This is the flip side of the physics part of any hand-to-hand combat scene.
A lot of fights are won before the first swing.
There’s a psychological component to every fight. Both fighters go into the fight with some baggage.
I’ve won quite a few fights because my opponent, through sheer arrogance or blatant sexism, figured a skinny little girl could not possibly be any good at this, or at least, not better than them. At one tournament, filled with very elite fighters, I went a whole lot further than anyone, myself included, thought I had any hope of going, because I got three of those fighters – convinced I would be easy meat – in succession.
If someone is sure they don’t need to work very hard to win, they are frequently not giving the fight their full attention. And that would, were those fights for real, have been fatal.
On the other hand, I’ve also won fights I shouldn’t have, because the person I was fighting decided, for some reason, that I was much better than they were, and essentially expected to lose.
There are also fighters who decide, on no evidence at all, that they already know what is going to happen. They sort of plan it out in their mind, and then are very surprised when their opponent doesn’t do what they had decided they would do. This is a different kind of arrogance – it’s mainly something people who are “natural athletes” do, especially when they are new to the craft, because in training and practicing, they usually are right.
But when someone is teaching you a particular way to throw or block a shot, they keep their responses to your practicing that shot or block pretty predictable, because they want to train your muscle memory. They aren’t thinking about “winning” because that’s not what training is for.
Go into a fight with it planned out in your head, and you will die. Because someone who doesn’t know what they are supposed to do in order for your cunning plan to work will frequently do things you have no defense for.
The other thing – and this is because someone who has read a lot of (possibly bogus) “swordfighting manuals” will try to tell you to do this – is that you don’t look at your opponent’s eyes or feet or shield arm or whatever, to figure out what they will do next.
To be honest, most of the fighters I have worked with agree that they don’t really look at any one thing. They often say they don’t really look at anything at all, in the sense that they often cannot remember, even visually, what happened.
In my experience, you tend to look holistically, and respond and react to tiny amounts of movement and body cues. The way your opponent shifted their weight, the way they are tilting their head, the way their wrist is angled, or that tiny step to the right. If you are looking at one particular part of them you will miss something else, so you look at all of it, kind of glazed out (because actual, word-oriented “thinking” tends to shut down for this) and with experience, you learn what those things mean.
Mostly, fighters can’t articulate why or how they knew that over-the-head shot was a fake and that you were going to lean sideways and hit them in the ribs. They just knew somehow that that’s what you would do and they prevented that from working the way you intended.
How does all this work for writing? Why can’t you just make it up the way you want it to be? It’s fantasy, right?
I know it’s fantasy. And I like heroes to win, and for good to triumph, just as much as the next person does, maybe more.
But think about the points I’ve made.
In the right hands, all this can be an enormous advantage. It can open up new and exciting ways to make your writing stand out, have real resonance, and way more interesting outcomes.
Limitations are only limiting if you let them be.