Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes

[A previous version of this post appeared on Rennie St. James’ blog]

Have you ever been in real hand-to-hand combat? Not a playground pushing contest, a real someone’s-not-getting-up-ever-again situation?

Forget about what you’ve seen in movies, TV, and the like. Those are highly staged, choreographed dances, not fights. Everything they do is practiced so nobody gets hurt.

Now for something that will help you write such scenes: Forget combat details, they’re irrelevant. If it’s important a character knows Krav Maga, share that information before the fight scene, not in it. Fight scenes must give the reader a sense of the fight’s quick, violent actions — use short sentences with small words — and readers should feel the violence — use strong, action verbs.

Consider: “I pushed him down.” v “I knocked him down.”

“Knocked” provides visual and kinesthetic information that “pushed” does not.

Was the push hard or soft? Intended or not? We don’t know. The next sentence can be anything from “I grabbed for him, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’” to “I kicked his head in.” But “knocked”? I used lots of force intentionally. I meant “him” to go down. You already know the next sentence will be “I kicked his head in” or something worse.

Let’s explore further:
Let’s dig deeper:

Which of the two above puts you closer to the action? “Explore” tends to be a “distancing” word in English — we “explore” something “over there.” We don’t explore our backyards. “Dig” implies an immediate, physical activity. We dig in our backyards. Strong, action words make a difference.

Let’s dig deeper:

1) Ellie blocked Earl’s left with her right, moved into him, and caught him across the jaw with an uppercut.
2) Ellie blocked Earl’s left. She stepped in. Her right rocketed from her hip. The impact shattered his jaw.

1 and 2 explain much the same thing. They’re nineteen and eighteen words respectively. But pay attention to yourself reading them. Most people read 1 slower than they read 2.

There’s lots of reasons for it and someday, if we meet at a con, ask me, and I’ll explain it if you’d like.

There’s reasons for it. I’ll explain it should we meet at a con.

Short, simple sentences make a difference. They take less mental effort to process. You want your reader to understand as quickly as possible that somebody got hurt, possibly killed. You want them to know it as a fact. You don’t want them decoding a series of parenthetic expressions to figure it out.

2’s sentences are in SVO — subject-verb-object — order, what’s called “active voice.” There are four short sentences instead of one long one. Each sentence uses a strong, action verb: blocked, stepped, rocketed, shattered. Each verb conveys a distinct, easily visualized physical action.

Want to make example 2 better? Remove “from her hip.” Her right is already rocketing. The visual is already from low to high. Let the reader’s imagination fill in where from.

Earlier I mentioned “If it’s important a character knows Krav Maga share that information before the fight scene, not in it.” You don’t have time in the fight scene itself to describe the actual techniques being used because you’re using short, SVO sentences. How far before the fight scene do you need to share something?

Now we’re exploring foreshadowing. I did it earlier in this piece and, if I did it correctly, you didn’t notice it. I foreshadowed to prime you to respond a certain way to something that came later (and thanks to Joe Della Rosa for asking me to explain “priming”).

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