Tag Archives: creative reference

Seven Deadly Fight Scene Sins

Below, we’ve listed some common sins that can detract from enjoyment of a fight scene. As always, rules are made to be broken. It’s also worth understanding something, before you try though.

Why Are You Thinking? We Should Be Fighting!

When working on a fight scene, it’s best to write the sequence as it happens on the page. This way, the action is immediate and in the moment. A common mistake, though, is for the character to become distracted even when it’s just within their head. The author may insert thoughts, description, and even dialogue that slow or pad out the action. This can be very frustrating as it often can lead to the feeling that both the author and the character in question are not taking the fight seriously. After all, if the character does not believe they are in serious jeopardy then how can the reader?  

Commonly, this may happen during rewrites or if the author gets distracted with making sure everything is clear. However, it’s also an easy mistake to correct. So, just be sure to stay on point and when you read over your fight ask yourself: does this feel like it’s happening right now? If not, cut the fat.

Talking as a Free Action

Fights are like sprints, they are moments of extreme physical exertion that leave us breathless with little room for chit chat. Lengthy, chunky dialogue inserted as two characters pound away at each other is unfortunately as common as it is unrealistic. Whether it’s Chris Claremont’s Wolverine flying through the air as he delivers a paragraph of text or two characters mouthing off witty banter in the middle of a sword fight, talking while entertaining can quickly become the means by which a fight sequence devolves into the ridiculous. As we, the authors, are not experiencing the fight sequence as it happens, what the characters are physically experiencing can be easy to forget.

Here’s a solution that both Starke and I recommend: talk before and talk after. If your characters must talk during limit yourself to ten syllables. That is not ten syllables per character, that would be too much. Instead, limit yourself to ten syllables maximum for all your characters who are fighting. This way, you can easily count it out and you’ll know that the dialogue itself is serving it’s place in the scene without detracting from the sequence.

Five Minutes is a Long Time

As authors we have a tendency to exaggerate for effect and those of us who are inexperienced at a specific kind of physical exertion have a serious tendency to overestimate. For reference, five minutes is a long time. It is a devastatingly long time. The average street fight, by comparison, only lasts twenty five seconds. A fight can end in seven seconds. The maximum of movements that even an experienced combatant can make before simply failing due to overwhelming exertion is eight. The more unequal the fight between two individuals, the faster it ends.

Characters who overestimate like this, especially those who are supposed to be experienced, tend to look very foolish and it undercuts the sequence. There’s a limit to how long a fight can go before the reader starts to lose interest and to sell your characters, it’s important to make the attempt to be accurate.

However, translating time into text can be very difficult and while we can count a single page as a minute in a movie script, the same cannot be said for a novel. A simple solution is to limit yourself by counting it out through the number of moves instead of guessing how long. The longer the fight extends, the more exhausted a character is going to become. If you limit yourself to eight moves per character, then you will get into the acceptable range for keeping your sequence punchy and quick.

Remember, the wider the experience gap, the faster it will end unless the experienced character has a reason to keep it going.

That’s Not Anatomically Possible

We could also label this as “spontaneously develops third arm”. This can happen during rewrites or through the introduction of a new weapon or when the author doesn’t stage it out or think the physics of the scene through entirely. Sometimes, it’s an attack that would do no physical damage were it to connect such as spinning and kneeing (a knee takes it’s power from the body driving forward to the low-line of the body or upwards into the body, it can be lifted to generate a better, quicker spin for another attack such as a spinning backfist, but is useless on it’s own, it is also a single action movement) or multiple actions happening simultaneously like two characters in a death grip punching each other without releasing their hold and you have a sequence that sounds good but makes no sense when your readers step back to put it together.

The best way to solve this is by finding a partner to walk you through it physically even if it’s just bashing at each other with nerf swords. Yes, you may feel a little silly and foolish but the more work you put into it, the better the result will be. It’s important to get a good grasp the physicality and body positions in the scene as you’re describing it and this can be difficult to figure out in just your imagination.

Intuition Does Not Equal Skill

Intuition is nice, and so is “natural talent”, but unless your character is a several thousand year old immortal or a character who is continually reborn and acting on lifetimes of combat experience, then neither of these are a substitute for actual skill. Skill is empirical. It is earned through time and practice, we don’t come out of the box knowing exactly what is needed. When this happens in a novel, it is a plot contrivance and a cheat by the author to push the character along without having to say “how” they know. In short, it’s lazy. Worse, it promotes that unfortunate idea that skill is just something some has as opposed to the reality that it can be gained by anyone who puts in the required time and effort. This promotes the idea, especially for young readers, that if they do not grasp a concept quickly then they should just give up because the only skills worth having are those that come easily. Natural is not always better and no matter how much talent someone has, it will be nothing if they don’t develop that talent into a skill that they can use.

Don’t use intuition to cheat your way past a concept that you cannot adequately explain, instead dedicate time to understanding the profession or skills you are trying to include into your character. Yes, it will take longer and may be confusing in the beginning but the end result will be much better.

Detail? What’s that?

When you write your sequences, it’s important to be clear. If the reader is not grounded in the sequence, is not experiencing the sequence, and following the sequence as it happens then the grand fight or moment in the book will become meaningless. Detail can lend clarity to the image the reader imagines and make the sequence carry through. If your characters strike at the body consider where they are striking to as opposed to just having them throw attacks blindly. Have them focus on their opponent and visualize the body, break the body down into pieces: head, throat, shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, stomach, etc. When a character is knocked back, consider what they do. Do their feet slide? Do they stumble? Think about the body and how it reacts. Think about the environment and how they are affecting it. Be specific and be clear with the sensations you are eliciting.

Make it easy to follow. Read over the sequence with your “new reader eyes”, if you have to reread it a few times to get an understanding of what is happening then a rewrite may be necessary.

Don’t Call Your Shots

Whether your character is announcing to the villains the exact way that they plan on defeating them or calling out the name of their super special technique before they unleash it, don’t do it. It may feel badass to have the character tell someone exactly how they are going to be defeated and then follow through, it tends to ring hollow. One: it discounts the ability of the enemies to adjust to the hero’s plan and react accordingly (which hurts their believability, why should I care if they can be dispatched so easily after being told what is about to happen?) and two: unless the hero is lying or bluffing, they look stupid, overconfident, or both. After all, they just told me what’s about to happen. Unless you’re working within the long anime tradition of announcing a special attack, it just feels like a waste of breath.

Respect your villains and antagonists enough to not short change their intelligence for the sake of trying to make your protagonist more often. Study up on badass boasts and figure out what makes them work. Hint: it’s usually the humor beat afterwards such as Marcus in Babylon 5 when he says “In five minutes no one at this table will be left standing, five minutes after that, no one in this room will be left standing” and after he does so, collapses and says “Great, now I have to wait for someone to wake up” or playing off Superman’s reveal that he constantly holds back his powers for fear of hurting someone in the finale of Justice League Unlimited in the final battle with Darkseid when he says “But you can take it, can’t you, big guy? So, let me show you just how powerful I really am.” (He also doesn’t succeed, but it’s a great moment). However, neither of these outline exactly what they’re going to do but both come with the threat that it’s gonna be awesome.

Say it without saying it, leave room for excitement and the thrill of seeing just what a character will do instead of them telling us what they’re going to do.

-Michi

Writing Examples: Sizing Up Opponents (Assassins)

Description is important. It’s important for all the reasons we usually think of when we’re writing, from making our settings come alive to fleshing out other characters. However, observations made by a character are also important to telling the audience about that character. It’s an insight into how they think and what they notice in the world around them. However – while this works as a basis for most characters – when working with a trained combatant, or even a fighter, we need to take it a step further. What a trained combatant sees and relays to the reader can be an important tip off, not just to who they are, but what they’ve been trained to do and what kind of combatant they are. It’s also a good indication that they are actively participating and this can lend a sense of danger to an environment. If you’re good at it, it may help the reader come to view the world in a way that they hadn’t considered before.

All these things are important to selling a professional operative, but they are necessary when working with an assassin.  Well, they are if you want the assassin taken seriously. Below, we’ll talk about how to do that.

If you have a character who is supposed to be an excellent assassin then they should probably be thinking about killing people. You know the line: “be professional, be polite, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet”? Well, your assassin should literally be in the middle of planning or beginning to plot to kill everyone they meet, even if they aren’t intending to murder them. The more adept your assassin is then the more obvious disconnect between the way they behave towards others and what they are thinking about doing to them should be to the reader.

Assassins plot to kill people in the same way that spies constantly tell lies. It’s as easy as breathing and they do it to stay in practice. A well executed assassination is all about the prep work: getting to know the target’s habits, observing them in their native or non-native environment, finding the weaknesses in their protection, determining what they love, and where they are going to be most vulnerable. This can actually be very helpful to writing an assassin because the assassin must be constantly on the move, constantly out in tense situations, and working hard manipulating key assets to get what they need to do their job.

They do not want people to know who they are. The more people who know and the more they broadcast their nature then the more likely it is that someone will track them down or recognize them when they are on a job. Assassins work covertly, if your assassin is famous then it’s likely that people on the street, the criminal element, and other assassins will prioritize eliminating them. When an assassin reveals their nature or has their nature revealed then they lose their advantage.

Personality Traits:

Good assassins are patient, skilled at social manipulation (including seduction), are excellent actors, have great social and situational awareness, and they are very observant. They are also meticulous and methodical.

What an assassin is looking for:

Use and abuse is an assassin’s mantra. They are looking for assets who can provide information on their target, they may manipulate these assets for information about their target or even convince them to follow or find their target for them. So, when an assassin is assessing a person or an environment they are looking for traits and quirks that will provide them with an advantage or be potentially dangerous to them. That assessment may come from what the character is wearing, their looks, how they stand, and thousands of other things

Example:

In this setup, I’m going to borrow a situation from Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass with a twist: eight assassins are called to the King’s palace to compete in a competition for the cushiest and most boring job of all time. The winner will become the King’s Assassin, a warrior of such renown that all they can do is distract the King’s political enemies while the real work gets done and provide the Ladies of the Court with more reasons to swoon. In this example, our brave heroine Kayla will be sizing up her first target, the effervescent playboy that, for the sake of this exercise, we’ll call Number Five (also Pretty Boy).

It was easy to see why Number Five had been picked. He was very pretty and stood with a courtier’s grace. He had an aquiline nose, a tall forehead that disappeared into his chestnut hairline, wide set hazel eyes that languidly surveyed the room, and, of course, pouty lips. It was the sort of visage any girl or boy in court might swoon for and the kind that could be considered aesthetically pleasing to those who did not find him attractive. In his face, he had cultivated the appearance of likeability. Under his clothes, it was probably another story.  His finery stretched the length of his body, soft calf-skin boots, tight cream pants, and a decorated over shirt with wide sleeves that ran the length of his arm. When he moved, she caught the vague impression of wrist sheathes just behind the tapered cuffs embroidered in gold thread.

There were no knives in those sheathes –like her poison ring, Pretty Boy could not have gotten knives, enchanted or otherwise, past the King’s Guard or the Magical Alarm – he simply wore them to make an impression. Perhaps his intent was to lend the appropriate air of danger? Yes, Kayla thought as she lifted a glass off a passing tray, this was a man who would seduce the servants first and that could be a problem for her. She lifted the glass to her lips, fluttering her eyelashes coquettishly at no one in particular. Tilting the amber liquid toward her mouth, she held her breath and pretended to sip. Her lips did not touch the rim. If she had to guess from the way his eyes followed the bustles of passing females, he would choose the women first. It could make him useful. If he proved to be a cad, then he would drive potential sources among the servants to her. Shared hatred was a wonderful access point when looking to make new friends. If he’s not…

Then, she had found her first target. Kayla lifted the thin stem of her glass to Pretty Boy and the corners of his tightened in return.

Game on.

You can do a lot of things with your assassins and, as always, this is just an example.

-Michi

Writing Example: Action and Set Piece (Motel Room)

In this writing example, we’re going to talk a little about fighting in a hotel room. One of keys to making your fight scenes sing is to make sure you’re using your set pieces. A fight that can happen anywhere and be the same anywhere is one that no one will remember because it doesn’t tie the character to the place, if you can put your character on a space station, in the White House, at the beach, or have them fighting in a back alley with no difference at all then your fight scene will have no sense of weight. You want to individualize your fight scene, to show how your characters react to different stimulus, how they behave when the rules and situations have changed. A good fighter is an adaptable one; they are capable of working within their environment. An untrained and desperate character on the run will turn to their environment first to find some sort of advantage. They may not look and see the same possibilities when they look at your set piece, but both will try to use it.

In today’s writing example, we’ll be using a run-down motel room as our set piece.

The kind of hotel or motel your character is staying at may change what’s available to them, so do some research on the kind of places the characters are staying at. In order to get a good grasp of what amenities and items could make for good improvised weapons. If you haven’t started playing the “what can I kill someone with” game or “what can I use as a weapon” when you’re out and about or even at home then it’s time to start. I’ll go first. To my right I have a coffee mug: it’s ceramic, fairly sturdy, I bought it at Wal-Mart, and right now it’s half-full of cold coffee with creamer. If I was attacked: pick up the mug, hurl the coffee in the mug at the eyes (the coffee is bad enough but the sugar makes them sticky), and slam into or on top of their head. If it didn’t break on the first hit, then keep hitting them until they go down if I can. Downside: I could find my hand full of ceramic shards. Upside: the same will be true of their head.  Other options include: a Texas Instruments T-86, a can of Clean DR Multipurpose Duster for electronic equipment (go for the eyes, Boo!), and a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

So, now that we’re in the mood, let’s brainstorm for a motel room.

A motel room has a limited amount space and the beds already take up a fair amount of the available square footage. It’s a bad place to have to fight if someone get’s the drop on you because there isn’t a lot of area to work with and if your characters get penned in then there’s nowhere to run. However, it can be a good set piece if your characters need a place to crash for the night or take a breather and are worried about getting attacked.

Possible Improvised Weapons:

chairs, lamp (take off the shade and unplug, hit with the back end for maximum effect or with the bulb to coat with glass), pens, Gideon Bible, Ice Bucket (if available), the coffee pot from the Coffee Maker (if available), the door (front, bathroom if necessary), pillow cases, ceramic coffee cups (if available).

Things to watch out for:

Really, really big windows that let other people see you before you see them.

Conventional Weapons:

Guns make a lot of noise and even mostly abandoned motels have staff and some guests, so if your characters or their enemies want to attract attention from other guest or the cops then these are a great way to get it. Unlike in the movies, a silenced pistol sounds like someone dropping a dictionary in the next room. People will hear it and they will come to investigate or phone the police. If your characters are running or don’t want to deal with cops then shooting up a hotel is out of the question. The same will be true for attention getting superpowers such as super strength or elemental.

However, it’s true that if the character is an experienced operative they may be able to line up a shot through a wall or the floor from above without the other character noticing.

Thematic Tips: The lack of available space can make things start to feel claustrophobic if the characters are scared, the bed may look inviting but if the characters need to stay awake then it will be an active temptation, and depending on the distance of their car from the room, their ability to get out fast if things get hairy can be a source of worry. Long hallways, elevators, and stairwells will make experienced operatives nervous.

The Example:

I was already moving before the knock on the door. I’d seen their shadows moving along the window. It was a solid impression made on the closed curtains by the rays of the lamp six feet up on the wall outside. This was the reason why I picked rooms on the end; you could always catch the idiots who forgot to base their angle of approach on the environmental variables and surrounding terrain. I crossed across off the bed, the lights in the room were off and my eyes already well adjusted to the darkness. Picking up the lamp off the table, I removed the shade, turned it over to grip the slim metal neck, and slid up to the door. Next to the knob, I waited. When they came through they’d be closest to me and that was when I’d catch them off guard with their pistols pointed at empty space. After all, I was the only one here who had to worry about cops.

Hopefully, they wouldn’t think to shoot me through the wall.

My back pressed in against the paisley and taupe wallpaper. My arm lifted. Number 42 Motels always had the blandest color choices.

The door slammed open and the first man walked through the door. Moving forward, I swung my arm down into the soft back of his skull. Down he went with a crack.

“Shi—” that was the voice of the second one. Then, there was the ka-chunk of a bullet chambering. Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of a Glock 17. This one wasn’t going to bother coming in.

Damn.

Happy Writing!

-Michi

Writing Violence (Part 3): Pacing

Pacing. There’s tons of advice out there about pacing, including pacing for fight scenes. However, I thought it would be important to talk about pacing in the context of how to write violence (including violence beyond just physical fight sequences) because it’s all important to selling your fight scene.

In this article, we won’t be talking about pacing as an overall focus on the whole story. Instead, this will be specifically fight scene oriented.

As a literary term, pacing is essentially the speed and rhythm with which your plot unfolds. Developing that sense of speed, rhythm, and, most importantly, timing is crucial to making an individual fight scene work. For combat, rhythm and timing are crucial. Too much description will get in the way, too much exposition slows down the scene, and too much dialog will reduce the sense of immediacy that a sequence requires to be effective. Ultimately, communicating the actions of violence is about delivering sensation. Tangible, tactile sensation.

Word choice, sentence length, and punctuation are the means of showing and experiencing those sensations. More importantly, a well paced fight scene doubles up beyond the physical. The speed and rhythm of the sequence can tell a reader a great deal about your character’s inner emotional state, how they handle violence and tense situations. Pacing tells the reader how quickly the scene is moving, how immediate it’s becoming, the fact that things are—to put it bluntly—spinning out of control, and that gives us no time to stop and breathe, until finally, at long last, we slam into a wall. Head first!

Okay, that was a joke. What is important to remember about pacing is that there is no one way to do it, in fact, different characters will pace their scenes differently. So, it’s up to you to figure out each of your character’s rhythms if you write from their perspective. Some may like to blend sentences together like I did in the last few sentences of the upper paragraph. Some may need to stop.

They have to think.

They need breaks in paragraphs.

Every few sentences.

Every sentence!

Some may like to punctuate the end of every sentence. It gives them a sense. A feeling. They are in control. They know what they are doing. They want the reader to know. They are thinking. No. Don’t stop them.

Long sentences that consistently get shorter and shorter as they blend together can lend a sense of immediacy. Sentences that start short and are clearly punctuated can slow a scene down but can also serve to ratchet up the tension, much like a roller coaster rising towards the pinnacle before rocketing downward. Alternately, it can show a character who is methodical, thinking through their situation, and in control.

No matter what you choose to do with your scene, remember, violent confrontations are high stress environments. They are periods of extreme emotion coupled with the body’s instinctual reactions that may hurt or benefit the character in play. It’s important to ratchet up that tension, the feeling in the story that things are moving faster, more quickly. You can use many different kinds of pacing as a scene progresses to express and support the actions that are occurring in the story.

I tend to pace my action sequences around strong emotion (or the lack thereof). The idea is that because violence is so directly linked to emotion, everything in my work links back to what I am trying to express in the scene. Who a character is and how they behave when in a violent situation is an important part of who they are and how they handle things. This is obviously not the only way you can do it and I encourage you all to play around with different ideas to find what works best for you and for your story.

So, think about it. Instead of thinking about the right way, think about what you’re trying to present. Think about what your characters are feeling, which can be frustrating when you’re already focusing on what they’re doing. Pacing can be an easy way to communicate those emotions and show the effects without having to exposit. Remember, what makes violence effective is the human component (or alien, or vampire component, or ork component).

Remember, these are just suggestions. You can do what you want, experiment, and most importantly find the path that works best for you.

Extra Credit Writing Exercise:

Pick a strong emotion, any emotion, and write a scene about it. It doesn’t have to be a fight scene. Instead of describing the emotion, talking about the emotion, or even using any words to describe the physical reaction to the emotion, attempt to express and communicate it using only sentence structure and punctuation.

-Michi

Writing Violence Part 2: Cause and Effect

This is the second article in our series about Writing Violence. In this post,I thought I’d talk a little bit about Cause and Effect. For me, Cause and Effect are on the level of Show Don’t Tell in their importance both to descriptive writing and to generating a plot. Your plot is based entirely on a cause or an action and the effect of that cause or action on the characters and the world around them, your plot is put together through sequences of scenes that are based around your characters’ actions, their reactions, and the world’s or society’s reactions to those actions. Causes and their effects can be big and small, when working with violence, be that violence intellectual, emotional, or physical, and be those causes and effects big or small, they are all important to developing a realistic feeling in your story as a whole and in your characters individual actions.

Starke and I refer to this sense of realism as weight, as in your story feels grounded in reality. Ultimately, when we discuss realism in writing, it doesn’t matter whether your story is a high flying fantasy adventure, far flung future sci-fi, a historical piece, or a horror novel. So long as it crafts it’s own reality in keeping with the rules of cause and effect, you’ll be able to give your story, and the violence within it, weight.

Below, we’ll discuss how to do that.

Every Action Causes An Equal or Opposite Reaction

To steal one of Newton’s Laws, let’s talk about one of the biggest failures in fight scenes. Often, in many of the stories I read, authors are so focused on getting the fighting or the techniques used in the scene “right” that they neglect consideration of the surrounding details.

Take, for example, the line: “Virginia punched Charles in the gut.”

Now, in other kinds of descriptive writing, I might ask what kind of punch it was, but that’s not the most important question that you should be considering when looking to improve the sentence and the scene. The real question is: what happened to Charles?

Without changing much, we can improve the scene by adding a second line.

Virginia punched Charles in the gut. Body curling forward, Charles stumbled back as his hands rose to grasp his stomach.

Neither of these is, admittedly, very good, but see how much the scene improves? Charles’ body curling in to protect the important bits is a natural reaction to the pain inflicted on it by Virginia.

Now, let’s expand on the concept by adding a bench and another character named Amelia to the scene.

Virgina walked toward Charles. Instead of extending her hand in friendship as he’d expected, her fingers clenched into a fist. She rolled them over, slamming her knuckles up into his gut. Body curling forwards, Charles’ eyes widened as he exhaled sharply. As he should, she thought with a smile, all the air he’d stored up had just been forcibly expelled from his diaphragm.

“Charles!” Amelia, his girlfriend, shouted.

Charles stumbled back, calves knocking into the park bench not a foot behind him. The bench rocked and Charles tipped too far forwards onto the balls of his feet. Head swaying and green faced, he fell. His knees hit the dusty ground. His eyes rolled back. He leaned forward, inches from the toes of Virginia’s calf skin boots and, then, he hurked.

The scent of half-digested turkey and sausage stuffing lingered in Virginia’s nose.

“Charles!” Amelia cried again as she sank down beside him, gripping his shoulders. She glanced up at Virginia, her eyes harsh, flat, and furious. “What have you done?”

Virginia’s action of punching Charles causes the physical reaction of him throwing up on her shoes and Amelia’s emotional response condemning it. Violence is both physical and emotional in the reactions it evokes and should be represented in the destruction it causes on the surrounding environment. Remember, the glasses, chairs, tables, and tankards your characters destroy in a bar brawl are valuable property to the owner of that establishment. Your characters may have to pay the cost or risk never being able to go back there. The characters they beat up in the bar are going to be someone’s husband, sister, or friend. They may be more beloved in the community that they’re part of than your wandering drifters. Also, breaking a bottle will involve your character getting glass a fist full of glass embedded in their hand. A prolonged fight will cause your character to perspire and they run the risk of getting sweat (or blood) in their eyes.

Important details run from big to small, but they all work together to create that ‘weight’, that feeling of realism in your work. X happened so Y was the response. When Beth kicked James through the door, she broke it and had to pay $200 to repair it. When Jenna threw her dishware at a home invader, she had to buy paper plates to eat off of for that evening and she invited her friend John to stay over because she no longer felt safe. Then, Jenna cut her finger cleaning up the ceramic remains and had to repaint the walls where the plates hit.

This is the important push and pull, action and reaction, the consequences of even the most flawless plans yielding unintended catastrophe and unexpected results. This is important to remember when writing scenes involving violence because it is inherently divisive. Characters who engage in violence, even when that violence is justified, face harsher penalties and greater risks both to their physical selves and in their personal life.

Once you begin to think in these terms, the tension and drama inherent in your story will naturally unfold and writing violence will come a little easier.

-Michi

Writing Violence Part 1: Developing Characters and Comfort Levels (And You)

We’re going to do a small series about writing violence, mostly because we haven’t covered some the basics yet and these are important. There are a lot of important steps that go into writing about violence, these include language choice, the intensity of the violence, the characters in question.

Today, we’re going to talk about developing your characters and more importantly than that, how to asses your own comfort zone.

There are many pieces that go into building a successful fight scene and many of those pieces begin to build together before your character ever pulls the trigger or throws their first punch. The way a character looks at the world around them is infinitely important to showing the reader the kind of fighter they are (or the kind of fighter they will be) before combat happens. Characters with different skill levels and different outlooks will all approach combat differently; the same is reflected in a character’s strategic preferences (if they have even thought that far ahead), their honor code, their choice of weapons, and the techniques they choose to use.

Not every character enjoys visceral combat. Some characters like squelching their opponent’s eyeballs with their thumbs, others will wince at the thought, others will be indifferent, and some upon witnessing the act will come to their enemy’s defense because that’s just too cruel. Every character is different and that’s part of what makes writing these sorts of scenes so hard, because a fight scene involves much more than just knowing how to throw a punch right. In fact, as funny as it sounds, for writing that is one of the most inconsequential parts. You can write your combat perfectly, but if it doesn’t reflect your characters and the themes of you’ve been setting up in the plot then it will still fail. A scene with flat out wrong combat can be the best part of a book if the sequence remains in harmony with the rest of the story and furthers the development of both the characters and the plot.

 Establish Your Violence Comfort Zone

You can write a level of violence in your story that you’re not comfortable with, but you will have a great deal of difficulty writing a character who is exhibiting a level of violence that they are supposed to be comfortable with but is uncomfortable for you. Given the attitudes towards sex and violence in American culture, it may sound funny or cliché when I tell you that writing about violence is a lot like writing about sex. How graphic you get is going to depend on your audience and your own comfort level before it reaches your character. A sex scene where you were wincing every few seconds as you were writing it is going to feel uncomfortable to the reader; the same is going to be true with violence.

Some of you may be wondering, but aren’t violent sequences supposed to be uncomfortable? Some of them are, but if you are writing a character who relishes violence or an epic sword duel and you are wincing on each sentence then you have a problem. Or alternately, if you honestly, truly believe that torture is completely unacceptable, that it is always bad, always evil then don’t try to write a character like 24’s Jack Bauer. Whatever you write, you need to be able to completely submerge yourself in your character. You’re going to write characters who don’t believe the same things you do, you are going to write characters who are not you, who will do and say things that you would never in a thousand years imagine doing. But violence is difficult, it hits on a core of human experience, of misery and suffering that is hard to capture. If you can’t convince yourself in the moment to believe in what your character is doing then it’s time to step back. You must ride the ride after all and if you’re getting sick on the loopty-loops, then maybe this rollercoaster isn’t right for you.

It’s fine if it isn’t, just because this didn’t work doesn’t mean the entire amusement park is off limits. You just have to figure out what you like and learn when something goes far enough outside your comfort zone that it affects the integrity of your work. Stepping out of it can be a good thing, sometimes it’s going to be a necessary thing depending on the genre you are working with and the line in the sand will shift as you adjust to new concepts.

The only way you’ll figure it out is by experimenting, so don’t worry about it so much. The only way you can really fail is by not trying at all.

Some Helpful Tips:

-Find authors whose fight scenes you admire and who you want to write like and study their techniques

-Watch movies that represent the kind of combat you’re writing about

-Play videogames, simulation often helps up experience new things and gets us thinking

For example: the combat between Assassin’s Creed, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, and SpecOps: The Line can all evoke different feelings and emotions through the kinds of combat they present. When you want to get in the right mindset for what you’re writing, this can help.

-Listen to music that reflects the characters and scene you’re working on

Establish a violence threshold for each of your characters

Just like you, every person has a threshold of violence that they are comfortable with and it’s similar to how some people like action movies and some people prefer slasher flicks. Just keep in mind that the media entertainment someone consumes doesn’t necessarily relate to the level of violence they’re willing to inflict on someone else. A character who loves Disney movies can still cheerfully pick up the lead pipe and bash your skull in on the cold hard concrete.  So, try not to think in stereotyping details.

When working to establish a threshold, to figure out what your character is willing to do and what they’re not present them with different situations that are outside the context of your story. It’s best to do this when you’re not sure of who they are and, ultimately, is exactly the same as filling out any of the numerous character questionnaires floating around the internet.

Don’t try to forcibly decide for them. Don’t focus on the right way, the techniques that are supposed to be used, what they are supposed to know. Don’t worry about any of that, you can correct it later. Instead, present them with situations and let those situations play out in your head or as you write them down.

Do you have to do this for each of the major players in your story and not just your protagonist? Yes. Yes, you do. When writing a story about violence, the level of violence a character is willing to inflict and what they are comfortable with can clash with another’s, by figuring out each character’s threshold whether it’s part of the supporting cast, your antagonist, or the henchmen, you’ll have a better sense of how they’ll relate to each other and what kind of interpersonal conflicts can arise.

Below are some helpful questions with corresponding examples to get you thinking. The more situations you come up with on your own, however, will be more helpful to you in the long run.

Examples:

Example 1: Character X is walking down the street and sees a man being beating, what do they do?

On the far side of the street, Amelia could see two shapes. They were vague and hazy in the drifting fog, just outside the splash of yellow light from the lamp that stood on the corner. A big man with broad shoulders stood over a much smaller individual; she couldn’t see it well from this distance. It could have been a smaller man, or a woman, or even a child. The big man’s frame blocked her as he drove a giant booted foot into his victim’s side. All she knew was what she heard, pathetic whimpering and shrieks pitched higher with each hit. Whoever they were, they’ be dead soon.

Well, she shrugged, it wasn’t her business. Things were hard in Darkside, people died daily, why risk bringing more heat down on herself by intervening? Better to let it play out and disappear before the big man noticed her.

Example 2: Character X is breaking into a building and has made it inside, at the end of the hallway there are two guards, all that stands between them and what they’ve come for. The hall is long and narrow. The guards haven’t seen them yet. What do they do?

Amana flickered, her shape re-entering the Living Space. The bare skin of her breasts pressed against Guard 1’s back, right arm sliding up under his jaw, tilt head back, stand ear to cheek. Forearm into windpipe. Bone in and increase pressure. Cut off oxygen. Left hand down, take holstered sidearm. Glock 17. Flick safety off.

 It leveled at Number 2’s skull.

“Holy shi—”

Bang.

Example 3: Character B has been hit by Character X, someone they trusted, how do they respond?

Leah stumbled. Hand rising, she pressed cool flesh against the warm, stinging buzz that was now blooming across her cheek. A sharp, shuddering pain was striking out from behind her eye and the world swam in dots of black and white. Her vision dropped to the floor, the crevices between the floorboards were suddenly so sharp and clear. She could see the tips of black boots lingering inches from her own.

John’s boots.

“Leah,” that was John’s voice.

John. He had hit her.

Why? She was surprised to hear her own voice echoing her thoughts cramming into the space between them. “Why?”

These are, like I said, just some examples. You can come up with whatever scenarios you want. But when establishing a violence threshold, they should involve violence of some kind. By developing the different violence thresholds for different characters, you better understand the actions that will bring them into natural alliances or conflict with one another. One of the key ways to keep readers invested in your stories is the interpersonal relations between the major players. Once you know the boundaries the characters ascribe to, what they are willing to do, what they aren’t willing to do, the lengths that they will go to and know when they will stop, you can push them outside of that comfort zone and craft development that is naturally in line with where their story is going.

From the first example, I know that Amelia is the kind of character who puts herself first. She doesn’t believe she can make a difference and doesn’t want to deal with the trouble that intervening to aid someone else could bring down on her head. She could engage, but doesn’t want to. We know that those reasons have nothing to do with being incapable of those actions, she just won’t try because she’s not going to get anything out of it. If I were to write this character, I’d give her a plot development that forced her to engage, someone she doesn’t know, someone desperate, probably a break in at her apartment while they are running from people who are hounding them. Someone she can’t say no to, even though she wants to. She is forced to take action and then eventually she will continue to do so of her own volition.

Voila, a character arc.

So, find your character’s comfort zone and then pop them out of it. The same is true for violence, there is a level of violence that your characters will be comfortable participating in and then there is a point where they are pushed past that into uncomfortable territory. You can only get X by starting with Y. Cause and effect. Conflict that is both external and internal.

Conflict is good. Conflict is crucial. Write conflict.

-Michi

Weapon Primer: Elbows and Knees

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about elbow and knee techniques, especially regarding their combat versatility, power, and general usefulness. In fact, this will probably be a very short article because there’s not actually that much to talk about.

Let’s start by bringing this close to home and talk about the source of your elbow and your knee.

Elbows and Knees are joints:

This is very important to remember, not just because your character is going to be working with half of their arm and half of their leg instead of the whole one, but also because elbow and knee strikes are high risk versus high reward. Your elbow and your knee are joints. This means that unlike breaking a toe or a finger in your punch or kick, you break your elbow or your knee on a hard surface and its goodbye arm and leg movement. A broken joint is major surgery with the possible side of the arm never moving right again.

So, where do you take the elbow or the knee: soft targets.

A soft target is a part of the body that is unprotected by bone like the stomach, the groin, or the front/side/back of the neck.  You don’t really want your character putting their elbow anywhere near the vicinity of someone else’s face, unless they’re doing an elbow strike that comes up under the jaw. This is because the most armored part of the human body is the face.

Remember that feeling you had the last time you banged your elbow against a hard surface like a metal pole or a wall, or a wooden desk? Yeah, that’s what putting your elbow into someone else’s face is going to feel like.  An elbow is not a powerful enough strike to be worth that risk.

Limited range of motion means less power:

When used appropriately in close quarters situations, elbows and knees can be very effective strikes. The problem is that on their own they don’t have much power.  Elbows and knees are joints; this means that unlike a punch you cannot achieve a full rotation of the body. Remember, power comes from extension and from the hips, shoulders, and joints working together to achieve maximum effect. An elbow and knee halves that equation because you can only use your hips and your shoulders, instead of the full arm or full leg. Less momentum equals less inertia which equals less force which equals less power overall. A fair amount of fighting does come down to physics.

Now, you’re probably thinking: but I’ve always been told the best way to take a guy down was by kneeing him in the groin? Yes, but that’s not because the knee is a powerful strike. The groin has more nerve endings than anywhere else on the body, when struck the reaction is painful immediate in either gender. A knee has a better chance of reaching the groin than the foot, this is because the odds are the girl is going to be standing near to the guy already and the pants are a great visual guiding line for someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.

Proper application will overcome a lot of limitations. Unfortunately, an author needs to know what those applications are before they can use the technique in their work.

So, where does your character need to be to the other person for their technique to have a chance in hell of working?

You need to be nose to nose:

There’s a very quick way to double check that: lift your arm and put it out in front of your face, now bend your hand back to your face. See your elbow? That’s pretty much the full length of the rotation. Your character is going to be nose to nose with their attacker, probably in some sort of grappling situation. A front facing choke performed with either one or two hands has more range than an elbow strike. Elbows and knees are for those moments when you don’t have room to punch or kick, when you’re so close you can smell the other person’s deodorant and what they had for breakfast.

So, when should your character be using these strikes?

Elbows and knees are for when you’re trying to gain complete control of the attacker:

Elbows and knees don’t actually do that much damage compared to punches or kicks, but their limited range of motion means that the attacker can get away with quick subsequent repetitions and you don’t want to permanently injure your opponent. This is why they are often taught in self-defense because they are both easier to learn in a short period of time than punches and kicks, but also because there’s not a lot of chance that the student will actually permanently injure their opponent which keeps them mostly out of trouble with the law.

You can actually perform multiple elbow strikes to someone’s windpipe without risk of crushing it, compare to the half-palm strike which has a much greater chance of doing just that. The elbow and knee are good for stun locks, but not for killing.

So, what techniques can you perform with an elbow or a knee?

Let’s talk about it:

The Elbow:

Though the elbow only has a very limited range of motion, there are places where it truly does excel. The elbow is one of the only hand/arm techniques that can be performed in all four directions and the easiest and most natural one to do against an enemy that’s looking to grab your character in a bear hug. (A bear hug is a technique in which the opponent wraps their arms around both of yours and lifts you up off the ground, squeezing and nullifying your motion so that their buddy can come and pound on you.) When a character is coming in from behind but is too close for an effective kick, an elbow to the gut can provide the time they need to turn while opening their attacker up to an effective counter.

The bony tip of the elbow is rarely used in combat, because yes that is indeed exposed bone. Exposed bone against a hard surface is very painful and a person has quite a few bony places on their body. So, that advice Divergent gave about sharp knees and elbows being an advantage? That’s complete bull.

Here are the different directions you can perform with an elbow strike:

Forward: the elbow comes across in a diagonal arc in front of the face. This strike hits with the meaty portion of the forearm and not the bony tip, while it can go to the nose, it’s best to stick with safe places like the neck. This one will only work when your character is driving their body forward.

Up: Too close for an uppercut? Bring that elbow up under the jaw! Again, this hits with the safe, meaty portion of the forearm and not the elbow’s tip.

Sideways: Left or right will depend on which arm your character is using, the elbow drives out sideways into the incoming attacker. Again, usually aiming for the neck or the pressure point in the upper arm, because this strike does use the tip of the elbow your character is going to want to aim for soft places. Also, this strike has very limited range of motion and high is the only place it can really go.

Back: Bring that elbow back and the arm creates a natural triangle right into the opponent’s gut. If your character can time it right, this is an exceptionally useful defense when faced with someone attacking from behind.

Down: So, you’ve exposed the back of your opponent’s neck but you don’t want to risk a massive injury to his or her spinal column, drive that elbow downwards. Unlike the knife hand, this move is legal in MMA.

The Knee:

The knee is a nice stealth strike to the lower portions of the body, the movement of walking up to someone else can mask the character’s intentions and a solid strike to the pressure point midway up the thigh can take a leg out early in the fight. Unfortunately, because of the knees limited range of motion it only has one direction: forward. It also can’t reach the face and, depending on who your character is fighting, even the groin without help.

To use a knee as a finishing movement for a fight, it needs to be combined with a clinch. In boxing, a clinch is when an opponent has their hands around your head and is controlling your range of motion. Remember, where the head goes the body follows. The elbows close in around the face and they grip you tightly, driving their knee up into your body. Because of the clinch, the knee can reach the groin and even the stomach region which can be devastating for the fighter. When in the clinch, the opponent can even pull the head down and drive their knee up into your character’s face.

This is where the knee gets its reputation from and why it is bad news bears for your character or their opponent in that sort of situation.

-Michi

Let’s Get Physical: Training and Physical Contact

I’ll probably do quite a few posts on training and all the aspects at play there from the perspective of student and instructor, but let’s start with this one. I warn: this post may be a jumbled confused mess, but that’s because while the physical contact aspect is an important part of the training experience, it can be a little embarrassing to talk about. I’ll do more posts on the subject, but I felt like I needed to get this one out there.

I’ll be honest, most combat training (any kind of combat training really) involves a lot of man-handling of the student on the part of the instructor. Whether it’s pushing the student lower in their stretching exercises, gripping the leg to show the path of the roundhouse kick, pulling back their shoulders, fixing their stances, or just offering up your unprotected hands as stationary targets so that the student can get the feel of the double punch, (I should say this is all long before we get into the really sensitive stuff like grappling) training involves a lot of physical contact.

A lot. It’s likely that a child from a household where the culture of physical affirmation is rare will receive more physical affection from their martial arts masters than they do from their own parents. So on any given day in a martial arts school, you may walk in to find adults touching kids in what appear to be very weird places (knees, shoulders, hips), or doing the same with young adults and teens, or the same with each other. They slap each other on the back, give high fives, pats on the head; you may even find complete strangers hugging each other like they’re best friends even though they have nothing in common except their uniforms. I cannot count how many random strangers I have hugged in my lifetime and I never saw again after that, I have hugged men and women of all ages, shapes, and sizes as part of a greeting simply because we were part of the same organization. The people you train with often are more than just friends, they become a second family.

This can be very confusing to an outside observer who doesn’t really have the context to associate what they’re seeing with what’s considered “normal” behavior, especially when it’s between members of the opposite sex (or same-sex). It’s the sort of thing that can be especially confusing for students who begin as teens and young adults, especially if they’re in a school that has head and assistant instructors between their late teens to early thirties. It can be easy to misinterpret the contact in early sessions, but as the student progresses they will adjust and become used to it.

So, let’s talk about the sort of physical contact you see on the training floor:

Adjusting the body:

For a student to learn a technique, they have to master a few different stages. While a student can often mimic their instructor’s movements, they often miss out on key details like hand and foot position. It’s their instructor’s job to catch and fix the student’s mistakes. This means that when working with basic techniques whether as stand-alone or in forms like katas. The head instructor and his or her assistants (usually students they’ve trained who’ve risen to the upper belt ranks) will watch and wander through the group stopping to correct small things: such as pushing the font leg in the front stance wider, adjusting hand position by gripping the wrist, pulling back on or straightening the student’s shoulders to keep them from slouching, telling them to lean further forward. Different instructors in different schools will do different things, but whether it’s a martial arts school or a military academy, you can bet your character has gotten used to people putting their hands on them even if it’s from someone they may not be particularly comfortable with.

So, why is the contact necessary?

A large part of martial training is building muscle memory, but no student is going to be perfect their first time out. The more repetitions (reps) and the more practice a student gets, the better they will perform. But without course correction a student can develop bad habits, in the beginning the body doesn’t want to work and the mind must enforce its will to keep focus during training. The muscles need to remember the appropriate positions so that when the student does the technique at full speed they don’t get hurt. Once you physically correct a student, their body is more likely to remember the sensation and they are better able to push themselves there. Instead of guessing what it’s supposed to look like based on what they’ve seen, they now know what it feels like. The latter is easier to achieve than the former.

It’s especially important when teaching little kids kicks, their body is just developing its sense of balance and the older instructor can quite easily show them what to do by guiding their leg and the position of their body. It’s a very common exercise with roundhouse kicks which, because of the way the leg arcs in front of the body, can be difficult to grasp the first time around. Once the child has the sensation, they pick up the technique and improve their performance very quickly.

Kids Raised in the System:

Kids who have been raised in the system or reared to fight are more used to this level of contact than older students. They relax more easily under their instructors hands, they adopt techniques more quickly, and students who began as children (even in a different style) can learn new styles much more rapidly in just a few sessions than older, less experienced students. There is actually some truth in Cassandra Cain’s ability to effectively learn and adopt techniques into her fighting style that she’s only seen once, though the child in question doesn’t need to have as violent a background. I, for instance, can replicate most of the techniques I see in the instructional videos floating around the internet, whereas they’re pretty worthless to someone without the same level of training.

This is partly because of the way my brain learned, from a young age, how to translate the visual data I receive into a physical form. I start working with the basic underlay of what I’m seeing, the stance, the hand position, the feet position, and then replicate it without needing much guidance.

They can, however, be very dense when it comes to figuring out if someone else likes them. For obvious reasons, many kids who are raised in the martial arts system get used to physical contact as an expression of feelings like friendship, approval, affirmation, etc. Those signals get crossways of trying to physically show someone you’re interested, especially if the other individual is from outside the school or the martial artist lifestyle. Depending on the culture at play, something like a hug can mean anything from “hi! how are you?” to “omg, he/she is touching me!”.

It can lead to misunderstandings and trouble.

The Relationship between Student and Instructor:

I won’t really go into student and teacher relationships here that much other than to say: it’s icky, please don’t. The power dynamic at play can get screwy very quickly. My advice: If you want to combine love interest with teacher, the best way to do it is between two people who are older but of similar age and similar rank, a pair of thirty year old third degree and first degree black belts going out is less squicky than the third degree head instructor and a new white belt.

Or keep the love interest to an assistant instructor instead of the master or head instructor, they have less authority over your character’s training and are less likely to screw up the training of the other characters who are training with your characters.

Or have their love interest training them in a new skill after they’ve already mastered several of their own. This puts the two characters on a more even footing.

The more responsibility that’s at play, like the instructor being responsible for whether the character and their friends live or die (Like Four in Divergent) or responsible for whether or not a character passes their training (Kara Thrace in Battlestar Galactica), the more quickly the relationships snowball towards uncomfortable territory. Conflicts of interest are nice and drama-filled, but they also run a genuine risk of dismantling what the Instructor character is supposed to be about and what the student is supposed to be learning. It’s a conflict you should think about long and hard before deciding to include it in your story.

-Michi

Character Development: Let’s Talk Snark

Snark can be a great tool in your author’s dialogue box. It can be wielded well and when used well it can be responsible for creating some solid heroes and villains. So, if it sounds like I’m bashing snark, well, I’m not. I’m a fan of snark and of sass, and I enjoy heroes with a healthy dose of sarcastic wit.

But, snark comes with it’s downsides. It’s not appropriate for all situations and used in the wrong ones, it can actually be very damaging to both the tension and the story. Snark can damage the threat level of your bad guys, it can weaken and degrade your minor characters, especially your protagonist’s relationship with them (if they’re your snarker). It can be used in situations where being snarky is senseless, useless, and even stupid. While this isn’t a bad thing on it’s own, it can be very good if that’s the author’s intention in the scene, when the senseless stupid snark is the means of the character achieving what they were after in a situation where such snark would usually be detrimental or downright suicidal, it’s generally very damaging to characters, tension, plot, and the overarching story.

So, let’s talk snark:

1) Know who your character is snarking at:

If you want to prove your character is intelligent (or that they’re self-destructive), they need to be capable of assessing the situation and moderating their behavior appropriately. It’s one thing to be snarky to a friend or someone your character knows well. It’s quite another for them to be snarking off at an authority figure, or any character who is in a position of power that is greater than the character’s own. It’s especially bad if that authority figure is someone the character has come to and needs assistance or permission from. (Like in Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, where her bounty hunter/mercenary protagonist got snarky while trying to convince the head of the area’s Magical Police Force to let her assist their investigation into the death of her mentor.)

It’s one thing to have a problem with authority, it’s another when the character is actually actively sabotaging their own efforts and the author doesn’t realize it. Think about this:

2) Snark is a defensive mechanism: snark is a defensive mechanism used to drive other people away from a character. Unlike other forms of humor, it requires making someone else look stupid to be successful. Someone’s going to have to be the butt of the joke, someone’s going to have to look bad for the protagonist to look good. Most people, especially when they are in the room to hear it aren’t going to be happy. A character whose authority relies on maintaining control of the situation and being in charge, isn’t going to be very happy when they’re mocked to their face. If they’re someone tolerant, they’ll just be more likely to say: “lol no”, when the protagonist comes calling. If they’re someone like the local crime boss, they’ll have to retaliate. Let’s just say, I hope the protagonist enjoys having all their teeth pulled with a pair of rusty pliers.

3) Snark is a sign of control: characters who have leeway to be sarcastic are usually the characters who are in charge or have power in the situation. These are the characters in charge of running the local army base, the jackass cop who is arresting your rebel protagonist. These are the characters who can get away with it, the characters who snark when they know the person they’re snarking at can’t fight back. Nobody really wants to put up with a jackass who makes them feel like shit most of the time. If your hero is constantly snarking off at authority and at their buddies because they feel out of control, maybe that’s a reason why they shoudn’t have friends. So, if your hero is snarking at your villain, it better be because they’re trying to make that villain angry enough to fight stupid or distract them, not because they believe the villain’s not a threat (and they’re proven right).

4) Snark is a good way to make someone angry: Like I said above: someone’s gotta be the butt of the joke. If you’re character’s going all John McClane snarky on someone because their tongue is the last weapon they have in a situation where their outmanned, outgunned, and dragging themselves through a skyscraper on bloody feet then…fine. Snark can be a great way for your protagonist to cover what they’re actually doing by getting the other guy angry. This is a great use of snark, so long as you remember the part about being outgunned and on the defensive. It doesn’t really work when your protagonist is in control of a situation at the end of the fight or just generally acting like an intellectual or emotional bully.

Or…they’re just not funny.

But let’s rewind that back. Snark is a good way to make someone angry. Your reader should never be questioning (unless you want them to question) why someone would ever want help your character, especially if all they’ll get from it is pain and misery. John Constantine ran into this problem on one of his more well handled comic runs, he kept getting his friends killed and he started running out of friends. Now, Constantine is a conartist (and arguably a villain protagonist), he’s a self-centered jerk, he’s an all-around asshole, he’s an adrenaline junkie, and the people in his setting generally respond to him like he is one. Including denying him assistance when he asks for it because they know they’re not going to get anything from it except pain and misery.

He spends a great deal of his time in a few of his comic runs backtracking, capitulating, and trying to talk people around into assisting him before he screws them over and gets them killed. It’s a theme.

I love Hellblazer, but let’s not pretend Constantine’s a nice guy people like. At least, not when he’s in the hands of a competent writer *cough* Garth Ennis *cough*.

5) They’re that damn good: Boba Fett is pretty much the only character I can think of who actually fits this description. He’s the best bounty hunter in the galaxy, everyone quivers at the sound of his name, and he’s actually far too skilled and useful for Vader to annihilate him for the crime of mouthing off. He’s not replaceable. Every other character in the story (including Luke) was replaceable. Yoda and Obi-wan even had a backup ready in case he failed. There are almost no characters in the universe who are so good that they can say: “You need me, so I can do and say whatever I want.” A Chosen One with that mentality who survives is a Chosen One who has the author cheating for them.

Look: Stories have to have an internal logical consistency. This internal logical consistency is what generates suspension of disbelief in the reader. You’ve got to stay inside it, if you break it, you break your setting and your story. Your character, even if they happen to be the better version of you, is someone who has to live in the setting world you create. They have to be responsible for what they do and say, even when they’re saying and doing the things you might wish you could do. Other characters will respond to them based on their own worldview, their own values, and their own needs or desires in combination with your character’s actions.

The local police chief isn’t going to want a newbie nobody assisting on his investigation, mucking around crime scenes, and mucking up evidence. Especially when that newbie nobody has no background in investigation and has a close personal tie to the deceased. It’s all well and good to say: well, they’re good enough so why would he turn them down? 1) Why would he need them in the first place?  2) Conflict of interest is a real problem. Revenge isn’t a legitimate motivation to give to a cop, it’s an understandable one, but it’s just going to get crossways of what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s okay to have a character who is the Constantine level of self-destructive, it can create a good story. But make sure that’s the kind of story you want to be telling first, not “oh shit! I just made my biggest villain look like an idiot, now the tension bubble is gone and the reader might not be afraid of them anymore!”

I can’t worry about your character going into their final fight if I’ve already been convinced they’re going to come out alive.

Weapon Primer: Basic Kicks Part 3 (Combinations + Your Character)

Disclaimer: This is not an article designed to teach you how to kick. This article is designed to teach you about kicks, the principles behind them, and how to include them in your writing. For the uninitiated, you can risk a lifetime of injuries in your legs by practicing any of these without sufficient stretching and an instructor present. If the martial arts are something you’re interested in pursuing, feel free to message us and we can talk about the steps you can take to find a school that might work for you. Remember, we’re not liable for the damage you do to yourself or others in absence of proper training.

This is the third part of the primer on Basic Kicks, go here and here to read the first two. So, we’ve covered the kicks, some of the footwork, and how to do them.  But without basic understanding of where and when kicks are useful for your fighting sequences, they’re pretty much useless. In this section we’re going to talk about how you handle kicks in fight sequences, talk about kicking combinations and the difference between them and exhibition kicks. We’ll also give a few more tips on how to apply them to the characters you craft, some advice for writing them in your fight scenes, review our basic terminology and finally: give you some good reference material to further improve your studies. The more you know; the better writer you will be.

So, let’s get down to it.

Why is kicking important?

Pros: Kicks are a valuable part of any martial style and are well worth the difficulty that comes with mastering them. While more risky than hand techniques, they come with an advantage of speed, power, reach, and exceptional accuracy if your character has the requisite level of training. You can kick much, much harder than you can punch. A character can put more force behind kicks. Kicks can provide superb defense, keeping the other fighters off balance and your character out of arms reach. They can end the fight quickly, causing significant amounts of internal injuries, broken bones, and even death (often through grievous head wounds and concussions). They give you four limbs with which to attack instead of just two and can help make fight scenes more dynamic in the reader’s imagination.

Cons: That said kicks can come with some significant cons to balance them out. Many kicks are virtually useless once an opponent penetrates the fighter’s guard. (See: the Kicking Conundrum) They rely managing the opponent and keeping them far enough away for the vast majority of their arsenal to remain useful. If an opponent catches the leg, the fight is over. I can tell you that hopping across the floor to keep up with someone who has your leg tucked under their arm, even in just a friendly situation, is terrifying. You can’t extract it from them. You just have to trust that they’ll let you go. You can’t do that in a combat situation. Remember, there are no perfect techniques and no guaranteed victories. Each one has a counter and even when you and your character work hard, sometimes it’s just not enough, sometimes there’s someone better. No injury is free.

Common Combinations versus Double-Kicks:

Let’s start with Double-Kicks.

Double-Kicks: You’ve probably seen double-kicks in action if you’ve gone to any Taekwondo tournament. But let’s assume you haven’t. What is a double-kick? A double-kick is a kick, usually using the front leg, where two kicks are done with a single leg without the foot ever touching the ground. Sounds impressive, right? They are an exceptional display of control and skill when executed well. This can be confusing for non-practitioners who see them, because they look impressive and are very advanced. So, using them in a combat sequence will prove how talented their character is. But double-kicks aren’t combat kicks.

Double-Kicks like the low-high (low-high roundhouse, low-high side kick) and the double roundhouse aren’t combat kicks, they’re kicks designed to help the practitioner develop their balance, accuracy, flexibility, and fine muscular control. They’re usually taught between red belt (sometimes at brown belt) to black belt and are included in some of the higher level forms.

So, why don’t double-kicks work for combat?

The reason for this is simple, unlike in Hollywood, humans normally move away from what’s causing them pain. They will stumble, they will move back, or step away. Think back to your physics lessons for your scenes, what happens when force encounters force? Double-kicks are stationary. A character caught in the middle of a double-kick cannot give chase. Kicks generate a lot of force and they need follow-through (complete extension of the leg into the opponent) to be effective. A Double-Kick relies on balance, instead of the character going through the opponent. They have to pull their leg back to try again and don’t take into account the idea of the other person moving. Like I said, they’re not designed for combat. They are a great balance exercise and they will still look damn impressive when showing off to your friends (if you ever show off to your friends, I never did, non-martial artists just don’t understand).

Basic Kicking Combinations: Combinations are a martial artist’s bread and butter. They’re an important part of any character’s martial training. They build the connections in the brain that allow a fighter to transfer easily between different techniques, so instead of just throwing one, they can consecutively throw two, three, or four. Kicking combinations can only be done by characters that are trained, characters with a higher level of training will eventually start switching up their combinations and crafting their own. Remember, combinations are more like guidelines than actual rules. For kickers, they teach what kicks work together and flow naturally into one another, thus saving time and grief on using kicks whose movements (ending hip position, footwork) clash with each other. An example would be: combining a sidekick with a wheel kick as opposed to a sidekick and a back kick.

Now, let’s bring the rest of this guide into play and see how well you can follow along with these basic combinations:

1)      Slide front kick, front kick

2)      Front kick, roundhouse

3)      Roundhouse, sidekick

4)      Roundhouse, slide sidekick

5)      Sidekick, back kick

6)      Slide sidekick, back kick

7)      Slide sidekick, back kick, front kick, double-punch

8)      Front kick, roundhouse, back kick

9)      Slide front kick, front kick, roundhouse, slide sidekick, back kick

10)   Slide roundhouse, hook kick, cross-step roundhouse, wheel kick

I’m kidding on the last one, that’s rather advanced (red belt). You tack on the double-punch to the end of all of the above if it’s being performed in class.

How to Build Your Own:

If you were wondering why this guide in particular is so damn long, this is why. As writers, but (mostly) non-practitioners you don’t have the advantage of being able to experiment with your scenes before you put them down on paper. The reason for the step-by-step instruction is so you can learn the ins and outs of the kicks without having to learn to use them yourselves even if they’re imported piecemeal into your writing. Once you start being able to visualize the kicks in your mind, you can start putting them together into different combinations, combining them with hand motions as you become more advanced in your understanding. Your characters won’t always hit the enemy, but what matters is convincing your audience that you know what you’re talking about. So, some things to consider when putting together your own combinations:

Ignore the legs and ask where did my character’s feet land? What direction are their hips facing? Are they pointed sideways (finished a sidekick) or towards the opponent (front kick, roundhouse, punch)? Is someone coming in from the side (throw sidekick)? Or from behind (back kick)? Do they need to turn or come across (roundhouse)? How close are they to the opponent (punch, grab, or sidekick)?

Think beyond just techniques to the situation. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. Remember, there are thousands of different combinations out there. So, don’t worry about it too much unless the scene you’re writing is anatomically impossible or you’re performing a kill strike and calling it self-defense.

Kicking and Your Character:

You don’t have to include kicks if you’re not comfortable with them. In fact, if we’ve gotten this far and it’s all confusion, I really recommend avoiding them. Kicking is a very specialized skill and characters who practice them require specialized backgrounds. Not all martial artists can kick or kick well enough to get away with it in combat. Many of my Instructors, the ones who began training in martial arts at an older age, were only passable. Kicking wasn’t what they were good at, but they were still excellent in every other aspect. So, remember, you don’t need kicks and they’re much easier to screw up even in a fictional context than hand technique.

Kicking is not a required trait for a female fighter. While women do have a better sense of balance and flexibility, any woman who begins her training even into her early teens will have some difficulty with kicks (balance + muscular control) and older than that she’ll run into the same problems her male counterparts have. The older you get, the more difficult it is to master kicks in a combat context. The speed and fine muscle control just isn’t there. Besides, a woman’s only value isn’t in her legs.

Traits of a Kicker:

Beyond the obvious (limber, flexible, etc), here are a few traits that characters who use kicks as their primary offense will have.

They think with their feet:  A character that comes from a kicking discipline will have a “feet first” mentality. They’ll be more aware of other characters and keep a wider circle of awareness around their body (the extension of the leg), they’re usually aware of any other character who has entered into “kicking range”.

The knees go: snap, crackle, pop. This is one of the things they won’t tell you, but fighting is hard on the body. Even just training for it, you begin to wear out your body at an early age. Most kickers have knee problems later in life and even if they don’t, you can hear their body when they kneel down or bend over: snap, crackle, pop, the sound of the cartilage in their joints rubbing together. It doesn’t mean much of anything, but it’s common in most Taekwondo artists. My knees were going snap, crackle, pop by the time I was twelve years old. It isn’t painful for the practitioner, but it does make the listener wince and go: ‘oooh, ouch’.

Calluses: Kickers have hardened feet from years on the mats; no amount of lotion will ever soften them.

Writing Kicks in Your Fight Sequences:

We went over everything associated with the basic kicks in this write up not because all of it needs to be included in on the page, but because it’s part of what you need to be thinking about when you write them. There’s no reason to take the audience through a step-by-step accounting of every technique unless they’re a complete beginner. For most characters, these techniques will have already naturally become part of who they are, how they move, and how they think. They won’t consider the step-by-step because they already know how to do them. The problem is that you are not your character even though they are built out of your experiences and your imagination. If you don’t know, they can’t know, even though they should. It can be very frustrating.

So, let’s talk about the parts your scenes should focus on:

Impact: Remember our terminology and be specific: where on the body is your character hitting or being hit by their opponent? What parts of the body are they using, foot and leg don’t cut it, details are key. Compare:

Bad example: Samantha yanked her leg back and rammed her foot into Steven’s stomach.

Better example: Samantha yanked her leg back and struck out, ramming the blade of her foot into Steven’s stomach.

The differences are minor, but the visualization for the audience is better. You don’t need much, techniques happen fast, so you must attempt to marry brevity with detail to create scenes that move quickly. Remember, time doesn’t stop for us in real life when we stop to think about stuff, so it shouldn’t for your character.

Focus on what the technique does, not what the technique is: Use of proper terminology is great, but most people won’t know what that means and the effect is lessened. It feels like reading a textbook, instead of a fight.

Bad example: Samantha hit Steve with a hammer blow to the chest and then drove a sidekick into the side of his knee.

Better example: Samantha drove the bottom of her fist down into the center of Steve’s chest, like a hammer striking a nail. As he stumbled back, she whipped her knee up and around, tucking it tight against her stomach. Then she struck out with her left leg, driving the blade of her foot through the side of his knee. It gave way with a crunch and he howled, falling to the ground.

Any writing is about communicating ‘what happened’ to the reader, the rules for ‘show, don’t tell’ apply to writing fight scenes too. This is why writing fight scenes is so hard, because you need more than just the technique, you need: how to do it, what it does, where can it connect, what are the effects, and how will others respond to my character’s actions?

Most martial artists won’t provide that information for you, because they don’t need it. There are no easy answers to writing, just the ones you find for yourself. Give yourself some time to learn and you’ll come out the other side better than you began.

Review: Basic Terminology

The Fighting Stance: the beginning defensive stance for fighters

The Chamber: The position of the knee and the intermediate step between the foot on the ground and the kick in the air.

The Ball: the front part of the foot, between the arch and the toes.

The Blade: the outside edge of the foot

The Top: the top of the foot, point the toes

The Heel: the hardened back of the foot, behind the arch

Front Kick: a kick done while facing forwards, uses the ball of the foot

Side Kick: a kick done while facing sideways, uses the blade of the foot

Roundhouse: a kick done while the leg arcs around and across the front of the body, uses the ball of the foot

Back Kick: a kick done when the back is facing the opponent, uses the heel of the foot

Snap Kick: a fast version of the above kicks, a half-kick that strikes to the lower regions of the body, often taught in self defense

Turnover: when the hip turns over so the strike can connect, this happens during the chamber.

Follow-through: the concept of going through your target, instead of stopping at the body

The slide step: a step done while sliding forwards, kicks are done with the front leg

The cross-step: a step done where the legs make a cross-shape, turning the front leg into the powerful back leg

Review: Homework

Yeah, yeah, I know, boo. But this is just a guide, to actually learn more about how to use kicks in combat, you’re going to have to do more research and visual aids always help. The films and television series on this list aren’t great art or even great movies, but that’s not why you’re watching them is it? We suffer for our art, after all, and the martial artists in these films and shows are pretty damn incredible. If you’re watching any of the really good “Kung Fu” movies out of China, just try to keep in mind that Wire-Fu is a thing, so take some of the more elaborate stunts with a grain of salt. Remember, kicks are complicated and difficult to be really good at once you’re past a certain age. The pool for the media you can turn to that includes them is very small and must be performed by martial artists for the required speed and fluidity. (Summer Glau, though she is an excellent actress, ballerina, and terminator, has terrible form. You can’t skip this list by watching Serenity, I’m sorry. The same is true of Buffy and honestly, most of Joss Whedon’s work.)

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I haven’t seen most of his movies (which are terrible), but as a martial artist the man is incredible. His claim to fame is kickboxing, so he does fancy leg work better than just about anyone else on screen.  This is one of the few series of movies where you’ll ever see wheel kicks on film, especially the jump wheel kick. Check it out in Expendables 2 during his fight with Stallone, the man has perfect form.

Bruce Lee: The Master and progenitor of Jeet Kun Do. That said, the hype is real, Bruce Lee was a fantastic martial artist who defied a great many conventions and pretty much widened the gap for Asians in Hollywood. We’ve got a long way to go to push it further, but for martial artists, his movies are some of the finest. From the Green Hornet to Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee

Chuck Norris: I don’t really recommend Chuck Norris’s movies or his politics, unless you’re into pain. But the man is a master of the roundhouse kick and his fight scenes in Walker Texas Ranger, while silly, are a good example of some basic kicking techniques. You can also watch him deliver a Chuck Norris joke in character (while mocking his own movies) in Expendables 2. Chuck Norris like Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a student of Bruce Lee. (Also, check out Bruce Lee’s filmed fight with Kareem from the last movie he was filming before his death. There aren’t enough examples of black martial artists on film in Hollywood.)

Jet Li: All of it, no, seriously, including the badly subtitled obscure ones from China and the silly ones in the U.S. like Romeo Must Die (African-American crime families fight Asian-American crime families and the only white dude to be seen anywhere are working for the NFL. Also, Jet Li does incredible tricks with plastic ties) and Lethal Weapon IV where he takes apart a gun with his knees. (I don’t care if he’s the bad guy in that movie, I will never be over that stunt, omg!) Jet Li has a huge catalogue of movies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean and when it comes to studying up on writing fights most of them are worth a watch at least once.

Jackie Chan: Jackie Chan is the joker version of Jet Li, he does a lot of stunts and his movies are comedies, but he’s just as good and possibly more entertaining. Drunken Master is an incredible exhibition of skill all on its own and he’s done some of the craziest stunts.

The Karate Kid (Remake) Also, check out the Karate Kid remake as another decent Hollywood movie that pretty much skips white folks entirely. The sequences in it are very good and all the actors are fantastic. The young Chinese martial artists in the movie are fantastic and Jaden Smith is very good. It’s a great movie about martial arts, spirituality, and one of the only places you’ll get to see a good representation of competition and tournament culture. Michelle Yeoh also has a cameo where she faces off with a cobra.

Mortal Combat: It’s a cult classic and it’s really dumb, but the fight scenes really are pretty good. Don’t feel bad about popping in this flick in and watching it when you’re bored one evening. It might be worth your while.

The Mortal Combat Legacy: This mini-series is full of martial artists and stuntmen doing martial arts things and is free to watch on YouTube. This list is mostly full of boys and girl martial artists (especially ones who use kicks) can be hard to find, but check out the second episode of the Kitana and Mileena two-parter for some excellent girl on girl brawling action in the first scene.

GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (Ray Park and Byung-hun Lee (and their child counterparts)) Ray Park was the stuntman who played both Darth Maul and Toad in Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace and X-men respectively (famous for Storm’s “what happens when a toad gets hit by lightning” line), but he’s at his best as Snake Eyes in the ridiculously silly GI Joe movies. Throw in the excellent Byung-hun Lee as his counterpart villain Storm Shadow and you get some very impressive fight sequences. The flashback sequences between these two rivals as children are also pretty incredible. I’m rather eagerly awaiting the sequel on DVD to watch their rematch.

I would recommend Gina Carano, but I don’t like Haywire. For multiple reasons, you’d be better served looking up her actual fights and only if you’re really interested in a study of grappling moves. Those are what she’s best at. So, she really doesn’t have a place on this list. If someone more versed in some of the excellent movies out of China wants to recommend some female martial artists, we’ll put ‘em up.

Michelle Yeoh: She’s considered one of the greatest of female action movie martial artists, so if you’re starved for women who can kick butt, check out some of her films. Or catch her in the Supercop series opposite Jackie Chan. She’s a better example of what a ballerina can do when combined with martial training. But like Summer Glau, the tells never quite go away.

Finally: Human Weapon, the now defunct show on the history channel. The Discovery Channel has or had its own version, but it’s not as entertaining or as informative. Human Weapon isn’t great and it’s not always accurate (it is TV). It’s a great window into a lot of different martial arts from around the world. It’s a great starting primer to use as a launch for your research. You can find most of the episodes for it on YouTube.

Also, check out our article: The Points Where Weapons Become Useless for more information about when to kick and when not to.

-Michi 1, 2, 3