Tag Archives: fight scene reference

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,

I found this video on Youtube, I think it’s Paul Vunak from his Jeet Kune Do instructional video series “Jeet Kune Do Concepts & Filipino Martial Arts” but unfortunately it’s uncredited. (If I’m wrong, someone correct me.) The quality isn’t great (it’s from the 1980s, before the invention of DVDs or streaming) which makes reading his chart all but impossible and it’s long (43 minutes). I don’t expect you to stick around for the full thing.

However, I hope you all stick it out through the first five minutes (at least) because he covers the concept of “ranges”. Ranges are based on the distance from the opponent when the body’s different weapons become useable. I identify them as “kicking, punching, grabbing, grappling”, Vunak identifies them as “kicking, boxing, grabbing, grappling”. Same difference. In the video he walks the viewer through each of the different stages and describes what they mean with visual examples.

When you know nothing about physical combat and even if you do, understanding these ranges will be useful for when you’re sitting down to write your fight scene and have difficulty visualizing how it works. It helps for getting a feel for exactly how close your characters are when they start and how quickly it’s going to progress as the space between the two combatants compresses.

One thing you’ll notice in the video is that Vunak doesn’t stay within the separate ranges as he performs his techniques. Each technique brings him closer and into a different range. This is part of why the Maxim of “all fights end up on the ground” is true. Kicking range brings you into punching range, punching range closes to grabbing, and grabbing transitions into grappling.

Basically it will help you get a handle on:

“How close does my character need to be for a kick?”

“How close do they need to be for a punch?”

“How close do they need to be for an elbow or a knee?”

This video will help you figure out those distinctions and avoid some of the more silly descriptions that end up plaguing author’s fight scenes.

-Michi

FightWrite: The Importance of Word Choice

The most important lesson I learned in my poetry seminars is that every word must earn it’s place on the page. When writing a scene, the goal is to create a visual impression in the readers. We use words to evoke an image, to evoke an emotional reaction and each word has it’s special place in helping to convey this sense to the reader. The words you choose, the order you put them in, where they are placed on the page, and what they sound like when read in a line are all phenomenally important parts of the writing craft. They are the means by which we create these images and how these images become memorable stories.

A single verb can change the mood and feeling of a scene, even when describing the same action. This is why careful word choice is important when writing fight scenes. Clarity is key but so is synergizing the action you want with the mood you want to convey. The level of violence can change depending on the meaning behind the word, it can change the shape of what a technique looks like in a reader’s mind. So, when choosing verbs think through what a word means. What image does it conjure in your mind?

Lashed

Slammed

Rammed

Whacked

Here’s an example:

Seizing Larry by his collar, Jennifer slammed him into the wall.

What is a slam? In this context, it’s a very violent shove. Slam is a hard, powerful word. It emphasizes a sense of power, but also control.

Compare:

Seizing Larry by his collar, Jennifer pushed him into the wall.

A push is still a violent action in this context, but the word is softer and gentler than the hard, powerful sound of slam.

Compare:

Seizing Larry by his collar, Jennifer shoved him into the wall.

Shoved is more violent than pushed, but less violent than slammed. It’s a rough word, but without the same raw sense of physical power and domination.

Finally:

Seizing Larry by his collar, Jennifer rammed him into the wall.

Rammed is perhaps more violent than slammed, it’s also more direct. When we use the word rammed, we might think of a battering ram or a charging ram. It’s a direct, forceful action propelling Larry back into the wall. However, the same sense of control we had in slam isn’t there with rammed. Ram feels a little angrier, more violent.

Think about what sort of action you’re using and the personality of the character in question. What sort of person are they? How much force would they use? Can they control it? What do their strikes feel like? Wild and uncontained? Tight and controlled?

This is worth testing during your editing, don’t get too caught up in it during the first draft phase. But, if you want, pull out a sheet of paper and just test it out. Write a sentence, maybe involving a punch or kick and try different verbs to change the effect.

-Michi

Could you give me some background info on stick fighting, such as with a bo or a staff? What would be some advantages or disadvantages of stick fighting, especially in present day? And would it be tactical for a secret agent to specialize in stick fighting, especially when on missions or whatnot? Thanks!

Well, you’re going to have to settle on what kind of stick you’re using: such as a baton or staff because length is important. You’re also going to have to designate what kind of staff fighting they’ve been trained in because techniques differ based on style. Depending on the era, a secret agent may get more use out of Filipino Eskrima stick techniques than he or she would out of a bo staff because one can be hidden fairly easily while the other is more common. A spy does not carry weapons that make them stand out in a crowd. A staff is a long arm and thus a very tall weapon, if the spy does not exist in a culture where carrying a staff is common (such as modern day US) then they will forgo it entirely.

A spy may carry a staff in a historical setting when they were common, such as Medieval Europe, or appropriate corresponding periods in China and Japan when looking to pass for a specific kind of peasant or soldier.

However, depending on where they are going, a spy may choose to carry a tactical baton on their person. A tactical baton is a police weapon, it folds up easily and can slip into a pocket. However, they are illegal to own in most states without a permit. It’s also meant for tagging someone in the back of the skull. It is meant to hand out a single pounding, not take a pounding from another weapon.

Staffs and sticks are bashing weapons. They don’t stab or cut, instead they cause blunt force trauma. They are very effective weapons. However, if you’re feeling cheesy, a wooden stick can be snuck past a metal detector (but not an x-ray machine) and people whether it’s onlookers or guards will remember the person who fought with the wooden stick because it’s unusual.

If you want to have a secret agent who specializes in stick fighting in the modern day, then they only have one real option: a cane. An umbrella would also work, but many people will wonder why your spy is carrying an umbrella if they are traveling to a place where rain is not a constant. A wooden cane is justifiable, easy to explain, and carry into places that normally would not allow them. It can also be taken places where a tactical baton would be discovered and removed.

However, while a cane is an excellent self-defense weapon, it can get tricky in modern combat if you’re spy is not acting via surprise. A cane does not have an advantage against a gun that is already drawn. A cane has a reach advantage against someone with a knife, but lacks being comparably lethal. The kills will also be fairly recognizable and they will take longer.

The short of it is: while training in combat with sticks is justifiable for a spy, it’s unlikely to be their specialty. In the modern world, a spy needs to be trained on a variety of guns, knives, and in a variety of hand to hand styles to be successful. A cane may look odd on someone who does not fake a limp or is not elderly and a fake limp is difficult to maintain long term. If a character is using the cane to support their own weight because their leg can’t maintain it on it’s own then they’ll have difficulty fighting with it. (This won’t stop someone with a limp from being a spy.) In the modern world, it’s not a sharp choice because there are better ones available.

Remember: a spy isn’t looking to stand out, they want to blend in and disappear. Pick styles and weapons that fit into the frame of who they are pretending to be and ones that reflect the culture (and social status) they exist in.

-Michi

I have a question, I’m wondering how to write a fight between two people using their fists. How do they defend themselves what are the right movements? I just wonder what is needed to be taken into account to write such a scene. I’m sorry if this has been answered before.

Don’t be sorry! Writing about fighting when you have no practical experience is a difficult challenge and writing fight sequences when you do is still time consuming. There are a lot pieces working together and figuring out how they function is difficult and something very few writers actually do well.

Here are a list some of our posts that may be helpful to you:

Five Simple Ways to Write Convincing Fight Sequences

Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Open Hand)

Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

Fight Write: The Art of Stepping

Fight Write: The Art of Blocking

Tip: Fights Start for a Reason

ObsidianMichi’s Real World Fight Facts

Fight Write: The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose Part 1

The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose Part 2 (Brutality)

Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting

Fight Write: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality

Also check anything in our Michael Janich tag, he is a very good instructor who teaches self-defense. I refer people to his videos for the work he does with concepts, where he actively explains what a technique is, what it does, and why it’s used before teaching the technique. As a writer, you need both technique and concept before you can put it on the page.

I plan on doing a write up on both elbows and knees in the near future. There’s a lot of misconceptions about how these techniques work.

Also check out Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series particularly First Test and Page in The Protector of the Small quartet. Tamora Pierce is one of the few authors that write fight scenes I feel comfortable recommending for reference.

Good hunting!

-Michi