Most fight scenes rely heavily upon the vague, and somewhat inaccurate, public perceptions of how martial artists would utilize their skills in a real fight. That is an unfortunate limitation, because the most interesting aspect of the martial arts is what goes on inside the mind of the fighter. That is where the most compelling part of the story truly lies. It’s what needs to be told.
Authenticity is the Polestar
Authenticity is the polestar. An author must always know the subject, and if the subject is the martial arts, that means keeping a few basics in mind. First, there is no such thing as one martial art. Instead, there is an amalgam of thousands of both popular and obscure fighting arts worldwide.
We may be familiar with the term, Karate, which had its birthplace in Okinawa. But how many of us realize that there are dozens of distinct styles of Karate, each with its own rankings, requirements and principles? How many of us are familiar with the South American discipline of Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, which can be traced to Africa; or Krav Maga, the modern Israeli martial art; or the more than 1500 various styles of the Chinese martial art called, Kung Fu?
Hence, the first question an author describing a martial arts encounter must answer is what style does her protagonist practice? The next is this: how would that style fare in a real fight; with adrenaline fueling the encounter and panic setting in? The authenticity of a real fight is that it is savage, bloody and frayed at the edges. Unlike the crisp, well-executed forms and drills of typical martial arts training, a physical confrontation is hard to control. Breaking boards is fine, but they don’t hit back. An opponent does.
In short, write about the chaos of a real fight. Bring the reader into what makes a fight something to avoid. Show the dark underbelly of the encounter.
For example, here is a fight scene from my novel, Point and Shoot, in which the protagonist uses an Okinawan style of Karate called, Shaolin Kempo, which relies on the interpretation of the five shaolin animals (tiger, crane, leopard, snake and dragon) for its basic moves:
I ducked under the second swing and snapped myself into the tiger mindset. The other four animal styles of our Shaolin Kempo Karate system, the snake, the leopard, the crane and the dragon, often utilized a block or parry before moving in for a strike. The tiger was the only one whose nature did not significantly involve defense. This animal was at the top of the food chain, the strongest and deadliest in the Kingdom. It went in one direction, always forward, toward the prey. All offense.
No holding back.
I formed my hands as if I were gripping imaginary tennis balls and launched myself at him. I dug my fingers into the bicep of the swinging arm and ripped at the muscle, while striking the forearm on the same side, straight in with the heel of my palm, the “paw” as it were. It was a thousand year old battle protocol from the great Kung Fu masters: first, attack the arm that attacks you.
The bat fell to the ground.
Next, press the advantage decisively. I ripped into his face with the middle and forefingers of my right hand, raking along his nose and mouth. With the other hand, I struck his neck and dug my fingers in, grabbing the windpipe. The technique called for me to pull it out, lacerating his throat and killing him. But there were other options. I pushed rather than pulled, momentarily closing the windpipe against itself, cutting off his air.
Then, I sped things up. Kempo Hands.
I had once timed myself at six strikes per second, and if anything, at that moment, it felt even faster. A double palm heel blow to both ears, ripping downward along the cheek and collapsing onto his throat; stepping under and inside his flailing arms to shoot an elbow upward into his abdomen, taking his center; rolling into a palm heel strike to the groin; and back into a rising elbow to the underside of his chin; arcing down into another palm heel onto the bridge of his nose. There were no wind ups, no wasted motion; each movement was designed to roll naturally into the next.
His body jerked from one direction to the other, in rhythm to the apposite lines of each attack. The primary strategy of Kempo Karate was to strike an aggressor in opposing directions, so he could not muster his composure sufficiently to counter-attack. It also forced the aggressor’s body to lurch into the next stroke head on. The strokes would roll into one another and create a tumbling effect. To an outside observer, it would appear to be one simultaneous tornado of movement, of blinding speed, a blur too fast for the eye to follow.
Blood splattered from his nose and mouth. His eyes closed and he made a gurgling sound, flailing his arms impotently as he flew backward.
But my mind-set was the tiger, an animal that kept going when it saw blood. The next move in this particular combination would have gotten him on the ground and “smashed” both hands into his throat. The smashing tiger. A finishing blow to the throat, for insurance.
Instead, I took another step forward and chambered both my hands, palm forward, elbows bent: the left one at shoulder level; the right, at my hip. I shouted a Kiai, the warrior yell, and launched a double palm heel strike, imagining both my palms penetrating through his body. I made contact with his bladder and the underside of his cheekbone. They were both prime acupuncture points; but just as the meridians could be used for healing, the pathways could also be blocked.
His head whipped around, and he collapsed, lying on his back, bleeding from the various facial lacerations and coughing in fits.
The entire fight had taken less than five seconds; when done right, they usually did. I paused and reached into my back pocket, taking out some tissues, pressing them against his facial cuts. He lay there, quietly, allowing me to work on him. I had seen this before when I was a cop, the defeated male. Docile and compliant.
It occurred to me that this was how a deer might look after being taken down by an actual tiger. Completely shocked and overwhelmed by the ferocity of the attack, waiting for the neck bite that would end it all.
He coughed a few times, but was finally able to breathe again without laboring. I turned him on his side so he could spit out the blood. I wiped it away and found that there were only two places I had actually broken the skin. One was the juncture of his upper and lower lip and the other, his nose. After a few moments of pressure, they both stopped bleeding.
I helped him up and left him standing there, crouching with his hands on his thighs, I searched for my gun in the grass. I found it about twenty feet away. I opened the chamber out of habit to be sure it was still fully loaded and rejoined him. He lumbered his way to the door, ignoring me.
I noted that the baseball bat had landed on the ground behind him. I kicked it into the street.
He dabbed at his face and looked to see if there was anymore blood. “You fight like a girl,” he said.
The Author Must Inhabit The Mind of the Fighter
It is important that the author learn what it is like not only to throw a punch, but to take one, as well. Most of us have not been in an actual fight (at least as adults), yet we write about them with impunity. I am not advocating that a brawl take place at the next writer’s convention, but certainly, there is something to be said for an author going to the local marital arts school and learning the basics of controlled sparring.
If you are afraid to try that, use that fear in your story. Emotional content is a powerful tool for a writer. Your characters should be afraid to fight on some level. The way they deal with that fear, either by denying it; using it to bolster their awareness; or allowing it to overtake them in a fit of panic, will establish the realism of your fight scene.
Perhaps your central character is so angry that he sets aside the fear. Perhaps your character is protecting a loved one so she ignores her slight stature and lack of real training and proceeds to overcome a larger opponent. The actual punching and kicking should be secondary. You must guide the reader into inhabiting your character’s feelings and motivations about the hostile encounter.
You Need Not Describe Every Grunt
We all know the standard refrain for new writers: show don’t tell. In a fight scene, the author can “tell” the reader a great deal about his characters by simply “showing” how they fight. In this scene from my book, Point and Shoot, I wanted to paint a portrait of how an older man named, Grandfather, would overcome two younger, stronger ones, whom I call White Shirt and Pony Tail, by utilizing the internal aspects of the martial arts.
“Management. We had a complaint from one of the other guests about noise.”
“We’re leaving,” he replied. “Give us ten minutes to clean up.”
“I can’t hear you, sir.”
White Shirt leaned into the door. “I said we’re leaving.”
Suddenly the door exploded off its hinges, smashing directly into him. He arced across the room.
I had so rarely seen Grandfather let loose to maximum effect in these last years. When he did, it looked nothing like what Bette and I would do, none of those solid and crisp Kempo Karate combinations he had taught me so long ago, drawn from the basic system. His movements were now hidden and obscure.
He calmly stepped inside the room. Pony Tail leveled his gun, taking aim from the other side. Grandfather ran his hand in a large arc from head to waist. It looked like he was fanning the air. Pony Tail shouted in pain and fell backward, dropping the gun.
Grandfather approached him without haste. Pony Tail righted himself and scrambled to pick up the gun again.
Still far away from him, Grandfather clapped his hands together, and twisted his palms outward. The younger man smashed against the far wall, caught in a wave of energy. That gave Grandfather the time he needed to reach him. He placed his fingers gently on Pony Tail’s gun hand. The weapon immediately dropped to the floor once more. Then he lightly tapped the center of Pony Tail’s chest. The younger man collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
By now, White Shirt had pulled himself back together. He had his gun aimed.
Without touching him, Grandfather made a short, blunt movement which I did not recognize. White Shirt grimaced and dropped the gun, holding his hands to his temples. There was another blunt movement, this one emanating from a twist in Grandfather’s hip, something akin to a bump and grind.
White Shirt also collapsed to the ground.
Fight scenes should be viewed as opportunities to develop characterization and introduce emotional content to the story. To do so, the author must present a both physically and mentally authentic description of the encounter. Now, go out there and have your characters kick some ass.