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Q&A: How to Fight Write

When writing about a sword fight (or sword and magic fight, in this case) is it better to give a general impression of the fighting, or go into play-by-play detail?

Have this bit from my current Nano efforts:

Dropping into a crouch, Orlya shifted. Head lowered, she prowled sideways along the gnoll. The end of her great tail rose, whipping back and forth.

We need to get out of here, Leah called to her dragon.

Orlya’s rage bubbled in Leah’s brain, a definite negative. There is no time.

Leah swallowed, hand falling to the plas-pistol holstered to her thigh. It wouldn’t do much against the spinosaurus other than make it angry. Pray the spino wants the fish more. Large predators didn’t like to fight unless pressed, and the spino wasn’t a carnosaur. With a closer food source and carcasses on the shore, Orlya’d be less appealing as potential prey. Pass us by, pass us by.

The spino’s head swung, noting the fish carcasses Orlya left. Head lowered, it took a step toward the lake. Paused. Then, the long snout swung back. Great yellow eyes narrowed.

Cor, Leah breathed.

Screaming, the spinosaurus raced forward.

Leah drew her pistol, fully merging into their telepathic link as Orlya sprang sideways. She aimed for the spino’s sensitive parts, the eyes and the nostrils halfway up the creature’s snout. Too small to register as a threat, she moved slowly. The spino’s eyes followed her dragon. Adjusting course toward the cliffs, the creature crossed the ground in massive strides. Leah waited until the spino closed, and fired. Neon-blue blasts struck the spinosaurus dead-on. The blast caught the creature’s snout, left a small hole. No larger than the width of her thumb.

The spino screamed.

Springing off her haunches, Orlya lunged. She came in low, seizing the underside of the spinosaurus’ neck. Her powerful teeth sank deep, blood spurting from the gash. Her jaws latched, unfurled claws sinking deep into the soft ground, and she dragged the creature down.

The spino screamed, scrabbling for a grip with its claws.

Orlya slammed her shoulder into its side, pinning its arms. She yanked, powerful jaws hauling the spino sideways. Stumbling, the spino threw its head up and whipped toward the cliff wall. Dragged about, Orlya lifted off ground. Swung in a circle. Her hindquarters slammed into the rock wall, hard. Pain lanced through their shared bond.

I mean, yes, that is a dragon fighting a dinosaur. However, notice the scene is neither vague nor an exact play-by-play of the situation. The characters are giving you enough of an understanding to follow, but it doesn’t feel like an “and then, and then, and then.” You may start out that way, which is fine. You won’t get it perfect on your first go, it may start out vague and grow more specific as you redraft or start out as a list of what you want that you then break down into action.

The keys to writing a good fight scene is this:

Understanding logical behavior patterns and how matter interacts. The above is a pretty good example of three different species fighting with various approaches based on their natural advantages.  (Though not necessarily scientifically accurate.)

Animals are pretty simple to write in fight scenes once you get a basic understanding of their attack patterns. They’re often extremely effective, but they don’t change much. They fight mostly on base instinct, behavior changing on learned experience. This is going to be different from humans, who are primarily tool users and problem solvers.

In this scene, we’ve got the dragon, a four-legged winged beastie whose fighting tactics are somewhere between a lion and a wolf. (I based her on my cat. Likes falling from great heights to break the back of whatever she’s hunting, it works.) She’s all springing and pouncing, but a pack predator working together with her human partner. Not unlike what you’d expect from a traditional relationship human and their hunting/working dog. This is a symbiotic relationship between two beings who need each other, not a human and their pet.

The spinosaurus is a solo actor, when under threat it uses its greater size to intimidate, close, and ultimately get away. What is its first reaction to a smaller predator latched onto it’s throat? It tries to claw it off. When it can’t uses its greater weight to gain momentum and try to throw them In this case, into a nearby hard surface.

The human would, under normal circumstances, be mostly useless in a battle between predators this big. However, she uses her brain. Of the three, she’s the most strategic fighter. She creates the openings for her dragon to attack. Her weapon can’t kill the spinosaurus on its own, not before it kills her, The creature is too large. However, by hitting it in the vulnerable places where it hurts (the eyes, places where the bones are close to the surface/hitting the nerves, other parts the dino is going to feel necessary to protect), using pain to distract the creature and split its attention. In this way, Leah shows the audience why her dragon needs her just as much as she needs it. The human provides the strategic understanding which makes the dragon a more effective predator in an environment where it isn’t the apex. Symbiosis goes two ways.

You wonder what this has to do with sword fights and magic?

On a simple, conceptual, and very basic overview, all combat works the same. This doesn’t mean you write it the same way because that’s silly. The approach and thinking stays.

What is the situation? The needs? The goals?

What is the environment?

What are the available tools? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

A character who is a mage and primarily defends themselves with magic is going to be limited by the rules their magic functions under. Specifically: the length of time it takes to cast a spell. Unless they can cast very quickly, they’ll be ranged bombardment or will attempt to stay at range. (Like how you should be behaving with a gun, keep your distance.)

You’ve got a character who can do magic and you can’t? You need to take them down before they get their spells off. If they get their spells off, you dead.

So, you’ve got the one guy who wants to get the mage and the mage who needs to get away. This is how you get a basic setup. Now you know how both are going to behave as actors on the battlefield. Now, you can start strategizing on how one gets to the other.

In order to hit the magic user, the guy with the sword needs to get close enough to hit them. The magic user doesn’t want the guy with the sword to get close because then they focus enough to cast or it becomes more difficult. Their battle is going to function around these basic needs as they try to take advantage over the other, and the increasing difficulty of survival.

Next is the environment. They’re going to use their environment because terrain is a primary means of gaining advantage, often whoever uses it better wins. Whether that’s the spinosaurus throwing the dragon into the cliff face in order to dislodge them, or your sword user running from cover to cover hiding from a mage’s fireballs. They can’t stay in cover because fire. Even if their cover isn’t burning, the area around them is. Fire means smoke and fire is eating up the oxygen they need to keep their muscles moving and stay fighting.

These essential needs and limits are going to change how your characters behave and the strategies they employ in order to win. What’s important is grasping the movement of the battle, the physical ramifications of the actions, and how those affect the characters participating. There are set limitations on the battle i.e. how long your character can fight before reaching exhaustion, and the amount of damage they can do in that time frame. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes someone else gets there first.

The spino screamed in defiance, sides heaving. Blood raced down its neck, pooling on the dirt. Air sick with the stench of raw flesh.

Oh, c’mon! Leah leveled her plas-pistol, sighting down the barrel.

Orlya fanned her wings and frills, hissing.

The spino took another few lumbering steps, preparing to charge.

A flash of silver and ruby dropped from the sky, slamming onto the spino with the full force of its weight. Wings unfurled, body arched over the sail, a red dragon sank his claws into the creature’s sides; seizing the spino’s neck with his teeth. Leah saw his rider perched on his back, pike in hand, wearing red plasteel armor. The dragon too heavily armored.

The spino shrieked in agony, legs giving way. Unable to stay upright, fell forward and landed in a cloud of dust. Jaw smacking the dirt with a sickening crack.

The red dragon’s armored head gave a great shake before ripping upwards. White bone clenched in his teeth, he leapt free and landed on the gnoll. His wings tucking as he fixed Leah and Orlya with his yellow gaze. Blood dripping from his jaws, he grinned.

In Orlya’s case, she doesn’t win. Or, doesn’t have the chance to win.

All the little surface things most writers get caught on that they think are all important are ultimately ancillary. Your characters personalities and how that affects their decision making is ultimately secondary to their available tools and the needs of the situation. What comes after is their unique approach, which is the solution they come up with to win.

Then you add in Newton’s Laws. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” When you throw a bowling ball at a bunch of pins, what happens? You want a fight scene to feel real, you need to have your characters reacting to the imaginary harm in ways that jive with your audience’s expectations. Dem’s the rules.

If you shove someone, what happens? They move or they don’t, but either way their body has to take the force. You got a two legged creature suddenly hit with the great force of another monster pouncing on it from a great height, what happens? It’s going to be destabilized. It’ll fall. What happens when it hits the ground? Hard surface, the force is going to rebound back into it and the environment will respond accordingly. Fall in a dusty area, you get dust in the air.

You stab someone in the leg with your sword, what happens? They bleed sure, but blade’s gone into their muscles. Depending on which muscle that was and where it was, that could be very bad. You ever tried moving with a sprain? Or a cut? Now imagine doing it with a hole right through those muscles you need to move. How do people respond to pain?

Writing a character using a technique and naming said technique is only useful if you understand what the technique does and the effect it has. The effect is what’s important here. That is the show versus the tell.

You’ve got five senses. Use them.

Sight. Sound. Touch. Smell. Taste.

The sound of a scream. The scent of blood in the air, charred skin. Copper on the tongue when a character’s bitten through their lip or gotten blood in their mouth.

Action. Reaction. Action. Reaction.

You did X. I will negate and follow up with Y. However, both actions will do something. Both lead to their own results depending on success. So, what was it?

Orlya grabs the spinosaurus by its neck, a vital organ. The spinosaurus tries to grab her with its claws to drag her off.  In order to stop the spino from hurting her, she turns sideways and yanks the creature around and negates its arms by ensuring it can’t get an angle.

Your body is limited by its options for motion, arms can only bend so far. This is a universal truth, whether you’re a human, a dog, or a dinosaur. A key part of strategy in combat is getting on angles that cannot be countered. Animals will do this out of learned experience, just like humans do.

The spino’s first choice fails, but it doesn’t give up. Next, the spinosaurus lifts its neck to get her off the ground. Using it’s great weight it whips into a turn, gains momentum to throw her into the wall. Like a horse, bull, or other animal, it drags the unfortunate predator on a nearby tree or wall or rolls in hopes the stun will dislodge them, crush them, or break some vital bones. Like the Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that directs the tank into a mountainside while a hapless Indy hangs helplessly.

This is how you theorize a fight scene, and after that its just putting words on a page, drafting and redrafting until it works.

-Michi

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Q&A: Improvised Weapon: Pickaxe

This is a rather crazy question, but how would a pickaxe fair as a weapon?

If it’s a weapon of opportunity, then fairly well. For example, if you have a character in a struggle against someone else, they’ve lost their weapon, and the only thing they can reach is a mining or climbing pick, that is going to mess someone up.

There’s a bit of a bonus here, the pick’s beak is an excellent armor penetration tool. So, in that very narrow tailored situation, it’s a good option for a single surprise attack. A lot of real weapons, including pole-arms and warhammers used similar pick designs for this purpose.

Depending on your setting, your character might carry a pair of ice axes. These are, basically, single beaked climbing pickaxes, designed for digging into and scaling ice walls. Again, not a weapon, but if it’s all your character can reach, they can still probably put one into the skull of an unsuspecting enemy.

A pickaxe isn’t a great weapon for a straight up fight. Limited strike options are the big issue here. You need to swing it in a fixed, linear, path, and against an armed opponent who can defend themselves, that just wouldn’t work.

The main difference between a war hammer, and a normal pickaxe is the weight and reach. These were (usually) longer weapons, with a single beak, a blunt face, and a head that could be used in linear thrusts (sometimes with an additional spike on the end).  This meant there were far more options to attack with one.

For whatever it’s worth, an ice axe is much closer to a warhammer in overall design. It still has an adz opposite the beak, but the overall design is much lighter, and probably more versatile than an actual warhammer. Ice axes have a spiked haft allowing you to (potentially) use it as a thrusting tool. To be fair, I am speculating a bit, and it would depend on the materials and design of the specific ice axe.

If the idea is, “my character has a pickaxe as their favored weapon,” then no. That wouldn’t work out. However, if the idea is, “my character is desperate, and the only thing they can get their hands on is a pickaxe,” then, yeah, there is some utility there. Especially against a foe who doesn’t see it coming.

-Starke

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Q&A: A Healthy Relationship Is Not Cliche

Is there any way for a reasonably smart girl to be involved with a dangerous rich boy? I really hate the trope of that kind of ‘healthy’ relationship, and I’m afraid to fall in that cliche. I apologize if this kind of ask doesn’t fit the blog’s specialty.

Well, the reasonably smart girl and the dangerous rich boy as presented usually isn’t healthy. It can be, but you’ve got to work at building the relationship and address the inherently lopsided power dynamics arising from the boy having all the resources and the girl having none.

As for reasonably intelligent girls making dumb choices? Intelligent young women don’t always make the smart choice. In fact, we all make stupid choices when we’re young. No one is going to be perfect 100% of the time. That isn’t a moral failing, that’s life. This is especially true when it comes to romance, and why its important to be forgiving regarding mistakes. Take into account what the mistake was, rather than the fact it happened. People make choices, sometimes they’re the wrong ones. Sometimes, they knew better and others they seemed right at the time. Mistakes are part of how we learn and grow. Sometimes, it takes sticking your hand into the fire before you learn not to do it anymore. This is especially true with intelligent young people. They may know the choice is bad, but they still think the outcome will be different for them. Sometimes, they’re right. More often, they’re terribly wrong.

We don’t always get to control who we’re attracted to, and sometimes we pursue them even when we know it isn’t a smart idea.  That’s human nature across the board. Doesn’t matter if the spark that started it is physical attraction, mental attraction, or emotional attraction. Smart girls and smart boys make dumb choices because the heart and libido aren’t driven by logic or reason, and sometimes the brain isn’t either! Ego gets in the way. Most teens don’t have the life experience to know the early warning signs of dangerous relationships. Or they lack the ability to tell a culturally pronounced “dangerous boy” who doesn’t fit the societal mold from one who actually is dangerous. There’s the appearance of bad and actually bad, and it can be difficult to tell the difference. These young people know what they’ve been told, but the experiences of another and your own are very different. Still, sometimes even when they consciously know and all the intelligent parts are telling them this is a terrible idea, their hormones are still in overdrive and off they go.

Don’t let anyone fool you, girls stumble around in the dark when it comes to romance just as much as the boys do and they make many of the same choices. Unless they luck out, girls don’t really get smart about relationships until they’re in their mid twenties  and by that point they’re women. Even then, intelligent women still make terrible choices when it comes to love.

The dangerous rich boy is one of those stunningly attractive stereotypes that young women have been conditioned to want even when they know they should know better. Or they’re in their late teens early twenties and a no strings attached summer relationship on a rich boy’s yacht could be the definition of a good time. (Remember, sometimes, the guy falls first in a no strings attached.  Girls get play too, often more. For all girls interested in this boy, there’s likely more than a few interested in the girl too. Rich boy probably has friends.)

It really depends on what ways this boy is dangerous and whether the risk he represents is worth it to our hypothetical female character. If it’s dangerous in the classic “I’ll break your heart” or “threat to virginity” way, then he may not be so bad and just is a player. (The virginity part is worth considering, because the idea of “purity” is still a fixture in most romantic tropes and it’ll ambush you in all its societally regressive nastiness if you’re not careful.) If it’s “I take out my anger issues on anyone who is close by and lash out, creating a codependent relationship where you feel responsible for me” or “threaten with physical violence” type, then that’s nowhere near a healthy relationship. If it’s the “I’ll get you addicted to designer drugs and alcohol” then that’s a little more serious. Lastly, if he’s the “I’m dating you so I can dump your drunk body in the ocean and watch you drown” type then chances are he’s murdered before and we’re in an I Know What You Did Last Summer scenario.

The romance genre is built on unhealthy relationships, unhealthy dynamics, power imbalance, and unattainable fantasies by choice. It’s wish fulfillment, a fantasy where the man society conditions us to want actually turns out to be the best choice. (Rather than an abusive, controlling trash fire.) That’s not all it has to be, but that’s what the genre often boils down to. The fantasy by itself isn’t bad, and if you want it that doesn’t make you bad either. The princess fantasy is incredibly appealing. In the classic sense, the dangerous rich boy is just another version of the Beast from Beauty & the Beast. He’s the princely hero here to be redeemed by the heroine’s good heart, then he carries her away from all her troubles to a life of safety and luxury. He is not, however, a Mr. Darcy. If you want a Darcy, you’re gonna have to work for your dinner.

The way to avoid cliche is to acknowledge the cliche, and remember that cliche is only a cliche in broad strokes. If you can get away from generalities and into people, then you escape its deathly grip.

Unhealthy relationships spawn for all sorts of reasons, and healthy ones do too. The major difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship is that the healthy one is shared growth while the unhealthy one tries to force the other person to change. Two people, together, who mutually respect each other and share a partnership is a healthy relationship.

Love is both inherently selfish and incredibly selfless. The difference between them is desirous or possessive love for your own sake, when you seek the other person for the fulfillment of your own happiness. That’s often an imaginary love, driven by your idea of who the other person is or should be. The other is sacrificial love, where the object of affection’s needs take precedence. Often, when we’re young, we can’t tell the difference. Are you nice to the object of your interest in the hopes they’ll notice you? Or are you nice to them because you genuinely care about them? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. When you reach a point where you realize you’d continue to do nice things for them because you want to and not for any potential outcome or relationship reward is the point where we’ve reached sacrificial love.

Unhealthy relationships are built on the bones of possessive love, on selfish love. It is not a give and take, it is often all one way. One gives and the other takes, one sacrifices their comfort in order to sustain the relationship and the other refuses to change. The emotional labor is entirely in one corner rather than a shared burden. Sacrifice for their partner revolves around whims, not needs. Demanded to fit the image their partner envisions for them or imagines them to be, rather than trying to understand them.

Behind Unhealthy Relationship Door Number One is the pedestal, and this is the one you’re most likely to fall prey to when writing romance. The pedestal is a fantasy construction and it is sexism, but it is also very attractive, extremely flattering, and safe. It tricks us into thinking we’re beautiful, treasured, and valued. The truth about the pedestal is its the realization of a societal construct where women have not only have no power over their lives but actively give their power up in pursuit of the fantasy. They are pretty objects who exist to be looked at and adored, much like a statue. This happens easily if you believe the pedestal is love, which it isn’t. The pedestal and the emotions it evokes often feel like they’re love, but true love is a relationship of equals. True love cannot exist when one person is set higher than the other and their value lies in objectification. (Men and women can both end up on the pedestal, but it is more common for women.)

The fantasy version of this trope is the prince or rich man who comes to carry the girl off. She is safeguarded, protected from the world, and her needs provided for. The best a young woman can hope for in a world where she cannot chart her own destiny. For all the perks that arrive with the pedestal, the trade off is power and freedom. It is easier to let others make the decisions for you, but the trade off is reduction into an object. The one who sets another on a pedestal doesn’t truly love them, they love the statue. Silent, voiceless, existing solely serve the whims of others and be admired. Safe, perhaps, but without control.

When you’ve got a male or female character talking about how beautiful someone is and never mentioning who they are and what they do, you’re halfway to the pedestal. Oh, those looks may be the first indicator of attraction (or not), but if the relationship never moves beyond it and if one character begins making all the decisions for the other then we’ll end up barrelling toward that pedestal.

Real love is mutual respect and partnership, it is a relationship of equals. The pair are a unit, keeping their own opinions but working together to become more than the sum of their parts. The relationship is built on a foundation of trust and good communication, rather than insecurity and jealousy.  They won’t be perfect. There may be drama, but the drama is built on real, external issues or internal issues and not the perception of wandering eyes. They work together to solve the problems with come up, and grow stronger as a result. They know they are loved. If a girl or boy starts flirting with their significant other, the answer is not going to be a jealous rage. They’re going to look at their SO, wryly raise their brow, and go, “really?”

Believe it or not, when someone tries to break up a solid, healthy relationship the member that’s being hit on goes home and tells their SO about it. They don’t hide it, or if they do they eventually fess up and the fact they didn’t say anything is the source of the drama rather than the person hitting on them. Trust is allowing another to make decisions for themselves, and decide their own feelings. Protecting someone from the truth, even with the best intentions, isn’t a love of equals. Jealousy is the result of insecurity. It is often an early warning sign of trust issues, healthy relationships work those kinks out through communication. Respect is based in honesty. It does take courage to be honest, to give up control. If you’ve got a character who can’t give up the idea they don’t control how their partner feels or is trying to control them, then the relationship isn’t healthy.

The healthy version of the “dangerous” rich boy and the smart girl is taking a trope card out of Pride and Prejudice to run with called, “Challenged to Change.” (Encouraged to Change is more appropriate, no one is making ultimatums.) This is the card where two people bring their personal flaws and foibles to the table and their experiences with each other open up the opportunities for them to grow. Their joint character development occurs as a direct result of their interactions or relationship, allowing them to see themselves, their surroundings, and their potential in new ways. The most groundbreaking conclusions occur as self-discovery, they realize their behavior needs to change. They then take the steps to do so, often independent of their romantic partner. Or, with them, not out of fear of losing them but because they want to be better. They learn to communicate, they listen, and they compromise.

They may fight, but the fighting is key to character development. They go away in a huff, they reflect, they come to new realizations, and ultimately they change their behavior (with no promise of reward). They see themselves through new eyes, with new perspectives, and understand why what they did was wrong. They apologize. They don’t change for the other person in order to please them.

Remember, Mr. Darcy’s most groundbreaking character development happens when he is absolutely certain that Elizabeth has rejected him. He doesn’t help her family in the final act out of any desire to win her over, in fact he doesn’t want her or anyone in her family to know. He helps them because he loves her, he sees the damage done by Wickham to the Bennet family, and recognizes his culpability in allowing this event to occur. He shoulders the burden and the expense, in part because he cares for Elizabeth, but mostly because Wickham is his responsibility. Elizabeth’s rejection of him caused a realization of his behavior (which according to social traditions of Victorian England should not have happened), and encouraged him to change as a result. He didn’t just change toward her or her family, his behavior changed toward everyone. He got mad, yes, but he realized she was right. Upon reflection, she realized he was right about her family too.

It doesn’t need to be as drastic as Pride and Prejudice or start in dislike, the part where they encourage each other to change, act as catalysts to character growth, and pursue their dreams is what’s most important. The balancing of power dynamics so they learn to approach one another as equals, with valuable opinions, and respect each other is key to developing a healthy relationship in your fiction. The process where they come to this realization as they fall in love is your story.

Don’t be frightened of cliches, every relationship can be a healthy relationship or an unhealthy one. The narrative is defined how you explore the romance between these two, whether you paint in specifics or broad strokes. Do you follow the formula? Or do you carve out your own unique path based on your characters’ personalities?

At this point, perhaps, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may seem cliche. However, what is so enduring about her novels is their challenge to Victorian social structure and defiance of those expectations. Her heroines are struggling against the realities of the world they live in, trying to decide their futures beyond just their future happiness. Marriage for love was a revolutionary idea in Victorian England, a privilege accorded only to the very rich and sometimes not even then. For Elizabeth to refuse marriage to someone like Mr. Collins is, in itself, revolutionary considering her social situation. Refusing Darcy on his first offer is mind blowing, marrying him would secure both her and her family’s future.  The idea she said no out of a desire to pursue her own happiness was, for her time and for a woman in her financial situation, revolutionary.

Similar problems exist now, today. They are different, in their way, but taking into account the social requirements, expectations, the family members, and friendships surrounding your characters will help you path the external challenges as well as the internal ones between them.

What is it about this boy that attracts this girl? Why is the relationship a stupid choice? (Is it?)

What is it about this girl that attracts this boy?

Why is he considered dangerous? And by whom? Who is he dangerous to? Her? Girls like her? How did he come by this reputation? What are the rumors surrounding him?

What are the social circumstances surrounding him? His relationship with his parents? His family? His friends? What responsibilities does he have? Or will be expected to have? What is the danger in pursuing a relationship with her? What is it about this relationship that might disrupt his future prospects or his family’s plans for him?

What are the social circumstances surrounding her? Her relationship with her parents? Her family? What responsibilities does she have? Or will be expected to have? What is the danger in pursuing a relationship with him? What about him might disrupt those future prospects?

These characters are going to have flaws, foibles, backgrounds, and possibly morals which will cause them to conflict. Working through those conflicts is part of their relationship developing.

Let me tell you, I hated Starke when I first met him. I did not like him at all. He was this really annoying guy in my American Film class, who always asked questions that distracted the whole lecture. After every question it took forever to get our professor back on point. Those segues were interesting but after they happened five times in a single class, it got super annoying. Sometimes, we didn’t even get to finish the whole lecture. Every time I heard his voice, I wanted to smack him. (Not the cute kind of ‘attracted to him’ either. No, it was “not this guy again.” I just wanted to hit him.) Then, one night, we got paired up in a group to talk about the film we just watched. Then, we started debating the film. (It was 8pm.) After class finished we went out to my car, continuing to talk about the film, and ended up standing by my car talking about it until 1am. After the first night, this became a routine. We started hanging out together more and more. We talked about all sorts of things, and I discovered he was a very interesting person to talk to. Eventually (a year later), we started dating. And that is one (small) part of the story behind why this blog exists.

The moral of this story is relationships start for all kinds of weird reasons and they’re not always convenient, which is why we roll with them instead of constantly trying to justify their existence. Anything can be the catalyst, what happens after is where the story is.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Amnesia is Autopilot

Hey! Are individual fighting styles recognizable? I’ve got a character who is a master with the glaive and before the story she has an encounter with another character who sees her fight. Neither recognize each other when they meet up again because he couldn’t see her face due to her armor and she lost her memory. However I don’t know how common the glaive was during its use or how recognizable an individual’s fighting style is so is it possible that he might recognize her by watching her fight?

Style requires there be more than one version of the weapon discipline. This is likely. Mastery requires an individual style that has been practiced long enough that it has been formally recognized by whichever group is the decider, and has taken on students or linked to a martial school or the single individual who created it. So, you wouldn’t have a “master of the glaive” but instead a “master of the Black Rose style, specializing in the glaive, recognized by the Seven Sisters.”  Unless the whole style itself revolved singularly around the glaive and even then it’s, “trained in Master Ferro’s glaive style.” or “the western reaches glaive style” or “farmhand glaive” or whatever. Beyond that “glaive” is just one term for the weapon and weapon family, there are others. It could be called something completely different in a different country. The naginata, for example, is a glaive. The Russians called it a sovnya. Usage of the weapon varied based on country and culture with a variety of styles surrounding its use. The most unrealistic thing in Protector of the Small series regarding Kel’s glaive/naginata is that the contemporary European Tortall didn’t have an easily recognizable version of its own.

It’s possible to identify what style a person has been trained in, but less likely to identify the individual unless they’re famous or practice a unique style. If the onlooker is familiar with the style or the style is incredibly unique as in its passed on specifically from master to apprentice and only two people in the world know it. That would require your female character killed her master as a graduation test, like Kenshin was supposed to when he finally completed the Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. That or the weapon just doesn’t exist in the part of the world where she’s traveling or uses a style wholly alien. Even then, the other character would have to know the singular individual who practices it and, like with Himura Kenshin, that opens her up to being recognized by everyone. Even if she is the progenitor of her own style like Bruce Lee and has taught it to others, she won’t be recognized on style alone due to being an amnesiac. That’s a severe hit to skill level, and she won’t be anywhere near at the level she’d need to be in order to be recognized as a famous warrior or master. (That is the point of an amnesia plot.)

The people who can identify a personal style are:

Your Master. (This is the person who raised you, they are your martial art parent. They know you, possibly better than your own parents do and they’ll recognize you anywhere.)

Your Training Partners. (This is not trained with them once, this is trained with them for years, as good as family, and are sworn brothers. People the character has spent a lot of time fighting with.)

Your Students. (Like with a master, students can recognize their teacher. Like a child recognizes their parent. They spend a lot of time watching them.)

Your Sworn Enemies. (These are the people you’ve spent a lot of time fighting. If someone spends a lot of time trying to kill you and you trying to kill them, they can usually recognize the threat at a distance without help.)

So, unless this other character is one of the above, him recognizing her by watching her fight is unlikely. He’d need to be someone who saw her when she wasn’t at her best, when she struggled in the beginning, or what she looks like when she’s either at her worst or on a bad day. If his only experience is he saw her once at a tournament or on the battlefield in passing then he’s not going to associate the current article with the distant memory. He’d be more likely to recognize her by fighting her, if he’s fought her in the past. The likeliest outcome is he’d recognize her as a talented beginner or at an intermediate level who is worth training further, which leads him to seek her out. That, or, they share the same style and had the same trainer so he feels comfortable going to talk to her. This outcome requires their civilization have some sort of training and patronage system.

I’d abandon the idea she still fights as well as she used to, and roll reacquiring of her skills into her character arc. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same problem lots of writers run into when they make a character too good. If the character doesn’t struggle, the fight sequences suffer and lose their tension. If you apply the term “master” to a character they will be expected to win. Tension is challenge based.

A character who is at pinnacle skill level must fight characters at a similar or greater skill level while taking into account all that skill and experience implies. With hyper competent characters, we get more out of challenging them where their skills are lacking like Geralt from The Witcher dealing with politicians or solving puzzles where violence is the worst possible choice. This is why you should always be careful when metering out between beginner, intermediate, skilled, very skilled, and exceptional. The trade off for characters at the top of their game is they’re limited. There’s less about them to make them interesting, and new growth is required outside their attained skill set. Unless amnesia sends them back to start and they’re regaining skills faster than they can handle, it won’t be enough to change that.

Most of what makes a style unique to an individual happens cognitively in the choices they make and the skills they choose to utilize rather than what’s based in their muscle memory. A character fighting on autopilot (which is what’s happening here) is going to be very different from a character who is actively making choices based on past experiences and prior knowledge. Unless she’s working with Jason Bourne type amnesia (and even if she is), the amnesiac character is going to be missing key pieces that bring her style up to a master’s level. (I’d also rethink mastery if she’s anywhere under thirty-five, especially if you’ve never spent time around martial arts masters.)

A martial arts master is not a character who is very good, exceptional, or at the top of their martial art.  You can be all those things and not be a master of a particular style. Mastery is, ironically, not skill level. Technical skill is one part of it, the other half is esoteric and very difficult to explain. Mastery is more than just the all-encompassing technical understanding. It is all-encompassing understanding. You’re unlikely to find one under the age of forty, even if they’ve attained the belt rank because it is a state of being that requires enlightenment born from personal experiences. That enlightenment is developed through rigorous training and difficult tests of character.

More than that, one cannot be a master if they have not taken on students even if it is just a single disciple. A master is not just someone who is at the top, they are the head of and entrusted with carrying on the traditions of their particular style. Their time on the battlefield is, for the most part, done, and they have retired to instruct the next generation. Only the most extreme threats will force a master out of hiding because they don’t have the patience for that crap. Teaching others is required. Sifu, Sensei, Sabumnim all are just terms for teacher. It’s like calling your professor a professor. They teach. That’s their job.

In literary terms, a master is a mentor. They serve the same purpose in fiction that they do in real life. They’re there to facilitate the growth of the next generation and guide them on their path to becoming masters themselves. They are parent, teacher, and spiritual advisor. Unless you know how to work with them and the tropes surrounding them, they will kill your narrative even as an amnesiac. There is nowhere for them to go as characters within conventional arcs. A master’s character development and narrative arcs are entirely spiritual. Their best use comes from the teacher/student dynamic like the kind seen in The Karate Kid. Or as a character struggling to reach that state. They are one of the most difficult character types to write, especially if you have no prior experience. They are impossible to write if you lack an understanding of the martial style they practice. If they’re not your protagonist, you can fudge it like with Yoda or Master Li or any number of other quasi-masters seen in fiction. If the master is your protagonist then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, all the time and in every scene. Even then, their job will still be facilitating the growth of the characters who surround them rather than growing themselves.

Without their memory, this character is no longer a master and if they never took on the responsibility of training others then they aren’t one anyway. Renown for their skill at arms and a master are two very separate characters, and it is best not to get them confused. For example, Inigo Montoya is not a master swordsman. Goku, Kenshin Himura, Yuusuke Urameshi, and other shounen characters of similar power are also not masters. Meanwhile, Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi are both Jedi Masters.  They’ve reached a point where they’ve taken on students, and while they may still have adventures those adventures still revolve around their position as teacher. We have the some of surviving training manuals of some the master swordsmen who came out of Europe, and they had students. You can find them on Wikitenauer.

“Master” sounds good, but you’re going to want a full understanding of what the term means before you apply it.  The terminology has a long history of use in fiction, especially now as we’re getting more media from China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Your readers are going to know what it means in concept, even if that wasn’t what you intended. So, you want to be sure of what you want from your character before you start applying it.

A master is literally one of the worst characters to have as a protagonist, unless you know the story you want and their purpose fits with those needs. They’re like an admiral. If you want to write a story around an admiral being an admiral, then that’s great. However, the admiral cannot just take off for parts unknown or lead a battlefield charge. Well, they can but there’s going to be fallout for that failure of leadership. They’ve reached a point where they can delegate and they’re far better at facilitating growth in others than they are at being the main event. Masters are perfect for telling stories about teachers, a teacher struggling with their inner demons as they grow in a new skill set.

In martial arts, teacher is the next step on the road to mastery. Teaching is a method of self-discovery and gaining greater understanding of your martial art. In teaching others, we attain a greater technical understanding of our skills than we did before. We approach our old skills in a new way and with new eyes, learning from our students as they learn from us.

“Those who can’t do, teach” is a faulty statement. A good teacher may be less renown than singularly focused professionals but is often the most skilled person in the room. They’re the ones who can translate what they know into new contexts so they can be understood by beginners. When one focuses on themselves alone, they reach a skill ceiling they can’t break through and at which point they no longer grow. It is through reevaluation of those skills through new eyes that they discover new ways they can be applied. Martial artists often develop their best techniques through teaching. In the process, they build communities.

Think for a moment about all your favorite teachers and those you’ve loved in your life. What would happen if they suddenly vanished without explanation? How would you feel?

This character is a master of the glaive, so where are all the people who went looking for her after she disappeared? A master martial artist isn’t like a spy, they don’t usually travel alone and even when they do someone is going to go looking for them when they disappear. The amnesiac martial arts master is a trope in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, but by the time we reach the third act (or even the second) their students have come barreling in and found them. If it wasn’t one of their disciples who located them to begin. “Master went missing (again), we need to find them” is an actual narrative arc. This is also, usually, kickstarts a traditional master/student narrative with whomever takes the roving amnesiac in hand and helps them recover their memory.

A character who is an amnesiac takes an extreme hit to their skills, so this character is not going to be fighting on the level she was before if she can at all. Autopilot is still autopilot, and autopilot will screw you over against anyone who knows what they’re doing. It is entirely likely she will have an entirely different style, if she can fight at all. Muscle memory is one part of the equation, experience and the knowledge necessary to use learned skills is another. She won’t be able to strategize, for instance, or have any tactical awareness. Her pattern recognition will probably be shot, which means that while she can block and counter she’ll be reacting instead of acting. Reaction may be good, but she’ll be at the whim of a more experienced actor. In a tournament setup, she’s going to end up middling at best and low tier at worst. She’ll make most of the same mistakes beginners will, but she’ll have the skills to get herself into deeper trouble and lack the necessary experience to get herself out.

High level martial skill is experience, not technique. Being good at dueling is based in experience, understanding how to react and counter is experience. Decision making is experience, as is understanding the full range of techniques available. Your female character’s technique may look fantastic due to her muscle memory and her reaction time may be flawless, but understanding feints and tactics requires a level of experience she either no longer possesses or what she’s gained in new experience up to this point. Those new experiences will have changed the look and feel of her martial style, as she is ultimately a new person. This character is in the process of uncovering and rediscovering her skill set, but she cannot and may never use them the same way she used to. It’s pretty common that when some of that experience goes, it is gone forever.

Outside of that, she’ll still need to practice those skills she can remember on the regular to keep them up to snuff. Failing at either, she’ll fall behind. This means she’s likely working off a limited number of techniques rather than the full scope  she previously possessed. If she has been trained by someone else, it will likely be in another style using the glaive and that will change her style as a result. If all she’s done up to this point is rely on her own muscle memory to provide her techniques, then she’ll only have control over those she’s remembered and practiced. The new ones she remembers in battle will occur on autopilot. Autopilot is outside her control, and that is exceedingly dangerous both to herself and whomever she’s fighting. This means she could kill someone in a friendly bout or end up using a controlling technique when she needs to kill. Blind technique is blind technique, the body moves according to its own will. Trained reflex is the same as instinct, it cares nothing for situation or circumstance. Her body will act in accordance with what its been trained to do with no guiding input from the head. The head is where the morals and contextual understanding are, the head understands the importance of limitation and behavioral changes depending on circumstance. The body doesn’t. Use of force is cognitive. The body just responds, and what it responds with will be what it is most used to using. These are usually the basics, and while basics are foundational, most people from beginner to intermediary levels understand how to counter them. Advanced fighters know how to take advantage of them. Advanced combat happens entirely with the head, utilizing controlling and changing circumstances.

(This is a common thread in the martial artist amnesia plot, the amnesiac formerly skilled martial artist can fight off the untrained and beginners by rote muscle memory.  They struggle against the intermediary usually to the point where they either lose or almost lose, and are demolished by advanced combatants. This is often before they hit their final antagonist, which prompts them to realize they need to train and meditate to recover themselves. Then, their past catches up with them.)

Limited experience with specific weapon types will probably mean her body doesn’t know how to react to them at all, because it didn’t have enough time to get them down by rote. That is what her muscle memory is. Rote. The techniques she didn’t regularly practice will be gone, the techniques she used but rarely will return later to last, and her ability to change her fighting style depending on situation is entirely beyond her control and entirely reliant on what her body remembers how to do. This isn’t a magic switch.

If she recalls some of the experience with the technique in fragments of memory, then she’ll inevitably create openings. An experienced fighter will take advantage of those. It may happen in a fraction of a second, but that fraction is the difference between a block and a killing blow.

This other character may look at her and see something in her style reminiscent to someone he once knew, but the level is so below what it once was that he dismisses it. Maybe he seeks her out wondering if she’s a student of a friend or copying a style she saw in passing, only to discover she’s the master and an amnesiac but that would require her having a school with students. The same would apply if he was impressed by her talent, but working under the assumption she needed more training.

Skill without knowledge or experience necessary to use it is a recipe for disaster.  An amnesiac has to learn all over again, and what they re-learn will never be exactly what it was before. The shades of the other self are there, the muscle memory is there, the skills are there in part, but they aren’t the same person in total and they can’t be used to the same degree of finesse. The technical aptitude is missing. There is a vast difference between being able to recall or copy a sonnet you wrote versus being able to compose one that is entirely new.

Basically, if you’ve got one character going through the motions and the other character looking at them but to recognize them they’d need to be going full throttle.

The solution is probably going to be he seeks her out on the basis of her talent, only to be surprised to discover she’s the master he planned to send her to and now in need of his help. (Not that she wins, she may lose and probably should but that this mystery warrior is talented enough to warrant the offer of training.) He’s more likely to overlook her if she’s exceptional. The middling to intermediate are the ones who get sought out at tournaments by more skilled instructors. There’s not much reason for a skilled warrior to seek out a skilled warrior if they weren’t planning to in the beginning, they’re more likely to ask around about the mystery person.

Tournament social groups break down by skill level, previous experience, and likelihood of consistent attendance. New people usually keep to themselves or are introduced to a group by more experienced attendees, while those who frequent the circuit gather together. There are the social butterflies who hang with each other until they’re called and watch the matches. The ones who linger alone on the sidelines, watching. The serious ones won’t spend time with anyone else, who limber up and practice alone. To immediately get attention from a stranger at your skill level, you need to be exceptional. One punch or single hit exceptional, and over in less than five seconds. Otherwise its slowburn.

She’s probably been killing a lot of people just off rote muscle memory. It’s going to be worse in a tournament where similarly skilled martial combatants will be in attendance and quite likely more familiar with dueling than she is or was in her previous life. (Master doesn’t mean master of everything or can handle everything.) If she’s not knocked out early, the end likelihood is her killing another participant entirely by accident after they’ve pushed her body past the limit of what its comfortable with and it begins responding outside her control. Again, muscle memory does not mean your body will do your fighting for you. It isn’t an out to give your characters high skill levels when you the author doesn’t know what those skills mean or how they appear. Reflexes and muscle memory mean the body will do what they’ve been trained to do regardless of circumstance and if the head doesn’t know what that is then the head can’t control it.

Basically, an amnesiac participating in a tournament in order to quickly regain their skills sounds like a great idea but the problem is the character is not in control of what’s going to happen. This happened in The Bourne Identity, Bourne wakes up with no memory, is attacked, and then kills his attackers. This may have been for the best, but he had no control over what he did or how he did it and it took him awhile to recall how to do the same thing intentionally. The Long Kiss Goodnight is another good one, but she’s still fighting mostly on memory and her memory is getting mixed up with her cover identity.

Amnesia with combat skills is rolling the dice. You don’t know what will set them off or what’s going to happen when they do. They could disarm the guy, they could crush his throat. Amnesia with weapon is the fast track to accidental death and dismemberment. There’s a lot more at stake and many more opportunities for the situation to go wrong. The basic attack patterns and combinations are going to revolve around killing. That’s the purpose a weapon like the glaive. Meanwhile, they have no ability to defend themselves while fighting on autopilot and completely cede control of the field to someone else because again, how their body behaves is outside their control. The most skilled character fighting on autopilot will end up at the mercy of any character marginally able to hold their own and function on all cylinders. Advanced skills and their application are beyond what muscle memory can provide. They can retrain but they will never fight the exact same way they did before they lost their memory, and, unless they are very lucky, will never be the same person.

New people make new choices and therefore fight in new ways, and the person is the one who creates stylistic identifiers. The act of recovering her fighting ability will change her fighting style in minute ways, enough to ensure its no longer personally identifiable.

-Michi

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PSA: Plagiarism

I’ll be honest, I really do not want to be writing this. However, it apparently needs to be said:

If you’re going to send us examples of your work, don’t plagiarize the first line.

Really, don’t plagiarize content at all. Just, don’t.

This time, we caught it. It was the first line, and it left me sitting there thinking, “wait a second, I’ve read this before.” That is the best possible outcome. Someone caught it early, and put a boot in it, before it got off the rails.

The worst possible outcome is, no one catches it before publication. At that point, someone will catch it. At that point, it will end your career. Don’t get caught plagiarizing, and the safest way to ensure you don’t get caught is to not do it in the first place.

I do understand. Writers are, by nature, intellectually omnivorous. We read some weird and obscure stuff sometimes. Pick up the pieces on the way through, and wander out the other side with a lot of ideas that we’ve spliced together along the way.

Nothing is created in a vacuum. You’ll encounter ideas, and concepts that inspire you. You’ll see a story hook and thing, “but, what if…” That’s fine. That’s being a writer. Sometimes it’s simply saying, “hey, I found a thing that speaks to me, go, read it, check it out.” There are ways you can incorporate that into your own work. In a phrase you’ve probably heard before, write it, “in your words.”

When you see the cliche that, “great artists steal,” that is what we’re talking about. The ability to pick up something, absorb it, and turn out your understanding of it on the other end.

It is not intentionally taking something you read somewhere else and regurgitating it onto the page without fully comprehending the context. Tell us what you’ve seen, give us your version.

I’m sure the author who provoked this post thought they’d found something obscure, that spoke to them on a deep and profound level. Problem is, the text in question is instantly recognizable in its genre.

-Starke

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One versus Group: Writing that Wuxia Action Scene

Having spent some time watching the pilot episode of AMC’s Into the Badlands with Daniel Wu, I was inspired to talk about writing the one vs group scenario. We’ve talked about the realistic side of the individual versus group combat in the past, and how difficult it is to pull off in real life. However, I’m sure most of you dream of writing your own action heroes someday (if not right now) and the hallmark of the action hero that sells them hardest is not the end fight. It’s how well they handle the group.

Group combat is difficult, both on the real world side and creation side. The logic of the 1vX scenario is that facing the multiple grunts is too difficult for the standard combatant to handle. Only “one of the best” can do it. Thus, it puts those combatants who can in a league of their own.

On the creation side, the 1vX is also one of the most entertaining types of fight scenes. It’s fast paced, visually rich, and designed to showcase a character’s skills. They are never, and should never be, one size fits all. After all, in a fictional context, the purpose of these fights are expository. They’re there to inform you of who the character is, very quickly, in a very perfunctory show vs tell. A choreographer or writer who can put together an entertaining 1vX fight scene will sell their character’s creativity, ingenuity, and skills to the audience without them ever realizing that’s what was happening. Even if all the character does is run away, we learn a lot from how they choose to handle groups.

In a martial arts movie, these sequences are used for bonding the audience and the protagonist. They do this more quickly than any other fight scene type. While also pulling the double duty of elevating the villain and their skill level as we wind our way toward the final fight.

Action cinema like all other media has coded tropes that communicate information to you without ever saying it. The group fight in an action movie, especially a finely paced one, is essential for selling a master combatant to the audience.

In film, the 1vX is a common standard for action heroes, and I’ve seen novels where the author has attempted to imitate it. Some have success and others not so much. Success generally depends on understanding the tropes they’re trying to imitate, both how combat works and how the narrative of the fight presents the character to the audience.

This is why learning both sides of the martial arts world, from practical to performance, is necessary for building your narrative. While understanding how a group fight functions in reality is essential, storytelling is built on easily communicable tropes. Every culture has assigned flags that indicate who a character is and their purpose to the story, and those change over time. With film, it can be a myriad of visual items and one of the big ones is color. When written, it can be character actions, objects, clothing, anything really. So inured are we that, most of the time, when we’re consuming we don’t even notice they’re there and in the beginning when we’re writing we don’t even notice we’re making the same choices. These tropes are easier to recognize in the media of other cultures but, at the same time, when we don’t know their purpose we miss them entirely.

In a real world sense, fighting a group is about time, how much you have and how much you lose, where the enemies are, and how to balance them. This translates to the screen and into the language of the scene.

See, kung fu action movie group fights are not about trading blows as much as they are about tempo.

Yes, tempo.

Like a properly choreographed dance sequence, it’s rhythm.

You want a kung fu style action sequence in your novel, you’ve got to find a way to translate the rhythm into text. And where is the rhythm, you may wonder? It’s in the exchange of blows. In the thrust, and block, and kick, and fall. In the loosening and tightening of muscles, in inhale and the exhale. Do you hear it?

There’s a drumbeat in your character’s soul.

Traditional martial arts counts beats by breath, on the inhale and the exhale. The inhale marks the beginning of the movement, and the exhale is on the end. The inhale before and the exhale on the strike, when all the muscles tighten up, then you move again. You can count your strikes by number, on the breath, like in dance. One, two, three, and kiap.

Hear it.

That’s the sound of a combination.

Block, punch, and grab. Pause to sweep the ankle. Yank their hand to your waist. Against their will, they slide on; shoulder to hip. And you turn into the throw.

Your opponent flies into their incoming fellow.

Kick backwards as the enemy rushes in behind, hear them stumble, and spin to face them. Roundhouse to the head, pause, give the audience a moment to breathe then… Twist sideways as your next opponent lunges in, the blade passes your waist. Seize the wrist, step back, and yank them with you. Free hand to their elbow, thrust into joint break.

Elbow crunches. Appropriate scream follows.

Kick them away.

Remaining opponents have paused from fear. One clutches his busted arm, fingers coated in blood. Another helps the fallen to his feet.

Face them, and smile. Gesture ‘come’ with fingers.

Say, “Let’s go.”

You count the pieces of the technique, on the inhale and the exhale, and break them apart to create that tempo. Notice, the action comes from all sides. Often, from the direction the camera wasn’t pointed so you get the moment of, “oh crap!”

Now, it’s important to remember there’s a stunt actor que. There was one in the piece above. You notice it best in the terrible movies and shows, where you see them line up one at a time and wait their turn. A scene with a truly skilled performer and choreographer is such you won’t even notice the que because the action is happening so quickly it feels simultaneous.

If your character has a goal that involves protecting someone else from muggers, it’s important to remember that the muggers or whoever won’t all turn to fight when they leap in. When you have a good scene, this is an important source of tension for your hero. It gives them a reason to clear through the mob, forces the audience to focus on the necessity of speed, and a point to work towards. It also lets you do humorous things like throw one enemy your character is fighting into the other when they get too close to the protectee or stuck dragging them backwards. (This is also why you should never fight around an official protectee.)

Your characters aren’t puppets hanging still on their strings, they’re moving even when you’re not focusing on them. This is important because it lets you have moments of surprise in the scene. Like the character being seized from behind, or someone screaming as they’re about to be killed and the character has disengage, kick someone into a wall, and leap the other direction. They don’t have time to finish them forever, you see.

You build up your beats, mixing them all in together.

Your character gets thrown across the bar. (Beat.) Lands hard. (Beat). Rolls top over end. (Beat.) Notices a bottle of whiskey in hardened glass (like Jack Daniel’s. In a funny scene, they maybe take a drink. Also, that’s two beats.) Up they come (beat), crack their attacker across the face. (Beat).  Back over the bar. (Beat.) With a kick. (Beat.) Swing their club. (Beat. Beat.) Think they’re done, turn to yell at a friend still fighting, get clocked across the back of the head. Stumble, turn, and off we go again.

Then there’s the myriad of little beats in between the actions. Count every fall, every hit, every roll. The length of your sentences changes the rhythm. You’ve got to count. the time. it takes. to finish your scene. Fast, fast, slow, fast. One (breathe), two (chamber), three (strike), four (recoil), five (reset). When you get faster, they combine together into one, two, three. Remember, slow is for exhaustion, injuries, recovery, and long actions. Fast is for the quick hits.

Slow gives the audience time to refresh, catch up, time to breathe, just like the character. When the scene is unbalanced, it overwhelms. You’ve got to give your audience time to follow the action. That means breathers. Those breathers can come at any point, they’re where the action slows before rolling back into the rush.

Commonly, these are in the injuries, the received hits by the primary character. In group fights, they happen when a character is knocked from the fight (whether permanently or temporarily), they happen when the character runs, dodges into another room, or moves to a new scene location, does a slow transition between combat partners, or gets a moment where they fight one on one instead of in a rush of multiples.

There should always be a moment in the middle where you’re character is ducking and dodging being attacked from multiple sides all at the same time. This is going to be a challenge, especially if you are a neophyte and know nothing about either combat or action. It’s difficult enough to imagine one fight, but controlling a battlefield, moving between your dance partners, and fighting from all four sides is not how most of us are trained to think.

Unless we’ve practiced martial arts.

This is part of what katas are for, you know.

And choreography? It’s just a kata. There’s the kicker in it all. Understanding martial arts, traditional martial arts, is what’s most important to grasping the magic behind a wuxia style action scene. It’s performance martial arts. It’s all martial arts, at its best and worst. It isn’t what you want to be dealing with in real life, and that knowledge is precisely why these characters are held up as supremely skilled in their narratives.

So, how do you translate a visual medium into a written one?

When it comes to the page, the length of your sentences dictates the amount of time each technique takes. The longer the sentence, the longer it takes to read and absorb then the more time the action takes in the reader’s mind. You control the time it takes with your words, with the form of the paragraph, with the rhythm of language.

Punctuation exists to punctuate. Cut unnecessary words. Learn to be specific. Pinpoint. Figure out which techniques take more time, more energy, and budget techniques for those moments. Standing is quick, grapple is slow, and ground wastes time. It costs time to get up again. The time you took writing your character running over a wall to avoid a hit is the time it took for an enemy to kill their protectee.

What?

Yes, simultaneous action is happening that the reader doesn’t see. That’s the sleight of hand. As the writer, you control the amount of time your character has, but janking that time around screws with the audience and the character. Thus, we up both tension and tempo.

Time, baby. It’s all about time.

Where are you losing sentences? When is an action unnecessary? What is distracting from your action? Is that distraction what you want? Sometimes, it can be helpful.

When you’re writing action the time it takes for you to write a character did a thing is the amount of time it takes to do the thing. Sometimes, long sentences are good. Remember, those moments you take to describing scene or setting changes as the fight moves can act as breathers. As can the moments it takes for the fighter to reassess. Too much action too quickly is mentally exhausting for the reader. Difficult sentences are harder to follow, long sentences give you that moment to relax the mind. Knowing that, at a more advanced level, you can pace them to experience what your character is experiencing in the structure.

So, there is no one size fits all.

The only usual rule is that wilder, less trained combatants are more uncontrolled, more sloppy, more loosey goosey. The more crisp and controlled a fighter is, the more mechanical they are, then the better they are. The untrained fighter and noncombatant fights can be just as fun to write as the upper echelon, they’re also easier.

“I’m unpredictable.”

“I’ve predicted the unpredictable before, kid.”

If you’ve heard that one before, take a drink.

The less a character knows, than the less skill you need to fake. The more advanced they are, then the higher the limit. A character isn’t good just because you say they are, they need to prove it. So, that’s all up to you. The good news is that while good action is hard to come by, bad action is so prevalent that general audiences can’t tell it’s not bacon.

When writing action sequences, choreography is what you want. Learn to fake so well it becomes a kind of reality inside your story. So you never disrupt your audience’s suspension of disbelief, so the more they know the more willing they are to suspend it.

This is where action movies and wuxia films are important, the more you consume, the more you think critically, the more you try to understand what is at play then the better you will get. You’re not looking at them for realism, you’re looking at them for entertainment and how to transfer those techniques onto the page.

The good news for you: you don’t need wires. You just need imagination.

-Michi

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Q&A: Character Motivations

Do you have any advice on subtly guiding readers to villainize a character so that they dismiss the character’s legitimate concerns over another person’s trustworthiness? I am hoping the perceived personalities will help, but I don’t want to rely on them alone.

Well, you hit on the answer: Make the concerns legitimate.
Not just the concerns you want to discredit, but also the reasons your other
characters have to discount their observations.

When you’re writing it can be very easy to get tunnel vision
and view the world through the lens of your protagonist. Your audience will
gleefully follow that cue in turn. It’s part of why there are a lot of novels
with the protagonist acting in egregious ways, but fans will (and do) disregard
it, because the protagonist thinks that behavior’s fine.

This is how characters like Harry Potter function. The
character operates from a limited perspective of the world, makes snap judgments
based on their perspective, and as a result, devalues legitimate advice and
insights from people who know what they’re talking about. I’ll stress, there’s nothing wrong with a character having
this kind of an approach, so long as the author understands that this is a flaw.

There is nothing
wrong with having a character say, “yeah, but that’s just Steve, and we all
know what an idiot he is.” So long as you remember, as the author, that Steve
may have a point, and licking that light socket was probably not a great idea.

So, let’s step back for a second and start over: As the
author, you control the game board. That’s your job. You set up the characters,
the arena they operate in, and direct them. You know that the sky is going to
fall in six minutes, and that poking the toad over there is a spectacularly bad
idea. But, your characters don’t.

In a story told from the position of one character, you’re
presenting the narrative from a limited perspective. You need to understand the
entire situation, but your character doesn’t, and shouldn’t. They see and react
to the information they have access to.

Now, the hard part, staying within this weird little
metaphor, every other character in
your story is another piece on the board. Looking at the information they have,
and acting accordingly. Everyone has their own goals, and perspective. Just
like your character, their perspective is limited. They may have more
information. They may have less. What they know shapes their opinions and
perspectives.

AND. THEY. REMEMBER.

The simple answer is to go back and ask how does your
protagonist feel about the character. If they like them, and have had positive
experiences in the past, they’re more likely to accept that character’s
viewpoint. If that character has betrayed them in the past, or worked against
them, then they’ll discount the value of their advice.

Past actions are incredibly important factors if you’re
dealing with characters who’ve changed loyalties. It’s entirely plausible your
protagonist would hold a grudge against a former foe, who’s switched sides and
is working with them now. Conversely, if the protagonist has had a change of
heart, then they’re more likely to face distrust and opposition among their new
allies.

Okay, so, maybe someone does know that the sky is going to
fall if you poke that toad. Maybe they didn’t make that information clear
because, “NO! AREYOUOUTOFYOURGODDAMNMIND!?
DON
TDOTHAT; THEFUCKINGSKYWILLFALL!” Maybe they’ve
cried wolf before. Maybe your protagonist thinks poking the toad is a key to immortality
and Steve just wants that for himself.

You’re correct, personality does matter. It affects prejudices,
and how we weight information. Some of this is subconscious, but it works. Consider
which you find more credible, some Rasputin looking homeless dude raving
about the end of the world, or a composed academic? Personality and
presentations matter, particularly during first impressions. Even if the
Rasputin looking fellow comes back, shaved, with the crazy toned down, they’ll
still be weighed against their previous iteration, by characters who originally
met them in that state.

Confirmation bias is another relevant factor. This is the
drive to actively seek out information that supports your understanding of the
world while actively discounting information that contradicts it. If your
protagonist really wants to believe that toad will give them immortality, they
may very well ignore the advice of people they respect, and normally agree
with, when they’re told it’s really an amphibious button to initiate the end
times.

The really important thing to walk away with is the idea
that you don’t need to vilify other characters’ positions. If your character
has a legitimate reason not to follow it, then that’s all you need. Trust your
audience make their own decisions on who they should be listening to.

-Starke

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Nine Steps for Training Techniques

So, we get a lot of training questions on this blog and, personally, they’re almost always hard to answer. Not only is training a very involved process, it’s also fairly difficult to break down even when you’ve been on both sides of the teacher/student relationship before. There is no set way to do it, and every technique varies in complexity. However, let me lay down the steps of learning a new technique.

Step One: Explanation

After warm ups, your instructor calls you over and gathers you together. They tell you what you’re going to be learning and, often, why you’ll be learning it. The “why” trends towards programs that focus on practical application (military or self-defense) or a simple basic explanation of what the technique is. Explanation is often coupled with demonstration.

The point is to get the intent behind the concept down.

Step Two: Demonstration

After they’ve finished, they’ll usually call on the assistant instructor or (depending on safety) a favored student from the audience. This student is usually one of the ones who have excelled in their training. The teacher is comfortable with them experiencing the technique firsthand without seeing it, and trusts them to follow instructions without questioning or putting up a fight.

Teacher then proceeds to demonstrate the technique. First, they show it fast and at full speed for effect. The student will rarely be able to follow fully, because they don’t know what they’re looking at. Then, they break the demonstration down step by step and run through it slowly so the students can follow while explaining each step in technical detail.

Then the teacher will perform the move again, so the student will get a better understanding and better conceptual idea.

You will always see the teacher demonstrate first before practicing yourself, even for very basic techniques like stances or footwork. Step by step demonstration, or call on a student who knows the technique to demonstrate before the class while they explain.

All combinations will be broken down step by step first before they’re brought together. A student will not learn the cross-step axe kick or slide front kick for example until they’ve learned the cross-step and the axe kick separately, and never will they begin with a partner unless the situation calls for it. (Exemptions being: grappling, chokeholds, joint locks, and others that require hands on for practice.)

Step Three: Step-By-Step Practice

Unless the technique (like some grappling or throws) specifically requires practice with a partner, this practice will be done without a partner. The student will begin performing the technique in its broken down form, step by step as their teacher calls out the number or name associated with each part.

For example, when you’re first learning to kick it’s often broken down like this: (from the beginning fighting stance) chamber, kick, recoil, plant. Each step pauses and holds, this serves a double purpose of not only teaching the student how the kick works but also building strength in their legs and allows them to work on their balance. Some kicks like the sidekick require a full foot rotation of 180 degrees on the stability leg that is simultaneous to the kick itself in order to remain balanced and to turn over their hips. Slow reduces strain on the muscles and limits chance of injury.

While the student might prefer to rush, the step by step practice is where they gain the fullest understanding of the technique and where they will come back to when they want to tweak or correct mistakes they’ve been making at full speed. It does a better job of building up their strength and flexibility due to forced full second holds, ensuring they are less likely to injure themselves when moving on to the next stage.

Step-by-step comes before you get to hit anything or swing in the direction of your partner. Sometimes, step-by-step can be the entire half hour practice.

Step Four: Put It Together, Slowly

What was practiced in pieces is now put together, and still usually performed in lines and on a count. The student practices the technique, sussing out the new problems that come from acting in a single smooth motion. The beginning stages are practiced slowly, and how fast a student grasps the technique will define how quickly they get to move on to the next stage.

Again, slow reduces the risk of injury and allows the student to get in tune with their body, finding out where in the technique they’re having trouble putting thought into action. They may understand the concept, but whether they’re body can follow is another question entirely.

Step Five: Put It Together, Quickly

Now that the student has gained understanding and can move with relatively less chance of hurting themselves, they get to go at full speed. Whee! Practice over, and over, and over again.

Step Six: Practice With A Partner, No Touching

Then, the students pair off and practice their new techniques together. This helps the student get a better grasp of distance between themselves and an opponent. The other student gets practice watching the techniques, memorizes the pattern, and grows more comfortable with fast moving objects coming near their face.

Step Seven: Hit the Pads

Hitting pads can come before partner practice. (And there are many different kinds. Big shields, handhelds, etc.) The point of pads is to allow the student to go full out without risking injury to themselves or someone else, they get a sense for what physical resistance and impact feels like so they can suss out the other problems they have with their technique or inside their own minds.

This is also where practicing with wood or other dummies comes in. You want to get around to punching or blocking hard objects, you’ve got to learn how to punch first.

Step Eight: Spar

A free spar is different from only being allowed to spar with specific techniques. There are many different kinds of sparring, all with different rules. The point of sparring is not just to simulate a real fight, but also to get the student used to the feel of physical resistance in a less tightly controlled environment. The point of sparring is practice.

Step Nine: Conditioning

I’m kidding, this isn’t a step. This is built in at every step. We’re taking a break. Time to… RUN WIND SPRINTS. Pushups. Situps! Burpees! Perform front stances around the track. Go jog it out. Come back, now when you’re body’s nearing exhaustion, to practice all over again.

Trust me, it’s harder when you’re tired.

Rinse lather repeat for every single technique in the character’s arsenal, and rinse, lather, repeat for when they practice them together as combinations.

Some Myths and Misunderstandings:

“Best In Class”: this is what that status earns you, by the way. You get more responsibility and taking a turn at being the test dummy getting thrown around the room. This is who the most popular kids in the dojo are, what their popularity gives them, and why they’re looked up to. If you just paused and imagined a couple characters squabbling over who sensei’s going to throw this week, congrats. That’s it.

I’ve been on both sides; the one who looked up at the school’s shining stars, and eventually became a star others younger than myself looked up to. A person whose skill they envied and who they wanted to be like. Status in a martial arts school isn’t like high school. Popularity is based on respect, and that’s decided by time, effort, and investment. Usually because you’re the “last man standing” i.e. still here after everyone else quit.

Often times, the most popular members of the school will be those out of reach. These are the older students who work as assistants for the instructor on the floor, or are seen practicing while waiting for their class to start. What draws attention to them is their enviable skill, and how easy they make advanced techniques look. I suppose we’ve all dreamed about beating up the seniors as freshman, and eventually came to realize how silly that was. If you want a rival for your character, this is the wrong place to look. You want a contemporary who is good but still at the same level they are.

Talented? Let’s Work You Harder: It doesn’t matter how talented a character is, they still have to go through the same steps as everyone else. They might move through them a little faster and get more frustrated with the process when their instructor takes them back to basics, but it’s worth knowing that the more talent one has then the more responsibility they will given both for their own training and that of others. There will also be higher expectations. Status is earned on the floor through the acquisition of skill, dedication, and effort. The one who persists and keeps at it will come out on top in the end. Talent offers a leg up on the competition, but it doesn’t secure victory.

My Master is Sadist: It is not uncommon to feel this way, though it’s usually only true in the same way as your well-intentioned gym teacher or coach. Physical exercise sucks all around. It’s messy, it’s sweaty, and at some point (no matter how good you are), you’re always going to feel like your arms are giving out. Huffing and puffing up and down the hill, freaking out about missing a step when climbing bleachers, etc. There are masters who are sadists, but this is not what they look like. We don’t attain skill or endurance through osmosis. The truth is our biggest barriers are in our minds and we often don’t know ourselves or our capabilities as well as we think we do.

Understanding Violence Makes One More Violent: Not in those who gain a real understanding of it, when you’ve proven your ability to yourself then you don’t need to with others. Demystifying violence is on the same level as demystifying sex, once you understand how it works it’s a lot less magical. The idea of punching out the high school bully is a lot less appealing when you know the consequences (and the bully is a lot less terrifying), just like waking up to an electronic baby squalling at one in the morning reminds us that safe sex might just be the best way to go.

-Michi

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Fight Write: On Hair Pulling

Where the head goes, the body follows.

This is one of the most important tenants of self-defense and it’s why every combatant, male or female, should keep their hair either short or bound to their heads in a braid that is so skin tight the fingers cannot seize it. The fighter who does not risks having the back of their head grabbed in the middle of combat by providing a decent, easily accessible grip for their opponent. Regardless of what television will tell you, the ponytail is not good enough.

The hair is a much easier target than attempting a headlock or grabbing behind the neck. Once an opponent has their target in their grasp and control of their head, they can take them almost anywhere they wish.

Your hair may be dead, but beneath the skin it is very much alive. Wrap your fingers in your own hair and pull, you’ll find it to be fairly painful, then, imagine the pull from the hands of someone who doesn’t care about your feelings or maybe your hair was pulled by someone when you were younger. It can hurt a great deal and pain has a way of locking us up when we are unprepared or it or when we haven’t been properly trained to deal with it.

It’s important to remember, no matter what folks say about hair pulling, that it is a real, acceptable, and commonly used tactic, especially against women. It will also work against men with hair long enough for a good grip. Honor has very little place in real world combat, remember that an advantage taken is an advantage gained and the only true imperative is survival.

Hair pulling is very common in fights among groups, such as in clubs, mobs, etc as a means of taking someone down. The best advice for when someone takes you or your character by the hair or by the head is to go with them, not politely, but in the same general direction by ramming sideways, forwards, or backwards in the direction of their grip and to keep going until they fall or are driven into a wall or another individual. This will keep you from being injured or having your hair yanked out, it will also save on the pain because it releases tension.