The way a trained combatant watches someone, whether it’s a potential attacker or just a friend at the bar is different from how an untrained person does. This is to be expected, when the writer is a practitioner who knows what they’re doing. But I’ve seen it skipped over often by other writers. I do understand why, of course, this is actually a very difficult thing to do if you haven’t been trained to do it, told what to look for, or spent a significant amount of time in the sparring arena. So, let’s talk about a trained fighter’s ability to track movement, tells the body exhibits before a strike, and what your character will notice before they’re even in the thick of it.
Watch the Chest: You can see the muscles moving in the chest, beneath even a heavy coat, before they ever reach the shoulders or the arms. It’s a much better method of identifying which hand the attacker is going to lead with than just watching their hands or their shoulders. The muscles in the chest provide a clear view of the torso, straight down to the hips, which is where the lead in for a kick always begins. When you know what they’re going to do, it becomes easy to avoid it. Over time, a character will check for this automatically without even thinking about it.
Watch the Eyes: The eyes telegraph, they telegraph a lot about what a person is thinking or feeling before they even begin to think about attacking. You’ll see a lot of trained fighters scanning an area as they walk to the car or enter into a busy bar, getting a layout of their surroundings, and checking out and noting each of the faces, how long they hold their gaze, etc. Humans are also animals and what the eyes say about dominance and submission will often tell a lot about the way an individual will react. Staring into someone else’s eyes for a length of time can be a sign of dominance, dropping your gaze quickly can be a sign of submission. Staring into someone else’s eyes for any length of time during a fight can have a somewhat hypnotic, uncomfortable effect on the opposing individual.
In a fight, the eyes often drop to the strike zone the attacker is intending to hit. This can be faked of course, but that’s unusual. The split second where someone is trying to remember where they put their weapon, be it on their belt is an opening. If they aren’t watching you, this gives you an opening to attack. I was once told by a woman, who heard it from a cop, that there’s a disturbing trend among young women who consider it rude to say no when someone asks them the time. Stop and think about this:
A man comes up and asks “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?”, the woman like so many now a days, doesn’t wear a watch and her phone is in her purse. She says, “sure, just one second” and reaches into her purse or pocket to get her phone, her eyes leave the man, he clocks her over the head and drags her off into the bushes.
It can happen that fast.
Wide Peripheral Vision: Martial artists have a habit of having very wide peripheral vision, this is also true of soldiers. They are trained that way and are used to blocking strikes that come from outside their field of vision.
Training Means You React Faster: Someone who is trained will react faster than someone who is not, they will react along the lines of how they’ve been trained. They see the shoulder in the beginnings of a punch, they will react with a block, the vector of the strike and their training will determine what kind of block it is. After the block, there will be some sort of counter.
We’re talking the time it takes for your brain to realize something is wrong, that information to reach your hand or leg and for the muscles to react. For a trained combatant this will be a matter of .5 seconds as opposed to a full 2 to 5 seconds. It’s important to note that some variations of Martial Arts training like Krav Maga specifically work to bring the speed of reaction down to around .25 seconds through drills and widening the student’s field of peripheral vision.
So, how does this translate into your writing?
When your character is out and about, even if they’re filled with concerns about their own life or in the midst of an intense conversation, throw in a sentence about what they notice in the world around them. They may not even really notice that they’re doing it, but for the audience it will be a tell.
It’ll go something like: ‘Thought’, the guy over there has his hands on his hips, could be a knife. ‘Thought’, the girl he’s with is too invested in her book to notice. ‘Self-absorbed thought’, rain on the ground makes it muddy, finding my footing will be difficult, should I go over there? ‘And so on.’
Description + choice= action. Always remember that when a character takes action, they are also taking the responsibility for that action onto themselves.
Before the first punch or kick is even thrown, have them notice the movement in the chest and torso, notice where another character’s eyes are looking, or even just have them be aware of the posture of the other character’s in the room. This doesn’t require lengthy description of every little detail, just a throwaway line about how someone else is standing, where their feet are, where the weapon is, and where their hands are in position to their face and to the character before the fight happens. You can bury it in a paragraph way on top of the page or on a different page in the buildup. When a fight starts, it should be immediate.
His chest and shoulder pulled back. Then, he swung. But Alice’s left hand was already moving as she caught his roundhouse with her wrist and drove her right fist into his throat.