Whether you write thrillers or fantasy, you’ll engage your Main Character in battles for life and limb. Nothing beats experience when it comes to describing a sequence of near combat. Take classes in Jiu Jutsu or Krav Maga if your hero uses his body to stand up for himself. You don’t have to engage in a Mixed martial arts cage fight to know how it feels. The beginner’s course in any martial art will help you sort out a few basic questions. I watch clips of Michelle Waterson or Ronda Rousey to learn. The MMA and WWE sports are different from Hollywood fight scenes. The fighters bind each other, and the straight punches which reach the opponent with a thud/smack belong mostly to the movies.
Rebane Nordstrom- my MC in Unholy Warrior, fights dirty and my book features some iconic Russian Systema moves to evade an overpowering assailant. I asked my Defendo instructor to attack me- the things we go through to write! Don’t worry, he went easy on me, but I never forget to raise my hands to shield my chin after that. One hit to the jaw and: lights out. Only in Hollywood do people get hit in the head with a metal pipe and go on kicking. In real life, you’d earn a visit to the ER with a skull fracture and a brain injury.
There’s nothing wrong with creative freedom. If you have dragons and magic in your book, what stops you from inventing new fighting skills? Forget realism but remember a few basic rules which help your readers relate to your MC: the danger is an inherent part of raising the stakes. You must allow your hero to be weaker than the opponent at times.
My MC loses a fight in the crowded, narrow cell. Here’s an excerpt from Unholy Warrior:
“There’s no need to pick up a fight, Miss Nordstrom. Stand down and spare yourself from a beating,” Weisser said with a matter-of-fact voice.
Rebane ignored him and targeted the next man who stepped in: a stumpy, wide-shouldered guard who opened his telescope truncheon with a swift hit. He drew his arm back to smack her, but Rebane evaded with a simple Systema move: stepped aside and nudged him. As he folded on the bunk, she delivered a hook into his kidney and wrenched the truncheon from his grip.
The second guard leaped at her, and her baton slammed into his thigh above the knee incapacitating his leg. His attempt to punch her missed and he slumped on the floor. Guards number three and four bumped into each other in the narrow doorway. The duo hesitated when they saw the injured guards writhing on the floor. They exchanged glances before the bigger one rushed forward. The sequence seemed to amuse Weisser who leaned against the wall.
Rebane backed up until her shoulder blades met the cold cement and lodged herself between the washbasin and the bunk. She tried to leap over the bed and go around the attacker, but her pelvis hit the washbasin, and she crash-landed over the blankets. The bigger guy managed to grab her shirt. She extended her left hand, and the bony base of her palm cracked his nose. He fell on the floor as blood gushed into his cupped hands. The next man got kneed in the stomach. Rebane lost hold of the truncheon while she grabbed his neck and mashed her knee up repeatedly.
The master alarm went off and filled the corridor with a deafening noise. A swarm of men toppled her, but she managed to kick nuts, thighs, and shins. She scratched the faces which came near enough and bit into the flesh of a hairy forearm. Rebane didn’t let go until a crowd of hands and knees pinned her to the floor and forced her jaws open. The first blow landed at her shoulder and watered her eyes. A jackboot stepped on her diaphragm. Tears forced out when she squirmed and battled for air. It took just seconds for her to lose the fight.
“Stop!” she screamed when the violent hands tore her clothing and fists pounded at her ribs.
A boar of a man sat on her stomach and growled into her ear. Rebane spat at him which only angered him more. Weisser’s voice toppled the screams and the commotion. He grabbed the boar by his fatigue collar and tore him away from Rebane, but the next madman mounted her and banged her head against the cement floor.
Choose Your Weapons
A baton can do terrible damage at the hands of a skilled user, but when you get threatened with a knife, the stakes assume a different intensity.
One cut can bleed your hero out, or sever a tendon (which means your arm or leg becomes useless). Blocking someone wielding a blade isn’t simple. Books and videos offer help to a writer. I like to refer to Combat Knives and Knife Combat by Dietmar Pohl & Jim Wagner, but you can find great resources on Youtube as well. If you want to get the hang of sword fights, join a Kendo club or try some Medieval martial arts the European way.
At Arm’s Length
One trick I like to use when I write a battle is grabbing anything at arm’s length in the setting and throwing it at the opponent. This is an essential skill in writing action: you cannot omit the environment even if you don’t want to utilize foreign objects.
Consider these elements:
- Are your opponents facing each other on an open field or in a tight space?
- What dangers are present besides the assailant(s)? Can traffic or avalanche kill the hero?
- What can the MC use to his advantage?
- The season: darts of wind-hurled snow can stop you from seeing, and the wind will raise clouds of sand. It’s hard to escape in knee-deep snow, and a sweaty combatant is difficult to grab.
- The time of day: will darkness provide cover or the sun blind you? The atmosphere of the fight is vital!
- Escape is always an option: can the MC run without being hit in the back by a bullet or an arrow? Remember to zig-zag, which makes the bad guy miss.
- Can the heroine speak her way out of a threatening situation? Both escape and avoiding the battle altogether are the wisest options if you listen to my Defendo instructor.
- Use the element of surprise: a trained soldier will see the punch coming if you draw your arm back before you strike.
- Every kick and punch must be backed up with the rotation of the torso and the weight of your body. There is the correct and the wrong way to do this.
Examples From Hollywood
Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde, The Stairway Fight Scene:
Charlize uses everything she can grab, and the sequence has guns, knives, hot plates, and whatnot. She also fights multiple assailants that are stronger than her.
If you need a fast tempo, watch Matt Damon as Jason Bourne: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFnmq5PPScA
Or Daniel Craig as 007: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7kFoR4m1Y0
Both clips have high energy, and I love the moment when Daniel Craig watches how the attacker dies.
The last clip is from the Kurt Russell movie Breakdown. A car chase evolves into a duel between a semi-trailer and pickup truck. The fighters wield multiple weapons and the use of the deadly bridge, in the end, is a stroke of genius: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ovVlk6jCBY
Don’t Overdo The Details and Mind The Players
Know the capabilities and weaknesses of your hero/heroine before you tap your fight scene. My MCs (so far) are women who get attacked by opponents with a larger mass. Evasive movements allow them to strike back and to go for the opponent’s sensitive parts. When it comes to the laws of physics, a force has both magnitude and direction. If your knight is a big guy, he’ll use his mass as a blunt force weapon. Wearing armor and yielding the long sword is hard work, especially if you’re trying to stay on top of a galloping horse at the same time.
In the receiving end of the blows, anatomy, and physiology come into play. If your book takes place in the Middle Ages, knowing the common battlefield injuries helps you understand the weapons of the era. Find out what a beating causes to the human body. The method isn’t used as torture for nothing! The physiological side becomes increasingly important if you write murder mysteries and the key leads come from the killer’s ammo and the ME’s autopsy report.
Letting the reader glimpse a hidden world is a standard trick in the thriller and mystery genres. For example, the usual “slitting of the throat” in Hollywood style isn’t the way to go if you’re a commando sneaking upon a German guard in WWII. I was quite proud of myself when I wrote the “correct” way. However, my training as a Radiographer caused me to overdo the anatomy lesson. No one wants to know if your MC cuts the external or internal carotid artery of the victim with her knife! When your knowledge broadens, the temptation to write detailed descriptions (which get in the way of action) increases.
Don’t Teach The Bird To Fly Or The Fish To Swim
If something comes naturally to your character, use it. Remember Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976)? The movie shows him running from the start and in the climax, he outruns the Nazi’s henchman. The film is a classic thriller for a reason. I never looked at dentists the same way after Laurence Olivier’s excellent performance as the Villain Dr. Christian Szell. Dustin Hoffman excels as well, and the film has terrific control of tension build-ups and releases all the way through.
The fight-or-flight response is automated because it helped animals survive the challenges of evolution. The symptoms, which even the most battle-hardened hero experiences, offer a writer many ways to put the reader into the skin of the character:
- Acceleration of heart and lung action; you breath faster and your heart gallops
- Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
- Digestion slows down or stops- long-term stress causes harm
- General effect on the sphincters of the body (urinary tract and bowel)
- Constriction of blood vessels
- The liberation of metabolic energy for muscular action
- Dilation of blood vessels for muscles- the blood gets directed to the places which you need for resistance or escape.
- Inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation- your mouth becomes dry, and you cannot release tears
- Dilation of the pupil
- Relaxation of the bladder- you need to pee, or you wet yourself
- Loss of hearing- you don’t remember everything afterward!
- Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)- anyone who has experienced this knows what I’m talking about
- Overactive or overresponsive reflexes. Adrenaline or noradrenaline facilitate preparation for violent muscular action.
- Uncontrollable shaking or shivering
The subjective experience of danger is unique. Don’t forget to describe the character’s emotions. Remember, the fight-flight reaction impairs some senses and enhances others. The emotional response is delayed in most cases. Allow your heroine to deal with a traumatic memory afterward as she heals from her wounds. The rule of action-reaction, remember?
The natural capabilities of the MC help him deal with a surprise attack. You can train your hero until basic moves flow from his muscle memory—this method is used by law enforcement and the military. But anyone who has experienced a traumatic situation knows the phenomenon of freezing. The same person can fight successfully on one occasion and freeze on the next.
“Fight flight freeze is a description of our responses to threat. In recent years, the fawn response has been added. To fight is to confront the threat aggressively. Flight means you run from the danger. When you freeze, you find yourself unable to move or act against the threat. With fight and flight both unavailable to you, you may find yourself hiding from the danger. Fawn is the response of complying with the attacker to save yourself.”
The aftermath of freeze or fawn makes coming to terms with what happened harder, which could be a starting point for your MC’s internal conflict.
Further resources on how to write the pace of action and build tension: