In most creative endeavors, one of the goals is to do something different than others have, or to show something familiar in a new way. That may mean taking the same starting point and finding a divergent path to the same end, or creating an entirely new path to a different end.
Over time, many writers have certain words, phrases, and even descriptions that start to show up in multiple works or even within the same novel. Fight scenes (and sex scenes) can become routine, predictable, and indistinguishable from others by the same author. This may be the result of laziness or forgetfulness. It may be that these scenes are outside the writer’s comfort zone, and once she has come up with one, it becomes the stock version. Like stock photography, these scenes are bland and don’t pull their weight, feed the writer’s creativity, or satisfy readers.
While this argument for variation and trying new things can be applied to any aspect of writing, I’m going to focus on some opportunities to be new and interesting in fight scenes. Here are some techniques and targets that show up in real world fights, but tend to get overlooked in fiction.
Striking With Elbows and Knees
These are great for close quarters like elevators, cars, offices, bathrooms, trains, walk in freezers, hallways, etc. Don’t limit yourself to using the knee for groin shots and the elbow just for grabs from behind. Coming at a diagonal, a knee can take out an opponent’s knee (see more on knees as a target below) or, aimed higher, give a heck of a charlie horse.
Brought up or down vertically, an elbow can hit the groin, solar plexus, clavicle, and under the chin or nose. Delivered horizontally, the elbow can take out a knee, go for a kidney or rib shot, and strike the temple. Because elbows aren’t as fragile as hands and wrists, you can have an untrained character use these effectively without needing a splint and weeks of physical therapy in the next chapter.
Some people put down this sort of attack or defense as ineffective girly fighting. The three problems with this judgment are 1) it’s actually very effective, 2) it’s not limited by sex or gender, and 3) do I really have to explain the fallacy of “fighting like a girl?” I didn’t think so.
Again, this is a great technique for a character who has no training but suddenly finds herself (himself, itself, themself, choose your favorite pronoun) in a brawl. It’s hard to defend against it because you can claw at any exposed skin from any direction, unlike a punch or kick which tend to be pretty linear. It doesn’t require a lot of strength or long nails (finger tips raking the face are quite painful). It also marks up the attacker or opponent, making them easier to identify later on. If your character needs something to focus on, have her channel her inner Bengal tiger, because great big cats totally have this down.
Again, once belittled as limited to girl fights, this is an extremely effective tactic that is often overlooked in fiction. Gaining control of your opponent’s hair means you have control of her head which very often results in winning the fight. The end of a braid or pony tail are less effective than a solid hold up near the back of the head.
Box the Ears
Depending on your age, your geographical region, and the sort of family you grew up with, you may not have ever had a grandparent/uncle/parent threaten to box your ears. If that’s the case, this involves cuffing someone upside the head, aiming for the ear. It can be done with the flat of the palm or with a cupped hand. Boxing both ears at the same time often ruptures one or both eardrums. This may or may not hurt, depending on the person and the severity of the damage. This impairs hearing until the eardrum heals and, better yet, can disrupt equilibrium making it hard to walk or even stand. Some people get severe vertigo which can be incapacitating (and gross).
All Your Jewelries Are Belong to Us
Most piercings don’t like to be tugged on, much less yanked. Your character can take control of an adversary through a firm grip on that nose ring.
Anything around the neck is fair game. This includes jewelry, ID badge lanyards, and neckties. Most of these don’t come with emergency quick release or break away clasps. Obviously, some sites prefer clip on ID lanyards for this reason, so keep it true to the setting. This can be used to get someone’s attention, take control of them, or put their life in danger.
While not technically jewelry, I’m putting a reminder about glasses here, too. I know from personal experience that getting smacked in the glasses can really smart. Even a little tap on the frame can concentrate enough force on the nose pads to make the eyes water, which makes it hard to see.
Humans tend to prioritize vision over all other senses, and those of us accustomed to being able to do this are going to be severely hampered anytime it’s impaired. Eyeballs are fragile. Lots of things can sting or irritate the eyes, from innocuous things like sand and lemon juice, to more damaging things like solvents and acid. Pushing lightly on a closed eye can impair vision for a few minutes without causing permanent damage, and a harder push or strike will obviously do more. Light can result in temporary or permanent blindness, depending on the brightness.
Low Targets Rock
Honestly, it’s not that fun to get smacked anywhere from the knee down, and that’s just with someone’s bare foot. Add a shoe, sword, baseball bat, or umbrella, and it gets even more unpleasant.
Many men expect a groin kick, and guard accordingly (and in case it hasn’t occurred to you, it’s no picnic for a lady to take a straight shot to the bits, though we don’t tend to fall over quite so much). Knees, however, are hard to protect. They only like to bend one direction, and are pretty easy to damage even with a low-powered kick from the side.
If you’ve ever played soccer, you likely learned the hard way why shin guards exist. The shin, or tibia, doesn’t have a lovely layer of fat and muscle protecting it, so when you get hit, you enjoy both nerve-ending pain from the skin, and deep throbbing bone pain.
Have you ever had someone stomp on your foot really hard? It isn’t pleasant. If you’re somehow more fortunate than me, perhaps you’ve never dropped something on your feet. Or maybe you’ve had a pot roast fall out of grandma’s overly full freezer onto your foot. Now imagine someone stomping on your foot while wearing high heels, which will focus all the power into a smaller space increasing the damage.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of fight scene diversity, and anyone can better with some practice. I routinely contemplate how I could be attacked in random situations, and what good responses would be. After all, I’m trained to think about this stuff. Even if this isn’t your default, it can be a good exercise both for writing and self defense (which I hope you never need).
You can build up your repertoire of potential fight scenes and character reactions by building your own scenarios. Even if you don’t write them down or consciously save them for later, your brain will be able to tap into what you’ve thought about. Need a starting point? You’re in your car at a stoplight. What would you do if someone opened the passenger door and got in? How would your response differ if the person was a man/woman, armed/unarmed, drunk/sober/delusional? Or maybe you’re opening the door from your kitchen to your attached garage, and you find someone (or something, cause face it, I write speculative fiction) other than your car in there? Would your reaction differ if you’re home alone? Do you live in a town home or suburbia?
When you read a fight scene, even one of your own, ask yourself how you could do it differently. This alone can help you break away from your stock responses.