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Q&A: What You Bring To A Fight Scene Creates excitement

geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.

On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.

If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.

The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.

A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.

You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.

Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.

“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.

Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.

You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.

Her lips curled.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.

He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.

Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.

The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.

“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.

His jaw clenched.

“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.

The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.

Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.

The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.

Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.

Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”

The vampire in white leapt first.

She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.

The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.

Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.

“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.

“You annoyed me,” Katie said.

Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz

Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.

What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.

Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.

This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?

It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.

Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?

Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.

There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.

So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?

At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.

Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.

For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.

-Michi

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Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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Q&A: Welcome to Writing

my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.               

Welcome to writing.

I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.

What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.

There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.

“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.

What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.

You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Take action.
  3. Pay attention to detail.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
  5. Change if it’s not working.

Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.

There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.

Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.

If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.

To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.

There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.

Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.

As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”

Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.

You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.

-Michi

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Q&A: A sword is not load Bearing

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

So… There’s this scene in a book where a swordsman thrusts at a guy with two knives and the thrust was deflected so the swordsman stumbles forward. Knife Guy grabs the swordsman’s collar and then demonstrates to an apprentice that he can a) stab Sword Guy in the throat b) stab Sword Guy in the chest and/or c) cripple Sword Guy. Is Sword Guy just a bad combatant or is this actually usable?

I’m hoping this scene occurred in a safe training environment and not in a live scenario because so many more problems pop up if it did. They’d be a whole other post about why you don’t train people while fighting for your life (even against a subpar opponent, you’re confident your trainer character could beat.) That would be a whole other post about how stupid that makes characters look.

The short answer is that whether or not Sword Guy is supposed to be a good combatant is dependent on the narrative and the author who wrote it. There’s a lot about the scenario that doesn’t make sense and makes both characters look like idiots, along with a general side of “not how this works”. This includes a third arm problem. The author knew just enough to be aware of certain concepts like deflection, stumbling, and grabbing someone by the collar but not how they work or what causes them.

Let’s start at the top.

1. A sword is not load bearing.

Swords weigh between two to four pounds. They’re not heavy. The only way it’d be possible for the swordsman to stumble on a thrust would be if he had to throw his entire weight behind the sword, and have the forward momentum carry him forward. (Which is why the great axe is swung in a figure eight pattern.) However, you don’t need deep penetration with a sword and a thrust is about the tip, not the whole sword. A thrust moves off one leg, not both, in a step forward (if that) and a deflection will not unbalance your opponent on its own. If the weapon weighed twenty pounds, then it couldn’t be deflected. It’d have too much forward momentum. The swordsman would never come close enough for the Dual Wielder to grab him, and the Dual Wielder couldn’t grab him by the collar anyway because he’s duel wielding.

However, this is all predicated on the idea that the swordsman stumbled close enough to be in range for the Dual Wielder. Swords add an extra four or so feet of distance. He wouldn’t be close enough for the dual wielder to reach him. Dual Wielder would have to come to Sword Guy and not the other way around. An experienced knifer would know that.

2. Dual wielding knives is about a sacrificing defense for offense.

Outside specific tools like parrying daggers (which are not the same as regular daggers), knives exist to accentuate hand to hand. Using two means you’ve made a conscious choice to sacrifice utility and defense for more offense. Sacrificing utility includes collar grabbing. He would either need to drop one of his knives (bad) or he sprouted a third arm.

You can hold the knife or grab the collar, not both.

3. The sword is never out of play.

A good rule of thumb is: deal with the weapon first.

This technique that’s being shown off assumes that your enemy will politely stand there while you move two ranges in (from sword to hand to grappling) so you can grab them by the collar to stab them in the throat or chest or stab them in a joint to take them out of the fight. (Let’s ignore the chest too because you’ve got to deal with the breastbone and the unprotected stomach, abdominals, gut is just a few inches lower.)

Of course, Sword Guy still has his sword and edged weapons can cut you coming and going.

If sword guy is using two hands then he can rotate his sword and come back across on the deflection. It assumes the blade is not coming on a downward angle on the thrust, which is not getting deflected. This also assumes sword guy is not half-handing (where one hand is halfway up the blade) which can’t be deflected/parried.

So, all Dual Wielder did was open up his side to a blade that can be reoriented and brought sideways. Which assumes the deflection could happen in the first place, which is unlikely because…

4. You don’t parry with knives.

Again, that’s what your free hand is for.

There’s a problem with this scenario regarding the size of the knives in question. Some knives or daggers like bayonets are long enough they could concievably parry a sword, and get away with it. However, if your blade is long enough that it can parry a sword then grabbing someone by the collar is superfluous because you will be able to strike them before you are in range to grab their body. You’d also be putting your weapon outside the range where it is most useful to you, which is goes against the lesson this teacher is trying to impart.

5. There’s a misconception about depth.

You don’t need to go deep with a blade to do damage. Think about how painful a papercut is, or how easy it is to cut yourself while cooking. Surface level cuts to the skin can cause you to bleed out over an extended period, especially during times of high activity when your heart is rapidly pumping blood through your body. You don’t have to go deep to start cutting muscles in the arms or legs, which can debilitate your opponent.

A lot of writers obsess about stabbing someone in the heart or running someone through with a sword, but the true danger of bladed weapons is that it doesn’t take much against an unarmored opponent. That’s why people wore armor, and part of why the formality of first blood in duels exists. A single cut can be deadly. Surface level injuries with these weapons in the right place can kill you, especially if left without medical attention. Every cut you land is bad for your enemy.

6. We moved two ranges in.

We talk about range sometimes on this blog, but the key thing to remember is that range just means the distance it takes for a specific attack to hit your opponent. Grabbing hold of someone’s collar puts you in grappling range, which means that the person is right up next to you. This is close enough that your arm couldn’t reach full extension if you punched. This is the range where hooks, elbows, and upper cuts come into play.

The kind of stumbling this scenario is talking about is the kind you get when you grab someone and pull them forward. It’s actually very hard to get someone to stumble on a basic attack because most stances will have you set your balance, and your body moves together when you attack. So, in order for you to stumble a large amount of force must be delivered into you or you’re purposefully knocked off balance. All a deflection does is shift the strike off vector so that it misses. If you follow up with nothing, then the other person either resets to their original fighting stance or changes tack and like rotating the blade, kicking, or striking with their other hand. There’s no reason for Sword Guy to stumble at all, certainly not stumble through two other ranges (sword and hand) into grappling without the Dual Wielder needing to do anything. The best way to get someone to stumble forward is to catch them off balance and yank, which can’t be done if you’re holding a weapon.

Conclusion:

The basic problem of this scenario is that it sounds good on the surface but falls apart when you stop to think about it. The scene also lacks key understanding of how these weapons function and why they work. Dual Wielder has an overfocus on the neck/chest, neither of which are particularly good strike points. Remember, the sternum protects the heart from a stab or downward strike. If you want to get there, you’re going to need to go through the ribs. The neck is difficult because if you’ve got short weapons then you have to be up close. Both these places sound good to novices because they know they work or that they should work.

Writing weapons means brushing up on your anatomy. You need to study how the human body works, where it works, and how it breaks. You can cut someone on the wrist, either going after the artery in the forearm or just to distract them while you move in on the better protected target. With knives, two cuts are better than one. You don’t need a lot of penetration.

-Michi

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Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Where do I begin? Anywhere you want.

Hi I can’t decide the timeline to start story. What should be the main event in story?

You included either a lot of backstory or potential plot hooks for your narrative in the question, all of which have the potential to be very interesting stories in their own right, and that’s why we’re going to talk about something else.

Where do I start my story?

This is the question a lot of authors wrestle with and the answer is surprisingly simple — anywhere you want.

You don’t even need to start writing at the start of your story, you can start writing the middle first, or even the ending, and then start from the beginning once you know where you’re going. When I get stuck, I often write the parts in the future which I find interesting and work my way towards it because that gives me a point to aim for.

You have to start somewhere, so start with what interests you.

If you find yourself getting caught up in massive details for a fantasy setting spread across multiple dimensions and lifetimes then… write the ideas down, make note of them, fill up your notebooks with all that detail for your setting bible. That way, you can always come back to it later for more inspiration. Once you’ve done that, move on to your characters. Take a moment to step away from the big world changing events, but on the individuals in your story. The ones who will ultimately be the driving force behind these events.

These smaller, individual stories are the ones which carry the overarching plot and a narrative that could encompass anything from multiple books, or simply be the epic backstory of just one.

So, who interests you? The great hero at the height of their reign? The Rise of the Big Bad? The hero reincarnated into a new world, scrabbling to put together the pieces of their past life? Or, is it someone else? The rebellious general who realizes the evil they serve isn’t creating the world they hoped for? A young scribe keeping notes in the halls of an evil sorcerer  who steals the mcguffin and runs off to join the rebels? A battered, down on their luck bounty hunter after the relic so they can sell it to the highest bidder? A frustrated and angry high school student stuck in a small world, who dreams of a more fantastical one, where they’re the hero winth incredible powers, who wants the world they’ve seen in their dreams, but when those dreams become a reality realizes it might be more than they ever bargained for?

Epic narratives (rather than epics, the genre) can come from any narrative. The bounty hunter could be hunting the scribe, who could wind up on a buddy/road trip adventure as they carry a mystical object toward their world’s salvation or destruction. This could be an epic narrative filled with humor, potential romance, and heartache. Or, it could be cliche.

The story could be cliche, or it could be fantastic, it might even be cliche and fantastic. (This is, frankly, my favorite type of story.)

You won’t know until you sit down and start writing it.

You won’t know until you’ve finished your first draft. (All first drafts are terrible.)

You won’t know until you’ve restructured the whole thing in your second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts.

You may end up with a story wildly different from the one you imagined when you first sat down to write. This is part of why the place where you start doesn’t need to be your beginning. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, a discovery of your own creative process.

So, pick somewhere. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect character, or the right place. You can end up at right and perfect, but you can’t expect right and perfect in the beginning. You can accept messy, clumsy, and unsure. Trust yourself to get to the gem you imagine inside your mind, keep working at it and you will. Remember that what you read from a published novel is the end result of a product polished to a shine. Where we start is with a diamond, or even a rock full of diamonds we’ll need to chip out of the mountain before we can show them off. Creation is often a messy, embarrassing process filled with horror, joy, and terror. There may occasionally be hair pulling and screaming. You’ll give yourself a lot more grief trying to avoid this, than you will by just embracing it.

You don’t have to write in a straight line.

You do write one line at a time.

So, start writing.

-Michi

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Q&A: In Fiction, the Groin Strike Proves Freud Right

How can i expose someone’s groin for a strike?

So, the groin strike is one of the most oversold attacks in fiction. You don’t “expose” anything. There’s not some secret or special means of getting there, it’s not particularly well protected (except when your opponent is wearing a cup, in which case… yeah, very well protected); it’s just a matter of being close enough to hit.

The groin strike with the knee features prominently in self-defense because it is:

A) easy.

B) You start within grappling range.

In most self-defense scenarios you will be defending yourself from someone who is already close enough to touch you. Someone who is standing right next to you. When you are facing them, the knee to the groin makes sense. It’s a reflexive and easy strike,  and relatively well hidden when they’re focused on something else. You can even play along, put your arms around their neck (with one hand strategically positioned on the back of their head to take control), and… bam. Knee to the groin.

However, like all pressure point strikes, the knee to the groin is a stunner and not a finisher. Whoever you hit with it will recover rapidly, which is why we combine it with other strikes.

Now, the knee to the face can be performed in the same range, and featured as the finisher in a combination with a groin strike. Again, the groin strike is not a “finish them” technique. It’s a distracting technique which opens up better protected parts of the body. You grab the other person by the back of their head, and drive their face down into your rising knee.

And… that’s about the extent of what we do with the groin.

You can kick someone there. You can punch someone there.

Both cases are more a matter of having poor aim or taking someone by surprise than a test of skill. The strike is an opportunistic one, not a dedicated martial move requiring a lot of setup because the move is risky. It doesn’t require a particular amount of skill either, you mostly just have to hit it hard enough to get lucky in clipping the nerve cluster. The issue with the groin strike is more that it’s considered a “dishonorable” move, which leads people to assume it’s a super effective one. They put it on par with throwing sand in someone’s face, but other dirty moves like throwing sand in someone’s eyes is actually much more effective as a battle tactic. There are better places to hit someone which lead to long term damage.

The short answer on exposing the groin is you don’t. You actually don’t need to because the strikes are not nearly as effective as Hollywood insists. Also, outside backroom bar brawls, most men (and women) actually do wear protection when engaging in actual combat or sparring scenarios. That protection is called the cup otherwise known as the jockstrap.

You don’t need to do anything special other than be close enough to pull off the hit. However, the question becomes why aim there? If you can get a better result from performing a front kick or a push kick into the stomach when you’ve exposed your opponent’s defenses then you’d aim there instead. The stomach has a lot of nerve endings too, you can forcibly disrupt the diaphragm, and hit a fair number of major organs. You get everything you’d get from hitting someone in the groin and more with results that last for a longer period of time.

In a friendly bout scenario, like in sparring sessions, hitting someone in the nether regions is frowned upon (especially if not accidental) and clipping occurs often enough that the intelligent wear protection.

In a self-defense scenario, a groin strike won’t be enough to stop your enemy in their tracks.

In a combat scenario, a groin strike suffers similar problems with the added benefit of likely being protected by actual armor.

Discussing groin strikes in fiction usually revolves around men, usually specifically around heterosexual women hitting heterosexual men in their “weak spot”. (If you never realized that sex is what this specific joke is about in fiction then I’m sorry, and, yes, this is a way to hypersexualize your female fighter. Why do you ask?) However, it is worth noting that groin strikes work on women.

If you write female fighters or just female characters in general, please do not fall for this bit of fiction about groin strikes. In the world of popculture fantasy, they’re just a means of proving Freud right. Everything is about titillation and the genitals.

In the real world, and I say this as someone with extensive experience in martial arts, the groin is not some secret weak point that must be defended at all costs. The groin is either convenient or just meh.

-Michi

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Q&A: Delta and HRT

Hi, I’m writing an urban fantasy where the deuteragonist is a former member of Delta Force and FBI Special Agent who works with the FBI Hostage Rescue Teams as an instructor. Any tips for the do’s and don’t for hostage rescue situations?

Okay, I’m going to chew on the background for a second. Your character sounds like a unicorn. It’s not. The combo is a lot more plausible than it first seems, but it sounds a bit out there.

Delta Operators are vanishingly rare. The exact size of the organization is classified, but best guess is that there’s only around 250 – 300 Delta Force Operators cleared for field work or hostage recovery at any given time.

I’m not clear on exactly how many Hostage Rescue Teams the Bureau maintains, but it’s also a short list. If your character trains the HRTs, that’s a full time job.

The reason the Delta to FBI thing strikes me as weird, beyond simply collecting alphabet soup, is that Delta trains FBI HRTs, and, the FBI’s HRT instructors train Delta. It’s a symbiotic ouroboros. Both groups practice some of the same tactics, though the exact methodology varies. This leaves me with a simple question of, “why?”

Why leave the military, to go to the Bureau to do the same job with the same people, and a fraction of the benefits? This doesn’t mean you can’t, or that someone wouldn’t, just remember it’s probably unnecessary. Your Delta instructor could very well know and have trained your HRT member protagonists with no extra layers mixed in.

Given this is urban fantasy, that might be your reasoning. Characters like Ultraviolet‘s Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba) come to mind. They’ve seen horrific things in mundane organizations, and were inducted into clandestine monster hunting agencies because of their experiences.

Though, I’m not 100% certain the HRTs a good fit. Especially if your setting has Delta, or more specialized groups tasked with countering supernatural threats and monsters. If that’s the case, you might want to trim one of those off. Your character went from Delta or HRT into their monster hunting organization, rather than stacking up multiple “elite” backgrounds, even if they are justifiable together. I guess, one entirely plausible explanation is if your character is setting up their own agency, and tap your Delta/HRT to bring the new program up to speed. That would track. Still strange that they’d follow that career path, but it would certainly bump their resume up the pile, when searching for recruits.

To be fair, there’s also a lingering question of, “why isn’t this guy your protagonist?” They may, very well, be a more interesting character than whomever you planned to run with. This isn’t a strike against them if you’re careful. Just, be aware that you may need to up your protagonist’s game to keep them engaging.

As for actual hostage rescue tactics, I’m not the best person to ask. My original primer was via The Negotiator. It’s a good film (if you can still stomach Kevin Spacey), but not something I’d call educational. A quick search did turn up this article on PoliceOne.com. I’m not particularly familiar with the site, but the information tracks with what I do know, and the psychological methods presented are solid, so, it seems legit. There’s also a much more in-depth primer on HowStuffWorks.com. It’s not comprehensive, but should fill in some minutiae that the PoliceOne article skimmed over. You may also want to ask @Skypig357 for his opinion.

I’m also left with questions for how viable hostage rescue would be when dealing with supernatural threats. Though, I suppose, in a context like the Nightwatch novels, or Men in Black, where you’re dealing with the supernatural as just another law enforcement headache, it’s certainly possible.

-Starke

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Writing Gangs

We got a few questions about gangs versus organized crime, and what the difference is. So, I figured we’d do a follow up post about gangs. (The Wiki article about gangs rolls organized crime in with them which is… not accurate, they’re organized, yes, but different beasts.)

The main difference between gangs and organized crime is time. If the street gang survives, it grows up to become organized crime. They’re the Lost Boys in the interim stages before they grow up to become the Pirates. The gang is the proto phase of organized crime, the beginnings of the group before it’s become entrenched. Most Mafia/Mobs do find their original roots in street gangs before they grew up into professional enterprises. The main difference between the Mob and the Gang is the Mob has had time grow, develop, and learn from previous experiences.

The way to think about “organized crime” like the Triad, the American Mafias, the Yakuza, and others like is that they’re a criminal enterprise. They’re a business, and this is where Russian organized crime meets up with the Mafias. The heads of these organizations are like CEOs, and they function almost exactly like any other corporation except their working outside the law in human trafficking, drugs, etc. This includes stealing fashion designs and using sweatshop labor to sell cheap knock offs as an industry, which is something the Triad does. “Organized crime” is money moving to the tune of billions as international business versus the most enterprising of the street gangs which may own, maybe, a city.

Easy difference, the Black Mafia family sells drugs. The Cartels produce drugs, and sell them, and they sometimes contract out to street/motorcycle gangs. This is the pharmaceutical company versus your local pharmacy versus a single location Mom & Pop shop. The street gang is Mom & Pop. The older well-established gangs that’ve been around for forty to fifty years are the Rite-Aids. The Triad are Bayer. Given time, and assuming they survive to adulthood, the gang can hit the big time and own some place like Las Vegas before moving on to bigger and better. That takes time though, and they’ve got to grow up first. There are quite a few gangs moving toward, if they haven’t already become, organized criminal enterprises. The Bloods and the Crips are close, the Black Mafia, and MS13 is aggressively pursuing its transition into criminal enterprise. It might be tempting to lean toward the cartels or mafias for the sense of legitimacy they bring to the narrative, not to mention the romantic relationship some groups have with fiction.

The Gang is rougher, but much more suited to any narrative involving teens and about growing up. Let’s face it, the gang is the angry teenage phase of organized crime. They’re the dark side of found families, they’re messier, and they will stress characters with themes of brotherhood/sisterhood, respect, loyalty, co-dependency, and the meaning of family in ways you won’t get from an organized businesses because they weed that shit out. They don’t have time for your angst. The Gang, though? They thrive on emotional narratives about brutality, trauma, broken bonds, and shattered friendships. They’re about getting in over your head from the word go; before you ever learned how to swim and long before you’re ever given the chance.

The Lost Boys

Gangs form in marginalized communities that are not protected by the bureaucracy of the ruling government. Their purpose, their beginning purpose, is to protect. Their originating goal is to provide security and safety to their communities, to protect them from outsiders, and they recruit on that honorable ideal. Any community which is treated as “Other” runs the risk of creating not one gang but multiples. The behavior and culture of the gang is dependent on the culture of its participants, before the gang develops a culture of its own, their ideals, their beliefs, their views come fractured through the eyes of disenfranchised youth. They combine with a teenager’s volatile emotions and impulsivity.

The main draw of the gangs is sense of family they offer, the brotherhood. They primarily exert influence on young, disaffected, lonely neglected youth with absentee parents. In plain terms, they hunt up Latch Keys. These can be impoverished children from single-parent households whose older family members work so hard to put food on the table they can’t be there, the ones from white-collar households in a similar boat, those whose parents genuinely don’t care, those from abusive homes, and came out of a similar life. The key theme is the offer of stability, purpose, guidance, and open to influence by the gang. The gang offers the child or teen the love, attention, and guidance they crave, but at a price.

You know all those tell-tale warnings you got about peer-pressure? This is peer-pressure reworked into targeted social engineering.

A character’s initiation into a gang is an act of violence. Sometimes, it’s a beating. Sometimes, it’s a murder. Sometimes, the initiated murderer is thirteen years old. And, yes, the street gang is where you’ll find that sixteen year old hitman who was recruited out of elementary school and started running drugs at nine or ten years old. They’re not “professional” in the conventional sense, but they go out to perform hits and the resulting collateral damage is often very messy.

There’s more emotional depth here than “just business”. Leaving the gang is a betrayal of the brotherhood, betrayal of the family. Killing can be seen as retribution, to claim turf, get respect, exert authority, or protect from invaders.

A major theme for gang characters is exerting their identity through violence, establishing themselves as adults, and lashing out at cultures/societies/institutions that they feel have rejected/failed them.

They’ve turned to the only figures in their lives they feel understand them, the older members of their gang. The relationship between gang members is elder sibling and younger sibling rather than the patron-client, mentor/student, parent/child relationships you’d find in gangs with organized crime.

If you want to learn more about child recruitment and culture in gangs, I highly recommend reading Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur.

The Lord of the Flies

The sort of “send a message” brutality you get out gangs, the behavior, the emotion, and the thematic resonance they have with coming of age stories is, I think, what most of our followers are really asking for whenever they ask about the Mob. It’s worth exploring the romantic aspects of the gang, what they offer, and why they so easily lure young people in.

This is a writing advice blog. I’m going to take this last part to talk about how you can use gangs in your narratives. First…

To write crime, you must understand crime.

Understanding crime requires understanding the culture which spawns the crimes, the society, and the laws of the world your character exists in. You can’t break a rule if you don’t understand the rules. Right? If your reader doesn’t understand the rules of your setting, they won’t understand the impact of your character breaking with them.

Spend as much time on your lawfuls as your chaotics, if not more.

To write the gang, you must understand the necessity and purpose of the gang.

You need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The pressures of their world, the loneliness of it, and the desire to have someone, anyone, who understands them. The intoxicating effect of fear, how inflicting fear makes you feel powerful, and the need to exert control in an overwhelming world where your environment is wildly spinning out of your grasp.

If you want to write a character who exists in the criminal underworld, and never spent any time looking at the criminals in question then you will come up short. I understand that it’s not a comfortable subject to research.

Romanticization station…

“The Gang” as a narrative trope lacks the prestige and legitimacy brought by more established organizations such as “The Mafia”. With youth, however, comes flexibility. Rogues living outside the system, renegades struggling to make it in a world overwhelmingly weighted against them, Band of Brothers, Rebel Without A Cause, Protect the Family, Paint the Town Red, and all your James Dean tropes can be applied to and claimed by gang members.

For your narrative, it’s always worth looking at the romanticized aspects of gang life because those tropes are often embraced and used as justifications by the gang members themselves. They’re also good recruiting tools.

With youth comes opportunity…

Where the greater adult world won’t take an underage character seriously, the gang will. Where a group like the American Mafia will turn up their nose at a sixteen year old hitman because they’ve already got a kid who acted as a courier, parked their cars, and went into the military to get the skills they needed, the gang will give the sixteen year old the chance to prove themselves and couch the hit as an opportunity for advancement.

They also see murder as a means of binding the gang member to the gang, even incarceration is a means of binding them tighter into the family. They care a little less about the character getting pinched. They might expect it. After all, everyone mucks things up that first time and most gang members have felt the weight of the juvenile justice system. Better to make the big mistakes while you’re still young so you can do better next time. Well, you can do better if you survive on the inside.

I got harder, I got smarter in the nick of time…

Take a hard look at your character, their motivations, their experiences, and how those resulted in the actions they’ve taken. They’re in a situation rife with manipulation and betrayal, where they’ll be pressured to take actions they may not feel comfortable with. Caught in an inevitable cycle of escalation where the violence they commit in the name of their brotherhood/sisterhood becomes more and more brutal, where they need to do more and more to prove themselves, are motivated to do so by advancing up the chain of command. Breaking this cycle is difficult.

In conclusion:

I’ve gone on long enough, and this post got longer than I intended. Gangs are a subject you can write whole books on and not even scratch the surface of. We’re probably not done with this subject, but if you want a teen criminal then the likelihood is that they’re in or have been involved in or, at least, aware of their local gangs to varying degrees. Your narrative should always have more than one, some run by kids, some run by older teens, some run by adults, and so on. You want to research the history of gangs, the current famous gangs that exist, and so on. The answers won’t always be easy or easily digestible. They’re not quick.

So, food for thought.

-Michi

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Heat (1995)

Someone asked for our favorite film fight scenes earlier, and I posted the bank shootout from Michael Mann’s Heat without comment. It’s here, if you didn’t see it:

Which lead to this response:

bookwormmaddy

that was horrific :/

Yeah, it was. So, let’s talk about my thought process here, why I think this is probably one of the best fight scenes in American film, why I agree that it’s horrific.

There’s a lot of parts with this, so let’s start with the difference between plot, and what a story is about.

The plot of Heat is that Lt Vincent Hanna (Al Pachino) is hunting a career criminal, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) who has recently started operating in LA. That’s it. There’s a lot of intervening pieces, and events, but you can, boil the plot down to, it’s Cops and Robbers without being reductive.

When you sit down, and watch the film, that’s the story your told. That’s not what the film is about.

The core theme of the film (or at least one major theme) is that violence is, inherently, destructive and alienating, on a physical psychological level, but also on a psychological and emotional level.

This isn’t, PTSD, it’s a particular kind of emotional detachment that should be immediately recognizable if you’ve interacted with people who’ve dealt directly with violence for extended periods of time. In particular, the film “gets” cops in a way you rarely see on film.

A recurring theme for Vincent is that he shows far more empathy to the victims and their family members than he can to his own wife (Diane Vinora) and step-daughter (Natalie Portman.) In fact, you can see this behavior in the final seconds of the clip above.

This is part of why I love the sequence above: It says a lot about who the characters are, without having them engage in overly flashy behavior to do so. Chris (Val Kilmer) is probably the biggest offender here. He’s very heavy on the trigger, firing long bursts, which is entirely in character, but he’s burning ammunition, while Neil is practicing short controlled bursts (for the most part), only transitioning into longer, less controlled fire after Chris has been wounded. Again, this entirely in keeping with the characters, even though it contradicts how Neil has been describing himself in dialog up to this point.

It’s worth taking note of this: As a writer, you can have a character who presents themselves as one thing, they may even believe it’s true, but when the time comes, their actions don’t match what they’re saying. This is behavior that’s entirely in keeping with the real world, and it’s something most readers can understand. However, you need to inform your audience of this. It can be subtle, but it needs to be there.

Also, note that Neil and Chris are both using matching rifles (Colt Model 733s), while Michael (Tom Sizemore), the third robber, is carrying an IMI Galil, and note how he’s the one split off from the group, while the other two remain together. This does something that we’re often asked about, which is to distinguish characters by their weapon choice, without compromising their ability to function as combatants.

Also, note that the police are operating their rifles in semi-auto, and the throwaway line from Vincent to, “watch your background,” meaning to keep track of where you’re firing and, more importantly, what’s behind your target. They’re firing 5.56mm rifles, which will pass through their target and continue to travel. Firing at someone standing in front of civilians is just as dangerous as someone using a human shield.

So, all of this lends itself to authenticity, which gets into a part where this film actually runs counter to advice I recently gave. It’s betraying audience expectations.

Up until this point, the film has staged its violence in spaces you probably don’t associate with daily life. There’s an armored car robbery which happens in an industrial area, there’s an ambush in an abandoned Drive-In theater, and a brief sequence in a truck stop. All of the sequences are staged to disconnect them from the world around them. Of these, the truck stop is the least contained, with other patrons, and parked cars, but it also is the most restrained as well. The Drive-In theater is an empty lot, so while it’s a recognizable space, it’s not someplace you’re used to, and the ensuing gunfight never feels like something happening in a place you’d inhabit. The armored car heist features a used car lot, but it’s curiously abandoned, and the sequence is shot to keep the background and surroundings out of focus and fuzzy. This happens in a place you don’t associate yourself with. To the viewer, the violence is, “safe.”

On the other half of the story, Vincent Hanna is repeatedly shown interacting with recognizable spaces where violence has occurred. You can actually see the transition of styles after the armored car scene, which transitions directly from Neil to Vincent. The sequence gets its first establishing shot after Neil’s crew has left, and the police are arriving, showing you that the entire event took place next to the used car dealership.

Once the bank sequence starts, we see violence injected into an identifiable world. You see the U-Haul on the street, there’s a Carl Jr.s Sign behind Vincent’s head when he checks his fellow officer’s corpse. This isn’t happening in a space you don’t identify with, these are bits of corporate iconography that would be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with modern America. In particular the U-Haul is very deliberate, it’s the single brightest color on the screen, when Chris opens fire. It climaxes when the shooting invades a supermarket parking lot.

A used car dealership, or a truck stop is a space you’ll enter sometimes. You may even enter the remnants of a Drive-In theater, though that’s less likely, but when you’re seeing people on a crowded street, or in a supermarket parking lot, looking around in confusion, while someone is hosing the place down with automatic gunfire, that is horrifying. This isn’t fun, choreographed, art, this has intruded into something that is far too plausible to set aside and comfortably enjoy. And, that’s kind of the point.

This isn’t real violence, but there’s an eye towards authentic details that sell the scene and makes it very uncomfortable. It also feeds back into the themes of the story as a whole. Remember, this is a movie about how violence damages people in fundamental ways that aren’t always immediately perceptible, and it asks you to get inside Vincent’s head, where this kind of a sprawling shootout is what he’s trying to prevent.

So, it is horrifying. And the movie isn’t even remotely over.

I really like this because it’s not gratuitous. This serves a very specific purpose. It’s not simply there to pad out the length, or say, “look how cool this is.” It’s a realistic consequence of the decisions of the characters leading up to this point. In a lot of ways it’s the film’s thesis. You miss out on a lot of fantastic acting, and all of the film’s female characters, but you do see what this is getting at.

-Starke

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