snap, crackle, pop by the time I was twelve years old. It isn’t painful for the practitioner, but it does make the listener wince and go: ‘oooh, ouch’.

Calluses: Kickers have hardened feet from years on the mats; no amount of lotion will ever soften them.

Writing Kicks in Your Fight Sequences:

We went over everything associated with the basic kicks in this write up not because all of it needs to be included in on the page, but because it’s part of what you need to be thinking about when you write them. There’s no reason to take the audience through a step-by-step accounting of every technique unless they’re a complete beginner. For most characters, these techniques will have already naturally become part of who they are, how they move, and how they think. They won’t consider the step-by-step because they already know how to do them. The problem is that you are not your character even though they are built out of your experiences and your imagination. If you don’t know, they can’t know, even though they should. It can be very frustrating.

So, let’s talk about the parts your scenes should focus on:

Impact: Remember our terminology and be specific: where on the body is your character hitting or being hit by their opponent? What parts of the body are they using, foot and leg don’t cut it, details are key. Compare:

Bad example: Samantha yanked her leg back and rammed her foot into Steven’s stomach.

Better example: Samantha yanked her leg back and struck out, ramming the blade of her foot into Steven’s stomach.

The differences are minor, but the visualization for the audience is better. You don’t need much, techniques happen fast, so you must attempt to marry brevity with detail to create scenes that move quickly. Remember, time doesn’t stop for us in real life when we stop to think about stuff, so it shouldn’t for your character.

Focus on what the technique does, not what the technique is: Use of proper terminology is great, but most people won’t know what that means and the effect is lessened. It feels like reading a textbook, instead of a fight.

Bad example: Samantha hit Steve with a hammer blow to the chest and then drove a sidekick into the side of his knee.

Better example: Samantha drove the bottom of her fist down into the center of Steve’s chest, like a hammer striking a nail. As he stumbled back, she whipped her knee up and around, tucking it tight against her stomach. Then she struck out with her left leg, driving the blade of her foot through the side of his knee. It gave way with a crunch and he howled, falling to the ground.

Any writing is about communicating ‘what happened’ to the reader, the rules for ‘show, don’t tell’ apply to writing fight scenes too. This is why writing fight scenes is so hard, because you need more than just the technique, you need: how to do it, what it does, where can it connect, what are the effects, and how will others respond to my character’s actions?

Most martial artists won’t provide that information for you, because they don’t need it. There are no easy answers to writing, just the ones you find for yourself. Give yourself some time to learn and you’ll come out the other side better than you began.

Review: Basic Terminology

The Fighting Stance: the beginning defensive stance for fighters

The Chamber: The position of the knee and the intermediate step between the foot on the ground and the kick in the air.

The Ball: the front part of the foot, between the arch and the toes.

The Blade: the outside edge of the foot

The Top: the top of the foot, point the toes

The Heel: the hardened back of the foot, behind the arch

Front Kick: a kick done while facing forwards, uses the ball of the foot

Side Kick: a kick done while facing sideways, uses the blade of the foot

Roundhouse: a kick done while the leg arcs around and across the front of the body, uses the ball of the foot

Back Kick: a kick done when the back is facing the opponent, uses the heel of the foot

Snap Kick: a fast version of the above kicks, a half-kick that strikes to the lower regions of the body, often taught in self defense

Turnover: when the hip turns over so the strike can connect, this happens during the chamber.

Follow-through: the concept of going through your target, instead of stopping at the body

The slide step: a step done while sliding forwards, kicks are done with the front leg

The cross-step: a step done where the legs make a cross-shape, turning the front leg into the powerful back leg

Review: Homework

Yeah, yeah, I know, boo. But this is just a guide, to actually learn more about how to use kicks in combat, you’re going to have to do more research and visual aids always help. The films and television series on this list aren’t great art or even great movies, but that’s not why you’re watching them is it? We suffer for our art, after all, and the martial artists in these films and shows are pretty damn incredible. If you’re watching any of the really good “Kung Fu” movies out of China, just try to keep in mind that Wire-Fu is a thing, so take some of the more elaborate stunts with a grain of salt. Remember, kicks are complicated and difficult to be really good at once you’re past a certain age. The pool for the media you can turn to that includes them is very small and must be performed by martial artists for the required speed and fluidity. (Summer Glau, though she is an excellent actress, ballerina, and terminator, has terrible form. You can’t skip this list by watching Serenity, I’m sorry. The same is true of Buffy and honestly, most of Joss Whedon’s work.)

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I haven’t seen most of his movies (which are terrible), but as a martial artist the man is incredible. His claim to fame is kickboxing, so he does fancy leg work better than just about anyone else on screen.  This is one of the few series of movies where you’ll ever see wheel kicks on film, especially the jump wheel kick. Check it out in Expendables 2 during his fight with Stallone, the man has perfect form.

Bruce Lee: The Master and progenitor of Jeet Kun Do. That said, the hype is real, Bruce Lee was a fantastic martial artist who defied a great many conventions and pretty much widened the gap for Asians in Hollywood. We’ve got a long way to go to push it further, but for martial artists, his movies are some of the finest. From the Green Hornet to Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee

Chuck Norris: I don’t really recommend Chuck Norris’s movies or his politics, unless you’re into pain. But the man is a master of the roundhouse kick and his fight scenes in Walker Texas Ranger, while silly, are a good example of some basic kicking techniques. You can also watch him deliver a Chuck Norris joke in character (while mocking his own movies) in Expendables 2. Chuck Norris like Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a student of Bruce Lee. (Also, check out Bruce Lee’s filmed fight with Kareem from the last movie he was filming before his death. There aren’t enough examples of black martial artists on film in Hollywood.)

Jet Li: All of it, no, seriously, including the badly subtitled obscure ones from China and the silly ones in the U.S. like Romeo Must Die (African-American crime families fight Asian-American crime families and the only white dude to be seen anywhere are working for the NFL. Also, Jet Li does incredible tricks with plastic ties) and Lethal Weapon IV where he takes apart a gun with his knees. (I don’t care if he’s the bad guy in that movie, I will never be over that stunt, omg!) Jet Li has a huge catalogue of movies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean and when it comes to studying up on writing fights most of them are worth a watch at least once.

Jackie Chan: Jackie Chan is the joker version of Jet Li, he does a lot of stunts and his movies are comedies, but he’s just as good and possibly more entertaining. Drunken Master is an incredible exhibition of skill all on its own and he’s done some of the craziest stunts.

The Karate Kid (Remake) Also, check out the Karate Kid remake as another decent Hollywood movie that pretty much skips white folks entirely. The sequences in it are very good and all the actors are fantastic. The young Chinese martial artists in the movie are fantastic and Jaden Smith is very good. It’s a great movie about martial arts, spirituality, and one of the only places you’ll get to see a good representation of competition and tournament culture. Michelle Yeoh also has a cameo where she faces off with a cobra.

Mortal Combat: It’s a cult classic and it’s really dumb, but the fight scenes really are pretty good. Don’t feel bad about popping in this flick in and watching it when you’re bored one evening. It might be worth your while.

The Mortal Combat Legacy: This mini-series is full of martial artists and stuntmen doing martial arts things and is free to watch on YouTube. This list is mostly full of boys and girl martial artists (especially ones who use kicks) can be hard to find, but check out the second episode of the Kitana and Mileena two-parter for some excellent girl on girl brawling action in the first scene.

GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (Ray Park and Byung-hun Lee (and their child counterparts)) Ray Park was the stuntman who played both Darth Maul and Toad in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace and X-men respectively (famous for Storm’s “what happens when a toad gets hit by lightning” line), but he’s at his best as Snake Eyes in the ridiculously silly GI Joe movies. Throw in the excellent Byung-hun Lee as his counterpart villain Storm Shadow and you get some very impressive fight sequences. The flashback sequences between these two rivals as children are also pretty incredible. I’m rather eagerly awaiting the sequel on DVD to watch their rematch.

I would recommend Gina Carano, but I don’t like Haywire. For multiple reasons, you’d be better served looking up her actual fights and only if you’re really interested in a study of grappling moves. Those are what she’s best at. So, she really doesn’t have a place on this list. If someone more versed in some of the excellent movies out of China wants to recommend some female martial artists, we’ll put ‘em up.

Michelle Yeoh: She’s considered one of the greatest of female action movie martial artists, so if you’re starved for women who can kick butt, check out some of her films. Or catch her in the Supercop series opposite Jackie Chan. She’s a better example of what a ballerina can do when combined with martial training. But like Summer Glau, the tells never quite go away.

Finally: Human Weapon, the now defunct show on the history channel. The Discovery Channel has or had its own version, but it’s not as entertaining or as informative. Human Weapon isn’t great and it’s not always accurate (it is TV). It’s a great window into a lot of different martial arts from around the world. It’s a great starting primer to use as a launch for your research. You can find most of the episodes for it on YouTube.

Also, check out our article: The Points Where Weapons Become Useless for more information about when to kick and when not to.

-Michi 1, 2, 3

FightWrite: Martial Arts versus Dancing

othersidhe asked: Are there dances that incorporate actual Martial Arts? My character is a dancer but not a fighter, and his dances look like MA. The moves would not be viable in an actual fight, correct? I would think training for dancing would be very different from fighting. Should I have him trying to learn MA to improve his dancing, or does that matter?

Capoeira is the only martial art I know of that specifically incorporates dancing and it does so for a very specific reason. When the African slaves were brought to Brazil, they knew that they needed to a way to preserve their traditional fighting arts but had to do so in a way that appeared innocuous. Weapons and fighting were forbidden for slaves, so they developed Capoeira. Capoeira is a martial form that’s been specifically designed to look like dancing to trick the viewer into seeing something that’s not there. But it’s evolution was one that was based in necessity and not choice.

That’s pretty much it, Joss Whedon got into trouble with Summer Glau’s fight sequences in Serenity because he tried to have her learn one of the most difficult of all the martial forms: Wushu (which is a catchall phrase for Kung Fu, but the style itself is the official form of the Chinese Government), which looks light, airy, and whose practitioners move with boneless grace. To the untrained eye it could (and for some does) look like interpretive dance. The issue for her was that while her training as a ballerina was designed to make her light as air, the crucial moment of switchover from light to weight isn’t there in her hits. Her connections with the stuntmen in her strikes are more of a batting motion, like watching a kitten try to play with a butterfly. It’s cute, but the trained observer doesn’t expect it to, you know, do anything. Again, it’s not her fault, Michelle Yeoh has the same problem in some of her early work when she was making the transition from ballerina to martial artist. Her technical skill is better even in the early days(but if there’s one thing the Chinese movie industry does well it’s action), but when she also throws her hits it’s without the expectation of connecting, so the muscles don’t tighten up right in the split second before the hit occurs. They either tighten up too early or, in Summer Glau’s case, don’t at all. Much like Yeoh, I fully expect Summer Glau to rapidly improve over time, her fighting is actually much better in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The problem is that dance and MA are doing two different things even when their motions are similar. A dancer doesn’t train to expect resistance as they move from one pattern to the next, their legs and arms will move without the possibility of being intentionally impeded by someone else’s body. A martial artist trains with the idea that they will be fighting someone else, after they learn their combinations a good instructor will put their student on pads and paddles so that they can practice for their foot connecting with someone else. The muscles must be trained to relax and then tighten in the split second prior to impact and then relax again less than a second afterward, if the muscles tighten too early then a kick or a punch will lose the strength of force and impact, too late and it’s bouncing off their stomach or head. So, no, the dances won’t work in an actual fight.

Studying an MA won’t really help his dancing, because again what he needs to do to dance and what the MA is asking him to do are two different things. If you’re really looking for a supplementary skill set that can lead him to MA, I suggest gymnastics and tumbling (real tumbling, not Tumblr tumbling). Most high end MA performers study gymnastics to help them improve and supplement their performance art (for tournament demonstrations and open forms). This is an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2k_frX9bmpU

That’s the West Coast World Action Team doing what they do best at the 2002 Master Test. It’s called Tricking, it’s a part and parcel to the other side of tournament exhibitions. The performance side of MA is pretty much as close as you get to dance, but as you can see here even that’s different. (There’s a decent chance I was there either volunteering or testing, though I don’t think I was testing…the test lasts all day (for the masters it’s three to four days), this was during the night show the testers put on for family and friends.) The little one is Destiny Reyes, she’s about six or seven.

Anyway, I hope that’s helpful.

-Michi

wetmattos said: Oh, I know one which has great resemblance to dancing: Taekkyeon! tinyurl.com/luwcp2e It has shared moves with some korean folk dances! I’ve heard as well of martial arts being hidden as dancing in other places, I’ll take a look :3

I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more common, the trick is to watch the kicks and the points when the hands intend to connect. The point where they tighten up is certainly much faster than Taekwondo but you still get that teeny bit of “kick and stick” right when the kick is at it’s climax before it recoils. It’s similar to some of the more esoteric looking Kung Fu disciplines that really do look like dance. Still, Taekkyeon is beautiful, so thanks for sharing!

Weapon Primer: Basic Kicks (Part 2, Kicks + Footwork)

Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.


This is the second part of the Weapons Primer on Kicks. In the first part, we discussed basic body parts and terminology for kicks and went over the parts of the feet are used in combat. Read the first one here. In this primer we’ll be discussing the four basic kicks themselves: the front kick, roundhouse, side kick, and back kick. We’ll also talk about some of the requirements your character will need to make their kicks effective and some of the important footwork. This is all basics, we’ll be dealing with advanced kicks later. I (Michi) am a Taekwondo practitioner first and foremost when it comes to my technique, so this primer is written from that perspective. Some other fighting disciplines that use kicks as primary are: Savate, Muay’Thai, and Kickboxing. The four basic kicks appear in almost every martial art (though the technical base supporting them changes), if the martial art you choose does not draw it’s techniques from an Asian base (such as the French’s Savate, Brazil’s Capoeira, or Russia’s Systema), then the techniques will look different from what we’re used to seeing out of Hollywood. So, research as needed.

The Kicks:

The Front Kick: The front kick is, as you can probably guess given its name, a forward facing kick. Out of all the kicks on this list, it’s the easiest to learn and requires the fewest muscles stretched to perform. It’s fairly easy to develop flexibility in the hamstrings, compared to other muscles on the body.

Step-by Step: To begin a front kick, your character must be facing their opponent with shoulders, toes, and upper torso pointed towards the enemy. The kick can be performed with the back foot or the front foot by combining it with a slide step forwards. The back is more common.  The knee drives straight up, much like any knee into the chamber, for the front kick, the knee faces the enemy. The toes pull back towards your fighter and the ankle locks into place, then lower half of the leg snaps upwards driving the ball of the foot into either the stomach, the chest, or to the face.

The Roundhouse: The roundhouse is one of the most common kicks you’ll see on screen. It’s easy to learn, to perform, and its circular motion means that it looks better on camera. The roundhouse has two different versions for how it can connect: the top of the foot or the ball. The top of the foot is safer and used in sparring drills or professional sports like Kickboxing or Taekwondo. The roundhouse is an easy, safe kick. Its rotational power is much stronger than a front kick and is less risky (both in balance and visibility) than the more powerful side kick. The leg moves across the body and makes for an easy transition into any spin kick such as the back kick, the wheel kick, or the tornado kick. For any character that practices a martial art which bases itself in kicking techniques, the roundhouse will be an important part of their bread and butter repertoire.

 Step-by-Step: The fighter begins this kick facing their opponent, usually in a fighting stance but if the character is limber enough and has excellent balance they can kick from any standing position. The step-by-step instruction is pretty much the same in theory for both legs. The knee comes up on a diagonal, the balancing foot shifts to point behind the fighter on a 90 degree angle, it either extends up along the line of the hip (faster but weaker using the top of the foot) or the hip flips over to strike in a line across the body and drives the ball of the foot into the stomach, the ribcage, or the chest. A limber fighter can go to the face, but it requires more turn-over in the hips for a solid connection. A roundhouse like any other kick can break bones if it connects solidly enough. The shoulders in the upper body twist with the kick as it extends outwards and the upper body leans back slightly to adjust for balance. The shoulders will follow the leg if the roundhouse precedes going into a turn and point down as the hip fully turns over.

(Pro-Tip: You can tell whether the hips have turned over or not from the position of the foot, if it points upwards on a diagonal then the hips have not turned over, if it points down on a diagonal (the proper position) whether or not the foot is horizontal to the leg with the toes pulled back and the ball extended then the hips have turned over and the leg can sweep across through the body, either stepping through or pulling back. If your character is using the roundhouse to transition into a spin kick, the hip must turn over.)

The Side Kick: The side kick is the most powerful kick on this list. If there is one kick a military expert or police officer will be familiar with, it’s the side kick. It’s also one of the most difficult kicks on this list to learn and like the others is unusual to turn up in any curriculum where the student is required to learn the techniques in a few weeks or months. (Its snap kick version is common in self-defense courses, but that’s because the students don’t need to get it above the waist.) True to its name, the side kick must be performed when the hips are pointing sideways at the target. It’s commonly used against enemies who attack from the side and it saves time, because the fighter doesn’t actually have to turn. It’s slower and more obvious than the other two because the hips have further to go before the kick can be executed. The sidekick strikes with either the blade of the foot or the heel depending on the style.

To use this kick as an opening gambit (or at all), pair it with the slide step to create the speedy slide side kick.  Or take a trick from the Russians and grab your opponent first, by the hand or arm so they can’t escape, then drive the foot into the enemy’s side, breaking their ribcage and plowing the bones into their internal organs or alternately, if your character is limber enough into the side of the knee (both of these techniques are either permanently crippling or kill strikes, so use with caution).

The side kick is most easily performed if the hips are already on a line towards the opponent. So, this step by step has more to do with the slide side kick, but the principles are the same. Trying to drag one leg all the way across the body to kick outwards is awkward, so keep that in mind when kicking with the back leg. The side kick can be done to hit an opponent coming from behind, this is known as a reverse side kick or it can easily become a back kick. (Michi Note: The side kick and the back kick can look exactly the same to someone who has never been taught the difference between them and honestly, the differences are minor. We’ll discuss the back kick in the back kick section.)

Step-by-Step: The fighter will start facing their opponent, usually in some form of fighting stance. Turning their hips towards the opponent (the body turns in on the same vector as the leg they plan to kick with as they face sideways), the toes of the balancing leg turn outwards to approximately between 135 and a full 180 degrees, so that the foot faces the direction opposite from that the kick is headed. The knee comes up, the foot pulled sideways on a horizontal so the blade of the foot is facing the opponent. Then, the knee tucks in against the stomach as the upper body leans backwards to adjust for balance as the hip turns and strikes outwards with the blade of the foot.

The side kick, most importantly, can be used in extremely close quarters if the character is limber enough. The others become useless if the opponent gets inside the leg range, this won’t happen with a side kick, which can be thrown even if the character is pressed up tightly against their opponent.

The Back Kick: The back kick is basically the side kick thrown while spinning (if going forward) or the side kick thrown if the enemy is coming in from behind: so, backwards. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this is the general gist. The main difference is that the back kick uses the heel to connect with instead of the blade of the foot (and the chamber can be slightly different, it’s not in Taekwondo which has two different versions: the back kick and the mule kick). So, if you encounter the side kick versus back kick debate just remember: martial artists are like any nerd, they like to argue about which martial style or technique is best. My advice: don’t sweat it, if what you’re doing works for you then stick with it. It will only matter to characters who are traditionalists and sticklers over style.

Step-by-Step: The fighter begins facing their opponent while in a fighting stance. They turn their upper body and look over their right shoulder as it faces their opponent. Both feet shift to face the opposite direction with the heels facing the opponent, the front leg of the fighting stance has become the balancing leg. The knee of the back leg lifts up into a chamber tucked in against the stomach and the leg extends out wards to strike the opponent with the heel of the foot. The back of the body faces the opponent as the fighter looks over their shoulder. When the fighter steps down and resets position, they have switched the legs (right to left, left to right) they were leading with (switched sides).

So, what’s the difference between a side kick and a back kick?

Traditionally, a back kick strikes with the heel instead of the blade of the foot. This is easily recognized by the position of the toes which point on a diagonal downwards, which tells us that the hips have fully turned over. In the chamber of the back kick, the knee points more towards the ground before extending outwards, another sign of hip position.

The Snap Kick: These are the versions of the kicks taught in self-defense, if the kicks are taught at all. They don’t usually go above the waist (though the roundhouse version can) and are more like stomps than kicks. The snap kick is essentially a half-kick; the turnover of the hips isn’t required and can be done by characters if they’re striking to the legs without much need for stretching. These kicks usually go to the groin, the mid-thigh, or the outside or inside of knee. (Pro-Tip: The knee won’t break if you hit it head on or from behind and it can take a lot of weight coming down on top of it, the side of the knee can’t take much and is weaker overall. However, a broken knee is a permanent injury. Even if they can recover the ability to walk on it, they will always limp.)

Some of the Steps (Basic Footwork Terminology):

Kicking effectively requires a lot of footwork and the ability to transfer position easily between the legs beyond just kicking using the back leg or the front leg. The front leg must also easily become the back leg and the back leg becomes the front leg for a dynamic offense and defense. A fighter who specializes in kicking will always have their legs in motion and because of this the footwork supporting the techniques can be difficult to understand. When we watch kicking demonstrations, the legs flying through the air every which way are very distracting and can, for some, end up feeling a bit more like a magic trick than an exhibition of skill.

While a kick can be performed with either leg, it’s generally assumed that if the kick is named on its own that your character is using their back leg. Any kick done using the below steps will have the name of the step in front of it to detail what the kick is and what the student is being asked to do with their feet. Below are three common steps taught between the ranks of white to blue and brown belt in Taekwondo. It’s not all of them, but it’s a good start.

Switching Sides: This is learned at white belt, the basic idea of this step is to allow for the fighter to switch between leading legs quickly. This allows them to easily mask their movements by shifting the weight back and forth between their legs.  It sounds similar to a cross-step but these are actually two different steps.

Step-by-Step: The fighter begins in a fighting stance facing their opponent. They proceed to hop, using both legs to transfer position between legs to switch things up. The whole body moves into another fighting stance, it just happens to have the right leg leading instead of the left. A good Taekwondo fighter will be able to speedily hop between left to right and right to left to confuse their opponent, it looks fancy when done quickly, but it’s actually very simple.

In ever kick done with the back leg moving forwards, the fighter will again switch their stance. This is not the same as switching sides. The foot instead comes down in a new position than the one it left as the fighter goes towards their opponent. When we talk about ambidexterity in kicking, this is why.

The Slide Step: The slide step is used to close distance between the fighter and their opponent, while also allowing them to gain the momentum they need to effectively use their front leg. Kicks that use the slide step get the word slide attached to their name as an indication that it’s a separate technique. So, slide front kick, slide side kick, slide roundhouse. You don’t really slide for spin kicks like the back kick; those always use the back leg. (You can, of course, the slide back kick does exist as a technique. The step does the same thing. It just doesn’t make the back kick that much faster, unlike combining it with a side kick or roundhouse.)

Step-by-Step: To perform a slide step, the fighter will step forward with their front leg while in a fighting stance. The back leg will slide forwards until it the heels of the back foot and front foot are touching, with the back foot pointed on a 50 degree angle outwards. Imagine it on a dial on a map, the front foot is pointing North and the back foot is pointing either East or West, depending on which side is leading (left side front foot: the back right foot points East, right front side: the back left foot points West) when the heels are touching or are close enough, the front leg pulls up into a chamber for the kick in question and kicks outwards.

The Cross-Step: The cross-step is a fast step, faster in fact than the slide, it’s meant to allow a fighter to switch their front leg to their back leg without having to change position. Since the legs hop to create a cross-shape, the body twists allowing for more powerful kicks with greater momentum. It will also quickly close distance between the fighter and their opponent, bringing them into kicking range. Kicks that use the cross-step have the term cross-step attached in front of their name such as cross-step roundhouse, cross-step sidekick, cross-step axe kick, etc. Again, this is irrelevant for spin kicks.

Step-by-Step: The fighter is standing in a fighting stance, let’s assume with the left leg forwards (common among those who are right handed). The fighter hops as the back leg goes forward and the front leg goes back to create a cross-shape, the back half of the cross lifts up into a fast kick.

Feints: We talked about feints in the section The Art of Blocking, those were for hands. Feints are a part of fighting. We call it the Art of Tricking Your Opponent, so how do does a character trick someone with their feet? Beginning students do believe it’s all in the feet, they stamp or stomp the ground with their front foot to convince their sparring partner that they’re about to attack. But for a feint to work, it needs to be more subtle. While a good fighter may shift their foot, they’ll also be shifting their legs, their hips and their shoulders with tells to suggest that a kick is about to begin. Taekwondo matches can be very boring because it ends up being nothing but feints with the first person moving being the loser, try not to worry about that.

The Requirements for Kicks:

I’ll be honest here, kicking is the domain of those who train and usually they keep to kicks from a specific style, unless their training has branched out. For a character to be able to kick well enough to use them in combat, especially to use combinations, they have to have begun training at a young age: usually between four and twelve. After that, the brain has developed to the point where it cannot build the necessary connections to transmit the data quickly enough from brain to leg and foot. Actually do deal in necessary simultaneous control more muscle groups to maintain balance, build muscle memory to achieve the required speed, accuracy, and power. Flexibility is just one of the necessary requirements. In my experience, teens that start as late as fourteen are handicapped by a good few seconds while their brain transmits the data to their legs. The older your character is, the harder it will be for them to develop the necessary flexibility and fine muscle control. (There are exceptions to this rule such as if your character was a dancer or competitively practiced some other type of exercise that demanded a fine amount of muscular control. It’s not the same, though and their ability to change up combinations in combat will be hampered.)

So, what does a kicker need?

-A character who fights, especially one who kicks much stretch at least three times a week, once in the morning, once in the evening, and train almost every day to maintain their flexibility and combat readiness.

-Some of the stretches include: butterfly stretch, the inverted butterfly stretch, full or side splits, front splits (left side, and right side), some sort of hamstring stretches, jumping jacks to warm up the muscles, and some varieties of kicking that involve swinging the leg straight up until the top of foot touches the forehead (usually they cannot get it that high).

Your character does not need to be able to do a complete side split to be able to kick above their head (visually impressive), they just need a decent one.

(Michi Note: Someone who begins older can develop flexibility (and the ability to kick over their heads), along with a satisfactory level of accuracy and power. While the speed portion may not seem important, it’s the difference between being caught camera and moving so fast the camera can’t catch your motions. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference between someone who trained as a child and someone who began training as an adult. It won’t hurt your characters martial prowess anywhere but in their legs.)

That’s all for today, in the next segment, we’ll discuss the value kicks have in combat, some of the different kicking combinations and the principles behind them, how to incorporate kicks into your fight scenes and your characters, and give you some outside sources to continue your research and watch some folks who know what they’re doing.

-Michi

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Weapon Primer: Basic Kicks Part 1 (Body Parts)

Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.

In this article, we’re going to talk about the four basic kicks and how they work. We’ll also be talking about the different terminology for the parts of the foot that are used for combat and try to help you understand how the foot, knee, leg, hip, and even the upper body work together to create a kick. Keep in mind, this primer is just focusing on basics. You won’t really learn the principles of how to write “the flying Taekwondo death kick, the teleportation death kick, and the flying death kick of doom” as Starke calls them in this article. You need the kicks that build into those and the principles they teach about balance and momentum first. Learn how to write the kick on the ground before you put it into the air. Remember, basics are the building blocks of a fighting style. A character with fancy tricks but a weak base is a character who is just asking to be knocked over.

So, let’s start with the bread and butter kicks. No matter what martial art your character studies, they will learn some sort of variation of these four: the front kick, the roundhouse, the side kick, and the back kick. These four can all be done jumping, both from a standing position and while running. These four can also be used to form a variety of different combinations that a character could, if they begin training early enough, perform in combat situations and provide a solid defense against opponents who primarily use fists. If you wanted to know when longer reach starts making a difference, well, it’s in the legs.

Let’s begin with the foot and work our way up from there.

The Foot:

The ball: The ball is the front pad of your foot, between the toes and the arch. This is the part of the foot used to deliver momentum in hand to hand strikes, to bounce, and to provide quick movement. If your character is going to pivot, they’ll do so on the ball of the foot. The ball is useful in a variety of kicks, but primarily in the front kick and the roundhouse.

The blade: The blade is the outside edge of the foot, opposite from the instep. It sees less use than the other parts of the foot, though the instep sees even less than it does. It’s commonly used in some varieties of side kick (depending on style) and other, more uncommon kicks like the outside crescent kick.

The instep: the instep is the inside of the foot, not many kicks use this part of the foot and none we’re going to talk about in this article. The only kick I can remember off hand that uses it is the inside crescent kick.

The heel: A lot of kicks use the heel. It’s a tough and solid part of the foot that’s great for dealing damage. It’s most common in the back kick, some varieties of side kick (depending on style), the mule kick, the axe kick, the hook kick, and the wheel kick.

The top of the foot: this is mostly just for sparring and competition to make some kicks safer, the top of the foot does less damage than the other parts when it connects. The reason is that it spreads the kinetic force over a wider area. However, if your character is wearing shoes or some sort of footwear in which they cannot pull their toes back, then this is the best way to perform the roundhouse without risk of a broken toe. I have broken boards with a roundhouse using the top of the foot, so keep in mind that any kick that connects solidly can be dangerous.

The Set Up + Basic Terminology:

The Fighting Stance: Every martial art will have its own variation on the fighting stance; each one is built around the tenets of the style. So, you’ll need more research to study up on just what this stance looks like for the style you’re planning on using. Since we’re dealing with kicks, the stance I’ll be detailing is the Taekwondo one.

Step-by-Step:  From a standing position, your character will either step forwards (offensive) or backwards (defensive) into this stance. The feet will be on a diagonal from each other, the back foot turning outwards on a 45 degree angle facing the opponent and tips forward onto the ball of the foot. The hands come up matching the feet, with the left (or right) slightly forwards with the right (back) guarding the cheekbone. (Protip: because of the reliance on the legs as the primary weapon, Taekwondo fighters have a nasty habit of dropping their hands when they fight. This is less true of other kicking martial arts like Kickboxing, where more hand techniques are mixed in with kicking techniques.)

The Front Leg: Much like the jab and right cross in boxing, the front leg represents the speed leg, while the back represents the power leg. Kicks done with the front leg are often combined with a slide step forwards to achieve even faster momentum. Unlike in the Boxing combo, it’s not necessary to kick with the leading leg to begin a combination.

The Back Leg: This is the power leg and is used for power strikes. A leg swinging up from the back achieves greater momentum than the forward leg, which comes from a shorter distance. It is not as fast. It’s always the leg that is furthest back on the fighting stance diagonal.

You may have noticed that the legs lack the left and right tags like the fists do. The reason for this is that the legs will constantly switch between these two positions during combat depending on what position the legs land in after a kick. A good Taekwondo fighter will be ambidextrous, moving fluidly from one kick to the next as the situation calls for it and be comfortable using any kick, from any position, with either leg. (This is good in theory. However, most fighters tend to favor the side they’re strongest with for their power leg. The higher level the kick, the more obvious it will become.) A fighter who uses hands has little reason or need to switch their stance up other than to confuse their opponent.

The Chamber: The chamber is the intermediate step between the beginning of the kick and the end of it. It’s usually the points where the knee bends as the leg comes up and the hip turns over, before the leg unfurls to connect. The chamber will decide where the kick is going and how high it’s going to go from its positioning. Every kick has some sort of chamber.

-Michi

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I think this will be at least three pieces, the kicks and the steps are next, then character information and the stuff you need to know to make them work. I’ll post those when I’m done and link them here.