How do I portray injuries and how it affects people during fights correctly? There’s always portrayals of bones cracking, blood spewing from mouth, direct hits to the head and other weak points, etc during fights. Yet they continue on fighting, or if they go down, they’re up soon. But exactly how much can someone take or continue to fight after such injuries? Assuming more or less normal humans, no superpowers, but they might be in very good condition.
Most of what you’re describing is Hollywood’s license, but your teeth aren’t as well secured inside your mouth as most people think. If you don’t lock your jaw when you’re struck, you’re at risk for biting the inside of your cheek or even biting off parts of your tongue. (That’s why we wear mouthguards.) This is where the spitting of the blood comes from. Direct hits to the head are bad, but you can sometimes focus through them depending on the severity of the injury. (Also, what hit you in the head and how hard.)
The practical answer for learning how to portray injuries is to take martial arts classes. Not because you’re going to get hurt, but because you’ll learn how people fight, what martial arts techniques are designed to do, and mind over matter. Write what you know is real advice and it’s good advice, and if you don’t know — learn. (And I mean learn in a safe environment from professionals and not by trying to throw punches in a backyard. YouTube is supplementary.) There’s a physicality to violence, even recreational, sport violence, that has to be experienced before you can replicate it accurately.
Learning the limitations of adrenaline is also useful. When your body’s adrenaline kicks in, you feel significantly less pain from injuries received. (This doesn’t mean the injuries are any less severe because you can’t feel them.) When your mind isn’t aware of pain, you can force your body to do some pretty insane things. Adrenaline is your body’s natural reaction during periods of high activity, danger, or acts as a response to stress. It’s there to help you survive, but doesn’t always work in beneficial ways.
The other way to really understand injuries is to study medicine, particularly the outcomes of shootings, bar fights, and other violent encounters. This one is going to be dependent on how strong your stomach is.
So, how far are you willing to go for your art?
Fortunately, most readers don’t care about accuracy. Most people couldn’t tell you the difference between the use of a spear and the use of a bow when hunting. They couldn’t tell you how long deep bruises last (or any bruises) or the length of time it takes to recover from a sprain, much less a broken bone. They don’t realize muscular conditioning decays over time. They don’t know how deep a knife needs to penetrate in order to hinder the movement of your muscles (not very) or how even your sweat can become deadly. Hell, most people don’t know bullets go through walls, car doors, couches, and chairs.
You have a lot more room to maneuver than you think and that means you get to choose the degree of reality you want. No one is going to care so long as you create a facsimile within your narrative that feels real from the bottom to the top. That is suspension of disbelief’s power.
Let’s get started.
The first truth you must accept is that everything you see from Hollywood is inaccurate unless the work specifically went out of it’s way to be accurate, and even then it’s subject to artistic license. (And, it’s important to grasp this because everything you do as a writer is subject to artistic license. Sometimes the presentation is a failing on the part of the creators and sometimes it’s a choice.)
Everything about Hollywood violence is structured around entertainment, including the injuries.
Every Hollywood action hero, whether we’re told they have super powers or not, is actually a superhero because they can walk off inhuman levels of punishment.
Even Bruce Willis’ John McClain in the original Die Hard, which is an action film devoted cataloguing the kind of injuries one would realistically sustain while engaging in heroic antics and using John’s accumulation of ever more grievous injuries to propel the narrative forward, isn’t entirely realistic. Hollywood most often uses the puffy, swollen, blackened, ugly way someone’s face looks after getting socked multiple times as comedy. If you want an example of the vast gap between semi-reality and the fiction you consume regularly, watch the first Die Hard and then the last Die Hard back to back.
The reality of the levels of punishment which can be endured is for someone to keep fighting? More than you imagine, but not much as you’d think. You’re not going to walk off a broken leg. The average street fight lasts twenty five seconds. That’s twenty five seconds, not twenty five minutes, and that’s people who don’t know what they’re doing. We romanticize violence to the point where we forget that martial combat is the science of injuring and killing other humans. Humans as a species are very good at killing each other, we’ve spent epochs developing the art. (That doesn’t mean you, the individual, would automatically be good at it or have any native instinct for it. The type of violence most people imagine are learned skills.)
The goal of a professional is to end the threat as quickly as possible while reducing the risk to yourself. The shape this goal takes fluctuates based on context and circumstance, but ultimately stays the same. Risk assessment is important for a writer to learn because their character’s ability to assess risk and their ability to create risk creates tension.
The question of injuries is a question of force application. This is me saying that when you’re asking about injuries, you’re looking at the end result rather than the beginning. Writing strong fight scenes relies on understanding the physicality of violence, which translates to — physics.
If I hit you on a straight line, you will go backwards. If I hit you on a diagonal, you will go sideways. The amount you move may depend on how you set your weight (stance) or how much force I used. Force is generated by momentum, momentum is generated by motion, the more momentum you have the greater the force applied. A kick hits harder than a punch, a kick or punch that is spinning will hit harder than standing, and flying (or jumping) hits hardest of all. A combination of running, jumping, and spinning is top tier. And no, you probably won’t get up quickly from somebody delivering a standing jump front kick to your face, much less a running jump front kick. You might not get up at all.
Note: a standing jump front kick is when you go from zero to jump front kick without any additional movement. This is different from a popup jump front kick, which is also standing but both legs leave the ground at the same time. In the traditional jump front kick, the front knee pumps first to gain height and the jumping leg is the kicking leg. The kicking leg chambers mid air, the kick completes at the height of the jump, and you land. What this means is someone can theoretically take a jump front kick to the face while standing within distance for your average conversation. (Think about that for a second. Now consider, the popup was designed to conserve even more space because you go straight up rather than forward and up.)
However, the greater the momentum, the larger the motion. The larger the motion, the more effort it takes and the more the motion is visible, and that means the greater chance the strike will miss. Wasted energy is costly. Missing leaves you open to retaliation. That’s why small effective movements are valued over larger, more difficult ones, and also why weapons exist.
What hit you and where?
The problem with lack of knowledge is you think you’re asking a question that’s easy to answer, but isn’t because the subject is actually vast. Large bodies of fiction and nonfiction are dedicated to your question. It’s a good metaphor for the complex reality of life. The reality is most of what people can do or can’t do, will do or won’t do, comes down to the individual.
A better approach to writing fight scenes is to break down the individual injuries the character sustained and try to figure out what your character’s reaction is.
Your character just got cracked across the face and spat one of their molars onto the pavement, how does that make them feel?
Your character’s nose is broken. This inhibits their ability to breathe, to seek, to smell, to talk without sounding very strange, and it hurts. Can they focus?
Your character got stabbed in their shoulder joint. They can no longer use their right arm to fight. What do they do?
Most violence is designed to be debilitating to reduce your opponent’s combat effectiveness even if you don’t succeed in your primary goal. The pain you feel is incidental because the full extent may not even be felt until the fight is over, meaning pain isn’t a guaranteed deterrent or even a distraction. Your character can ignore pain, but they can’t ignore the breath that got knocked out of their lungs. They can’t ignore a swelling eye impeding their ability to see. They can’t ignore blood from a split eyebrow bleeding into their eye. They can’t ignore a direct strike to their throat damaging their ability to breathe, even if it’s just in the short term. Maybe they can ignore the strike they took to their shoulder or directly to the joint, but they also can’t because the damage means their arm is moving more slowly. That arm moving more slowly, even if it’s only slightly or isn’t stopped completely, is a victory. A slower arm creates gaps in defense, damages an opponent’s internal sense of timing, allowing a fighter to get closer to a more vital target. Injuries sustained in one fight can result in death during another, even if you win.
Everyone has their limit, but nebulous generalities don’t help setting those limits. The goal for you is to figure out what your character’s limits are and then write within them or the character’s struggles in pushing past those limits. Limits are mental and they’re physical, most often set by what a character believes they can do versus what they can actually do.
So, you know, set two limits. The one that can’t be surpassed and the one made to be broken.
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