The man sitting on the mat across from me was far too calm. Not a speck of worry in his eyes. Only a smirk tempting his lips.
He dug his knee into my stomach, pinning me to the ground. His sharp forearm dug into my throat. I coughed as I lost air. Vision bleary, I tried to buck him off like a crazed rodeo bronco. And I knew it was useless as he tightened around my neck like an anaconda.
I coughed once more. I heard the blood flow in my inner ears. Pounding. Slowing. Stopping.
And the whole time, his eyes stayed calm as mine darkened into sleep.
After eight months of obsession, tireless practice, and repetition I moved from a white belt to a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). If you’re not familiar with that martial art, think of wrestling with joint locks and chokeholds. Virtually every professional fighter in the mixed martial art (MMA) community focuses heavily on BJJ. If a fight moves to the ground (and nearly 90% of fights do), then you’d better know BJJ.
As a white belt for the first eight months, I was only allowed to wrestle. Once I got my blue belt, I could practice submissions safely since I knew the fundamentals.
This rule was in place so I wouldn’t accidentally hurt someone, and so I would have some comprehension as to how and why my ass would be handed to me the second I ranked up.
In case you haven’t met me, if I have my mind set on something, I will get it no matter how long it takes.
I’m stupidly determined.
After the guy choked me out, I demanded a rematch… thirty times. Until the dojo closed and I had to leave for the night.
I hadn’t submitted him once. But after that night, no one could submit me from that chokehold ever again.
My voice was raspy for a week because of how many times my neck had been wrenched at awkward angles.
Up until that point, I’d always imagined that if I ever got in a fight, time would slow and my mind would race through multiple scenarios like Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes, walking through the fight and manipulating the opponent’s movements in a brilliant masterpiece.
That’s so not true.
In the moment of a fight, you rely on instincts, on training, on whatever the heck you’ve got. If you’ve got nothing, then you panic and thrash mindlessly, praying that something lands.
Most writers over-describe every fricking second
Rob placed all his weight to the left and shifted to the ball of his foot, ready for action. He took a moment for Tim’s punch to miss before swiveling his hips to the left, raising to the ball of his left foot, and extending his right shin to meet beneath Tim’s ribcage – rewarded by a sickening crack.
All that to describe a well-timed roundhouse kick to the ribs. If you do that with every blow in a fight, the reader will have to act it out to be able to follow along! It’s far too intricate to visualize. Unfortunately, this is the prevailing writing method with action.
Here’s an off-the-cuff edit I’d personally do to revamp that same situation to make it more engaging:
Rob stayed light on his feet. Tim’s punch came reckless, exposing his chest. An easy dodge. Rob sprung with a deafening roundhouse to the chest. Ribs caved. The sickening crunch of bones echoed off the walls.
Focus on the impact of the hit, the strategy behind a move, or the agility in bobbing and weaving. But never focus on detailing a step-by-step fight scene.
Need For Speed
When fighting, time seems to move faster than normal. To create the flurried fighting speed, shorten your sentences. Make them punchy.
Yes, that pun was very intentional.
The reader’s eyes start moving faster over short sentences. String a bunch of short sentences together and they’re flying down the page.
If you want multiple pages describing a couple seconds of action then describe the WHY behind the action instead of the HOW.
Don’t show me how your character swiveled on the ball of his foot as he wound up for a kick. That’s boring and so many writers fall into this trap. It’s overdone, cliche.
Instead, show why your character chooses a particular move. Let us in their head as they size up their opponent. If they’re fighting a huge bouncer they have to take out efficiently, tell me how many pounds of pressure it takes to hyperextend the knee. Tell me why that’s the easiest way to attack a man of that size, and why it’s so effective. You could tell me what style of martial arts that stems from if you feel like it. You’d educate me and I’d respect your character’s knowledge.
Showing why behind the move gives your audience respect for an otherwise rapid and overlooked action.
Know your style.
There are countless styles of martial arts. If your character is an assassin and he tries to knock someone out with a kick, unless it’s a traditional Asian martial arts series, I will discredit any authority you have.
An assassin is likely to be trained in any combination of styles like Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Judo, Filipino Kali, Wing Chun, and/or Eskrima. All of those styles have something in common: efficiency.
Head kicks are not efficient.
If your assassin dons a karate stance, I won’t believe in his capabilities as an assassin. Do your research on different styles. And depending on geography, time period, and accessibility it could drastically alter the style.
Note: be especially careful with anything involving the military. Each branch has their own training regimen. Each is very distinct to the trained eye.
Wikipedia offers a breakdown of every martial art style, their history, major contributors to the art, how it’s evolved over the years, and who primarily uses it. Youtube has countless step-by-step guides on how to do specific moves. This is an effective way to come up with some ideas if you need some creative sequences.
Question of the day: What are your thoughts on action sequences? Sometimes annoying? Sometimes awesome?