Tag Archives: training sequences

Hi, I’m at a point in my novel where my character is afraid of being defenseless and she wants to learn hand-to-hand combat. She has 0 previous experience and asks a prince, who is superskilled in sword fighting + hand-to-hand, to teach her. How would I be able to write that from the girl’s pov? I would like to relay her improvements across the novel, like I want my audience to feel her getting better.

I’ll be honest, one of the biggest issues with “super skilled” or “naturally gifted” fighters is that, unless they’ve learned otherwise, they tend to be shit teachers. Teaching is, in large part, the ability to take your own experiences and struggles then apply them to aiding your student to learn the same. The best teachers are often the ones who struggled hardest to understand their subject matter, who spent a lot of time on it. This can be someone gifted, but it’s not the natural conclusion. Someone who naturally grasps the concepts and grasps the basics quickly enough that they’ve never needed to really think about it will have trouble explaining those same basics to someone else. This can lead to many frustrations for both parties, especially if this is the teacher’s first outing.

It’s important to start with recognizing that being good at fighting and being able to teach someone how to fight are actually two separate skill sets.

Being a teacher requires that you think about what you’re doing, how it works, how it functions, and then how accurately show someone else how to do it. It actually takes a fair amount of introspection and understanding. It, ironically compared to cultural perceptions, often makes you better at what discipline you practice. This is why at the higher stages of martial arts training, for example, students take on more responsibility and begin assisting their teachers then eventually teaching themselves. Having to sit down and actually explain it to someone else, to think about what you’re doing, and how you did it in a way that they can understand is important to improving yourself.

In helping others, we help ourselves.

This is just a lead in to me saying that just because this prince is good at fighting, it doesn’t mean he can teach or teach her well. There are many different kinds of combat, and his training may not be suited to what she’s looking to learn or needs to know. This is even more true if he’s physically gifted and she isn’t. For the genius, a technique that may be extremely complicated is exceedingly simple, they natively grasp the concept and their bodies can quickly adapt it into their repertoire. They may have also learned at an accelerated rate. Their learning experience being vastly different from someone on a more even keel. Even if he’s not gifted or he is and she is, they may not learn the same way and that requires him having to entirely restructure everything about his teaching methods to get the techniques across.

He’ll also be far more educated than she is which will make it more difficult to relate concepts to her if she doesn’t understand what the concept is. They come from very different beginning positions. He’ll have been primed for combat his entire life even before he began learning, while this may be a concept that’s just occurring to her. Someone raised in the lap of luxury has a different perspective than someone who grew up on the streets. More than that, unless he’s ornamental, a prince’s life is filled with responsibility, study, duties both political and governmental, with huge constraints on his time even if he’s just the second or third son.

Ruling is a job and the child of a ruler is one groomed from birth to take over that role. A prince that’s really good at combat but not likely to inherit the throne, for example, may be one being groomed to be their older brother’s general or Grand Marshal. The one who takes the reins in terms of military matters and national security, both internal and external.

Or if he’s got a lot of older brothers and no prospects, then he could be raised to be the family’s duelist or Champion. The one who fights in place of the King when another noble challenges a decision, royal decree, or personal slight.

Ultimately, the kind of teacher he is matters. The breath of his experience matters. Teachers aren’t all equal and teaching is a learning experience, just as much as the student’s training. If he’s never taught anyone before, if he expects everyone to come to it with the same background he did i.e. lots of personal tutors, if he doesn’t understand the difference between starting with nothing and starting with something, then she could be in for a very rough time.

Mentor/Student is very much a give and take. It’s setting boundaries. It’s building trust. There are a lot of ways to do that.

Even though you’re not writing from the Prince’s perspective, these are important questions to suss through and figure out. Your main character’s entire learning experience will be decided by what he does and what he knows. So it may be important to figure out what that is.

As for the first person learning perspective from the student’s POV.

You’re in for an easier road when the student knows nothing and writing from their point of view means that their teacher informs their entire learning experience.

Start slow and build your base.

One spends an entire lesson on stances, learning to stand, breathe, and balance their weight before they’re ever allowed to hold a sword. Then, they practice holding the sword, practicing their strikes. Single strikes, rather than combinations, with stances. Then, they practice their footwork separately. Single strikes are practiced together in conjunction with the footwork. Then, we move on to combinations putting footwork/strikes together into a flurry of movement with attack and defense. Practice alone, becoming used to no resistance. Then, practice with a partner. Then, practice with multiple partners to build experience.

Intersperse cardio. Stretches both before and after practice to keep the limbs loose. The character thinks about their training during the day, as they do their chores. Practicing their stances, locking their wrists, adjusting their fingers.

Safety first.

Depending on teaching style it could be confusing and “mysterious” with the teacher refusing to explain what’s going on. Or, they could explain the purpose.

The character will practice the same repetitious movements over and over again. It won’t be very exciting. They’ll leave training bruised and probably a little beaten. The teacher needs to balance the realities with hope for improvement. She will get better slowly, though due to a vast difference in both experience and expectations she may never be his equal.

Attack and defense are both necessary.

Every sword strike can lead to death.

The teacher will destroy preconceived notions.

Try not to make it so that they’re awesome at everything right away. Even the ones who can physically get it, it takes them time to really understand it. Also, a character who goes “oh! that’s easy!” will immediately be bumped into harder challenges.

They will be dumb in the beginning. All students are dumb in the beginning unless they’re not really beginners. That’s okay. Being slow, confused, and frustrated is part of being human.

Don’t forget the cardio. Training extends outside of class time. She must practice and consistently or else she’ll forget, she’ll have to learn all over again in the next class.

Some good training sequences:

Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small are very good to use for reference. Particularly Kel’s relationship with her maid Lalasa in the second novel Page, with Lalasa’s training being geared for female self-defense. Lalasa’s solutions such as practicing her stances during the day while she stands in line are excellent examples of a character consistently trying to learn.

Game of Thrones: Arya Stark training under Syrio Forel. Cat catching included. Why cat catching, you ask? It trains the reflexes and hand to eye coordination, also helps the trainee hone their stalker instincts. Plus, it doubles successfully as the teacher trolling.

The Mask of Zorro: I’ve mentioned Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins before, but the Mask of Zorro has one of my all time favorite training sequences. It combines humor and no small amount of sadism with some genuinely good advice while being highly entertaining at the same time.

Check out Matt Easton’s (Scholagladitoria) Channel

He has a lot of good training tips like his longsword training tips, footwork, small tutorials about different kinds of sword combat, and discussions on history plus the roles of various weapons.

If you can, honestly, look up your local HEMA chapters and fencing clubs. The only ones who can teach you how to teach sword combat are teachers who teach sword combat. It’s okay if you know nothing, most martial artists are more than happy to share knowledge with beginners. Take a class if you’ve the resources. It’ll help you a lot.


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My friend and I have a disagreement. She’s written a hand-to-hand sparring scene where the mc screws up and gets punched just below her eye, right across her cheekbone. The author says the blow makes her bleed. I argue that if the other fighter doesn’t have rings or scary fingernails or anything to cut skin, her character would just have a really excellent bruise/maybe black eye. Thoughts?

The knuckles will do it. Because of the way the bones of the knuckles are so close to the surface it can cut the cheekbone. The cheekbone can also cut the knuckles, creating an open wound and causing them to bleed. This is one of the main reasons why you never want to punch out a zombie, if the disease is transferable by blood.

So, no it’s not impossible. She’ll get the cut in addition to a very nice shiner and it will hurt like hell. It’ll swell too, get very puffy, and impede her vision out of that eye for a good long while. It’s also the kind of bruise you keep for a few weeks. So, she’ll be feeling the sting (haha) of failure for a while.

The real question here is: why are they allowing blows to the head? Why are their superiors allowing them to spar without any hand protection? This is the kind of injury you get in an actual fight, not really in a sparring match.

When you spar, you take steps to prevent these sorts of injuries from happening. Contrary to popular fiction, sparring is about testing your abilities within a controlled environment and doesn’t actually involve any intention of hurting your partner. No one should be going home with serious bruises. If they are, then it’s a failure on the part of everyone involved. Sparring is a training exercise and training is meant to teach, not break.

This isn’t to say one doesn’t get bruises when you’re sparring. You do. However, the injuries are very minor. Muscle aches, maybe a few small bruises that’ll stick around for three weeks, but not bruised ribs, pulled ligaments, cut knuckles, or any injury that leaves you seriously impaired. An impaired student is unable to train, if they are unable to train then they fall behind and might end up blowing their physical conditioning on the period it takes for recovery. You also negate the chance of greater injury with strict rules that reduce the chance of lesser injury.

There are certain sparring tests which are what we might conveniently term “balls out” such as graduation exams within certain special forces branches of the military, but those are singular instance and, again, under extremely vigilant supervision.

Too often, this sort of scene happens in fiction without any consequences. The assumption is that with “hardcore training” there are obviously going to be injuries. This is just not true. The more dangerous the training, the more precautions are taken because, again, you still want them present and learning tomorrow. This isn’t just a case of one student being at fault, both are, because the intensity has been pushed to a point where this occurs. The teacher as well if present (and especially if not).

I mean, if they’re not wearing any hand protection then I’m going guess they also aren’t using mouth guards (or cups if one of them is male). In which case, the hit to the face also risked: chipping teeth, losing teeth, cutting the inside of the mouth, splitting the lip, and biting off a piece of your own tongue. Not to mention the prospect of a concussion. Remember, it’s all fun and games until you’ve got to explain to your teacher why your mouth is full of blood.

So, while yes, your friend is right, she’s also wrong. Training accidents do happen, so these are just some things to think about.


Would it be probable that a character who is somewhat minimally trained could beat someone with a bit more training than them if the more trained person is cocky and lets their guard down? The scene I’m writing isn’t a battle scene exactly, it’s kind of a training type deal, and both characters are a part of a small rebel army and are in a practice duel situation.

It is certainly possible, but for the sequence to work, it’s going to depend heavily on several factors.

1) What the style that they are learning is.

The meaning behind “Slightly better trained” or having spent slightly longer training can change drastically based on which the style the characters are learning.

Not all martial arts and combat forms are created equal, each one is designed for a specific purpose, and like any form of technological advancement, it changes as it evolves. The police and the military both use eight week training courses in hand to hand that are designed so that the soldiers and the cops can pick the techniques up very quickly. These styles have a hard limit, because the students don’t have a lot of time to adjust to them. They learn what they need to know and move on. Soldiers who come out of these training programs end up fairly equal, for the most part but the difference between two trainees who are separated by a week or even just a day of training is drastic.

Some styles that are worth looking into: M.A.P. and CQB (US Military), CQC (US Police), Krav Maga (Israeli Defense Force), Systema and Sambo (Russian Special Forces).

Compare these to a styles to a combat art like Shotokan Karate or Taekwondo, where it can take years (if ever) to achieve any kind of real combat proficiency. Depending on the style, the belt ranking system, the school, and the instructor, two students with a single belt rank of difference like a brown belt versus a blue belt or a yellow belt versus a green belt can be fairly even. However, these styles are designed to be picked up at a much slower pace than military forces can allot time for. Now, many martial arts practitioners do end up stronger combatants in the long run (if they’ve been learning how to fight in the real world), but it takes a substantial time investment that works better for an individual than in a system where high turnover is necessary.

In short: it could happen, but that scenario is more likely to occur in a martial arts dojo than between two soldiers of different levels of training. It’s also fairly likely to happen between two soldiers who’ve both completed their training course and one has spent slightly more time in the field. Now, it can happen over the course of training, but you’re ultimately going to get more mileage out of characters who’ve come up together at the same time with one simply having been singled out as the “best” in the class. This way, instead of having to surmount an accelerated training course, the characters have to get over their own mental obstacles. Which brings us to number 2.

2) The mind plays a key role in victory or defeat

It’s important to remember that people aren’t machines or like characters in a video game. You can’t simply slot X allotment of powers onto them and expect them to perform at maximum capacity all the time. A belt ranking system in a martial arts dojo isn’t so much a sign post for how good a character is, but what they’ve learned, overcome, and accomplished in the course of their training. Depending on the school, a brown belt can defeat a lazy black belt if that black belt doesn’t continually put the work in to keep their skills sharp. If someone hits the top and just rests on their laurels, they’ll get taken by an up and comer assuming that we as the audience (in a story context) have seen the character putting the extra work in to get to that point. The other half is that the brown belt is going to have to work very, very hard to defeat the lazy black belt, simply on the grounds that the black belt knows so much more than they do.

A character can be off their game for any number of reasons and, ironically, most of those reasons don’t boil down to overconfidence. It could be bad news from home, the wife serving them with divorce papers an hour before the fight, strain from surviving their first battle out in the field, or what they witness during a time of war. It could even be something as simple as what they are and aren’t allowed to get away with in a training context. What someone is willing to do on the training floor against one of their buddies can be different from what they’ll do to a complete stranger on the battlefield.

The character with less training winning the duel is ultimately going to rest on how the other character is feeling that day, and on one other crucial bit:

3) Can the character take advantage of someone else’s mental state?

You never want to write a gimme, especially with a fight sequence. The duel between these two characters could set the stage for the rest of the book and regardless of who comes out on top, it should feel that the character earned the victory or, if done well, they don’t but it’s not from something they did. A character can win a fight but leave the audience unsatisfied, if that’s intentional and leaves the POV character unsatisfied as well then great, but if it’s unintentional then it’s a problem.

You’re going to walk a very thin line here because a better character being cocky and letting their guard down is cliche. Now, I’m not saying don’t do it. Cliche works for a reason, but you have to remember that it is and work extra hard to make sure it doesn’t feel like every other version of this fight I could find by just picking up a book off my shelf.

Ultimately, Character B wins X because Character C is a cocky asshole has been played to death. The Character B also feels like they’ve won on a technicality and not through anything they did. If they do win on a technicality, then that doesn’t really tell the audience anything or give them a reason to invest in the character. However, if Character B is shown working very hard to defeat cock asshole Character C and Character C loses because they assumed X about Character B, when B moved forward off that point, then the victory will be satisfactory to the audience. A character who works hard to win, who works hard to be more than they are, and who earns their victories is always more appealing in the long run than a character who is “just that good”.

You’ve got to balance them both, but an outside reason for victory is never as good as an internal one.