Tag Archives: creative

On Writing: Psychological Shock

There are two different kinds of shock that can easily be confused with each other: physiological shock from receiving a grievous injury and psychological shock which is an acute stress reaction to a terrifying or traumatic event. In this article, we’re going to talk about how a writer can communicate that their character is experiencing psychological shock without having to outright state it. There are many tips out there that are useful for writing fight scenes and most of them won’t be helpful when your story requires coupling an action sequence with an acute stress reaction.

So, let’s go below the cut and talk about it.

In this, we’re going to talk about psychological shock from the writer’s perspective and how to use it. However, we are not medical professionals. For a full understanding of psychological shock, more research will be required.

What is an acute stress reaction?

An acute stress reaction comes from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. This could be anything from watching a random passerby get gutted by a mugger, being attacked by a mugger, finding a family member dead in their bed, being the victim of violence, experiencing a betrayal by a close friend, being on the wrong end of a gun, etc.

This experience links into both the fight or flight response and the combat stress response.

Okay, so what does that mean?

If you’ve never experienced an acute stress reaction before to a traumatic event in your own life then manufacturing it on the page may be difficult. Even if you have, reliving the experience in your own mind in order to get it right can be incredibly traumatizing. What is most important to presenting shock in your story is not that you focus entirely on getting the exact symptoms right, it’s getting the feeling right and making sure that the same feeling infuses every aspect of the scene if it’s being written in either First Person or Third Person Limited.

I mean everything from pacing to word choice should be representative of selling the experience to your audience. This is how you make anything in your story authentic. You have to sell it as if you were experiencing it yourself.  Method acting will help; imagining the scene as if it were happening to you will help if you’re willing to go there.

How to do that:

I personally describe shock as feeling sluggish and dazed. I felt far away from my body, far away from reality and what was happening around me. Information came in slow, but my reaction to it was dull and, depending on the situation, nonexistent. In events that happened after, I remembered everything that had happened with perfect clarity but it still felt like I had been on autopilot. For me, how hard I get rocked by shock often depends on what I was expecting going into the event. If I’m completely blindsided, it can take a while to recover. If I was prepared for it or had begun preparations for it, I have less to work through before getting back to the regular world. I apply this to my characters when working through how they feel about events and what parts of the process they get caught in.

You can communicate shock fairly easily through some simple techniques.

Remove the active verbs.

Compare:

Looking down at her hand, Margaret saw blood.

Versus:

Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood.

One of these is fast and I’ll admit, the one with “looking” sounds better, but it also moves more quickly and feels more active. When you want your sentences to move more slowly, to feel more sluggish, it’s worth taking a step back and taking your time because from the character’s perspective everything has slowed down. (Always remember though, time is keeping pace for the other characters in the scene unless they are likewise affected, so keep them moving at normal speeds.)

Long sentences interspersed with short sentences.

Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood. Blood. Whose blood? My blood. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her blood.

By interspersing long sentences with short ones, you can develop an awkward, intentionally jerky feel in the pacing which adds to the sense that the character is feeling out of sorts and distant to what’s happening around them.

Repetition

 Margaret looked down at her hand and saw blood. Blood. Whose blood? My blood. No. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be her blood.

We can use repetition of the same word over and over to emphasize that sense of distance; that the character is taking a while to come to terms with what he or she is experiencing. The information is taking a while to sink in. We also add in a denial of the reality present which results from surprise.

“He shot me! You shot me! Derrick! Why would you shoot me?”

Shock can follow your characters for a while, so even at later points in the story it’s important to call back to it through changes in your character’s behavior. So, remember to keep track of that. Whether it’s pain from the wound:

Her cheek hurt. Why would it hurt? Oh right, Margaret thought, she’d been shot.

or from a distinct change in their lifestyle:

I turned my head, hand tightening on the remote. Dad always came home at five after five and he’d give me hell if he caught me watching television. I waited, listening for the familiar thrum of the Ford Taurus as it wound up the driveway, the catch of the headlights on the windows, the blur of green through the white shades. On the tube, Batman laughed but no grinding wheels came up the asphalt. It was just another car passing our front door outside.

Oh. I paused. Oh, right. Dad wasn’t coming home from work today. Dad wasn’t coming home ever again.

Give it a try. See what you turn out.

Happy Writing!

-Michi

Fight Scene Strategies: The Individual versus Group

In this article, we’ll talk some about structuring and writing combat between an individual and a group. As the title suggests, this article will focus primarily on unarmed/hand to hand strategies for dealing with multiple opponents. We’re going to avoid weapons for the most part in this discussion because the strategies can change dramatically depending on what weapon it is that your character is using and this article is going to have a heavier focus on how different groups behave and the problems you have to watch out for in your story when working with them.

So, let’s start by tearing down a few myths.

The Group is the Most Dangerous Opponent Your Hero will Face

No, really.  A group of mooks together are going to be an all around tougher fight than the antagonist who waits at the end of the tunnel. Due to the rise of comics and Hollywood’s building up of the “One True Badass”, the difficulties an individual faces when fighting a large group are often overlooked. In real life, groups are much more dangerous to the lone combatant than single individuals and even the toughest fighter can be easily taken down by the untrained if he or she fails to control the situation. The reason it’s become commonplace on television for the roving badass to dispatch a group of random mooks with ease is because it is so difficult to do so in the land of reality.

This is important.

The truth is that even when you have years of training, something that seems as simple as a two on one bout can seriously screw someone over. The more people you add, the more difficult it gets. The maximum number a well-trained human being can take on at any one time is eight. The brain cannot handle tracking a number higher than that, but the truth is that even three or four is a difficult challenge.

Why is fighting groups so hard?

There are a higher number of limbs versus the singular defender

The part about there being more limbs is important. A person only has two arms and two legs (unless they are a mutant or an alien) with which to fight. Those two arms and two legs will have a difficult enough time fending off the attacks of one person, much less having to deal with four more coming in on vectors that your character can’t control. It doesn’t matter how many punches your character blocks, one will probably get through and that one can be the deal breaker. This is bad enough when the character’s opponents aren’t communicating. It gets much worse when they start, which they will because it’s a thing.

People work together

Yes, they do. Humans are social animals and they work well together in teams, very well in fact. You know the scenes you see in the movies where the stunt doubles will circle up and wait around the fighter (as seen on Buffy) for their turn to attack in a series of duels? They have a habit of coming in one by one. That doesn’t happen because it doesn’t play to the group’s strengths.  If your character lets them, a group will attack together. If they can, they’ll surround the character, dogpile, and knock them to the ground. Often in more sophisticated groups that are used to working together, one or two will distract the fighter from the front while others close in from behind and either hit them in the vulnerable places like the spine, the hamstrings, and the lower back or seize control of them via the hero’s neck or limbs.

All groups work together on some level, even the uncoordinated ones. The better trained and more used to working together the individual members of the group are such as gangs or professionals like soldiers, cops, and mercenaries, the harder the fight will be.

Yeah, even the untrained will naturally start flanking your hero. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The Hero expends energy faster

Fighting is high energy exertion, it’s like sprinting and thus, it doesn’t last long. So, the hero must take down all their opponents before they themselves can no longer fight. Thus, they walk a much tighter tightrope of how fast it will be before they’re done.  They have to track more variables, their opponents, their surroundings, potential weapons, escape routes, how much time they have to hold out or finish it up before they or their enemies receive reinforcements, etc. It’s tough, tiring work. They have to know and keep track of where everyone is, actively strategizing, and moving to outpace their internal body clock.

Professionally trained combatants will approach a group, any group with a certain level of caution. For the untrained or untried hero, fighting a group can be where they find themselves in over their heads. It’s common for us to focus overly on the dangers we understand and ignore the ones we’re unaware of. Martial training can breed a certain level of arrogance in the early parts of an individual’s career before the fighter learns that everyone has the potential to be dangerous to them. Yes, even the little kids and old ladies. Disregarding the dangers of a group of lesser fighters or random idiots on the street is in character for most heroes.

Punish them for their mistakes. It’s a good humbling experience.

Well, it is if they survive.

Strategies

So, how can a character deal with groups?

Run away

This sounds like the coward’s way out, but it’s not. There’s no shame in living to fight another day or retreating to find a different approach instead of wading in. Don’t think of running away as giving up, think of it instead as retreating to find a more advantageous position. When faced with superior force and superior numbers, it is important for characters to seek to fight on their terms if they have the option to do so and to try anyway, even when they are pressed for time.

Run Away With Purpose

I call this rabbiting. When dealing with two or more individuals running away is an acceptable option as a means of breaking up the group so that they become easier to manage. You see this happen more commonly in action movies with stars that already know how to fight. (Example: Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx) By chasing the character, the more athletically adept will pull ahead and the less will fall behind. Characters with a firm grasp of their surrounding area can lose members of the group in the terrain. The character can then turn the situation around to their advantage and fight the smaller groups or individuals on their own terms.

This is only an effective strategy for characters that have good stamina, understand their area, and excel at thinking on their feet. It can go wrong for characters up against groups who can communicate over long distances and who are trained to outmaneuver that tactic. This includes the police (Example: Southland), the military, former military professionals, mercenaries, characters who possess some sort of telepathy, and characters who draw from a Pack mindset (werewolves, animalistic characters, etc).

Keep the opponent in front of you and protect the back

If a character cannot run or doesn’t have the option, then they might have to stand and fight. This can be difficult, given the tendency of a group to circle around and dog team (one distracts from the front, while another shoots in from the back or the side to tag the fighter before shooting off again, as the fighter attempts to recover from the blow, another comes in, and then another, and then another until they’re done) their opponents. A character fighting a group needs to keep the group in front of them. It can be difficult to defend from behind and while there are techniques (such as elbows and kicks) that allow characters to defend against individuals coming in behind them but they are limited. Characters fighting groups will want to keep moving, forcing their opponents to stay in front of them to limit their avenues and vectors of attack. By constantly moving, the character forces their opponents into each other as they attempt to attack and attack their enemies one at a time.

You can only attack one opponent at a time, so don’t waste movements

A character may switch between enemies, but they can only attack one enemy at a time. All their enemies may attack them and they don’t have to take turns. At best, they can block two, if they are really, really Jackie Chan fight scene choreography good then maybe three. But it’s best to have them focus on one at a time as they attempt to lock up the others. A fighter only has time for six to eight movements per fight, so they have to be dispatching each of their opponents in two or three blows depending on the numbers. Even the gentlest character may be forced to become ruthless.

All fights end on the ground, the character should make sure they don’t go down first

Suggestions on Writing:

This sort of chase scene or group fight can be tense an exhilarating and is helpful for establishing the nature of the fighter, especially if the audience is aware that they are up against a greater force. It can be a better reveal for who they are and what they’re willing to do when they are forced to be on their A game. However, as the writer, you need to be on the ball. Each of the characters in the group need to be clearly identified to the reader so they can track what is happening. Writing combat against a group is actually very difficult, because it is very messy and confusing. The sequence must be carefully choreographed in order to keep the tension kept high.

Graph out the setting area where the scene takes place, much like mapping an environment, writing and creating becomes easier when we know the pieces and materials that are at our disposal. A fight scene needs it’s the environment to be an active part of the scene because it changes the nature of the fight. A character running into the woods to escape a group hunting them will have different tools available than someone starting a chase in an urban environment. A character fighting in a bar may have nowhere to run but more objects at their disposal to throw and use in their own defense (beer bottles, chairs, tables, glasses, etc).

If you’re writing your character is going up against a group, then their understanding of their environment may be key to their success. Fights with groups are tense and require more than just skill for survival, creativity is also important. So, get your set pieces in place and see what happens.

Clearly identify each member of the group. Give them names based on distinguishing traits that a character observes about them, such as Number One and Number Two, The Brown Haired Guy, Blue Eyes, Buck Teeth, etc.

It’s important not to humanize the group members too much unless you want the audience to feel sorry for them, they shouldn’t be clearly evil, but they need to remain menacing. Knowing a character’s name humanizes them, so it’s not just a question of description, it’s a question of how much. Writing violence requires walking a careful line with the audience between just enough and too much.  Managing the emotions that your story evokes is important; too much makes it difficult to sympathize with the hero.

Examples:

Garvey came at Kel from the right, punching at her head. She slid away from his punch, grabbed his arm, pushed her right foot forward, and twisted to the left. Garey went over her hip into Vinson, who’d attacked on her left. Joren, at the center, came in fast as his friends hit the wall. Kel blocked Joren’s punch to her middle, but his blow was a feint; his left fist caught her right eye squarely. Kel scissored a leg up and out, slamming her right foot into Joren’s knee. Joren hissed and grabbed her hair. Someone else—Vinson—tackled her. Kel let his force throw her into Joren. Down the three of them went in a tumble. Joren let go of her hair, fighting to get out from under her and Vinson. Kel elbowed him in the belly and turned to thrust her other hand into Vinson’s face, encouraging him to get off her by pressing his closed eyes with her fingers.

Page by Tamora Pierce

This sequence by Tamora Pierce is compact, but it shows the sort of attention to detail you need when writing an individual versus a group. It’s not the only way to do it and whatever we suggest here, there are always many more strategies for you to uncover and develop in your own work.

We hope this has been helpful!

-Michi

I’m writing about a community (actually multiple communities) that have separated themselves from society because they have animalistic traits (sharpened senses, retractible claws–otherwise human). The communities are like military bases, and they train their members to fight from a young age. About what age would a person become an accomplished fighter, and are there any basic moves/styles that you could illustrate for me that someone in this position might practice regularly? Thanks much!

Well, as for the styles that they’d practice regularly, that will heavily depend on what their members knew or were trained in before they wandered off from society at large. So, what styles they’d have and what they’d know, that will be up to you to figure out. But, I can point you in the general direction.

If members of the society had a connection to the military (I’m assuming U.S. Military, if you want another country of origin then you have to look up their standard style) which is going to be some variant of C.Q.B (close quarters battle), this style can range from the Marine variety of M.A.P. to the styles practiced by the C.I.A., special forces, and other government agents. It’s cousin is C.Q.C. (Close Quarters Combat) which is the non-lethal/subdual based hand to hand style practiced by the Police and the FBI. Both styles are designed to be very easy to learn and to pick up in a matter of months, if not weeks. While the style is not designed to produce warriors, it does produce very effective combatants.

The civilian variants of Krav Maga and Muay Thai are both brutal and acceptable alternatives if the characters lack military roots.

You’ll have to modify the style and their variation of combat based on their powers, which will mean coupling it with your animal of choice. I suggest looking taking a look at various pack animals such as wolves and lions to get an idea of how these characters might naturally work together as a unit, this will lend the alien/predatory sense to them that you’re going to need. Otherwise, they’ll just come across as human and there will be some question to the point of the powers relating to animals at all. Any general nature documentary from Animal Planet, National Geographic, or the Discovery Channel (or corresponding channels in your country) will work as a jump off point for your research.

If you’re wondering why I suggest pack animals, the reason is this: they live in a community that is isolated from the outside world and they are highly militarized. Militarized communities breed a certain perspective on how they view the outside world and how they raise the members of their society. The kids will be taught to work together from a young age, their combat and survival training will likely be Pack oriented, with a firm untrustworthy gaze (if not open hostility) directed at the outside world. Communities that just want to be left alone don’t militarize, even if they do maintain a militia force. The society you’re suggesting is one with a very complete martial focus and that doesn’t inspire warm fluffy bunny feelings for strangers. For these guys anything that is not them is Other and because the indoctrination starts when they are infants it will be almost impossible to break and I mean that, a quick jaunt into the outside world or even an extended stay isn’t likely to shake their loyalty to their community and is likely to only really inspire a general disgust.

 Every military force needs an enemy, even if that enemy is just out of reach. Training soldiers for no reason other than to train soldiers, in a culture that is full of soldiers, who have been raised to be soldiers from birth need to fight. They have to, if they don’t have that outlet, they will turn on the community itself and do battle within it. They are going to need to focus that aggression somewhere and on someone, because they have qualities that differentiate them from humans and some elements of their society may even have embraced the concept that they are no longer human, it makes human society at large an easy target to transform into the necessary evil Other. Eventually, they will become an expansionist entity.

Because the society will have limited members and has a military focus, they will trend towards gender equal out of necessity.

They will also need to be focused on the Good of the Whole as opposed to Individual Gain to keep them in the society and from the society having to promise them (like land) to get them to stay. Even when faced with a hostile outside world, there will be those who want to leave unless measures are taken to coerce them into staying. This can be done by starting young and focusing them on the collective’s needs instead of their own.

On Training:

Training for these characters will involve a focus on unit cohesion, team building, and creating a sense of brotherhood within the members of the community. It should also engender (if they are actually skilled combatants that don’t rely on berserking) a sense of discipline. This is why I suggested the military and military training as the basis for your study. Because the society is small, retaining the loyalty of their members will be paramount to their survival. Their training from early childhood on will revolve around building that sense of dedication. The children will probably be taken from their parents early, perhaps as young as four, put into the care of an older mentor figure, and mixed into a unit of their fellows. The collective itself will become their parent figure instead of any one individual caretaker.

The training will begin at five and will remain light. Though they’ll learn techniques, attention will be placed primarily on developing the necessary skill sets that they’ll need to serve the community later in life. This will mostly take place in the form of “games” like Hide and Seek (hunt and stalk your prey), Tag (one player acts as a rabbit while the others hunt them down) and so on. When they get a little older (say nine or ten) they may even be allowed out on “field trips” to practice their skills as a test (though in a controlled environment under the close eye of the adults).

If their training goes as planned, then they’ll be accomplished fighters (though not practical, experienced combatants) by the time they are fifteen. They’ll be ready to release into the regular force by the time they are eighteen. (This will have more to do with their emotional and psychological maturity as opposed to their skill level.)

The kids won’t openly spar with each other (in an uncontrolled, non-padded environment) until they are at the end of their training.

Remember, the goal of the training is going to be to develop unity as opposed to individualism. Rivalries will be tolerated until they affect the training and the unit, then they will be mercilessly quashed by the instructor in charge. The kids will always be under fairly close scrutiny, even when they don’t realize that they are, and rivalries will be something that their instructors and handlers will be specifically on the lookout for either to use or suppress. The two rivals, regardless of their skill level, may be allowed to continue their rivalry by their instructors to show the other students the faults of individualism and the virtues of cohesion.

By the time their training is complete, they will be firmly entrenched in the tenants of their society and the concepts of Not So Different will matter very little to them. It will also be fairly difficult to get one alone and away from their fellows without extreme duress. If any more than one is captured (even if they are or were previously rivals) forget about them turning against each other or their culture. Loyalty to their society will win out over any personal desires.

Good Examples:

The Psi Corps from Babylon 5

The Jem’Hadar from DS9

The Space Marines (and other subsequent groups) from Warhammer 40k

Survivalist Groups/Cults (With a focus on the sociological and psychological aspects if you can stomach researching them.)

The Marines (with subsequent focus on training and instilling the concept of the enemy Other into the soldiers)

Bad Examples:

The Spartans (Their training focused on individualism and is outdated in concept when set against any generation of a trained, standing military force. When the Spartans existed there wasn’t really any such thing as trained military combatants. Times have changed, in today’s world, the results of that training would be subpar.)

Stay away from Special Forces, Special Forces are elite but also limited. They do not an Army or Militarized Society make. Go with the lower tiers of military first before looking at these guys and their training methods. Remember, Special Forces training builds off what the soldier learned in basic and the field, while their training can be extreme, it can’t be done with fresh clay. It’s the finishing glaze to a piece of pottery that’s already been through the kiln. Don’t mistake one for the other. (If you must have them, then for psychology’s sake, these will be characters taken in for extra training in their mid-twenties. If you’re writing a YA novel, they are outside your reach, though they will work for antagonists.)

Stay away from any material that proposes starting training with an uncontrolled bout. Anyone trying to turn out a genuine military force isn’t going to force two people into an arena and say fight unless they are a sadist and don’t care about the development of the fighters. The students are only going to hurt themselves and they won’t actually learn anything from the experience (other than bad habits that will be difficult to break later). Many students train for years before they are allowed to fight with no pads and by then they know they’re doing (usually they’ll have progressed to the point of being ready to be teachers themselves).

Psychological Aspects:

I stuck this in at the end because while it’s important, it’s also sensitive. We do have an article on child soldiers, but this is different. This is covering training in violence and experiencing violence at a young age. There’s a difference in kids and adults who began training young versus  those who begin training when they’re older. The difference isn’t just that they’re better, it produces some interesting psychological and emotional differences that will impact the characters you’re working with.

The Individual is the Violence

For a kid who has been raised in combat, the combat (beyond the violence) becomes an intrinsic part of who they are. This means, ultimately, that fighting will be their natural state and where they feel the most comfortable. Their combat style and training won’t be an aspect tacked on to a ready made individual (like you get with adults), it will be the individual.

It will come to the point that while the individual is able to contemplate and understand the cause and effects of their violent actions outside of the fighting, it’s a disconnect that won’t occur to them when they are in the moment. It works like this: though the character may choose their techniques based on who they are fighting, they may perform those techniques with the same speed and efficiency that they were taught regardless of who they are fighting because the style itself has become a molded extension of themselves.

It’s not a question of right or wrong. It is part of them and will remain part of them long into adulthood. If you’re going to write kids who fight, you’re going to have to start viewing violence (even if you don’t believe or don’t like it) as a normative state.

Lack of Empathy is Key

They don’t empathize with others in the same way, they’ll connect with their group or pack just fine. Strangers, however, are a different story. They will be innately suspicious and wary of strangers. They may understand (but not really) why other people are put off by violence or the injuries they inflict. (Why are you crying? It’s just a gut wound. Get back up.)

And the reason for the lack of empathy?

Violence is Normal

It’s always been this way. Are you telling them that their whole life is wrong? How would you react if someone told you that everything you believed in and everyone you trusted and loved was wrong and evil? (Starke Note: How would you react if someone told you: No, puppies are for eating.)

There’s probably some other stuff in there, but that’s the general gist. To everything, there is a trade off. The younger a kid is and the more skilled they are, the more their personality must be molded around that core skill. To the uninitiated outside observer this blase approach to violence may come off as a wee bit psychopathic, but it’s important to remember that these kids aren’t psychopaths. They come from a society that has a very different standard of normal. Much like the average middle class San Franciscan’s instinctive gut reaction to a picture of a North Dakotan seven year old girl in a princess dress wielding an AK47.

Different strokes.

-Michi

(One important trait that I forgot to add: The Confidence Is Not False. They are that damn good and they know it. Whatever crippling insecurities the characters may have in terms of social interaction or in other aspects of their life, when they’re good at something, they know it and they will look down on others for not knowing and being bad at what is normal to them. See: Altair from the first Assassin’s Creed and his general lack of human empathy. The assassins in the first game and their gleeful poking of Altair while at the same time helping him is a good example of the ways you can play the “family” loyalty. Desmond’s personality, sadly, is not spot on.)

Got any tips for a character whose an assassin and uses underhanded tactics when fighting hand to hand?

othersidhewriting:

howtofightwrite:

I’d start by going through The Only Unfair Fight is the One you Lose posts:

Here, http://howtofightwrite.tumblr.com/post/52349151535/fight-write-the-only-unfair-fight-is-the-one-you-lose and here: http://howtofightwrite.tumblr.com/post/52428049557/fight-write-the-only-unfair-fight-is-the-one-you-lose

Beyond that, keep in mind, that for an assassin, they’re probably going to be killing any opponents as quickly as possible. Frequently, this means dispatching their foes before an actual fight can start.

If they do end up in combat, your character’s probably going to be looking for weapons to end a fight. If that’s a chair, lamp, toaster, or a handgun, then so be it.

I’m going to throw this one out there, since I don’t think we’ve mentioned it before: the head twist and break isn’t really a thing. Theoretically you can kill someone that way, but it takes a lot of force. And, from that position, it’s a lot easier (and quieter) to execute a choke hold and strangle someone to death that way.

Also, strangling someone takes a while. (And, no, this isn’t from personal experience.) Even after the victim goes limp, the character needs to keep choking them until the brain actually shuts down. Otherwise, they’ll just start breathing again, and recover.

I’d say look at Val Kilmer in Spartan and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Cruise is actually playing an assassin, while Kilmer is playing a government operative. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but the Thomas Jane Punisher film might also give you some ideas, there isn’t a lot of hand to hand, but that’s kind of the point.

If you have a lot of spare time, I’d recommend looking at 24. Kieffer Sutherland looks like he’s using a mix of Krav Maga and some miscellaneous CQB training. The problem is, there’s a lot of show (about 18 hours per season), and only a tiny fraction of that is combat.

There’s some good stuff in Burn Notice, so long as you remember that the only real difference between Michael and an assassin is that the latter is getting paid to kill someone. On the whole, the show is a good primer for tradecraft, which is useful for writing an assassin. Also, it’s entirely plausible to have an assassin that’s unwilling to kill people (outside of a contract), simply because it would draw more attention onto them, in which case, Michael is a very good character to look at.

Anyway, hope that helps.

-Starke

Michi wants to add Karl Urban’s character from Red, and Bruce Willis’ character from Lucky # Sleven. Fact is, we have a wall of DVDs featuring hitmen and assassins of all stripes, so this is by no means a comprehensive viewing list.

Hmm I think time period and world setting out have a very big impact on it, like if it’s my mage that’s an assassin… hm… he’d have to go for quick and deadly spells.

While establishing how an assassin kills in their own setting is important, there are underlying principles in how assassins work that are actually much more important to getting a handle on than the surface dressing. Here’s the thing that’s most important to get a handle on when working with an assassin: they are not professional killers, they are professional murderers.

This is where we go: but isn’t all killing murder? Yes, but in the context that we’re talking about, it’s important to remember that an assassin’s kills are always premeditated. Their job description involves stalking their prey, getting to know them, their habits, their favorite foods, their friends, their families, their preferred way of getting to work, what buttons to push, while they look for the best method with which to dispatch their target. They will probably break into their house and their place of work, rummage through their personal effects, their mail, even their target’s trash if necessary, much in the same way a spy would. Except, of course, a spy’s goal is to acquire information and an assassin’s is to acquire knowledge of the target with the express goal of personally murdering them. Depending on who it is that they are being sent after and how easy they are to get to, the assassin may very well know their target better than the target’s own family does by the end of the experience.

An assassin’s kills are personal, even when they seem incredibly impersonal. They get to know their target as a person (whether they think of them that way or not) and that’s what makes them different from other the other professionals including your general SEAL wet-work teams.

Assassins don’t generally have a certain “style” or preferred method of killing someone. A good assassin is one that is capable of working through a variety of different methods and weapons, these will run the gamut from multiple different kinds of weapons/martial styles to a variety of poisons and bombs. Depending on what their client may want or what they assess to be the best route available, an assassin may become anything from the sniper on the clock tower, the terrorist planting the car bomb to send a message, or they may lay their target out in a bathtub with their wrists slit to make it look like a suicide. A good (if extreme) example from Elementary was the assassin in one of the later episodes who worked by killing people via “accidents”, he hacked a pacemaker to give a man a heart attack, he killed a man via pushing an air conditioning unit off an apartment rooftop, and finally (funnily) planned to kill a woman with a crippling bee allergy with her personal variety of kryptonite.

Flexible. Professional. Personal.

The reason why I suggested R.E.D. is for the Karl Urban sequence at the beginning is for the (very obvious) dichotomy present when he’s on the phone with his wife discussing their domestic concerns while he’s in the process of kicking the chair out from under a man he’s hung from the rafters.

The other important aspect of an assassin’s job is not just to kill but to remain anonymous during and after the killing. Assassins trade on their anonymity, people may know that someone killed their target but they won’t be able to pin down who it was or even prove that anyone did it at all. This is why the mage analogy doesn’t make sense, because you’re working under the assumption that a the kill will revolve around what skills the assassins have overall as opposed to the skills they need to get this particular job done. Depending on the setting, directly using magic to kill someone could be akin to setting off a nuclear warhead in their living room (I mean that via the spiritual impression left behind in it’s wake), it’s big, fairly flashy even at it’s most subtle, and easy to detect once you know what your looking for. More importantly, most spells will tie back to their owner in some way and by tracing that link in the energy remnants left behind the caster can become easy to locate. Even in a setting where magic is common, an assassin may choose a physical approach because it’s the best way to bypass the attacks their mage target is expecting.

If you really must couple magic with an assassin, I’d suggest choosing spells that don’t take the direct death approach. In the best scenario, the character will probably use spells that won’t directly effect their target but instead work subtly on the people around them, on random strangers, or lay the spell through inanimate objects that can be easily discarded during cleanup after the kill. This is, of course, still risky because there’s still a chance that even with the triggering object gone, the spell itself could still be recovered and traced. The assassin could use objects that were prepared by someone else, but similar risks apply. Most likely, if they do use magic at all, assassins will use spells that primarily enhance themselves such as nightsight, heightened senses, etc and probably ones delivered into their system via a potion of some sort.

The problem is that magic isn’t like a gun you buy from an arms dealer or with cash using a false identity from a WalMart two states over and dump into the Potomac after plugging some poor bastard in the back of the head. It’s a little more intense than the bullet or fingerprint left at a crime scene.

The best advice I have for writing an assassin is:

Don’t start with the assassin saying: how can my character kill someone? In fact, don’t start with the assassin’s character at all.

Start with and develop their target. Who are they? Where are they located? What under circumstances does the client wish for them to die?

It’s cliche to say that it’s business, but it’s also true. An assassin is a professional and their business is murder. Once you grasp who they are when they work (by planning out a fictional murder for yourself), figuring out who they are in their personal life (and the dichotomy between those two selves) will be much easier.

-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

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

Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Open Hand)

In this post we’ll be talking about open hand strikes, how they work and what they do. While closed hand strikes are more popular in fiction, the ones working with the open hand are also important. We’ll start by talking about the advantages and disadvantages of the open hand, and then try to give some insight into some specific strikes with some examples on how to write them.

With open hand strikes, there’s honestly not that much to say. Or there’s not much I can say, aside from a few common ones, they’re not my specialty. But try not to let that worry you too much, I’m avoiding the spear hand on principle because it’s finicky and the chances your character would have to use the strike are so limited (and so obvious) that it’s better to just ignore it for the moment.

So, let’s get down to it.

Open hand strikes can be, in the right circumstances, more dangerous than a closed fist because they focus the force of the strike into a much more concentrated point than the fist. It’s important to remember that most of the conventional wisdom about force application we have in popular culture comes from observations made about various sport styles and exhibition fighting, such as in movies and staged fights at martial arts tournaments. The assumption becomes that those moves were chosen to be allowed because they are more effective, not less. The problem though, with that assumption is that while goal of fighting is to win, it’s also to do so with relative safety and not kill the opponent. Injure, wound, and maim perhaps, but again not kill. The same is true for both tournament demonstration and media in general. Many of the open hand strikes are, in fact, designed not just for killing but also screwing with the body’s internal energy flow and its nervous system.

Open hand strikes are useful in that they can transition more easily into blocks than the closed hand strikes.

Below: the open palm strike, the half-palm strike, the knife hand, the ridge hand, and the slap.

The Open Palm Strike:

A common strike in Karate and Tae Kwan Do, the palm strike (open and half) is one that allows the attacker to hit their opponents body with minimal risk to the delicate bones in the hand. The open palm strike specifically hits the opponent with the meaty portion of the lower palm in the vulnerable areas of the body. It is important to remember, that the strike does not use the whole hand. The palm strike uses the wrist as the driving force behind the assault, with the hand vertical to the rest of the arm. It’s important to keep the entire hand and wrist tight to absorb the impact. Like the punch, the palm strike goes upwards at a 45 degree angle to the face (hitting the nose, it drives the cartilage into the brain) and straight to the stomach. If the strike is low enough, it can connect with the throat, but it’s also important not to catch the fingers on the chin. There is, however, a variation on the half-palm strike that goes to the throat and it is discussed below.

Remember, like all strikes, the power of the palm strike comes from the hips, the shoulders, and the pivot of the front or back foot, not the muscles in arm. Martial arts is a full body exercise.

How do you write it? Here’s an example:

Amy stepped in as her opponent’s arm came up. Folding her fingers in until they touched the underside of her knuckles, she bent her hand up to expose the fleshy portion of her palm. There wasn’t enough distance between the two of them for her to strike his nose and he was closing rapidly.

Well, Amy realized, she’d just have to take a chance.

Jaw clenching, her elbow and shoulder pulled back. Then, her hand shot out, slamming her palm into the small, vulnerable opening underneath his chest. As the wind went out of him, she threw herself forward. Her hands rose to clinch the back of his head, her fingers locking together as her elbows folded in around his throat. Drawing him down as her hip came up, she rammed her right knee into his groin. 

The Half-Palm Strike:

The major difference between the open palm strike and the half-palm is that the first one comes in with fingers straight, the second folds the fingers and tucks them in tight against the bottom knuckle of the palm. When the half palm is vertical to the wrist it strikes the same as the open palm. However, when it’s horizontal and in-line with the wrist, it strikes with the joints to the windpipe or the stomach. It can be performed overhand (with the palm facing down) or underhand (with the palm facing up).

Common Beginner Mistake: The open palm strike is commonly taught first, on the basis of beginners risking a finger break. The joints of the fingers are extremely delicate, so if it connects wrong such as the practitioner forgetting to pull their hand all the way back to expose the meaty portion of the palm when the hand is vertical or connecting with a bony part of the body such as the cheek, chest, or chin when doing the horizontal version the fighter risks damage to themselves.

So, how do you write it? Here’s an example:

Alan’s fingers folded in and he rolled his hand over. Drawing his arm down to his waist, he struck upwards at a forty-five degree angle. The tender joints of his fingers met his opponent’s windpipe, but instead of slamming through, Alan pulled back. After all, this was just a training exercise. Jim stumbled, hands rising to his throat. He hacked and wheezed, drawing air up in through his nostrils. Then, he lifted his head. Narrowed eyes glared at Alan as Jim turned his head to the side and spat.

The Knife Hand:

We’ve talked some about the knife hand and how dangerous it can be in previous posts, but we’re going to talk about it again! Why? Why not! The knife hand is a bread and butter strike from quite a few different martial arts from all over the world, though it was popularized, attributed, and defanged by Hollywood to Karate in the 60s and 70s in the spy genre with “the karate chop”. Contrary to popular belief though, the knife hand isn’t actually a safe knockout strike to the side or back of the neck. It’s a kill strike and when it’s within range, it’s a fairly efficient one. So, be careful with it. If your character is practicing any variant of Karate or more traditional forms of Taekwondo then they will be exceedingly familiar with this strike.

The knife hand or the sword-hand uses the blade of the hand, the outside edge opposite the thumb that runs from the little finger to the wrist when the hand is flat and tightened together. The wrist locks in place to support the hand and the fingers point to create the visual profile of a knife or single edge sword. The knife hand strikes in a chopping motion either up and down or on a diagonal, it doesn’t stab. The knife hand targets soft points on the body from the carotid artery in the neck to the outside pressure point midway up the upper arm between the biceps and triceps. The strike closes the carotid artery and when it aims from the spinal column or the back of the neck, it’s looking to sever vertebrae. The blade of the hand allows for much deeper tissue penetration and more pinpointed strikes.

Common Beginner Mistake: Your character has got to keep their entire hand tightened, if they loosen up before impact they’ll damage their hand and won’t really damage their target. This is where thoughts like “I don’t want to hurt anyone” will really screw you, because it both damages a character’s ability (and yours) to fight effectively (thus ending the fight quickly before anyone is hurt more than they need to be) and the good intentions open the character up to retaliation by the person they’re fighting (who often really does want to hurt them). The knife hand, while a simple strike, doesn’t have a lot of room for error on the part of the practitioner before it’s no longer capable of dealing damage. The mind and body need to be in sync with each other.

Example:

Tightening her hand into a blade, Sonya slammed it on a downwards diagonal into the side of Misha’s throat.

The Ridge Hand:

The ridge hand is the opposite version of the knife hand, it uses the inside portion of the hand to strike on a diagonal arc to different portions of the body, such as the mastoid muscles in the neck, the jugular, the temple, the eyes, the nose, and the groin. It’s a strike that I personally feel is more dangerous to the wielder than the opponent because of what happens if they miss, but that’s why it’s high risk and high reward. Unlike the knife hand, the ridge hand is a very big strike. Much like a haymaker or roundhouse punch, it requires a rather wide arc to be successful and thus is very easy to see. This is not a stealthy strike. Like I said: high risk equals high reward.

 To perform a ridge hand, tuck the thumb against the hand (or under it in some styles). Lock the fingers together, tighten the whole arm up to the shoulder and swing the arm on a diagonal, high or low, to the point of impact. The ridge hand doesn’t strike with the fingers, but with the inside side of the first knuckle on the hand. When on a high diagonal strike, the arm swings up and arcs downwards into the target, even when going across into the nose or eyes. When going to the groin, it just swings straight up between the legs while stepping through the opponent.

Common Beginner Mistake: The ridge hand really requires fairly exceptional accuracy when dealing with an opponent in non-sparring circumstances. A beginner has a greater chance of missing, which means they’ll hurt their hand in the process. It’s better to stick to safer strikes. Safer for the beginner, I mean.

Example:

Sarah whipped her arm up and slammed it downwards in a wide arc, tucking her thumb tightly against the side of her hand. The first knuckle of her hand collided with Ethan’s left temple and he stumbled backwards. Then, his eyes rolled back and he dropped to his knees.

The Slap:

The slap doesn’t get a lot of love and with good reason: there are better techniques out there that work faster and do more damage in a shorter amount of time. The slap mostly plays out in the hands of street fighters, amateurs, and wife beaters because it’s a safe strike for the hand, and spreads the force over a wide area, and is a stunner more than a hitter. But, for a character who is not sure how to fight and is worried about breaking their hand on someone else’s face, the slap is actually a pretty good strike to use when disorienting and distracting an opponent. Its fellow technique is the bitch slap which uses the knuckles on the back of the hand to make more of an impression.

The slap comes with some nasty connotations for abuse, so be careful with it.

The slap uses the whole hand to whack the opponent across the face, it’s usually going for the cheek or, more specifically, the sensitive exposed cheekbone underneath the eye. Places on the body with exposed bone like the shin, the cheek, and the elbow’s funny bone tend to be more sensitive and easy places to produce pain for a stun to lock up the opponent.

Common Beginner Mistake: This one’s more about perception of an opponent than it is about actual fighting failure. The slap is very safe and easy, but because it’s used as a controlling strike and often gets lodged in as the favoured strike of abusers and bullies, writers and their characters often underestimate those who use it. Someone picking on or hurting someone smaller and weaker than themselves is (a bad person) not necessarily a weakling that a stronger character can take out. Sometimes it’s that simple, but often people are more complex than that.

Example:

Do you really need an example for how to write a slap? I didn’t think so.

Other primers that may be of use to you:

The Kicking Primer (Basics) Part 1

The Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

Fight Write: Don’t Underestimate the Slap

Weapon Primer: The Katana

First off, the katana is a terrible weapon. Traditionally forged ones are worse, to the point of not really even being functional in combat. Modern replicas are just awkward.

And, I realize, this runs counter to almost everything you’ve ever heard or read about the katana. Here’s why: the katana isn’t a combat weapon, it is one of the three holy symbols of Shinto. This is where people who aren’t familiar with Shinto can get into a lot of trouble. The attributes ascribed to the katana are talking about the mystical ideal of a perfect blade, not the sword itself.

When you hear about how a master forged katana can cut a silk ribbon in the air, or a leaf on the wind, this is about the mystical katana. It’s what the katana represents culturally. It’s valid, and something to keep in mind, but it isn’t objective reality.

The physical weapon was a very fragile piece of substandard steel. For the Japanese, it was the best they could do, with the mineral resources they had. But it was designed to be as efficient with metal as possible, at the expense of a durable blade.

The primary forging technique behind the katana was a cold steel folding technique, where the iron is beaten into a thin sheet, folded over, and beaten back out again. The process is repeated around ten times to create the steel billet for the blade.

As with the katana itself, the forging technique gets venerated as part of what makes the katana “special.”  This glazes over the part where it isn’t an advanced forging technique. It popped up in Northern Europe and persisted into the 1200s. It is a good way to strengthen poor quality iron into cold steel, but it the only notable part about the Japanese technique was the number of folds employed.

In combat the katana kinda sucks. There really isn’t any way around it. Even a modern katana is still a substandard, single bladed longsword. The lack of a second edge prevents reverse strikes. The grip is frequently made out of slick, lacquered wood; exactly the kind of thing a character wants to be trying to keep a grip on in prolonged combat; or silk wrappings, which can, and do, slip during prolonged use. Nearly all combat techniques with a katana focus on a single strike kill, which fails to take into account the nature of actual combat, and even dueling.

One of the major problems with the katana is that because the finishing moves with the blade are supposed to be the same as the opening ones, they leave the swordsman open and vulnerable after each strike. This means that the swordsman needs more time to recover to his starting position, time real combat won’t allow for.

Because of the folding structure, a katana can’t parry or block incoming strikes; the blade will chip apart and need to be completely reforged. There’s no true crossguard. The metal sheet that some Katanas possess is a byproduct of the forging technique, and not really a functional guard.

Modern Katanas get around some of this; modern blades can be forged from high quality steel that historical Japanese swordsmiths didn’t have access to. Modern tempering techniques involve using liquid nitrogen to produce some staggeringly hard metal. Even the folding technique has reverted to lower fold counts, resulting in blades that are more durable, and in some cases, can be repaired. All of this makes for a sword that’s, at least metallurgically, more sound.

It doesn’t address the design flaws, the single edge, the slick grip, or the flaws in the traditional techniques, but, none of this really matters to you.

Here’s the thing, you’re not going into combat with one of these things. Your character is. The katana they’re carrying probably isn’t the real sword; it’s the mythical one. Even before you started reading this article, you already knew if your character was going to fight with one or not.

The use of the katana to prove your character is a badass, or peerless warrior is a bit cliché. But, like the katana itself, the weapon is more of a flash card, informing the reader of exactly who and what your character is and what they’re probably there to do. If you want to play with that, get into the grit of how the real weapons splinter apart in battle, or how the character believes they’re something unrealistic; then you’re starting to break out of the cliché.

What I can say is; be aware that the katana exists as two completely separate swords, the physical weapon, and the metaphysical one. And, be aware that the other exists.

-Starke

Writing Exercise #2: Blocks and Counters

Today, we’re going to pass out an exercise for writing about counters. A counter is a combination technique that combines a block with a follow-up strike. The ability to combine defensive techniques with offensive ones is an important part of any character’s martial training. Characters who do use blocks and counters are characters who have had some sort of formal training. Check out our article Unusual Martial Art: Street Fighting for more information on the differences between trained and untrained combatants.

So, let’s get down to it! Using the information found in FightWrite: The Art of Blocking and FightWrite: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists) write a fight scene that includes:

1) an attack by the scene’s antagonist

2) a block by the protagonist

3) a follow up attack by the protagonist after they’ve blocked

Switch it up to write the protagonist losing if you feel so inclined. The lead up to the fight scene may be as long as you like, but the fight itself should happen in a single paragraph (five sentences or less) and you must describe the techniques used without naming them. Try to avoid kicks for now, unless you’re very comfortable with spacing and distance. Hands range usually means your character is past the point of effective kicking range (but within knee range).

Tips: The hand or arm that blocks and the hand that counters are two different hands or sides of the body so keep track of where the hands go and what they’re doing.

Try to use strong or powerful verbs like slam or slammed, drive or drove, ram or rammed instead of hit.

Example: she hit him with her fist.

Example: she slammed her fist into his throat.

Strikes have a physical weight to them that must be conveyed to the reader in order for the scene to be successful.

Below the cut is my attempt. Have fun!

-Michi

Lisa MacAvoy had known it wouldn’t be long until Marvin jumped her in some dank back alley behind McKinney Senior High. The trouble had started back when he’d made a pass at her in the lunch line back in September. Well, pass made it sound too pleasant. He’d grabbed her boob, she’d dumped him face first into a neighboring tray full of Mac and Cheese. He’d never been happy about that.

But I got suspended, so fair’s fair.

Marvin swung in, fist arcing at her into a wild roundhouse. He was big, strong from lifting weights every day in the gym after school.

It’d be over if she gave him the time to grab her.

Lisa stepped forward, ramming both her hands out into his arm. Her left went to the middle of Marvin’s forearm, the right to the soft pressure point between his bicep and triceps. Marvin’s body came to a sudden stop. Lisa didn’t waste time, her right hand reached up to grasp the back of Marvin’s neck. She slammed his face down as her knee drove upwards and the two connected with a messy crack.

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