Gun battles, fine. Car chases, sure. But give me an eyeball-to-eyeball bout of fisticuffs every time – to use Keanu as an exemplar, I’ll always go for Neo over John Wick. An honest to goodness dust-up can be as effective in prose as it is on screen but the guidelines work a little differently: we’re dealing with the theatre of the mind here, after all.
Martial arts are what I do when I’m not writing and I’m a lifelong action movie junkie, so these are the tenets I try to apply whenever my characters get physical.
In ground fighting it can take a half-dozen careful steps to get a submission locked; watching a match, you want to appreciate every detail but written scenes require some discretion. When I make people fight, there’s no: “He shifted his weight onto his left foot, dipped his shoulder five centimetres to dodge the punch then turned his rear foot 90° to transfer more mass into the mid-section kick–’…you get the idea. I try to be ruthless with cuts – the above would be ‘He dodged and fired a kick to the ribs.’ Fighters are all about economy of energy to avoid gassing and the same discipline applies to description.
Keep it real
That said, don’t sacrifice the verisimilitude of technique, even as you pare back detail. It’s very unlikely, in the heat of an adrenaline dump, that anyone would execute a jumping spin kick and land it. Equally, I keep well away from the more mystical stuff like catching bullets or defeating the opponent with a kata based on ancient Norse runes – strikes have to be fast and when they land should cause damage, even when blocked: the reader should feel the visceral heart of the brawl, which leads me to…
Fights hurt. When two people push past the flight response and start swinging – even if one is more skilled – both will take knocks. Show blood, bone breaks, the impact of skin on concrete. If I put my characters in harms way, that decision is rendered cheap if I don’t give a truthful report of the facts. That doesn’t mean gratuitous or overblown violence: unless the plot really needs it, no one needs to be popping heads with a single punch. Just don’t shy away from how ugly physical violence is.
Will they/ Won’t they?
We’re used to suspension of disbelief – it’s the currency all plot trades on. A fight is a microcosm of the hero’s journey: we know they’ll persevere because they’re the hero but we ignore that, choosing the heady fear that they might not. I like to add parts to every battle – especially if it’s a climactic one – that entertain the idea that the protagonist will fail. To go back to my early example: remember when Agent Smith emptied a magazine into Neo and he sank to the floor, a trail of blood on the wall? For a moment, he’d lost, and the relief when he stands up and triumphs is all the greater for that moment.
Violence shouldn’t come cheap. Walking away un-touched makes what just happened meaningless and the hero should feel their knocks: a knife fight will more often than not end in serious cuts (even for the victor) and even trained fighters can break their hands. As with the physical, the emotional; elation from victory can soon turn to regret, fear, guilt as the adrenaline high fades. The impact of close combat resonates powerfully when we see its aftershocks.
These are my guidelines for fights in books – they’re most assuredly not rules; I’ll keep them in mind, but that won’t stop me from breaking with them when I feel like it. Sometimes, you just gotta have mystical levitating ninjas.
Patrick Edwards 2019