Left, Downward Hammer Fist – Right Side Shoulder Pin,What?!

Godzilla cannot defeat my Karate!

Writing kata is hard.  Even when it’s for a manual and you know the readers will be able to follow technical terms like Lunging Reverse Punch, Parry Block, or Lunging Flying Push Kick writing out an entire kata generally results in a confused jumble of nonsense.  Even simple techniques become confusing when written down like, Right Sword Arm Block, Step Left into Reverse Front Stance, Left Palm Heel Strike.  Now imagine how difficult it is to write a realistic fight scene for all of the people who are looking at the above terms and scratching their heads.

‘Good’ fight scenes are fairly rare in the first place, and they are generally either 1) very vague…”Harold swung his sword wide, cutting into the other man.” Or 2) ridiculous…”Kellen swung around his horse’s neck, kicking a charging Orc with both feet, and riding it to the ground.  As the Orc hit Kellen leaped clear and flipped in the air, bringing his sword down on a second Orc’s helm.”  Yeah, I’m guessing you see my point…where did that sword come from again?  I’ve read a lot of fight scenes and most are confusing, or impossible.  A few are plausible, and some are even impressive.  However, what I’m most impressed by is reading a fight scene that is not only cool, impressive, and understandable, but realistic.  This doesn’t happen very often, although one I can think of off the top of my head is near the end of Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters.  Erikson has a fairly good feel for fight scenes and, while some are questionable, he has some that are excellent.  Another author that has some good fight scenes is Michael A. Stackpole.

Now I’m not going to claim to be an expert at writing fight scenes.  Generally I struggle with them quite a bit.  However, I have learned a few things from all my struggles.  One, I hate vague fight scenes.  I’m a martial artist.  I want to be able to envision what is going on, and sentences like, “He bounced back and forth between them, swatting with a cane” really mean nothing.  Two, sometimes vague is necessary.  In fact vague is usually necessary to some degree because, unless your fight scene is very short, writing the whole thing out gets increasingly technical and confusing.  While I hate vague, for a good fight scene you have to intersperse vague with detailed to give your audience a feeling of immediacy.  If your fight scene drags on for pages then it feels like the fight is moving very slowly.  I’ve turned a 45 second exchange into something that felt (reading it) like it took closer to an hour.  That’s something you want to avoid.

I swear, I didn't mean to...whaaah!

Three, don’t get technical.  While I truly wish that everyone in the world could understand the sentence, “Then Hiram executed a reverse back fist, stepping forward into a back stance, and followed through with a powerful hook kick to the ribs,” most people people are going to scratch their heads and say, ‘well that sounds cool?’ A better way to phrase it might be, “Hiram threw a powerful punch and then stepped in.  Allowing his weight to settle on his rear leg he lifted the other to the side and whipped it at the knee, driving his foot into his opponent’s ribs.”  While far from perfect this is, at least, somewhat more descriptive, and maybe a little bit easier to understand if you don’t know what a reverse punch, back stance, or hook kick are.

Four, don’t get ridiculous.  Kellen swinging around his horse’s neck to kick an Orc is ridiculous.  Simply from a tactical point of view being mounted is an advantage.  Even if it wasn’t, swinging around a horse’s neck to kick a charging (presumably armed) Orc is a good way to get your feet chopped off or your ribs broken.  If you manage this feat without killing yourself, riding the Orc to the ground is pretty reasonable, but then flipping off of it is not.  If you were going to do anything you would stand, if you couldn’t stand you would roll, but executing a flip from a kneeling position on a falling Orc…well…yeah.  Even assuming that Kellen was standing, not the first thing I assume when I read ‘rode it to the ground’…still…yeah.  You get my point.  Think about what you’re writing, not just about what’s technically feasible but about what is practical, and likely.  Sure some martial arts use a lot of acrobatics (Capoiera for example), others don’t.  Don’t write something just because you feel like it’s impressive or someone like me will point out that it was a really stupid thing for the character to do.  If you want to write something impressive then make sure it fits.  For instance, a lot of jumping around, flipping, and general non-sense from a Capoiera fighter would make perfect sense.

If you do want to write something impressive then make sure it fits with the martial style your character is using…to do that you have to know what martial style your character is using.  For instance, in Star Wars lightsaber fighting seems awesome…until you realize that all these people are swinging around three foot long laser beams with no hilt guards and not losing their hands.  I was able to fool myself into assuming that it was some kind of courtesy that they didn’t just whack off hands left and right until that stupid scene in Revenge of the Sith.  Of course, it’s just as important to avoid not writing things that are possible because you can’t believe them.  For instance, men can splinter, chip, and even break rocks with their bare hands.  A few days ago I watched a Korean fighter break a dozen pieces of marble with one strike on this program.  People can do some pretty incredible, unbelievable things.  The key is to make it believable that the character would do it, not so much that they could do it.

Told ya.

So, to put my money where my big, fat mouth is, here is a short scene from a story I wrote the other day.  I think it’s a decent fight scene.  Maybe not great, but good…but then, I’ll let you decide.

“When the announcer finally cried for the fight to begin Gao Ju Bei began to circle cautiously.  It was obvious that he did not know what to make of Bi’s relaxed pose.  Bi did not move to counter him.  Finally, opting for the honorable course, Bei circled back around to face his opponent and then charged in with a low kick to the knee, a swift fist close on its heels.  With a speed that belied his apparent relaxation Mao Yu Bi stomped forward with one foot, launching himself into a high barrel roll.  As his body extended horizontally over Bei’s arm the Demon lashed out with a strike to the man’s forehead that sent him reeling for a moment, and under his breath Bi muttered “Demon Strikes the Sun.”  A blissful smile spread across his face.  The Demon landed in a crouch and spun, sweeping his leg across where Bei’s knees had been a moment before, but the other fighter leaped over the sweep and Mao Yu Bi barely rolled back in time to avoid the descending knee that splintered the jade where it struck.

The crowd watched in silent amazement as the two men fought.  Though the Demon obviously had the upper hand, landing one or two strikes for every dozen he threw, while Bei’s attacks were always narrowly avoided.  The powerful attacks of the Gao Ju Bei’s Dragon Style splintered the jade platform again and again, but what truly kept the fans silent were the spinning, arcing, graceful movements of the Demon, his weariness having dissipated as the fight drew on.  It was unlike anything they had seen before.  At times the man seemed to defy gravity, hanging in the air with his legs pointed towards the sky as he leapt over another of Bei’s attacks.  Other times he seemed to almost disappear into the jade platform as he rolled, tumbled, and flattened himself against its surface.

Barrel Roll

That day Mao Yu Bi earned his title before an audience of thousands.  Finally, Bei began to slow.  A mask of determination drew down over the champion’s heavy features and he settled into a low stance, knees and feet wide apart as if he was riding a horse.  He drew in a deep breath and roared.  The sound sent a shockwave of energy across the platform and the fans in the front row across from Bei were pushed backwards, many of them falling off the bench completely.  Recognizing the Dragon’s Roar the Demon dove forwards.  He could feel the shockwaves course over him as he rolled, but then he was past it, beside Bei.  The Demon came up on one knee next to Bei and spun.  Then, hooking an elbow around Bei’s knee the Demon launched himself forward into a roll, pushing Bei’s leg before him causing the man to fall.  The Demon rolled over Bei’s leg and back and landed an elbow against the back of the man’s neck as he hit the ground.  The elbow connected with crunch and Bei did not move.”

You can see that Mao Yu Bi is using a distinct style of combat; one that incorporates a lot of movement, both aerial acrobatics and tumbling.  You can also see that Gao Ju Bei also has a distinct style; one that is much more straight forward.  I believe that I can get away with some things, like Mao Yu Bi’s barrel roll attack, because of the way that his style is described, and shown, throughout the scene.  You will also notice that I move back and forth between vague description and specific detail.  I think…well, I hope that this gives the fight both a sense of realism and a sense of speed.

I’ve tried not to get too technical in this scene, but that is one of the things I’m still a little worried about (…that’s why I put a picture of a barrel roll in the post…shh…).  I’ve thought both fighting styles through so I know what they look like.  I know the attacks that the fighters are likely to use, the way they defend themselves.  I even threw in a little bit of magic.  I hope this helps you as you’re writing your own fight scenes.  And I will get back to the Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts series eventually…I promise.


About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on June 25, 2011, in Plot, Style and Structure, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I think that’s a good fight scene; it accomplishes what you set out to do cleanly and fairly logically. I have no knowledge of any martial art, and the scene made sense to me.

    But do you have any advice for writers, like myself, who may find the need to write a fight scene–or possibly several–but lack the firsthand knowledge? Research into a martial art will only get me so far if I haven’t practiced it myself. Granted, I don’t yet have any characters who know modern martial arts — so far my characters with combat experience are medieval — but still. My tendency would be to be vague about most specific moves, but for a couple that are especially significant, and instead to focus on the emotions and basic strategies of the combatants.

    • Well, my first suggestion is to begin practicing the martial art that you are planning to write. For instance, if you are writing European, Medieval fiction then you could join up with the SCA and learn some of their fighting skills. One mistake that we often make is assuming that Martial Arts are an East Asian thing. Every culture in the history of the world has martial arts.

      If that isn’t feasible then my second suggestion is to read and watch as much about your preferred martial culture as you can. History channel has some great shows on martial arts from around the world. You could also try digging through some historical manuals, it’s best to find something from the approximate time period. For instance if I am writing something based, even loosely, on the culture of 1st or 2nd century China then Sun Tzu’s The Art of War would be helpful.

      Lastly, you need to think about what you’re looking for. Do you want an action oriented fight scene? Do you want to express the emotions of the fighters? Do you want to show a fight scene that is exciting, depressing, horrifying, or enlightening? All of these are possible, but not necessarily together. All of these are useful, but again, not necessarily together.

      The fight scene above is part of a short story about a martial arts tournament. One of the things I wanted to do was bring out both the excitement and the casual brutality of such a tournament. I wanted the scene to be exciting, but also a little bit disturbing. I wanted to show both that it was a fight with two very skilled participants, but that Mao Yu Bi was obviously the superior of the two.

      If, however, I had wanted to show Bi’s determination and focus, or perhaps a fight that was short and brutal where one participant was obviously more skilled than the other I would have written it differently.

      For those of you, like you, who have little experience with the martial arts, writing fight scenes is a little bit harder. I really do suggest you get at least a little experience. However, you can also get away with being fairly vague in most cases. The majority of readers don’t practice martial arts and probably won’t miss the details. Besides that, focus on other aspects of the fight. The emotions of the fighters, their thoughts, the details of the battlefield itself.

      You should also try to keep fight scenes fairly rare. This is for two reasons. 1) If you aren’t confident in writing fight scenes then you need to refrain from it unless it is necessary. 2) A good fight scene can be very emotionally powerful. It’s the kind of thing that can easily overwhelm your readers. If you have intense fight scenes repeatedly you will wind up wearing your readers out. Hope this helps.

      • It does help, even as it confirms what I would have charted as the best course for myself. Thanks.

        I’ve considered the SCA, and may investigate it more.

  2. One important thing to think about before writing a fight seen is WHY you’re writing it. Are you trying to convey the balance of power between opponents (easy victory, even match, desperate struggle)? If so, a general summary of the battle may suffice. Are you trying to explain damage seen later in the story (broken arm, lost eye, destroyed city)? If so, you may want to be vague about most things, but key in on a couple detail blows and exchanges. Are you trying to engage the reader in a physical, visceral manner (‘He lunged suddenly at the elf, only to find the elf’s fist sinking deep into his stomach…’)?

    Noothergods seems to be talking about the latter. The next questions then are:
    1.) What am I capable of writing?
    2.) What does my target audience want to read?

    Noothergods’ fight scene was very good. He obviously knows about martial arts (not that that needs to be established) and knows how to write it well. I could not only follow it (not being experienced in martial arts), but I rather enjoyed it. That being said, a book full of that kind of writing wouldn’t stay on my shelf long. It’s not the kind of thing I want to read, even if it’s well writen. While I think it’s safe to say I’m not his target audience, if I were, he may want to re-think how he’s written the fight.

    If he were writing to me as an audience, I’d want him to provide either very few fights or much less detail. Someone else may want him to provide lots of graphic details at every opportunity. Some people even enjoy the wildly outlandish fights where, if any laws of nature or reason were applied, you’d expect the combatants to all come out with no hands and few legs.

    • I have to admit that I’ve always rather enjoyed the stylized Kung Fu fight scenes where the combatants are leaping around on swaying treetops and bouncing off of rivers. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a good example of this sort of fight scene, as is Hero.

    • Thanks for the input, Colin! It is always key to know your audience in writing and to make sure that the elements most important to your readers are in the spotlight. Making sure your fight scenes serve that purpose is just as important as everything else that goes into your story.

      I think a good contrast to the level of detail in combat that Kyle has given us would be the fight scenes typically found in murder mysteries. There is usually not much detail regarding the moves and attacks (especially if its a firefight, obviously), and instead the scene focuses on the interaction of the characters: their fear, their desperation, their anger, etc. Any descriptions are filtered through those emotions, and the fight itself serves mainly as a vehicle for that conflict, rather than as a spectacle in itself.

      • Actually, I love the fight scenes in the Discworld series, which are typically just what you described. The focus is less on the actions and more on the characters, but in those stories the characters are the key to everything, so it fits in perfectly.

  3. Good points, Kyle! I like this scene for its balanced level of detail (and its lack of defensive crouching ;D), but I also like the way in which you integrate the audience and the fighters’ responses (or lack there of). You didn’t cover this in your post, but another thing your scene did was use combat as a means to characterize each participant- something I think most writers don’t consider a useful benefit to combat. With such detailed styles, we learn a lot about how Bei and the Demon tic, and even with so little context as your segment provided, we can form impressions of the audience and the surrounding culture. Really, simply throwing your characters into a fight simply to get them bloodied up and show off their muscles misses a vast spectrum of possibilities for combat scenes in writing.

  4. You’re right about that Erik. I might have to do another post because my focus in this one was the technical how of fight scenes rather than the why (which is equally important). I can’t remember who right now, but there was a famous martial artist who said (and has been quoted many times) that you cannot know a many until you fight him. There is a certain truth in that, at least for a martial artist, and a clear understanding of the way you’re character’s fight can help you, as the writer, to understand why they fight.

    I’ve told many people that I taught that every martial artist has a style that is suited to them…though it usually appears more as different kinds of people being attracted to different martial arts. The way we choose to fight says a lot about who we are as people. It does the same thing for our characters.

    • Honestly, I think you could do a whole series on writing fight scenes. I can already think of three: the Whys (what I talked about in my other post, but needs much more detail), the Hows (what you have here), and the What Fors (what you’re talking about now). You could probably do several on the Hows for different Whys and What Fors if you felt up to it.

      • I might just do that. But I think my next post probably has to be on vampires – I’ve got promises to keep.

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