Bang! Zap! Kapow!—Get the Fight Right!

If you are not knowledgeable in an area you are writing about you owe it to your readers, and yourself, to do the research: consult the experts or risk appearing like an amateur.

When I am reading a book or watching a movie and it reaches a fight scene, or an act of violence: a point at which physical conflict is involved, I tend to zero in on any inaccuracies. From that statement you might conclude that a particular kind of subject matter attracts me; however I would argue that some kind of combative, violent or physical conflict will be found in ninety percent of all the reading and or cinematic fare on offer.

There have been times, whilst totally engrossed in a book or a movie, my disbelief totally suspended, when one unresearched, implausible paragraph or fight scene has ruined the whole experience; and all for the lack of some decent research.

The fact that some of these stories have been written by well established authors leaves me in no doubt that others have had this same disappointing encounter: finding the quality of their reading experience reduced, somewhat, if not entirely ruined. My wife, who has no experience of fights or violence on any level, can tell when she is reading or seeing an action/fight scene that just isn’t plausible. It’s actually surprising how many people can tell that it’s not quite right; don’t underestimate your sagacious readers.

Basic rule of thumb: don’t have your characters doing something unless you know it to be possible, regardless of how many authors have used it previously; for example: ‘Striking upwards with the heel of his hand, driving his attacker’s nose bone into his brain, he died instantly!’ For your information, it wouldn’t matter if he hit him with a sledge hammer! The sledge hammer might just pulp his brain, killing him, but certainly the nose bone business wouldn’t work!

The rules change slightly, of course, in the case of a supernatural, fantasy or magical tale; the author then makes his or her own rules, and if you take on those rules anything is plausible. Mind you, those authors should then operate within their own rules; without recognisable rules of some description it’s almost impossible to effectively build suspense; however that’s a subject that deserves to be addressed separately, at some length, in a future post.

I understand that relatively few writers will have had the experience of dealing with real violence in their lives, and that few writers are martial arts masters. I would also concede that the chances of there being a writer/martial arts master who has had their training and theoretical knowledge tried and tested in real life situations is even slimmer. However – and the same is true for any kind of specialised knowledge – if you are going to write about something, as previously stated, you owe it to your readers and yourself to get it right, and if you are not an expert in that area then you had better do the research.

Having been a student, teacher and master in a variety of martial disciplines, during an eventful and at time dangerous lifetime, I am extremely fortunate, as a writer, to be able to utilise that priceless reservoir of knowledge. When writing a fight scenario or violent action scene I know if it is realistic, probable and plausible; however more importantly, both physically and emotionally, I know what it actually feels like.

So, rather than advocate the old adage, ‘Write what you know,’ I would advise that you, ‘Know what you write,’ and in the case of a physical conflict scene, ‘Get the fight right!’

For more on writing fight scenes, check out these posts (HERE and HERE) by martial artist Mark Jacobs.

Author: T.D. McKinnon

Scottish author T.D.McKinnon ‘Survived the Battleground of Childhood’ in the coal mining communities of Scotland and England before joining the British Parachute Regiment at fifteen where he remained for five years. He has trained in the martial arts for most of his life and had five Karate schools in Scotland before immigrating to Australia. He writes across several genres and has completed five books that are all available as eBooks. He lives in Tasmania, Australia with his wife. Learn more about T.D.McKinnon at his website and Amazon author page.

21 thoughts on “Bang! Zap! Kapow!—Get the Fight Right!”

  1. Great post! I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and nothing unnerves me more than a FAKE fight. Even when there’s an element of magic in the fictional mix, the essential ingredients should be credible or the passage undermines the story.

  2. While not an anything in martial arts, I am very savvy with firearms. I do my research even though I have knowledge of the weapons and their employment; I always check to make sure it can (or can’t) be done. As for real fights, they are seldom pretty and the choreography can be hard to write- admittedly. So far, I haven’t had anyone call me out and openly say that a scene is implausible-must mean I am doing my job.

    Great post!

  3. While not being versed in firearms or martial arts, I do know psionic combat, and I hate when an author has a Scanner blow up a person’s spleen, toe or unmentionables instead of their head. It’s just so unbelievable…


  4. I am like Kathy and though I dated a guy who studied Karate, it was many, many moons ago, so I know absolutely nothing about fight scenes. But like your wife, when I am reading something, I wonder a lot if a fight scene is plausible, so usually check with my husband who was a US Navy Seal. If I write any, I will also check with him and perhaps ask him to act it out so I can see how plausible it must be in order to write one. Thank you for the great informative post.

  5. Nothing gets me out of the “mood” faster than an impossible fight scene. My husband has a huge issue with one particular action star from the 80’s because his stuff was so cornball. I’m a black belt in American style Karate so I have some working knowledge of fighting, though by no means am I an expert. Whenever I’m working through a fight scene that isn’t flowing in my head, I go to the dojo and get someone to run through it with me. They are always willing and have proven an invaluable resource for me. There have also been times when other writers ask me about their scenes and we’ve gone back to the dojo for them. That’s what this whole writers’ community is all about; helping to make each other better. Right?

  6. Out of interest, can anyone cite a poorly researched and implausible fight scene from an established novel? I’d be very curious to see more specifics around this. Having been around real violence a fair bit, unfortunately, I know I’ve read stuff that made me go “whu…?” but I can’t for the life of me remember which books/scenes.

    Nice post, T.D. And I’ll be another writer who will run my next fight scene by you. You should charge as an “action consultant” for indie writers!

  7. Great post! Implausible fight scenes really spoil a good book for me. Like having a character fly backward when shot. And the bad guys usually have such awful aim.

  8. I’m still unable, for some stupid reason, to use the individual post reply buttons, so I’ll do it all from here.

    Thanks for dropping by, Kathy: if you’re researching, then you are probably doing it right; however because no one has contacted to pull you up doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’re getting it right: I didn’t write to Steven king and tell him he got it wrong and I doubt that many do. I usually vote with my feet, and these days I tell all in my Goodreads reviews.

    Thanks for dropping by, Stephen: Live long and prosper! Yeah, me too and I can still do the Vulcan greeting, and maybe the technique does really work, for a Vulcan!

    Thanks for dropping by, Rich: and Yeah, I’m with you.

    Thanks for dropping by, Krista: and now you know, Krista, now you know.

    Thanks for dropping by, Jacqueline: if your husband is a former Navy Seal then you’re probably pretty near the mark.

    Thanks for dropping by, Lynne: you’ve got it! That’s part of the reason that particular technique is bunkum; actually, it would be very painful and make your nose bleed and your eyes water, making it very difficult to see. Oh, and we could come to some arrangement in regards to the other.

    Thanks for dropping by, HK: and absolutely, that’s what I’m saying.

    Thanks for dropping by, David: and you know what, I tried to nail down some specific scenes, because I’ve come across some screamers, only to outline the kind of thing I’m getting at mind you. I wasn’t going to name names and out people, that’s not what I’m about, but in the end the only one I could remember specifically was the ‘nose bone thing’. By the way, brother, like I said to Lynne, anytime; and your consultant idea is sounding not so silly.

    Thanks for dropping by, Laurie: and right on, keep it real or at least plausible.

    Thank you, Indies, for such a resounding response.

    Thank you everyone for such a resounding responce.

  9. I have a specific question. Yesterday I was at “The Bourne Legacy.” Why do assasins hold the automatic weapons up by their head when they are walking through a house? It didn’t look like they were looking through a scope.
    Sorry for that slightly off-topic question.
    What gets me in a fight scene is when the person should be hurt, has to be hurt, and they keep on fighting. Or when people run through bullets and they aren’t Batman. I want a mix of superior fighting skills and reality.
    This is why I always liked martial arts movies. Bruce Lee could really do that stuff, right? 🙂

  10. Cocking the gun lets you know they mean business- which is good because I don’t know if I’d be able to figure it out without that little hint. What surprises me is that the bad guys don’t hear it or the good guys having their heartfelt chat before the big fight. Then again, maybe they do and that’s why they’re courteous enough to let them finish before attacking.

  11. Hi L.A., professionals would hold the weapon in that position to perhaps clear a building, or in any situation where immediate retaliation (shooting a potentially lethal threat) may be called for. They don’t actually use sights, as such; the way the gun is held, all they have to do is squeeze the trigger and they are firing exactly where they are looking.
    When in a potentially deadly conflict, adrenaline plays an important role in one’s survival. Talk to anyone who has survived such a conflict with a wound and they may tell you that they were hardly aware of sustaining that injury. In some people, particularly a highly trained person (training takes over), adrenaline can, for a short period, carry them through a potentially fatal situation. They may not realise how badly they are hurt; they may not realise they are hurt at all.
    Not all martial arts movies are real either, however Bruce Lee was renowned for refusing to do anything in his movies that he was not capable doing for real.
    Hi David, actually all weapons need to be cocked, just not for each shot fired. Automatic weapons need to be cocked just once and then you can fire an entire magazine (number of rounds depends on the particular weapon), and a professional would check, load and cock his weapon (if it had a safety catch he might engage that, some weapons, like a Glock, don’t have a safety) before holstering it when beginning a duty, a shift or setting out to track someone down and kill someone. Any cocking just prior to using is, as you say, for dramatic effect.
    Hi HK, yes, you’ve got it right: poetic license. By the way HK, I love your name – I hope I don’t offend – that’s like HK from the Terminator movies (Hunter Killer).

    1. Thanks for explaining about the position of the weapon.
      Ah, adrenaline makes sense. One time I whacked myself with my racket while playing tennis and wondered afterward why I had a big bruise on my shin. 🙂
      Bruce Lee was the master.

    2. Oh, T.D., that’s what I was referring to, yes, the dramatic effect immediately prior to using it. I would imagine anyone entering a threatening situation would have their weapon(s) fully prepared beforehand.

  12. By the way, David, some of Matthew Reilly’s earlier stuff was peppered with combat conflict inaccuracies. I’m told that he’s picked up his game, but I couldn’t tell you for sure because, put off by his earlier stuff, I haven’t gone back. However, it didn’t seem to hurt his over all sales.

  13. Thanks for the follow up info on clearing the room and holding the gun to shoot by eyeline, not using a sight. Fortunately my karate mentor was SWAT and did two tours in Vietnam so I have asked extensively about the adrenaline thing. On the name, yes,, I was lucky enough to have kind parents and a husband with an even cooler name than mine willing to share. The one bummer: I can’t use his name as a hero, it would sound too cliche. Mack Savage. It sounds made up.

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