Tag Archives: knives

Q&A: Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

Hotheads to who jump into fights at a moments notice over a slight or insult with something to prove are beginners. They’re not (usually) seasoned soldiers. Seasoned combatants understand the costs and consequences of violence, both to themselves and the people around them. They’re more likely to make mental calculations regarding risk, assess risk, and decide whether they will or won’t fight. The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

This doesn’t sound like its a duel, but if you were thinking it might be then I’ll lay down some facts.

Duels are highly ritualized as a form of combat, and come with very specific rules of what does and doesn’t constitute a duel. (Much less the people who can take part in them.) Duels, Code Duello, Medieval Duels. If you’re up for reading some Medieval Charters in regards to dueling as a legal means of settling disputes, here’s some. In some cases, they’re a means of settling a dispute or challenge to ones honor.  We still have duels today as a point of fact, it’s just the duelists and their swords have been replaced with lawyers. For a duel to be a duel, they’d both need to be armed. Usually with the same weapon, otherwise its not a test of skill or fair. Weapons inherently offer advantages over each other, and if you’re not fighting with the same weapon then that would be cheating. This fight between these two is not be what we’d call Right Honorable Combat, and its probably illegal.

“Daggers and such” covers a lot of ground.  It could mean one of these characters has daggers, swords, polearms, or even a flail. Also, when fighting with weapons, you’re usually fighting with intent to kill. If that wasn’t the other character’s intent, they might put their weapon away when facing off against the character who is unarmed. I’m going to assume this unarmed character is squaring off against an opponent who carries a dagger. However, I did note the plurality of weapons. You will immediately run into trouble if you don’t hammer down which weapon the unarmed character is facing, or if they decided to dual wield with the second weapon as defensive. Different weapons require different approaches as each comes with its own concerns. Distance is a major one. The only universal rule is: don’t get hit.

Start with the assumption one of these characters is actively trying to kill the other, if he wasn’t then he’d put the weapon away. Outside of highly ritualized and carefully moderate dueling structures where one might call for time at first blood, a highly skilled character will understand weapons are for killing. With weapons, especially bladed weapons, skill level isn’t a matter of deciding when you kill and when you don’t. It is a matter of deciding whether or not you care to risk your opponent’s death. If they were interested in a test of skill or even just a friendly hand to hand bought, they wouldn’t pull it to begin with. Your main character needs to win this duel because if they don’t, they’ll be either grievously wounded or dead.

Working under a predetermined outcome when writing a fight scene is the worst decision. What we want in our heads won’t necessarily translate to the page, and more importantly characters who know they’re going to live will behave differently from characters who don’t know they will. Simulating the chance of death in your mind by entertaining death as a possible outcome will force them and you to work harder. They’ve got to earn their right to survive.

Now, your character isn’t planning to win because the plot needs to progress. He’s fighting because he wants to live.

Feel the difference? We’re now six inches closer to real tension.

Highly skilled doesn’t translate to guaranteed survival, it just means you’ve got a better grasp of what’s happening, how screwed you are, and potentially have more tools to escape a bad situation. They allow the character to recognize the danger their facing, what the intent of their opponent is, and, hopefully, act accordingly before its too late. There is, however, only so much training can give. Weapons are one of the situations where an unskilled character can make up the difference against one who is highly skilled. Weapons are the great equalizer. A guy with a knife is a guy with a knife. Whether you’ve been training for five minutes or eight years, there’s a extremely high chance of death if you’re unarmed and unarmored. The difference between the person who has trained for five minutes and the one who trained for eight years is that the experienced one has a better understanding of what it means when someone pulls a knife. They know it means they’re at an 80% or greater chance of death. They know a wrong move could, at best, result in an injury they may never recover from. Their chance of victory is razor thin where the margin of error is next to none. This is why smart warriors don’t fight other people with weapons without weapons of their own or, if they cannot avoid it, change the rules.

I’m going to assume too that you’re going with the old Defeat Means Friendship trope. You want Character A to be fought to a standstill by Character B who disarms them, then when put under threat to their life surprises Character A by letting them live and giving them back their weapon. (Which promptly causes Character A to stab them if we’re being realistic, but that’s not what the trope is about. If you want this trope, please give the weapon back later.) The problem, of course, is you’ll completely undercut Character A’s combat ability if you do it wrong.

Personally, my favorite rendition of this trope is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland where Robin Hood dueled Little John on the bridge with a staff after Little John called him out over his bow. Robin took Little John’s challenge (he can’t resist a challenge), dueled with a weapon he was less familiar with, lost, and got dunked in the river. Their friendship was born out of Robin Hood’s good humor over his bath and his appreciation for Little John’s skill. (This is a great foreshadowing for the archery competition later in the movie.)

In the film, we had plenty of opportunities to see Robin’s skill earlier. Little John needed to establish himself. By having him beat Robin with the weapon that is his specialty, we as the audience understand how skilled he is. Just as when Friar Tuck fought Robin to a standstill later as Robin attempted to recruit him. (And his men pranked him about the good friar’s skill with a sword, aka they lied.) Robin’s friendships with his men evolve not from his skill or how he’s better than they are, but in his ability to handle defeat gracefully and genuinely appreciate their skills. In both moments, we see him duel to test out these potential recruits. In both, he gets a good dunking in the river that is entirely his own fault.

You see, Robin establishes his ability much earlier in the movie when he lays claim to the deer killed by Much the Miller to protect him from Sir Guy of Gisborne. He then carries it into Nottingham Castle. (Saxon taking an illegally killed deer into a castle full of Norman knights alone.) Dumps the deer carcass on Prince John’s table in the Great Hall during dinner, and proceeds to tell Prince John, Sir Guy, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marian, the Bishop of the Black Canons, and all his knights over the dinner he’s invited himself to that he’s planning sedition to fight John’s rule. After hearing him out, John attempts to have him killed by the castle’s men at arms and all the knights present. Robin, still alone, then fights his way out of the Castle.

In the process he shows off his sword skills, his archery skills, his moxie, his fluency with treason, his strategic/tactical ability, and his quick thinking. (The fight scene that follows is probably one of the best if you ever want to write one person versus a whole room full of people. It involves the fine art of running away with purpose and the occasional murder.)

We know about about Robin. We know he’s brash, reckless, and incredibly skilled. That’s why the later fights with Little John and Friar Tuck have so much meaning when it comes to establishing their skills. They can go toe to toe with the guy who strutted into Prince John’s castle as a wanted man then got back out again while the heavily armed and armored inhabitants tried to kill him.

Whatever purpose you have for this fight scene, it’s important to remember what it is establishing in the relationship between these two characters. Take the lesson from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and understand it isn’t enough just to win. The fight scene needs to be there for a reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the kinds of fight scenes you write must revolve around what you’re trying to say about these characters abilities. Two characters you want to be seen as evenly skilled need to fight evenly. Friendships aren’t built on superiority. The protagonist being beaten is a different category from all other fictional defeats, it doesn’t delegitimize them the way it will a character we spend less time with. For the protagonist, defeats they survive are learning experiences and we learn far more about a person by how they handle defeat than we do when they win.

Robin Hood isn’t less awesome because he loses to Little John at the bridge, he’s actually that much more incredible than he was before. We learn its not just his skills he appreciates, but those of the people who best him. We know Robin is willing to fight others on their terms for the fun of it, rather than his own. Little John being better than Robin at one skill doesn’t take away from Robin’s previous victories. Robin’s acceptance shows his abilities as a leader better than being superior with a staff he made five minutes prior.

A character fighting another character when they have a weapon and the other character doesn’t isn’t showing that both are equally skilled. It’s actually showing one with a significant advantage over the other. When the underdog beats him, the underdog is shown to be much more skilled. That’s the point of unevenly balanced fights in fiction.

Little John: “I’ve only a staff and you threaten me with a long bow and a gray goose shaft. Are you not man enough…?”

Robin Hood: “Give me time to get myself a staff.” – The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Two characters fighting with the same weapons are on an even field, this is a battle of skill. Two characters fighting with different weapons are unevenly balanced, the shifting advantages make the combat difficult and the scene becomes about one character problem solving around their disadvantage. A scene where two characters are highly skilled but one is armed and the other is not will end with the unarmed character either dying or proving they are that much more skilled than the one with the weapon.

Disarms are difficult against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. There is no room for error, especially with a knife which can cut six different times in six different ways before you’ve a chance to grab it. Disarming someone who knows what they’re doing with their weapon is much harder.

A knife offers no room for error, every strike has the potential to be deadly. In order to disarm your opponent, you need to catch them by the wrist (not the knife) which puts one in direct line to get stabbed. You’ve got to catch the knife while simultaneously keeping yourself outside of stabbing distance. You can kick a knife out of someone’s hand, but then you don’t control it. You can attack the person instead of the knife as some self-defense disciplines encourage, with the theory being the person can’t use their knife if they’re disabled but so long as the knife is in hand that’s the present danger. Understand that inside their range the knife is as dangerous as the gun, if not more so. The knife is still as relevant today as a weapon as it was a thousand years ago. Think about that.

Daggers are essentially short swords, but the same principle is here. To stop a knife when one is unarmed, you need an immediate and brutal response. You need an immediate and brutal response when you’re armed too. This is not a weapon where you’re given time, consideration, and distance. It is fast, brutal, and over quickly. Any hit, even a glancing blow, has the potential to be end game. Character B can’t allow themselves to suffer no injuries, otherwise they’ll spend the next few months hoping their stitches don’t get infected or they’ll bleed out before they can get medical attention. This can be a problem as, against a knife, it’s often necessary to give up a body part in order to take it. It can’t strike other, more vital places if it’s in your hand. (Not a great option.) Or buried in the bone in your forearm. (Better.)

When fighting, one actually has to work around the knife. This is easier said than done, again knives are fast. They’re near modern fencing levels of fast while also much more deadly. They’ve got a lot less distance to cover and they’re very sharp. Forget about catching the blade unless your character has solid leather gauntlets (though those might get cut), metal is better.  They’re going to need to stop the arm long enough to take hold of the wrist and twist the dagger out of the enemy’s hands.

Disarms against weapons, especially when you have none of your own, are always incredibly dangerous. Skill means you can do them at all, but it doesn’t make them any safer or any more of a good idea. Gun disarms are for when you were going to get shot anyway, and you might as well go down fighting because there’s less than a 50/50 of success. Knife disarms are the same way.

The sad truth is that disabling someone is much more difficult than killing them, it is much riskier, and you’re much more likely to die in the attempt. We double that against someone who knows what they’re doing. Weapons are serious business and they’re designed around killing human beings.

Good fight scenes are about progressing the story forward. They teach us about the personalities of the characters involved, how they work, how they think, what their morals are, and they communicate more through the character’s actions than you think. Be careful with what you’re attempting to say.

An unarmed character disarming a mook with a knife will tell us a lot about their character without damaging anyone (except the mook we may never see again.) An unarmed character encountering and disarming another major character with a knife is a very different story, especially when this is the first time we meet them.

By and large, the rules of action are these:

  1. The protagonist is the baseline for understanding all narrative violence. They are the net point, all audience understanding of skill within the narrative begins with them. You want a character the audience understands is better than the protagonist? They beat the protagonist or beat someone established as being better than. (The villain murdering your martial arts master.) By constantly winning the protagonist undercuts everyone else.
  2. Have your protagonist lose or fight opponents to a standstill, usually on mostly even ground.
  3. They can defeat and disarm an important enemy, but only that enemy has thoroughly proved their worth in battle and you don’t wish to use them anymore. It can be a redemption kickstarter, but we need to witness their villainy and skills first. The hero better earn this win.
  4. Keep your characters on a relatively even playing field for tension unless there’s a very specific reason not to. Unarmed characters versus armed characters may seem like an easy way to establish skill, but you are catapulting them into a level of action you and they may not be prepared to make good on. (Also if one character beats another at the previous character’s specialty, what’s the point of that character?)
  5. Violence escalates and your story will escalate with it. Unless utilizing a different sort of action (see: Robin Hood), you can get caught in a cycle of enemies ratcheting ever higher in skill in order to maintain tension.
  6. Your villain is either more skilled than your hero or on an even keel with their own advantages that ensure they remain dangerous, no matter the humiliations they may suffer throughout the story. (Robin Hood steals Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s tax collection while he’s traveling in the forest, kidnaps him and his men, humiliates them, and makes them walk home. Sir Guy sets up an archery tournament and takes him captive, planning to hang him. He is saved by Marian, who sneaks out of the castle and visits his men with a plan.)
  7. Set your hero at the disadvantage, but stay within the realm of reason even when that reason may feel ridiculous. (Wesley fighting Fezzik in The Princess Bride.)
  8. Understand the kind of action you want in your story. Realism is the rules of reality within your setting. Worry about abiding by them and maintaining suspension of disbelief.
  9. Do not be afraid to humiliate your hero in order to set up the skills of other characters. If Character A is the protagonist, then Character B taking the knife from him could result in a good life lesson. (This is a traditional plot point when the protagonist meets their martial arts master. Not so great for showing two characters of equal skill level.)
  10. Inside out, rather than outside in. The justification of a fight is character driven as the character justifies the narrative. Violence is a means of problem solving, if your characters are not problem solving then they’re not using their skills effectively.
  11. Fight scenes are there to support your narrative, they do not have to be there. Don’t let the fight scene override the rest of your story. Act to maintain your tension.
  12. All violence must be paid off with resulting character interaction later in the narrative. Violence almost causes more problems than it solves.

Saying two characters are highly skilled is not enough, you need to show it and show it as a means that undercuts neither. A character who has already been proven as a great fighter earlier can lose to another in order to bolster that character’s cred with the audience. Remember, the POV character and protagonist always have more starting cred to their name than any other character.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it helps.

-Michi

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Can you fight with a pocket knife? How would you hold it without being in danger of it folding up and slicing off your fingers or something?

Personally, if it doesn’t have a locking mechanism, I wouldn’t try using it in combat. During normal use, you’d never apply pressure against the back of the blade, so the knife wouldn’t be at risk of folding. Additionally, if you were concerned about a risk of the blade folding, you’d grip the handle along the edges, avoiding the groove that holds the blade for storage. But, that’s not really an option in combat.

Larger folding knives usually have some kind of safety catch designed to prevent the blade from collapsing on your fingers while using it. This may be as simple as a bent plate that snaps into position stabilizing and locking the blade while open, or it may be a hinged mechanism that holds the blade in place, and can be released by pressing a control somewhere on the grip.

Normally, you’ll start to see these on blades over three inches, though some smaller knives do include locking mechanisms.

I wouldn’t worry about the blade taking off the user’s fingers, but, having the blade collapse, cutting into the index finger, would be a real concern.

The thing about this is, most pocket knives that lack a locking mechanism aren’t going to be large enough to use effectively in combat. So, the risk of them folding on your hand is fairly slim. Larger knives should lock open. It’s also worth noting that I’ve never seen one of these mechanisms fail, I’m sure it can, but it’s an extremely rare occurrence.

If you end up with a knife large enough to use in a fight, but without a locking mechanism, I’d recommend against using it. At all, really, even as a utility tool, I’d worry about the risk of it folding. These locking mechanisms aren’t there so you can stab someone, they’re a safety feature for using the knife under normal circumstances. A large folding knife without a locking mechanism of some kind just wouldn’t be safe to use.

-Starke

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How easy is it for one character to accidentally kill another character in a playful knife fight? I need two of them to be fighting and a third to jump in between, causing one of the first two to trip up and fatally wound the other. How exactly does this work? I don’t just want to use logic I’ve made up.

Really easy.

There’s not really any such thing as a “playful” knife fight, not when it comes to live weapons.
Live weapons are what we call real knives, rather than practice weapons
or fake knives.

It’s also a terrible idea to do this without any sort of
protective gear. Now, there are definitely real world idiots who will
do it and call it “fun”. They are the same real world idiots who often
end up as cautionary tales on the six o’clock news. It’s also how bad
things like stab wounds happen, people get injured, and/or die.

You’ve basically got two idiots actively trying to cut and stab each other. Even if they’ve got some kind of pact to avoid the truly vital areas, someone is going to the hospital when this is over. And that’s just if nothing goes wrong.

Initially, if you know nothing about weapons, you might assume, “Well, that’s not that bad. They do that sometimes with swords, right?”

Nu-uh.

Knife combat is faster than sword combat, it happens in a range that is much closer to your body than sword combat, and has a lot less margin for error.

You can deflect a sword with a sword.

You deflect a knife with your free hand.

Playing with knives is a lot like playing with guns. While some of the other weapons like swords and staves will give you some room to mess around, knives don’t. All live weapons are deadly, but the major issue with the knife is that there isn’t much blade so it limits your options on what you’re aiming to hit.

While swords have the capacity to block and deflect with the blade itself, all knife strikes directly target the body and the deflection comes from the free hand because knife combat is supplemental to hand to hand. It happens in the same range as a fist fight. If you want to imagine what that’s like, think of your favorite fight scenes with fists.

Now, imagine the same thing happening if they’re holding a knife.

Knives are not toys.

The short answer is: they’re playing with real weapons and those weapons have a live edge. You never want to play with weapons because, even in the right hands, weapons are dangerous. The difference between someone who knows what they’re doing and someone who doesn’t is the understanding of just how dangerous a weapon can be. All the safety rules still apply with a gun, whether you know how to use it or not. Any mistakes made can end up costly, especially if your characters run around like chickens with their heads cut off afterward because a mistake happened and no one is trained in first aid.

So far as I can tell, there’s a mistaken impression on the internet about dangerous objects and skill sets where people believe that if you reach a certain skill level then mistakes don’t happen to you anymore. It’s the same problem that a lot of very skilled real world people have where they assume that because they know the rules, they can break them. This does or doesn’t apply on a case by case basis and the difference between who is smart and who is dumb often boils down to respect.

The dumb person believes that because they understand how knives work, knives can no longer hurt them.

The smart person understands that no matter their skill level, knives are always dangerous and mistakes can happen even under controlled circumstances.

One becomes reckless while the other cautiously takes risks.

So far, your characters are working in the first category.

Good enough to know what they’re doing, dumb enough to think they’re gods.

This is the perfect headspace for them to be in if you want one of them to die.

When working with live weapons, one behaves under a very strict set of rules because it is very easy to hurt yourself, your partner, or some fool who comes flying in out of nowhere.

I could see your setup actually happening. I know exactly how dumb some people can be.

What’s most important for you to understand if you’re going to do this scenario is that every single character involved made a catastrophic error in judgement and that they are all idiots.

The two who decided to fight with live knives are morons.

The one who decided that the best solution to stopping them was to jump between them and their very real weapons is just as stupid. If they are the one who dies, then they honestly had it coming.

It breaks every single safety rule. It’s very dramatic, but it heightens the danger in the situation. People will do it. Still, it is so dangerous that they usually get hurt and getting stabbed is way worse than a punch in the face.

These two shouldn’t be “playfully” fighting without supervision anyway, but again people are stupid. The less knowledge they have, usually the dumber about it they are.

In an allegorical, real world story, a friend of Starke’s once came home to find his roommates duking it out with a fire axe and one of those cheap dropforged katanas.

My martial arts instructors, who should’ve known better, allowed two underage black belts to spar with the old UFC gauntlets from the early 2000s that had fiberglass inserts to protect the knuckles. The end of that story is my brother nearly lost an eye when the other boy’s punch connected solidly enough to crack open his eye socket.

Starke knew a black belt in karate who told him a story about how two other instructors weren’t paying attention when they let some lower belt levels free spar. The end of that story is they both kicked each other and broke their legs.

My dad once went off a ski jump while buzzed and fractured his leg in seventeen places.

Humans have the capacity to be really stupid, especially the ones who should know better.

You don’t have to stretch that far for a character to do something stupid and that stupid results in someone hurt or dead.

However, when you take this tact, you have to accept is that it’s the result of stupidity. This isn’t some accident that no one could’ve predicted, it isn’t a tragedy that came out of nowhere. It happened because these characters were engaging in unsafe practices and taking unnecessary risks. Everyone in this situation made serious errors, especially the one who decided that jumping between the two characters with weapons was a good idea.

So, yes, it’ll be tragic. However, it’s important to recognize the difference between the tragedy that is unexpected and the one which is predictable. This is the kind of tragedy you can see coming with bells on.

-Michi

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do you have any comparisons on how big a knife has to be to do x amount of damage and the type of the blade? (I don’t really know if that made much sense)

It doesn’t really work like that.

Damage as a value is something you see in games because it’s an easy to
articulate abstraction. “You have a knife it does five points of damage. You
have a character, they have fifteen hit points.” That’s very easy to calculate,
and you’re looking at 3 attacks before the character expires.

What knives, and most weapons, actually do is tear apart tissue. It’s not
that your liver takes X amount of damage, it’s “did the knife pierce it? Is it
now bleeding?”

For games, that’s a bit daunting. It’s a lot easier to say a character can
take a fixed amount of damage before they expire, then tell the players to work
within that limit. At that point, it’s a natural fit to say that weapons have
fixed damage values. You can then modify these two elements to create a sense
of verisimilitude. It’s not how the world actually
works, but it feels good and creates a legitimate tensions for the
participants.

The closest you get to a hit point style calculation in the real world is, “how
fast are you loosing blood?” Usually, that’s what will kill you. At that point,
the only real distinguishing element is how big a hole did your weapon make. It
doesn’t have to be very big to get the job done. Bigger holes, or more holes
will get the job done faster.

The size and shape of a knife isn’t about how much damage it does, but how
you can use it. Anything over three inches is long enough to kill you. Larger
knives allow for different strike patterns. At a slightly abstract level, with
larger knives you’re trading speed and agility for mass. So, you use them in
different ways, prioritize different targets, and fight at different ranges.
Small knives are usable at zero range, while large knives (like machetes or bayonets)
actually have a minimum effective range, like swords and other “full sized”
melee weapons.

There is a purpose to the hitpoint abstraction, even in your writing, so
long as you keep in mind that it’s an artificial system. As we’ve said, many
times before, combat takes a toll on its participants. HP can be a legitimate
way of pacing your fight scenes, so long as it’s not information you’re putting
directly in front of your audience.

You never want to say, my character took X damage from that attack, but if
you’re actually writing about how your character narrowly avoided a blow that
caught and tore their jacket, or how they skinned a knuckle.

If you honestly have a hard time pacing fight scenes, giving your characters
a fixed value representing their health, stamina, and general good luck keeping
them out of harm, and then chipping away at it isn’t the worst possible exercise.
So long as you don’t turn around and then simply relate a turn by turn
breakdown of who slapped whom around, you may find it helpful in gauging how
fast your fight scenes should play out.

But if you’re close enough to use them, knives will absolutely ruin somebody’s
day.

-Starke

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Hi! I was working on my book, and I decided that a character of mind needs to carry a concealed blade of some sort. As I was thinking through weapons, I remembered the Hidden Blade from Assassin’s Creed, and I got curious. Is that actually plausible? I have no idea how the blade is sprung, or resheathed. Anyways, if you can shine some light on that, it would be cool to know. Thanks a lot! Love this blog btw.

I’m having this weird sense of deja vu.

Anyway, joking aside, OTF (out the front) switchblades are real. The actual mechanical structure of the hidden blades are possible with modern technology. Someone carrying around a self cleaning OTF knife in 1191? That’s less likely.

But, Jack Bauer carrying a Microtec HALO III in early 2000s LA? That’s a real knife you can buy. Or could when 24 was in it’s first couple seasons. I think the HALO III, specifically, was discontinued.

The biggest problem with Assassin’s Creed is just that the hidden blades would gunk up with organic material. The games say the blades are self cleaning, which would imply some pretty ridiculously tight mechanical tolerances. Which is possible, but not likely. In setting, I’ve always been under the impression that the hidden blades were based on First Civilization technology, but otherwise they’re anachronistic, for what they’re capable of, and the eras they’re used in. In the real world, you probably want to wipe the knife off after using it, before retracting it, though that’s usually good advice for any blade you just buried in someone.

As for spring assisted collapsing knives, I literally have a Hoffman Richter HR-15 about six inches from my hand right now. So, it’s reasonable to say, “yes, these things do exist.”

Collapsible knives can be easily concealed in almost any pocket. Ones with belt clips can be attacked to the cuff of a jacket or shirt just as easily, though they will hang a little strangely.

I honestly prefer non-powered lockblade knives, because they’re quieter, and easier to collapse one handed. Most OTF knives require two hands to rearm. That said, some do have push button recharge mechanisms, so it’s not a universal truth.

You can buy, or make, OTF knives that will behave like the hidden blade in Assassin’s Creed. Though, it’s also worth pointing out, those may run you afoul of local weapons laws, depending on where you live.

-Starke

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If a character wishes to disable their opponent’s arm by stabbing them with a knife from behind, which would deal more damage – leaving the knife in, or pulling it out?

Pulling it out.

If you leave a knife in the body, then it blocks the blood from leaving the body. As the attacker, this character will want their opponent to start bleeding out and to keep their weapon. It is worth noting that a knife is a solid stabby weapon that’s very good at killing.

This is why characters who dramatically pull the knife out in media are morons. They are in a highly stressful situation, engaging in strenuous physical activity, both of which will lead them to a quick bleed out. (Your heart pumps your blood through your body and it will not stop just because someone cut you. The faster your heart goes, the more quickly blood is being pumped. The blood must flow somewhere. In this case, right out the hole.)

-Michi

Is there a disadvantage to someone using two daggers against their opponent using a sword?

Yes. Not being able to reach the swordsman.

Any semi-competent swordsman will be able to keep their blade between themselves and their opponent. At that point, they should be able to skewer the knife fighter without reprisal.

Actual combat isn’t like, say, D&D. It’s not that one character can deal 1d8 damage, and the other can deal 1d4 in two separate attacks and they’re standing in adjacent spaces. Your knife fighter needs to be closer to their opponent than the sword allows. If they try to close that distance, they’re very likely to end up run through in the process.

Real world combat involves a concept called “reach”. You see this one relied on a lot by some writers, but very few actually grasp what it means. Reach is the distance you have between yourself and your opponent, basically how far it takes to hit them. Hand to hand uses reach to define the different zones around the body, how far it takes to hit someone with your legs, how far it takes to hit an opponent with your hands, when you’re in the grappling zone, to define which techniques get used when. One usually transitions as you get closer, so from legs, to hands, to grappling, until we fall into ground fighting.

That’s very basic and the rules change drastically depending on the styles involved (more so than the body type). With weapons, reach or the distance it takes to strike your opponent is also very important. Different weapons come in different lengths, shortening or lengthening the distance.

Knives, particularly short knives, are most useful when supplementing hand to hand combat rather than weapon combat. They provide an added benefit when placed against the distance involved and blades are more effective than hands/fists.

When placed against a weapon with greater length, as I said above, like a sword it has a disadvantage because it must close a greater distance in order to reach the opponent. The same is true for the sword versus a longarm/polearm such as a staff or a spear. The sword must close a greater distance in order to strike, while the spear has the ability to strike from a safe distance where the sword cannot reach them. The situation can change based on environment and the people involved are very important. However, in the flat comparison of two weapons: the sword has the advantage because of it’s greater reach.

More importantly, the concept of the slow and lumbering longsword is a myth. Swords are very quick. The best advantage a knife wielder has in the scenario is to kill the swordsman before they can draw or be in an advantageous range before the fight begins. They can also work them into a position where the sword loses it’s advantage due to the environment or situation.

In traditional combat, the second weapon often serves a defensive purpose rather than a primarily offensive one. It behaves like a shield, locking up the other weapon and creating openings in the opponent’s defense so the wielder can strike. This won’t help two knives much against a sword, because reach is still an issue and the second weapon doesn’t negate it. Two knives don’t function in the same manner as say a rapier and a parrying dagger, but it is worth keeping in mind for when you’re writing your scene.

-Starke

Knife Fighting Do’s and Dont’s

Scott:What they gotcha teachin’ here, young sergeant?

Jackie Black:Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.

Scott:
Don’t you teach ‘em knife fighting. Teach ’em to kill. That way, they
meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to
hell.

Spartan, 2004

There
really is no right answer to knife fighting, except, perhaps, the above
quote. When you’re setting out to write a scene, it’s best to assess
your priorities first and what your story needs. In the real world,
knife combat comes in many different forms and works as a supplemental
weapon in most military disciplines. It’s a common weapon in
self-defense situations, and can be used both by the aggressor and the
defender.

What is a knife?

Primarily, it’s a tool
and, like all tools, there are situations where it thrives and those
where it dies. It succeeds as an ambush weapon, as a builder on hand to
hand, and when fighting in very tight quarters. Combat with knives is
very quick and very deadly. As an ambush weapon, it is often used to
close the distance or rush a target. Allow the knife wielder to get
close to an opponent wielding a sword or a gun before either can be
drawn and they will have the clear advantage. However, take the knife
out of tight environments and it’s effectiveness will decrease
dramatically. This is why it’s unlikely to be the only weapon in a
character’s arsenal, especially not when you’re writing a professional
combatant.

What kind of fight are you writing?

The
knife is a deadly weapon in the hands of anyone, it doesn’t require any
specialized training to be able to wield it. It’s more user friendly to
killing than even a gun and can require less maintenance. Basic
understanding works fine. You pick it up, you stab, and then you stab
some more. The stabs may all go to one place, often the gut, but five or
six into one place will leave the other character bleeding out on the
sidewalk.

It’s up to you on whether or not you want to (or if
it’s even appropriate to your story) write a scene which is more
sophisticated. Remember, it doesn’t have to be. The basic principle of
the knife is incredibly simple: You’re gonna shank a dude.

So, don’t freak out.

When
it comes to a knife, anywhere on the body is a convenient target.
Anywhere. This is one of the few weapons where you really don’t need to
know much about it to write a scene. The knife is fairly intuitive.
Unless your character needs to get fancy with their martial combat, then
you do need to study. Even then, you still need to pick your martial
art and do your research. Plenty of martial styles have a knife
component, so it’s more a matter of searching through the different
styles to find the one which fits your character and story.

Below
the cut, I’ll discuss some basic theory and suggestions that hopefully
will be enough to get you a jumping off point into the fine art of
shanking. This is no means a comprehensive list, just basic beginner
tips.

Knife
fighting isn’t sword fighting with minis. This is the first, and most
important, lesson. They belong in separate categories. Knives are
supplementary weapons in hand to hand and when included significantly
raise the threat level to what that individual intends. When someone
whips out a knife in combat, they are raising the stakes from “someone
might die” to “I definitely want to kill somebody”.

Knife combat
is very fast and any received injury will be devastating. Someone with a
knife versus someone without one has a significant advantage. Knives
are very dangerous and, if your character isn’t careful, a fight can
easily end with a double suicide when both characters are bleeding their
guts out on the side of a highway.

There are a lot of
different kinds of “knife fighting” out there and many different
techniques available for you to look into for your character. The
question is what kind of knife fighting are they trained in/used to?
Many traditional martial arts all around the globe have their own set or
subset of combat tactics when wielding a knife. Military and Police H2H
do as well, though the techniques employed by Police will focus less on
using a knife and more on disarming/subduing an opponent who carries
one. The knife is a very common weapon for street level criminals and
it’s genuinely viewed as the most dangerous of the weapons one can
encounter in that environment. (Yes, even more dangerous than a gun and
also more common.) Some of the more “militant” or “practical”
self-defense subsets advocate using knives for self-defense.

Whatever
you choose to go with in your story, it’s best to remember this one
simple rule when it comes to knife combat: like all bladed weapons,
knives are for killing. If a character pulls a knife on another
character then they are making an active threat on their life. Their
intentions no longer matter, the threat is “if you don’t give me what I
want, I will kill you” or “I plan to kill you”.
Knives are best
suited to opportunistic combat and tight spaces. In a wide view for the
professional combatant, they are usually the fallback weapon or
situational weapon that gets pulled when the character needs to either
be stealthy/carry an easily concealable weapon, or give them an
advantage within tight/confined spaces where a sword, pole arm, or gun
aren’t practical. Knives are easily concealable, very dangerous in
unarmed/unarmored combat, and often end with someone dead or grievously
injured.

If your character specializes in knife combat, then they
need to be able to accurately assess the appropriate situations where
knife combat is viable and where it is not. Weapons are specialized for
different situations. Accept that bringing a knife to a gun fight or
sword fight is a losing proposition if they try to take them head on.
What makes a character “skilled” is not their ability to face all comers
or overcome the rules by virtue of being awesome, it’s in their ability
to accurately assess a situation and develop a plan of action which
plays to their strengths. While their plan may go sideways (no plans are
ever guaranteed success), it’s the thought that counts.

Do Hang onto Your Knife

This
seems like simple and obvious advice, but your character is not
guaranteed to hold onto their knife throughout the entire fight. The
character’s knife can be just as dangerous to them as their opponent’s
if they fail to keep a firm grip. Without properly applied pressure, the
blade can simply slip free, slide through the hand and cut it open, or
be dropped when filled with adrenaline. Cutting and stabbing another
individual relies on pressure, if the character’s grip is not secure
then they may simply lose the knife.
Characters with little to no
combat experience will be more subject to this law. Even so, mistakes
can happen to anyone regardless of experience level.

Do Avoid the Blade

Knives
are very dangerous weapons, any cut your character suffers during the
fight can potentially be lethal. The reason for this is blood loss. The
more active you are, the more blood your body pumps through your heart,
if there is a hole in your body then the more blood will escape during
the fight. The more holes you get, the more blood escapes and there is
nowhere on your body a knife can hit that won’t draw blood. Your veins
are everywhere. One single hit can lead to a chain of from bad to worse.

Knife
fights happen within very close proximity, even if your character is
armed that won’t protect them from getting cut. A character is going to
want to stay out of range of the knife until they are ready to commit.
Instead of grasping and grappling, you’re going to be looking at a fair
amount of ducking, dodging, and deflecting. It’s not like with basic
hand to hand where you’re characters can simply trade blows. The
fighters want to keep the knives as far from them as humanly possible.
Catch the blade either early in the swing (as the arm draws back) or
late in the swing (after they’ve fully extended) to initiate a counter
attack, or cut under as they swing. Whatever your character does, their
priority is going to be on keeping that knife away from them so the
other person cannot reverse and stab.

Use your characters
“free” (non-weapon carrying) hand for blocking, deflecting, and
controlling. Characters who use the Phillipino martial art escrima may
supplement their free hand with a short stick or a baton. Characters
wielding two knives give up their ability to deflect and control their
opponent. They are trading their defensive options for more stabbing
power.

Do Keep Track of the Blade

This is
more for when you the author are writing, but also a good plan for your
characters. When writing fight scenes, especially when both characters
are armed, there’s a bad habit of writers imagining the sequence like a
video game. The knife is important only so long as it’s there to
establish a threat, once one character gets the upper hand then it’s
immediately forgotten.

Don’t forget it’s there. Even if it
gets knocked free or knocked away in the fight. As the writer, always
know where the weapons are even if the other characters forget about
them. Anything can happen with a free weapon. Any other character can
pick it up, any other character can make off with it, and be waiting
when your victorious protagonist walks around the corner. If the
character still has the knife, then they can still stab your protagonist
even when they are winning. Sometimes, even when they are dying.
Keep track of all weapons in the scene.

Don’t Grab the Blade

Your
hand is full of nerves and important tendons necessary for maintaining a
grip. A blade will slice through all of them and cripple your
character, leaving them bleeding and unable to defend themselves. Your
hand is a mechanical marvel, it is incredibly delicate. When damaged, it
can take a long while to recover, assuming it ever does.

This is
why deflection is so important in knife fights, as well as more risky
blocks that expose lesser parts of the body to injury in exchange for
more important ones. These blocks include using the edge of the forearm,
where the bone is closest to the surface and there are few important
muscles, to attempt to catch or lockup the blade in the bone. This is,
however, incredibly risky. Alternate knife grips, such as a reverse
grip, can avoid this block by slashing under instead of the expected
over and sever the veins and tendons before following up with a stab to
the ribs or gut. If you really, really, really must have your character
do something with their hand then instead of grabbing the blade, ram
their hand through it. It is terrible advice and will do long term
damage to the hand, but if there’s no other way out go that route. Your
character will appear slightly smarter because they attempted to lock
the blade up in the bones inside the hand. Locking up the knife creates
an opening for them to attack. It’s definitely a sacrificial gesture,
but if it’s your hand or your life then go with the hand.

Deflect
at the hand, the wrist, the elbow, and upper arm. Make contact with the
opponent and not the blade itself. If your character must attempt a
disarm (very dangerous), catch the wrist or the hand. Take the hilt,
torque the blade against the thumb (not the fingers) to pop it free. The
other character won’t be able to hold onto the blade. Like with most
martial actions, taking the knife isn’t about strength. It’s about
attacking the weak link (the thumb), forcing the hilt into a position
where the attacker can no longer maintain a grip.

Disarms are
exceedingly dangerous to perform. So, when writing, always try ensure
that the necessary body parts are protected and the blade is redirected
somewhere else. Best if it’s in a position where it can no longer come
at you again.

Don’t Fuck Around

One general
problem many authors have is they assume when someone becomes “good”
then basic threats no longer apply. In game terms, they level past
certain dangers and when they do those dangers no longer apply. Now,
this is a common cliche in many martial arts movies. The trick is
understanding that it’s a failing on the part of the student and their
overconfidence inevitably brings them back down to earth.

It
doesn’t matter how good your character is, combat is always dangerous. A
character’s professionalism is defined by how seriously they take the
threats made on their life and the part where they recognize the
inherent danger present in any situation. What they know will not keep
them safe from danger. It gives them a better chance and that’s all.

You
never level past danger. Whether they’ve seen one battle or a hundred,
treat every threat seriously and end it quickly. The longer a fight goes
on, the greater the chance that something will go wrong.

Don’t Prolong Suffering

It’s
cruel. If your character is in a situation where they must kill, then
killing quickly is kindness. While this should probably go under “Don’t
Fuck Around”, this is deserving of its own topic.

In Dune,
when young Paul Atreides must duel Jamis to secure his position within
Stilgar’s Fremen tribe, he is initially condemned by the other members
of the tribe when he prolongs the fight. The issue for him is that while
he is an exceptionally skilled combatant, he’s never killed before and
is hesitant to take a life. However, his lifetime of training has left
him so skilled that the Fremen see his behavior as cruel. It’s obvious
to anyone with eyes that he is going to win. All his hesitance does is
tease his opponent with false hope and prolong his suffering. There is
no out for Paul, he must kill.

This was an important scene in
the novel because of the way it highlighted the difficulty in the act of
killing another human being even when one has been brought up their
life to do so. It also humanized the Fremen. While their laws are strict
and their culture brutal due to their harsh environment, they won’t
thank any protagonist for prolonging the suffering of someone they care
about.

Holding off doesn’t make your character look like a
decent human being. There is more to the conversation than killing bad,
living good. What Paul does to Jamis is a form of torture. It is
unintentional, but that doesn’t change the end result. When your
characters are in a situation where they are more skilled than their
opponent and you have placed them in a situation where they must kill
then mucking around, prolonging the scene, is cruel.

This
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The scene I put forward from Dune is
powerful and informative, it serves a purpose. What you should do is
recognize the act for what it is, allow other characters to notice the
same, and condemn the character for it.

Don’t Give the Knife Back

If
someone tries to kill you, don’t give them their weapon back once the
fight is over. In novels, this is treated as “sportsmanlike” behavior. A
sign the character has defeated their enemy and are now proving they
are the bigger person. It’s stupid. There’s nothing stopping them from
burying that knife in your character’s back or their ribs the minute
they turn around. Just defeating someone doesn’t stop them from wanting
to kill you. It also won’t stop them from stabbing someone else.

Lots
of characters do this. If you have a character engaging in this
behavior, and they just might, think about it when you write the
consequences of the decision.

Do Lock Up the Hand (and other body parts)

Attack
the portions of the body they use to fight. Carve up the hand/arm first
to get it out of the way, then go for the main body. Author’s often get
too invested in “kill shots”, they sometimes forget that getting from
Point A to the killing blow has intervening steps, like getting through
their defenses. If the character has the option to go straight in to
take them out of the fight and the situation allows it, then all the
better.

However, sometimes a character is going to have to do a
little extra work than just rushing forward and stabbing the other
character. If the other character has a knife, then 9/10 they’ll just be
running into the other person’s knife. This advice goes hand in hand
with “Avoiding the Blade” and keeping track of the weapon. While the
knife can easily be switched between hands, it’s a good idea to create
openings in their defenses. This can be done using either the
“free”/defensive hand or the knife itself. Where the enemy knife is will
be important to targeting and response. Attacking the arm or wrist
holding the blade can be helpful to ending the knife’s threat.

After
all, if they can’t use the arm then they can’t use the knife. These
kinds of blows are, however, just openers to attack the other more
sensitive parts of the body.

You’re not just attacking veins.
Good slashes will also cut through or damage the muscles and ligaments
necessary for a person to keep fighting. In this respect, it’s best to
think of knife combat as surgical. While on the one hand, it can be
blunt. It can also be incredibly precise and ridiculously fast. This
kind of speed and precision you won’t get from a longer weapon.

Do Study Police Blotters and Medical Files

Knife
injuries will teach you more about knife combat than all the techniques
in the world. Learning what a weapon can do to somebody is part and
parcel to developing a healthy respect for the weapon. When we get right
down to it, knife combat is pretty gruesome.

Do Remember There Are Different Kinds of Knives

There’s the dagger.
Daggers typically possess two edges or are double-sided blades. They
are the traditional variant of the combat knife. Daggers, such as the
parrying dagger from fencing, can also be used as tools or secondary
defensive weapons instead of offensive.

And the knife.
Typically possess a single edge, primarily used for cutting, and are
tools. However, the term also applies to most modern combat knives.

The terms can be used interchangeably.

What
is your character carrying? A tactical knife? A switchblade? A kitchen
knife? These are different and one isn’t a weapon. I mean just look and those are just the modern ones. Also keep in mind that throwing knives are not the same as throwing a knife.
Throwing knives are made for throwing, if your character is throwing a
regular knife then they need to make some adjustments for weight and
balance.

Worth remembering: throwing a regular knife just means
your character has lost theirs. Knife throwing has become a narrative
fast hand for saying that “my character has impressive accuracy” and
often used in cases where it makes very little sense. Knife throwing is a
skill, as throwing anything is a skill. It’s a very nice party trick,
but means almost nothing in regards to combat viability. It’s a lot like
tossing around a baseball or a paper airplane. Anything you throw and
don’t want to lose, you still have to go out and retrieve.

Because
knives are also tools, be prepared to distinguish between the
improvised weapon (such as cutlery or any utility knife) and the actual
weapon such as a combat knife (a weapon designed around the idea of
stabbing another living person). For characters who use knives for
combat will not mix the two unless it’s absolutely necessary as it
damages the knife’s functionality both as a weapon and also as a tool.

Do Use Sensation Appropriate Verbs

Depicting combat in your writing is often about finding the right words that generate the appropriate feel of the motion you’re aiming for. In this case, hard sharp words like cut, thrust, slice, slash, stab, drove, instead of hard but round words implying crushing force like “hit”. “He hit him with the knife.” Does that sound right? When we use the word “hit“ we conjure images of kinetic force, a knockback, and a slight bounce. Words that imply blunt force trauma are out, unless it involves hitting someone with the butt of the knife hilt (though why would you do that? It’s not a sword pommel). Knives and bladed weapons go “in”, they impale. There is driving force behind the edged weapon, but also a sense of smoothness in the action.

Soft words also can work in certain situtations like : slip or slid, like “he slid the blade between his ribs”.

You can also use words like “caught” to convey what happens to the blade when it penetrates the body. “She tried to yank it back, but the blade had caught in Adam’s ribcage.”

I hope these have been helpful to you.

-Michi

Resources:

Stay Safe Media
– This self defense vlog run by edged weapon’s expert Michael Janich is
very helpful for those looking to get quick information about knives
and knife combat. Janich’s predominate focus is on self-defense, but he
puts a primary focus on framing the training through real life
situations. His videos have been very helpful to me and hopefully will
be to some of you as well.

Contemporary Knife TargetingContemporary Knife Targeting
by Michael Janich isn’t really about targeting per say, it’s mainly
about William Fairburn’s Timetable of Death, which is used by Police and
Military to determine how long someone has from resulting knife
injuries and why it’s flawed. This is pretty much why I recommend the
book because it spends a vast majority of it’s time going in depth into a
discussion of how quickly someone will die from which injury. If you
want to write about knife fights, this one is worth a look.

Dune – Frank Herbert’s Dune
has some very well written knife sequences, but also good world
building explanations for certain kinds of behavior. The Fremen culture
is very reactive to what Paul and Jessica do when they join. Paul
must convince them he is what he says. While stories in which the hero
isn’t given carte blanche to do what they like aren’t uncommon,
characters dealing with consequences other than the basic “death is bad”
or “I can’t believe you did that” are slightly more unusual. There are
more kinds of horror and emotional rollercoasters than just easily
grasped indignation.

Spartan
– I linked the above quote at the beginning and while Spartan doesn’t
talk about “knife fighting”, you do see another colder perspective in
the main character. It’s more about attitude than knives, but worth
considering.

U.S. Military, Systema, Israeli Military, Kali and
Escrima from the Philippines, and many other martial systems have a
knife component to their training. It’s up to you to decide what level
of knife combat your character is trained in and find a style which
corresponds accordingly.

As always, keep in mind that combat
constantly changes, evolves, and grows over time. All martial systems
are not created equal, they were developed to deal with specific
challenges faced by the culture in question. While they might not lose
cultural relevance, combat effectiveness changes with the times. A
character who spends his weekends practicing Kendo or Iaido is not the
same as a samurai from 1185. The modern special forces, or even just the
basic soldier, are a better comparison.

Is there a functional purpose to ‘wavy’ blades such as a flamberge or the kris/keris dagger or are they purely aesthetic? Would they inflict and different kind of wounds than a straight blade?

It’s not aesthetic, though I’m not completely certain what the consequences are.

Usually the cited reason is the blade causes less suction. With knives, this tends to get presented as something that makes it harder to pull a blade back out of someone, though, really, if you got it in there in the first place, through intact tissue, pulling it back out shouldn’t be much of a barrier.

If it does actually generate less suction, it probably means the wound can’t seal around the blade to reduce bleeding, if it’s left behind. (Incidentally, first aid for someone who’s been stabbed is to leave the knife in the wound. Pulling it out will dramatically increase the blood loss through the wound, and you can kill someone that way while trying to help them.)

It may just be to increase the blade’s ability to wound while avoiding serration, and the difficulty with trying to sharpen or hone a serrated blade.

-Starke