Writing Fight Scenes: Basic Principles of Fighting

[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]

After (another) hiatus, I’m ready to dive back into the “writing fight scenes” project.

When we last left this discussion, I said I was about to get into the craft issues of how you put a fight scene on the page, but on reflection, there’s one more practical thing I want to cover first, for people without a background in any kind of combat, and that’s the basic principles of fighting. These are things you want to keep in mind when you imagine how your characters are moving, so you don’t end up describing what a more experienced reader will instantly recognize as bad technique.

It’s hard to generalize about every style of fighting out there, but I feel relatively safe in saying they all share one core principle: maximize your ability to hit the other guy, while minimizing his ability to hit you.

Oh, you may decide it’s worth accepting a blow in order to create an opening you can exploit. Maybe the other guy doesn’t hit as hard as you do, or you’d be sacrificing something minor (a hand) in order to take out something major (a lung). On the flip side, maybe you’re fighting entirely defensively, and don’t care about striking anybody at all. But those are tactical considerations; I don’t know of any fighting style that builds itself around the principle of “let him hit you” or “don’t try to hit him.”

So how do you pursue this goal, of protecting yourself while getting the other guy?

One of the most common methods involves stance. If you look at martial artists, fencers, boxers, etc, you’ll notice they’re almost always standing semi-sideways, with one foot and shoulder closer to their opponent, one foot and shoulder back. It presents a narrower profile, makes it easier to advance and retreat, and lets you throw your weight behind a strike if necessary. Standing square on presents your whole body as a potential target, and means that if a blow comes at your sternum, you’re not going to be able to get out of the way very quickly.

Another technique is to hide behind your weapon. Now, this may sound nonsensical: sure, that works for a giant shield, maybe, but if your weapon is a skinny little rapier, or your own fist, how can you hide behind it? The trick is that you don’t need to hide entirely — just enough to screw with your opponent. In fencing, I was taught to angle my blade so that it was in a straight line to my opponent’s gaze: all he would see, really, is the point and the hilt, with the length of the blade, my hand, and my forearm essentially invisible. In karate, I keep my back fist semi-concealed behind my front one. What this does is make it harder for your opponent to see the incoming movement, allowing you to better surprise him with an attack. (Also, if you keep your weapon — blade, fist, whatever — between you and the other guy, he has to get past that to get to you.)

And don’t forget, of course, the advantage of reach. A lot of what we practice in karate is how to cover as much distance as possible, without sacrificing balance and force and so on. If you can come in fast and get back fast — faster than your opponent — you have the advantage.

Movies would have you believe that spinning slashes, high kicks, and other such tricks are a good idea. They are wrong. Those kinds of tricks are slow. While you’ve got your back turned, your enemy will take the opportunity to stab you in it. In a kick, your weapon is your foot; to hit somebody in the face, you have to move your weapon all the way from the floor to a target five or six feet away. That takes time, and reduces your range, and all the while you’re standing on one foot: not a very stable position. During a real fight, you’re better off kicking at knee-level or below, waist-height at the most (which has the best range). It isn’t necessary to do a huge motion to get a lot of force behind it — not if you know what you’re doing.

Blocking and dodging another large part of defending yourself and endangering your enemy. Both should ideally be small movements: you don’t fling yourself out of the way, you just put yourself where his weapon isn’t. Also ideally, your defense should serve an offensive purpose as well: don’t just go where his weapon isn’t, go where you’re in a position to retaliate. One way to defend against a roundhouse kick is to step into it, rather than away. The real force is in the foot, not the knee, so by closing the distance you move yourself out of danger, and put yourself in a good place to strike or knock the attacker off-balance. A block can be an attack, especially bare-handed — I speak from experience, and that’s with Shihan not hitting full-force. Armed, you want to move your enemy’s weapon out of line without doing the same to yourself: keep the point of your blade toward the other guy, so you can move swiftly from the block to a thrust. Etc.

There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. There are scores of combat styles out there, differentiating themselves from each other on subtle points of tactics and techniques, and to really grok them you need the physical experience of trying to enact them yourself. But the basics are relatively easy, and visualizing them will help make your scene feel more grounded and realistic.

From here, we get into craft — I mean it this time. POV, sentence structure, all that great stuff. (And hopefully on a more reliable schedule.)

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Basic Principles of Fighting”

  1. Anonymous


    Very good points, all.

    One or two minor quibbles that are more additions than arguments:

    First: “Let him hit you” I believe Aikido trains the practitioner to respond to attacks made against them. I admit this not at all the same as ‘let him hit you” but i t does need clarification in that you let them try to hit you as much as they like, then make them PAY for it. Many boxers also practice counter punching, which is one very efficient way of increasing the likelihood of administering a pummeling to the other guy, provided you can absorb strikes on your guard and quickly take advantage of any opening provided by the opponent’s attack.

    I agree that spinning attacks, etc are very time-consuming to attempt in a fight. They do, potentially, have the power to finish a downed or stunned opponent quite well.

    Lastly, I really like your mention of stance, but would add footwork: that is, the movement of that stance in defense and offense, is equally critical.

    • greybar

      Re: Fighting

      I generally agree.

      While I am way too slow to get off a good spinning kick in sparring, the one time I have seen someone KO’d in a tournament was from a spinning hook kick to the head. Very scary to see. Yes the attacker was supposed to control the force – it was a point-touch sparring, but he didn’t quite control it enough.

      But how that blow landed was as important. The victim had lowered his guarding hand and was already starting his own kick at that moment. And that’s something that I think can be taken well into the story – anytime a character can anticipate a move then that’s an opportunity to show how experienced, observant, and quick they are. Similar is the “I don’t need to see his back leg, I see him shifting his weight” or “He has an offhand knife concealed in his sleeve. I can’t see it, but I can see how he’s holding that arm ready.”

      So can we make that part of the character. Are they the kind that wait for the person to swing, inherently hoping the conflict can be avoided? Or are they the kind that see the opponent tensing to go and smack them before they can even make the attack? Or did they stab him before he could even decide to go after the person they love?

      • Marie Brennan

        Re: Fighting

        A friend of mine was fond of using the term “flying bullshit kicks,” and said they worked (sometimes) by making your opponent gape and wonder what the hell you were doing. So long as that moment of WTF lasted long enough for you to complete the kick . . . .

        • greybar

          Re: Fighting

          I’ve tried opening a sparring round with a jump front kick not out of any expectation it will land, but for how off-balance it makes them for a few seconds afterwards.

          See also: only works once and not against most black belts.

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Fighting

            I once nailed in sparring simply by lunging the instant our teacher called go. She was used to the general habit of circling for a while first, and was totally not prepared for an instantaneous attack. ^_^

          • greybar

            Re: Fighting

            Heh, sounds like one of my black belt instructor’s favorite openings. We’ll call him Mr. N. We start far enough away so that at “Begin” you’re beyond kicking range. But if you skip forward on your front leg getting forward motion out of your rear leg whipping forward to a thrust front kick you cover a lot of space. 🙂

            The counter that his black belts learned after seeing this too many times was to immediately jump off-axis and nail the the ribs of Mr N as he sailed past.

            So story wise this makes me think of two warriors who know each other’s tricks so well that they do crazy things to counter them that are completely nonsensical to the other observers. Well, either nonsensical or seemingly magically prescient.

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Fighting

            That would basically be me and in fencing.

            With foils, we managed to simultaneously nail each other on the guard more than once.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Fighting

      My experience with aikido is very fleeting, but my impression of it is that it isn’t so much “let hit you” as “let him attack you.” Then you use the vulnerability thus created against him. Those kinds of tactics exist in other styles, too (binding parries in fencing come to mind), but you’re still trying to minimize the damage your opponent can inflict on you.

      Spinning attacks etc: oh, yeah, as finishing moves they’re fine. But you’d better be damn sure he isn’t in a position to launch one last counter . . . .

      As for footwork, yes, definitely. But that starts being more complicated, and varies more between styles; when it comes to “here’s a few basic things to keep in mind, if you don’t have any combat training yourself,” I want to keep it simple.

      • icedrake

        Re: Fighting

        My experience with juujitsu matches this. Wrists provide such *excellent* leverage with which one can then do terrible things to one’s opponent. This means letting them grab you by the collar or the arm (or the neck, if you happen to have been attacked from behind) or just provoking them into extending an arm — against male opponents, a straightforward grab for the testicles tends to work very well.

        I’m curious about TKD in particular, having little experience with it. Olympic sport adaptations aside, TKD practitioners I had talked with or watched were extremely fast, but were trained to do very high kicks, frequently jumping ones or better yet — jumping triple kicks to different targets. There are a few explanations for this that I can think of, but if anyone here is a TKD practitioner, I’d love to hear their input on how such a technique would work in practice.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: Fighting

          My guess is that the prevalence of high kicks in TKD is an outgrowth of martial-arts-as-sports, where various moves get outlawed because they could really hurt somebody. It means a style can get away with things that could be vulnerabilities in a real fight; at my dojo, for example, our form for reverse punches isn’t the one they used back in the old days. (Our form leaves a lot more of the body open to counter-attack — and no, I don’t know why they changed it, since the old form isn’t really more dangerous to your opponent.)

          But I don’t watch a lot of MMA, which would give evidence for whether those techniques end up being a really bad idea in less-restrained combat. I’d be interested to hear from somebody who knows.

          • ninja_turbo

            Re: Fighting

            I’ve also heard people trace the use of Flying Bullshit Kicks to the need for an unarmed and unarmored fighter to be able to attack someone on a horse. With sufficient ups and small enough horses, it seems somewhat viable.

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Fighting

            Interesting. I’m dubious of the utility there, simply because I imagine the horse as galloping toward the unarmed fighter, and then you’re basically rehashing the debates about Minoan bull-leaping (i.e. would that actually work). But I could see it being useful if the horse is more stationary — maybe because the rider is attacking somebody else.

          • ninja_turbo

            Re: Fighting

            I think you’re right that it would only work for relatively stationary horses.

            Though I totally love the idea of an expert Tae Kwon Do practitioner and his/her spotter arranging it so that he/she can do a flying side kick to cross the T on a rider at a full gallop. 🙂

        • greybar

          Re: Fighting

          I study Tang Soo Do, which is an offshoot of the same trunk as Tae Kwon Do. I’ve had the honor of having soundly demonstrated upon my person how good double and triple kicks are by one of our black belt sparring champions. This is point-sparring mind you, but the key seems to be more that the earlier kick(s) draw away your defense. You have to cover them but if you aren’t as fast as the attacker you run out of limbs to stop the incoming blows.

          To wit: I see her roundhouse kick coming and drop my elbow to cover my ribs, feel the brief impact at which point that same foot magically appears and stops an inch from my cheek. Similarly – foot hits my lower calf and threatens to sweep me, then jumps to my face, then reverses and hooks to my ribs. Having seen said black belt work the bag with her double and triple kick combinations I have no doubt that any one of those motions could have broken bone.

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Fighting

            Oh, I’ve seen one of the (young, fit) guys at our dojo pull off a brilliant double-kick. It’s not that they never work; it’s just that you have to be damn good, and at that point you are also presumably damn good at more efficient moves, too. Then it becomes a question of what’s the most tactically appropriate for a given situation.

          • greybar

            Re: Fighting

            Hmm… Maybe we’re talking different things. I’m talking about both kicks coming off the same leg, so it’s only coming back to load and back out again. So that’s different from a jumping kick where I try to do a front kick with my leading leg and then spin the back leg into a roundhouse kick before I land again. I don’t know the Korean for that move without digging around or asking a Master – in our school that’s one-step kick #20, which doesn’t help anyone else I’m afraid. 🙂

            Anyway in my prior description, I’m picturing Miss K with both hands on guard. Her front leg comes up to load position as soon as I get close to range. From there she can flick roundhouse kick to my calf, ribs or head in an instant and ditto for a front kick. There’s maybe a slight delay if she has to rotate her hip to reverse round-kick or hook.

            My best bet here is to try to jump in really fast and jam her lower leg into her before she can flick that out. If so maybe I can throw her off balance and move my hands faster than she can. But frankly she out-classes me in so many different ways it doesn’t matter that much. 🙂

            This may also be a style thing. I’m told that TSD and TKD are big kicking styles and TSD has a particular heritage of spinning and turning kicks. In contrast the Shotokan that I learned in college disdained such aerial maneuvers in favor of deep more deeply grounded and linear.

            So another story element here could be that a character might immediately recognize another warrior’s style and leap to assumptions (right or wrong) about its weaknesses and how to attack it…

            Inigo Montoya: You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?
            Man in Black: I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.
            Inigo Montoya: Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capa Ferro?
            Man in Black: Naturally… but I find that Thibault cancels out Capa Ferro. Don’t you?
            Inigo Montoya: Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa… which I have.

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Fighting

            No, I followed what you were describing; it’s just that if you commit to a double kick like that, you’re spending a lot of time with all your weight committed to one leg, making it basically impossible for you to move. Good positioning could let your opponent use that against you. (Against someone of lower skill, yes, it can be very effective.)

          • icedrake

            Re: Fighting

            Thank you; that’s pretty much how I was interpreting the technique. Seems to me that what’s specific to TKD (and, apparently, Tang Soo Do) is the use of the same limb for both decoy and actual attack. We use plenty of decoy strikes in Karate, but normally the main attack is then executed by a different limb.

  2. marycatelli

    Humm. I would think that one effective hit would repay a good number of glancing blows — not, perhaps, any number because they would add up, but a good number nonetheless.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, it can. But I don’t know of any fighting style that’s built on the basic principle of “assume the other guy is going to be ineffective.” And when you’re talking about weapons, even a glancing blow can be trouble: blood loss can weaken you, and without antibiotics or magical healing, the infection can eventually kill you. As I said, tactically you may decide that in this instance it’s okay to accept the hit. But as a general philosophy of fighting? Generally not the plan.

  3. Anonymous

    Without giving away too much…

    There’s another aspect of fighting style, too: The objective of the fight.

    It’s all well and good to say “hit the other guy/gal”… but the fighting style chosen to do so will depend a great deal on “what counts as ‘winning’ this fight”? A couple of examples:
    * If this is purely diversionary — keeping a guard from disengaging and pressing the alarm button that will Release the Tiger — a more aikido-like style is appropriate absent an opportunity for a high-probability incapacitating blow.
    * If the opponent has valuable information and must be taken not only alive, but in condition to respond to, umm, interrogation immediately, you’re not going to adopt a passive style; neither, however, are you going to aim a high-velocity cut at his/her neck.
    * If keeping the engagement time down is important (after all, most fights are actually not the real objective; they’re obstacles on the way to the objective, except when Inigo actually catches up with and identifies Count Rugen), one can be more willing to accept some risk of damage in favor of an incapacitating attack instead of just wearing the opponent down.

    And crushing the opponent’s larynx is always a better closure than any spinning move. If nothing else, it leaves much less chance of turning an ankle on the cobblestones in that alley… and makes really, really sure that the opponent can’t cry out for help. (Unless the objective includes getting the Town Watch to respond to this brawl so that one’s sneaky accomplice can get access to something else.)

    In short, tactics, strategy, and style work together; when the don’t, it’s called either “Hollywood” or “time to write another casualty notification letter.”

  4. edgyauthor

    So many great points! This post will no doubt help me the next time I find myself writing a fight scene…

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s the general hope for the series. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        In case

        And in case I wasn’t clear, thanks for doing this. It is useful to anyone, even those that have a great deal of experience with fighting.

        It inspired me to post a bit on my blog about my combat experiences and how that informs my writing.

  5. leatherdykeuk

    A timely reminder, since I’m about to write a fight scene 🙂

  6. Anonymous

    Bookmarked! This is the kind of stuff I always try to explain to my editor, in a quest to get her to allow my complex fight scenes to survive (not that it works). It’s great to see the reasons why the heroine can’t ‘Just kick him in the face and get on with it’ so well articulated.

    • Marie Brennan

      Thanks! It all depends on context, of course, but I like a good fight scene (obviously) — where “good” means “one that serves the story.”

  7. green_knight

    One way to defend against a roundhouse kick is to step into it, rather than away

    That caught my eye because it’s the way to deal with a kicking horse. Horses can do a lot of harm, particularly when shod, and the way to deal with it is to move very close to them – they’ll still kick you, but you’re much less likely to take lasting damage from it. If you stand a few feet away, you’re in line for real damage.

    And the other point is that experienced fighters are _balanced_ (just like riders) – they keep their weight so they can shift in any direction at any moment. The moment you overcommit in a lunge (and I assume kick or even punch with arms stretched too far), you can move only in one direction and the other guy can pummel you.

    (Never got far enough in fencing to manage the ‘angle the blade’ bit; but it’s a good thing to keep in mind.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, that’s why we spend so much time on footwork in karate. Sure, you could lean forward to get that extra bit of distance on a punch — but now your weight is overcommitted, and you can’t retreat worth a damn.

    • diatryma

      I learned that lesson at horse camp, one of the only actually useful things. I use it when improperly restraining freaked-out kiddos at school. Yeah, the permanent staff are CPI-trained, which means they can move kids properly, but if the objective is ‘cuddle the child until he’s exhausted, then until he’s calm’ it’s tough to dodge. Staying close helps.

  8. ninja_turbo

    For fencing, several of the late 16th and early 17th century European masters pushed stances and guards that focused on the blade and guard as defense, not only in the optical illusion sense, but in a very intentional ‘put your body behind the sword’ kind of way. Later during the period where rapiers dominated personal defense in Europe, the guards had become much more protective, more pappenheimers, cup hilts, than the intermediary swept hilts and the even earlier rapiers like the espada ropera.

    An example: Capo Ferro’s basic stance called for his hip to be the biggest target, being presented, so he told people to put the guard of their blade (which gave a lot of coverage) in front of the hip. When he would call for a lunge, his technique called to put the guard in front of your body and head as you attacked, becoming a cone of both defense and offense as you entered danger to strike your opponent.

    Photo reference:

    Pappenheimer: http://bit.ly/px4aOP
    Cup hilt: http://bit.ly/qeCE5B
    Swept hilt: http://bit.ly/oXYtAJ
    Espada Ropera: http://bit.ly/oVlBqU

    Capo Ferro stance (the naked gentleman on the left): http://bit.ly/pKE688
    Capo Ferro lunge: http://bit.ly/oSBZ4I

  9. blackcoat

    I have had exactly the opposite problem when trying to write fight scenes: I have too much combat training, and so can’t think of what *NOT* to write. So, a quick fight between two people master and student, with a total of fourteen blows exchanged and defended, ran to three pages.

    Because it was important to me, you see, to know that Master was keeping all of her weight on her back foot while parrying, making for softer parries, etc, etc.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. That’s the kind of thing I’ll be digging into during the next few posts: how to decide what detail goes on the page, and what can be left for the imagination. 🙂

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