Who’s up for a fight? [Writing real fight scenes]

Recently I have been chatting with a friend and fellow author about writing fight scenes in her novel. Unlike most writers, this is an area that doesn’t give me too many problems, or at least, not of the same kind that they experience.

Let’s lay down a few antecedents: I have been trained in 26 different fighting systems, holding black belt degrees in 14 of these, and a host of weapons during a long and interesting life. But my knowledge is not just theoretical. Unfortunately, I have had to use those skills on occasion… and I’m still here, so they must work. I also have an encyclopaedic knowledge of many other fighting styles and weaponry. Oh, and with two exceptions, none of that stuff was oriented to competitions (with rules and regulations etc).

I love to read thrillers and there are many written by ex-soldiers. Whilst most get the details of the ‘conventional’ fighting (using weapons issued by their army/navy etc) right, many have little or no experience of ‘unconventional combat, particularly the close-quarter variety that their protagonists display on the pages of their books. So as a source for a writer attempting to produce a convincing fight scene, studying them is not always the way to go. As for Hollywood, well forget it. Bruce Lee once commented on the difference between real combat and theatrical representation of combat – in movies you only ever see the latter.pen mightier

Now I’m going to try the impossible here (those who know me well, will recognise the trait that gets me into trouble more than any other). I’m going to give you, the potential writer of fight scenes, a few pointers for making your combat more realistic. This will give you a good foundation which you can then embellish at will. So this post isn’t too long, I’m going to stick to unarmed fighting – maybe, in a hypothetical Part 2, I’ll talk about weapons, although they will get a mention or three here. The following will be Fictional-genre generic; I won’t be speaking about magic spells – never used them – you’re on your own for that.

There’s a huge difference in the way a trained fighter and Joe Public react to the threat of a fight. It all starts in the amygdala. This beastie sits at the base of our brains and associates stimuli with emotion. It’s the thingumajig that stops you holding your hand over an open flame (once you’ve done it the first time, of course). It’s a primitive part of our brains responsible for the fight or flight reaction. Joe Public will usually go for the flight option, if available. If it isn’t, then the submission option is next up. It’s only when Joe Public tries for the fight option that trouble occurs. A trained fighter is, of course, also subject to this process. The difference is analysis. Someone who has fighting skills (not just an experienced bar brawler) will take in a series of factors which will enhance the decision the lizard brain chooses.

These factors include:

a)      Number of assailants – even a large group is limited in how they can attack one person. I’ve fought more than ten at once, successfully, because I used the other factors below to restrict the number that could interact with me at any given time. Almost all group assailants will not have practiced their attack, so they will get in each other’s way naturally, something your protagonist can help with.

b)      Space and terrain – it’s a very different thing fighting in water, on ice, on sand or loose dirt, on a hard surface, on an incline or uneven surface, in a narrow area, on a moving vehicle (think cars, trucks, trains, aircraft, or even horseback). The area you have to operate can be used to limit what your opponent(s) can do, and it can limit your protagonist’s options too. Hollywood took this to a ridiculous extreme in the second ‘Kill Bill’ movie with the fight in the trailer. As a master swordsman, I teach my students to draw a metre long katana in a space the width of their bodies, in less than a second, and most get the hang of it very quickly. The scene in question, where the swords couldn’t be drawn because they kept hitting the walls, was hilarious, for all the wrong reasons! Using the terrain as a weapon (Hollywood again tends to limit itself to throwing dirt into the eyes of the fighters) is important. Many of the older fighting systems that use throws are based on this. When a human body is thrown onto a hard floor, against a streetlamp, railing, wastebasket, parked car etc, the terrain becomes the weapon. It’s not about using a kerbstone to hit the bad guy, just the opposite in fact.

c)      Natural weapons – in traditional Japanese fighting philosophy it is recognised that the human body has 16 natural weapons (obviously including items such as hands, which can be used in a huge number of ways, feet, head, elbows etc). Learning how to use these effectively is the basis for the world’s unarmed fighting systems. But there is another natural weapon that trumps all of these – your intelligence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people in casts because they threw a punch and broke bones in their hands or feet (of the 206 bones in our bodies, more than half are in our hands and feet). There’s a Golden Rule in striking – never hit something hard with something soft (an untrained fist against a jawbone is not recommended).

d)     Acquired weapons – there are so many everyday objects that can be turned into effective weapons that you would be surprised. In the average room, in an average house, there will be over fifty! In your car, probably about another twenty (I once took on three assailants, as part of a demonstration, while sitting behind the wheel of a stationary car. After a few seconds I had trapped all three using everything from the driver’s seat belt, steering wheel, window frame, and handbrake, left the vehicle and walked away). No I’m not superman, or Jason Bourne, but by using imagination tempered with a little knowledge (primarily of anatomy and physics) you would be surprised just what can become a weapon if needed. What’s the weirdest weapon I’ve used? It’s a tie between a banknote, a cardboard drinks coaster and an ice cube. Newspapers, magazines, umbrellas and walking sticks are almost conventional. It’s all about being flexible …in your thinking.

e)      Attitude – I always advise my students (bodyguards, police, military, Joe Public) to act if attacked. The puffing out of the chest, bluster approach could get you killed or seriously hurt. It’s tantamount to incitement. I recommend making yourself smaller (than the attacker), stepping back at an angle (better defensive position as it allows offense while reducing target area), relaxing your whole body (it makes for far quicker reaction time), and slowing your breathing (deep breathing increases oxygen flow to the brain and muscles which helps think clearly, react faster and control the adverse effects of adrenaline). I also strongly insist that (in a mugging situation) nothing you have on you, NOTHING, is worth your life – just hand it over and forget about violence, even if you are confident in your abilities. Only if your assailant is clearly bent on doing you harm no matter how much you collaborate, should you react.

f)       Offense/defense – many Martial Arts taught as Self-Defense are based on allowing your opponent to make the first move. Whilst legally this allows for justification for your defense, one blow etc could be all they need. The old adage of ‘a good offense is the best defense’ may be applicable. When faced with multiple opponents, often the bluster-boy is not the leader. Scan the group, identify who’s in charge (eye contact between them can be a dead giveaway) then go on the offensive against them can be a good strategy if your protagonist has the skills. Don’t know who’s the leader? Go for the biggest. That scene in the Tom Cruise Jack Reacher movie where he explains his defense to the four thugs (something you should never do) is strategically accurate, believe it or not. In the herd mentality, when a leader is taken down, the herd usually is unfocused, needing time to find a new leader – time your protagonist should not allow.

g)      Time – there are two aspects to this subject; real fights are short (10-15 seconds, maybe half a dozen blows exchanged) which is extremely boring for Hollywood. Chasing the bad guy across rooftops as blows are exchanged is visually exciting, but it takes its toll on the body’s ability to sustain the fight. Impacts and injuries from the other guy do too. Only a superhero would last more than a few minutes, so if you want to be real, watch the clock. The other aspect I mentioned is the apparent slowing down of time in a fight – this is a sensation produced by the excess of adrenaline released into the body – it makes you react faster; it doesn’t make you a time traveller. Also, when the fighting stops and your body tries to resume normal operations, it usually induces nausea and vomiting (show me the last time James Bond threw up!).

h)      Adrenaline – I’ve already mentioned this several times. I hinted at its adverse effects too. One of these is that it’s an exceptional natural anaesthetic. I‘ll give you a fr’instance: a few years ago, one of my students saw a bunch of some 30 skinheads beating up a single individual in the street. No cops about (cowards generally choose their terrain more carefully than their victims). So he intervened. Finally the cops turned up… and arrested everyone… including the victim and my student.  They were in a police car on the way to the cop shop when someone remarked that my student’s white shirt was bright red at the back – he’d been stabbed during the fight and was unaware of this due to the adrenaline coursing through his body. (As I’m sure you want to know – he did get released with no charges and he put 6 of the attackers in hospital before the cops arrived).

i)        Attacker’s weapons – In my experience, most attackers when wielding a weapon, tend to focus on that weapon to the exclusion of anything else they could do. This means that often, when you ‘remove’ that weapon from their control, psychologically you’ve won the battle. There’s something I also teach my students about using ‘recovered’ assailants’ weapons – if you know how to use it, keep it; if you don’t, throw it away where the assailant can’t regain control of it.

j)        Finally, don’t be too specific. This was the mistake I made. Compare these two short fight scenes (the first is from ‘2012’ my first novel, is technically correct, and makes this mistake; the second is from ‘the CULL – Bloodstone’ and is my latest – see I’ve learned something too!):


The third attacker had grabbed the woman’s bag and was trying to wrest it from her limp form. Grey stepped towards him, and the man released the bag, letting the woman fall to the sand again. He sidestepped her prone body and faced off against Grey. The man launched a series of short, rapid Wu Shu punches aimed at Grey’s torso and face. Grey slapped them away. He countered with a couple of stabs at the man’s eyes, designed to focus attention on his fingers. The man did not take the bait; he stepped back out of reach and lifted a leg, preparing to drive a forward kick at Grey’s stomach. Grey sidestepped the kick, pushing it further aside with his raised knee, trying to spin the man. The attacker knew his business. He altered his motion into a sidekick catching Grey a glancing blow on his ribs. Grey stumbled back. The assailant advanced, preparing to finish him off. Grey tripped and extended his right hand down to the sand to stabilise himself. The assailant raised his left hand ready to deliver a chop to Grey’s exposed neck. As he stepped in, Grey twisted and brought up the knife he recovered from the sand, burying it to the hilt in the man’s upper leg. The man let out a primal scream, sharply cut off as Grey chopped to the man’s Carotid. (and so on for 4 paragraphs)

the CULL – Bloodstone

Katie jumped. She twisted in mid-air, hitting the speaker squarely in the chest with her left heel. His hand came away from the gun as inertia threw his body backward. Katie struck at the neck of the man to her right, connecting solidly. The third man already had his weapon drawn and was raising it to fire. Katie ducked, grabbed the box the shouter had dropped, and flung it with all her might at the gun arm of the worker.


I can’t (and shouldn’t) write your fight scene’s for you; it’s your novel after all. I will however put my knowledge at your disposal. Write to me via my website (www.ericjgates.com – Contact Eric page) and ask specific questions please. I’ll do my best to help where I can. You don’t want to fight about that, do you?


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Eric J. Gates has had a curious life filled with the stuff of thriller novels. Writing Operating Systems for Supercomputers, cracking cryptographic codes under extreme pressure using only paper and pen and teaching cyber warfare to spies are just a few of the moments he’s willing to recall. He is an ex-International Consultant who has travelled extensively worldwide, speaks several languages, and has had articles and papers published in technical magazines in six different countries, as well as radio and TV spots. His specialty, Information Technology Security, has brought him into contact with the Military and Intelligence communities on numerous occasions.

He is also an expert martial artist, holding 14 black belt degrees in distinct disciplines. He has taught his skills to Police and Military personnel, as well as to the public.

He now writes thriller novels, drawing on his experiences with the confidential and secret worlds that surround us.
Learn more at www.ericjgates.com.
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Categories: Fiction Tips, Self Publishing, and Writing Tips.