I’m the author the last anon mentioned. What you said about sparring makes a lot of sense; I’m working on changing stuff to fit. Here’s another question: The point of the scene is to set character A up as a hand-to-hand fighter who seriously challenges B, the MC. (This informs a later plot point.) How can you clearly show the advantage going back and forth in a close match without landing any blows, esp. for readers who equate damage done with skill in those kinds of scenes?

I’m already sensing a few issues with this. Though, the problem may simply be the way you’re thinking about it. So, I’ll go through them and start with my big glaring red flag which is the question at the bottom.

Skill =/= Damage

This is a very common mistake by most people who have never had any sort of martial training. It’s also an attitude that is fairly common amongst “street” fighters aka the idiots who like to punch each other out in their backyards and call it training. It all sounds very impressive, until you’ve learned how easy it is to actually hurt someone else. Then, the prospect of causing injury to another person is a lot less impressive. Even with just a few basic lessons, it’s remarkably easy and metrics don’t make it any more impressive. And yes, you are the one equating damage with skill, not your readers.

Allow me to talk to you about skill for second.

Hurting your training partner in a training accident is actually a sign of insufficient skill. It means they lack control over both themselves and their technique. Skill is not in how much damage a character is able to dish out, it’s in their ability to choose how much damage they dish out. Skill is in control, both over your body and over yourself. There’s technical proficiency with the technique, and again technical proficiency is about how well you perform, how well you control the minute movements of your body, and not, really, in your ability to produce the expected result. The technique will produce the expected result and that’s why you practice it in a controlled environment with a trusted partner so you can feel its effects and know why it should be respected. (This includes Police officers practicing full moves on each other during training and that training is almost always single technique, so they know how it feels.

You don’t choke another person out in the sparring arena just to prove how tough you are. (Though if they fail to tap out and no one intervenes then that’s on everyone.) That’s the kind of macho bullshit nobody’s got time for.

It’s dangerous, it endangers both participants, and starts to kill the level of trust you need to work with someone during practice. Let alone sparring. When two people practice together, they are making an agreement to aid each other and to keep each other safe. You get into cases where this doesn’t happen, there are plenty of stories where bullies use practice matches as a means to inflict “accidental” damage on their target. Two Tamora Pierce stories involve this, Protector of the Small and The Song of the Lioness with characters who, for their own reasons, decide to use a practice match as a means to maim the protagonist.

Now, I grant you: from an entertainment standpoint it’s sensational as hell. You feel like you’re creating a great gasp moment with “oh my gosh, he cut his knuckles on her face!”

However, this is the sort of injury that either…

A) Happens by complete accident, such as that anecdotal story I sometimes tell where the instructors weren’t watching and two brown belts were allowed to spar each other in a manner above their level. Both connected and broke their legs. When this happens, it’s usually a sign of lack of skill and lack of attention on the part of the people in charge to watch them. And then, there’s…

B) They wanted to hurt them and they’re just going to use the above as an excuse.

This also means that they are willing to take the hit on looking bad because at least some of the onus for the injuries will be on them.

Control is the big differentiation between trained and untrained, it’s the ability to choose where, when, and how much. 9/10 it also means course correction, being able to read the situation when you’re in the heat of the moment and yank yourself back off the cliff. Sometimes, this includes modifying your attack, possibly even stopping it, after you’ve committed. There are techniques where after we misread a situation and commit to an action there’s nothing we can do. Either the realization comes too late, changing course would only ensure the other person got more hurt, or we don’t realize something is wrong until after. It happens to everyone.

Still, the mistake is in assuming it’s a sign of skill.

What makes these characters skilled is how close they are and how capable they are in comparison with the end purpose of their training. Which begs the question: what are they training and practicing to do? If the answer is “to fight people!” then you might want to rethink it. Every career in the combat arts comes with training specialized to help its students achieve success at their career. Stop and think about the career you want these characters to engage in. What will they be doing? What skills do they need to have? How does what you’ve set up for a career correspond with the expectations present in real-world professions? If you do get lost, confused, or unsure then looking at these will probably help and get you thinking along avenues you might not have previously considered.

All training has purpose and its goal is to inevitably make you better at what your intending to do. The biggest issue might simply be that you’re thinking about this sequence like it’s a fight. It’s not. It’s a training exercise, and the in universe point is to both to practice what you know and to learn.

I mean, I have the meta reason for why this sequence exists: it informs a plot point, it’s there to show the audience both fighters are skilled, and one is more skilled than the other. That’s all information there for you as the author, which is nice to have for the future, and is utterly useless in the now.

Forget about that.

What are they learning? What are they supposed to be doing? Why aren’t they doing that? Why are they doing this? How do they feel?

What’s missing here is motive. You have the plot in mind, and as a writer what’s happening in this scene is justifying character behavior in another down the line. However, you also need to make sure your characters have a reason for how they are behaving in this scene.

When it comes to sparring:

The reason why sparring works as a training exercise is the inclusion of limits and a different system to score how well they are doing. You just have to decide what those limits are, look at different martial arts to get a feel for what you want to run with. Most of the good Self-Help books at your local bookstore or library will have the rules, and if those are a bust then you can always look them up online.

Most average television and movie fight scenes like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where there’s a lot of stop, pause, and banter runs a lot closer to what you can expect from a sparring session. The session is relaxed, the players have the necessary time to pause, joke, and talk shit to each other. You can get away with this a lot more readily in a sparring session because the characters in question aren’t fighting for their lives or focusing on staying alive. They also have time to breathe. There’s also a teacher standing nearby, watching, and participating. They both know that they are safe and that can lead to some looser behavior.

Sparring sessions are longer. They’ll run for several minutes as opposed to several seconds. The characters worry more about running out the clock and scoring their points than they do survival, even in the toughest environments. That’s also okay. Again, the point of a sparring session is to learn. Sparring provides us with the opportunity to experiment, to learn strategies, to figure out which techniques we’ve been learning are the ones which work best for us in a stress free environment. It’s also an excellent means of building confidence. A beat down, “real world” as it might be, just leads to frustration. Beating someone up (even when they’re at equal levels) is just beating them, it doesn’t teach them anything.

Again, the point isn’t to win. The point is to learn. You can learn just as much from losing as winning, sometimes more so.

Stop worrying about reader expectations.

You define what skill is and what skill means in terms of your story. With proper in story communication,

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