Writer’s Craft #21 – Nobody wins a fight, not even the writer

This week’s guest author is John Preet. John teaches martial arts and has military experience. (Lynda)

I decided to write this after watching The Green Hornet in the same week that I read about kids trying what they saw on televised fights and getting seriously hurt. I blame popular visual media for creating a completely unrealistic standard of armed and unarmed violence. For example, in The Green Hornet, Seth Rogen gets shot but manages to wait a couple of days to fake a shooting, so he can be treated. Not a good idea. Any kind of blow has far more consequence in the real world. Many, many film fights have people taking blows to the eyes, knees, throat, and somehow gathering their reserves to administer justice.

All of which leaves us writers with an enormous dilemma. How do we make these scenes resonate with audiences who have watched action stars perform gruesome killings, followed by lame puns, or suddenly find spiritual strength to return from being beaten, cut, clubbed and rise even stronger than when the fight began? For one thing, the human body is largely comprised of water. Any kind of impact transmits through media that by their nature tend to go straight through, spreading damage by hydrostatic shock. The body is also powered by electrical impulses which are easily thrown out of sync by impacts, leaving muscles in spasm and not responding to commands. This does not even begin to examine the effects of blood loss, broken bones, dislocated or broken joints, damaged cartilage, eyes, eardrums, and so on.

When I have written fights the way they really happen, I get feedback of disbelief.

Finally, there’s the psychological factor. I am not exactly a shrinking violet. I firmly believe that, as Mr Heinlein said: “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.” Even believing that and having far more than my share of training and experience, I can tell you first hand that nobody wins fights. Even when it is settled (as is usually the case) by the first landed shot, the “victor” relives it, regrets it, and wishes it didn’t happen. A little piece of you gets taken away with every fight.

Here’s two pieces I’ve written. Which, if either, do you think is more realistic? And how do you deal with the dilemma in your own writing?

Example 1:

Smythe collapsed straight down at the grip on his shoulder, anticipating the punch that snaked through the air above his head, his own fist smashing through the man’s knee as he dropped. Mistake. Instant realisation as his hand began to swell an instant before the pain started but he managed to turn his broken hand down and smash an elbow into the crumpling man’s throat, cutting off a cry.

Example 2:

Jim heard the whicker behind him but only got halfway turned before the flying blade buried in his shoulder. Spinning the rest of the way, he left the blade where it was as he crushed the hand that had thrown it. He turned completely around, the grin turning feral. “Anybody else?”


33 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #21 – Nobody wins a fight, not even the writer

  1. Lynda, the first example is definitely more correct. I do wonder why the idiot would punch into bone; that had to hurt! Punching any hard surface has the potential to break knuckles and/or fingers.

    As a 5th-degree black belt in RyuTe Karate, I give workshops (Write the Fight) about how to write effective fight scenes and do a little consulting on this subject. Your post mentions aspects of the fight that I don’t cover — especially the emotional and psychological impact on those who damage, even maim or kill, their opponent, not to mention the fear that goes with fighting if you’re not trained or mentally prepared.

    Great topic for discussion!

  2. Welcome Mart! I researched the fear/mental prep factor when I developed Horth Nersal, the warrior-champion of my Okal Rel Saga. I, and Craig Bowlsby who sometimes writes Horth with me, portray the complete commitment and focus as something as important as Horth’s spatial genius for problem solving. My other research has meant most of the actual fights are short. I wanted to make the fighting plausible not hollywood, though, especially in Horth’s main book: Righteous Anger. If it is, I owe Craig the kudos. Any mistakes remain my own.

    1. One of the problems with lengthy fight scenes, as I’m sure you know from having studied, is that everything you have goes into every move — every attack, every defense, every exercise, every kata. And since you’ve just given everything, there’s a whole lot less available for the next move. There’s a decreasing effectiveness in every punch, kick, arm bar, sword strike, or whatever, so a smart fighter gets in, gets it done, and gets out. Kudos for recognizing the “real” and, as great writers always do, telling a huge truth in the “lie” of your fiction.

      1. Most indeedy. One of the reasons I really can’t stand the lengthy sword fighting scenes or martial arts nonsense in a lot of Hollywood movies where they take themselves dead-seriously. I’ve studied for years in Filipino stick fighting, and I always tell people that just about any real fight, provided the fighters are any good, will rarely last for longer than a minute. Get in, do as much damage as possible, get out.

  3. Even writing fantasy, I try to portrait “believable” fights. My swordfights are short and leave the heros panting and exhausted. Fistfights are confused and brutal affairs, sometime inconclusive (guards or other autority figures appear). The bodies still hurts the following days. As with many element of a story, I try to find reliable sources for fact, and starts from there, depending on the realism of the story. I write aventure fiction. I accept that a heros possesses a particularly strong immune system, and I don’t want him to loose too many teeth or break his hands. Still, I had a problem with a movie like _Bourne Suprematy_. It is hailed as a the “greatest action movie ever”. I simply could not believe that any human could take as many hits and punches in the face. In my book, this is a fantasy movie. A pretty good one, but fantasy nevertheless.

  4. As a YA author, I have some fight scenes, and I try to put them as realistic as possible (from the viewpoint of the adolescent main character), but also as dynamic as possible (for my younger public). As Marti pointed out, most of the fights shouldn’t last long. In my Chaaas series, I do show moral and psychological consequences of a recourse to violence, if my adolescent character choose that option.

    1. …if my adolescent character chooseS that option.
      (Not easy to edit once the Send button is hit.)

  5. Any of you worry about competing with the “pow bash wammy” extended fight scenes of the movies? Feel pressured to be less realistic? Or do you think writing it gives you greater scope to be realistic and still get attention?

    1. To me, most of the “pow-bash-whammy” type of fight scenes, especially in the movies, are frustrating to watch or read. I want to see what’s happening, rather than seeing it obscured by shadows and camera angles, or vague descriptions of the action. I don’t feel I’m competing with them; they’re competing with me, even if they don’t know it yet.

      Of course, we’re going for different audiences. I’m not looking for readers who so thoroughly suspend their disbelief. Instead, I’m hoping for a more thoughtful, intelligent audience who wants stories that make sense (within the context of the world built by the author). I want to be held to a higher standard of believability.

  6. Marty, thank you for chipping in. Your points are right on the money. My experience is that fights are over in seconds; these drawn-out sequences of repeated traded shots to vulnerable areas simply do not happen. I was fortunate enough to give a demonstration for Lynda, showing how a “real” sword encounter might go and it was, as you already know, over in less than two seconds.

    Oh, before I forget, I was the original idiot . . . still show my students how I have no third proximal knuckle on my left hand.


    – John

    1. Ouch, John!

      Now, before someone says, “But what about all those guys that break boards and concrete patio bricks?” I want to talk about that for a moment. I’ve broken a few of each in my day and never damaged myself.

      What most people don’t realize is the careful preparation of the boards and concrete patio bricks. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, the bricks are baked in an oven at low temperature to dry out the moisture content and make them easier to break. I’ve seen some dried out so much they crumbled when stacked!

      I don’t remember drying the boards, but we might have. And using spacers between the objects to be smashed also makes them easier to break. Having air beneath the whole stack and carefully balancing them so their edges are barely on the supports also helps. For the boards, the punch lands parallel to the grain of the wood,which breaks them more easily and protects the punching hand.

      That’s not to say everyone does this. I can only speak to my own experiences.

      Why do martial artists break boards and bricks, you may ask? Two reasons that I can think of: To show their prowess before an audience in a way that will bring in more students, and as a test of their own courage.

      I hope this isn’t too far off topic, since it’s not really about fighting per se. It’s just an attempt to break down one more martial arts “mystery.”

  7. Writer crafts 21 ‘nobody wins a fight , not even the writer, in connection to that the child writer thinks that the writer wins and remains alive if he fights for the truth. the lie dies in course of time and truth prevails for ever. Thanks getting a chance to comment on the your ideas.

  8. That is not off topic and it certainly does let some light in on the “mysterious” stuff. There is no doubt that breaking is a decent measure of focus and a way to prove that a blow needs to finish past the intended target to be effective. My knuckle is a good proving point that I use when I tell students (and myself!) to not use fists when there are far safer ways. 🙂

  9. First hand, most of the time . . .

    Having said that, there is a plethora of articles and books dealing with the subject, with an especial focus now on pediatric injuries. Two of the best are “Treating Martial Arts Injuries” and “Martial Arts Injuries: Prevention and Management” and of course my personal favourite, “Martial Arts After 40” 🙂

  10. Great topic – I’m pleased to see so many smart comments. I’m a career martial artist and writer and I’ve been running workshops for a while too, like the first commenter. It even led to me writing a short ebook on the subject. I’ve found that writers who attend the workshop are invariably invigorated by learning what real fighting is like and can’t wait to include it in their writing. Readers may not get the difference, but they certainly know when something reads as visceral and realistic even if they can’t tell why.

    I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell people how to write, but I’ve fought a *lot* and still teach fighters to this day, so I can certainly share that experience. There should be more of it. I hate to have a great story spoiled by a writer who’s trying to transcribe a crappy movie fight scene onto the page. We have so much more at our disposal, with the ability to include emotional and psychological content as well as in-fighting that just doesn’t translate to the screen.

    1. Glad to hear you speak up for the “more at our disposal”, Alan. I know movies can convey mood with slow motion and camera angles, but text still has the advantage in portraying the interior experience of the protagonist.

      1. Absolutely. And I always encourage writers to be more realistic in their fight scenes as it’s a more courageous stance to take. Dealing realistically with things like injuries, knock outs, adrenaline and so on makes fighting a much more dangerous thing than the movies would have us believe. That puts our characters in more danger and that makes our work more exciting if we’re brave enough to tackle it.

  11. Great post, definitely something most beginning writers need to take on board (but don’t). Definitely thinking along these lines, kung-fu instructor and author Alan Baxter (the above poster) has delivered a popular workshop at Australian SF conventions on how to write fictional fights properly.

    He’s recently published an ebook version of this workhop that should be an absolute must read for most authors. I can vouch for the value of his book “Write the Fight Right” 110%. He might be too modest to post a link to it, but I’m not:

    Don’t normally plug these things but it’s definitely relevant to this post.

    – Jason Fischer
    Clarion South Graduate, 2007.

    1. ACK! Jason, sorry, Jason, not Steve.

      Now I’ll have kung-fu kangaroos at my door in the middle of the night!

  12. You’re all too kind, I didn’t want to be all spammy! 🙂 But this is a subject very close to my heart. The ebook Jason so kindly linked is only about 12,000 words, but it basically covers all the things I try to cover in the workshop. You can’t teach people much about fighting in such a tight amount of time – we spend decades training ourselves to fight – but you can explain the basics of realism and help people to craft far more visceral fight scenes.

    I think you can get a decent chunk of the book to check it out on Amazon with the Send Sample Now option if you have a Kindle or Kindle app. The Smashwords version has all kinds of formats, including PDF. You can get a decent sample there too, but I can’t remember how much.

    I’m happy to add content, but where to begin! 🙂

  13. I’m really guilty of going the Hollywood route, but Lynda’s intervention has prevented some potentially horrible scenes. In a short story I originally had the main character jump out of a 5-story building, land with pain in his legs but still manage to walk around and have an epic fight days later. Despite the fact that he was a genetically enhanced superhuman, it was still outside the realm of plausibility for the universe. Adding some realism to that scene emphasized the damage that one stunt did on him, and made his careful data collection after that more realistic. I found it also made him more accessible to the reader. Before the correction the scenes read as a list of obstacles for an inaccessible hero. After the correction, the reader’s taken into the character’s shoes and lives through his healing process among other things, instead of being alienated by the fact that this character does something inhuman even for the story it’s set in.

    All this to say that I really appreciate realistic fight scenes and action a lot more. Lynda’s work probably brought this home for me, when what I would imagine to be the climax fight of the book would end in seconds. When the focus is not on hyperbolic action, other aspects of the story can flourish and become more effective, perhaps because realism is a better conduit to a reader’s thoughts and consciousness.

    This post reminds me that I might need to correct a scene where I lit a character on fire. The action-oriented part of my mind was brought up by Hollywood :S

  14. Given that my background is primarily in Kung Fu and sanda full contact fighting, I’m a sucker for proverbs. My favourite one, that I always remind people of in the seminars, is this:

    When two tigers fight, one limps away, terribly wounded. The other is dead.

    It’s a good reminder that fighting has serious consequences for everyone involved and Hollywood is guilty for making us think otherwise.

    1. Actually, one of the better fight scene writers is Steve Perry (the Matador series), who routinely refers to a style that seems to come from Australia, Oppugnate. From what I remember, its techniques were quite generic and inclusive and would lend themselves well to putting on the page.

  15. Might want to check out Rory Miller’s work on violence, too.


    There’s a line between realism and entertainment that is fairly narrow. Miller’s comment is that if he’s doing violence and it is dramatic or entertaining, he’s doing it wrong. Of course we all know that truth is no defense in fiction, and if you aren’t dramatic or entertaining in your story, you are doing it wrong, too …

  16. Did my research on Horth for Righteous Anger when I was in my Terribly Serious About Science stage. In addition to the “most serious fights between experts don’t last long” lesson, I read books on the psychology of fighting. A lot of the fight is won or lost before the action. The attitude of “win or die” Horth embodies is part of what makes him dangerous. He knows he might die, accepts it, and is completely focused on the moment until it is over. Which is unnerving against less resolute opponents and still helpful against one just as focused.

  17. Oppugnate isn’t exclusively an Austrailan style, there are teachers in the UK,the USA as well as Europe, mainly teaching security contractors, body guards etc.
    Ian Hogan Oppugnate Australia

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