Q&A: Refurbished Criminals

Do you know if it actually happens that the police (or similar force) would hire or work with a criminal with great fighting abilities? Because they would be expendable? Or is that just a trope used in fiction? I can hardly imagine that it’s true, but informants are a thing (from what I know), so such a kind of arrangement doesn’t seem to be too far fetched?

If I’m being blunt, I don’t remember seeing, “great fighting abilities,” being cited in one of those examples. Usually, what you’ll see is something like, “they’re a great thief,” or, “they’re a genius hacker,” not, “they’re an artist with a crowbar.”

If a police force needed combat specialists for something, they already have those. Both in their own SWAT units, and also from ex-military members of their own organization. (It’s also distinctly possible that these groups would overlap. So you can get an ex-military SWAT team member.)

The irony is, you’d be hard pressed to find a real criminal, “combat specialist.” Violence doesn’t pay the bills. It is a tool that can used during the commission crime, but violence is only one aspect.

The best you can hope for is, like with cops, that your criminal has a military background. That’s not far fetched. They’ll understand how to fight and manage their foes, but by necessity, their specialty will be something that actually pays.

For law enforcement, violence is a tiny part of the job. Far more often, they’ll be showing up after the violence is over, and piecing together what happened. When looking at the aftermath of a violent crime, having a, “combat specialist,” on hand isn’t going to be that useful. After all, investigating a violent crime is a detective’s job. They are specialists. There’s not much insight a “combat specialist” can give a detective who spends their days studying murders for clues. For a detective, violence isn’t mysterious.

Now, reformed career criminals do have a real option selling their expertise as consultants. When you’re looking to shore up your company’s security, being able to hire a former criminal to learn about the weaknesses in your organization can be a major boon. And some reformed criminals do offer consulting services. Want to learn how a professional would break into your building? Hire an ex-thief. Want to know how a con artist would get access to your client data? Learn about social engineering from the people who used it.

There’s an entire field of security called Penetration Testing (or just “Pen Testing”), where you hire someone to break into your security. This could be a hacker, or a thief. At that point, you’re paying them to find ways to break in, so you can use the information they find to improve your security. Kevin Mitnick is one example, but there are a number of others.

Law enforcement organizations may choose to use outside consultants for specialized training. This could include people with criminal backgrounds explaining their methodology. However, in most cases, this would be things things the police are already familiar with from their own investigations.

What you would not see is the cliche of an ex-criminal who works alongside detectives in their investigations. That doesn’t happen. Any half-sentient defense attorney would be able to rip apart an investigation which included criminals as investigators. Because of cultural prejudices, criminals (and former criminals) don’t have a lot of credibility. While you can argue the merits of it, this is a cultural norm. As a result, criminal witnesses and investigators are far less useful than ones with a clean record. The closest you’d get are informants.

Informants are a complex topic on their own. The short version is, they don’t assist in the investigation, they report information they have to the police. In the simplest terms, they are just another witness, the only unique thing about them is that the police have “cultivated” them. They may enjoy informal protection from prosecution over minor crimes if they’re useful. This, in turn, means their credibility is virtually non-existent in court, and as a result, the police need to justify their findings.

With a criminal investigation, it’s not about the end result; it’s about creating a complete picture of what happened, and showing how you put that together from the available information. The entire concept of, “expendable,” doesn’t apply, because it’s all part of the picture.

Using criminals because they’re expendable is a thing, just not for law enforcement. For example, if you’re working for an intelligence agency, having criminals you can use and discard can be situationally useful.

Again, you’re probably not going to grab criminals for their combat expertise. If your operation requires combat specialists, you’re better off tapping your nation’s Tier One operators. The only thing a criminal combatant would be good for is a distraction.

Ironically, that same lack of credibility makes criminals very appealing for spies. If something goes wrong, if the criminal tries to burn them, who’ll believe a burglar? Especially when “they’ll say anything to save their own skin?”

Since someone will probably mention it, one scenario where you’d have cops working with criminals is when the cops are also criminals. The widespread corruption within Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department comes to mind as a good example of this. However, at that point, you wouldn’t be looking at a real investigation, you’d basically be looking at criminals (some with badges, some without), either trying to protect themselves or attack their rivals.

On the whole, the criminal working with cops motif is a method to spice up “Odd Couple” cop teams. It has very little relation to reality, and is entirely about trying to generate drama between the characters. There are ways an ex-criminal can put their experience to use without breaking the law, but getting partnered with a by-the-book, “too old for this shit,” cop isn’t one of them.

-Starke

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Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Pay Attention

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I see on this blog a lot of important self-defense lessons include avoiding sketchy situations, places, or people. However, a lot of women have been attacked by dates, friends, bosses, family members. Why does so much of self-defense seem to focus on potentially defending yourself against some mugger or, basically, a stranger and act like you won’t ever have to use your self-defense if you stay alert? How do you stay ‘on’ around your father or husband? Unless I am mistaken about this.

You are mistaken about this.

1) We’ve said multiple times that this blog is not a self-defense blog and it cannot teach you self-defense. No internet blog can. No post on the internet can. No pictures can. You can’t learn self-defense from a video or a gif.

You need a real class, or a real school that can actually physically instruct you because all articles on the internet do is… not much, actually. You need to train with professionals.

2) The people who have this perspective? They’re the people who aren’t in the community and who haven’t actually ever taken a self-defense class. So, you are trying to make a point about something you know nothing about.

The truth about self-defense is that there is no one single established curriculum, there’s a lot of different approaches. As many different schools of thought as there are martial arts. There are curriculums which focus solely on weapons self-defense from guns to knives. There are curriculums designed by women for women. There are curriculums, which may be the most common, based off a civilian designed variation of police adapted judo. There a curriculums which come off of the military strands. This is a big, complicated field that is constantly evolving. Some curriculums focus on home defense, some focus on muggers and stranger danger, others teach you skillsets for how to deal with someone right next to you. Some teach you how to deescalate fights starting between other people. Some do all of the above.

Right now, you’ve learned something about statistics and you’re scared. That’s rational. You’ve learned the world is a far more dangerous place than it initially appeared. However, while you have the statistics, you don’t understand how those statistics translate into the real world, or what you can do to protect yourself.

What you need is a self-defense specialist.

Again, the purpose of this blog is not self-defense. The irony here is that the self-defense posts we’ve written in the past are about threat management and threat evaluation. Threat management applies as much to people you know as it does to people you don’t.

Right now, the way you look at the world involves divvying spaces up between dangerous and safe. We’ve talked about spaces considered safe not being safe on this blog before, but you’re still applying it to muggers and scary alleyways rather than the party at your dorm, a bottle of booze, and an open door. You’re not thinking about the cute guy at the coffee shop, whose smile maybe puts you on edge, but he asked for your number. You’re not thinking about the college professor or high school teacher who touches your shoulder in ways overly familiar and says very complimentary things about your work. You’re not thinking about the team doctor who showers with you and the others after practice. The senior mentoring the lonely kid at the back of the classroom.

The problem is that you still think tells for dangerous situations come with road flares, that they’re framed in ways exceedingly obvious. Unfortunately, that’s a common assumption most people make about self-defense. The general culture has trained you to think that way, but it isn’t actually true. A lot of the lead ups and tells are subtle. You can train yourself to be alert for them. However, that involves admitting you haven’t been. Lots of people can’t or won’t, because they think they already do. Or, they feel they shouldn’t have to. If you think people aren’t aware of the statistics, because you weren’t, then you haven’t been looking or, in this case, listening.

Learning to constantly evaluate the people around you can become as natural as looking both ways before crossing the street. It’s not fear, or a result of paranoia, it’s habit. Checking their behaviors, their expressions, their postures, learning about their families, their backgrounds, noticing who their friends are, who they hang out with, who they talk to, and what they say.

Pay attention to what people around you say about your co-workers, or your classmates, or your family members. Pay attention to who men and women around you home in on, how they behave when they’re brushed off or encounter a no. Who do they favor? Who do they ignore?

When new information comes up, reevaluate.

Accumulate information, not out of paranoia but because information is good to have. The same habits which can save your life or tell you when to exit a bad situation are also great for figuring out the best presents for a friend.

The danger is not from riding the bus at midnight, the potential danger is the other person on the bus. If the danger comes from people and opportunity, then there’s no difference between that person on the bus at midnight and your creepy cousin cornering you in the garage. By extension, the creepy cousin in the garage isn’t any different from being screwed over for promotion by your co-worker or dealing with an emotionally abusive parent. They all have tells.

Unfortunately, while you can learn situational awareness from martial training, it’s far more common among children and adults who grew up in unstable environments. If you don’t have the habit, you probably haven’t encountered a situation where you’ve needed to develop it.

Self-defense training should be preemptive, just like learning to drive a car, but for most people it isn’t. Part of this is the way violence is presented in media, which is as a natural extension of the self rather than a skill to be learned. The other half is most people feel they don’t need to learn because they believe the world they live in is inherently safe. While danger exists, it exists elsewhere. Or, if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it. The vast majority of people you’ll find in self-defense courses are law enforcement professionals, recreational martial artists, people who’ve already been victims of violent crime, and kids like boy scouts/girl scouts who are there for the extracurriculars.

When my high school had a mandatory self-defense PE course, the students mocked it. They thought they wouldn’t need any of the techniques or the theory. Statistically, some of them did.

The problem is that you think about threat management and situational awareness directly relate to physical violence or threats of violence. As a result, you think of it as a state of mind to turn off and on. Instead, you should think about it as habitual, observational skill. No different from noticing which of your friends is the one with an explosive temper, seeing the tells for when they start to rev, and intervening before they can explode. Violence isn’t just physical, it’s behavioral, and behavior patterns are the warning signs.

Look both ways before you cross the street.

Again, you cannot learn self-defense from the internet. You can’t learn it from self-defense blogs, from videos, from pictures, or from gifs. Anyone who says you can is lying to you. You can’t learn self-defense from books. You can pickup some good theory, but for practical you need an instructor. If you want to learn self-defense, you need to seek out programs in your area. Usually, your local community centers (if you have one) or local precincts are good places to start. Like with everything, there are different self-defense specialists with different focuses. You want a specialist, not a recreational martial artist who moonlights with a few evening courses every few months to round out the curriculum.

If you feel you need a self-defense program, find one. If you have questions about what a self-defense program offers, speak with a professional instructor. Speak with multiple instructors. Quoting statistics will not help you, learning to determine the behavioral tells in the people around you will.

As a writer, you really should be learning to observe the people around you for your craft. You’re a student of human behavior, and you can’t find stories if you don’t look for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reject Toxicity, Prepare for Apathy

Any advice for female writers on showing trauma and recovery in men without toxic readers saying he isn’t masculine enough?

You’ll never satisfy toxic people. The game is rigged. Even if you acquiesce to their demands, it will never be enough. The reason for this is because of their desire for control over you, your beliefs, your ideas. They bully to invalidate anyone who isn’t like them. They lash out because they feel threatened. If they do, you can take comfort in the knowledge you not only did it right but your writing affected them in ways which left them deeply uncomfortable.

Your writing making people, especially toxic people, feel uncomfortable is good. Trauma is uncomfortable. Trauma is painful. Trauma leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed. This is the antithesis of all our cultural bullshit surrounding masculinity, the whole “real men don’t cry or show their emotions” crap fest. Repressing your emotions doesn’t make those emotions go away. Ignoring your pain, especially emotional pain, because you don’t want to deal with how it makes you feel leaves you with a compounding bill in the future. You can avoid dealing with your suffering, but avoidance isn’t healing. Avoiding a problem doesn’t make it go away. Processing your emotions is a skill, just like any other, if you never learn to then it will be difficult until you do.

The answer to for dealing with toxic people is either to antagonize them, which is not recommended unless you have a strong stomach, or ignore them. Delete their comments, don’t publish their complaints, and ignore them if you have no control over their reviews. Give them the middle finger at every opportunity. Strangle them in darkness.

They are not voices you should be listening to. You shouldn’t fear them. Don’t let them control your creative process.

You will never make them happy, so don’t bother trying.

I really do mean that. As women, we are taught to put aside our needs for those of others, and prioritize the care of those around us even if we are suffering. If someone else is angry, it is our fault. The onus is on us to make amends, rather than the individual who reacted badly in the first place. We’re told we shouldn’t expect any rewards for these sacrifices, and, if we’re suffering, we should suffer in silence. You know, what? That’s stupid.

You’re not responsible for the behaviors of others. Other people are outside your control, how they choose to react is on them. Lashing out is a choice. The sooner you engrave your lack of control over others into your soul, the happier and freer you’ll be.

Always remember, there’s a difference between critical and cruel. The opinions of others are, similarly, just opinions. Sometimes, a critic will offer you something helpful, but the helpful only reinforces what you already knew. The rest of it isn’t.

Toxic people are never useful. They aren’t critics. They’re bullies.

Toxic people know, whether its conscious or not, the behavior patterns they are exploiting in their victims. They expect you to give them legitimacy through an apology, for “making” them upset. They expect their temper tantrums to carry weight because the person they’re angry at has been trained to pacify in order for the problem to go away. In their mind, the angriest dog pile wins. They can suffocate dissent or narratives which make them uncomfortable by attacking the source. They intimidate you into doing what they want.

Intimidation, though? It’s just fear. They have no control over you, and on the internet? They have less access than they realize. Intimidation and scare tactics work when the person who is being intimidated lets them. Maybe their intimidation tactics make you afraid, maybe they hurt your feelings, but you’re the only one who gets to decide what you do about it. They can say mean things, but those mean things are just words. Those words can hurt, but they can’t stop you. Abusers only have the control you give them.

The risk of putting your work out into the world for public consumption is that you may run into people who disagree with you, who criticize what you’ve written, or who will say nasty things about your work. You may also find lots of people who say positive things about your work too, but those positives are often lost in the negatives if you focus on what people didn’t like. You’ll never escape criticism. There is no “right way” to avoid being targeted. You cannot control what someone else will do or say about something you’ve written. What you can do is prepare yourself to decide what criticism you’ll accept versus the comments you’ll stick in the trash.

The truth is that not everyone knows better than you do. Just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t mean they’re opinion can help you. Complaints and criticism aren’t always a sign you’ve done something wrong, sometimes they mean you’ve done something very right.

The response of individuals to creative works isn’t good or bad. Most of the time what you’ll get is apathy. The vast majority of people who read what you write will never comment on it. If they didn’t like it, they’ll just leave in silence. People will ignore your work if it doesn’t appeal to them, they may read your book or short story but never bother with a review. If you’re writing upsets someone? Great! You’ve broken through their apathy and gotten an emotional response, that’s better than silence.

Don’t let fear of criticism decide what you write. If you want to write about trauma and recovery then you owe it to your readership to do your research rather than giving in to schlocky tropes. Approach the subject with respect, learn as much about it as you can, and take your risk. There’s so much information available on the internet for free, but don’t forget your libraries and reading texts by doctors on the subject. Regardless of what you do, you need to write. We learn by doing, you won’t improve unless you try. You won’t get it right on your first time, no one does. Everyone when they start is bad, regardless of talent. The practice, the learning from your failures, and the way you build off what you’ve learned are what make you good. You get more than one shot, you have as many as you choose to give yourself.

Regardless of what you do, if you get stuck worrying about what might happen, you’ll never finish your story.

Write now, worry later.

The eventuality you should prepare for now isn’t that toxic people will hate you, or target you, but that they won’t care. The most soul-crushing outcome is for your work to never move anyone at all, that it will be read only by a few people, if read by anyone, and the returns are much less in the way you hope they will be. The silence can be far more soul-crushing than any negativity you receive.

If people do react badly, give yourself permission to tell an unwanted critic, especially a toxic one, to fuck off.

– Michi

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Q&A: Platform

Fanfiction is good for creativity and can lead to great works. Which is good, I believe it (I’ve seen it). But how did 50 Shades get published?

angel-starbeam

In the specific case of E. L. James, she got there because of the enormous traffic that Fifty Shades of Grey generated over the years. Both as a Twilight fanfiction, and later after it was rewritten and published as e-books and in PoD variants. It spent roughly a year in that format before a publisher looked at the sales numbers and picked up the license for the trilogy. (For what it’s worth, I don’t know whether E. L. James approached Vintage Books, or if Vintage pursued the license based on buzz and PoD sales.)

So, how did this happen? A couple of things worked together. The original fan fiction was very popular. Popular enough to get readers to migrate onto a private site to read it. That’s a big deal. It’s relatively easy to cultivate a following on a social media site, but most people won’t jump to a separate site (even if they’re following a link.)

Fifty Shades hit a market niche that wasn’t being served. For our purposes now, it’s enough to understand that E. L. James’s specific take offered something that was absent in the mainstream romance genre. It is also important to understand that the romance genre is incredibly popular; so while Fifty Shades isn’t to my taste or (apparently) yours, a lot of people were willing to pay for it.

The short version is that Fifty Shades is a little bit of an anomaly. However, not as much as you might think.

The traditional publishing model was: You’d write your book, take it to agents, find one who’d shop it around to publishers and get it in print. With the growth of the internet, it’s become increasingly common to see new authors publishing their first works on their website. Authors such as David Wong and Dmitry Glukhovsky took similar approaches, publishing (what would become) their first novels online, with print releases coming much later, after their success was demonstrated.

One way to tilt the original model in your favor is by being able to show agents and publishers that there’s already a market for your work. If you can approach an agent and say, “I’m popular over here, and it will lead to sales,” it will make you more attractive. (If you’ve ever wondered how people like William Shatner or Snooki got published, here’s your answer.) This is a new way to demonstrate that. If fifty-thousand people will read your novel online, that tells an agent that there is a market for your work.

Self-publishing to your website isn’t a sure thing. Using the example of David Wong above, he was able to accrue around 70k unique hits during the time that John Dies at the End was on his website. That wasn’t enough to immediately convince publishers that the book was worth their time. (I can’t find full citations for those numbers at the moment, so treat the statistics with a grain of salt.)

Platform building can be a very important part of selling your book. Being able to say, “these are my fans,” can go a long way towards convincing an agent, or publisher, to take you seriously. The shape your platform takes is less important than the people on it. This can include fanfiction. A good example of that is Cassandra Clare, who got her start writing Harry Potter fanfics. She built her platform off that, and was able to bring in numbers that, when she was ready to jump over to original content, got the attention of publishers.

I’m focusing on the success stories here because we started with a discussion about E. L. James. For most people, the traditional model offers you best odds. An experienced literary agent is better equipped to advocate for your interests when negotiating with a publisher. A publisher who stands behind your work is better able to promote and distribute your novel.

E. L. James succeeded without that support, which is an extraordinary feat. Whatever your feelings on Fifty Shades, it was already success before it got in the door.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fanfic

Why do fanfic have a bad reputation when some of it is actually good or better than than the source material? Is writing as a guest for TV shows or writing a reimagined fairytale not fanfiction?

The key word here is, “reputation.” There’s a lot of really bad fanfiction out there. That reputation is earned. It’s not new. While particular “luminaries” of Harry Potter or Twilight fanfiction may immediately come to mind, we get things like the term Mary Sue from a Star Trek fanfic originally published in the 70s. This has been around for a long time.

The other side is: yes, some fanfiction writing is excellent. As with writing in general, this is the extreme minority. I’d argue that quality writing in fanfiction is rarer than most forms, because the author is likely to “graduate” from fanfiction into something else.

Writing for a TV show is not like writing fanfiction. A fanfic author can do, nearly, anything they want. They have their interpretation of the setting they enjoy, and complete freedom to explore it. If you’re signing on to write an episode of a TV series, you’re already constrained in a number of ways.

First: attaching to an existing property means you’re also going to have to contend with the style guides and setting bibles. In some cases, being attached to a tie-in novel means you’ll be fed your entire plot outline, handed documentation, and told, “write this.”

Second: as a writer in Hollywood you have the least influence on the final product. The director will take your script and then, kinda, do what they want with it. Along the way, the producers, the network, and actors may all influence it as well. Some of your ideas will end up on screen, but it’s not your work anymore. It’s a team effort. (Depending on your exact relationship with the director, your experiences may vary.)

The fantasy is that you will have freedom with the characters that you love, and your material will become entrenched in the canon. The reality is that you won’t have that kind of creative freedom.

Now, if it sounds like I’m being too harsh here; that’s what you give up. Many fanfic authors have broken into the industry because they were okay with giving up some creative freedom to professionally work on the properties they loved. There’s nothing wrong with someone doing this, but in the process they’ll be departing from fanfiction and moving into a professional writing gig.

Re-imagining a fairy tale, legend, or myth event can be fanfiction, even in commercial releases. You’re not wrong about this one.

Remember, I said the fanfiction reputation is earned. There’s a lot of bad fanfiction out there. However, that’s not the criticism it sounds like. In the range of statistics completely unmoored from empirical study; I suspect the vast majority of fiction writers begin with fanfiction. Even if I’m wrong about that, many do.

It’s important to understand that writing is like any other skill. You get better with practice. New writers make mistakes. Good writers learn from their mistakes, and grow.

Fanfiction becomes a safe environment for a new writer. It lets them experiment without having to take on the heavy lifting of things like world building, or creating an entire cast of characters from the start.

For many writers, fanfiction is a temporary home. You’ll outgrow it. Some choose to stay, it’s hobby, not a career, but they’re the minority. Most who try it will either move on to creating their own work, or decide this isn’t for them.

The result is fanfiction sees all the mistakes of new writers, and very little of experienced writers. Mocking someone for having been a fanfiction writer is a bit like mocking someone for having attended high school. It probably happened, wasn’t their finest hour, and doesn’t reflect on who they are now.

The thing about re-imagining a fairy tale is, while you’re not wrong, we all do that. The truth about fanfiction is none of us exist in a vacuum. We all read, we all watch things, we all draw inspiration from things we encounter. The media we consume shapes the media we create. In that sense, fanfiction is just the first step to making something of your own.

Don’t be content with who you are, when you can be more.

-Starke

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Q&A: Fight Scene Length

Do you have any advice for scene length/impact? I’m realizing that if writing a three page play by play of a sword fight is hard, reading it must be even worse, so I’m trying o shorten it up without diminishing its importance or the impact it’s supposed to have.

Usually, the shorter the better. I’ve talked about this before, but different mediums lend themselves to different approaches to combat.

Film and games thrive on a longer, drawn out, format. In a film, each strike can carry individual drama because you’re getting the responses of the actors. Film can also thrive on spectacle, a visually exciting environment and engaging choreography can sell a fight that, on paper, is fairly dull.

Comics thrive on spectacle. It’s not about how long the fight is, it’s about being able to have dynamic moments that your artist can bring to life. If you have that, your fight can be one panel or it can comfortably go for pages. I haven’t pointed this out before, but in comics, as a writer, you really need an artist who fits what you’re trying to do. You’re equal parts of a team.

In prose, you want your fights to be as brief as necessary. Note: “As brief as necessary.” If it’s just a fight between two characters, that can be over in a couple paragraphs. Even if it’s part of a larger battle, that stuff can be pushed to the side for this individual fight. However, background elements can intrude, extending the fight. For example: If a fight is interrupted by other characters, and one chooses to break combat to escape, you could have a much longer encounter without resorting to a blow by blow.

You want to avoid a rhythm of repetition at all costs. RPGs can easily break down combat into round after round of, “I hit them with my axe,” and the sound of dice rolling. There’s nothing wrong with that in that format. The experience that sells that is three fold: First: You’re a participant. This isn’t something affecting a character you care about, it’s affecting your proxy in the story. Second: The outcome is not preordained, you’re still rolling dice. Third: It was never about the content to begin with, it’s the people you’re there with. So combat that gets repetitive isn’t a problem because it’s not the main event. This is not true in prose, and one of the most dangerous things about transposing combat from a game system into prose.

This may sound a little stupid but, each time your character acts they should be trying to achieve a goal. Yes, “harming my foe,” is a legitimate objective, but if they can’t do that directly, they shouldn’t resort to, “I’m going to repeat the same action a dozen times hoping for a different result.”

If your character is in a fight, they try to attack their opponent, and the attack is defended, they need a new approach.

There are a few things your experienced character should do that will help with this. First, they don’t start with direct attacks, their first goal should be to test their opponent’s defenses. So, they’ll start with probing attacks, looking for weaknesses in their foe’s defenses. They’ll be studying how their opponent moves. On the page, there’s a huge difference between a character simply attacking, and specifically trying to tease their opponent’s parry to get a look at it. Once they have a solid grasp of how their foe fights, then they’ll probably move in for the kill. This could be complicated by other events. This is the background, the environment, or even sustained injuries. This stuff is not safe, and minor miscalculations could result in your character being injured, which then becomes a complication they’ll need to deal with as the fight progresses. If your character can’t exploit their foe’s weaknesses, they’ll need to find a way to open them up. This could include attempting to wound in order to create a future opening, or forcing them into a disadvantageous position. Once they’ve taken control of the fight and gotten it to a position where they have a decisive advantage, then they’ll kill.

While your character is trying to take control of the fight, an experienced foe will be doing the same. Obviously, if only one character knows what they’re doing, it will seriously impact how all of this plays out, and the fight will be very one-sided. It’s entirely possible the veteran will simply disarm and kill the rookie.

Impact is a more complex concept. I think the simplest way to describe it is: Impact is determined by how quickly, and sharply, and scene goes wrong for the characters.

In a fight scene, you want to clean it up quickly because your readers will get bored. When you’re asking about impact, you need to it to resolve fast or the impact is lost. The scene needs to transition from, “thing are going well,” to, “everything’s fucked,” in as few words as possible.

For example: Let’s look at that template above. You start with your protagonist testing their foe’s defenses, finding an opening, and moving their foe to a position where they think they have the advantage. Their opponent is struggling to deal with their assault, and then when they’re about to press and kill them, their enemy lops off your protagonist’s sword arm and executes them.

The part where things are going well can be longer, but it needs to go wrong, roughly, that fast. You can also foreshadow this in a lot of ways. If you’ve established that their foe is a more skilled swordsman than you’re seeing in that fight, you’ve warned the audience that this will happen, but in the moment they’ll think your protagonist is just that awesome, or that the villain’s reputation was unearned. It’s only after the walls are painted in blood that they realize you realize your protagonist walked into a trap.

The second thing about impact is, your audience will acclimate very quickly. You can get away with a hard shift like this, maybe, once per story. If you’re reusing characters, you don’t get that back, you’ve already turned things sideways once. If you want to hit hard again, it needs to be completely different. In the example above, if you started by killing a protagonist, you’re not going to get that kind of impact with another death. You’ve already told your audience that you’re willing to go there, and doing it again isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Fight scenes need to be as short as necessary. Impact has to as fast and hard as possible.

There is no, “this number of words/pages,” for how long a fight should be, because the answer will be different. It depends on the specific scenario. It depends on your style as a writer. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The only universal answer is that you don’t want to waste words in a fight scene.

-Starke

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Q&A: Throwing Knives Versus Throwing Knives, and Other Projectile Weapons

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: First of all, your explanation upon the dagger vs. sword battle is TRULY HELPFUL in my writing as I have no idea what to do about that kind of situation when one of my characters is in that scene. However, as you have stated, one shouldnt just carry a single dagger or a sword or a bow, and you must carry at least a bunch of weapons— So, what about someone who carries a handful of knives and is skilled in throwing them against someone with a sword? No matter the distance?

Are we talking about throwing knives or actually throwing knives, because one of those is a specific weapon type designed for projectile throwing and the other one is someone who likes to give their knives away. As a great Marine once said, “when you’ve thrown your knife, you’ve given your opponent your knife.”

Distance always matters. The type of projectile you have, its weight, is relative to understanding it’s effective range. I know you brought up throwing knives to get away from the range discussion, but, you know, different projectile weapons have effective ranges too. This is a question of force and momentum versus inertia and wind resistance. The weapon needs enough force behind it to not only reach its target but also impact at high velocity, otherwise it doesn’t do much.

A thrown weapon has a shorter effective range than a bow or a crossbow. The throwing knife has the additional problem of being much lighter than other throwing weapons like the throwing axe and the javelin, meaning it can’t travel as far. They’d still have to be decently close to the sword guy for their knives to maintain effect. A standard knife is even less aerodynamic than a throwing knife, meaning you need to be even closer. That’s not the only issue with throwing a knife though.

The combat problem with throwing knives as a weapon is they fit a specific niche and are, basically, trick weapons. They can be dangerous but only under specific circumstances. You can use them against someone who is unarmored, but you’ll just annoy an armored opponent. This will include the city guards, local knights, and anyone with a dense wool coat. If padded armor can stop an arrow, a throwing knife has no chance in hell. They’re among the weakest of the projectiles, both in speed and force. A swordsman who has experience dealing with projectiles could parry them without much cost. For reference, they lose out to the throwing axe and the javelin.

Throwing axes can be parried in flight, but due to the weapon’s weight combined with its momentum it has a higher cost to stop. Martial combat is all about physics, which is a discussion about weight, inertia, momentum. Even when you successfully block, parry, or clash with an opponent, you take a portion of that force into your body. This is to say, vibration. A little like what you feel after hitting a large metal bell with a hammer. So, “ouch!”

In case of the javelin, the Northern Germanic Tribes used to catch those in flight and throw them back at the Romans. They played a game as children where they would throw sticks back and forth, and that translated into catching and throwing Roman javelins. Turned out to be an ugly surprise for the Romans.

You’ll run into a similar problem with knives, especially if you’re just throwing regular knives. Knife throwing is a common parlor trick. The further back into history we go, the more common it becomes. People used to (and still do) play knife throwing games similar to darts. Bored soldiers and sailors liked to throw their knives at things. The knife is a small weapon, doubling as a utilitarian tool, and less vital than some others so soldiers would play with them. They shouldn’t, but they did. Modern soldiers still do. So, the chance your character would run into people completely unfamiliar with knives and the throwing of knives is unlikely. Given how weak the knife is as a projectile (especially one not designed for throwing), the worst thing that can happen isn’t that another character catches the knife and throws it back, but they take the knife and keep it. Now, your main character is down a knife and that knife may be used against them next. Besides, knives aren’t exactly cheap to replace. This is doubly true when talking about specialized projectiles that aren’t regularly requested from the local blacksmith.

They’re going to need money to support their hobby. Throwing knives aren’t like arrows which can be produced easily, cheaply, and are more in demand. You’re more likely to find a local fletcher who can make good arrows than a blacksmith who’ll reproduce a carefully crafted throwing knife from a set of throwing knives. The less common the gear, the harder it is to replace.

Crossbows and bows have the reputations they do for a reason, they were warfare mainstays. The longbow, in particular, served as the artillery of their day. Eventually, generals replaced bowmen in the back lines with cannons. I understand the resistance to utilizing the bows or crossbows, especially if culturally stereotyped Archer doesn’t fit the archetype you have in mind for your character. However, it’s worth remembering that there’s often a vast gap between media and real life. In fiction, dangers presented by archery is often downplayed. The upper body strength question is also usually ignored. Bows are given to lithe, skinny people like Legolas (who is an elf and supernaturally strong), our cultural ideal of Robin Hood, or female characters like Katniss. In a lot of fiction, the bow (even more than the crossbow) is treated like the equivalent of a gun. Which, no. The bow isn’t at all like a gun.

For one thing, the bow requires a lot of conditioning for upper body strength. Different bows have different draw weights, so you should always investigate the type of historical bow you envision a character using. Unlike swords and other melee weapons, the draw happens in the shoulders with the most strain placed on a single arm. With medieval longbows, you’d be looking at a draw weight between 90 to 160 pounds. They require a lot of upper body strength in the shoulders to draw and wield effectively. They also require a lot of care on the part of the archer to maintain combat readiness. The English and Welsh archers of their day could draw and fire roughly eight to ten arrows per minute. The crossbow was slower with one to two bolts per minute. Modern bows, comparatively, you’re looking at 30 to 60 pound draw weight. A lot of advancements in technology make the drawing easier while applying greater force.

The strength of the bow is you can fire a single shaft, carrying a lot of force that impacts on a single point. The end result for the weapon’s effectiveness is the amazing power of physics. The bow still sees occasional use in modern warfare today because, unlike a gun, it’s a truly silent killer.

Despite what anime and some fantasy narratives will tell you, bolts and arrows cannot be parried by a sword mid flight. They are too fast and have too much force behind them, especially arrows. Arrows and bolts, depending on type, can go through armor. It isn’t guaranteed, but they can. Arrows and bolts never completely invalidated armor, including plate armor, the way firearms eventually did. Bolts from crossbows have a shorter effective range from arrows. While crossbows fired more slowly, but they were easier to use.

Both Lindybeige and Scholagladiotoria have some great videos about arrow ballistics, bows (longbows specifically), and (English) warbows. Which I recommend watching, if you’re interested in historical archery either for writing or just in general. I really recommend watching the Lindybeige video for an in depth discussion on the additional gear your archer would wear to avoid the injuries they might get, along with proper posture, and Hollywood cliches.

You might assume, due to common assumptions that body types are static rather than changeable, if you weren’t born with the ability to easily build muscle in your upper body (like a man, unlike women who build muscle more easily in their legs) or aren’t a big, brawny sort of person that you can’t wield a weapon that requires a lot of strength.

This is wrong.

Very few people have all the correct muscles preconditioned for success and seamlessly learn to perform any sort of martial arts without effort. Training is what you need, specifically conditioning, to build specific muscles you’ll be regularly using. Outside your bone structure, which isn’t as malleable, athletics change your body. In fact, some health and fitness gurus have developed programs and exercise regimens which will help you achieve a specific type of body rather than just the healthiest version of you. Fiction will tell you that the type of body have will decide what sort of heroic profession or martial type you’re best suited for. That’s crap, straight up.

Some women and men might face more difficulty learning to use a bow in the beginning, or take longer to build up muscle for bows with heavier draw weights, but a slow start never negates a strong finish.

What separates the skilled from the unskilled is enthusiasm, being unwilling to give up in the face of difficulty or challenge, and lost, and lots, and lots of practice. They might have natural talent, but skill is the product of hard work. Conditioning is the part of your training which builds up your wind, your muscles, and your flexibility. These are your runs up with the hill, your wind sprints, your jumping jacks, your push ups, your pull ups, and other exercises.

I do recommend watching Lindybeige’s Three General Principles of Combat as he does a good job of going over the basic principles. Though, one thing he neglects to mention when discussing ideal ranges is that the size differences between two children are actually greater than the size differences between adults. So, it is much easier to get to your ideal range in a fist fight. Hand to hand ideal ranges are defined less by size, and more by the type of discipline you practice.

Different martial arts have their ideal ranges for where specific techniques are most effective, translating loosely to kicks, fisticuffs, standing grappling, and ground fighting. While most martial disciplines cover all four, they often specialize in only one or two. A Taekwondo specialist will prefer to start further away from their opponent so they can make good use of their legs versus a boxer or a wrestler who’d rather be up close. There are outliers like Muay Thai, where the kicks and stances have been adjusted to be effective in the hand range, but we’re discussing general principles.

That said, however, there are historical examples of individuals unscrewing the pommels of their swords and chucking them at their opponents to win duels at tournaments.

So, you know, anything’s possible.

(If you’re questioning the validity of pommel throwing, understand they did it as a method of distraction rather than immediate victory. It’s a specialized dueling tactic where you’re technically not cheating by bringing a second weapon, but you’re cheating. Throw pommel. Distract opponent. Gain the initiative. Hit first. Win.)

-Michi

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That’s Not How This Works

As a general rule, I don’t like to do this. We do get follow ups sometimes, and if it’s something I’d just tear into, normally, I’d let it slide.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy tearing a part a poor argument; less so when it was offered with innocent intent.

Hi. Regarding the anon who asked about daggers vs sword. I have some thoughts on the matter that might help. Daggers can go up against bigger weapons. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each weapon and the strengths and weaknesses of each wielder and use that to level the playing field. Plus no one said you have to fight fair. The sword has reach, but any opponent will have trouble fending off attacks from two directions… (part 1)

(Part 2) … With swords it’s about momentum and power, with daggers it’s speed. So, the swordsman will need better footing and more space. If the dagger wielder is smart, he/she can create a reasonable chance of winning. If your opponent is stronger, you have to be smarter and faster. If your opponents outnumber you, seperate them or increase your number. Everyone has weaknesses, exploit those while maximising your strenghts. It will still be a stiff fight but it gives you better odds at least

There are so many things wrong here. So, give me a second, and I will recount the ways:

Hi. Regarding the anon who asked about daggers vs sword. I have some thoughts on the matter that might help.

You are correct, you have “some thoughts.”

Daggers can go up against bigger weapons. The key is to understand the pros and cons of each weapon…

If you just stop here, it’s fine.

and the strengths and weaknesses of each wielder and use that to level the playing field.

And there we go.

No.

The entire purpose to a knife is that you do not want a level playing field. In combat, you never want a level playing field. When you are fighting to kill someone, and someone else is fighting to kill you, you do not want them to succeed. The safest way to ensure you win is by seeing that your opponent doesn’t even have a chance to fight.

A level playing field is just an invitation to getting yourself killed. For, somewhat obvious reasons, you do not want this.

Incidentally, yes, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent a very important thing. You want to engineer a situation where you’re at your strongest, and they’re at their weakest.

Plus no one said you have to fight fair.

We, literally, have a tag called, “the only unfair fight,” referencing the longer phrase, “the only unfair fight is the one you lose.”

More than that, Michi specifically referenced the use of the dagger as an ambush weapon. Those are also, ironically, some of the first words out of her mouth whenever we get a question on daggers.

The sword has reach, but any opponent will have trouble fending off attacks from two directions…

I realize this may sound novel, but you can’t flank someone by dual wielding. Your arms aren’t that long. You are attacking someone from one direction. If you want to attack them from two directions simultaneously, you need an accomplice. Amusingly, that’s a time when a dagger will shine. Your friend, with their sword, ties up the fighter while you slip in and shank them a couple dozen times in the kidney.

Ironically, again, this is what the parrying dagger in conjunction with the sword is for. You lock up the opponent’s blade and then stab them. The difference here is you don’t have a long blade to reach your opponent. Even if the dagger could lock the sword up (see the original post for why it can’t), they’re still left with the original problem of getting close enough to their target to hit them.

Blocking with swords isn’t the same as it is with hand to hand martial arts or blunt weapons, because your goal is to maintain the blade’s edge. Swords don’t clang together, they slide around each other in an under/up or over/under fashion. Your goal is to use your blade to get your opponent’s blade off vector to miss you while creating opportunity for counter attack. You angle your blade so the opponent’s slides off the sharpened edge. However, with deflections you aren’t actually stopping the blade’s force which means if you don’t redirect it far enough then it can still connect and you run the risk of moving directly into it on your counter attack.

Daggers needs to be able to redirect their opponent’s blade long enough that they can move three feet forward past the kill zone to strike their opponent with one or both of their daggers. You’re talking a three to five seconds difference to the fraction of seconds it takes for the swordsman to adjust their grip and counter attack off the redirection. That’s if the sword didn’t hit another vital place, like Daggers adjusted the sword off center and the blade still pierced their ribs or their thigh.

This is the point you’re missing, they don’t have to retract the blade (they can, and cut Daggers up the side), a small change in grip and stance is all they need to change a thrust to a hewing strike. It came forward, went down, and now it’s switched to an upward diagonal that’s caught Daggers in their side as they’ve moved forward. That hew has cut between their ribs and punctured their left lung. The fight is now over, and Daggers will most likely die. That’s if the swordsman stops with the hew, instead of hewing up, drawing back (cutting more tissue on his way out), and thrusting again with the blade point in single action to pierce another body part like the central chest or the heart.

Again, they never have to move their feet forward or back to do this. All it takes is a slight adjustment in grip, arms, and foot position. A swordsman can thrust from a stable position without stepping forward if the opponent comes within range, they only need to move their feet if the opponent is outside the blade’s reach.

Reach translates to: how far do I need to move from my centralized stance to strike my opponent. This is the true power of weapon length. Two blades of equal length will translate to a single step forward for both parties from starting position. Daggers will require two to three because they are hand to hand range weapons, while the sword requires one or none depending on whether they are the aggressor or defender.

While hand to hand combat will always naturally move inward, swordsmen and most individuals who use weapons are trained to maintain distance between their opponent which is advantageous to them. They will move no closer than necessary in order to maintain their weapon’s effective range. While knights did practice grappling techniques with swords, if you don’t also possess one, the swordsman will never come close enough to you in a way you can utilize.

With swords it’s about momentum and power

No, that’s an axe. A sword is a shockingly agile weapon.

with daggers it’s speed.

Partial credit here, but it’s incomplete. The other major strengths of the dagger are how easy it is to conceal, and how small it is. The amazing thing about a dagger isn’t how fast it is, it’s that you can easily pull one in close quarters and shank them with a weapon they didn’t see coming.

Speed only means, once you’re there you can poke a lot of times in quick succession. The irony is that an individual knife wound isn’t likely to be that dangerous. It’s all the immediately following successive strikes that seal the deal.

Somewhat obviously, if you can’t get close enough to stab someone, you also can’t get close enough to stab them a couple dozen times.

The swordsman will need better footing and more space.

The footing part is backwards, in the original scenario, the dagger user would need vastly better footing. A sword user does need more strength, it’s true, but the sword remains an effective deterrent against getting to close even in extremely cramped environments. This is less true of some specific weapons, like the katana, and even more true of some other blades, like the epee, rapier, or estoc, which can be used in a tight hallway.

On footing, to borrow an old quote, “I do not think that word means what you think it does.” Footing is your ability to remain standing. If you think a sword has so much momentum that it will try to drag off balance, no. Just, no.

When you’re reading or watching a training sequence, and the instructor is telling the student they’re off-balance, or over-extending themselves, that’s a fault of the student, not the weapon. It’s a natural thing, a student will try to press their attack using their upper body and not simply advance. It’s simple, it’s a mistake, and it’s one that can be easily corrected.

Fighters should be able to fight on all terrain, but all they need is the ability to set their stance to establish their internal balance point to create a stable foundation from which to attack. The swordsman doesn’t actually need to move much in order to be defensive. He can control the fight’s tempo by advancing if he chooses, or he can wait for Daggers to come to him. It will depend on which of them is the aggressor. Either way, the swordsman will be the more stable of the two because he doesn’t need to veer as far off his central axis to create strong strikes.

I’ll explain stance based movement to you. One leg, your back leg, creates your central point when you move your front leg to create the necessary momentum for attack. If you thrust, the front leg moves and the back leg stays, lifting onto the ball of the foot. If you want to move forward on that thrust, the front leg will become your balance supporting leg in the moment it takes for your back leg to come forward and assume the next position. Forward, back, forward, back. Or, if you’re being attacked from a different vector, the back foot becomes your pivot point. Sideways, back, Sideways, back. Your defense is centralized on that back leg. Over-extension happens when you’re upper body reaches too far past the front leg, destabilizing your internal balance point. If you want to judge how far apart your legs need to be to maintain balance, it’s all in the shoulders. On the other hand, the wider apart your feet are, then deeper your stance needs to be. If you need to stretch really far to reach someone on a full extension, or even over-extension of your arms, you’re going to need to get really low. Likewise, the taller you are, the more your knees need to bend in order to maintain balance.

This centralized axis in your stance becomes the point for your entire combat foundation. And, yes, for the experienced fighter, this is as simple as breathing and very quick. The movements of the upper body coordinate with the legs and hips, relying on that strong foundation for effectiveness.

Daggers requires two steps or more to reach the swordsman before they can deal any sort of hit, while the swordsman requires one or none. That’s reach.

If the dagger wielder is smart, he/she can create a reasonable chance of winning.

As discussed, by shanking the swordsman rather than getting into a fight.

If your opponent is stronger, you have to be smarter and faster.

And strength has what to do with using a sword, exactly? To be clear, we’re talking about a sword, not a machete. You’re not trying to hack your opponent apart, you’re using three feet of steel to selectively disassemble your foe. It’s different.

Longswords, historically, weighed between one to five pounds. If you can pick up a house cat, you’re strong enough to use a longsword. Acclimating to the weapon’s balance is a matter of training; which can make a sword “feel” heavier than it is when you’re starting out.

The longsword is a weapon of leverage, you utilize your second hand to create a rapid 180 degree defense allowing you to go from foot to head in fractions of seconds with a minute adjustment to grip. There are no big swings with wide openings here, but a focus on small movements based around the target’s center with strike adjustments based off that axis.

Swords are very fast weapons. Because of leverage, a sword can actually be faster than a dagger. I realize this is a wild concept because it violates basic ideas about physics if you’re only looking at the weapons.

This is actually a problem for fencing as a spectator sport. Points are scored so fast it’s impossible for the audience to follow the action. Hell, it’s difficult for the judges. This part of why the sport has moved towards electronic scoring. Simply put, it’s more reliable.

If your opponents outnumber you, seperate them or increase your number.

If your opponent outnumbers you in a one on one fight, you may have bigger problems.

Kudos for mimicking the Giles translation of Art of War, but, the suggestion is misapplied.

There’s an interesting error here. Sun Tzu frequently advises that you divide your enemy’s forces (or their attention) in The Art of War. This is very good advice; an enemy who is forced to into multiple simultaneous engagements will have a harder time identifying and focusing on the real threat. However, Sun Tzu almost never talks about is recruiting more forces. There’s a simple reason for this: If more bodies were available, and the logistics could support them, they would have already been recruited.

He’s far more interested in offering ways to use the available resources as efficiently as possible. Remember, Sun Tzu was offering instruction on command. “Simply get more guys,” is a tactical choice that occurs at a ground level.

Everyone has weaknesses, exploit those while maximising your strenghts. It will still be a stiff fight but it gives you better odds at least

Well, if you’re planning for a fight, a good place to start would be not bringing a knife to a sword fight.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Art of War, I’d strongly recommend it. If you want a physical copy, you can pick from a wide variety of editions translations and annotated versions. It’s the rare book where I’ll just say, you should read this.

-Starke

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Q&A: Knives Out

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: What are the odds of winning a fight when one character is skilled in daggers more than swords, and in this fight, the opponent uses a sword?

The short answer to this question is almost none, barring being indoors, especially if you’re envisioning a straight forward fight. The answer to why is a concept called reach.

Reach is commonly misunderstood by a lot of writers and even some martial artists when it gets applied as a blanket statement to all combat (including hand to hand, where the difference between two people of different heights is centimeters), but with weapons of two different lengths it’s a game breaker.

The dagger wielding character has weapons that are between three to six inches. The sword, if its a longsword, is probably between thirty-six to thirty-nine inches. That’s a three foot difference full of bladed steel. Your dagger wielding character needs to get past the three feet, to be eight inches away from their target before that steel stops being a danger. (And, that’s if the sword wielder doesn’t half-hand, or chooses to hit your dagger wielder with the pommel of their sword.) Even then, the blade can still cut.

There is no guarantee your swordsman isn’t also trained in hand to hand along with their swordsmanship, allowing them to utilize their blade (or simply fight) in close-quarters. Most were.

Say it with me, “daggers are for shanking.”

The Kill Zone: Who hits first?

The first problem for the dagger wielder is that the swordsman can hit them long before they ever manage to close. This allows the swordsman to control the battle tempo, allowing them to attack without giving the fighter with the daggers opportunity for recourse. Daggers will be on the defense, looking for an opportunity to close so they can strike and, if the swordsman is just mildly competent, those opportunities will be few and far between.

The second problem is that the sword’s greater range also gives them a wider array of targets than the dagger wielder has access to. For example, the swordsman can aim for the foot and, from there, carve up the groin to the chest without an issue. Thrusts easily transitions to slices with the point, which change to hews across the body. The sword’s defense is total. If they keep up attacks, all daggers can do is respond.

The third problem is blocks and counters. They can’t, daggers really aren’t designed for that. They could try to Deflections? The sword will recover in a few fractions of a second. While that’s enough for another swordsman to move from parry to strike, the daggers are too short. They’d be about midway to the swordsman, and take a hewing strike or just a retreating cut to the their side (or somewhere more vital to continuing combat, like their arm. The arm/leg/foot/hand get caught in just a basic slice and that’s it for using those body parts.)

The fourth problem? Well, they can’t bull rush. All they get out of a rush is plowing headlong into the steel end of a long blade. A swordsman can set their weight in stance to take that hit without being forced to even take a step back.

You should never fight a superior weapon on that weapon’s terms. You have to fight on your own, where you negate the other wielder’s advantages. If your dagger wielder isn’t planning ways to use their environment to negate the swordman’s massive advantage, you may want to rethink your fight scene. (And yes, fighting in an alley makes the situation worse for Daggers. Indoors where the sword’s movements are limited by tightly clustered objects like furniture, or in ambush before the sword is drawn.)

Targeting Extremities: How do you run when you can’t move?

What many authors forget about, because they don’t normally work with bladed weapons, is how dangerous they actually are. They also think you need to go directly for the interior parts of the body, such as the heart, the head, stomach, and neck.

Combat is, ironically, far more sophisticated than that and, with an unarmored opponent, cuts and lacerations can be debilitating to any part of the body you hit. While your heart is pumping, your heart will be pumping that blood out of your body. Holes in the body mean the blood leaves the body, the more holes, the faster that happens. This is the strategy with both sword and dagger, you can target major arteries with your daggers or your swords, but anywhere actually works.

The primary targets are usually the best defended. So, you don’t go for those unless the enemy puts up a very poor defense. You start outside, on the extremities, and work inward. If you take the arm, they can no longer use it or will be forced to use it more slowly, to their own detriment. If you take the foot, you cut off their maneuvering. If you pierce their thigh, similar problem. Keep in mind, you don’t have to cut the extremity off. A cut or piercing thrust is enough. Cut muscles or pierced muscles, even surface cuts, mean debilitated muscles. With their defense disabled, you go in for the kill.

On the other hand, your dagger wielder cannot reach the swordmans extremities without closing past the three foot bladed steel barrier that is constantly in motion.

Eliminating Threats: How the combatant thinks.

Combat is all about calculated risk. Every action, every decision is a trade off. You want to maneuver past the enemy’s defenses without taking injuries. No injuries is preferable, but unlikely. Any injury means recovery time, which can severely hamper you’re ability to move forward to the next fight. You want to fight from the position which favors you, and gain nothing in fighting from an underdog position. If you’re forced to, you work with what you have. If you choose to, prepare to suffer.

All weapons are not created equal. Every weapon has a field which is favorable to it. The sword, for example, loses out to the staff or spear when out in the open. However, in areas that are denser like a marketplace or city street, the spear or staff will run into maneuverability issues just like the sword does when indoors.

Canny fighters know how to turn their disadvantages into advantages by changing the field of battle, such as luring the swordsman indoors where his strike pattern is more limited. At worst, they know when to disengage and retreat. Survival is more important than ego.

As a writer, you should always try to understand the threats your characters are facing so you don’t accidentally tip the scales too far in one direction and then try to treat the ensuing battle as equal. Bringing knives to a swordfight is a lot like bringing knives to a gunfight, the upset can be brilliant if you plan your scene around getting past the gun/sword’s advantages or horribly one-sided if you don’t.

Your dagger wielder should shank like their life depends on it (because it does.)

The Sliding Edge: Why blocks and deflections with daggers don’t work.

The short answer here is simple: the dagger is actually too short for deflecting another bladed weapon. Outside of parrying daggers (which are a different animal entirely, and paired with a long blade like a rapier), daggers do not deflect other daggers. That’s what your off hand is for.

If you have chosen two daggers, you’ve chosen that offensive life. This means your fighting style is all offense, all the time. Offense is your defense. You will run headlong into a wall when you encounter a weapon which forces you on the defensive.

You might be wondering, “but why can’t I just cross my blades?” Because, while it’s a favorite move for anime, it doesn’t actually work. A pincer block like that is about pressure and you can’t apply enough pressure to stop the incoming blade before it hits.

Swords and daggers don’t clang together when they hit, they slide on those sharp edges. The goal of the swordsman is to protect his blade’s edge, and the same goes for the daggers. The goal, even when parrying, is to apply opposing force to redirect the opponent’s weapon away from its chosen course. Sword combat isn’t about strength, it’s about geometric angles. A dagger wielder doesn’t have that option if they have two weapons, their blades are too short, they have no choice but to attack and keep attacking. This is great if they’re against an unarmed opponent, but a problem if they are not in range to hit anything.

Choose your field of battle wisely. Or? Better yet? Carry additional weapons. Most real warriors throughout history carried multiple weapons to avoid this problem. The conceit of single weapon styles is from anime and role-playing games like DnD or video games. A warrior carrying a spear, a bow, a sword, and a dagger was not unheard of. They’d also carry a variety of more specialized weapons depending on the type of battlefield they expected to encounter.

You could lure the swordsman into territory that doesn’t benefit him, only to have him switch up and come at you knives out.

The well-rounded warrior was the warrior who survived.

-Michi

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.