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How to express martial arts action in fiction?
In the context of an actual as opposed to training fight scene in a fictional narrative, how would one express martial arts action?
Generally, martial arts has a distinctive disciplined but powerful visual style as it uses specific moves and poses as opposed to just blocking and throwing punches, so how could it be depicted so that it is separated from conventional unarmed combat, whilst retaining the 'artistic', I suppose, quality of martial arts?
This page does help to a small degree; however, it tends to use technicality (I want to describe the fight without explicitly naming any martial art), rather than imagery, which seems to suggest telling rather than showing, which I would like to avoid.
Martial arts which focus on offense can be described like any other fist fight. Combat is composed of movements (advances and retreats) and attacks (jabs, punches, kicks and blocks). Each opponent's maintenance of their own balance can be described along with the preparatory tensing of muscles prior to each major offense. Trash talk and grunts will make up most of the dialogue.
Defensive martial arts like judo or akido can be described more artistically, with a focus on shifting the balance of the enemy, drawing the attack and then turning the force of that attack against its owner. Defensive arts lend themselves to a vocabulary which is usually reserved for dance, with flow and cadence overpowering force and fury.
The simple answer is simply to describe the awareness of the fight. I've been doing martial arts for three years now, so I know that your mentality shifts a lot depending on what style you are using. However, there is a common theme of looking for a weakness in your opponent and exploiting it. While I have never been in a plain 'fist-fight', I would assume the mentality there is more just about trying to hit your opponent as hard as you can, and not caring or knowing where or how to hit them.
The more detailed answer is below:
Before you address martial arts in fiction, you want to avoid the combat trap I (and apparently many others) have fallen into. If this doesn't apply to you, great. Skip this section.
The combat trap is essentially where an author will lapse into relating all the moves of the fight. You see this a lot where the fight is supposed to be fancy, with a lot of 'moves' involved, but it applies to any fight.
He ducked the blow, slipping under Bob's outstretched fist. He quickly threw out his own fist in a fast jab, sending it into Bob's ribs with a satisfying crunch.
Bob grunted, doubling up, but lashed out with a right hook. He slipped backwards, barely avoiding the blow. Unfortunately, the sudden movement upset his balance, and he staggered backwards. Bob, seeing his opportunity, leapt after him.
He was off-balance; any block he tried would be weak, so he simply dropped to the ground. Bob landed on top of him, but he was already squirming to the side. Bob tried wrapping his arms around his neck, but he wormed his own arms under Bob's, breaking the choke.
The problem here is that repetitive telling - while okay in short bursts - is dry, often hard to understand (if you can't describe the moves well enough), and eventually boring if it continues the length of most fights. On top of that, the fight by itself rarely adds anything to the story, unless the moves themselves are central to the plot. The trick to fix this is to focus on the character doing the fighting, and not the fight itself. This makes the fight more personal because you can see the protagonist's thoughts as he fights (which prevents it from being dry and boring), and also can do something for the story, as the character can realize things and make decisions during a fight he otherwise wouldn't. If a particular move is hard to explain, you can simply leave it up to the reader's imagination, and focus on the thoughts of the fighter instead:
He ducked the blow easily, a little surprised. What was Bob thinking? He was a professional boxer; Bob had no chance. He didn't want to hurt Bob; a quick reminder would do. From under Bob's guard, he sent his fist forward in a quick jab, feeling it connect with Bob's ribs with a crunch. Enough to hurt, but not seriously injure.
Bob grunted, doubling up, but quickly lashed out with a right hook. Caught off guard, he stumbled backwards, barely avoiding the blow. He was off balance, he knew it. He had to get his feet under him, but now Bob was lunging forwards, perhaps sensing his advantage.
There was nothing for it. He couldn't block anything while he was still off-balance. He dropped to the ground, and felt Bob land on him a second later. Got to get out! he thought. He knew if Bob got his full weight on him, he would have a hard time escaping. He squirmed to the side. Bob wrapped an arm around him, trying to choke him, but he writhed his arm under Bob's, twisting at the elbow to break the choke.
You can see how the character is much more involved in the fight, while all the moves are still related.
The same trick applies to martial arts. Focus on the character rather than the action. There is an added level of difficulty in describing martial arts though. That's because a lot of the moves are genuinely hard to describe to someone who has never seen them.
In a fraction of a second, he lined up his shoulder with his opponent. He could see the unprotected area on the chest where he would strike. His left foot forwards, he brought his back foot to the front and leapt, propelling himself high into the air. From there he had all the time in the world. His opponent's guard went up, leaving his chest wide open. All he had to do was turn so his other side faced his opponent, wait for gravity to start pulling him down, and then shoot his right leg out in a straight line, sailing cleanly into his opponent's chest. Dead center.
If you know of a way to plainly describe complex moves, by all means use it (and let me know too). But usually, you have to let the reader imagine the majority of the move, and only describe the finishing product. That is, after all, what is important.
He stepped forward and leapt into the air, spinning around as his opponent's guard went up, opening his chest to attack. He waited a split second while gravity took over once more, and then, when he was level, shot his foot out, catching his opponent in the chest. Dead center.
You can see how it's a lot easier to understand. Add in focusing on the character rather than the actions, and you have it.
Your question deals specifically with the artistic elements of martial arts and how to distinguish it from regular combat. As I said in my opening paragraph, a lot of that comes down to awareness.
Again, disclaimer: I haven't been in an actual fist-fight. However, I would guess that the discipline to break down your opponent's guard and figure out where and how to strike is not there. Maybe if you're a professional boxer. But for someone with no training, I doubt it.
Martial arts is all about figuring out how to get past your opponent's guard. If you can't get past it, then you need to make him move it to create an opening. For Tae Kwon-Do, this can mean kicking off to the side so he moves to block it, then kicking fast from the other side while he is unprotected. In Jiu-Jitsu, this can mean pretending to struggle to choke from one side, when in reality your other arm is getting into position.
There's also a lot of discipline involved. In Jiu-Jitsu, you can wipe yourself out fast if you struggle against your opponent. Knowing exactly what you need to do to keep him from choking you or breaking your arm, and doing nothing else can help you relax, as well as allow you to assess the situation and figure out how to distract your opponent, or get out of the hold. For example, you can spend a lot of time trying to pull at the arm that is choking you. In reality, you just need to get your arm under it and create a gap for your chin. With your chin in there, it's impossible to be choked. You can then relax, and start getting out.
Describing the discipline, awareness, and the breakdown of the fight will go a long ways towards differentiating martial arts from regular fist-fights. Contrary to popular belief, martial arts is not some sort of 'dance'. It is combat. The only difference is that it has focus and direction. Describe those, and describe the emotions and thoughts of your characters, and you'll have a martial arts scene readers will want to read.
Best of luck in your endeavors!
- Set up background and tension before the fight; plan end goal and motivation
- Clarity through lexicon, positioning, and flow
- Condensed and quick pacing by using actions to imply, not tell, personality, psychology, and intensity; word choice is key here
- Maintain immersion with clarity and pacing; sometimes complexity and creativity need to be sacrificed for clarity and pacing
- Artistry through iconic moments and lexicon that specifies actions, not a generalized style, and can be understood by the layman
- Consider perspective; protagonist or enemy or outside party
- Each paragraph is a separate sequence of moves with a clear transition (ranged to close, level of intensity, new tactics, etc.)
- Occasional paragraphs of characters' perspective about the fight, for rests from the action into their psychology, then back into the action (don't linger too long!)
- No exposition during the fight! Explain before or after; during training or post-evaluation.
- Rocket Jump notes for reference: https://school.rocketjump.com/learn/directing-container/intro-to-fight-choreography
The best thing to figure out how you would want to write a fight scene is to watch a fight scene, then write about it. What stands out the most? What details are important? Whose perspective are you writing from, and does it change?
Yeah, I totally agree with you; the article you linked uses way too many technical terms with too much telling. I don't want exposition in the middle of a fight! Explain it before the fight, or not at all. Because of the limited time, the writer had to use a bunch of metaphors and description that could be explained beforehand or assessed later by the characters. The action needs to happen now! I'd recommend at least 1-2 moves per sentence, 2-3 sentences per paragraph.
Pacing and Clarity
I suppose it depends on your preference, but the martial arts sequences that I enjoy reading the most are clear and dynamic, describing only a few moves at a time. The pacing of the actions can be rapid, small movements, or larger, more complex actions. Consider how many words you want to use for each move; this will measure the pacing.
As someone who loves martial arts scenes, I prefer iconic actions that stand out and can be imagined clearly, paced well with a rhythm, rather than a confusing flurry of movement. To prevent wordiness, use the proper terms and lexicon for the character, like "jab, fake left, duck, uppercut", "sweeping the leg, crouching into a backflip for a bicycle kick to the crown", or "spear hand to the jugular, then the solar plexus". Terms convey artistry and the style of martial arts, as well as condensing the action. It can portray the character's personality (like "solar plexus" vs "abdomen" vs "gut") and intensity. If terms might be confusing, simplify or explain beforehand for the layman. If something like "judo flip" or "crane kick" isn't clear, use something else.
What also takes me out of the fight is when I don't know how the character moves from one position to the next. Consider what the layman imagines based on your words. Often I'm thinking, "Wait, how does he duck while both hands grab the guy's head?" I don't want to puzzle out their positioning. A move needs to logically flow into the next. Unless you can find a way to make it work, sometimes complexity and creativity need to be sacrificed for clarity and pacing, so as not to disrupt the immersion.
If you can imply psychology or the characters' perspectives from actions alone, even better! Just don't let it disrupt the flow. There are ways to imply feelings, reasoning, and reactions from a character's perspective. They'll execute one action for a specific aim, looking at their face, not noticing the other's feet to be caught off-guard, stumbling doubled over and trying to regain footing, then looking up to receive a right hook to the temple. Let the actions and perspective show how the characters are feeling, or how they outwit the other.
Consider how you will structure the fight scene. For me, each paragraph in a fight scene has a clear transition, like moving from ranged to close combat, increasing the level of intensity and savagery, or employing new styles or surrounding equipment.
Occasionally, a paragraph will offer a break from the actual fighting and moves into the main character's thoughts, their impressions of the other fighter, of themselves, their plans for the next move, their shock at the impact, motivations, etc. A reader can only hold one mode of thinking for so long before you lose them, even if it's intense. Though it's meant to give rest for the reader, these paragraphs might also change the way the character fights. But keep it on the fight; don't wander too far. Also, don't linger there too long. Move back into the fight, where it escalates, new strategies are employed, the motivation has changed, etc.
Feel free to break the pattern! Sometimes a fight can be more exciting when one is caught off-guard and the pacing is broken. Try different perspectives. Something to experiment with!
For the actual choreography, Rocket Jump has a concise and workable guide to making a fight scene, and I think it can be translated to writing with these principles: pacing, performance, reason to fight, camera movement (or "perspective"). Lots of great pointers. Check it out here: https://school.rocketjump.com/learn/directing-container/intro-to-fight-choreography It's about this video, "London Brawling": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpasSV_mw2o
He says, "A great fight scene pleases the eyes, soothes the ears, blows the mind, touches the heart". I interpret it for writing as clear and iconic moves and positions, the vocabulary used and the way the words might sound together, unexpected development, and clear motivation.
Hope this helps!
Write from experience... Have you ever engaged in a martial arts contest yourself? You may want to write a play-by-play but those (to me) tend to become tedious, like reading the steps to a choreography. Others gave some good ideas on how to accomplish that.
A fight, martial arts or other, is more than the punches and kicks. When writing a screenplay, then the visual is more important and the moves matter. I find that in writing, you want to focus on more than a play-by-play. (Disclosure: I only did fencing, so will draw from my experience)
- The person's inner state of mind (calm, worried about losing, confident, looking for a way to cheat, breathing)
- One's breathing
- The demeanor of the two combatants between furious assaults. Does one taunt the other (I used to do that)? Does one labors to breathe? Does one looks for an escape?
- Any changes in the environment. Did the battle move from one location to another, something that is relevant such as the fighters moving from a garden to a riverside.
- The reaction of the onlookers.
This allows you to expand on your character's state of mind. Even when one enters the no-mind, there are still many things that happen. It will make your story more relatable and allow the reader to understand the character better.
I would echo part of Myron's answer. I have a highly trained close combat martial artist in one of my stories. I personally only have a year of martial arts training, but I know enough about it and anatomy to do web research.
My approach is to avoid all lingo and nomenclature; all I describe is the openings my fighter sees and the reasons that blows are effective: This kick ruptures the liver, that blow rips the esophagus. I do get "clinical" when I feel the results need to be explained: The blade stuck in the back of his hand, severing the median nerve bundle that controlled his thumb and fingers. His hand spasmed and the sword dropped.
So I will refer to specific blood vessels, tendons, nerves or bones, with enough context for the reader to know what I (the author) refer to, and enough for the reader to see my character knows exactly what they are doing and why. In my story, at least, I feel any specific martial arts terminology directed at the reader would only confuse them.
There may be call to use it between characters that are both knowledgeable. All professions develop their own lingo of single words or phrases, a shorthand to quickly communicate a lot of meaning. When that is needed, I tend to invent something more literal than poetic, or use something real but intentionally choose words from a wide variety of fighting styles, I want my fighter to be MMA with access to any style, I don't want a knowledgeable reader to say "That isn't Jiu Jitsu" or "No Karate expert would do that".
As Thomas says, there are literally thousands of martial arts systems and a professional fighter with a lifetime of training might easily switch between several approaches, depending on their opponent's skill level and numbers.
As far as real fist fights are concerned, against amateurs, I have known four bar bouncers, and their strategy is typically the same. Deflect or dodge blows, and go for a disabling strike (knockout or other fight-ender). The typical "fight" of an amateur against a bar bouncer is one or two seconds long.
Training to duck or dodge head or neck strikes is paramount: Not getting knocked out (or knocked into disorientation) can literally save your life, There is nothing more vulnerable than lying unconscious in the street and getting face stomped and kicked. One stomp or kick to the throat or head can kill, even inadvertently.
Oh, and in a fistfight, don't punch with your fists! It is too easy to break a small bone in your knuckle or hand if you punch solid bone (in the skull, the edge of the jaw, an elbow brought up to block). A broken bone in your hand disables your primary weapon: Out of pain, but even if adrenalin keeps you from feeling it there is the slipperiness of blood and the loss of structural support. It is the reason boxers are allowed such heavily cushioned gloves, so their ring matches can last.
The heel of the hand is very hard to break, can be used almost anywhere a fist can be used, and is more effective than the fist without endangering fingers (which are also free to then grab or do more damage).
I would also agree with the advice to keep the focus on the character experiencing the fight; in my writing fights seldom go to plan, especially against multiple opponents. Opponents do unexpected things (like dodge a punch or run at the first strike), my fighter can lose his balance or slip, a knockout punch can fail to knock somebody out, etc.
I try to never portray either heroes or villains as infallible. Always triumphant is okay, but knowing my heroes can make mistakes and be injured or be forced to improvise sustains tension in their fights.
A few tips I've come across...
Fights are fast-paced, the writing should reflect that. I recommend frequent paragraph breaks running on short clips and sentence fragments.
A fight is about action/reaction so deeper thought really isn't an option. As a martial artist who has been unfortunate enough to find myself in self-defense situations before, you don't think about the moves or even your opponent's moves. It's all muscle memory, and you're more watching while your training pays off. Thinking costs reaction time.
It's more like, "Oh, they're lifting up their hands to... and I've blocked it already and punched them in the face." Well, they're going to... well, I already addressed that too, apparently. Hey my leg hurts, oh, the kicked it but I dodged most of it. Why am I spinning in a circle? Oh, that's why."
You think about your moves in training, but your "thinking thinking", you only reflect on them in actual combat. Though there is a part of your mind that's fighting, it doesn't bother taking the times to use words - that takes too long.
So, here's how I might write a fight scene:
He stared down his opponent, and he inhaled, then let out a long exhale, relaxing the restraint he normally kept on his body. The world came into a sharp focus, the sound of pounding blood in his ears grew louder and slower, as did everything else. His opponent raised their hand for a crane stance, he lowered into tiger.
They stabbed down.
A scream (theirs or his?)
More screaming (theirs)
Grab. What? Neck (his)
Crack. Arm gone.
Falling back (them)
Neck punch (good arm)
Connect... they fall, gasping.
He stands, the world becomes quieter.
He no longer hears the blood, his opponent is laying on the ground... his arms hurts immensely, oh yea, he broke it in the fight, he's going to need to splint, but his opponent is struggling to breath, he needs to end it before the fight restarts. He lifts up his foot, and presses it to his opponent's neck...