I took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to Write Better Fight Scenes…and Fell in Love

I’ve always been fascinated by marital arts (a fact surprising to none of my readers, I’m betting). Growing up, I watched my dad moving through his Kung Fu forms in our living room, and I developed a great appreciation not just for the physical elements of martial arts, but their poetry—I love the sense of ritual, of history, the beauty of motion. I’ve always wanted to learn Kung Fu specifically for these reasons. I took Tai Chi in college, an experience which went on to shape the Ada Chae in my Marked Series.

So, when my husband began learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I had exactly zero interest in joining him. Sure, it’s a martial art, but not the kind I’ve always admired. BJJ has no forms; it is not steeped in history. It is not beautiful. I wanted poetry of motion, not sweaty grappling. And more than that, I knew I would hate it. I have been, for all my life, aggressively un-athletic. I was the asthmatic kid who couldn’t run in gym class. I trip over my own feet, lack the strength to open a jar of anything, and can’t quite touch my toes. I’m doughy. I have no business doing something like BJJ. Add all of this to the fact that my husband and I would be the only non-Koreans and that I would often be the only woman, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for awkward.

My husband, however, knew just what to say to convince me: “you write fight scenes, but you’ve never been in a fight. This will help your writing!” Damn.

So, I went. I went with the expectation that it would be something akin to that time a friend brought me to a dance class: a mortifying public demonstration of my total lack of cool. And I was basically right. It was awful. My husband showed me a simple defensive move and I did it so stupidly wrong that I broke my toe. I had my first fight against a man who was not allowed to use his arms—he gripped his belt the whole time. It was an incredibly long, uncomfortable five minutes. Not only could I not subdue him, but he spent most of that time crushing me to the mat as I futilely bucked and pushed beneath him. Afterwards, I thanked him and walked calmly to the bathroom where I proceeded to vomit with gusto. So, all in all, it wasn’t a fabulous start.

But, for some reason, I was hooked. I think at first it was the clarifying realization of just how vulnerable I was. I can’t even best an armless man! Unacceptable!  And there was this lure: if you keep going, you will learn what to do. Then you will know. Quickly, however, it was just love of BJJ that had me rolling out of bed early every morning. I might be all wrong for Jiu Jitsu, but as it turns out Jiu Jitsu is all right for me.

I could list a million reasons why I love it—why I’m totally addicted. I could articulate all of the tangible benefits it’s had in my day to day life. But this is my author blog, so instead I’m going to bypass all of that and talk about what it has taught me as a writer.

Much like the panicky lack-of-knowledge that informed my first fight, whenever I used to write fight scenes I would have this strong sense of unease. I wanted them in my story, because as a reader I love a good physical conflict, but I dreaded and occasionally pushed off writing days that would involve a fight. I felt unqualified to write them, and fearful that my dearth of personal knowledge would be reflected in the text. This lack of confidence led me to make certain choices that made the scenes easier for me as a writer—in some cases cop-outs. They weren’t necessarily bad choices, but they were arrived at out of fear and uncertainty, which is not the best place to come from as a writer.

Now, however, I view fights as the cookie scenes—a treat. There are several reasons for this. The first is an obvious shift in confidence. I’m not some UFC fighter, I’m not a sword master or an archer. I’m still not really an expert on fantasy-style fights. But I have a knowledge base to pull from, and that gives me self-assurance and direction. It doesn’t matter so much what kind of fight I’m writing, since the feeling of a fight is now something I’m familiar with. I know, intimately, the strange mental state of a fight (when I fight a newbie: “Hm, lets give this a try. No? Alright, let’s see if this works…” When I fight my coach (사부님): “Shit! Shit! Shit, shit shit!”) I know the high of the adrenaline rush, the sweet relief of victory, the joint-creaking pain of being crushed beneath the mass of a larger opponent.

In a more specific sense, it helps me think of new, more interesting fights to write. Sometimes I learn a new technique, or I see two teammates fight in a certain way, and it seems so perfectly suited for a written fight scene that I catalogue it in the back of my mind. Now, rather than trying to think of what should happen in a fight scene, I simply have to parse through the long list of ideas floating around in my mind. I’ve got more than I need. Heck, I should probably write my next fantasy series with some kind of grapple-fighting culture.

Doing BJJ has totally changed the way I write. I spend so much less time googling “how to write a great fight scene” or watching endless youtube videos, or finding ways to put off writing all together because I know a difficult scene is ahead of me. I no longer switch POVs just to make a scene easier to approach.

So, if anyone out there wants to write great fight scenes, but don’t feel confident, my best advice is to find yourself a martial arts gym and sign up. If you’re as awkward, spastic, and unathletic as I am well, well hey, that’s just more writing fodder! And while, I’m sure, any martial art would increase confidence and fill a writer’s head with great fight scene ideas, I’d like to put in a special nod to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Because, while forms are beautiful, there is nothing quite like literally choking and being choked by another person to set off your fight or flight instincts. And that is what I try to channel in my fight scenes.

unsplash-logoCyril Saulnier

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