I still remember the first time a pair of bullies accosted me when I was on the way home from school to eat lunch. I was maybe nine or ten years old. After a bit of verbal harassment, they informed me that I was going to have to fight one of them. They left it to me to choose my adversary. At this point in my life I’d never been in a real fight, but I’d seen plenty of them on TV and in the movies. I picked the taller, skinnier of the two. They were both older than I was and as the taller bully began circling me I realized I didn’t even know how to make a fist. I clenched my fingers in an imitation of the bully’s fists. I was so intent on the guy in front of me, I completely forgot about the second bully who jumped me from behind. They began working me over and a neighborhood woman who lived on the block ran out of her house brandishing a broom and chased the bullies away. Unfortunately, they caught me again after school and really beat the hell out of me. It taught me a valuable lesson, though. In a real fight, civility and rules go out the window. It hurts, too.
I’ve been in a lot of physical confrontations since that fateful day, the vast majority of which had a more satisfactory ending that the aforementioned one, but I take no satisfaction in that fact. The late Patrick Swayze uttered a great and telling line in his movie, Roadhouse, when asked if he’d won or lost the fight. “Nobody wins a fight,” he said. The line resonated with me. A lot of people who watch fight scenes on TV or movies or read about them in fiction develop unrealistic expectations about them. Just like I was used to watching the cowboy hero knocking the villain out during my pre-bullied childhood, I never thought about the accompanying fear and pain that accompanies a good set of fisticuffs. The heroes knocked the stuffing out of the bad guy without raising any bruises, causing any cuts, or breaking any knuckles. Usually, the worst that would happen to either combatant would be a thin, needle-like trickle of blood down one of their chins. To paraphrase the Bard, “If you punch us, do we not bleed?”
Yeah, you usually do. I remember getting a bloody lip during that first confrontation. I remember the first time I split a guy’s lip that I punched. I remember the first time I knocked a guy out cold. It was in a boxing match. I connected with a short right and my opponent jerked like he’d been hit by an electric shock, completely out on his feet. I remember being out on my feet myself after getting hit by a hook kick out of nowhere that collided with my jaw. I try to bring these experiences to my writing when I do a fight scene. My protagonists usually give as good as they get, but they feel more of it afterward. Remember Swayze’s comment? While you may feel a certain flash of pain being on the receiving end of a telling blow, oftentimes you’re so adrenalized that the pain is fleeting. After the dance is over, however, the pain sticks around like a bad sunburn. I try to imbue this into my fiction as well. Unfortunately, the portrayal of fight scenes is often portrayed with egregious inaccuracy in a lot of television programs, movies, and books. I think part of the problem is the people writing them are not well informed.
I used to love watching Chuck Norris kick those bad guys on Walker, Texas Ranger, but did you ever notice how no one ever got a bloody nose or a cut lip despite being kicked in the face by a guy wearing cowboy boots? In my forthcoming novel, Chimes at Midnight, I lead up to a climactic battle in a Washington D. C. Metro station between the hero and the redoubtable villain. The hero is a former Golden Gloves boxer and the villain is a mixed martial arts fighter. I won’t say who wins, but rest assured each guy’s going to feel it later.
Now, I’m not advocating a writer going out ready to rumble and looking for trouble, but a little research can keep your fight scenes from looking ridiculous. There are certain things you feel after being in a knock-down, drag-out battle. For one thing, unless your hands are pretty well conditioned, and you know how to make a real tight fist, knuckles tend to get bruised and even broken. Hit something hard, like someone’s head, and you could end up with a hand swollen to about the same size. Body punches are the way to go, unless your hands are wrapped and you’re wearing gloves. The old-time bare-knuckle fighters were masters of body punching. They’d occasionally toss in a punch to the jaw if the opportunity for a knockout presented itself. Jaws get broken, too. So do noses. Facial contusions and hematomas usually stick around long after the fight in which they occurred is a distant memory. I made a point of having my kickboxing private eye, Ron Shade, looking like a raccoon for the final section of A Final Judgment after his big title fight with a Drago-like Russian fighter in Las Vegas. And those real flashy, high kicks look great on screen, but are seldom used in a real confrontation unless you’re Cung Li. And people hit with foreign objects, such as bottles and chairs, usually sustain some severe injuries. Bottles and chairs break in the movies because they’re designed to do that. In real life, your skin and bones break more often than the bottle or the chair.
As authors, we owe it to our readers make our fight scenes entertaining and exciting, but we also do a disservice by portraying them in an unrealistic way. Ironically, this might even be perpetrating or glorifying violence by encouraging the idea that you can punch someone without hurting them. So try to keep it real. Show the consequences. Make it hurt.