Writing relies on ‘where, what, how, and why’ to develop a convincing narrative. This is a rule that is an umbrella over of both the entire narrative and the individual scenes that hold the plot together. A fight scene has to fulfill those requirements and it must do so within the greater context of the narrative while supporting the underlying logic of the setting as well as remaining functional and relevant on its own. This should always be your primary goal: making sure that all your sequences work together to support a cohesive and coherent whole. Knowing how to write fights and fighting characters is an extraction and extrapolation from the skills you’re already developing as a writer. Remember, it’s not a separate skill or knowledge: it’s a supplementary one. In American popular culture, martial combat tends to be mystified and it’s ironically done in the same way whether we’re working with the military or overlaying orientalism in the martial traditions of “the mysterious East”. Many writers, ironically or not, treat combat skills like they’re magic or a superpower. Often: it just happens. The discussion of what happens in the scene is vague and often anatomically incorrect. The characters are incapable of supporting their own backstories with important details and outlooks. Violence and its effects are segregated out as unimportant because again the character’s ability to fight isn’t treated as an important part of their personality or a skill they possess but as a tacked on superpower that the author doesn’t feel they need to explain. It just is. It just happens. They’re just amazing. Don’t ask questions.
As easy as this approach is, it doesn’t work and it will handicap both your characters and your writing in the long run. Like so many other skill sets, knowledge of combat isn’t something we can actually fake in our writing. Well, we can’t by being vague about the particulars. You need research and for research, you need a place to start. So, here are five simple pieces of advice to improve both your descriptive writing of your fight scenes but also line the sequences up with your characters.
Remember: your characters are the driving force behind your narrative, if the skills they’re using do not jive with their personality then that’s like throwing a rock through the reader’s suspension of disbelief window. Everything must sync together, a character can only do what they know based on their own experiences, these actions have to be justified by the setting, the narrative, the character’s backstory, their personality, and their outlook. These tips are just as applicable to character development as they are to the single scene on the page.
1) Develop a Functional Grasp of Anatomy
Fighting is all about the body and the body is all about anatomy. You can’t write a strike without understanding where that strike can go and what it’s designed to disrupt once it gets there. A punch to the windpipe will have different results than a punch to the stomach or a punch to the kidney. But what does that mean in the long run? You can only know that if you know what the organs are necessary for in the first place. A punch to the windpipe will either disrupt or destroy someone’s ability to breathe depending on the level of force, a punch or any strike to the kidney risks death from internal bleed out over the course of three days and that’s part of the reason why strikes to the back are outlawed in most forms of professional sport fighting (Muay Thai is an exception), a punch to the stomach will knock their wind out. When working with fighting, it’s good to know the end result and since we’re working with fiction we control what happens. This is both a gift and a trap. So, ask yourself before you sit down to write a scene: how does the body work together? What makes it function? What openings can be exploited? How does your character keep from killing someone?
Anatomy combined with technique is a nice cheat sheet.
2) The Trick is in the Application
Here is where anatomy comes in and becomes important. The trick to convincing your audience is not what the character knows, but in what they can do with the techniques they have. Once you know what the technique is supposed to do when it connects, you can dial it back: is the technique I’m planning to use logical to the beliefs and motives of the character I’m writing. Characters of varying skill level may or may not know what it is that they’re doing in the moment, but the writer better know the difference. I’ve encountered too many well-trained characters who are supposed to be opposed to killing who then turn around and perform kill strikes on a target in the name of subdual. Now, this isn’t bad when it’s intentional but when it’s not? Pitch another rock through the suspension of disbelief window.
If you develop a basic grasp of anatomy you will be more capable of dissecting the strikes and techniques you uncover in books, see in movies, or read about on Wikipedia. Once you know what the technique is supposed to do, you’ll know how the character feels about using it and whether or not they fit into the philosophical and thematic elements their style supports. The writer is responsible for cause and effect in a story, a character is responsible for their actions regardless of their intentions. We have to know what happens to the characters the protagonist hurts and the more skilled the protagonist is supposed to be then the more exacting and greater detail is necessary. You want to write a character that is considered to be the best in their field? They better know exactly what they’re doing and they have to be able to convey that knowledge to the reader. The writer doesn’t need to actually possess the level of skill their character is supposed to have, but they need to support the illusion.
So, stop and consider the techniques your planning on using, what are they designed to affect? How are they applied? What parts of the body are necessary for their application? How does it affect the acting character? How does it affect the character they hurt? Does your character know what they’re talking about?
3) Detail, Detail, Detail
So, you want to prove you know what you’re talking about? Well, the devil’s in the details. Now, you have a functional grasp of how the body works together and possibly some of the techniques you want to use and it’s time to put it all together. Be specific. Be exact. Be ready to explain both the action and the consequences when necessary. For example: what are the intervening steps between someone getting their throat cut from the front: they need to be quick and be able to get close without arousing suspicion, because they are in plain view of the guard or the target, they must keep their blade somewhere where it won’t be visible and drawn quickly, possibly in a wrist sheath as opposed to on their belt. They have to slash before their target can cry out in alarm and also be able to get out of the area before anyone else notices, if escape is part of the plan. A slash across the windpipe reduces the risk of the blade being caught in muscle or bone, it’s also a big strike and more risky. While a strike to the carotid artery requires the blade go up at an angle, it’s more exact but also difficult to hit without a fair amount of practice in a tense situation.
Remember, detail extends beyond just the action and the description, it’s also important to character. A character’s behavior is based on what they do and don’t know and their outlook. The details you provide about them and in the way they behave will key the reader to the kind of character they are and what they will be willing to do. Violence changes us, a character who participates in acts of violence regardless of what they intend will be changed by it. Their ability to fight will be reflected across every aspect of their personality, inform who they are, and plays a role in what details they notice in the world around them. For example: tensed, hunched shoulders with tightened back muscles in a standing position could be a sign that someone is depressed or angry or it could be a sign that they were in fights as a child, are worried about getting jumped, or that they’ve been to prison. Hunched shoulders and tensed back muscles are a defensive posture used to protect the vitals against assault, someone who has lived a life where they have to worry about being shanked by anyone for anything may stand like this. Whether the character notices will be predicated on their training and their past experiences. A cop will notice, someone else who has been to prison will notice, a military professional or martial artist may not.
These pieces that your character picks up are part of the greater whole of the story. They need to fit into the thematic elements of the narrative and the plot. They are important for creating a coherent picture and part of convincing your audience to trust what you’re saying. Attention to detail for a writer means more than just step-by-step walkthrough of a technique or how many pine needles a branch on the tree has. It is part of putting together a clear picture before the fight ever occurs. Too much information can slow down a fast paced sequence but it can also distract from the story at large with details that are unnecessary. The details you use need to further connect the character to the action, show the character’s personality, outlook, and training, while syncing them together with the setting.
It’s ironic to say that your character fighting, even in a technically well-written fight scene isn’t enough to prove that your character knows how to fight. The believability of your fight scenes is being set up from the very first page and in the first character introduction. I’m not even talking about foreshadowing. I’m just talking about consistency.
4) Know Your Style
So, how do you know what details are going to be important? Well, you need to know what style of combat your character is practicing. This is one of the major problems that writers face when trying to convince their audience that the character knows how to fight. They use terms like “high level martial arts” or “exceptional fighting ability”. Skill means nothing, except when combined with experience. They choose umbrella terms for a bunch of different styles like “karate”, “taekwondo”, or “kung fu”. With the exception of taekwondo, that actually doesn’t really tell the reader anything.
The World Karate Federation recognizes four distinctly different forms of karate: Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu. The World Union of Karate-do Federations recognizes eight different and unique styles that fall under the karate header. Those are the just styles that are officially recognized. They don’t cover the different variations between master to master or between different schools or the outlooks of those schools. There’s a big difference in the training a character receives from a traditional school and the training they receive from a non-traditional school. In America, karate is a catch all phrase by most for any Eastern martial art regardless of the country it comes from. When I was growing up it was easier to refer to the style I was practicing as “the karate school” than it was trying to explain the difference between karate and taekwondo ten different times in a single afternoon. Especially when the people I was explaining it to weren’t going to remember the next time I brought it up.
But, if you’re going to write a character that fights, you need to know the specifics of the style they practice and the social customs of the country they practice in. A karate school in America, even with a Japanese instructor trained by a master in Japan or a master trained by a master in Japan or a master who was trained by another master who was trained by a master in Japan will be different from a school based in Japan. There will simply be different values at play on the social end much less the technical end and those will also have influenced the character.
Be specific. Be exact. Know what you’re talking about to the best of your ability and you’ll be less likely to fall on your face. For example: variations of police hand to hand come from CQC, the Military uses CQB. (CQC stands for Close Quarters Combat, CQB stands for Close Quarters Battle.)
How can anyone take your character seriously if they can’t even tell the audience what style they’ve been trained in? This is an important part of their backstory, they’ll know the ins and outs of it, who trained them, and who they trained with. Even if your character has a supernatural level of aptitude, they’re going to need to learn how to refine that skill somewhere.
5) Stick to the Basics
Many writers think that to write a black belt or an extremely proficient fighter they need to show them using advanced techniques. This isn’t true. In times of crisis, a character will turn to the techniques they are most familiar with, the ones they practice constantly, and the ones they know best. Those techniques are the first ones they learn, the basic techniques. These are the techniques that you can get an easy overview on in any practical handbook relating to the style, go to your local library or bookstore and dig through the many, many self-help books relating to each individual style. These books will provide you with pictures and diagrams and usually an overview of the style’s history, the reasoning behind its development (or why it was revived). Pretty much most of what you need to start to piece together how the style is supposed to work, with background research and other books or interviews with local schools about the style, combined with an understanding of basic anatomy, you should be able to begin the process of writing a decent fight scene.
This is the stuff you can learn in a short amount of time. If you can use these techniques convincingly and effectively in your writing, then you’re golden. You don’t need anything else. Besides, in a real world fight most of the fancy exhibition stuff will get you killed. It will get your character killed. They aren’t usually appropriate as combat techniques anyway or are the risky kill moves. The basics are the safe stuff and they are the easiest to begin working with. You can learn how to write your character using them quickly and learn how to write them well.
Here’s the thing to remember: being able to fight and being able to write a convincing fight scene are two different skill sets. There’s a point of knowledge that overlaps, but that’s it. A martial artist isn’t necessarily going to be able to write about what they do and writer martial artists have a whole subset of potential flaws that they have to work to avoid. You don’t need to be a master martial artist to write a master martial artist, all you need to know is the steps that go into the creation of a master and what the general results are.
Breaking the pieces apart from the whole picture and puttng them back together is an important skill in any writer’s toolbox. Writing about fighting is supplementary to the skills you already posses, figure out what something is, how it was created, and what it means in the backdrop of the bigger picture and you’ll have what you need.
It’s as easy as that.