Hand to hand combat is all about strategy, tactics, improvisation, and making the most of basic body mechanics. Yes, basic body mechanics. I’ve talked before about how the hips lead the body and they do. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the legs, though each of the muscles has their place in making the body work. The hips are the guiding factor to creating momentum, the strength that comes from the pivot, the turning of the hips in conjunction with the upper and lower body to create force through movement. You create better results through conditioning the body and training your reflexes, but the limitations the body faces are its limitations.
So, what are the directions you can strike in without stepping?
Forwards: front kick, roundhouse, shin kick, straight punch, cross, backhand, hammer fist, etc. Most of the basic strikes with the hands go straight forwards, the elbow can also strike going forward by coming across in a circular motion to strike at the face or the neck.
Side to side (right or left): The primary strikes on a sideways vector are the sidekick and the elbow. (Michi Note: Erp. I forgot the backhand, sorry.)
Backwards: the back kick, the mule kick, and other variations striking backwards (or with the fighter’s back to the opponent). Again: the elbow. The elbow is most useful for striking enemies from behind in close quarters, especially an enemy who is reaching in to grab them in a bear hug. Please keep in mind that the elbow is a close-quarters strike only, check it yourself by bending your arm at the elbow and bringing it across in front of your face. That’s the distance your character will have to strike effectively with the elbow, the elbow is the strike used when you are too close to get the windup for a punch to be effective. (Michi Note: my Divergent irritations are showing again, sorry.) Because of limited movement backwards, (yes, surprise! the joints betray us), the elbow is one of the most effective strikes from this direction. Strikes backwards are usually low (to the stomach) because visibility is either bad or non-existent, so the fighter is working off instinct. The stomach is a large, easy, soft target to aim for. (It’s not uncommon in the grab, if the arms are left free for a fighter to reach back over their head for their opponent’s eyes. Eye gouging is a thing, guys.)
It seems pretty limited when you stop and think about it. Forward, back, left, or right. Much of hand to hand and even basic weapons combat is all about maneuvering your opponent onto a vector they can’t strike from, while the protagonist is still able to strike them. This is both why stepping is important (focus on the feet). Now, it’s also important to remember that their opponent won’t want to go that way and may not be easily led. This is why stepping to get on diagonals or out of the way is important.
Always keep track of which directions all your characters in a scene are facing, what they want, where they are going, and what they are doing. It can be hard to visualize this and keep track, so always go back and double check (even triple check) that you didn’t accidentally magically move your characters to a different place just because they need to get hit on that line. Make sure the reader knows how they got from point A to point B to point C in the scene, even if the fighting itself is confusing for the characters.