By popular demand, I’m putting up an article I wrote several years ago about writing fight scenes.
I hope this helps!
Some basics about death, violence and hand-to-hand combat for writers.
We all have something sacred to us that we hate to see butchered in books and movies. For my wife it’s horseback riding. She can’t stand a poor rider and loves Viggo Mortensen because of his horsemanship (okay, there are probably other reasons she loves him, but I won’t admit them). For me, it’s fight scenes.
I’ve been a martial arts student and teacher for twenty-nine years and have studied everything from the traditional combative arts (Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Hapkido, Silat) to ring sports (boxing, Muay Thai, Savate) to the peaceful arts that focus on self cultivation (Aikido, Tai Chi) to grappling and groundwork (Brazilian Jujitsu, Combat Submission Wrestling) to Filipino weaponry (Kali, Eskrima) to Bruce Lee’s blend of combat and philosophy (Jeet Kune Do). I love training, teaching learning, and creating with the martial arts and I love everything from cheesy Kung Fu movies to bar room brawls in westerns. There’s just something about a good fight scene that really seals the deal for me in a film or book.
So, you can imagine just how much I cringe when I run into a disappointing fight in a film or a book. Whether it’s a fight with no real motivation or one that has unbelievable techniques, or doesn’t make use of its setting, or is just plain boring, I regard bad fight scenes as one of the most heinous crimes in all of storytelling. And if I can help just one writer write one story that has better fight scenes, then I’ll sleep well tonight.
Let’s jump in and look at the uses of a good fight scene before we get into the particular techniques.
Motivation and Character Building
One of the saddest fight scenes is one that isn’t earned in the story or one that doesn’t make sense. This isn’t too common in books, but some of the martial arts genre films from both Hollywood and Asia fall into this trap. They give us one dimensional villains and heroes and then expect us to care who wins. I, for one, generally root for the villain in these cases.
But, if you can plant the seeds of discord early enough and deep enough in your story, the fight scene offers unparalleled visual and emotional opportunities to pay off dramatic tension in one of the most exciting, satisfying and primal ways known to readers and movie viewers anywhere.
To achieve this primal release, you must not only give your characters reasons to fight, but incorporate the fight itself into their character arcs. This is why revenge plots and stories about heroes who refuse to fight until they are forced at the very end are so popular. Without incorporating the fight into the character’s development, the violent act stands as an almost sociopathic occurrence in the story. Deep down, we need to feel consequences of such an act, even if the consequences are positive. To go without this change leaves our fight scene and our audience empty.
Believability – Planting the Skills
Not only do we need to give reasons for our characters to fight and need to show how it changes them, but we also need the way that they fight to make sense. One of the most disturbing occurrences in a bad fight scene is a character who inexplicably has an uncanny ability to fight and do supposedly cool looking martial artsy moves. On the other side of the coin, it’s just as annoying to see a formerly unbeatable villain suddenly do something really stupid or clumsy to give the obviously lesser hero a chance to win the day.
If they are going to fight like Bruce Lee, let us know how they got that way. Gang members, cops, even special forces soldiers know little about martial arts style fighting. Most people are better suited to picking up a garbage can and using it as a weapon than kicking someone in the head.
Which brings us to…
Using your environment – Going Hong Kong
Look at this from a film perspective. American movies are famous for the scene where the good guy gets trapped by a horde of baddies and…like a freakin’ idiot, the good guy just stays there and fights them all.
Don’t write that scene. It’s tired, it’s overdone, it needs a really long rest.
Instead, just watch one Jackie Chan movie…any Jackie Chan movie. Watch how he gets trapped by the horde of bad guys and tries to get the hell out of there. The fight moves from one location to another, with more and more mayhem at every turn. The location becomes a character that your heroes and villains can interact with. Remember that every prop in your story is something that can be used as a weapon or shield. One game an old teacher of mine would play was to spot how many objects at Chinese restaurants could easily be used as weapons.
Try it, you’ll be surprised, and it will probably give you some fresh story ideas.
I’m gonna make a request here, actually two requests and they both have to do with knife fighting. Never have a character do an X block against a stab and never ever have a character kick a knife out the attacker’s hand.
The X block (wrists crossed to stop an attack between them) is something from traditional martial arts like Tae Kwon Do and Karate. It’s an incredibly slow move that depends on a rather fixed posture being able to stop a knife attack. The problem is that knife fights are about speed and fluidity. If the attacker has ever picked up a knife before, they know that quick movements with the knife produce more damage than big, obvious stabs and that when their attack is stopped by an X block, they can easily flow through the block and slash away at the defenders arms and body.
As for kicking a knife out of someone’s grip…I talk about this with my Kali students occasionally and every time I do, I repeat the same line. I tell them that if I see them kick a knife out of someone’s hand, I will pick up the knife and stab them myself.
It’s that bad of an idea.
There’s a maxim in the martial arts that your hands are five times faster than your legs and that your legs are five times as strong. If you’ve ever been kicked, you’ll see there’s some wisdom to it, and this saying reveals the problem with kicking a knife out of someone’s hands. The legs are just too slow. Imagine that you are the bad guy and the hero is doing that same old crescent kick (the one that comes up in an arc and hits with the outside of the foot) to smack the knife out of your hand. Will you just leave your hand there to be kicked? No! Just move your wrist a few inches and turn their foot into steak tartar with your blade as they try to kick you. They deserve it!
If you want your characters to do the wrong thing in a fight, have them do those moves, and have them pay for it. Have the other character be smart enough to whip around these slow counters and cut them up.
In other areas of defense, it’s important to think of two main concepts: meeting the force and passing the force.
Meeting the force is any block or counter that tries to stop the attack head to head or covers up the target to take the hit with another body part like the arm or leg. This is what many martial artists call a hard style block and it’s useful for a character who is focused and motivated to get from point A to point B in a fight as quickly and directly as possible. Muay Thai and Kyokushin Karate are some of the most aggressive hard styles.
Passing the force is thought of as a soft style response to an attack and it generally redirects the opponents force. Aikido and Tai Chi are great examples of soft styles. This type of response is much more fluid and fits a character who is less interested in harming the villain.
One last thing to remember about defense is that it’s very natural, much more natural than attacking. People will tend to go on defense in a fight and the most common defensive reaction is to turn your back on the attacker and cover or turtle up. Just imagine the consequences of this defense against a motivated villain. The defender is completely vulnerable in this position. That’s why martial arts spend a lot of time drilling in better responses to attacks.
The basic fist fight
Block, punch, bad guy goes down and the fight’s over. How many westerns and classic black and white movie fight scenes worked this way? More than I can count.
How many real fights work this way? Not nearly so many.
The thing to remember about fist fights is that the bones of the hand are pretty small, and while a huge bad guy can throw his fist pretty damned hard, those bones tend to break when slamming full force into someone’s skull.
Don’t get me wrong, it hurts plenty to get punched. And a heavy shot can really make the world go dark, fill your ears with the roar of the ocean and make the room spin too fast to stand up straight. But, remember motivation. If your character wants something bad enough, he will take an amazing amount of punishment to get it.
All that aside, here are a few techniques to add some authority to your fist fights and boxing scenes.
The jab is the lead hand straight punch. It can be light and fast…a jab that probes, or a heavier jab that is meant to do some damage. But the jab will never equal the power of the rear hand punch.
The cross is the rear hand straight punch, and because of the way that the torso turns and the body unloads, the cross has an extra eight to ten inches of reach. Seriously. If we’re fighting and I can barely reach your nose with my jab, then my cross will reach the back of your skull, even though it’s my rear hand. This difference in reach translates directly into more power. So, not only can I hit you from farther away with my rear hand, but I can hit a lot harder.
The next most common punch is the hook, which aims for the side (or ear) instead of the front of the target like the jab and cross. A well thrown hook that uses the power of the body and leg is one of the heaviest punches you can throw. The hook is usually thrown in tight with the elbow bent ninety degrees, but if the character throws from farther out with a straighter arm, it’s a haymaker.
A cousin of the cross is the overhand, which tends to be a bit slower, but comes down onto the face at a vicious angle. This punch is also good for sneaking over a defender’s hands.
The key to any good punch is transfer of power, and this comes from the feet and the knees. A character can’t throw a good punch with feet planted (sorry traditional martial artists!). But when the character rotates from the ground up, turning on the ball of the foot, twisting the knee in and down, then power launches out from the whole body instead of just the arm.
Don’t forget that most people generally go to a boxing style lead in a fight with the strong hand back. This tends to provide more power for the rear hand. And, if any amateur Jeet Kune Do student tells you that Bruce Lee fought with his strong side forward, tell them that Bruce changed to weak side forward after studying Muhammad Ali.
Remember we talked about kicking someone in the head earlier? Don’t. It’s a great way to lose your balance, and it takes power away from the kick. The most powerful kicks are aimed at the waist or lower.
Kicking is the area where Tae Kwon Do students love to take all the credit, but don’t forget that they are the ones who are all for kicking knives out of people’s hands. For a little variety, do some research on Muay Thai or Savate. Heck, if you want some really weird kicking, check out Silat. This Indonesian art incorporates a great amount of trips and sweeps into its kicking.
When it comes to kicking, try to stay away from it unless your characters are full blown martial arts weirdos. Most people are better suited to stomping and to throwing the occasional knee to the groin than to whipping their foot out at light speed.
And, when it comes to kicking with the feet, those toes break really easily, trust me! Plus, a hard round kick with the top of the foot is a near guarantee for a sprained ankle. Muay Thai uses the shin as the primary weapon for its round kick, and it makes for a formidable kick. But even the shin can break, and any of those injuries can hobble your character for weeks or months.
Kicks generally come in two directions, straight in and around.
The round kicks can hit with toes, the ball of the foot, the sole of the shoe, or the shin, and can snap out quickly or swing from the hip like a baseball bat, but they all follow the same circular arc to their target. Savate round kicks are like jabs that can reach around an opponent’s defense and ping in at the back of their head and Muay Thai round kicks are like sledgehammer hits that deaden nerves and can make someone throw up just from the rush of pain.
Straight kicks can be thrown with the toes pointed up or to the side. When the toes are up, we call it a push kick, or if it snaps, a front snap kick. When the toes are to the side, it’s called a side kick. These kicks can be focused on snapping, piercing, stomping or just for pushing and gaining distance. The biggest target for any of these kicks is the groin or midsection.
Are there other types of kicks? You bet! Martial artists have come up with as many strange ways of kicking as there are shapes of snowflakes. There are crescent kicks, axe kicks, spinning kicks, tornado kicks, jumping kicks…the list goes on and on. But how many do you really need to write a vivid, engaging fight scene? Probably none of them.
Going to the Ground
Remember that exciting fight scene at the end of Lethal Weapon? Yeah, I don’t either. Why not? Probably because they spent a lot of time rolling around on the ground and the fight ended with a triangle choke (which uses the legs to choke an opponent).
Most readers and viewers still regard groundwork as slow and uninteresting, which is unfortunate, but is also pretty true. Grappling and groundwork is a nuanced area of fighting that doesn’t translate as well to the page or screen as a stand-up fight. But there are a few things you need to know.
Takedowns are the start of any fight on the ground and they are something that our wrestling and UFC raised audiences can appreciate. The most dynamic and visual take down is probably the high double leg. This takedown is like a bear hug where the arms grab around the top of the defender’s thighs and the attacker uses the power in his legs to lift the opponent up into the air and then promptly slam them down into the floor, coffee table or through a conveniently located piece of sheet glass.
Another fairly popular throw in movies is a small joint (it attacks small joints instead of large ones like the legs) throw, the wrist lock throw. In this one, the attacker grabs the meat of the opponent’s thumb with a mismatched hand (right to left) and then applies pressure in an upward and circular motion to the back of the opponent’s hand to throw them. Done with speed and force (and with a really good stunt man) the opponent’s legs will sail through the air as they cartwheel through the fall. This looks cool on the big screen, but it is very hard to translate to a scene in a book.
After the takedown, the fight can go into the aforementioned stomping, or into other quick ways of doing something nasty to the opponent. We’ll get to choking in a moment, but first, we need to mention Sambo.
Sambo is a Russian battlefield art that focuses on breaking limbs. The theory behind it is that if you break one man’s leg, two of his compatriots will be forced to carry him away and three soldiers will be taken off the field of battle. Good theory in a very nasty sort of way, and the art is particularly effective. The most famous Sambo move is a knee break where the attacker tightly hugs the opponent’s ankle up by their own ear, with their leg’s wrapped around the thigh of the opponent, securing it. This puts the opponent’s kneecap right up against the attacker’s belly button. With a forceful thrust of the hips and arching of the back the knee hyper-extends. Snap. Ow!
But, the grappling range attack that we are most familiar with is the choke. Right off the bat, forget the old school Frankenstein choke that uses the hands with both arms extended. It’s just too easy to get out of.
Instead, if someone has to get choked in your story, go for the rear naked. The rear naked choke is a blood choke (cuts off blood supply instead of air) that traps the opponent’s neck between the biceps and forearm. The attacker stabilizes the choking arm by grabbing the biceps of the free arm with the choking hand. Amateurs try to apply this choke by squeezing the arms, but the pros know that the real power is from the muscles of the back. Once the choke is in position, the attacker simply shrugs or rows the shoulder blades together. The opponent will struggle violently for about five or six seconds and then go limp. The choke can be let go then and the opponent will wake up with a headache, or it can be kept on, with obvious results.
Just one thing to remember about the rear naked choke…there is no snapping noise! Nothing breaks, they just pass out. If the choker is nice, then the chokie gets a chance to wake up.
Sticks, Swords and Knives
This is where things get wild. With an incredible array of weapons out there, it’s important to focus on the different facets of the style of attack. With any bladed weapon, there are two basic methods of attack, slashing and stabbing. That said, some types of blades are made much more for one than the other.
An easy rule to judge this is to focus on how curved the blade is. A straight blade, like a stiletto or rapier, is used primarily for stabbing and piercing. Only the very tip is good for slashing, so it isn’t very effective for any attack other than stabs. On the other hand, a knife or sword with a long curve, a scimitar for example, is no good for stabbing but its broad cutting surface is ideally suited for slashing things open and making deep cuts.
Here’s an odd but important tidbit…what’s the single most influencing factor on the development of a martial arts system (in this case a knife fighting system)? It’s probably not what you think. It’s the weather of the location where the art is developed. In colder climates, people wear layers of heavy clothing and slashes have a hard time getting through to skin and vital organs, but stabs pierce through. In hot climates, bare skin is much more accessible, so the devastating damage of slashes comes into play. Where is your character from? That will tell you how they use a knife or sword.
Now, add the character element to these slashes and stabs. Is your character an enraged barbarian type? Then don’t make them move with a lot of finesse and quick darting strikes. Instead, let them smash or hack away repeatedly with the same strike over and over and over again. Think of Conan or Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi. But, if your character is on the cunning and crafty side, they won’t take the barbarian’s route; they’ll move quicker, be more precise, and will probably have a smaller weapon.
With all of that in mind, the most fundamental way to improve your weapons fight scenes is to talk about targets and the best ways to do damage.
Everybody who’s seen a gory movie knows about the arteries in the throat. It’s a prime target in films and with good reason. There is a lot of stuff in there that calls for gallons of fake blood to spurt out of hidden tubes. You can slash the neck, stab it, and the results are always gruesome. In books, authors love to talk about blood pulsing out of arteries, and here is where most of that would happen.
But, let’s not forget some equally deadly targets.
One of the least known targets for a bladed attack is the femoral artery. The location of the femoral artery is in the inside of the thigh, near the groin. The femoral carries blood for the leg and is a major blood vessel. Plus, it’s under tension. This taut artery, if severed, will snap deep into the leg on both sides of the cut. There’s no tourniquet or pressure bandage that will save the victim from bleeding to death. There’s a scene in Black Hawk Down where they try to save a guy who had this artery severed. It’s gruesome and accurate…and the guy doesn’t make it.
In the torso, slashes or stabs to the gut can be equally effective attacks. A deep slash can open up a spilling wound, while a stab, especially one that is directed upward through the diaphragm into the lungs or heart is another show stopper.
In terms of defense, knife disarms are notoriously tricky and difficult to pull off. Save those for your martial arts-experts characters. The old fashioned struggle for control of the knife is generally good to fall back on, but there are things you can do to show that your character has a few working brain cells.
Remember the finale of Saving Private Ryan where the German soldier is pushing down on the knife while the American soldier, on his back, is trying to push the knife up. In that case, gravity and the German won, but there is a simple solution for that situation or any knife struggle…leverage.
This is a little known secret that not many martial artists study. We call them stab-backs. The basic idea is that in an encounter where both people are struggling for control of the attacker’s knife, all the defender has to really do is to place the flat of the blade against his forearm (he might get a tiny cut from the pressure of his arm against the side of the blade, but it’s very minor) and then use this very strong lever to redirect the point of the blade back into the attacker. This is bizarrely easy to do and because of the force of the leverage, a weaker defender can redirect a knife held by a much stronger or bigger attacker.
If you’re in a CSI kind of mood, here’s a tidbit about stab-backs. The defender never touches the handle of the attacker’s blade. No finger prints anywhere.
One final note about weapons and knives in particular. I have students who think that knowing dozens of leg breaks is the height of coolness, but they get squeamish at the thought of training with the knife. Bladed weapons have a visceral quality that hits us in our subconscious. We know, deep within our most primitive selves, that being cut or stabbed is a very bad thing, so use knives judiciously in your stories. Take time to show the threat, and the payoff will be a big one.
Be Careful Who You Talk To
Martial artists are notorious for being closed minded. Traditional martial arts students are taught that their art is the only art worth practicing and if you consult them on your fight scenes, they may not recognize a particular technique or strategy that you are describing and will pass judgment on it without understanding.
This is similar advice to what I tell self defense students. I tell them to be cautious who they practice techniques with as it takes some time to build competency and confidence in how a technique works. If they practice with someone who isn’t a good partner, a very viable technique can come across as useless because the partner resists too much, when all the student needs is more practice time to learn the nuances and to build the muscles and timing to pull it off.
So, don’t necessarily rush off to your black belt friends with your new fight scenes. Better to practice on your own, review them, and then find a reader who’s never put on a starchy white uniform and jumped around in their bare feet to review your story. Ask this reader to review your fights for clarity and see if they find them understandable, vivid and exciting.
And once you have that, a fight scene that is clear, vivid and exciting, you’ve got a great new way to add some, uh…punch…to your stories.