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.
In Part 2, we’ll cover more impossible death strikes and other common author errors.
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Mark Jacobs is a freelance writer, martial arts instructor and semi-professional poker player who regularly plays for more money than he can afford to lose. His written work has appeared in publications such as Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health and TimeOut New York. The author of the acclaimed instructional text,The Principles of Unarmed Combat, he currently serves as a monthly columnist for Black Belt Magazine. His novels include the detective novel,Pascal’s Wager, and the upcoming boxing saga, A Bittersweet Science. You can learn more about Mark on his blog, and on his Amazon.com Author’s Page.