What is the story?

Emerson wrote: “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures”. For good fiction I believe this to be true. But when it comes to the martial arts and fiction, most of it is terrible. Far too often it gets it right. By right I mean it is often a tedious, technical, and interminable thing. It dwells on details that are usually boring even to someone who has done similar training. Stuff perhaps interesting to a neophyte or 10 year old takes precedence over the story. On the other hand, good martial arts fiction, rare though it is, gets it right. It cuts through the endless daily slog, the technical terms that don’t actually impress the outsider but instead leave him or her unengaged, and the mundane nature of most martial practice. It tells a story.


Ralph Waldo Emerson

And that is where it reveals a truth. In good fiction the story is more important than the details. What details get left in, what get taken out, are all driven by the story. Of course it is essential the details, no matter how minute, are correct; without the details being right the story doesn’t work. But in most martial arts fiction the details take over- techniques with cool names, fight scenes, incredible training sequences, are all gone into in excruciating detail.  While they may be cool, since they do not further the story they bore the reader. It doesn’t work. The story flounders.

The truth obscured then is this- it is the story that matters. The concepts and ideas. The details have to be correct, but the correct they have to be is the correct that furthers the story.  A lot of martial arts practice is too much like martial arts fiction- full of lists, unimportant details, obscure sounding names with nothing behind them. In practice the kata, drills, basics, should all be subject to the concepts, not the other way around. If you don’t have a good story- a good system (plot) to follow and good characters to go with- the details are unimportant. And if you do have these things a poor author or the wrong details- too much of something, too little of another, too much description instead of letting the reader figure it out- can still ruin it.

That truth revealed means that you have to examine your practice, edit it. What story are you telling? If a drill or form doesn’t inculcate the ideas behind the system then it is perhaps ruining the story instead of furthering it. So edit. And more importantly take charge of the writing of it! In the end the practice should enable you to use the concepts. The details should reveal them. They should enable you to write your story yourself, not just follow along.

In Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny, there is this ending to a longer scene. It works with popular tropes- Zen-esque phrases and tiny but powerful motions- but it is not about the martial arts, they are just there in service of the characters and the story. When they serve no purpose we do not hear anything about them. The characters’ training is not important, so we never learn about it. We just see what moves the story along.

   Timyin Tin leaned to his right then his left, his right hand still descending with extreme slowness. He leaned to the left again…

  “What,” Archie asked him, “is the color of thunder?”

   …Then to the right, hand still dropping.

   Archie feinted with another kick, then lunged forward, claws extended, hands describing wide semicircles about one another.

  Timyin Tin’s head turned back over his shoulder as his left leg moved behind him. His body turned sideways as his left hand became a V, catching Archie beneath the left armpit. His right hand moved upward toward the other’s crotch. He felt but an instant’s touch of weight as he twisted to the left.    Then Archie was gone, into the night, over the railing.

  “Behold,” Timyin Tin replied.

   He stood for several heartbeats, regarding the night. Then he bowed again.



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