Friday, August 23, 2013


Bruce Lee delivers a self-defense lesson

 Many of you know I’m a martial artist by training.  In fact, teaching karate and tai chi has become my official “day job” in recent years, as I have taken on more classes at three local YMCA’s, at Germanna Community College and at Heartfields Assisted Living Center here in Fredericksburg.

But not many people know I started my martial arts career out of a desire to make my writing better.  I took my first karate class more than twenty years ago because I wanted to put fight scenes in my STAR TREK fan fiction. (Really, you can’t write Jim Kirk without putting him a good fight scene!).  I realized pretty quickly that I knew next to nothing about how to choreograph those scenes for the reader.

It’s one thing to watch Jim Kirk (or Bruce Lee or Jason Stratham) kick butt over and over again on the movie or television screen and quite another to translate all that action into words that convey both the movements and the electricity of the scene.  Some writers want to describe the scene blow-by-blow, losing the emotional and energetic impact of what’s happening along the way. But too often, particularly in romance, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction, and the movements actually make no physical sense.  The hero flattens the villain with one punch, or the heroine improbably escapes the villain with a kick to the groin (the most overused device in self-defense—and fiction).

Of course, not all of us have martial arts training, but that’s no excuse for making assumptions in our writing.  Fight choreography should be treated like any other kind of research for your book.  In other words, if you don’t know from personal experience, make an effort to find out.

Recently, I was painfully reminded of this point while reading a RITA-nominated romance novel.  There was much to like about the novel—characters, setting, pace, plot and so on.  But in one scene, the writer failed so completely that I’m still shaking my head.  The heroine had been captured by the bad guys, and the hero came to save her.  She, being a spunky sort of gal, wanted to take part in her own defense, so she struggled against the big, ugly man who had hold of her from behind, his hands clasping both of her wrists.  Now, somehow, I don’t remember quite how, she had a knife in her hand.  She managed, despite this big man holding her, to reach over her shoulder and stab him in the eye, killing him.

Okay, as someone who actually teaches knife defense, I can tell you this would never happen.  Just try, right now, sitting comfortably in your easy chair at home, to reach up and over your shoulder with your closed fist.  (If you like, you may imagine you are holding a knife.)  What kind of strength do you have in this movement?  Now, imagine that someone much stronger is holding you by both wrists.  Think you could get that fist up there before he could move his head to the side?

I may be making a lot of this, but this kind of thought process is what you have to go through when you plot out a fight scene between your heroine or your hero and your villain.  Where is she standing?  Where is he standing?  How much strength would it take to do what you are suggesting?

It’s not easy to stick a knife in someone’s eye on a good day, much less in the way this author was suggesting.  If she’d had any self-defense training, she would have known that it would have been much easier for her heroine to slip slightly to one side and stab downward toward the villain’s groin or thigh with the knife.  Still deadly and plenty enough to get her out of that situation.

Most fights last only a few seconds, but few fighters can knock someone out with one punch.  When adrenaline is high, even trained fighters miss their targets, get their techniques blocked or fail to use enough power.  The best fighters—and the writers who choreograph their moves—are able to identify and exploit weaknesses in their opponents, to use the weapons at hand and to protect themselves.

So, if all those things are true, you can’t expect your hero to fight for ten pages in an empty room, to get hit multiple times in the head with a baseball bat and keep on fighting, or to swing and miss over and over again.  Yet you see these things happen in movies a lot and on the page even more.  At least in some romance novels, the paranormal heroes have superpowers.  But if you’re writing contemporary, romantic suspense, historical or SFR with a human at the helm, please consider reality.

An easy way to get a feel for the reality of self-defense is to take a class at your local parks and recreation department, police department or community college.  These are usually inexpensive and last a few weeks, but give you the basics of street defense.  From a writing point of view, they give you a sense of what is possible and not possible when working one-on-one.  There is really no substitute for physically trying some things yourself.

Going deeper, you can ask martial arts and self-defense instructors for help and suggestions in working out scenes.  (Really.  They’d be fascinated.)

Before you commit any words to paper, be sure the movements would work in real life.  Try doing them with a partner (without sharp objects, of course).  Chances are, if you can’t walk through them, no one would use them in a real situation.

Once you have the scene plotted out, the key to writing it is to use short sentences, lively action verbs and the fewer descriptors the better.  Paranormal and SFR author Angela Knight occasionally teaches online workshops through Romance Writers of America on writing better fight and battle scenes.  Watch for the next one and take advantage if you can.  I can’t recommend her workshops highly enough.

And if you’re ever in Fredericksburg, come see me.  I’ll be glad to teach you—or your heroine--how to throw a proper punch!

Cheers, Donna


  1. I fret constantly about getting the details right, and especially something like hand to hand combat where I have NO personal experience aside from a very basic judo-based self defence course I took as a teen (and I've used what I learned there for some stories). When I go to events like the annual medieval fayre in my home town I take video and watch closely the sparring matches and re-enactments. When writing a fight scene between a combat trained guy and a woman trained as an assassin, I even bought a book on writing fight scenes and talked it over with two martial art trained experts to make sure it was as realistic as possible. There is the danger that if you have no personal experience, don't visualize it properly and/or rely on what you see on the movies as fact instead of the fiction they are, you're not going to get it right. And an expert will pick up on it.
    One thing I have found is that play wrestling with my kids has taught me a lot about what is feasible or not, and taught them how to beat up a bigger opponent, lol.
    BTW Donna, now I know who to bug when I get stuck on the next combat scene. :P

  2. Happy to help, Pippa! And all the things you've been doing so far are good ideas--keep doing it, and ask plenty of questions!

  3. This is why I avoid fight scenes!!!


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