Tag Archives: fight scenes

Heat (1995)

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

Which lead to this response:

bookwormmaddy

that was horrific :/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Starke

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Q&A: When You Know Nothing A Martial Arts Manual Can Be Very Confusing

I have a character that’s been trying to learn to fight by reading books. Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible way to learn (she doesn’t really have other options) is there a possibility that someone who was actually trained in the tradition of those same books would recognize what she was *trying* to do? When the character does start getting actual training, how much would her knowledge of theory actually help?

The answer is in that quintessential Yoda line:

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Unlearn what you have learned means throwing away all your preconceptions and starting from scratch. You leave behind what you think you know because the truth is at the beginning of the journey you know nothing. Only when you accept this as a truth will you begin to learn. Otherwise, your preconceived ideas of what the thing is will color your training. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds. Every person comes to their training with baggage, no one comes in clean. It’s only after those are left behind, when the mind opens, that the training truly begins. In the case of Luke, this means redefining what he knows to be true about the universe itself and what he knows to be possible. Struggling with this idea in the beginning, learning to let go and leave our initial understanding behind is the beginner’s very first struggle.

The limitations are in what we think we know, and that false confidence is the first source danger which must be defeated. False knowledge, half-knowledge lead to misleading confidence, and that confidence is based on a false belief in their own ability. This is a very dangerous position for the individual. Enough knowledge to think you know what you’re doing, to get you into enough trouble that might actually become life threatening, but without the necessary skills to get yourself back out.

In some ways, as a beginner, it is easiest to start raw.  However, a person who truly enters into training carrying nothing with them is rare. Everyone comes with expectations, with bad habits, with misunderstandings of basic terminology, with pride; thinking they’ve mastered the little ideology they’ve had access to.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing, except that which you bring with you.”

The most dangerous enemy of the beginner is themselves.

The Empire Strikes Back really is a fantastic movie for understanding core concepts of martial arts training. For what its doing, it is actually very realistic.

For your character, the best example from fiction I can pull out is the first training scene from The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.  Alejandro pulls out his sword, and Diego uses his to just slap the blade right out of his hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it has merit. Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t even know how to hold the blade properly. The big thing to remember is that he thinks he does. After all, he saw Zorro fight as a kid. Like so many other kids, he practiced with the sword. He carries a sword because that’s what his hero did. His transformation under Diego is complete that Captain Love, who has encountered, fought, and totally defeated him before, takes forever to recognize him.

Your character is starting in the same place as Alejandro, except she has the added bonus of that she thinks she knows what she’s doing. She starts out with a little of that arrogance of someone who has studied the theory and thinks they know, even when they don’t know because they’re missing crucial context and the pieces she was expected to know before she read the document. This is what they don’t tell you about “How To Manuals” and demonstration videos: they’re supplementary. They’re great if you already know what you’re doing, if you’re a student with a teacher and has partners to practice the techniques with. They really suck if you’re starting from scratch. They won’t include basic detail because they’ll assume your training already included the explanation of why.

She’ll have spent at least the first day trying to figure out terminology, and she may never totally figure it out. Tempo or the use of time is a foundational concept in European fencing. Tempo directly relates to when and how the fencer has the opportunity to strike, it only loosely relates to a normal person’s grasp of time. For a fencer, the concept is so basic and ubiquitous that the manual won’t bother to explain, and a student reading the manual will be expected to already know what the manual is discussing.

Trust me, I’ve read lots of manuals written by seasoned professionals. They’re writing for a specific audience, and that audience is not the raw greenhorn.

The book won’t explain all the other little problems either, like vibration and the way that wears down the hand/wrist. How holding a sword at a specific angle for a prolonged period of time quickly wears down the  muscles. They probably won’t explain about the balance points within the blade. The problem is not that the sword is heavy. It’s the motion and stress on the limbs which wears you down. Hold your arm out in front of you, you’ll start feeling the drag of gravity on the arm. The  longer this goes on, the harder it gets.

Missing a practice partner, she’ll never learn about distance and the appropriate striking distances versus the safe distances. With a sword that lack of knowledge could get her killed right out of the gate. Theory is too far ahead of where she needs to be because she’ll skip past the basics. This leads to incredibly obvious flaws.

Alejandro gets the sword slapped right out of his hand. Why? He doesn’t know how to properly hold it, or angle his wrist, or brace his arm against an incoming attack. He’s either too tensed or not tensed enough, he’s not prepared for the hit, and the sword goes flying.

A training manual has just enough information in it to allow you to conceptualize the idea in your head, this will lead you to thinking you know what your doing and feeling confident. Understanding something mentally, however, doesn’t mean you understand it.

Now, once you know what you’re doing, then a training manual becomes extremely helpful. It can get you to think about the material and the techniques in new ways you didn’t consider before, offer up opinions, ideas, and philosophies which are in fact truly wise. The training manual can indeed help you, but only after you’re past the initial hump. So, when she’s an intermediate, what that training manual initially taught her will help. As a raw beginner, it will also trick her into thinking she knows more than she does and she’ll only begin to progress after she accepts this as fact.

My second suggestion is go over to Wikitenaur. You need to familiarize yourself with the special art of the written fencing manuals. “Wikitenaur” is a fantastic website filled with free translations of historical treatises written by the masters of their art. Read some for practice, and see how far you get without needing extra research to understand what it was you just read.

Take this passage from Le Jeu de la Hache (“The Play of the Axe”, MS Français 1996), written by an anonymous Milanese fencing master in 1400 and translated from French by Dr. Sydney Anglo.

[4] When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander. If you have the croix in front, you can step forward with your left foot, receiving his blow, picking it up with the queue of your axe and – in a single movement – bear downward to make his axe fall to the ground. And from there, following up one foot after the other, you can give him a jab with the said queue, running it through the left hand, at the face: either there or wherever seems good to you. Or swing at his head.

Tell me, what does this technique look like? What sort of axe are they using? Great axe? Poleaxe? Hatchet? One handed or two? Which end is the croix? Which end is the queue?

Some manuals have pictures, some don’t. Without pictures, you’re going to be even more at a loss.

I’ll take pity on you. This is about how to use a poleaxe. You’re essentially stepping forward and connecting at the head of the axe, switching directions to drive the blow to the ground and following up by hitting your enemy with the butt of your weapon which is the queue. If you didn’t know that the poleaxe is a polearm and therefore a staff weapon, you might’ve been completely lost. If you don’t know that you use both ends of a staff weapon, often interchangeably, you might still be lost. The end of a poleaxe is, after all, a metal spike.

The book in that second link has pictures and a much better explanation, but that explanation is an explanation of an explanation. Example Two here is unlikely to be the type of training manual that your character has access to, because number two is written from a historian’s perspective with the idea that the poleaxe is no longer a ubiquitous tool of warfare. Example Two is the one both you and your character needs, but that won’t be the one she has access to unless she’s reading a historian’s explanation of the fighting style; which is, again, not what she has.

Sun Tzu is a great example of a book entirely about theory and military philosophy, whose stratagems are so on point they’re still used as the beginner’s guide today. However, a book like this is thin on practical, because this book is written by a general writing to other generals about warfare. In terms of a character learning about generalized practical theory, The Art of War is a much better example than a technical manual. However, strategy won’t teach you how to punch someone.

The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. This is a very helpful book, and the five different books cover different aspects of combat from practical to spiritual philosophy. However, when it comes to practical technique, you’re still going to run into the same problems that we ran into with “The Play of the Axe”. These books are written for students who are already practicing the art, and not students who are considering whether or not they’re going to learn.

This is why I get much more out an instructional martial arts video found on YouTube than most of my followers do. I may get confused in places, but I come to it with a foundation which allows me to quickly grasp the concepts at play. This is a just matter of practice. I’ve spent more time with martial arts masters, I know more or less what to look for, and I understand the basics of language they’re using. A martial arts manual is not written for you, the beginner, but for the student. In this sense, the entire concept of a training manual or a “how to” book lies to you. You can ultimately end up more confused than you were than when you started, and, like Renaissance actors  and HEMA practitioners, you’re going to get nowhere without a lot of trial and error.

If this character lacks a training partner to test stuff out with then she never had a chance at trial and error. She only has what she knows in her head, and practiced with her body while under no duress. She has a fighting style filled to the brim with flaws that are just barely recognizable, and I mean they’re recognizable in the way a child trying to perform moves from a Jackie Chan movie looks like Jackie Chan.

So, could they recognize what she’s doing? Maybe. However, European training manuals were mostly created on commission by those with the money to pay for them. The masters themselves tended to be fairly secretive because this training is what they made their living on. The idea of sharing knowledge only helps the enemy. So, in the European set up, your character needs to have a relative who either purchased one of these (exceedingly rare) books or who commissioned one themselves from the master. Or who was a student of the master, or something.

These other characters, if they can tell what she’s doing is a bastardization of what they were taught, are going to be rather confused. They’re more likely to start off offended than feel a sense of kinship, and may transition to kinship but only in the way one feels toward an overeager puppy. Depending on how she behaves, they may view her as a pretender. She’ll need to earn her way in, and if she doesn’t have the coin to pay them for their time then she’s going to need to think of something else.

This is the second secret I’m going to blow, martial arts masters are always paid. Their teaching is a trade, and their skills are in high demand. Their disciples pay them in coin, with a position of prestige, or labor. Or, a combination of all of the above.

So, how is she going to pay for her training? (The standard one if she’s not rich is labor and can’t scrape together the coin to pay, as an apprentice which is a glorified term for an indentured servant.) It’s not just talent, it’s coin. This is a business. You’ve got to pay for the service, especially in the European tradition. Or be the servant of someone who hired the master and is paying for the service.  (Martial arts movies understand this one, but almost no one else does. Understanding this is key to writing a training sequence because physical labor like washing the sheets, cleaning the floors, and carrying water for the cook is a key component of your character’s training.) Begging is not out of the question. So, don’t shy away out of embarrassment or your character’s embarrassment. Embarrassment is actually a key part of the genre, a key part of training, and a key aspect of learning in general. Sometimes, you have to do silly things and get dumped on your ass. You’re going to get dumped on your ass a lot in martial training,  both metaphorically and physically.

A martial arts master is someone whose skills are in high demand, and the onus is on the character to prove why they’re worthy of being trained. Why should this master spend their precious time on them, especially if the master isn’t getting something out of it? The only time this isn’t true is the Chosen One dynamic, where the master is usually the volunteer, but even then the Chosen One has to take their lumps. Remember, your master is a character and not a prop. The same is true for the other characters who might or might not notice her.

-Michi

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Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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How do you write a fight scene without becoming repetitive? I feel like it just sounds like “she did this then this then this.” Thanks so much!

I watch her as she fights. Her left leg flies through the air – a roundhouse – rolling into a spin. She misses, but I guess she’s supposed to. Her foot lands and launches her into a jump. Up she goes again, just as fast. The other leg pumps, high knee gaining altitude. The jumping leg tucks. Her body rolls midair, momentum carrying her sideways. She kicks. A tornado kick, they call it. The top of her foot slams into Rodrigo’s head, burying in his temple. Didn’t move back far enough, I guess.

His head, it snaps sideways like a ball knocked off a tee. Skull off the spine. His eyes roll back, and he slumps. Whole body limp. Legs just give out beneath him. He clatters to the sidewalk; wrist rolling off the curb.

She lands, making the full turn and spins back around. Her eyes are on his body. One foot on his chest. I don’t know if he’s alive. I don’t know if she cares. Nah, she’s looking over her shoulder. Looking at me.

The truth twists my gut. I should’ve started running a long time ago.

The first key to writing a good fight scene is to tell a story. The second key is having a grasp of combat rules and technique. The third is to describe what happens when someone gets hit. The fourth is to remember physics. Then, roll it all together. And remember: be entertaining.

If you find yourself in the “and then” trap, it’s because you don’t have a firm grasp of what exactly it is your writing. “He punched” then “She blocked” then “a kick” only gets you so far.

You’ve got to get a sense for shape and feeling, and a sense of motion. Take a page from the comic artist’s playbook and make a static image feel like it’s moving. Try to remember that violence is active. Unless your character is working with a very specific sort of soft style, they’re attacks are going to come with force. So, you’ve got to make your sentences feel like your hitting something or someone.

“Ahhh!” Mary yelled, and slammed her fist into the pine’s trunk. A sickening crack followed, then a whimper not long after.

Angie winced. “Feel better?”

Shaking out her hand, Mary bit her lip. Blood dripped from her knuckles, uninjured fingers gripping her wrist. She sniffed, loudly. “I…” she paused, “…no.”

“You break your hand?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

“Good,” Angie said. “Think twice next time before challenging a tree.”

Let your characters own their mistakes. If they hit something stupid in
anger, like a wall or a tree then let them have consequences.

Injury is part of combat. In the same way, “I should be running now” is. When the small consequences of physical activity invade the page, they bring reality with them.

People don’t just slug back and forth unless they don’t know how to fight, or their only exposure to combat is mostly movies or bloodsport like boxing. Either way, when one character hits another there are consequences. It doesn’t matter if they blocked it or even deflected it, some part of the force is going to be transitioned into them and some rebounds back at the person who attacked.

Your character is going to get hurt, and it’ll be painful. Whether that’s just a couple of bruises, a broken bone, or their life depends on how the fight goes.

However, this is fantasy. It is all happening inside our heads. Our characters are never in danger unless we say they are. They’ll never be hurt unless we allow it. A thousand ghost punches can be thrown and mean absolutely, utterly nothing at all to the state of the character. This is why it is all important to internalize the risks involved.

The writer is in charge of bringing a dose of reality into their fictional world. It is much easier to sell an idea which on some level mimics human behavior and human reactions. The ghost feels physical because we’ve seen it happen on television or relate to it happening to us when we get injured.

You’ve got five senses, use them. You know what it feels like to get injured. To be bruised. To fall down. To be out of breath. Use that.

Here’s something to take with you: when we fight, every technique brings us closer together. Unless it specifically knocks someone back. You need specific distances to be able to use certain techniques. There’s the kicking zone, the punching zone, and the grappling zone. It’s the order of operation, the inevitable fight progression. Eventually, two combatants will transition through all three zones and end up on the ground.

So, keep the zones in mind. If you go, “she punched, and then threw a roundhouse kick” that’s wrong unless you explain more. Why? Because if the character is close enough to throw a punch, then they’re too close to throw most kicks. The roundhouse will just slap a knee or a thigh against the other character’s ribs, and probably get caught. If you go, “she punched, rammed an uppercut into his stomach, and seized him by the back of the head”, then that’s right. You feel the fighters getting progressively closer together, which is how its supposed to work.

Use action verbs, and change them up. Rolled, rotated, spun, punched, kicked, slammed, rammed, jammed, whipped, cracked, etc.

You’ve got to sell it. You need to remember a human’s bodily limits, and place artificial ones. You need to keep track of injuries, every injury comes with a cost. Make sure they aren’t just trading blows forever.

I’ve seen advice that says fights all by themselves aren’t interesting. I challenge that assertion. If you’re good at writing action, then the sequence itself is compelling. You know when you are because it feels real. Your reader will tune out if it isn’t connecting, and the fight scene is a make or break for selling your fantasy. It is difficult to write or create engaging, well choreographed violence that a reader can easily follow and imagine happening.

-Michi

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In the story that I’m writing, my character gets into a fight in a bathroom. The man she’s fighting comes up from behind her and grabs her by the hair. In response, she grabs him by the temples and shoves her thumbs into his eyes, causing him to let go. She in turn then grabs him by the back of the head and slams his forehead down onto the corner of a porcelain sink. Given she’s 5’9, 150 lbs, & physically fit but has no fighting training, how much/what kind of damage is she actually going to do?

Well, she just took out his eyes. Then she bounced his head off a wall. So, he’s done. Not dead, probably. He’s done though. He’s going to have more problems with the fact he can’t see now.

The problem with this scenario is that it’s the kind of rapid escalation you see from hyper-agressive self-defense training. This is ex-special forces, wet works, spy, ex-military levels of violence. It’s in the switch over, and the follow up.

You can have someone with no training do it. It’s possible, but they are going to shut down so hard afterwards. In an adrenaline rush, she doesn’t have the control to not take his eyes out. So, she just stuck her thumbs into his eyes. That’s not fun. That alone will shut her down. He’s screaming, and now her hands are covered in blood.

Like you don’t do combos like this without a lot of training. Or, you know, she’s got no regard for another person’s humanity. However, that reaction suggests she’s done this before.

The problem isn’t that these techniques (even as a string) are difficult to execute. It’s the violence. She has no experience with it. This is the kind of response you get off of Jason Bourne (Film version) and Jack Bauer. You don’t get it off of Michael Westen from Burn Notice.

What this says is:

This is the response from someone who likes their victories to be as
decisive as possible and damn the methods. Whatever gets them to that
win fastest. They are used to their enemies escalating as quickly with lethal force and go there first. They obliterate opposition.

This is a mindset that takes a long time germinate. It is what you get from ex-special forces. They’ve had time to master the kick over from normal state and into violence, their kick over is immediate, and then they escalate to lethal force.

The only thing missing here for a confirmed kill is a few more blows to
the head via the sink, and then she crushes his throat with her foot.

Now, he may already be dead. The extra is just for confirmation.

Your character just killed someone. At the very least, they blinded him. How they did it is not normal, and you may want to reassess just how much they know about combat. This is not the behavior of someone who has never been in a fight. This is the behavior of someone who has a close, personal relationship with turning people into sausage.

Here’s what someone with no training does when they get grabbed from behind: they freeze or they flail.

Conventional self-defense programs will have taught her to rock her body weight and slam the back of her head into his face, which causes his nose to bleed and the pain may force him to let go. Or drive her heel into his shin. Or do both.

You can actually do these things, and even (if you’re lucky) succeed at them without practice. The point of techniques in a good, conventional self-defense program is that they are easily instilled into the muscle memory. Which means, these are often basic techniques which do come fairly naturally and stay for a very long time. They’re meant to provide you with the opportunity to escape, so you can run.

This means, you can happen on these basics in a fight completely by accident. You could end up slamming the back of your head into someone’s nose just by flailing if you flail forward and back. The schoolyard bully who beats people up in grade school figured some of these out. Like the sucker punch to the stomach. Punches hurt a lot less when they’re hitting soft targets, and the stomach is a very effective place to hit with immediate results.

The major problem for someone with no experience dealing with violent situations is the mental hangups. You don’t just switch over and do. You have to decide to do. You have to decide to respond. Decide hurt someone else. Then you have to decide how you’re going to do it. In a person without training, this can amount to a lot of paralyzing seconds. When you’re talking about characters who have immediate, violent responses, they’re people who have enough experience that their decision is immediate. They don’t do it by accident, they made the choice. And deciding to hurt people, especially as the level of violence escalates from a broken nose to blinding someone else to death, takes practice.

For women, depending on how they’ve been socialized, this can be very difficult. Some have an easier time of it than others, but violence (especially this kind) rolls right up against everything the greater society tells you a woman is supposed to be. Getting over that hump is difficult, it’s harder when you’re scared, and even harder when you haven’t had any preparation at all.

The problem for you, I think, is that you’re still getting caught up in the idea that size and weight, training versus no training, have some basic diminishing effect on how successful someone is at combat. I mean that you’re thinking of it in terms of video game levels.

Combat is really about decision making, how confident you are and how comfortable you are in the level of violence of which you’re participating. Figuring out what your character can do is based on three things.

1) They have the ability to get themselves into the mindset quickly.

2) They have the experience to be confident in doing and comfortable with what they level of violence they’ve chosen to participate in.

3) They have the muscle memory and familiarity with the techniques to use them in a dangerous situation/stressful environment.

What they know how to do matters, what their intentions are matters, and the kind of violence they’ve chosen to perform matters a lot when it comes to figuring out where they are on the scale.

So, when you ask yourself or your character:

“What’s the first thing you if someone grabs you?”

Their answer is: Scream.

We’re on the right track for a beginner, or someone you just pulled off the street.

If their answer is: Stick their fingers in their eyes.

They’re on a slightly different level when it comes to what they know.

Horrifically mangling people is not normal, natural human behavior. You work your way up to it. Mostly because it requires being able to look at another person as two hundred pounds of ambulatory meat. You’ve dehumanized them inside your head to point of being a problem that needs to be removed from your environment. It can be developed, and not just by training. Depending on your environment and socialization, it can occur naturally. However, it does mean you’ve grown up in some kind of hazardous environment.

A person who has gotten to this point isn’t someone who is having their first violent experience. Their collecting frequent flier miles.

Over time, the ability to escalate builds. You don’t train to it, you develop it from personal experience. As you experience violence and violent encounters, you learn how fast you can escalate. You learn new points to escalate to, you learn what you need to do in order to keep yourself from harm. It is learned, and not in a safe environment.

This is why I say its the response of someone who is in the range of ex-special forces. They have gone so far that they don’t manage, or attempt to control, or worry about the fallout, they just do. They’ve reached the point where this response is reasonable, where if they don’t immediately respond this way then they will die. It’s this or death.

Now, that doesn’t mean your imagined scene is wrong. It just means there may be more to this character and their background than they’ve decided to share with you.

This is why, honestly, understanding escalation of violence is important. Why understanding reasonable force is important. So you know what your characters chosen method of response says about them and act accordingly.

I have seen many characters, especially female ones, go to this level of violence when it’s not the author’s intention. They wanted something slightly more normal. They do it because they think its cool, or bad ass, or some level above normal, or because Jack Bauer did it. It’s what they thought the appropriate response was, and they were wrong. (And when they do it with law enforcement, well, they dumb.)

The kind of violence a character chooses to participate in and enact on another person says a lot about them. It’s another expression of who they are, it’s a clue into their character, and it’s a clue to their past. It is, very much, show don’t tell.

You need to know what exactly it is you’re showing. When you know, you can have others respond to it and have control over where it goes.

A sane, rational person’s response when happening upon this scene is “what the fuck was that?” It’s the sort of scene that turns her into the scary, terrifying aggressor. It doesn’t matter what her victim’s intentions were, because she went so far over the line there is no coming back. Well, not in polite society. From the perspective of an outsider inside the setting (not you, not her, not the reader) she looks like a monster straight out of a horror movie. She dehumanized herself. It is worse for her, now, if he lives.

See when it comes to the rest of humanity, there’s such a thing as overdoing it. Brutality alienates, it defies and defiles ethics and morality. A character who participates is segregated out because they’re no longer “safe”. Not all violence causes a visceral, negative reaction in those who witness it or its aftermath, but the more brutal it is then the more genuinely terrifying they become.

And it is the actions themselves, it’s not the character’s intentions, experience, context, or moral alignment. They don’t get off or excused for being new, if anything that makes it worse for them because that means this is their default state.

Now, this means nothing when it comes to the quality of the work or audience investment. You can get the audience on board for it, just look at 24 and Jack Bauer or Walter White. Sell it right, and people will root for anything. However, like with those shows, there need to be in setting consequences and recognition of the behavior. There are characters we love in concept, and characters we would hate to be in the same room with. Make no mistake, anyone who would tear another human’s throat out with their teeth or pinning them to their chair as they forced their eye open and held a ball point pen just above their pupil is downright terrifying. Their actions may be entirely justified in the narrative’s own context, they may justify them to themselves, but outside justification doesn’t govern visceral, knee-jerk reactions. Taking someone’s eyes out will freak out another human’s survival instincts.

Forget your attachment to your character for the moment. How would you react if you walked in on a 5″9, 150 pound woman pounding a man’s head into the sink? Her hands covered with blood, clothes spattered, his as she isn’t bleeding.

It’s a different reaction from walking in on the same woman struggling against a grown man whose nose is bleeding, clawing at his face, and beating him with her purse while screaming, “No, No, No!” Or just, “not today, motherfucker!”

Both these situations offer interesting story dynamics and characters, but its important to figure out which one is what you want because they are not the same. They are not even in the same hemisphere.

A character doesn’t need to be a great warrior, capable combatant, or brutal fighter. They can be great without that, they don’t need to succeed when they fight back, and they can utilize their other strengths to craft tense, brilliant sequences. They can flail, and struggle. Scream, and cry. Stand frozen like a deer in the headlights. Hide in the restroom stall, crouched on top of the toilet with their hand clapped over their mouth. Run away.

The most important thing when crafting a character is to be honest.

I know, you probably didn’t intend for the thumbs to go into the eyes. They will though, because she’s either scared and high on adrenaline who doesn’t have any idea where his eyes actually are as she can’t see them or a practiced combat who really doesn’t give a fuck.

There’s a reason why brutality is a real life scare tactic, why shock value is an embraced tactic on film. It’ll freak you out, and it doesn’t discriminate.

The best narratives accept these sorts of actions for what they are, treat the effects they have on the characters, and deal with them honestly, the worst assume the rules are different because Protagonist.

In the end, learning how to balance force with narrative necessity, a character’s personality/characterization, and the consequences will lead to a more fulfilling story. Be honest with yourself about who this character is and who you want them to be. Ultimately, that’s where the best scenes and the best badassery come from.

Nothing is stopping her from stomping his foot, pushing him into a stall, hitting him with the door before fleeing toward the exit and locking him inside the bathroom.

-Michi

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An ex-army colleague told me that it’s more dangerous hitting the back of your head than the front (say, if you fell over), and that that is what’s more likely to kill you. Is this true? Related to this, you sometimes see stories where someone was killed with one punch. Is this more to do with hitting their head on the ground rather than the force of the punch itself?

Your face is where the densest bones in your body are (especially your forehead), the back of your skull by comparison is very soft. This is why you’re more likely to break your hand punching someone in the face than you are other places on their body. Your ex-army colleague is correct, hitting the back of your head is much more dangerous than the front.

It’s… killing someone with one punch is either damn lucky, or damn unlucky depending on how you look at it. It’s a fluke. You need the stars to align for it to happen. A human being is highly unlikely to naturally land on the back of their head, especially when no attempt is made to direct their fall. Even if a punch knocks them off their feet, the way the body falls works against it. (They can hit things on the way down, but that’s a different issue. You also don’t want to be punching them in the face.) If you want to direct a fall, then I’m going to point out that this is why throws like the kind specialized in judo, jiu-jutsu, and aikido exist. They’re all about controlling how someone hits the ground, how hard, and where, usually in an unpleasant way.

Your body does have natural instincts (not relevant to combat instincts) to protect the vital pieces of itself, your head is one of those. It doesn’t have the sense to get out of the way of a punch, but you’re far more likely to land on your butt or your back than directly on your head. Even if you do manage to hit your head, in a natural fall, some other part of your body will hit the ground first and negate a portion the force. (This is why, in many martial arts, students are trained to fall before they learn anything else. When you see people slapping the ground, that’s what they’re doing. They’re countering the force of the fall, absorbing it with the roll, and dissipating some of it with the slap rather than taking the full force of the blow on their back, shoulder, or wherever else that is likely to be more damaging.)

So, say you get punched in the face, and the force of the blow is enough to knock you off your feet. If you rock back on your heels and fall, what does your body start to do? Your knees bend, and you land on your ass.

You can force someone to fall on their head, or their face, but it isn’t with a punch. This is (partially) what sweeps are for. A sweep is when you use your ankle or your leg to pull your opponent’s feet out from underneath them. Say you want to force a fall as a technique that isn’t one of the more common throws. If you’re close enough, you step past them and place your leg behind theirs. Your hand goes to their head, or their chest, and you shove. Usually, with this particular technique, you ride them all the way down to ensure maximum effect and drive their chest/head into the ground.

Taking someone by their head and ramming it into a wall will be more dangerous to them than using their forehead, and so on.
With falls, it depends on your control, what you know how to do, and what your options are. There are an abundance of options when it comes to controlling your opponent on the way down if you know how to carry it off and are lucky enough to pull the technique off. Wrench, pull, push, drag, etc. Some martial arts with a peaceful focus like Aikido aim for their throws, at the highest levels, to cause no damage at all.

The truth is you are far more likely to break your wrist in a bad fall than you are your head.

-Michi

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How well does hitting someone in the throat work and how long will they be affected by it?

Like everything, the answer is it depends. There are many different ways to attack the throat, depending on what your goal is. There are a lot of different ways it can go, and the effect can last anywhere from a few disorienting, terrifying seconds of panic to choking and, eventually, death.

Think about the throat, the front of your neck.  What primary bodily function resides there that is absolutely necessary to your survival?

Your ability to breathe.

The throat acts as a conduit for air from your lungs and your mouth. If you can’t breathe, you can’t fight. If you can’t breathe, you can’t scream. If you don’t breathe, you don’t live. A crushed windpipe is neither a fun nor quick injury to die from.

There are certain parts of your body that you have a biological imperative to defend (these usually only kick in after you’ve received damage). This is your natural instincts respond with a panicked, “OH GOD! NO! I NEED THIS!” and, for most people, that’s how they’ll respond.

You hit them in the throat and their hands will immediately rise there, they’ll stumble back coughing, and their number one priority their brain has focused on is protecting their throat.

So, much like a sucker punch, striking the throat will result in giving you open access to their whole body as it is now defenseless. You, the attacker, moves on to other, better strikes while they’re caught up trying to breathe.

When someone punches someone else in the throat (as opposed to another kind of strike), this is the hoped for response. They want to open up their opponent. “Open up” is one of the terms for “lowering defenses”, because when your opponent’s defenses are up you cannot reach the nice soft spots on their body where you’ll do the most damage.

The throat is one of those nice soft spots difficult to hit if your opponent is mentally prepared to fight. You’ve got to be within arm’s reach, and within the grappling sphere, to land the hit. So, if you’re not close enough to reach out and grab hold of their neck, you’re not close enough to land the strike. If the hit doesn’t come as a surprise attack, then you’ll have to fight for it.

Learning to measure distance between fighters in a fictional context when you’ve no experience judging it with real people is a difficult one. Most people never realize there are different spheres of distance around the body which define what attacks you can make before moving inward. For them, two people fighting is often a one hit exercise and not a strategic contemplation involving multiple attacks, breaking past defenses, and taking advantage of your opponent’s mental faculties/body’s instincts/physiology to hit your goal. Then, consider that most fights are finished in under 30 seconds.

These are not “safe” combat techniques by any stretch of the imagination and some are far more dangerous than others. Some will also break your fingers if you try them without having a fucking clue what you’re doing.

So, how can you attack the throat?

I’ll give you three of the common attacks on the trachea, there are more.

1) You can punch them in the throat.

This is more of a stunner, and not as likely to crush the windpipe or the larynx. The reason is that the fist actually spreads the delivered force over a wider area. So, you punch them and it’s likely to hurt and scare the hell out of them, Punches, while effective, are a great deal safer than a knife hand or a palm strike to the opponent because of that dispersal of force.

The more pointed the force, the deeper it penetrates.

2) The spear hand to the throat.

You take your fingers, brace them together, and drive them forward, palm down. (You can also strike palm up, which is done if you’re striking on an upward diagonal from the hip. This can also be a referred to as a palm strike, knife hand, etc.) This is windpipe crushing territory. The force is confined to the first two fingertips, a much narrower vector, and will penetrate into the neck. Doubly more likely if you grab their head/throat first with your other hand so they can’t run/stumble back at the moment of impact.

A good general rule in martial arts is the smaller the tool, the more dangerous the strike, and the deeper into your body it goes.

This may break your fingers if you’ve never been taught to perform it properly or how to lock your fingers/wrist/arm together. So, don’t expect an untrained fighter to pull it off. Or even know it exists unless they’ve been watching a lot of Japanese/Chinese language films.

3) Half-Palm to the throat.

Instead of your fingers, you use your knuckles. Bend your fingers, so your fingertips touch the top of your palm. Brace. Then strike the same way as you would with #2.

This will, more than likely, break your fingers if you’re not careful.

This, of course, assumes that a denial of breath is your end goal. You can always knife hand (blade of the hand, opposite the thumb) the side of their neck, which has the added bonus of potentially closing off the arterial blood flow between your head and the rest of your body. Most likely not, though.

None of these are “guaranteed kills” (not that you’re guaranteed anything), the possibility of death is there and they are dangerous. They are very effective if they can be landed. However, your character should not be doing these unless their life is in danger, their willing to accept the consequences of killing their opponent, and the situation calls for it.

Fiction often struggles with this, but proper application of force to the circumstances is one of the hallmarks of a responsible martial combatant. Being able to adjust according to the situation (and knowing what techniques are warranted) is one of the signs we use to judge in real life whether or not the person in question knows what they’re doing. A person who doesn’t self-moderate is a danger to themselves and others.

You can, in fact, blend Rule of Cool with the knowledgeable, responsible combatant that sells themselves as awesome and skilled without coming off as a reckless fuckhead.

If your character is using these just in general, then they just don’t care. They’re also a reckless fuckhead. Have others treat them accordingly.

-Michi

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Hehe man, i bet a person with your knowledge of fighting must suffer terribly whenever watching any movie with a fight scene

Honestly,
that’s more of an exception than the rule. Most of the time, when a stunt choreographer
is putting together a fight scene, they’re working to create something visually
engaging that meshes with the tone of the film as a whole. Usually, the only
time a fight scene becomes irritating is when the stuntwork doesn’t fit with
what the film is trying to do, or when the performers are trying to kludge something
in a way that really doesn’t work (on screen).

On
screen fights don’t have to follow reality at all. That’s not (usually) a
problem. If the intended tone is spectacle, then flashy and flamboyant fight
scenes can be remarkably enjoyable. There are also a lot of very good martial artists who’ve gone
onto film. If you’re looking at something like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan,
or even Jean Claude Van Damme, you’re seeing some very talented martial
artists, who’ve put a lot of time developing their martial arts into a visually
compelling performance.

The
irony in all of this is, some actors who are, kinda, mediocre as actors are
exceedingly good martial artists, meaning when you watch their films with an
untrained eye, you’re seeing a very different (probably less appealing) film
from someone who’s actually gone through some training, and can really
recognize what they’re seeing. Van Damme is a pretty good example of this. To
put it gently, he’s not a fantastic actor. He is, however, an amazing martial
artist with a real talent for presentation.

In very
general terms, when you’re talking about martial artists on film, the ability
to deliver an entertaining performance is what’s most important. It’s what
separates the martial artists you know by name from the thousands of equally
skilled practitioners you’ve never heard of.

Now, experience
and knowledge does change the kinds of things you value in films. Personally, I
find characters that plan ahead, and start setting up contingencies ahead of
time, far more interesting than ones that simply stumble in and hope things go
for the best.

If you’re
thinking that knowing what you’re looking at ruins films forever, that’s simply
not the case. It just means you’re more likely to recognize a film where the
choreographer and stunt crew weren’t on the same page as the cinematography and
direction.

It’s
probably worth remembering, with films, there are a lot of people working
together to make the action sequences (not just the fight scenes) work. That is
their area of expertise, and unless they’re asleep at the switch, they’ll do
their best to sell the script. Stunt performers are a major, unsung, hero in
modern films.

-Starke

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Hello! I’ve seen you guys write some things about the dangers of filming with chained weapons, but I was wondering how dangerous it would be to the wielder? While I was designing a hook and chain mechanism for my MC to move around quickly with in a fantasy world (ability to direct the chain minimally) I found the ‘kyoketsu shoge’ which combines both the hook and a knife in one. If the chain is occasionally spiked, how dangerous do you think it would be for my MC to swing around?

It really depends on how skilled they are at managing the chain. The kyoketsu shoge is similar to the Chinese Whip Chain/Chain Whip and the Rope Dart. They function similarly to whips, and are a more dangerous (to the wielder) cousin of the nunchaku and three section staff. These weapons all work off similar principles about maintaining momentum and using your own body to provide control. This includes your arms, your neck, your shoulders, your legs, and, on occasion, your whole torso.

Example:

The Rope Dart.

The Nine Section Whip.

Whip weapons are one of the most advanced weapons in a martial disciplines for a reason. If you don’t know how to control it, it will hit you. I mean that, it will and it will hurt. Like the boomerang, the whip or chain always comes back. You are at the mercy of the chain, like any fast moving object, it doesn’t stop on a dime and you’ve got to mitigate the momentum until it finally stops.

The advantage of the whip is that it can strike on multiple angles that are nearly impossible to block. It’s not just on diagonals, a chain or a whip will curve. It can be used to disarm an opponent. When you’re working with a whip made entirely of metal like the nine section whip any part of you it strikes is going to hurt like hell.

If you can master a whip, it’s a very useful weapon, though it shouldn’t be the only weapon your character carries. It does require a great deal more skill than the average and, with a whip chain, you should be prepared for pain. It’s also not a weapon your character could pick up and just wield without any formal training. If we’re talking about a formal Chinese martial discipline, this would be a weapon you’d learn after you mastered the others like the staff and the sword.

Chinese Cinema has many excellent examples of the Chinese varieties of these weapons in use and may provide you with some ideas.

The kyoketsu shoge is a little different because it comes with two ends, a bladed end on one that could be used to hook opponents much like one would when fishing and a metal ring on the other. Similar principles to the others in this category apply when it comes generating momentum and to safety, but worth keeping track of when you’re trying to figure out exactly what you want.

When you’re writing, it’s important to remember that the more complex a weapon is in its movements then the more difficult it will be when it comes to actually applying those actions on the page. The whip is a fantastic weapon for cinema because it’s dazzling. It’s in constant motion, it makes wide sweeping arcs, it’s often too fast for the eye to completely follow, and it’s just fun to watch. You don’t get that luxury when you’re writing. You don’t benefit from visually interesting weapons unless you figure out how to tease the imagination when the audience tries to visualize.

The best way to write weapons, especially complex ones, is grasping the underlying principles of how the weapon is supposed to work. You are at advantage over the practitioner because you only need the principle, as a writer you can simulate the experience. However, you’re at a disadvantage because you’ve never tried to work with one and don’t have the ground level experience of trying to get the weapon to work.

When you want to use a chain weapon like the whip chain in an action sequence, its important to remember that your character needs to keep it in constant motion. The weapon is only deadly when it’s in motion. You throw it out, spin it, wheel it about using your throat, catch on the shoulder, throw it back for another strike. They’re going to need space to use it, which means it’s at a disadvantage in cramped quarters.

What’s going to sell your whip in a written action scene is remembering all the tiny little physical motions that go into maintaining control. Whether it’s snapping the wrist to crack the whip, remembering that the guiding hand controls the whip and the other holds, to wrapping it around the body at the fight’s end to catch and negate the final momentum, what sells the weapon is your ability to accurately represent how it moves in the real world.

A lot of writers try for technical terms as a way to communicate what they’re talking about, my advice is learn them as necessary but don’t assume they’ll do the work for you. Assume your audience is ignorant and focus more on what the weapon does/is supposed to do/the purpose it served in battle rather than terminology. The more complex the weapon is in movement, control, and execution, the more difficult it is to write.

If you do get frustrated during your research, just remember: you jumped straight to the end. The whip chain is a complicated weapon, it’s supposed to be difficult.

If you’ve never used a whip before, this is going to mean watching a lot of tutorials on Youtube and reviewing many an action sequence where the whip is used as primary or secondary weapon.

Good luck!

-Michi

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What are the pros and cons of “street fighting”? Like no formal training, somewhat self taught, and for surviving. Can this apply to sword fighting? I’m writing about a character who has formal training but also learned street fighting because they saw some value in it and they find it unpredictable

Since these questions come up a lot, we have tags for #street fighting and #untrained fighter.

It’s worth pointing out that street fighting is just fighting, there’s nothing special associated with it and the idea that it’s unpredictable is… untrue. The true moral of Fight Club is that Fight Club is a stupid expression of toxic masculinity that is worth nothing. Getting beat up a lot doesn’t make you a better fighter. It will give you an endorphin high and sell you on the illusion of your own toughness.

Street fighting is extremely predictable, especially from self-taught fighters. This is because self-taught fighters have a limited move set. A move set that is limited to what they’ve seen in practice by someone else. Today, this means what you see on on television. Whether that’s professional boxing, UFC, WWE, or someone trying to ape the moves of a Hollywood action star like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, etc.

An untrained swordfighter is even more screwed than untrained hand to hand because sword combat on the street is called dueling and they practice that in the salle.

Your character would actually be more unpredictable via seeking out secondary instruction from “practical” aka practical application or more street minded sources. This can be police self-defense, training in forms like Krav Maga, and others that focus on teaching your character to use what they’ve learned in their studio out in the real world.

The techniques don’t change, but the mentality does.

For a character who has formal training, they’re going to re-learn to use what they already know in a new environment where the stakes are higher. The difference between a recreational martial art and a practical one is what you’re training for rather than the techniques themselves. Changing from one to the other involves changing how your perspective on your environment and learning to evaluate threats as opposed to simply focusing on technique and training for sport or spiritual enlightenment.

All martial arts training revolves around survival on some level.

For a character to “train” in “street fighting”, they’d have to go out and fight on the street. This would involve taking their life in their hands and risking it for… what, exactly? They saw value in going out to beat up/get beat up by random strangers at a bar, in a Fight Club style set up, or something similar to backyard wrestling rings.

This character isn’t actually learning a new fighting style. They’re taking what they know out into the real world to test it. (An act which will get you evicted from most martial arts studios if they catch you, especially if you’re a minor.)

The “unpredictability” of street fighters comes from the fact that most people can’t predict when a fight is about to break out. They don’t see it. They don’t get in the frame of mind for it. They see the aftermath, after the first punch is thrown, and are stuck mentally playing catch up as they’re getting pounded.

The average street fight lasts less than thirty seconds.

Those first few milliseconds at the beginning of a fight are crucial, as is your frame of mind before the first punch is thrown. Getting yourself into the right mindset, ready to defend, and ready to fight means that you’re not going to be blindsided when the time comes to go.

That is the unpredictability of street fighters, though. They’ve learned that the first one to the punch usually wins, they’ve learned that the most aggressive fighter is the successful one. So, they to take the initiative, blindside, and pound. By the time the other person mentally catches up, the fight’s over and they’re either broken on the ground or dead.

“Unpredictable” is just code for “I didn’t expect that”. It isn’t a mystical state that is forever surprising. Through time and experience, the unpredictable becomes predictable for the individual. For the same technique to continue being unpredictable, you need to consistently perform it on those who’ve never seen it before. The street fighter illusion will fall apart fairly quickly because, when you’re working from the basis of the self-taught, street fighting isn’t that complex.

Those with formal training benefit from not only their own experiences, but the experience of their instructors, their instructors’ instructors, and everything else that comes with a martial that has survived for multiple generations. It’s a battle against a multitude of experiences, against a co-operative effort.

I will point out again that combat is a science and utilizes science as a means to kill people. It isn’t part of human nature and natural instinct, it is specifically designed to exploit them.

Street fighting is fighting in an uncontrolled environment, where the risks are higher due to the lack of protections and harm is assured.

-Michi

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