Back to: Who let the dogs out | Forward to: The morning after

Going to the source

You guys have listened to me go on for quite a few days now. I'm almost done! The material I've been talking about through this series of posts is all stuff that I was thinking about a lot during the time I was writing my novel Shadowboxer, which I began in 2008. These days I'm doing a physics degree that leaves me virtually no free time, but back then I was immersed in watching fights on You Tube and also looking at training footage from around the world in connection with my work with Steve.

But when it came to actually writing Jade, I was daunted. I had never fought in a cage. At that time I wasn't even doing fitness training. I was still recovering from a series of pregnancies. I had a gaping hole in the connective tissue joining my abdominal muscles that limited what I could do physically, I was breastfeeding, and I was feeling very soft because having small children to look after made me unusually empathetic. I saw threats to their safety everywhere; I was cautious. In that state, how on earth was I going to create a credible representation of a fighter--let alone a loose cannon like Jade?

When I brought it up with Steve he just shrugged. 'Look at fights,' he said. 'That's all you need.'

So that is what I did. But I didn't just look at any fights. For example, in the book Jade is an MMA fighter but for several chapters she is forced to fight Muay Thai, which has a more restricted set of rules that keeps the fight on the feet. So for that part of the book I studied Muay Thai bouts. In all cases I picked matches in which one of the fighters was a bit like Jade in terms of weight, reach, and overall style relative to their opponent. I did this because there is an immense variety of strategy and tactics that different fighters will use depending on their individual strengths and weaknesses, and what works for one person or situation can fail miserably for another. I tried to preserve tactical context sensibly and to think about the implications of different individual styles. Of course, the fights I chose always ended up being man-on-man because at the time there just wasn't enough footage of women to choose from. But that really didn't matter much in terms of the internal logic of each fight.

I then wrote down what I observed. Generally I lifted only short sequences at a time, but in the case of Jade's epic battle against Gretchen I took big chunks wholesale out of an incredible MMA fight that I'd watched on You Tube.

In one or two cases I set up a series of moves on purpose. There is a scene where Jade's trainers notice that her opponent has particular advantage and they are shouting to Jade from the corner what she needs to do to neutralize it. Jade is losing and she's too flustered to take in the information. Finally she is able to connect a tactic they'd worked in training to an opportunity that her opponent gives her in the heat of the moment. In this case I picked on a tactical problem that is common and easy to see. I sourced a solution to the problem that can credibly be shown to work. I found out a way of training the solution that Jade and her coaches could have worked on. Then I put it all together. I made everything as dramatic as I could, but I did not make any of it up out of my imagination. Everything I worked with is grounded in actual practice.

When I was working on the fight scenes I only took material from primary sources. Someone said to me that Shadowboxer reminded them of the movie Girlfight. I didn't watch it. I didn't watch Beautiful Boxer until after my fight scenes were written--I was looking at it for its culture and psychology. I avoided Million Dollar Baby also because it was a fictional representation. I wanted to make sure I was working as close to life as possible, because it's too easy to pick up on other creators' versions of events that are already exaggerated, and to exaggerate them further. And for the kind of book that Shadowboxer is, there was no need to do that. The resources existed; I just needed to understand what I was looking at.In the end, the fight scenes turned out to be the easiest parts of the book to write. I was more or less taking dictation from what I could see on the screen. It was a breeze.

I wish I could offer advice to other writers on how to deal with combative sequences without introducing excessive distortion. Obviously, in fantastic literature and cinema there is often no need for realism--in many arenas, artistic excesses are part of the package. But often we see a mixture of realism and fantasy, and then we want the realism to be as sound as possible. For most other areas of specialist knowledge the advice would be to talk to the experts; if you are writing a scene where paramedics do something, you read about paramedics and talk to paramedics, etc. The problem with fight scenes is that the people you'll want to go to will be martial arts teachers and self-protection 'experts' - but what you need to know is that their credentials aren't the equivalent of a professional credential in other fields.

Anybody can set up a self-protection or martial arts business and call themselves an expert. Large martial arts organizations hand out certificates and titles all the time, and people are creating their own organizations all over the place. Worldwide there are widely respected classical systems that claim lineage to ancient fighting traditions. Irrespective of the truth (or not) of these claims, remember that their grades and certifications are only meaningful for performing the art as it has been handed down or reinterpreted--usually this is without full-contact fighting and therefore devoid of reality checks. There are newer systems that are associated in some way with the military, police, or other security work and they generally offer grades and teaching licenses for having studied a syllabus of self-defence techniques--no fighting or front line experience required to become a teacher. There are systems that are totally made up out of hot air. And there are systems where the combat theatrics are purely aesthetic--hopefully you can spot those but sometimes I wonder!

Also, dodgy stuff goes on. There's a lot of political back-scratching. Sometimes grades can be bought over the phone, or certifications given in exchange for attending an expensive series of courses that offer a canned syllabus which is in itself fairly meaningless. Sometimes there is outright fraud. I remember here in the UK several years ago a prominent self-protection expert had been making good money for decades teaching people to defend themselves based on his experience in SAS, until someone did some digging and it came out that SAS had no record of him. Fraud can happen in any field, but in the self-protection business it's easy for someone to masquerade as an expert. They aren't going to have to perform open heart surgery; they just have to know some moves that seem plausible and present them with a lot of front. There are plenty of instructors out there making money and giving advice. As a writer, personally I wouldn't ask most of them to be my consultant. It's your call.

That's why I don't know what to suggest other than going to a fight gym and talking to the people there. You could do worse than make You Tube your friend. There are plenty of videos of street fights, including fights that involve multiple participants. These will give you an idea of the overall dynamics and flow of what happens and how people behave. I wouldn't recommend watching instructional videos, because skills are usually broken down and rehearsed in ways that don't resemble what really happens in a live situation. The one thing I can say is that fighting is chaotic. It shouldn't read like a planned sequence. Don't be Holmes.

So, this brings me to the conclusion of my time here. I would like to thank Charlie again for generously opening this blog to me, and I'd also like to express my appreciation to everyone who read and commented. Reading all of your responses has been immensely stimulating for me, and although I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I've said, I do hope that some of you have found a few points to think about along the way. Thank you so much for reading.



Thanks for the posts, Tricia, they've been fascinating!


This has been an eye-opening series of posts for me, thank you very much!


Yes, thank you.
Fighting/Martial Arts may not be my thing, but your posts have been interesting. Definitely some things to think about. And I'm always interested in getting a look into writers' work and thought processes.


This was my favourite post so far! I like how you've set out this framework by which authors can avoid reproducing the old tropes. My take-home is that it's easy to fake the action, and your readers will believe it, but that you can make an original contribution if you always go back to the source material.


If you want to write or understand violence, and/or the violent, I highly recommend reading Rory A Miller. 30 years martial artist, 18 years working Corrections - that's being a prison guard, and prison tactical team leader, and more - plus training with Army, police, FBI and more, and a year in Iraq as a contractor - this man knows about - and has experienced - more violence than anyone I know, and he has the talent to break it down to eddible size chunks.
Start with this:
Then here:
(it's on Amazon, too, but Smashwords is without DRM and offers more formats) and read the free sample.
It's woth every second you spend on it.


This might be of interest. An article I wrote some time ago:
"Unarmed Combat in Zero-G"

Maybe you can become famous if you have the money...



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Tricia Sullivan published on September 15, 2014 10:48 AM.

Who let the dogs out was the previous entry in this blog.

The morning after is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog