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Before I hit the tactics, I want to share this most marvelous video by Karate Culture on the grappling techniques within traditional Okinawan kata. If you’ve read my articles for awhile, you’ll know I’m not a fan of teaching throws as a universal self-defense technique because their application is limited mostly to people who are quite able-bodied, well-trained, and being targeted by a single attacker. That doesn’t mean I don’t like, train, teach, and use grappling! Just check out the awesomeness of that video. You won’t regret it.
1. Applying good craft to writing fight scenes is 95% of the battle.
Grammar is about writing well and properly—a necessary skill if we want readers to sink into our stories rather than decipher odd and misleading sentence constructions.
But storytelling? That’s the craft I’m talking about.
You understand how to structure a scene, describe a new setting, and define a character’s role in the secondary world you’ve created. You know how to portray a character’s stroll through the prison yard or verbal argument in the mess hall. You’ve shown the joy they feel partaking in gardening, the intrigue of hunting for secrets in a library, the fear of creeping through a forest on a moonless night, the simple process of walking from personal lodgings to, say, the riverfront.
You successfully write action as part of building plot and character.
Fight scenes are no different. Really, truly, my darlings, they are no different.
The fight scene isn’t something separate from the story itself, no more than describing setting or revealing backstory or creating the dialog of an argument is a break from forward action. Apply the same tools of craft you use everywhere else.
2. Communicating combat principles is more important than relaying combat details.
I’m certain someone will ping me for saying so, but it’s true.
The make and model and emissions output and towing capability and average heat generation and speaker alignment are the most important elements of a car chase, right? Or maybe it’s the composition of the road’s asphalt, angles of the corners, temperature of the tires, and the history of road construction that readers most want to know about while the bad guy speeds away, yes?
Oh, please, no. While all those things will impact a car chase, rare is the reader who wants to have all those elements related in detail in the midst of a car chase as if they must soon solve a word problem based on the available listed data.
Do you want me to tell you how the materials of the tires interact with the hot pavement on that Texas road? Or do you want me to describe how the stink of burned rubber and smoke made me grit my teeth and squint as I chased after the murderer who knew the Texas backroads better than I ever would?
Don’t get mired in step-by-step instructionals on body positions and fist trajectory. Use instead the principles of fighting. Speed, mass, leverage, and momentum. Pain, focus, struggle, and fear. Expectation and surprise. Determination and exhaustion. Landing the punch is damned important, but the consequence of the punch and the reason it was thrown is what moves character and story forward.
Besides, a reader shouldn’t need to pull out a slew of action figures to envision what’s actually happening. (On the other hand, you might need those action figures, depending on the complexity of the fight. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve staged stuffed animals on my office floor to keep track of things. A little sheepish, maybe, but not ashamed.)
3. Do not mistake sport fighting and performance fighting for actual fighting.
The past few decades have seen an incredible rise in tournament martial arts, particularly for children. As a result, a great many martial arts schools teach primarily techniques with an emphasis on strikes and kicks that will score points, and discourage, through penalties and punishments, techniques intended to end a fight quickly by seriously injuring your opponent.
These rules are appropriate for the setting. Few parents want to see their middle school child get her throat smashed in and her knee dislocated. But the rules have consequences when the distinction between sport-centered training and fight-centered training is smudged over student-teacher generations. In a high-pressure hurt-or-be-hurt confrontation, those students won’t go for the fight-ending attacks unless they have been trained to fight in non-tournament settings.
There is also an entire tournament track for martial arts weapons performance, some of which involve setting routines to music. There are staffs and swords twirled and tossed, or nunchaku whirled in tight circles around the body, and there are often jump-kicks and back-flips thrown in for flash and dash. These have as much to do with the act of fighting as rifle drill teams do with shooting, or majorettes do with stick-fighting.
Yes, they all take skill and have roots in combat training, but no soldier is going to start twirling and tossing his gun in the middle of a fight. And critical and high-stakes fight scenes shouldn’t read like a retelling of a tournament.
When characters fight to prove ability or dominance, sparring techniques and targets are appropriate, just as it’s considered appropriate to punch a person playing grab-ass without consent but not considered appropriate to carve out the person’s windpipe.
But a trained fighter trying to avoid being killed won’t expend a bunch of time tagging the villain’s jaw and punching to the gut. Knuckles to the throat work much more quickly. Fight scenes shouldn’t be one-blow affairs, but a person fighting for life itself is highly motivated to keep trying to make it so.
Indiana Jones opted out of using his whip to defeat the sword-spinning man in the marketplace. And Han shot first. Smart characters.
4. The most interesting fights focus on revealing weaknesses, not forcing greater strength.
I never much liked watching sport fighting. It all looked like little more than two people bashing on each other until one just couldn’t take it anymore. Then I learned what went into a fight—angles, footwork, targeting, drills done so often the body moved without hesitation, experience that turned those base reactions into flowing responses—and realized brute strength was the lesser power in comparison.
Such it is with writing the fight scene.
We like to watch the protagonist find the strength—of body, of will, of heart—to drag herself to her feet one… last… time… to take down the villain with a final, all-encompassing blow. We cheer the grit, the perseverance, the determination, the spirit of well-earned triumph. The final battle! The climax! The victory over self and enemy!
But the truth is, the protagonist wins because she also finds, attacks, and exploits the villain’s weakness—just as the villain has done to her all along. Rather than expend all your writerly energy building up the protagonist to impossible levels of power and strength, invest it knowing too the villain’s weaknesses.
What the characters choose to do with each others’ weaknesses usually creates greater depth than forging a bigger, badder weapon.
A battle of power against power requires constant escalation, and that stops being interesting after awhile. Searching out and evaluating weaknesses is a twisty, curvy process of surprises and unpredictability. It happens quickly in hand-to-hand combat, to be sure, but it happens nonetheless.
(This is applicable to plots, too, btw.)
5. Know the expectations of your target audience.
This is where all the possible nuances of advice items #2 and #3 come into play.
Readers of different subgenres hold unique expectations of how worldbuilding or technology or character emotions should be presented, explored, and emphasized. The same goes for rendering fights and action. It isn’t a matter of one subgenre wanting more or less of a fight than another. Rather, readers expect different aspects of a fight to play greater or lesser roles in the narrative.
A paranormal romance reader wants a fight scene that is just as well written as a military SF reader does, but wants different pieces of that fight to receive more attention.
The differences expose why one reader bounces off a flashy, drawn-out fight scene that other readers rave about, or finds depth and realism in a fight scene that seems to have little physical description amidst a great deal of emotional reactions. And that understanding circles back up to the first point: fight scenes require the same considerations of craft as any other part of the writing process. Know what your readers expect from your action scenes, and construct them accordingly.
Questions? Comments? Disagreements? All are welcome!