Getting it Wrong: Some Common Mistakes in Fight Literature

31 May

The fine folks at enjoyed my recent post on what makes a great literary fight scene. They wanted to repost it on their site, then asked if I could write a follow-up for their “Getting it Right” column. So I came up with the following piece on some mistakes that authors make when writing fictional fight scenes, which is being run simultaneously on my site and their site. Even if you read it here, go check them out, anyway. Anyone interested in independent authors or picking up some tips on writing will find some interesting stuff there…

      Having previously written about what makes a good literary fight scene, I thought an appropriate follow up might be to examine some mistakes that can potentially ruin the action in a novel.
      Now, if you’re like me, nothing can grab your attention in a book like a nicely portrayed bit of violence. Indeed, the climax to many an action/adventure novel is often some sort of life and death brawl between hero and villain. A fight scene can be a graphic example of a hero’s innate superiority or a chance to put him or her into a bit of peril. It can offer the reward of giving an annoying antagonist his comeuppance or just be used to keep the reader engaged during an otherwise slow section of the story. Unfortunately, when it comes to portraying these scenes, most writers are not fighters and don’t know the difference between throwing a right and throwing some write.
      Of course, the average reader also may not be all that well versed in the intricacies of combat and, therefore, any mistakes or inaccuracies found in a literary fight scene may simply pass by them unnoticed. But for someone who does know a little about how violence goes down in the real world, poorly written or inaccurate action scenes can leave you shaking your head saying “That could never happen.” In extreme cases, such as a novel purported to be gritty and realistic, it can ruin the whole tenor of the story.
      As someone who has done martial arts most of their life, who has written extensively for various martial arts publications, and who did a fair amount of scientific research on the subject while composing the book, The Principles of Unarmed Combat, I’m one of those people who gets annoyed by poorly written or inaccurate fight scenes.
      Now clearly, there are different levels of realism that can be involved in a fictional action sequence. A battle between superheroes or jedi knights does not have to be bound by the same laws of realism that a fight between mere normal humans would be. And even in a fight between humans, there can be stylistic flashes (think Errol Flynn dueling in Robin Hood) which would never happen in real life but are – strictly speaking – not wholly impossible.
      But where many literary action sequences go wrong is when they stray, not into the realm of the improbable but rather, into that realm of physical impossibility. There are certain things writers will sometimes describe in combative scenes which are just plain, factually wrong. And as a knowledgeable reader, this kills any believability I might have in the scene.
      The writer is not completely to blame for this. There is a good deal of inaccurate information floating around out there on martial arts and fighting techniques. And much of this information comes not from writers but from alleged “experts” in the martial arts. But people need to keep in mind, martial arts are not like the medical or legal professions. There is no AMA or bar association to certify the credentials of martial arts masters. So anything you hear from martial artists – particularly regarding the scientific and medical aspects of various fighting techniques – has to be taken with a grain of salt. Just because somebody can beat you up, doesn’t mean he can explain how he does it.
      Probably the most egregious mistakes that get made in the course of depicting a fictional fight scene are the various medical consequences attributed to different techniques. Often, the damage that can supposedly be inflicted as the result of various martial arts blows is widely exaggerated or completely false.
      The biggest offender in this category are the “death blows.”
      Though it’s possible a single barehanded blow that lands near any vital organ, particularly a blow to the head that may effect the brain, can kill someone, this is extremely rare. Even top professional fighters do not kill people on command with a strike. Among the more fallacious “death blows” out there is the old strike to the nose that drives the nose bone back into the brain. No less a figure than Stephen King dragged this one out in his book Firestarter when his expert hitman, John Rainbird, contemplates killing someone by sending fragments of broken nose into a victim’s brain. The only problem is, it’s impossible. The nose is largely made of cartilage, which will generally just sort of smoosh when it gets hit hard enough. Besides which, there’s a wall of bone behind the nose area that would prevent any shards from actually entering the brain. While, again, any powerful blow to the head can theoretically cause death (though often such deaths are the result of a person losing consciousness and hitting their head on the ground after being struck), a blow to the nose is no more likely to do this than any other blow to the head.
      Another fallacy is that a trained martial artist can kill an opponent with a single blow to the heart. Though I’ve previously written about my enjoyment of the martial arts action/adventure novels by author Eric Van Lustbader, and have even praised some of his written fight scenes, when he starts describing the deadly “heart kite” strike, he strays into the realm of fantasy. Yes, in rare instances, people do die from blows to the chest that interrupt the heart rhythm – it’s occasionally happened in little league baseball games when fielders are hit with a line drive – but this is essentially a million to one shot that could never be done intentionally by a fighter.
      Even more ludicrous is the concept of a “delayed death touch,” a strike that can be timed to kill a person at a later date. Again, a person might receive an injury during the course of a fight that later causes him to fall over dead but this is sheer bad luck and not something anyone can intentionally do to another person.
      Besides technique fallacies, the second major category of mistakes seen in this area are the simple informational/factual errors that authors commonly make when writing about the martial arts. Years ago, it was common to refer to “the judo chop.” But anyone who bothers to do a little bit of research will quickly discover judo is a wrestling style and has no “chop.” That is a karate technique, where it is more commonly known as a “knifehand” or, in Japanese, as a “shuto.”
      Speaking of judo and karate, authors frequently toss such terms around without really knowing what they are talking about.
      Though James Clavell’s Shogun was an excellent piece of fiction, it left a lot to be desired as a piece of history. Clavell has some of his 16th century Japanese samurai doing judo and karate. He would have saved himself a bit of embarrassment if he did a little more research and learned that judo is a modern art only dating back to the late 19th century and karate originated in Okinawa and didn’t come to Japan until the early 20th century. And don’t even get me started on ninjutsu…
      The bottom line is, literary fight scenes and other depictions of martial arts and general violence do not have to be completely realistic but they should not be totally inaccurate. With a little bit of effort, writers can get their basic facts straight. And if they can’t come up with the hard facts they need for a fully realistic portrayal, they can always leave some of the action shrouded in mystery. A brilliant example of this latter technique comes in the novel Shibumi, in which the author, Trevanian, describes his master assassin, Nicholai Hel, as an expert in the esoteric Japanese martial art of “hoda korosu” or “naked/kill” which makes uses of common everyday items to kill people with. To the best of my knowledge, there is no specific martial art like this but Trevanian gets around this problem by including a footnote explaining it would be irresponsibly dangerous to describe the exact nature of this art or its techniques since some readers might misuse them. Not only does he brilliantly get to avoid describing the techniques in detail but he creates a sense of awe and wonder in the reader (Wow! That sounds so dangerous, I’d love to be able to do it!).
      And this, as much as anything, is what a good writer should strive to accomplish with his action scenes. Just don’t make too many mistakes to distract from that awe and wonder.


6 Responses to “Getting it Wrong: Some Common Mistakes in Fight Literature”

  1. Melinda Le Baron May 31, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    I always wondered about that nose bone through the brain shot – what nose bone? There really isn’t any to speak of. The rest of the stuff you mention was all good information. Thank you for taking the time to write it up. I’m no martial arts expert, I know more more about edged weapons and bows, etc. It’s always nice nice to know more about a different field. Thanks again! Melinda

    • Mark Jacobs June 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Melinda. Keep checking back. Eventually I’ll have some information up on edged weapons, as well.

  2. Kate Andrews June 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on MMA, Wrestling, Comic and Gaming News.

  3. Jonathan Peto June 7, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    I was relieved to find out that I had not made any of those errors in the novel I’m writing. Then again, I haven’t tried to pass off any of my characters as practitioners of the martial arts.

    Maybe your next article could be about mistakes writers make depicting ‘unschooled’ street fighters. A list of your pet peeves perhaps.

    • Mark Jacobs June 7, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks for the comments, Jonathan. In a way, there are fewer mistakes made when writing about “unschooled” fighters because people who have not been formally taught a method of combat are liable to do almost anything in a fight. Someone may have watched too many Star Wars movies and try to use the force to choke you from a distance. Who knows, if the person he’s attacking is a big enough Star Wars fan, himself, it might even work.

      • Jonathan Peto June 15, 2012 at 9:33 am #

        I like you Star Wars fan analogy. That whole mind over matter thing is something to contemplate.

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