I’m writing a story about a fighting tournament, but I’m not especially familiar with tourney structures except for video games. What are common martial arts tournament formats? I think double-elimination ought to work well for my story because it can get so dramatic, but there might be something else more suitable.
This is a pretty good breakdown on martial arts bracket systems used in tournaments.
I’m going to spend this post talking about how tournaments and the martial arts tournament genre works in a narrative context. This includes more than your protagonist, but your role in tournament management because you’re going to need to be all the parts in order for this to work. After all, the one who structures the tournament is you. If you’ve never actively participated in tournaments, any tournaments, or done anything behind the scenes when it comes to structuring them then going complex upfront will result in your narrative spinning wildly out of control.
The Tournament Brackets Are Your Plot
In a martial arts tournament narrative every match up is a character building exercise. The fights are the catharsis to the tension building between rivals and friends in the story. Each fight is the culmination of a smaller plot running parallel to the primary narrative. These are the not just the physical challenges the protagonist overcomes in chasing their dream of winning a championship, but also challenges their morals, their emotions, and their intelligence. Each fight is a building block toward the final conflict, resulting in the protagonist becoming a stronger and more well-rounded person as they are challenged to address their flaws in both fighting style and in their character.
Each of these fights are a very important step on the rung toward victory where the greatest challenge awaits. Every fallen friend, rival, rival-friend, enemy turned friend, and friend turned enemy is a just one more means to forge your protagonist in fire. Each match up is carefully structured to maximize the drama, and provide unique challenges to the protagonist. Seeing the protagonist overcome these challenges is what makes the fight interesting, not the fight itself.
You should consider how many small character dramas you have it in you to write in addition to your main plots as we cycle upwards, the necessary subplots for other important rival characters and matches needed to establish these rivals as a legitimate threat before the protagonist faces off with them.
The tournament is your basic plot outline. Like with seeding in a real tournament, you’re going to want to be meticulous about your match ups before you sit down to write. You need to know who if fighting whom and how that turned out, including some specific events which can reach your protagonist in whispers even if you don’t show any of it on screen.
Drama is Created By Characters
I’m going to make this point upfront because I see the thought process with double elimination, but don’t make the mistake of assuming the tournament structure will do the work for you. An exciting tournament, whether fictional or in real life, is the result of someone’s hard work. In the real world, this is multiple people. In your novel, this is just you and whomever you roped in to help you build all the characters you’ll need for this story to function.
Unless you’re really good at writing fight scenes, and you better be if you’re writing a martial arts tournament, and even if you are, you’ve got to take time to establish a whole bunch of characters who’ll be important friends and rivals. You’re going to need extra chapters between your fight chapters to establish the character dynamics, so your audience can become invested in what happens to the major players.
The tournament brackets are the layout of your plot, and this is the reason why Single Elimination is the popular choice for tournaments in both real life and fiction.
32 Characters = 6 Matches for your protagonist.
64 characters = 7 matches.
This translates to about six chapters to seven, this gives you a lot of time to focus on the other characters like your character’s rivals, future rivals, take a look at the next challenger, watch a match, get to know our other characters, develop friendships, and a whole bunch of other necessary stuff during the downtime between fights.
You can devote a lot of time to building up each of the fights as their own mini-narratives in a 70,000-80,000 word novel, and not feel as pressed for time with getting a lot of different fight scenes or character narratives jammed in.
So, with double elimination, the most important aspect to understand is that if the protagonist loses any match then the highest they’ll end up is usually around third place.
You’ll have twice as many matches as single elimination, which means you have that many more fights to write. A protagonist goes from having around 6 to 7 matches to 12 to 14, plus the extra matches you’ll need to put together for the rivals and friends. Which, if you’ve never put together a match up between two characters, is a lot more work with a lot less time for ancillary detail. The lower brackets constantly fill up as more players lose, everyone gets at least two fights which is great for martial arts tournaments where you’re putting them together primarily for experience. This is about half your 70,000 to 80,000 word novel (if you want to get it published) of twenty to thirty chapters devoted to one character’s fights with less time for the build up your other necessary characters.
Remember, the novel’s secondary characters are important to keeping your tournament functional. In a double elimination system where you’re defeated twice you’re out, there’s no reason to pit the same person against the person who defeated them.
The attraction of the Double Elimination to most writers is going to be the idea of the protagonist getting knocked into the elimination bracket early by their rival and then being forced to fight their way up through that entire bracket for a second match against the rival who defeated them. Then, this time, they finally win.
Except, if you allow this to happen in real life then you create a situation where there are no victors because no one finished the tournament undefeated.
In real life, the second bracket has its own final which decides third place and the person who was previously eliminated will most likely never fight someone from that first bracket again. This kills the idea of rival revenge.
Rival revenge should be based on actions that happen in previous tournaments, the next tournament down the line, or actions taken outside the tournament, but not within the tournament itself.
Have I mentioned you need to be really good at writing fight scenes?
Everybody fights everybody.
This one probably won’t appeal as it is a points based competition where everyone keeps fighting until someone wins. It is a popular set up in smaller tournaments, particularly for sparring, which lets students get a lot of tournament sparring practice. It is really easy for the fights to get unbalanced early, and you essentially calculate the bouts based on the number of participants.
This is a very long tournament, multiday to multiweek, and you’d most likely be cutting a lot of it out from your narrative (though you’d still need to keep track of what happened in those other bouts.) This format is primarily for soccer and similar sports, while swiss is chess.
I don’t suggest non-elimination formats for martial arts.
Visual versus Written
It is worth understanding that the martial arts tournament genre is primarily designed for a visual medium. In this case, showcasing all the fights is important because your audience is there for the experience. Establishing unique visual motifs for each character is important because it makes the scenes more visually engaging when you’re watching these characters get slapped around. We see more than we need to, yes, but that visual stimulation is part of why people watch martial arts movies or the shounen anime fighting genre like Yu Yu Hakusho, Boku no Hero Academia, or Dragon Ball Z.
You don’t get access to any of this when you’re writing.
Your characters are going to be the driving force behind the drama in a written tournament narrative, and you can’t cheat off visual stimulation provided by skilled stunt actors or vibrant artistic explosions. The fight scenes are not the focus, you can’t expect them to hold the audience’s attention, they’re an extension of the character drama occurring within the narrative itself. This means a narrowed focus on one or two characters with a meticulous and careful structuring of character experiences.
The second problem posed by anime in structure is that the fights are designed to pad out an entire season, or an entire manga arc, which, from a written perspective, encompasses multiple books. In a manga, preparations for the preliminaries are an arc (novel), getting to the preliminaries is an arc (novel), the preliminaries are an arc (arc), then the first stages before finals are an arc, and then we get to the finals which are often an arc in and of themselves. So, if you pace your story like an anime then you get about five novels. They’re set up as serialized stories.
For a novel, you need to focus. You’ll do a lot of work in setting the whole tournament up, and the novel will show about a 1/3 or less of it because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need to know about.
Character Progression Match Ups: Establish Your Rules.
The primary reason for establishing multiple fighting styles for various characters is to help create an unbalance or underdog status for the protagonist. However, in a written format you don’t get access to the tension built by one character primarily wielding fists versus someone who is a kicker in a mixed martial arts tournament. You’ll need a solid grasp of your protagonist’s fighting style, taking into consideration both its flaws and weaknesses. A better grasp you have on combat then the easier this will be for you.
You’ll also need to decide on how someone designates a win. Most martial arts tournaments are points based with different points being assigned based on the type of hit or difficulty of the technique. Taekwondo sparring matches assign one point for basic punches to the torso, two for basic kicks to the torso, three for a kick to the head, and technical kicks score more.
The various strategies your characters use will be based on the type of competition, though they will come up with different strategies based on their own preferred tactics. An example is that technical kicks in Taekwondo like spin kicks are more risky than basic kicks, and a more careful character might not use them even when they score higher. A character who is behind in their point count might feel pressed to use riskier attacks to get the five points off a single kick even though that is more difficult to pull off.
Your protagonist and their antagonists will devise strategies based off the rules. So, you’ve got to establish what those rules are and what constitutes a win.
Is it a forced concession like a tap out?
Is it getting knocked outside the right?
Is it a point based system scored on how well a character performs like in Taekwondo, Boxing, and Muay Thai? What does that point system look like?
Is it getting knocked out?
Is it death?
Are there places they can’t hit which result in penalties and eliminations? Is this no holds barred?
Does this tournament allow weapons?
What protective gear do they wear?
There are a lot of considerations to take into account, and for that reason I do suggest starting with a Single Elimination set up. It’ll be pretty easy to upgrade to Double when you get comfortable or run out of space, though I wouldn’t worry too much about not having enough fights or interesting fights. If you have that problem then adding more won’t actually help you.
Each fight match up with your protagonist is a cornerstone in your narrative, a point of character progression, a realization they have about themselves which helps them come away stronger and more prepared for the endgame. If you haven’t been looking at the fight scenes you planned for your novel in this way, then you should consider starting.
There’s not really much difference between an underdog starting from the bottom and never losing versus an underdog losing and fighting up from the bottom all over again except how well you did with the concept the first time round. Losing a fight is not a great way to get people invested in a character if they weren’t already. Besides, in a real world setup they’d never see that rival they lost to again.
Also, you need to be really good at writing fight scenes.