Saturday, December 1, 2012

Say it With a Fist

Matthew Swihart, Esq.

There are three types of combat your characters will find themselves in from time to time: hand, blade, and projectile. This article is about the hand, and hopefully will provide you with some information to assist you in creating intense and believable fight scenes.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “In this age of the rule of brute force, it is almost impossible for anyone to believe that anyone else could possibly reject the law of the final supremacy of brute force.” Stated differently, the person in the better physical condition is more likely to win the fight. This is because the person in better physical condition has the stamina to throw more punches and kicks, and has the muscle mass to absorb and withstand blows.

However, this does not mean to imply that a muscle-bound brute will never be defeated by a smaller person. Rather, it means all fights are based upon force: the level of pain or fear inflicted upon a person in a brief span of time will determine whether or not they want to continue the fight (of course, in life-or-death fight-or-flight situations, people who elect to fight will push through pain in order to save their lives).

An example of how quick application of pain can end a fight happened to me a few years ago. I was in a bar unwinding with my karate students after a particularly strenuous class, when one of my students came up to me and said a patron of the bar wanted to talk to me. The new person was taller than me, and at least twice as thick (I assumed the product of years of steroid use). He was intoxicated, and loudly proclaimed his opinion that karate was useless against someone as “ripped” as him. I laughed and held out my hand for him to shake. When he took my hand, I applied a single-hand joint lock to his thumb that brought him to his knees. I leaned in, put my other hand on his shoulder, and calmly offered my opinion that he didn’t know what he was talking about. I then let him go, invited him to visit my dojo, and offered to buy him a drink. He left without accepting either.

But, don’t let your character rely completely on joint locks—in my years of training and working with volatile psychiatric patient populations, I’ve met dozens of people who are unaffected by joint manipulation, pressure points, and joint locks. Also, I caught my opponent unaware and unsuspecting—I have no doubt that particular technique would not have worked had he known what was coming.

An example of how fear can end a fight comes from an old friend of mine, Alan. He practices Goju Ryu, which is a “hard” style of martial art. These crazy people drop bowling balls on their bare feet, and routinely break baseball bats with their shins and forearms. Alan and I were seated on wooden bar stools at a bar (it seems a lot of my stories start there), when he got up to go to the bathroom. While he was gone, another man came up and took his seat. I told him it was taken, but he said, “Take it from me”—clearly, he was looking for a fight. I just told him I didn’t have to and turned back to my drink. Alan returned from the bathroom and politely asked the man to return his chair. Again, with the “Take it from me” bit. Alan simply said, “Ok”, and kicked the barstool. The legs were made of wood, and Alan’s kick shattered the two legs closest to him. The man fell to the ground in a heap of broken wood, splinters, and a worn seat. The man got up and saw Alan waiting in a fighting stance, grinning. He told Alan he was crazy, and ran out of the bar. Of course, my friend had to pay for the bar stool, but the salient point is that he defeated his opponent without touching him. Alan put enough fear into his opponent that he gave up the fight even before it began.

Now, enough psy-ops. Let’s get to the main event. The actual fight. I write volumes about fighting techniques, but that won’t help you with your action scenes. I believe you cannot write about punching or being punched until you’ve experienced both. This is because fighting is very visceral, and truly needs to be experienced to be understood. I recommend going to a local bar and picking a fight with the biggest person in there. If you keep doing that, you’ll either become a very good fighter, or you’ll end up dead. But even if you lose, you’ll have some good experiences to include in your fight scenes. A healthier alternative is to join a martial arts or boxing class, even for a brief time.

So, what can I provide you with here? How about some very basic combat strategies? First, unless your fight scene is two brothers brawling at a family picnic, you must assume your character’s very life depends upon winning the fight. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

1. Stay On Your Feet. Getting knocked down or out can mean rape, murder, or further beating will ensue. Despite what MMA guys do in a ring with a padded floor and only a single opponent, your character needs to stay on their feet. It’s the only way to deal with multiple opponents, and it allows your character to beat feet and escape if the tide turns against them. And, if your character is on the ground, remember that curbs, fire hydrants, trash, building corners, and other people will be in their way and cause pain. Ground fighting in a dojo or ring is one thing, it’s quite another on cold hard concrete. Also, if your character ends up on the ground, they have to get up again before they can leave. This takes time—and any time they’re not punching their opponent(s), their opponent(s) are punching them. Build fear into your scene when your character falls or gets knocked down—it will be real.

2. Remove the Target. This one seems self-evident, but I’m amazed at how many people stand there and watch a fist or foot come at their heads at high velocity and do nothing to avoid it. Blocking is not always feasible or possible, but moving almost always is (if you stay on your feet, that is). The first rule of fighting is to remove the target. This means, whatever someone is throwing at your character (fist, foot, blade, arrow, bullet, or guided missile), don’t let him remain where they are throwing it. I’ll never forget a seminar with Sensei Ray Dalke, where he punched a black belt in the face, then proceeded to yell at him, “Why did you get hit? Duck, bob, weave, something! Just don’t get hit!” There are eight empirical directions (think of a compass, with your character in the center, and North being the direction they are facing), and your character can move in any of them. But be aware that, if your character starts going backwards (South), it is very difficult to start going in any other direction (this is a symptom unique to this direction, and this statement may require more explanation, so if it doesn’t make sense, bring this up in the comments and I’ll provide more detail for you).

3. Hit Hard and On Target. The bottom line is, a ten year-old cannot knock out a full grown man. The child is incapable of generating sufficient force. Even men of equal size will find it difficult to knock each other out (just look at professional fights). There are two reasons for this: not enough force, or improper targeting.

3.a. Force. Force equals mass times acceleration. Force also equals mass times velocity squared. The key part is the mass. A ten year-old doesn’t have the mass in its tiny little arms to generate sufficient force to do any real damage to an adult. Conversely, a body builder’s muscles are so bulky and tight, they often cannot generate enough velocity to do any real damage (though they may knock you across the room, you’ll get up and realize it didn’t really hurt).

3.b. Targeting. A forceful (or “hard”) punch is a relative term. In my class, my students and I routinely punch each other in the stomachs and chests without causing much damage. Of course, these punches are expected, so the person receiving the punch tightens their muscles and breathes properly to prevent damage. In the real world, a good punch to the stomach is effective if the person being punched is breathing in (which loosens the stomach muscles), or otherwise doesn’t expect to be hit there. Because the effective value of any technique also depends upon where it is delivered, make sure your characters properly target their attacks. Have them strike the solar plexus, throat, temple, eyes, groin, kidneys, and other weak points on the body. Kicking someone in the bladder who has been drinking all night may just kill them, as a full bladder can rupture, dumping poison into the body. Be conscious of where your character is attacking and being attacked.

4. Be Aggressive. Robert Scaglione wrote, “On the street, the only rule is to fight for your life, and certainly the sooner you react with effective movement the better” (Building Warrior Spirit, p. 23, 1990). In other words, quick, decisive use of force will win the day. There are negative consequences to hesitation, so make sure your character moves decisively and without hesitation if they are going to win, and hesitates before losing or getting hit.

5. Remember the Writing. This is about writing, not real-world fighting, so be sure to include descriptions of how your character feels. Again, I strongly recommend you experience a fight if you never have. You need to know what it feels like to take a punch to the gut or face. That’s the only way you can transport your readers into the middle of the fight. Things like how a good punch to the stomach makes you slightly nauseas for a second; or, how a punch to the nose makes a quick wave of blackness flash in front of your eyes from your nose outward, like dropping a stone into a lake; or, the way you don’t feel a good punch connect, because all the force transfers into your opponent; or, the fear that settles in when the first attack comes in, even if you’re expecting it, and how you almost need that first hit to wake you up and clear the fog. Lastly, time does not slow down in a fight—it speeds up. Things happen very rapidly, and if you blink, you’ll miss your opening. I teach my students to avoid blinking for the duration of the fight (remember, real fights are short, so this isn’t as difficult as it first seems), to help them catch any opening which arises.

Good luck to your characters in their fisticuffs. And, if you have questions or want more clarification, post them in the comments. If I can respond there, I will; if not, I’m happy to take another blog post to fully respond, before I go into the next category: fighting with blades.

Matthew Swihart has more than twenty (20) years’ experience in Martial Arts, with over ten (10) years’ experience as an Instructor (Sensei). He has a Fifth Degree Black Belt (Yondan) in Chito-Ryu Karate, a First Degree Black Belt (Shodan) in Shotokan Karate, and holds rank in Ryu Kyu Kobudo Hozon Shin Ko Kai (Okinawan Weapons). He has also earned the titles of Technical Expert (Renshi) and Disciple (Deshi) for his extensive training and service to Chito-Ryu Karate. Mr. Swihart has never lost a fight, and has survived through three riots in psychiatric/correctional facilities, and one gang fight which broke out around him. He is currently in the process of securing a location to bring Chito-Ryu Karate to Colorado.


Ian Thomas Healy said...

I have written a guide to writing action scenes which you may find a useful tool. It's available in both print and ebook formats: Action! Writing Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques

Gigi said...

You have provided a ton of great information usually reserved only for your karate students. I felt like I was back in class without having my stomach stepped on during sit-ups.

Marilynn Byerly said...

I have written space battles without being an astronaut, diving scenes and I can't swim, and fight scenes using swords, fists, and futuristic weapons, and I have never used any of them. (I am a pretty good shot, though.)

My books have won major awards and great reviews, and I've never had the first reader tell me that I got any of my fight or action scenes wrong.

I have never been punched, but I used to ride. I have had a horse smash her head into me. I've been kicked, knocked into a tree, and have had a six-hundred pound horse fall on me and step on me when she was getting up.

All that has given me more than enough visceral information about taking physical abuse to use in my writing.

I got my diving scene right through research, then I ran the scene past friends who do dive to check for accuracy.

In other words, I beg to differ that only someone who has experienced something can write that kind of scene.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Matthew. This is a post worth printing and keeping in my useful notes file. Thanks!