Kicking Butt

by Pari

I wasn’t a kid who grew up wrestling with brothers, tackling dads in impromptu football games, or even shoving a bully out of my way. The worst I had to contend with was an older sister who’d pin me down on the floor and tickle me until I peed in my pants.

I didn’t like fight scenes in books either. Part of this aversion was a lack of understanding; I couldn’t visualize the reality from the words on the page. But an even larger reason was my idealism. I just didn’t want to think that people really would hurt each other in those ways. I didn’t like the idea of glamorizing violence through literature.

Pollyanna and I had a lot in common then.

But writing about murder has a way of changing one’s perspective.
Wanting "to get it right" does too.

I tried the armchair pugilism route and realized quickly that it couldn’t work.

My first real fight scene was in The Clovis Incident. It was an amateurish attempt, but works — I think — because my protag, Sasha, doesn’t have a clue about physical fighting. Neither does her assailant.

Neither did I. But I did realize that I had to get up and actually try to sense what the fight would feel like. I didn’t punch myself in the stomach, but I did tap it hard enough to leave a little bruise . . .

Today, I no longer can pretend not to know. Since I’ve become a more serious martial artist, I been slammed in the solar plexus by a fist twice my size of my own. I understand what a well-placed kick to the front of the knee can to do someone who weighs a good 100 pounds more than the attacker. A palm strike to the chin or nose, an elbow strike to the jaw, both can take a person out. I also know how to fall well and poorly, how to think in terms of offense and defense.

As I’ve learned more, I’ve also become a much more attentive — and critical — reader of other writers’ fight scenes. There are those that contain reams of information; the author obviously knows a tremendous amount about the logistics and effects of the techniques. But after a page or two, I tend to get bored for some reason. Maybe it’s because when you’re in a fight, time passes so quickly and the description doesn’t convey that urgency. Other scenes don’t have enough information to help my imagination flow; these frequently assume the reader has the same specialized knowledge the author does — that everyone knows what a tornado kick to the head means. I usually skip ’em too.

And then there are the writers who seem to get it right every single time. Dick Francis comes to mind. I bleed and ache with his protagonists. I can feel the dull thud of a fist connecting with the hard muscle under flesh. I can hear the crack of a broken rib.

Do you have any favorite fight-scene writers? Can you share a sentence/paragraph of what you consider to be an excellent example?

P.S.
I passed my pre-test for my black belt in Tae Kwon Do last Friday night and have been invited for the formal test on August 2. Hold a good thought for me. I’ll post the results on August 4.

30 thoughts on “Kicking Butt

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Congratulations, Pari, and good luck! I know you’ll make it.

    Best fight scene writer I know is Lee Child. The bar-fight scene in the latest book is a corker.

    Reply
  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Hey Pari, Congrats. Quite an accomplishment. I guess it’s appropriate to say, “Kick some ass.”

    Ludlum in the Jason Bourne books does a good job of the fastness of a fight. Lee Child does a good job too.

    Reply
  3. Dave Zeltserman

    Pari, good luck! It’s interesting, I’m almost a year past my black belt test (now working on my second degree), and it has since all clicked and all that stuff that was so hard for so many years now feels like second nature.

    -Dave

    Reply
  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    J.D.,Thanks for the congrats. I’m healthily nervous, but the pre-test is designed to give one confidence and I’ve got to say I feel much better now that it’s over.

    Lee Child is wonderful at writing those scenes. I’d love to hear you perspective on why so many of them work.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Wilfred,Thank you. I’m looking forward to the actual test. And, yes, that good-luck comment is quite apropos.

    Tell me what Ludlum does that makes the scenes pop. I haven’t read the Bourne books yet.

    Reply
  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Dave,I spoke on Saturday with the master who lead the pre-test and told him that I felt like I did my forms well but that my goal during that testing was just to know that I really knew everything. I said that once I get my black belt, I’m going to focus on making the forms *mine* — working on the rhythm of the movements and breathing to own them.

    I’m not expressing it well here — but I suspect you know what I mean. He sure did. He told me that from white to black belt, one learns the forms — the movements. From black belt on, one learns the essence.

    Can’t wait.

    Reply
  7. Hadrian

    I believe physical conflict, like sex, is awkward. Since they can both be driven by passion, adrenaline, fear, the need to control or be controlled, scenes of both violence and sex are open to the unknown, mistakes, accidents, and discoveries.

    I have practiced Gracie Ju-Jitsu, often referred to as submission fighting, for nine years now. It is extremely physical and has helped me to better understand the accidents and unexpected moments that can happen in a confrontation. The weight of another person, the burn of the plastic floor mat against an ankle, the dull and reasonable pain of an elbow pressed against a rib, then the sharper pain of that elbow sliding and borrowing between the ribs… It is always surprising, and often awkward.

    P.S. Good luck on the 2nd!

    – Hadrian

    Reply
  8. Louise Ure

    I must not read many “fight scene” writers … can’t think of one right now that blew my socks off.

    I guess I prefer my violence more psychological in nature.

    Fingers crossed for the August 2 test!

    Reply
  9. Wilfred Bereswill

    I think the brevity of Ludlum’s fight scenes add to the realism. The Bourne movies drag the fights out, but the books are succinct.

    I’ve listened to Lee Lofland talk about writing fight scenes. The tunnel vision and the feeling of slow motion. I guess I need to go pick a fight with someone for the experience. Maybe someone a lot smaller than me.

    Reply
  10. Tammy Cravit

    Congrats, Pari, and good luck on your test! While I’ve never done any martial arts, I have a friend who does Aikido, and I know what an accomplishment black belt is.

    As to fight scenes, I might be a little unusual in this regard: For me, the absolute best fight scene is one that totally meshes with the characters in it. The best Lee Child fight scene would be totally out of place if it was being acted out by Jessica Fletcher on the streets of Cabot Cove, Maine, and a Janet Evanovich-style fight scene would fall on its face in the pages of an Andrew Vachss novel. As long as the action is halfway credible and it fits with the characters and texture of the story, it’s all good in my world.

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    I always enjoy Barry Eisler’s fight scenes for John Rain too. They are extremely detailed, but they flow, like art, and there’s usually a sensational wrap up afterward as the adrenaline leaves both Rain and the reader’s body. He gets better with them as the books progress, too.

    Kudos on passing the first part, Pari.I know you’ll nail the rest too. You know, so many writers are active in the martial arts, we should have a cage match at one of the cons…

    Reply
  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    No, no, no! Don’t pick any fights!

    I’d better read what Lee Lofland has to say. When I’m sparring, sometimes it goes slowly, but most of the time, it’s fast and I spend the next hour trying to analyze how the guy got that punch past what I thought were my defenses.

    Reply
  13. Pari Noskin Taichert

    JT,Good comment on the end of the fight scene as well. That adrenalin disapation is powerful.

    As to the cage fight, um, that might be fun; but I doubt I could win unless I fought mighty dirty. The guys would definitely need to wear cups.

    Reply
  14. Fran

    Naw, Wilfred, you don’t need to pick a fight. Go volunteer at a pre-school sometime. It’s amazing how tiny hands and feet can connect, and in all the most sensitive spots.

    I’d wish you good luck on the 2nd, Pari, but I suspect that luck is not a factor. You’ll do beautifully, I have NO doubt!

    Reply
  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Good luck on the test, Pari – have no doubt you’ll pass with flying colors. You’re already a black belt to me!

    I have to admit I ruthlessly and guiltlessly skip over any fight scenes in a novel, but since I have to endure them in cinema – top two are Indy on the suspension bridge in RAIDERS – just shoot the mofo, right? and Viggo Mortensen, naked in the bath house with tattoos of St. Basil’s on his – back. I dare anyone to top that one

    Reply
  16. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Fran,Great to see you back, here!

    Loved your post on your blog about the hair. Olive oil?

    And, you know what? Even kids who are older manage to find all the sensitive areas by mistake. (I hope.)

    Reply
  17. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Alex,Aw, shucks . . .

    Good scenes both.

    I referred to that Indy Jones scene just the other day when explaining how sparring can — and can’t — go. A punch won’t work against someone who has a gun pointed at your head.

    Reply
  18. Rob Gregory Browne

    In high school, my best friend’s girlfriend had a black belt in Karate. As they were walking down the sidewalk one day, some freak, parked at the curb, reached out and grabbed her boob.

    She left him with a bloody nose, the blow delivered so swiftly, he didn’t know what had happened until he felt the pain.

    I would have loved to have been there to cheer her on.

    Congrats on the pre-test!

    Reply
  19. Catherine

    I agree with JT regarding Barry Eisler. There is an elegant sufficiency to the violence he describes.

    I’ve just recently read James Lee Burke’s ‘The Tin Roof Blowdown’, and there is a scene at the end that is very different than Eisler’s , but is satisfying too.

    The power shifts after a long build up in this book, and Alafair has a chance to throw out a line like,

    ‘ Suck on this you freak.’

    She pulled the trigger four times. The first round went into his mouth and punched into his cheek.The second embedded in his forearm when he lifted it in front of him, the third clipped off his end of his finger, and the fourth shattered his chin, slinging blood and saliva across the seat and the back window.

    More action…(really better to read the book in its entirety)

    Then she is reminded of her family values with…( at least that’s how I’m reading this part of the scene)

    “Alafair extended the Ruger with both hands, aiming it into the centre of his forehead.

    ‘Alfair -‘ Molly said almost in a whisper.

    Alfair’s knuckles whitened on the Ruger’s grips.

    ‘Hey Kiddo,’ Molly said.’What?’ Alfair said angrily.’We never give them power.”He’ll be back.”I doubt it. But if he does, we still don’t give him the power.’

    Alfair widened her eyes, releasing her breath, and stepped backward, clicking the Ruger’s safety with her thumb. She swallowed and looked at Molly, her eyes filming.”

    So to me a fight scene while it may stand alone by its writing, is more powerful for the context of the ramifications of that violence, past the initial violent moment…as I think this example illustrates.

    Good luck with your test Pari.

    Reply
  20. Naomi

    Pari–

    I can so see a series written by you about a fortysomething/fiftysomething woman who runs a martial arts dojo in a small to medium town. Really.

    Reply
  21. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Naomi,What a novel idea. It interests me strangely.

    I have to admit that martial arts are starting to invade my writing a little; I wrote a short story that will be published in an anthology where the young protag knows TKD and uses it well.

    Reply

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