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.)