Featured From the Archives: How to Write Martial Art Fight Scenes — Boise Bookfest Edition

In just a few short weeks (three to be exact), I’ll be attending the Boise Book Fest in Boise, Idaho. It’s going to be a lot of fun, featuring panels and workshops from several big-name authors in the industry and filled with tons of new books to check out and have signed by their gifted creators. If you’re in the Boise region, or willing to travel for a fun day of bookish geekery, I highly recommend attending.

But that’s only partially what today’s post is about. See, I’ll be doing a presentation there as well — on how to write fight scenes. Some of you may recall the post below, which I wrote a couple years ago. It’s still continually among my top searched articles, so I know it’s still a topic of interest to many out there. Which is why I pitched doing the live version when author Clara Stone approached me about presenting in Boise. But in order to do so, I’m going to need some volunteers. The best way I can think to showcase how to write/improve a fight scene is by providing actual examples.

So here’s my proposition: I’m going to open up a new feature of this blog, similar to the critique based entries I’ve seen others do. Willing writers can submit their fight scene, and then I’ll provide a published critique with suggestions for how to improve it. For now, I’m thinking I’ll do this once a month, unless it garners enough interest to make it a regular, weekly posting. My hope is that there are those among you who are brave enough to take me up on this offer. I’ve seen other blogs do this with the first 250 words, queries, or even the first 5 pages of a manuscript, so why not do it with a fight scene? Yes?

If you’d like to throw your name in the hat for the first feature, which I’ll post on Oct. 7th, please contact me. Please note that by submitting your fight scene, you’ll be agreeing to allow me to post both the original excerpt and my suggestions on this blog, and subsequently, any presentations that are derived from the material here. I hope you’ll take advantage of this free opportunity to gain some valuable editorial feedback, but in the meantime, here’s a reprise of my original article on . . .

How to Write a Martial Arts Fight Scenes

by Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted 8/9/13)

Fight scenes. Whether live action or written, they can be such a pain to pull off, falling all too easily into the realm of cheesy. You know the ones I mean; we’ve all seen and read them — fight scenes where the creator was more focused on what looks cool and/or badass, and less so on believability.

Recently, I sent a frustrated plea to the Twitterverse, begging authors to do their research before including the martial arts in their fights. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until after I sent that plea that the light bulb appeared and I realized that I’m in a unique position to help my fellow authors. As a martial artist, a writer, and an editor, I have insight that could help authors overcome the hurdle of fight scenes. So today, I’m going to use that background to dissect a written fight scene and hopefully illustrate how to effectively incorporate martial arts techniques. About time, right?

First, let’s take a look at what you don’t want to do.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, his opponent’s hands wrapped thoroughly around his throat. He struggled, trying to kick his opponent in the groin but only managing to connect with the man’s shin. The attacker snarled, loosening his hold on Charlie’s neck. Without pausing, Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping the attacker’s arm against his own chest before elbowing the man in the face.

The attacker stumbled backwards, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He had the upper-hand. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxed into a sparring stance. The attacker glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance.

With a yell, Charlie threw a round-kick at the attacker’s head. His opponent ducked, sliding between Charlie’s legs on his knees and jumping to his feet with a swift kick to Charlie’s back. Charlie stumbled forward, turning to face his attacker before he was struck again and instantly ducked the knife hand strike aimed at his head. Charlie responded with a flurry of punches, varying his target from the man’s head to his torso and back again. The man blocked most, but a few landed, knocking the attacker from his feet.

Charlie stood over him for a split second before finishing him off with a well-placed axe kick to the sternum. As the attacker rolled on the ground, sputtering, Charlie ran for the safety of a nearby cafe.

_________

Now, that’s shockingly not as bad as some I’ve seen, although it’s sure not going to win me a Pulitzer either. Some of you may even think this is an all right fight scene, aside from the obvious grammatical flaws that could be fixed with a few more drafts. But this is the example of what not to do, remember? So let’s figure out why.

Did you notice that I gave you very little about why this fight is happening, or where? I didn’t even give you the attacker’s name! But I did tell you in agonizing detail the techniques they’re using and where the blows land, placing all the emphasis on the choreography, and none at all on the characters or motivation behind this moment. The result? A laundry list of steps you could re-enact, but that you feel not at all.

That’s because this approach is all telling. That’s right, the infamous telling vs. showing debate. I tell you exactly what’s happening, but I don’t show it at all. You don’t feel invested in Charlie’s situation. You don’t feel the emotions. You feel excited, sure, because it’s action, and even poorly written action is exciting. But it has no lasting impact on you, does it? This scene is about as forgettable as they come.

It’s also unrealistic. Who out there noticed the completely implausible choreography I threw in? I know the martial artists in the audience did, because it screams “cool factor,” its entire existence a nod to something awesome and badass, but that, in reality, is actually physically impossible.

If you guessed the knee slide under Charlie’s legs, you’d be correct. Bravo! You get a cookie.

This is why it’s important to understand the dynamics of a fight, the kinesiology behind the techniques, not just the choreography. Those who have done a round kick know that while performing it, you balance on one leg, your body positioned so that your center of gravity is entirely over that back leg. If someone were to try and go through your legs the way I described, they would take out your supporting leg and you’d both end up in a flailing pile of limbs.

And then there’s the knee slide itself. If you read it closely, you realized the attacker is standing still. Where’d he get the momentum for a knee slide? Unless they’re fighting on a slick, hardwood floor that’s just been mopped, he would need a running start. I don’t know about you, but if I tried to drop to my knees to slide anywhere, I’d be sitting on the floor looking like an idiot just asking to get kicked in the face. It’s just not believable.

So let’s try that scene again, this time, fixing all those things I called out.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, Eric’s hands wrapped around his throat. Hate emanated from his friend’s narrowed eyes, mixed with judgment and accusation. Charlie gasped, choking as Eric’s fingers cut off his air.

His mind screamed at him, desperate to know why it was being punished. His lungs burned, gasping, sucking in nothing but fear. The edges of his vision started to grow fuzzy as black dots appeared over Eric’s shoulder, distorting the red glow of the club’s EXIT sign like reverse chickenpox. Panic flooded his veins with adrenaline. He struggled, clawing at the fingers sealed around his throat. He tried to kick Eric in the groin, but only managed to connect with his shin, the impact ricocheting painfully through his foot.

Eric snarled, loosening his hold and giving Charlie the opening he needed. Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping Eric’s arm against his chest before elbowing his best friend in the face.

Eric stumbled backward, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxing into the sparring stance he’d practiced for years — knees bent, weight forward on the balls of his feet, head lowered. Eric glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance. Their eyes locked. It was just like old times, only now, there was no one to referee the match, to stop it before it went too far.

All of this for a girl. Charlie knew it was ridiculous, that he should walk away, but fury mixed with adrenaline, coursing through him in a pulsing heat. If Eric wanted a fight, that’s what he’d get.

With a yell, Charlie threw a kick at Eric’s head. Eric ducked, sliding easily into a leg-sweep, knocking Charlie’s support from under him. The ground smashed into Charlie’s back, forcing the air from his lungs in a rushing wheeze. He rolled backward to his feet, still fighting against the tightness in his chest. Eric closed in on him, pushing his advantage, arms and legs flying. Charlie blocked as many of the blows as he could, his arms jarring in their sockets every time he did, his ribs and face blossoming with pain every time he didn’t. He stumbled back through the shadows of the alley until he was once again cornered.  Cringing, he held his hands up in surrender. Eric backed off, eyeing him warily as he spit blood onto the darkened pavement.

Charlie’s knuckles were bleeding, his ribs bruised, his lip split into an oozing gash. It was time to end this.

“All right, I give,” he said,  the words raspy and pained as he forced his battered throat to work. “I’ll never go near your sister again.”

_________

Still not the most epic writing sample, but you see the difference, I hope? Now, we not only know who Charlie’s fighting, but why. I’ve also fixed the choreography so that it’s believable, and added emotional content and description, putting the focus on the characters instead of the martial arts. No one cares about the techniques, but they care a lot about how those techniques feel, the emotion behind the action. Understanding that is the difference between creating a scene from a clinical distance and creating a deeper POV that will resonate with readers.

So, how can you take your fight scenes from flat to amazing? Easy, just remember these three things:

  1. Show, don’t tell. The techniques themselves are not important, the emotion is. Only use a technique name if there’s a reason we need to know the exact kick, etc.
  2. Believability is king. Never throw something in just because it sounds awesome. Make sure it’s actually physically possible and makes sense with the choreography and your world.
  3. When stumped, ask an expert. If you’re at a loss, find someone familiar with the martial arts and ask. Don’t just rely on Google and Youtube. They won’t give you the insight personal experience can.

That’s really all there is to it. But if you’d like to see if your fight scene hits these markers, feel free to take advantage of the offer I mentioned above. 😉

Featured From the Archives: A Brief Introduction to Demo Teams

Wow, what a week! I don’t know if the planets aligned for you as horribly as they did for me, but let’s just say there’s a bottle of Fireball in my freezer that will soon be empty. ;/

I was intending a different post today, but as the sun is now creeping lower toward the horizon and I have all of maybe two brain cells left, I decided it was time for the back-up plan. Hooray for archive-diving! I have plenty of writing/publishing/editing related posts I could recirculate, but I haven’t touched on one topic in a long time. And I’ve noticed the bio pertaining to this part of my life keeps showing up in my stats feed, so perhaps there’s some curiosity out there as to what I mean when I say I’m a “martial arts demo team expert.” Perhaps some of you are even thinking, “what the heck is a demo team?” Today, you’ll get to find out.

The following post will make the most sense to fellow martial artists, but for those of you who have wondered about my various online bio claims, here’s a glimpse into my martial artist past and my particular specialty in that realm. (You’ll notice it’s again related to storytelling. And yes, some of it translates into my current job choice as an editor.) Enjoy!

Demo Teams: A Brief Introduction

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 7/20/12

I’ll be the first to admit that my views on the martial arts — especially demo teams — are a bit progressive. And as such, probably rankle the feathers of the traditionalists out there. For the record, let me just state that I’m not devaluing traditionalism. Quite the opposite actually. There’s something powerful about being a part of a legacy that’s steeped in the history of thousands of years, having been passed down for generations upon generations. That said, I also think that tradition without innovation can cause a style to stagnate and eventually disappear into the dust of ages. So, yes, I’m a progressive martial artist, but it’s not meant to offend.

When you reach Sam Dan (3rd Degree) in Tang Soo Do, there’s an underlying expectation that you begin to specialize in something. You’ve already semi-mastered the basics (no one’s ever perfect, after all), you can competently defend yourself and can adequately pass your knowledge on to others. Now it’s time to find your niche, to declare your martial arts identity, if you will. Some specialize in self-defense techniques, some in empty hand forms, some in specific weapons. Others choose to extensively research the history behind their art, and still others focus simply on the intricacies of instructing.

My specialty is demo teams.

What is a demo team? At their heart, demo teams, short for demonstration team, are a marketing tool. Anytime you give a performance geared toward attracting new students, you’re essentially using a demo team in its most basic form. The vernacular may vary from school to school (I’ve heard them referred to as Performance Team, Demonstration Squad, Creativity Team, etc) but the principle is always the same. And they’re very poorly utilized by the vast majority of schools out there.

Usually, they are thrown together last minute with volunteer students. They’re rarely given much rehearsal, and there’s usually even less thought behind the organization or presentation of the performance. Which gives you, not surprisingly, a highly disorganized group of students milling around looking lost, boring displays of generic techniques, and absolutely no originality. Some of you may be shaking your heads right now, thinking I’m being overly judgmental, but admit it, we’ve all seen these types of demos. Performances comprised of kids in rumpled uniforms who can barely form a straight line, displays of adequate-at-best techniques, poorly practiced routines where students end up flinging their weapons all over the place, absolutely no music except for the chaotic ki-haps of the students or maybe the counting of the instructor, and my favorite: people breaking boards any civilian could flick in half with a couple fingers, they’re so thin. There may be one or two high-ranking students that really dazzle, but overall, I think we can all agree that these types of demos are, in a word, uninspired.

Every audience is comprised of only a few things — the family of the students, who will cheer no matter how bad their person does; fellow martial artists vaguely curious how your style differs from theirs; the hecklers who think it’s amusing to shout horrible impressions of the Karate Kid at you; and potential students. That’s it. Really. So in any given audience, you maybe have 25% that can be enticed into enrolling. That’s a pretty small window in a lot of venues. How do you reach this small minority of potential customers? By entertaining them.

We live in a society flooded by the martial arts. It’s included in every action-oriented movie or TV show. It’s in nearly every video game on the market; it’s even crept it’s way into literature. So the mystique is gone, folks. It’s no longer enough to show the world what your classes look like on a daily basis. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. We’re not impressed. Doesn’t matter if we train in the martial arts or not.

Give us something original, something flashy, something that makes us pause in that parking lot or mall, or gets us in the door to your studio’s open-house. In short, give us a performance. None of this last minute, non-rehearsed, reliant-on-cute-factor, traditional uniforms stuff. What you need is a dedicated Demo Team — the elite of your student body, trained to perform, proficient in things like musicality, synchronization, advanced techniques, and storytelling/acting. These are the people who impress. They’re the ones who will entice new students to walk in the door, who will make the hecklers shut up, get the other martial artists to nod in appreciation and floor their family with their abilities. They are your secret weapon. And every studio has them. Unless you just opened your doors yesterday. In which case you have white belts. And white belts are never impressive. Sorry.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting what I’d call a master class in demo teams à la me (you can find this master class via the Index above, if you wish). I’ll go over every aspect involved in my style of “professional” grade teams, including how to create your team, the principles of musicality, staging, and storytelling, and the intricacies of performing — all in regards to martial arts demonstrations. For those of you more interested in my advice/opinions on writing, don’t worry, those posts will be mixed in too. I even have one dedicated to art, (The Genesis of a Logo Design), upcoming on the schedule, for any who were starting to doubt whether I’d actually tackle that subject. 😉

For now, I will leave you with this video of my most popular demo, “The Dream Sequence.” As with all recordings, there’s something lost in the translation that would have been better experienced in person. But it will still illustrate my particular demo team style, and what I hope to impart to you in following posts. Is it the most brilliant thing ever? I wouldn’t say so. It’s actually rather slow, and I was shocked by the acclaim it received. Is it entertaining? Hopefully. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To entertain.

(Before you ask, yes, the little boy on Wheelies is part of the routine, not some random bystander. And yes, I am in there, though I challenge you to figure out which performer is me. 😉 )

 

 

Featured From the Archives: Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

Tonight, I’ll be teaching my annual class on demo teams. I know I haven’t posted about the martial arts recently, and that the majority of you out there reading this are writers, rather than martial artists, but this particular post holds helpful tips for both. And since this is what I’ll be discussing over the next two days with the students of Dragon Heart Tang Soo Do, I thought it would be appropriate. However, for the writers out there, I’ll provide annotated notes, indicating the literary terms that correspond with my demo team lingo. So even if you aren’t a martial artist and you have absolutely no desire to learn about demo teams, give it a read. I think you’ll be surprised to see just how much the two worlds intersect.
 

Story vs. Concept; A Demo Team Showdown

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 5/10/13

 
Recently, I found myself on the wrong side of an angry, pitch-fork touting mob after I eloquently shoved my foot in my mouth. (Turns out, there’s a fine line between snarky and jackass. Especially when it falls on the wrong ears.) And as I was being schooled by a student who naively believed I was a demo team idiot, I was amazed at how often the terms “concept” and “story” were used interchangeably, as if they were the same thing. I’m not sure if this is a common misconception, but since I was due for a demo team post, I figured why not take a moment to clarify the definitions and try to make something good out of my embarrassing mistake. And what better way to do that than to pit story against concept in an epic battle of demo team terminology. Sounds fun, no?

So, here we go! Contestants to your places, aaaaaaand . . . fight!

Round One: Concept

(2014 Annotation: Writers, this is the same for you. Everything said below applies to the same definition we use in literature.)

Concept does not, in fact, equal story. If it was synonymous with any word, it would be theme. And what is theme? The point of your project. It’s the message or idea that you want to convey to your audience. Let’s check out some examples.

(These are some of the more common demo themes/concepts I’ve seen over the years.)

  • Video Games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Etc. (I’m guessing there’s a secret sect of Comic-Con Cosplayer geekhood within the martial arts.)
  • Medieval Asian Warlords (Yes, the Asian part is particularly important. How else can you create something as awesome as a D-grade Kung Fu movie brought to life?)
  • The Korean and/or Association Flag (Especially prevalent in the WTSDA. Apparently, we have a lot of association pride. And unoriginality.)
  • Badass little kids taking over the world (Cute factor combined with awesomeness. Who doesn’t love that?)
  • The Matrix movie franchise (Does this really need further explanation? The Matrix was just, like, the most epic movie ever!)
  • Pretty much any popular movie franchise (Further proof of my statement on example one. Maybe we’re all nerds at heart?)
  • Women’s self-defense (The only thing better than badass kids is watching a bunch of girls pummel a bunch of dudes, right?)
  • Peace, Love and Unity, man (Otherwise known as the undefinable, “high” concepts.)
  • The Elements (Because there can never be too many interpretations of wind, fire and water.)

(I hope, by now, you’re laughing with recognition.)

But despite my mockery, these are all perfectly acceptable examples of concept. I’ve used some of them myself. (There may or may not be multiple versions of Mortal Kombat costumes lurking in Dragon Heart’s demo team archives. 😉 ) The problem comes when that’s all there is to your demo (2014 Annotation: same is true for writing). The concept should be the foundational element, the first spark of creativity. Not the entire focus. Here’s why: concepts are simple. They contain absolutely no allusions to the story they might evolve into, making them a two dimensional, cardboard cut-out experience guaranteed to bore the life out of your audience. Don’t believe me? Let me show you. A concept’s inception typically looks something like this:

Student One: “Dude, let’s do a demo about the Korean flag!”

Student Two: “Like, oh my god! That would be totally awesome!”

Ok, maybe that’s a little facetious, but it’s not that far off the mark. A concept is that first burst of enthusiastic direction, not the ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, concept is very much an important part of any demo. Not only does it provide the inspiration, it has influence over decisions like costuming (aka genre, if you’re a writer), set/prop design (setting), characters, and overall presentation (POV/Voice/etc.) as well. But it’s focus remains purely on technique, and will rarely impart any lasting impression or emotion on the audience. For that, you need story.

Round Two: Story

(2014 Annotation: This is more commonly known as “premise” in the written world. But same basic idea.)

If concept is the idea, then story (aka premise) is the way you impart said idea to the audience. It builds on the foundation concept provides to create something with a far richer experience for everyone. However, story is often misconstrued to mean flash. As in, an overly theatrical fluff-fest that’s trying to compensate for a lack of technique. That, my friends, is sadly mistaken. And probably the reason story is given so little respect in the creativity division. (2014 Annotation: “flash” in literature can take on many forms, but most commonly it’s seen as an over-indulgence in world building, or an over-wrought, heavy-handed style that gets in the way of the story.)

All those components that instantly scream flash – costuming, props, etc – are not actually controlled by story. They reside within concept’s domain. (Cheeky bugger, fooling everyone by pointing the finger at story.) The only thing story controls is choreography (aka plot, for writers). Why? Because choreography is how you tell a narrative in a demo (See? Plot). The rest is bonus to help ensure the audience understands. But you don’t actually need anything beyond choreography.

Story is defined in the literary world as conflict. Meaning, there has to be something happening. A journey from Point A to Point B. I’ve written about this topic at length in my previous post, Storytelling for Demo Teams, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll provide an example of how story elevates concept. And how it doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated to be effective. (There’s only so much you can cram into a 5 minute span, after all.)

I’m going to use one of my own demos for this exercise – The Dream Sequence – which I have featured before.

The concept for this demo actually came from the music itself. (As do all my ideas, which many of you know by now.) I wanted to show a dreamy, ethereal world that matched the tone of the music. But since that isn’t enough for a competition-grade demo in my opinion, I needed a story that would deliver that message to the audience. So I created one about a little boy who falls asleep and finds the dolls he was playing with have come to life around him. When he wakes up, the dolls disappear. Literary genius, isn’t it? But that’s my point. No one said you had to be a master storyteller; you just have to tell something.

So, to recap:

Concept = dreamy, ethereal imagination.

Story = slightly creepy dolls coming to life inside a child’s dream.

(2014 Annotation: This same equation applies in literature, and is quite handy for figuring out things like queries. 😉 )

See how neither of these statements is really that complicated or involved? And how, when combined, you end up with an idea that’s far more powerful and interesting than the concept alone? That’s the beauty of story. (If you haven’t seen the demo I’m referencing, take a moment to go watch it. I’ll wait. 😉 )

And the Winner is . . . ?

Neither.

That’s right, our epic showdown actually ends in a draw. Anti-climatic, I know. But that’s because one isn’t better than the other. They work in tandem, not competition. The ideal demo (or novel) is a balance of both, pulling from the strengths of each to create a wonderful masterpiece people remember for years. But, because the two terms are separate elements, it is possible to create award-winning demos using only one of them. You can have a traditional demo that focuses primarily on technique, with no storyline, just concept. And you can create a moving, story-driven demo featuring absolutely no costumes, props, or flash. (Technically, though, if you have a story, you have a concept, regardless of the addition of flashy elements. Concept can live without story, but story needs concept to survive.) The trick is knowing your ultimate goal and utilizing your team’s talents to their fullest. (I’ve given out a lot of helpful tips about how to do this.)

And remember, if you find yourself having to explain what your demo is about, you failed. (Harsh, but true.) Whether your aim is traditional/concept-driven, or theatrical narrative, your audience should always receive your message clearly. That is, after all, the entire point of demos (and storytelling in general), is it not?

Featured From the Archives: How to Write Martial Arts Fight Scenes

For the past few weeks, this post has surfaced almost daily in my stats, making it by far my most popular article ever. The fact that it is continually being Googled probably means that I would do well to post it again, don’t you think? Maybe the universe (and by universe, I mean all you lovely authors out there with the power to Google stuff) is trying to tell me that this information could benefit someone at the moment. Never one to ignore omens (my whole urban fantasy series is based around the concept of synchronicity, after all), I’m going to do just that.

This week’s feature is a little over a year old, but it’s as valid today as it was then, and I hope it helps those who are searching for it. Enjoy! 😉
 

How to Write Martial Arts Fight Scenes

by Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted on 8/9/13)

 
Fight scenes. Whether live action or written, they can be such a pain to pull off, falling all too easily into the realm of cheesy. You know the ones I mean; we’ve all seen and read them — fight scenes where the creator was more focused on what looks cool and/or badass, and less so on believability.

Recently, I sent a frustrated plea to the Twitterverse, begging authors to do their research before including the martial arts in their fights. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until after I sent that plea that the light bulb appeared and I realized I’m in a unique position to help my fellow authors. As both a martial artist and a writer, I have insight that could help authors overcome the hurdle of fight scenes. So today, I’m going to use that background to dissect a written fight scene and hopefully illustrate how to effectively incorporate martial arts techniques. About time, right?

First, let’s take a look at what you don’t want to do.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, his opponent’s hands wrapped thoroughly around his throat. He struggled, trying to kick his opponent in the groin but only managing to connect with the man’s shin. The attacker snarled, loosening his hold on Charlie’s neck. Without pausing, Charlie threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping the attacker’s arm against his own chest before elbowing the man in the face.

The attacker stumbled backwards, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He had the upper-hand. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxed into a sparring stance. The attacker glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance.

With a yell, Charlie threw a round-kick at the attacker’s head. His opponent ducked, sliding between Charlie’s legs on his knees and jumping to his feet with a swift kick to Charlie’s back. Charlie stumbled forward, turning to face his attacker before he was struck again and instantly ducked the knife hand strike aimed at his head. Charlie responded with a flurry of punches, varying his target from the man’s head to his torso and back again. The man blocked most, but a few landed, knocking the attacker from his feet.

Charlie stood over him for a split second before finishing him off with a well-placed axe kick to the sternum. As the attacker rolled on the ground, sputtering, Charlie ran for the safety of a nearby cafe.

_________

Now, that’s shockingly not as bad as some I’ve seen, although it’s sure not going to win me a Pulitzer either. Some of you may even think this is an all right fight scene, aside from the obvious grammatical flaws that could be fixed with a few more drafts. But this is the example of what not to do, remember? So let’s figure out why.

Did you notice that I gave you very little about why this fight is happening, or where? I didn’t even give you the attacker’s name! But I did tell you in agonizing detail the techniques they’re using and where the blows land, placing all the emphasis on the choreography, and none at all on the characters or motivation behind this moment. The result? A laundry list of steps you could re-enact, but that you feel not at all.

That’s because this approach is all telling. That’s right, the infamous telling vs. showing debate. I tell you exactly what’s happening, but I don’t show it at all. You don’t feel invested in Charlie’s situation. You don’t feel the emotions. You feel excited, sure, because it’s action, and even poorly written action is exciting. But it has no lasting impact on you, does it? This scene is about as forgettable as they come.

It’s also unrealistic. Who out there noticed the completely implausible choreography I threw in? I know the martial artists in the audience did, because it screams “cool factor,” its entire existence a nod to something awesome and badass, but that, in reality, is actually physically impossible.

If you guessed the knee slide under Charlie’s legs, you’d be correct. Bravo! You get a cookie.

This is why it’s important to understand the dynamics of a fight, not just the choreography. Those who have done a round kick know that while performing it, you balance on one leg, your body positioned so that your center of gravity is entirely over that back leg. If someone were to try and go through your legs the way I described, they would take out your supporting leg and you’d both end up in a flailing pile of limbs.

And then there’s the knee slide itself. If you read it closely, you realized the attacker is standing still. Where’d he get the momentum for a knee slide? Unless they’re fighting on a slick, hardwood floor that’s just been mopped, he would need a running start. I don’t know about you, but if I tried to drop to my knees to slide anywhere, I’d be sitting on the floor looking like an idiot asking to get kicked in the face. It’s just not believable.

So let’s try that scene again, this time, fixing all those things I called out.

_________

Charlie grunted as his back slammed into the wall, Eric’s hands wrapped around his throat. Hate emanated from his friend’s eyes, judgement and accusation burning them into a sinister shade of blue. Charlie gasped, choking as Eric’s fingers cut off his air like a tourniquet.

His mind screamed at him, desperate to know why it was being punished. His lungs burned, his mouth working like a fish on dry land, sucking in nothing but fear. The edges of his vision started to grow fuzzy, black dots appearing over Eric’s shoulder, distorting the red glow of the club’s EXIT sign like reverse chickenpox. Panic flooded his veins with adrenaline. He struggled, clawing at the fingers sealed around his throat. He tried to kick Eric in the groin but only managed to connect with his shin, the impact ricocheting painfully through his foot.

Eric snarled, loosening his hold, giving Charlie the opening he needed. He threw his left arm between them, turning to the side and trapping Eric’s arm against his own chest before elbowing his best friend in the face.

Eric stumbled backward, grasping at his bleeding nose. Charlie didn’t wait. He advanced toward his opponent, his hands raised to guard his face, his body relaxing into the sparring stance he’d practiced for years– knees bent, weight forward on the balls of his feet, head lowered. Eric glared up at him, straightening into a matching stance. Their eyes locked. It was just like old times, only now there was no one to referee the match, to stop it before it went too far.

All this for a girl. Charlie knew it was ridiculous, that he should walk away, but fury mixed with adrenaline, coursing through him like a pulsing heat. If Eric wanted a fight, that’s what he’d get.

With a yell, Charlie threw a kick at Eric’s head. Eric ducked, sliding easily into a leg-sweep, knocking Charlie’s support from under him. The ground smashed into his back, forcing the air from his lungs in a rushing wheeze. He rolled backwards to his feet, still fighting against the tightness in his chest. Eric closed in on him, pushing his advantage, arms and legs flying. Charlie blocked as many of the blows as he could, his arms jarring in their sockets every time he did, his ribs and face blossoming with pain every time he didn’t. He stumbled back through the shadows of the alley until he was once again cornered.  Cringing, he held his hands up in surrender. Eric backed off, eying him warily as he spit blood onto the darkened pavement.

Charlie’s knuckles were bleeding, his ribs bruised, and his lip split into an oozing gash. It was time to end this.

“All right, I give,” he said,  the words gravelly and pained as he forced his battered throat to work. “I’ll never go near your sister again.”

_________

Still not the most epic writing sample, but you see the difference, I hope? Now, we not only know who Charlie’s fighting, but why. I’ve also fixed the choreography so that it’s believable, and added emotional content and description, putting the focus on the characters instead of the martial arts. No one cares about the techniques, but they care a lot about how those techniques feel, the emotion behind the action. Understanding that is the difference between creating a scene from a clinical distance and creating a deeper POV that will resonate with readers.

So, how can you take your fight scenes from flat to amazing? Easy, just remember these three things:

  1. Show, don’t tell. The techniques themselves are not important, the emotion is. Only use a technique name if there’s a reason we need to know the exact kick, etc.
  2. Believability is king. Never throw something in just because it sounds awesome. Make sure it’s actually physically possible and makes sense with the choreography and your world.
  3. When stumped, ask an expert. If you’re at a loss, find someone familiar with the martial arts and ask. Don’t just rely on Google and Youtube. They won’t give you the insight personal experience can.

That’s really all there is to it. Not so hard after all, is it? And if you ever find yourself in need of some martial arts feedback, I’m always available. Just send me a note with your questions, and I’ll happily provide some help. 🙂

Featured From the Archives: The Definition of Black Belt

It feels like I’ve done so many of these lately, but this will only be the fourth one ever. Still, I know you come here for new material, and I promise, I am working on that. (In fact, some of the observant out there may notice a new addition to the menu — Book Reviews. Check it out if you’re curious what I’ve got happening behind the scenes. 😉 ) But there’s a reason I decided to feature this post today. Tonight (right now, actually) is the annual WTSDA Region One Black Belt Test. And though I’m not there, I still want to acknowledge it. So this is my way of honoring those testing, of imparting the lessons I learned in my own journey. Yes, it is specifically geared toward martial artists, but give it a glance anyway — I think you might be surprised to find many of things apply to you whether or not you have ever trained.

 

The Definition of Black Belt

By Kisa Whipkey

(Originally Posted on 5/25/12)

 

I promised there would be posts about martial arts. And so far, I haven’t delivered. **2014 Note: Technically not true anymore. Disregard. There’s a whole slew of them in the index if you’re interested.** So, in honor of the annual WTSDA Region 1 Championship, (which I’m not attending for the first time in, well, ever! **2014 Note: Also untrue. I’ve now missed like three. And yes, that does make me a slacker. Thank you for noticing.**),  I present my first post dedicated to the martial arts. But be warned, my opinions on this topic can be either melodramatic and preachy, or poetically accurate, depending on whether or not you agree with me.

Regardless of which side of the fence you land on after reading this, here’s my interpretation of . . .

What it means to be a black belt

A black belt is more than the strip of fabric around your waist.

It’s helping those close to you because they need it,
not because it boosts your ego.

It’s knowing when to pick your battles and when to walk away.

It’s the dignity you have in the face of adversity,
and the grace with which you take criticism.

It’s the humility you show others,
and the respect you give to the people and
places that offered you this gift.

It’s the wisdom to realize that it’s better to be selfless,
but the strength to stand up for your convictions.

It’s the integrity you put behind your promises,
and the obligation to teach those that follow in
your footsteps these same lessons.

It is an achievement to be worn proudly,
but it’s not the color of the fabric that makes you a black belt;
it’s the attitude you present to the world.

–Kisa Whipkey
(Originally Posted to Facebook on May 17, 2011)

Shame so many forget that, or never bothered to learn it at all. So often, you’ll run into martial artists whose sole reason for training seems to be bragging rights; they’ve taken all these different styles (and mastered none of them); they’ve beaten X number of opponents to a bloody pulp in cage fights (proving their ability to brawl like a school-yard bully); they’ve won X amount of awards and trophies (Fantastic! So they’re basically a mockingbird attracted by shinies?); and they’ve done absolutely nothing of value to anyone but themselves.

Does the definition of black belt really have to be limited to the physical ability to kick ass? I don’t think so. True, you should be able to defend yourself effectively — why else did you learn to fight? But that’s not the main definition of the rank. You don’t need skill to be a good fighter. Luck, maybe, but not skill. Some people are simply born with natural ability, and the advent of technology has ensured that the rest of us can survive with little to no physical skill involved. So why go through the process of earning a black belt? Investing 2-4 years of your life, sweating and screaming in some archaic form of military practice? Because there’s more to it than that.

Being a black belt is a lifestyle choice, like choosing to eat healthy and exercise, or choosing to believe in the power of religious faith. It’s not about bragging at all. It’s about honor, dignity, respect, discipline, and integrity. No one said that being a black belt was easy. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The martial arts were originally intended for the elite, for the warriors who protected their country (like our soldiers today), and was not offered to anyone and everyone. Attaining black belt was a grueling process that required dedication, physical prowess, and spiritual development. Something that’s been sadly watered down over the centuries. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it slip away into the forgotten realms of ancient history. We can still embody everything the martial arts was supposed to represent, whether we’re training or not.

I’ve learned that people who take the philosophical meaning behind the martial arts seriously, exhibit subtle traits you learn to notice — it’s the way they walk or stand, the way they present themselves to the world, the way they interact with others. Allthose things are the marks of a true black belt. And they are only gained if  the student is willing to pay attention. Each belt color represents a new set of techniques to be memorized, yes, but it also represents a new challenge that will refine their character if they let it. There are so many out there who only care about the fighting portion and completely look past the rest of it; becoming the black belts who puff themselves up with glorified victories, leaving nothing but an impression of arrogance and brutality as their legacy. Personally, I prefer meeting martial artists who are quietly proud and let their actions speak for themselves. Poise, respectfulness, and integrity are always more pleasant to encounter than arrogance, inflated egos, and superiority complexes. Don’t you think?

Simply put, the goal of the martial arts was (and is) to be the best person you could (can) be. Which is why the black belt spirit can be found even in those who have never trained. It’s in those who volunteer to help the homeless/disabled/elderly/anyone-who-needs-help. It’s in those that donate their fortunes to charities, enriching the lives of others while living modestly themselves. It’s in the teacher that goes above and beyond to help a troubled student reach graduation. And it’s in you whenever you choose to do the right thing instead of the easy one. Being a black belt is a commitment to values, whether you gained them from religion, martial arts, or simply had them imparted to you by your parents. You don’t have to wear a strip of fabric around your waist to be a black belt, you just have to be a good person who cares more for their family, community, or world than themselves. In my eyes, anyone fighting for a noble cause, who earns accolades with dignity and humility, or who presents themselves to their daily tasks of school, work, and socialization with integrity and respect is a black belt. An honorary one, anyway.

So the next time you run into a black belt/instructor who seems intent only on wowing you with their peacock display of achievements, smile and respectfully give them the ego boost they’re really seeking. Then walk away, safe in the comfort of knowing something they missed. That respect is never taken, it’s earned. And that strip of fabric around their waste doesn’t entitle them to it anymore than if they didn’t have it.

And to my fellow martial artists, please remember that being a black belt doesn’t end when you walk out the door of the studio. It’s a commitment that should reflect in every aspect of your life. Decide for yourself what black belt means and then embody that to the best of your ability. If you want respect, earn it. Don’t just do things to bask in the glory of a good deed.

That’s what it really means to be a black belt.