In this post, I’m going to talk about basic strikes using the upper body. I’m breaking up blocks, kicks, and the body strike zones to make the information absorption easier. My major caveat here is that all the techniques I’m going to talk about are based from my own Tae Kwan Do/MMA/Muay Thai background and therefore not always applicable depending on which Martial Art you plan on using. While they are similar, all Martial Arts techniques are unique to each individual style, so research the Martial Art you plan on using, even if it’s just a trip to Wikipedia.
The basic strikes I plan on talking about in this post all relate to using the fist. These strikes are: the punch, the hammer fist, the backfist, the uppercut, and the hook. While it’s common for martial artists to list all these strikes underneath the punch header, I’m separating them out as distinctively different for writers because movements of the body (arm position, hand position, hip pivot, and striking range) while performing them varies depending on the individual strike.
Always remember that there are more than just these and extensive variations of each, so research, research, research. But the basics are the building blocks of any solid Martial Artist and they will save your character’s life when all the fancy tricks fail. And as tempting as it can be, the most important thing for any good writer to realize is this: there is no “best” in the world of Martial Arts, only what works best for you/your character’s physiology, style, and personality. If your character’s mind is not prepared to do what the style is asking them/training their body for, then it’s no good. If the style is meant/built around a different body type and is difficult for your character to modify to the point of them being subpar then it’s no good.
The punch is the most basic technique of any fighter’s arsenal. Every martial art in the world has some variation of the punch and because it’s simple, it’s easy to use. So, let’s talk about it.
The punch involves pulling all five fingers into a fist, with the thumb acting as a bracer for the others. When it strikes, it drives the two front knuckles into the opponent’s soft tissue. It’s actually a common fallacy that the punch involves the whole hand. Practice forming a fist and you’ll notice the knuckles on the fore and index fingers extend forward while the others pull back. The rest of the fingers brace the hand. The reason why the punch is often taught first is because it’s a basic builder for training someone to make a fist and teaching their muscles how to tighten properly in conjunction with the blow.
A punch always drives forward with three variations: the face (the neck, the upper lip, the nose, and sometimes (in boxing) the eyebrow), the solar plexus (the midpoint in the chest), and the stomach itself (around the belly button). The height of the character and the height of their opponent will dictate their comfort level in striking to these areas. The punch is commonly taught to beginners from the waist, standing or in a horse stance (feet facing forwards, both knees bent to a 90 degree angle), or from a fighting stance (one foot forward, one foot back the length of the shoulders, shoulders and hips on a 45 degree angle). There are several variations on the punch for the more advanced writer and I will detail them in a post dedicated to them.
Common Advanced Technique: It’s not really an advanced technique, but in boxing the punch is broken up into two separate categories: the jab and the cross/straight. The jab is performed by the leading hand in the fighting stance (usually the left), it’s a fast strike that pivots off the front foot with minimal shoulder cranking, in a boxing or UFC match it’s usually the first punch thrown to test the opponent’s guard. Because of its speed, the strike is designed around stunning the opponent when it connects, thus disorienting the opponent and leaving them open to a follow up strike: usually the cross. It can also be used to keep the opponent on the defensive. The cross (right or left) is the secondary strike that follows the jab. It’s performed with the rear hand in a fighting stance, the one by the cheek that’s guarding the face, and uses the back foot to pivot the hip and create power. The cross is the power punch. Together, these two strikes create a basic combination that’s known as the double punch.
Common Beginning Mistake: When most beginners start out, they stick their thumb inside the fist in order to protect it. This will break the hand when it connects; always keep your characters fingers tight in a punch.
So, how do you write it? Here’s an example:
Alex lunged forwards, his right fist striking high. Knocking the hand away at the wrist, Anna stepped in, her back foot pivoting as she slammed her own fist into her opponent’s throat.
The Hammer Fist:
This is one of those attacks that works exactly as the name describes.
The hand tightens into a fist, but instead of turning over to punch, it remains vertical and strikes downwards to the center of chest in the same manner as we would use a hammer to strike a nail or an anvil. This strike comes in two flavors, direct, to the nose, the wrist, the back of the head, the sternum, the groin/testicles, and the collarbone. It also works on a forty-five degree angle to the neck, usually the soft pressure point underneath the ear or the occipital bone, the mandible, or slightly lower to the carotid artery. The hammer fist does not risk the bones in the hand to a break and it spreads the force of its strikes more evenly across a small surface (the size of the fist or a small golf ball).
Common Advanced Technique: The Hammer Fist doesn’t really have one, it can however be performed on a diagonal for easier access to more sensitive areas.
Common Beginner Mistake: The hammer fist is a fairly safe strike, so long as the beginner remembers to keep their fingers tight with their thumb bracing their fist and their wrist aligned with the hand. Also, because of the hammer fist’s wind up, the beginner often forgets to keep their free hand up, protecting their face. The hammer fist is a powerful strike, but it leaves openings that can be exploited by a clever opponent. Remember, because it’s slow, this strike is not an opening move unless the opponent is already prone.
Alex came in low, shooting forwards with his arms spread wide. He’s going to tackle me, Anna thought. He had the height and weight advantage. If he got her on the ground then the fight would be over. I can thrash all I want, but it won’t do much good. Still, going forward also left him vulnerable. He’s expecting me to attempt a sprawl, but why risk the timing? Swinging her leg sideways, she turned her body completely one hundred and eighty degrees to his. By the time he was able to stop, it would be too late. Drawing her arm back, she struck downwards with the bottom of her fist. Her hand slammed into the back of his neck, into the vulnerable point where skeleton joined with skull, with the force of a hammer.
As the name suggests, the backfist uses the back of the hand, specifically the knuckles, to strike the opponents softer regions. Like with the above punch the backfist strikes with the tops of the front two knuckles, pulling the leading arm back diagonally across the body and striking outward to the temple or the throat. The advantage of the backfist is that it’s fast. When it lands, the backfist disorients the opponent and like all strikes to the head, it may cause them to stumble.
In Tae Kwon Do, this strike is also commonly used as a distractor to create an opening in the opponent’s guard by striking within the opponent’s outside field of peripheral vision, thus tricking the brain into attempting to block high while simultaneously striking low with a punch to the gut or ribs. The backfist/cross combination is one of the most basic techniques taught to new trainees. It’s also useful, in sparring circumstances, by instructors who wish to remind a lazy student to guard their head.
Common Advanced Technique: The spinning backfist. Using a technique similar to spin kicks such as the wheel kick, the fighter spins 360 degrees to either the right or left and strikes their opponent with their leading hand (the side they spun to the left or right with). This increases the power of the strike by including the extra momentum of the spin. However, it is very easy for the beginner to become disoriented and for the user to be knocked off their feet by their opponent’s counter.
Common Beginner Mistake: If the student is wearing hand-guards (brass knuckles, UFC fiberglass gloves, handwraps, wrist-wraps) the backfist is very useful in a real world situation. If they’re not, they risk breaking their knuckles on their opponent’s skull when they miss the temple. The backfist is one of those attacks that requires a higher level of accuracy than most of the other strikes on this list for that reason. It’s a powerful strike, but carries with it a greater risk versus reward.
The instructor dropped his hand in front of them. “Go!” He yelled.
Anna lunged in. Her opponent, Regina had strong legs, but like all those new to sparring, she had some bad habits regarding the protection of the head. Drawing her left hand back to the side of her face, Anna struck out with the back of her fist. Landing an easy, visible hit to Regina’s head, she slammed her right hand into the other woman’s chest pad.
The uppercut is a very specific strike most commonly seen in variations of boxing and kickboxing. This technique involves driving the fist upwards, usually to strike under the opponent’s chin and knock the head back. The uppercut can also be driven forward on a diagonal into the stomach and solar plexus, also though more uncommonly to the nose and eyes (though only when wearing hand-guards). Unlike the backfist, the punch, and the hammer fist, the uppercut requires the wielder be within fairly close proximity to their opponent. Like most punches in boxing, the uppercut can be thrown with either hand.
Common Advanced Technique: Like the Hammer Fist, there really isn’t one.
Common Beginner Mistake: The most common beginner mistake with the uppercut is a timing failure, knowing when and how to use a technique is a matter of practice. Like all strikes, the uppercut can leave the user open to exacting counters when used improperly or when they miss. If your character is new and decides to use this technique, do not be afraid to punish them for it.
It was supposed to be an easy follow-up to the hook, just drop her weight low and pivot her back foot while thrusting her left arm and hip upwards. If she was lucky, well, she’d score a knock out and the round would be over. But Alex’s hand came down and knocked her arm sideways, his other fist slammed into her nose. She heard the crunch of cartilage ringing in her ears as blinding white hot pain shot through her brain. Then, his knee drove forwards into her belly. Knees hitting the floor, she grasped her stomach.
It hurt more than she thought it would.
The hook is another specialized strike that’s common mostly to boxing and kickboxing. It’s a horizontal blow that comes in sideways, swinging around to connect with the ribs or the jaw. When it connects to the occipital bone in the jaw it’s a knockout strike. It can be performed with either hand.
Common Advanced Technique: The check hook. The difference between the check hook and the regular hook is entirely a matter of footwork, much like the spinning backfist, it’s what the feet are doing that makes the difference in the attack. The check hook is performed in boxing when the opponent lunges, the boxer pivots their left foot and swings their back foot 180 degrees sideways, driving the hook into the opponent’s jaw as they rush past.
Common Beginner Mistake: A failure to connect the lower body with the upper body. Please remember: always think about the feet and the hips in conjunction with the upper body.
When his right-cross came, she slipped underneath it. Stepping sideways, head low, she twisted her front foot and swung her left fist around, driving it straight into his ribs.
Fist Strikes and Damage:
The hand is full of many small, delicate bones and the front of the face (the forehead and the cheekbones) is the most heavily armored part of the human body. The brain is the most important part of keeping us alive, so it makes sense. So please, unless your character is some variant of a boxer or UFC fighter don’t have them punch to the face. If their hands are unprotected or unarmored, they’re going to break something. When most martial artists talk about punching to the face, they usually mean it in a “sport” capacity, not a self-defense one. Always make sure to research the martial art you are using and modify it appropriately if you mean to use it in a self-defense context.
It’s often a misnomer of non-practitioners that the boxing gloves, fiberglass gloves, or handwraps seen in most professional boxing/kickboxing sports are there for the safety of the opponent. They are not, they are there to reinforce a fighter’s fist and minimize the risk of a metacarpal injury.
When striking with any fist strike, the wrist must be aligned with the hand to prevent injury. Your fighter must keep the muscles of the fist and the wrist tight.
I’ll link the other primers on the open hand strikes and elbows together for easy viewing when I get them up.
As always, happy writing!
“You should all ask yourself what do you feel when you are defeated. Are you blaming others, feeling depressed, or are you filled with passion, ready to take the challenge again? All those of you who have played on the field will have tasted defeat, there’s no player who has not lost before, however the best players, as a tribute to all their efforts, will give everything they’ve got to stand up again, the ordinary players will take a while to get back on their feet, while the losers will remain flat on the field. Do not be ashamed about being defeated, to be defeated and to not stand up is what you should be ashamed of.”
-University of Texas Longhorn Head coach, Darrell Royal
So, I’ve been getting sick for the past couple of days and since I can barely keep myself up right and out of bed, don’t expect to see anything from me for a little while. (At least today and probably tomorrow while I try to shake out this fever/cold thing.) Anyway, I hope everyone’s writing is going well. I’ve got a couple of articles I’m finishing up, so I’ll post those soon.
This is somewhat belated for some of you and for that I apologize. I’m glad to see the information I’m putting up has been useful! Please remember that my ask box is always open and it takes questions about anything, though I may be slow about responding. I’ll get down to creating a side bar eventually and while this won’t be the most active writing blog out there as I’m working on getting my own work published at the moment, I’ll try to at least put something up once a day.
Springing to his feet, he bent his bow powerfully and drove his last shaft point-blank at a great hairy shape that soared up at his throat. The arrow was a flying beam of moonlight that flashed onward with but a blur in its course, the were-beast plunged convulsively in midair and crashed headlong, shot through and through.
Then, the rest were on him, in a nightmare rush of blazing eyes and dripping fangs. His fiercely driven sword shore the first asunder; then the desperate impact of the others bore him down. He crushed a narrow skull with the pommel of his hilt, feeling the bone splinter and blood and brains gush over his hand; then, dropping the sword, useless at such deadly close quarters, he caught the throats of the two horrors which were ripping and tearing at him in silent fury.
–The Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard
If you’ve never read anything from Conan: The Barbarian by Robert E. Howard, then shame on you. When it comes to Sword and Sorcery, Howard is still the giant in the genre and the second father of modern fantasy. Honestly, when it comes to fight scenes, Howard is still the man.
Anyway, I’m not posting the above quote here just to fangirl or because the above is really well written. It is, but it illustrates an important point about weapons combat and your characters.
Notice how Conan starts with the bow and when his enemies get into sword range, he discards it. This is because the weapon has now become useless and it will be a detrimental to him to hold onto it, the same is true for the sword, once his enemies get inside its guard. Once his sword is gone, he grapples with his fists and the melee becomes more desperate.
This is a reality to combat that holds true for all weapons and all melee strikes. When I was training in Tae Kwon Do, my instructors referred to these spaces around the body as “hot zones”.
For example: with a roundhouse kick, the opponent needed to be in range of the length of the leg between the foot and shin for the kick to be effective. If the opponent has gotten close enough that they are above the knee when the leg is extended, then it’s no good. Or alternately, if the opponent was within grabbing distance of the throat and we were nose to nose, a punch was useless and it was time to go to an elbow, a knee, or into a grapple. Most modern handguns are only useful between the ranges of 10 to 50 feet, anywhere closer than that and you can’t aim.
Every weapon has a different hot zone and a point where in truly close quarters they are no longer useful, it requires a fair amount of research to determine when that is.
As with everything regarding writing, the more you know, the better your character will be and the better the fight scene you’ll write.
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Learning to fight always begins with the feet, so if you want to write about fighting: learn to start paying attention. It can be easy to get distracted by the hands and start thinking that’s all there is to throwing a good punch, or the feet and think that’s all there is to throwing a good kick. Before a punch is ever thrown, a good martial artist always steps. The step can be forwards, sideways, or on a diagonal, and it can involve the front foot or the back one, but a step is always involved. Let’s talk about why:
A step closes distance.
In a fight, we are normally too far away from our opponent to attack. We need to step forward to reach them. As we close the distance, we bring them (and ourselves) in range for a strike. Each strike requires a different amount of distance from the opponent, so make sure you know how close the character needs to be for them to connect.
A step creates momentum.
The body requires momentum for follow through. Follow through is when a strike connects hard and the arm, shoulder, or leg push farther than they would normally in training. The body uses the step forward to create a driving momentum behind the arm as the hips pivot to strike the opponent, without the momentum the strike is less effective.
A step allows a character to get out of the way.
If someone is charging to tackle, the best option is to get out of the way. The best solution to get out of the way is to step. Even if a character is slipping under a blow, they are going to step first in one direction or another.
So when writing a fight scene, remember to track your character’s steps.
Two verbs, I see a lot in fight scenes are “rush” and “charge”. They are good, powerful, and attractive words. They are perfect to use in a select number of circumstances. However, before you apply any verbs to a scene stop and consider: does a rush require one step? Two steps? Or three steps? Ask: how close will this bring my character to their opponent? Multiple steps, even fast ones, often leave a character open to attack. Rushing and charging both involve running, so a character’s body will be tilted forwards, perfect to be on the receiving blow of a knee, a knife hand, or a hammer blow to the back of their head. Make sure the words you’re using are right for the situation and remember: even tackle isn’t a perfect way of taking someone down. It can be met with a sprawl, which leads to a choke, which leads to a blackout (and death) for your character or their opponent.
Always ask yourself in any scene: where are my character’s feet, what are my character’s feet doing.
Here’s a not at all perfect example:
He came at her, right hand lashing out. There was no room to dodge, nowhere to go other than forwards. So, forward she went. Stepping in, her left hand came up to block. Batting his wrist downwards, she used the force of her momentum to rotate her shoulder and hips back as her right hand formed a fist. Then, she struck. Her fist drove forwards, aiming for the soft flesh of his throat. He gasped as knuckles collided with skin and his windpipe crumpled.
Stumbling back, his hands went to his neck.
Clutching it, he looked up at her as panic spread across his face. She didn’t bother to smile as her knee drew into her chest and her foot struck out, plowing into his belly. When his knees hit the ground, she knew the fight was over.
He wouldn’t be getting back up again.
There are styles and weapons that are easy to learn and those that are not. I posted earlier about how to choose a MA that’s right for your character and, in a way, this is an extension of that.
What are some styles that can be learned easily? It might be hard to find them if we don’t know where to start looking. The answer is the kind that were developed for that express purpose. You want the martial styles that are still in use, the ones used (or were used) by military forces to train a large number of beginners for the battlefield. Alternately, take a look at basic self-defense training courses, these are techniques that are designed to be picked up quickly over the course of one or two sessions and without it being necessary for a master to look over your character’s shoulder.
Some occasionally overlooked weapons that are fairly easy to learn:
The Staff – ignoring the spinning, whirling beauty of the Wushu staff, the staff and the quarterstaff are very utilitarian, basic weapons. The strikes are basic and easy to pick up through rote practice, it’s a weapon that can be learned over the course of months instead of years and is fairly dangerous right out of the gate. Stick a metal tip on the end and you’ve got a spear, but that just makes it more deadly.
The Hatchet– The hand axe or the hatchet was one of the primary weapons of the Vikings, it’s more utilitarian and less romantic than a sword, but it’s another one of those weapons that doesn’t require much training to become proficient. It’s not that heavy and it is far easier to explain away to a city guard or a police officer than a sword or a firearm. Since the hatchet is essentially a bladed club, other club-like weapons also fall into this category: the crowbar, the wrench, and the heavy flashlight.
The Crossbow– Much like the Hatchet, the crossbow is less romantic than a longbow, but there’s a reason this weapon overtook it’s predecessor (and why firearms eventually overtook it). It’s a very easy weapon to train someone on, they will learn it quickly and with a surprising amount of accuracy. It and the bow have the distinction of true stealth, unlike the gun they can kill silently.
The Shotgun – this is a weapon that’s less romantic than the handgun or the rifle, but it’s much easier to learn. While most firearms are designed around ease of use, the shotgun’s scatterfire makes it easier operate in an actual situation. The downside, of course, is that you cannot hit a single target with absolute certainty, but buckshot will nail something. For a writer, the shotgun also provides a nice level of unpredictability, because even if the character is sure they’re going to hit what they’re aiming at, there’s a high likelihood of collateral damage in the process. For the audience, it’s a nail biting, desperate weapon and that’s a good thing.
The Slingshot – It’s easy to get a hold of, you can still buy them today, they sell them to children, and ammo for them can be picked right up off the ground. In some parts of America, the slingshot is still used for hunting small game. It’s also worth pointing out that in poor (and not so poor countries) the older version of the slingshot, the sling is still the weapon of choice for young children around the world. With practice, it’s level of accuracy is deadly. Use David and Goliath as a primer and you might come up with something interesting.