Your heroine pulled a screaming woman out of a serial killer’s panel van. She looked him full in the face before he decided to cut his losses and drive away, doors flapping behind. Our heroine has been interviewed by the homicide detective, who knows that this case is related to the 13 other women pulled off local streets in the early morning hours by an unknown white male driving a white panel truck. He has pulled some women out of their own driveway.
The serial killer wants to make sure that there are no witnesses. So the heroine, I’ll call her Samantha, has just left the police department and she is in the parking lot walking toward her car. She’s described him as a squat man with a crew cut and dead eyes. And that man is now stalking her.
In the 1970s or 1980s, she could get away with walking straight ahead, blindly getting into her unlocked car, putting the key in the ignition, and getting attacked from the backseat. Your readers will hate her if she does this today.
But it is 2020 at the time of this writing (and this time next year, it will probably still be 2020), and this heroine has decided to drive the victim home. The victim’s name is Sarah, and her wife is home recovering from surgery and unable to drive.
Samantha is about to get into a street fight with the serial killer, who has brought his accomplice with him. (Yes, they do. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka; Hillside Stranglers Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono; Leonard Lake and Charles Ng; and Dean Arnold Corll, David Owen Brooks, and Elmer Wayne Henley; for starters.)
None of the information contained in my entire website is legal advice. Nor is it advice about whether you should fight, how you should fight, or when you should stop. All of these things are determined by the totality of the circumstances. This is true for your protagonist as well. Both of you are going to have to deal with local laws, no matter what city, county, state, country you’re in, and maybe even the planet you’re on.
How Not to Do It
There are several ways to write a fight scene badly. Today, you can see fights on YouTube, so people know that most fights don’t involve heroes in crane stances fighting multiple opponents one at a time, each opponent helpfully waiting his turn until the bad guy ahead of him is defeated. In cheesy fight scenes, the protagonist is never surrounded and attacked at once, there’s a ton of round-kicking and not a lot of punching, and no one ends up on the ground. The protagonist is knocked unconscious and wakes up the next morning with a headache, gradually works loose his bonds, and escapes out of a window. Then there is the recipe method:
Jack was waiting for me at the bottom of the courthouse steps. “You lost my case for me, Al! She got the kids!” He threw a punch at me, and I blocked it with my forearm using a standard technique. “Damn it!” he shouted and punched at me again. This one connected, so I crouched and we circled each other cautiously. “I’m going to fuck you up, Al,” he said with a laugh. The courthouse steps were behind us. The sidewalk was hot, and to the left of us was a planter. He was dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that said Coed Naked Fishing, and it had stains. “You’re going to have to try, Jack.” “Don’t be so sure, Al.” Jack kicked at me and I ducked, then stepped deftly in, and turned to his right side. I punched out. I moved another 90 degrees. Then I kicked him hard using a snap kick. He stumbled forward and I dropped my briefcase. He grabbed for my head and I gave him a front kick, then spun around and caught him on the jaw.
How does a trained fighter let an angry person get close enough to punch him? Plus, he would have dropped the stupid briefcase or used it as an improvised club. If Al has just punched him (intermediate distance), how is he far away enough to kick him (kicking distance)? And how is Jack close enough to grab his head (close fighting)? What is Al doing with his hands? Oh, right, the stupid briefcase. If Jack is close enough to grab his head (close fighting), how does Jack have room to kick him (kicking distance)? As a bonus, for a moment you think that the “he” wearing the Coed Naked Fishing shirt is the planter. You want to analyze your own fight scenes like this. And all that talking! His client wants to beat the shit out of him. Jack is seeing red and Al is hoping that deputies involve themselves.
Two Serial Killers Follow Her Home
Samantha drops Sarah off at her house and drives home herself just a few doors down. Sarah and Samantha did not note that they had been followed by an old green Subaru. They were hypervigilant about white panel trucks, not green Subarus. The two killers decide to abduct Samantha this time, but not in her driveway. They want her off-guard.
Samantha finally found a spot in the relatively empty parking lot, relieved that Trader Joe’s enforces mask restrictions. She took a moment, wondered how Sarah was doing, and resolved to buy something nice for her. Then she sighed and put her mask on, ghoulishly covered in cartoon coronaviruses, and stepped out of the car into the heat. Her head jerked backward and she involuntarily took two steps back. My ponytail. And then she moved with her assailant, turned around until she was almost on top of him ohmygod and punched him in the face once, twice, he let go. She elbowed him in the face, and he dropped to his knees, cradling his nose, screaming, spitting blood and teeth, and someone bear-hugged her from behind. She dropped into a crouch, shifted her hip, pounded the man behind her in the testicles to make him let go, which he did—roaring—and then vomiting. She whirled and grabbed him by his left shoulder, her forearm grinding into his greasy jaw, face too close to his greasy blonde forelock, one hand on his damp bicep, and swung him around so she had a look at Crew-Cut, who was now trying to get around him to get at her. She could smell cologne, sweat, and vomit. Crew-Cut’s face was covered with gore and so was his shirt.
He was the serial killer. Because he was standing in the doorway of the open panel truck.
Her veins filled with ice. He was reaching into his belt and she realized that she had been screaming “Call 911!” since she’d elbowed the man in the face and this switched to “DON’T SHOOT!” Then she thought, He’ll shoot us both. She kneed Forelock in the face. Hard. And again. And he dropped. In her peripheral vision, she saw people holding up cell phones. Crew-Cut had a gun in her face, screaming “GET IN!” and yelled at the bystanders, “She’s my wife!” but she had grabbed the barrel of Crew-Cut’s Glock and pointed it at him, cupped the grip with her other hand, and was kicking him in the groin so hard it made her teeth rattle. He’s wearing a cup. He still grunted. She flipped the grip toward him, then jerked it back, and his fingerbone cracked. And the gun was in her hand, slick with his blood. Tapping and racking the gun, she push-kicked him backward and he fell into the open panel truck. The sound was him screaming.
Forelock grabbed her again around her middle. She felt her shoulder get wet and the odor of blood and vomit rose in a cloud. He was lifting her up and pushing her toward the panel truck while Crew-Cut grabbed her feet. She wrenched a leg free and ax-kicked Crew-Cut’s hand, twisting to elbow Forelock in the head. Then again. He dropped her. Her foot was in the line of fire. The gawkers were in her line of fire. When she landed, she kicked out at Crew-Cut, connecting with his face. It was like stepping on ham and mayonnaise.
She stood up as fast as she could. She backed into the parking lot traffic lane, no longer between them, tapped the magazine and racked the gun. “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” she shouted at the videographers, but they had already scrambled out of the line of fire. “DOWN ON YOUR KNEES!” she called to both attackers, steadying her voice. “HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”
Two seventysomethings shook their heads at Samantha, yelling, “Go home!” and she shouted, “Help!” but they were already walking toward the store, disgusted with her. As an afterthought, one turned and shouted, “Sober up!” at her. In the background, she heard sirens. Both men staggered to their feet instead. “I WANT TO,” she said to them. “I REALLY WANT TO.”
But there were police cars in the parking lot. She almost fainted with relief. There were a lot of police cars, and she realized that she was the one with the gun. Crew-Cut was at it again: “That’s my WIFE! And I want to prosecute!” Samantha dropped the Glock. There were the oldsters: “That’s his wife! And she’s on drugs!” A Trader Joe’s employee in his Hawaiian shirt was standing beside her with his phone. “Naww, man! He grabbed her by her hair! I saw the whole thing!” and smelled the vomit, snot, and gore on her shoulder. He was the one who called the police. She wondered who he was talking to. But a police officer was somehow standing next to her and said, “You okay? We saw some of that.” The two killers were gone. “Sarah—” she said.
Elements of a Fight Scene You Must Get Right
Here are some things you need to know about violence that any reader acquainted with violence will expect. What I’m about to tell you applies to everyone, no matter how well-trained, no matter what your skill level, and no matter what your size.
You Can’t Always Tell Who the Bad Guy Is
The oldsters who think domestic violence is just dandy (and there are still too many people who think this way) are ready to believe that Samantha is the perpetrator. And then remember that when the police pull up to the scene, Samantha has the gun. In fact, if the serial killers did get down on their knees and put their hands on their heads and she shot them, she’s a murderer twice over. If your protagonist is standing over the villain, who is on the ground decerebrate posturing and bleeding into his brain, the protagonist will need to be prepared to be handcuffed, taken down to the police station, and questioned.
Violence Is Sudden
Even if two people are in a verbal altercation, someone’s going to suddenly throw a punch. And nobody’s talking to each other. I’ve had countless crime victims on the stand, and the defense attorney inevitably asks, “What did he say to you?” and the usual response is “Nothing.” The only time that was different was in a home-invasion drug murder I second-chaired, and the victims were all face-down on the carpet, and one of the killers said to one of them, “I should kill you,” and then said to the second one, “You’re dead,” and then shot him. There might be “give me your money,” or “get in the car,” but this is intimidation, not physical violence. Most of the time, people who are willing to use violence against you don’t telegraph their intentions.
Violence is Chaotic
I train with active military and law enforcement, who agree that the techniques being taught are not only accurate, but that they can’t get this training anywhere else. In contrast, I walked out of the dojang after my third-degree black belt test absolutely aware that none of us, even those who earned belts higher than mine, were prepared to defend ourselves from a real attack. Where I train, some drills involve someone walking up and yelling at you, and then if you can’t deescalate or flee, they haul off and attack you. I literally trust my instructors and classmates with my life, but when someone is screaming at you, pointing a weapon at you (fake or not), or grabbing you, it’s amazing how quickly you can forget that. Did I just say I trust them with my life? Well, considering the number of times we students put each other in carotid chokes and then learn how to get out of them, yeah, pretty much.
As far as third-party defense goes, if you see someone attacking someone else, you may not know who is attacker and who is victim (unless you saw the whole thing from the very start), and if you decide to intervene with a firearm, the most trained among us have a good chance of shooting the victim (or bystanders)—even if, like me, you’re a good shot under high-stress conditions with moving targets. If it’s a domestic violence incident and you go in to try to save the victim, the victim may join the attacker in attacking you, to the point that domestic violence incidents are appallingly risky for law enforcement. Fistfights may start with arguments or posturing, but even then, no one announces their intentions. All of a sudden people start throwing punches. Often, fights start when someone throws a sucker-punch or tackles someone from behind. Taebaek this is not.
Fights Are Short
Most fights don’t last but a few minutes. We train to fistfight, although we use gloves against each other, and it is stunning how hard you’re breathing after two minutes even if you are conditioned and trained. Most people aren’t professionals and they are going to get tired. Under normal circumstances, a ten-minute fight is a long, long fight.
Opponents Don’t Take Turns
Don’t make them stand in line. Fights happen in a circle. They want to injure or kill the victim and they’re not taking turns. The more opponents, the more it looks like a mob, and with enough opponents, you are going to get beaten to death. If your protagonist can defeat more than two or three opponents and walk away from the fight, you need the reader to know that the protagonist isn’t a ninja, they are a superhero. If enough people are present, the more likely you are to be tackled to the ground, and that’s when the kicking starts, if someone doesn’t have a weapon or just start bashing you in the head with a rock.
To get a rough idea of how a street fight would play out, go on YouTube and search for “Thai Girls Fight Foreigner man on Pattaya Walking Street.” The man grabbed a woman walking down the street and found himself attacked by not only the woman, but two of her friends.
Fights Go to the Ground
People who are unaccustomed to violence assume that everyone fights standing up. But people get punched in the face, they get stunned, they drop to one knee. They trip. They’re tackled. And make no mistake, if you are in a fistfight, you are going to get punched. You can do your best to block, but the best thing you can do is keep your head down and your hands up and hope for the best.
Punches Can Knock You Out
It doesn’t matter if you are built like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and are the best-trained martial artist there is. Your skull is the same thickness as anyone else’s, and your brain is still a 3-pound blob of Jell-O floating around in 5 ounces of cerebrospinal fluid, and the laws of physics are the laws of physics. If you get hit in the head hard enough, your brain will slosh around in your skull and that’s how you get concussed. As an aside, someone did a big-ass MRI study and found that women’s skulls are thicker than men’s, but who cares. It’s too bad our cerebrospinal fluid isn’t viscous.
If you’re punched, the impact might have no effect, or you can be stunned, or you can get knocked out, and if you get knocked out you can stand up moments later or you can die. And all of this depends on the strength of the punch and where you’ve been hit. And don’t forget that a second, mild concussion that takes place before you’ve healed from the first one can kill you.
If your protagonist is knocked out for more than a few moments, they have a moderate traumatic brain injury that will affect their functioning, perhaps for years, perhaps permanently. If they are out more than a few minutes, it will affect their speech, emotional regulation, and judgment. Some people come back from that. Some people are left with permanent disability. If they are unconscious for 24 hours, they might not be able to dress themselves, talk, reason, or move properly. More and more people are surviving TBI and so if your reader gets knocked out by the bad guy at dinner and wakes up in a cell the next morning, escapes, hails a cab, and makes it on the plane to save the scientist in Zurich, your reader will need to understand that your protagonist is a superhero or they will find your book cheesy.
And there is nothing quite like a punch to the liver or kidneys. You may drop like a rock and be completely incapacitated, at least until that agony passes. The pain might cause you to pass out. Even then, you need a trip to the ER to make sure that something didn’t rupture or you’ll die of internal bleeding.
When we are training, sometimes they put an electric belt around our waists, and in the middle of things, they shock us to mimic a gunshot wound. At the end of it, they will shock us again at the same voltage. During the fight, most of us don’t feel a thing, or we feel a twinge. At the end, when we get shocked, it’s excruciating, and I usually drop to the ground and shout “FUCK!” This is not particularly elegant, but it is adaptive, because strong language increases your pain tolerance by 30%.
Some people have low pain thresholds under ordinary circumstances but are impervious to pain under stress. Before I get a cavity filled, I need boatloads of Novocain and so much nitrous oxide I don’t know who the president is—and that’s just when I make the appointment. So I was completely blindsided by the fact that, during adrenaline training, I can get a series of nasty electric shocks and barely notice. Just remember that this is true about your attacker too. Further, your attacker might be on something that anesthetizes their system. Even if your attacker is shot through the heart, it takes ten seconds or so for them to die, and they can shoot or stab you a lot until that happens. Or throttle you. Or shove you out the window.
And another thing about adrenaline. You’ll note in my example, Samantha taps and racks the gun twice. That wasn’t a mistake. She did it twice because she was under stress. It’s not her gun, maybe she doesn’t even own a firearm, but she has trained that when she takes a gun, she taps and racks it. It’s automatic, and in the stress of the fight, she doesn’t remember that she already did it.
What you train to do flies out of you under stress. And, in fact, Samantha might not even be able to tell the police what techniques she even used.
If you get punched or kicked hard enough, you can break a rib that can puncture a blood vessel or lung or you can rupture something. The liver and spleen bleed like crazy, and you can walk away from a fight without a scratch on you only to drop dead from internal bleeding. You could also rupture a bowel, spilling its contents into your abdominal cavity, and die of peritonitis. The extent of the injury determines how long this will take. You can take a terrible hit to the head, walk around having a conversation, and be dead after a matter of hours.
Be Prepared to Defend Yourself in a Civil Suit or a Criminal Case
The decision to use violence is usually a split-second one, because most attacks are ambushes. But if you don’t stop fighting as soon as you’re out of danger, you are the perpetrator, even if you didn’t start out that way. If you are fighting multiple opponents, be prepared for them to coordinate their stories and paint you as the person who initiated the attack. More and more places have surveillance video, which some see as sinister but I see as an opportunity to protect the innocent.
Is your attacker withdrawing or just going to get a nearby rock? Are they running to their car to get a gun, fleeing, or merely stunned and then will fight again in a moment? Do you dare leave them conscious or do they still pose a danger to you? All of these are judgment calls. You don’t want to let yourself be a victim, but that applies to after the fight as well as during the attack. This means that you will need to be prepared to articulate to law enforcement—and possibly a civil or criminal jury—why you did what you did and what made you stop fighting.
If you are built like Schwarzenegger at his prime, not only are you more likely to protect yourself, but ironically, you may have to use less force. If you’re built like me—a thin woman of average height, fiftysomething, and with a mean case of osteoarthritis—you are going to have to make doubly sure that your attacker is stopped, because at any minute your hip or your back could seize up. You can’t stop and say, “Dude, have you finished trying to kill me or are you just taking a breather?” Further, for a trained woman, your advantage is in explosive speed and surprise.
Men really are stronger than women, a lot stronger, even if you are in prime condition and maybe even if the man is elderly. Your opponent may have the muscular body of a long-term prison inmate with years of prison fights under his belt or he could just be your run-of-the-mill serial killer, who may or may not be trained and who likely has never even spent the night in county lock-up. If you’re a woman, the man attacking you is stronger than you are unless you are a competitive powerlifter. You don’t know whether you’ve tired him out enough for you to run away—and don’t ever turn your back on your assailant if the attack is still on—or if he is going to renew the attack. Because there is almost certainly a strength disparity no matter how much of a blob he is, you don’t want to end up in a prolonged fistfight.
You Could Get Choked
There are techniques to defend against chokes if you aren’t already incapacitated. There’s the choke that crushes your windpipe, and you might suffocate. There is also the carotid choke. We learn how to put each other in carotid chokes and then we learn how to get out of them. It takes only a matter of seconds before your field of vision starts to shrink. This is serious and it’s one reason why a size or strength disparity is so dangerous. Paradoxically, if you are smaller or weaker than your opponent, you may have to use more force to make doubly sure that your opponent has stopped the attack long enough for you to get away, because if you are caught in a carotid choke and can’t get out of it, whether because you aren’t trained or you’re already stunned, then if your opponent means to kill you, it won’t take that long.
Fighters get sweaty, wounds to the head and face bleed like crazy, and the smell of blood is strong and repellent. Sometimes people lose control of their bladder or bowels. There may be snot. If someone gets an open skull fracture, cerebrospinal fluid will leak out of their ears and nose. People throw up—either in pain or from a concussion. Real violence is ugly, shocking, and smells bad.
It Sounds Gross
Imagine bones breaking, squishy flesh on bone, and people emptying their bowels. Spraying and falling blood make sounds; people scream; and really injured people start gurgling or there is agonal breathing. To be fair, if you are defending yourself, you might not hear anything until the end or even remember the techniques that you had to use, which means you’ll be looking at the scene after your adrenaline crash.
Bone on soft tissue causes lacerations. Lacerations can bleed like crazy. You can get hit over the head with a bottle at a bar and get a mild concussion and bleed to death. There are four arteries in the scalp and you can lose two to three liters of blood through a scalp laceration. If you are fighting on asphalt or gravel and you land on your knees or forearms (if you know how to fall), you can get road rash, land on a piece of glass or other sharp surface, and get cut. Samantha is going to be bleeding because she dropped onto parking lot and landed on sharp pebbles, but she won’t notice until after the adrenaline crash. The protagonist can shove someone into a sliding glass door. Arterial blood can spray on the walls and ceiling. Pulling glass out sprays blood everywhere, people slip on blood, and blood makes you lose your grip. Nosebleeds and lacerations can bleed so much you’d have to wring your shirt out.
A fight involves an adrenaline dump. You have to hope that in actual combat, you don’t freeze. If you’ve had adrenaline training, you have a better sense of how you will behave. After it’s all over, there’s a physiological crash. Post-incident, many people won’t be able to follow multistep instructions. They might not be able to make a coherent 911 call. They might be shaking all over. They might get sick. They may be strangely impassive.
And then there’s this: Killing someone else can cause PTSD. Most police officers (although clearly not all of them) experience trauma as a result of killing someone, even in justified shootings where their act of killing a civilian results in saving many lives. So do many soldiers. If you have to defend yourself, you might feel trauma as a result, even if that person was a monster who was trying to drag you into a car. Obviously, as a martial artist, I am not a pacifist, but feelings are feelings, and even soldiers come home with psychic scars from hurting other people.
Final Thoughts About Use of Force
Since I’ve slipped back and forth between practical self-defense advice and how to write a fight scene, I’ll tell you that the first self-defense tool is your gut. Avoiding a bad situation, if possible, is better than the best training there is. Buy Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. He talks about how criminals “interview” their victims, how to recognize and trust your intuition, and how to make yourself as much of a bad bet for a criminal as possible.
One of the hardest things for women to get over is the idea that the worst thing they can do is be rude. They let a man follow them through a secured doorway because they think it would be rude to shut the door behind them and make him put the combination in himself. They talk to people they don’t want to talk to. They accept “help” that’s really a trap. In too many situations, society’s disapproval of women’s rudeness is a form of domination, not etiquette. If your gut is telling you to be afraid, rudeness should be your last concern.
Am I saying that if a person is attacked it’s their fault for getting themselves in a situation? Never. It isn’t. Sometimes, luck runs against us.
Speaking of relying on gut feeling, your protagonist will be a lot more credible (and sympathetic) if they are very good at assessing threats and avoiding danger, only to be forced into a fight anyway. Better that than having your protagonist blindly walk into their dark apartment. As I alluded to above, having your protagonist get attacked because they did something stupid will only alienate the reader. I forget who called this “the stupidity football.” In fiction, it’s passed around by the author at will to further the plot and infuriate their readers. So will making your character temporarily weak for plot purposes too. Appallingly, this is done so that the strong heroine can be rescued by the hero. Don’t do this.
Like most highly trained martial artists, I will always try avoiding bad situations first. Your highly trained protagonist should too. And I’ll run away if I can avoid a fight, because I’ve watched too many big, fast, top-notch male fighters get punched in the face and taken to the ground (including by smaller women fighters), and I’ve gotten pummeled myself, so I would never walk into a dangerous situation saying to myself, It doesn’t matter, because I can always fight. Even the best martial arts training is just a tool, and no tool is foolproof. A credible professional fighter character will also approach things in this way. The strongest character does not have “What are you looking at?” in their vocabulary.
Writing fight scenes is not as easy as it looks. Just imagine Kirk v. The Gorn. Do not do this to your readers unless you are writing a deliberately bad book designed to be funny, like Atlanta Nights. If your protagonist breaks laws of physics and anatomy, your readers will need to know the protagonist literally has superpowers. Also, of course you should try to get training yourself, if only because you write violence, but pick a good place. You don’t want to only learn how to fight standing up, don’t only want to learn groundwork, and you want a place that can tell the difference between street and sport. If you can find one, try to find a place that does adrenaline training and simulations, although I think at this time only my training center does this. Finally, I wrote these scenes. If you hire me, I will never use your work as an example. If you are gutsy enough to submit your work for editing, you have the right to expect your editor to keep your work confidential (as well as that you’ve hired them at all). Now, go write your fighter!