Pushing Your Punches

One of my favorite aspects of writing is exploring different points of view. Since I became a martial artist, I enjoy taking this idea a step further: How do my different characters fight? How do fights inform their character?

A lot of our heroes are scrappers, willing to fight dirty to protect themselves and their loved ones. They have no problem poking eyes, punching throats, or kicking below the belt. Whatever it takes, they’ll do it. Then we have the noble heroes, the ones who never strike an opponent in the back, who drop their weapons if their opponents lose theirs. Ah, how we admire them… while at the same time telling ourselves that our dirty-fighting scrappers could kick their butts. (Superman versus Batman, anyone?)

But fighting style is shaped by more than just ethics. Muay Thai, Capoeira, Kung Fu, Kendo, and the Six-Armed style of Celestia XI all bring different moves, philosophies, and techniques to a fight. (Admittedly, I have trouble writing about joint-lock techniques, which are among the most powerful. “She grabbed one of her opponent’s fingers and dropped him to the ground” just doesn’t ring true for most people, even if it actually works.)

For me, fight scenes are both the most difficult and most rewarding to write. Every scene needs to feel different from the last. Creative props, settings, and circumstances help a lot. Most fights advance the plot, true, but I think they should also inform and elucidate character. Some of those split-second decisions should be hard. They should have consequences. They should change our heroes. That’s the holy grail for me, and I’ll keep questing for it.

What fight scenes do you remember most clearly? What is it about those scenes that makes you remember them?

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  1. 1. JonathanMoeller

    Charlemagne vs. Baligant in La Chanson de Roland:

    “Had fear of death no longer, nor dismay;
    Remembrance and a fresh vigour he’s gained.
    So the admiral he strikes with France’s blade,
    His helmet breaks, whereon the jewels blaze,
    Slices his head, to scatter all his brains,
    And, down unto the white beard, all his face;
    So he falls dead, recovers not again.”

    Definitely one of the top five fictional medieval death scenes ever.

  2. 2. Elf M. Sternberg

    If you’re allowed more than one point of view, you could write “She grabbed one of his fingers. Pain from the hands is debilitating and he fell to the ground.” Even if that’s not exactly how it works, it’s close enough to get the message across.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    I think fights are hard to write right (if you’ll pardon the rhyme) for two reasons. First, it requires enough detail that the reader can visualize the action. Second, the action in a fight is bound to be fast paced. These two requirements conflict, and yet the writer has to resolve them–has to get enough detail and and keep up the pace–in a seamless way so that the reader isn’t aware that it’s work for the writer.

    I’m sure it helps to be a martial arts expert. A third complication is that most of us modern folks never hit anyone in our adult lives (“But, Officer, I was just doing research!”)

  4. 4. Jenn Reese

    Karen: You are so right! I love fight scenes, but my writing slows to a glacial pace when I get to them. I might spend two hours writing two paragraphs for exactly the reasons you state: You have to be crystal-clear about what’s happening, and you have to keep up the pace. It’s incredibly difficult. The only scenes I find more difficult to write are sex scenes… for kind of the same reasons. :)

    I should clarify that I’m far from a martial arts expert, unless watching Enter the Dragon six million times qualifies me.

  5. 5. Jenn Reese

    Elf: You are right, it does become more possible if you can switch point of views and describe what is happening to the victim. I wonder, though, if a non-martial arts reader will think I’m cheating, since some joint-manipulation techniques are so ridiculously effective for so little effort. (Yes, I worry about a lot of silly things…)

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Wa-hootie! One of my favorite topics. ^_^

    My thoughts on this would fill several blog posts (which someday I’ll get around to making), but I can boil it all down to three things:

    1) A fight, like any other scene, should serve multiple purposes at once, and if it doesn’t you should just gloss over it. Don’t put in in just for spectacle. Further the plot, develop character, and so on.

    2) Even if you don’t know the mechanics of fighting, you can make a damn interesting scene out of those things mentioned above. People behave differently when their lives and bodily integrity are on the line; what does that do to your character? Get into her head and focus on what she’s thinking and feeling. Or give physical details like people gasping for breath or interacting with their environment. You don’t need the technical terminology to make it interesting.

    3) Go read Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, and gape in awe at the single best third-person fight scene fiction is capable of holding.

    And yes, the quick action/slow narration conflict makes these things a real challenge.

  7. 7. Jenn Reese

    Marie: Yes, Yes, and I’ll go read that right away!

    Seriously, I couldn’t agree more with you about #1. A lot of movies make the mistake of thinking action scenes are just for eyeball kicks and explosions — Snooze! Give me a fight scene with plot *and* character development, and I’ll be your fan for life.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Oh, in movies I can enjoy a good spectacle, because I get to see highly-trained martial artists doing pretty things. I enjoy that the same way I enjoy a dance performance or Cirque du Soleil: aesthetically. But that aspect doesn’t translate terribly well to prose, so pages of how your hero hews down horrible . . . crap, can’t thing of a synonym for “monster” that starts with H . . . anyway, you know what I mean. Snooze, indeed. On the page, I *need* more than just flashy moves, because the flash just isn’t there.

  9. 9. Soni

    The fight scenes I find most realistic tend to be the ones Dick Francis writes. His jockeys and other protags usually get the ever loving crap beat out of them at least once in the book, and often several times. And they actually get hurt, stay hurt and have to deal with being hurt for the rest of the book. Unlike a lot of fictional characters, who can apparently take a cannonball to the head and shake it off by the next day with nothing more than a heroically-managed headache to show for it.

    The cool think is that his jockey characters are so used to getting the snot pounded out of them on the track that they know how to deal with pain and injury and still operate, so that allows his characters to get things done while most of us would be hiding out in the ICU. They play through the pain, so you get the best of both worlds – realistic fight consequences, without a week-long break in the action.

    Although to be honest my favorite fight scene ever was with Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live! Totally bogus in terms of realism, but dead-on if you’re jonesing for an extended play, all-out butt whuppin’ performed by two boys who really know how to sell a good throwdown.

  10. 10. Matthew Claxton

    I’ve fenced for several years, and while I haven’t used that knowledge in a (published) story yet, I plan to someday. Knowing what to leave in and take out, with a swordfight, is tricky. I have the terminology to describe the fight in great detail (Adam lunged forward, but Bob parried the blade away in seconde, slashing back with a quick riposte) but it’s neither interesting nor understandable to a layperson. And if I don’t describe it in that level of detail, I feel like I’m just holding a puppet show. (Adam and Bob waved their rapiers around for a while, until Bob stabbed Adam.)

    In the one duel/fencing scene I’ve written, I concentrated on the physical exhaustion, the pain of small wounds from minor hits, and the movement and terrain. And, of course, I had my characters talk to one another as they circled.

    Fencing also moves so quickly that it’s impossible to film properly. Seriously, watch Olympic fencing sometime. It’s just lunge-thrust-point-done. Competition fencing requires four corner referees to watch for hits, plus a president to make the final calls. This means that it takes paragraphs to describe moves that take just fractions of seconds.

    Finally, if you want to see some really damn good stage fencing, check out the 1950s classic Scaramouche (cheesy acting and plot, very realistic smallsword fighting, recommended highly by my fencing instructor) and The Duellists, with Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine. Especially watch the second smallsword duel, between Keitel and Carradine, for realism. It’s over in a few moves.

  11. 11. James Alan Gardner

    One nice thing about joint-locks is that when they work, they stop the fight. (This assumes the fight is one-on-one…but then, you wouldn’t use joint-locks if you’re fighting multiple attackers.)

    Since the fight is going to stop, the tempo of the action is going to change. Therefore, you don’t necessarily have to describe a joint-lock at the same pace as what has gone before. I could, for example, envision a fight told in a fast-and-furious tone, which then switches to a slow and detailed description of what happens when the tendons in your wrist are twisted a quarter of an inch farther than they’re prepared to go. Follow the pain of up the forearm to the shoulder, and how the whole body involuntarily doubles over…etc., etc. It would be a lovely way of selling the scene (and hey, a typical science fiction reader would get a kick out of the anatomy lesson).

    Or, if you have a smartass point-of-view character (as many of us do), you might say, “The shoulder bone’s connected to the arm bone, the arm bone’s connected to the wrist bone, the wrist bone’s connected to the finger bone, so if I do *this* to your pinkie…look, you smack your nose on the floor!”

  12. 12. Sara J.

    I did aikido for a short while, and I must say, gave me a great intro to joint locks and throws. But I think it’s not important to say that you grab so and so by the x body part so much as it is to use language of control and energy, because that’s really what it’s about. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a joint lock or a strike, it still needs to be told in an exciting way.I don’t really care (as the reader–if I’m trying to learn technique it’s different) that so-and-so grabs so-and-other by the right wrist and shoves them to the ground, I want to hear about what the movement looked like and the result.

    So you could say “She grabbed one of her opponent’s fingers and dropped him to the ground” or you could phrase it totally differently. It doesn’t say much to me when someone writes “She hit her opponent in the face and broke his nose”. It’s different if you write: “She slammed the heel of her hand into his nose with a sharp movement, blood seeping from his nostrils.”

  13. 13. Josh W

    Her assailant charged at her, but they were overeager, not aware of themselves. This would be easy. As the blow arced down she slipped under the swinging arm, spinning under the elbow but taking a crack to her head on the way. Crap! It threw her off balance a little, but not as much as her enemy. They were at a loss of how to react, and that meant trouble for them. She grabbed their index finger and twisted it up and round. Their shoulder wrenched round as the pain and the tension bore them to the ground, all their aggression and focus now directed at that one little digit. With a flick of the wrist she disarmed them and completing the lock set about tying their arms up. Her head still stung from the clip of their elbow, but it could have gone a lot worse.

Author Information

Jenn Reese

Jenn Reese is the author of JADE TIGER (Juno Books, 2007), an action-adventure kung fu romance, with tigers. Her short stories have appeared online at Strange Horizons and Lone Star Stories, and in various print anthologies like Japanese Dreams, Sword & Sorceress, and Polyphony 4. When she's not writing, Jenn is practicing martial arts, playing World of Warcraft, or dreaming of rain. Visit site.

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