Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: A sword is not load Bearing

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

So… There’s this scene in a book where a swordsman thrusts at a guy with two knives and the thrust was deflected so the swordsman stumbles forward. Knife Guy grabs the swordsman’s collar and then demonstrates to an apprentice that he can a) stab Sword Guy in the throat b) stab Sword Guy in the chest and/or c) cripple Sword Guy. Is Sword Guy just a bad combatant or is this actually usable?

I’m hoping this scene occurred in a safe training environment and not in a live scenario because so many more problems pop up if it did. They’d be a whole other post about why you don’t train people while fighting for your life (even against a subpar opponent, you’re confident your trainer character could beat.) That would be a whole other post about how stupid that makes characters look.

The short answer is that whether or not Sword Guy is supposed to be a good combatant is dependent on the narrative and the author who wrote it. There’s a lot about the scenario that doesn’t make sense and makes both characters look like idiots, along with a general side of “not how this works”. This includes a third arm problem. The author knew just enough to be aware of certain concepts like deflection, stumbling, and grabbing someone by the collar but not how they work or what causes them.

Let’s start at the top.

1. A sword is not load bearing.

Swords weigh between two to four pounds. They’re not heavy. The only way it’d be possible for the swordsman to stumble on a thrust would be if he had to throw his entire weight behind the sword, and have the forward momentum carry him forward. (Which is why the great axe is swung in a figure eight pattern.) However, you don’t need deep penetration with a sword and a thrust is about the tip, not the whole sword. A thrust moves off one leg, not both, in a step forward (if that) and a deflection will not unbalance your opponent on its own. If the weapon weighed twenty pounds, then it couldn’t be deflected. It’d have too much forward momentum. The swordsman would never come close enough for the Dual Wielder to grab him, and the Dual Wielder couldn’t grab him by the collar anyway because he’s duel wielding.

However, this is all predicated on the idea that the swordsman stumbled close enough to be in range for the Dual Wielder. Swords add an extra four or so feet of distance. He wouldn’t be close enough for the dual wielder to reach him. Dual Wielder would have to come to Sword Guy and not the other way around. An experienced knifer would know that.

2. Dual wielding knives is about a sacrificing defense for offense.

Outside specific tools like parrying daggers (which are not the same as regular daggers), knives exist to accentuate hand to hand. Using two means you’ve made a conscious choice to sacrifice utility and defense for more offense. Sacrificing utility includes collar grabbing. He would either need to drop one of his knives (bad) or he sprouted a third arm.

You can hold the knife or grab the collar, not both.

3. The sword is never out of play.

A good rule of thumb is: deal with the weapon first.

This technique that’s being shown off assumes that your enemy will politely stand there while you move two ranges in (from sword to hand to grappling) so you can grab them by the collar to stab them in the throat or chest or stab them in a joint to take them out of the fight. (Let’s ignore the chest too because you’ve got to deal with the breastbone and the unprotected stomach, abdominals, gut is just a few inches lower.)

Of course, Sword Guy still has his sword and edged weapons can cut you coming and going.

If sword guy is using two hands then he can rotate his sword and come back across on the deflection. It assumes the blade is not coming on a downward angle on the thrust, which is not getting deflected. This also assumes sword guy is not half-handing (where one hand is halfway up the blade) which can’t be deflected/parried.

So, all Dual Wielder did was open up his side to a blade that can be reoriented and brought sideways. Which assumes the deflection could happen in the first place, which is unlikely because…

4. You don’t parry with knives.

Again, that’s what your free hand is for.

There’s a problem with this scenario regarding the size of the knives in question. Some knives or daggers like bayonets are long enough they could concievably parry a sword, and get away with it. However, if your blade is long enough that it can parry a sword then grabbing someone by the collar is superfluous because you will be able to strike them before you are in range to grab their body. You’d also be putting your weapon outside the range where it is most useful to you, which is goes against the lesson this teacher is trying to impart.

5. There’s a misconception about depth.

You don’t need to go deep with a blade to do damage. Think about how painful a papercut is, or how easy it is to cut yourself while cooking. Surface level cuts to the skin can cause you to bleed out over an extended period, especially during times of high activity when your heart is rapidly pumping blood through your body. You don’t have to go deep to start cutting muscles in the arms or legs, which can debilitate your opponent.

A lot of writers obsess about stabbing someone in the heart or running someone through with a sword, but the true danger of bladed weapons is that it doesn’t take much against an unarmored opponent. That’s why people wore armor, and part of why the formality of first blood in duels exists. A single cut can be deadly. Surface level injuries with these weapons in the right place can kill you, especially if left without medical attention. Every cut you land is bad for your enemy.

6. We moved two ranges in.

We talk about range sometimes on this blog, but the key thing to remember is that range just means the distance it takes for a specific attack to hit your opponent. Grabbing hold of someone’s collar puts you in grappling range, which means that the person is right up next to you. This is close enough that your arm couldn’t reach full extension if you punched. This is the range where hooks, elbows, and upper cuts come into play.

The kind of stumbling this scenario is talking about is the kind you get when you grab someone and pull them forward. It’s actually very hard to get someone to stumble on a basic attack because most stances will have you set your balance, and your body moves together when you attack. So, in order for you to stumble a large amount of force must be delivered into you or you’re purposefully knocked off balance. All a deflection does is shift the strike off vector so that it misses. If you follow up with nothing, then the other person either resets to their original fighting stance or changes tack and like rotating the blade, kicking, or striking with their other hand. There’s no reason for Sword Guy to stumble at all, certainly not stumble through two other ranges (sword and hand) into grappling without the Dual Wielder needing to do anything. The best way to get someone to stumble forward is to catch them off balance and yank, which can’t be done if you’re holding a weapon.

Conclusion:

The basic problem of this scenario is that it sounds good on the surface but falls apart when you stop to think about it. The scene also lacks key understanding of how these weapons function and why they work. Dual Wielder has an overfocus on the neck/chest, neither of which are particularly good strike points. Remember, the sternum protects the heart from a stab or downward strike. If you want to get there, you’re going to need to go through the ribs. The neck is difficult because if you’ve got short weapons then you have to be up close. Both these places sound good to novices because they know they work or that they should work.

Writing weapons means brushing up on your anatomy. You need to study how the human body works, where it works, and how it breaks. You can cut someone on the wrist, either going after the artery in the forearm or just to distract them while you move in on the better protected target. With knives, two cuts are better than one. You don’t need a lot of penetration.

-Michi

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Q&A: Gang Arms

hi i’m writing a story set in the present day and my MC is part of a street gang. realistically, what kinds of weapons would they have?

This is heavily dependent on where the gang is based, and how connected they are. For example: a street gang in the UK or Hong Kong won’t have access to firearms the way a gang in south central LA will. Really won’t, but we

When creating any organization, with armed members, you need to ask, “what could my characters realistically get their hands on?” There a lot of relevant factors. Does the organization have a centralized armory, and the ability to buy equipment (including weapons) for its members? Does it enjoy official sanction that allows it (or its members) to obtain restricted (police/military) weapons? Is there money to buy gear? What’s available on the market?

When we’re talking about a street gang a lot of those choices are made for you, and the primary consideration, “what’s available, and what can they afford?”

In countries with strict firearms regulations, guns are going to be expensive, and rare, on the black market. This also requires that your gang has access to black marketeers, which isn’t a certainty. At that point, you might have individual members who have firearms, but those are probably going to be relatively senior members, and probably ones with ties to organized crime. It’s also distinctly possible that even if a character does have access to firearms, they might not carry them because the weapon itself will bring too much attention from local law enforcement.

Conversely, if you have a nation that was a warzone, or where a previous military regime collapsed, black market weapons could be very common. I’m thinking former Warsaw Pact states here, though, it’s also true elsewhere. At that point, it would be entirely plausible that gang members would have access to things like AK variants.

It’s difficult to generalize because, we’re talking about the entire world, and there are a lot of factors. So, if you have place in mind, I’d suggest you research crime in that area. In the modern era of Google, there a lot of resources. I’ve got an academic paper on gang violence in modern Australia open in the other window right now. Probably not relevant for you, but this information is out there.

In the US, you’d usually expect to see a mix of low end civilian weapons. Things like cheap handguns and shotguns. That said, even in the States, you can start to get into some unusual territory.

Historically there have been a lot of, “join the military or go to prison,” stories. There’s truth to this, and it was used as an alternative sentencing option in the past. In recent years, this has fallen out of favor, and while some courts may attempt to offer military service as an alternative sentence, these, “recruits,” are now expressly forbidden by most branches of the US Armed Services.

We’re still living with the fallout of this. Because of their experience in the military, some gang members in the US received advanced combat training, and developed connections that allowed them to procure military grade hardware after they filtered back into civilian life, and rejoined their gangs. So, while your average street gang wouldn’t have an M249 floating around, it’s not impossible they’d have someone with the hardware, training, and ability to instruct others in its use.

Another possible factor is organised crime connections, though this has less effect than you might expect. If you have a street gang that’s working with an organized syndicate, you might see a slight shift in their hardware, but it wouldn’t be particularly drastic. This because organized crime and black market weapons aren’t, really, synonymous. Both gangs, and organized crime benefit from a robust network of black market arms dealers, but neither one really runs that. Arms dealers are their own factor. However, gang members may have access to a better quality of black marketeer if their gang is working with a syndicate, and more cash to spend on their weapons.

Remember that gangs are opportunists. If a gang member gets their hands on a high-end tactical handgun, they’re probably going to keep and use that. So, while I said they’d probably have a mix of cheap weapons, that’s because they could afford (or easily steal) those. But, there is a real possibility for some diversity, particularly if they’re operating in more upscale areas.

Some gangs have started recruiting upper middle-class latchkey kids, via social media. This means you may, rarely, encounter gang members who have much better quality hardware available to them. Either, because they stole their parent’s gun, or because they helped their gang knock over one of their neighbors, and found it when tossing the place. (This is also possible if you have a gang that’s aggressively expanding its territory.)

For gang members, or most criminals really, the handgun is ideal. It’s easy to conceal and useful in close quarters. It doesn’t matter that they’re low power; you’re not going to be using them against armored foes. Also, you’re not going to be engaging at long range, so that limitation doesn’t matter.

So, it really matters where your fictional gang is located, and what its resources are.

-Starke

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Q&A: Crescent Moon Spade

How good of a weapon is a Shaolin spade? Because I saw a page about it that said that it was originally just a *spade*, and I just thought of your improvisatory weapons posts.

That might not be best way to think about it.

Shovels and similar tools are already pretty solid choices for improvised weapons. You have a blade on one end of a pole (or a grip, in the case of something like a trowel.) While they’re not designed for use on people, they are designed to drive a lot of force into an object (the soil.) At that point, applying that force into an opponent isn’t much of a stretch. You’re doing what it’s designed to do, just on “an unapproved target.”

The Monk Spade or Crescent Moon Spade is, basically, an augmented staff. The hooked blade would function as a defensive tool, allowing for some parrying, while the flat blade would function as a striking tool.

When we’re talking about improvised weapons, we mean picking an object in your environment and repurposing it as a weapon. In the case of the Monk Spade, someone looked at the shovels used by Taoist or Buddhist monks (I’ve seen it attributed to both groups) and decided to make a weapon based off of that design. At that point it’s no longer an improvised weapon; it is a weapon.

How good is it? As far as I can tell, historically these were used by traveling monks. The overall design is sound, and in the hands of a trained martial artist, they work, they’ll do their job. That’s what matters.

In a larger scale of, “how good is it in comparison to other weapons?” I don’t know. Like I said, it’s effectively an augmented staff. It was, apparently, well chosen for the situations it was used in, and it survives in the martial arts disciplines that trained with it. There’s no really value in saying, “but, this other weapon is so much better,” because if it consistently keeps the practitioner alive, while dealing with their foes, that’s the only metric that counts.

-Starke

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Q&a: Weapon of Choice

Is it possible to have a character using the sling and knives as their weapon of choice and trains for their one hundred year life because it’s more inconspicuous, even though they could use a spear and/or a sword decently? Idk, the character I’m writing is strange, but I don’t want to make it too overboard.

That sounds like someone who’s more of an ambush fighter, or assassin, rather than someone who trained for direct combat. Within that context, the sling seems a little strange, but it does make sense. The daggers and sling are both easy to conceal, so a character could carry both of them on their person, and have access to a ranged and melee weapon. Again, that’s more of an assassin or infiltrator’s approach to combat, rather than a straight up fighter.

Your weapon of choice is more about how you approach combat, rather than a preferred style, or aesthetic choice. Multiple weapons would further refine, or plug holes in that selection.

If your character is supposed to be a sneaky, backstabbing type, then a sling isn’t the weirdest ranged option. If they’re supposed to be a fighter that goes toe to toe with their foes, instead of someone shanking people in a back alley, then you’re probably going to want to trade the dagger for a sword. It’s still possible they’d carry both, and use the daggers clandestinely, while using the sword for open combat. That’s more in the range of plugging weaknesses.

If you have a character who operates clandestinely, (like a spy or assassin), it’s entirely plausible they’ve developed proficiency with a lot of weapons they don’t normally carry. This is also true for any character who has extensive combat training, but aren’t using it currently. Ex: Former soldiers or mercenaries.

Weapons are tools. You bring the tools you need for the job at hand. You may know how to use a much wider array of tools. Weapons of choice tell you how a character prefers to approach a problem. It doesn’t tell you everything about what that character can do. Your character could, very well, be proficient with swords and spears in addition to knives, but they’re only carrying a knife because they’re planning to do something specific, and openly carrying weapons would give them away. Especially if your character is more experienced, that’s not “over the top.”

The trade-off with a more experienced character is, they’re more likely to encounter people who know them, or know of them. If your character spent years training with a sword and developed a reputation as an excellent duelist, then that reputation would precede them. This isn’t over the top, it’s a natural side effect of having a character who’s been active for years, or even decades.

If your character is an assassin, having a reputation, and being recognized is a serious problem. Even if that reputation is for something other than being an assassin. It means, people will remember who your character is after the bodies are found, and remember that you were there. This can easily spiral into a complex problem for your character.

Spies have it worse, because being recognized is an immediate threat, and jeopardizes whatever they’re working towards.

Now, if you have a character who’s working as a thief or spy, and they need to infiltrate a situation where they can’t openly carry a weapon, they might choose not to carry any weapon. This is a complicated decision. The short reason is: If they’re caught carrying a weapon when they shouldn’t, it’s an immediate tip-off that they’re not who they say they are. Combine this with the part where a dagger isn’t going to do much good going up against a guard with a spear, however, a smart operator may be able to talk their way out of situation like that, if they’re found. (Obviously, this is contextual. A character who’s someplace they could have reasonably gotten lost can do this. Someone found on in a secret base under a volcano’s going to have a hard time saying they got lost looking for the bathroom.)

The basic concept is only strange if you say they intrinsically know how to use a sword and spear. If they train on a wide variety of weapons, they’d still be proficient with them, but they might only carry weapons that work for their current goals. That’s normal.

-Starke

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Q&A: Practical Torture Goals

I would implore you to do actual research on torture and how torturers behave. A lot of the information you present as fact is dangerously misinformed. Torturers are not ‘professionals’ and does not yield accurate information. You shouldn’t be answering any questions on torture if you haven’t read O’Mara. This isn’t about torture being bad. It’s about torture not working at all. I apologize if I seem harsh, but this needs to be said.

I have read Shane O’Mara’s work. Not all of it, and not recently. I skimmed through years ago. Though, judging by your question, I’m not entirely sure you are familiar with his work.

The irony is, there’s not a lot of difference between O’Mara’s position and ours, when it comes to torture. The biggest discrepancy is perspective. He’s a neurologist who had a focus on the specific effects of stress and pain on the brain. My background is political science, so my interest grew out of examining coercive methods used by nation states. As a result, my specialization is more focused on what it does at a policy level. And we both come to, nearly the same point:

People forget the reality of what torture was used for, and has been used for through the generations, a quite different purpose: To spread fear, extract confessions, all of those kinds of things. But, the royal road to gathering reliable information? No.

Shane O’Mara – “Your Welcome” (Podcast Interview)

This gets into a fundamental misunderstanding about what torture is, and why you use it. Many people who’ve never looked at torture in depth, including the interviewer in that podcast, and the person who sent this ask, believe it’s about extracting information.

No.

The perception of torture as intelligence gathering is pervasive. It’s honestly difficult to point to uses of torture in popular media that get at the real point behind its use. The ur-example of this misconception would have to be 24, and it’s ends-justify-the-means embrace of torture.

The problem is, as the US Military’s Enhanced Interrogation Program learned in Iraq, torturing someone only makes them tell you what they think you want to hear. This was not new information. Nearly every organization in history that’s employed torture has understood this.

Most civilians do not. Many organizations have exploited this fact to further their agendas.

Torture excels at extracting false confessions. To make the suffering stop, you put a narrative in front of someone, and they will crack and sign off on it. This is the true power of torture. It doesn’t tell you what’s real, it coerces the victim to agree with your version of the truth.

Confessions are not reliable, in any sense. Someone may admit they committed an act for any number of reasons unrelated to the truth. Social norms put faith in the idea of a confession as, “the truth,” but that is just words; like everything else, it shouldn’t be taken at face value. As mentioned above, torture exploits this norm, and relies on that general acceptance of confessions to glaze over all the incongruities. Even when those confessions are patently absurd or downright impossible, people will still say, “but they confessed.”

I remember an example of this a couple years ago, from another person bringing their favorite academic into a discussion. In that case it was James Wasserman, an author who wrote a history of the Knights Templar. The end of that order came from confessions extracted under torture by one of the Inquisitions. (I don’t remember which one.) Even knowing that the confessions were coerced, Wasserman sees nothing wrong with taking them at face value. (Also the reason he comes to conclusions that radically differ from every rational academic that looks at the subject.)

That said, unlike Wasserman, O’Mara does something interesting. We’ve always known you can’t get good information from torture, and O’Mara decided to take neurology and look at why. The answer has to do with how memories work.

The brain stores memories as chemical chains. Under the best of circumstances, this is not a good, robust, long-term storage system. In some ways it’s surprising it works as well as it does. Stress and trauma both adversely affect your ability to form new memories and retain them. This has nothing to do with torture per se. If you’re put through six kinds of hell, you’re going to forget things.

Again, this isn’t exactly new information. It’s something that most therapists and investigators are well aware of. If you’ve been a victim of violence, even if it wasn’t perpetrated by a human, you may have experienced this. You might not realize it. I’m sitting here, thinking about my first dog attack and realizing, I don’t really remember that day. I remember that it happened, (and I can still find the scars on my left hand), but if I’m being completely honest with myself: a lot of the details are just gone. I do remember the sounds. Unfortunately, and if pressed, I could present a partial chronology of that day, but it would be reconstructed from information I have about when it was, what I was doing, things that happened before and after the attack.

Even without resorting to extreme events like that, your memory of traumatic or highly stressful experiences isn’t going to be completely clear. Ironically, this can also screw you over. If you get stressed out over a test in school, that will impair your ability to study, and even your ability to recover information during the exam.

Within this context, sleep deprivation has a significant effect on your cognitive abilities. This puts a fair amount of stress on your system for no real value. So, pulling an all-nighter before a test is not recommended.

Caffeine, and other stimulants don’t, really, help here. They’ll help you stay awake, they’ll help you feel more alert, but they won’t make up for the lost sleep, so the cognitive impairment will still be there, you’ll just look sober.

So, stating the obvious here but, having bunch of armed men attack and capture you, being dragged off to a dark room somewhere, isolated from any support network, being yelled at, and being threatened… That’s all kinda stressful.

In fact, many interrogators will seek to prolong the stress of capture as long as possible. They’ll use loud music, bright lights, keep the room cold, prevent them from sleeping (with all of the associated sleep deprivation considerations coming into effect) in an attempt to keep their captive off balance, to prevent them from settling into a new norm. While they’re in this state, they’re more susceptible to suggestion.

There is a continuum to all of this. It’s part of why studying for tests in an academic situation is such a good example: In the entirety of your life, it’s a pretty minor stress, but it is stressful, and the details you’re being asked to retrieve are trivial. So that’s some of the first information your brain will dump when things start fraying. When you put someone in real danger, the stress will start dumping much more important things. It’s not like you’ll forget your name, or where you were born, but it could easily dump information an interrogator would be interested in; like the names of people you met at a party last week.

All of this information also applies to witness testimony. Even when the investigators aren’t leaning on you, the stress from the original event can easily play havoc with your memory. This is one of the reasons why investigators need to be careful when they’re interviewing victims, because they can easily corrupt the victim’s memories simply by asking the wrong questions, and getting the victim to reconstruct their memory on the spot, which won’t necessarily match what happened. Of course, an unscrupulous investigator can push a victim to remember things that didn’t happen, simply by asking leading questions. If you’re suddenly feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea eyewitness testimony right now, good. You should. As with confessions, as a culture, we put way too much faith in them.

When you put this together, it explains why torture doesn’t yield accurate information. Again, this was known, but the neurology wasn’t. So, in this sense, O’Mara does make an interesting and useful contribution to the lit. He’s connecting stuff we already knew in different fields and saying, “this is how it works together.” He’s also getting into the neurochemistry, which is interesting to a degree, but not particularly accessible. The exact reasons that your brain has issues with sleep deprivation make for a fascinating discussion, but if I start talking about neurotransmitter reuptake again, people are going to glaze over.

You should start to see why torture excels at getting people to confess to things they didn’t do. Even confessing to things that aren’t possible or are patently absurd.

In most cases, someone will do anything they can just to end the suffering. Being tortured sucks, and if you just need to sign on the line to make it stop, a surprising number of people will do so. Even if it’s not the truth. Even if they’re signing their lives away.

On the other end of the spectrum, torture someone for long enough, and the lines between the real world and fantasy start to blur, or come apart entirely. You’ll get confessions about how they summoned up The Devil for an orgy and bake-off, or how they were plotting to mount laser cannons on frogs to assault New York. It sounds bonkers, but the victim may be so broken, they can’t tell the difference anymore.

I’m honestly unsure where this line about, “no professional torturers,” comes from. Especially given O’Mara has talked about the NKVD, CIA, Enhanced Interrogation Program, and many other intelligence agencies. That is to say, groups that do employ professional interrogators. I’ve seen this line come up several times, and the only way I could possibly attribute it to O’Mara is by deliberately misreading his methodology. The idea that no one gets paid to lean on others is patently absurd. Even the Mafia and Cartels have professional torturers. How well they do their job is a different question, but I’ve seen some genuinely disconnected comments about torturers being nothing but unhinged psychopaths, and that’s not supported by any reputable source.

I get the appeal of being able to say that, “a rational person couldn’t do this,” because it makes the world feel safer, but the truth is, there are people out there who come across as normal and are paid to do horrific things to other human beings.

The other side of this is that some of the EIP interrogators did end up with PTSD. It takes a pretty specific mindset to be able to do this to someone without suffering psychological harm in the process. That said, it’s not that different from other careers where you deal with horrific experiences on a regular basis, such as EMS, LEOs or soldiers.

The horrible thing about the real world is, torture works. It doesn’t gather usable intelligence, and if you thought that was the point, you fell for the big lie. Torture is about making someone confess to things they never did. It’s about making them agree with your version of the world, irrespective of the truth. It’s about scaring people. Convincing them to never oppose your organization. It does all of those things, and if you’re stepping back and saying, “no, it can’t possibly be that bad,” it worked on you.

Torture is scary; it shows how horrible the world, and the people in it, can be. There’s no shame in looking away and saying, “I can’t deal with this.” I don’t blame you. But there’s no virtue in lying to yourself and saying, “no, it doesn’t do anything. It can’t. I need the people who do this to be cartoonish super-villains.” I don’t blame you for the instinct, that’s better world, but not the one we live in.

-Starke

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Q&A: Learn, Write, Revise

I’m writing a sword fight, but no matter how many times I feel like I’m writing it wrong. I can only get maybe 4 paragraphs out of it and that’s not even including the action or feeling. When I try that I just end up deleting it. Do you have any advice on how to write a realistic one? And what are some of the most common stances in sword fighting?

The first piece of advice is, don’t delete anything. If you’re writing a scene and feel it’s not working, finish it anyway. You learn by doing, and finishing the scene gives you the material you need to dissect your own work. This also applies to stories as a whole. If you’re not satisfied with the final result, you have more to pick through, and you can see what works and what doesn’t.

No one’s rough drafts are perfect. Everything takes rewrites. There’s no merit to presenting a final version and saying, “this was my rough draft.” Rather than mastery of your craft, it shows a complete lack of respect for your work.

The second piece of advice is to remember that, in written works, speed is conveyed by the length of your sentences. An action scene with entire paragraphs will read much more slowly than one where your characters are acting with a handful of words. Economic use of language is key.

Carefully consider each sentence in the scene, and cut them down to as few words as possible. (Example: Remove unneeded words.)

At this point, remember to give your audience time to breathe. This will naturally fit in the combat lulls. When characters break contact, and catch their breath, you may be able to afford a short paragraph, before going back into the fray.

As to learning about sword combat, I’d strongly recommend Matt Easton’s YouTube channel, Scholagladitoria. Depending on the era, and the cultural reference points, there’s an enormous range of possible styles, and different weapons. I realize, with almost 1,400 videos at the time I’m writing this, Easton’s channel may be a bit intimidating, but he’s always interesting and educational.

-Starke

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Q&A: Structural Collapse

Beg pardon, but I was wondering what kind of survivable injuries could be expected from someone having a building fall on them. I presume that in the immediate term you’d have crushing injuries from large pieces of building fall on them, but what kind of crushing injuries would be most survivable? I also assume that there would be deep penetrating trauma from exposed rebar, but in what parts of the body could someone have rebar in them and survive? Thank you for your time and attention.

eliasraine

It depends on how flexible your definition of, “survivable,” is.

The big threats from having a building drop on you are: Something you need gets crushed. Think, your head or chest. Lose those, and you’re done. Limbs are negotiable. Getting run through by rebar is a threat and can lead you to bleed out, but this is more forgiving than you might expect. Search and rescue.

Because of the rough surface, rebar has a tendency to bind into wounds, sealing them against bleeding, with a couple major caveats. You do not want to aggravate the wound, by moving, you do not want to pull it out. This means, if you take a chunk of rebar through a limb, it probably won’t kill you on its own. That said, this is a major risk of infection, and getting impaled through the torso is extremely dangerous, even if you don’t bleed to death. Also, if you do struggle to move around, it’s entirely possible you’ll work the wound lose, and bleed out that way. Especially if you’ve taken it through the leg. Finally, even if you do survive, it will result in some serious deep tissue trauma. Figure a leg or arm that’s been run through will never be quite the same again.

Getting crushed under concrete, or other reinforced structures are a similar story. If it’s a limb, it can potentially hold the artery closed, acting as a kind of accidental tourniquet and save your life. The limb itself has been reduced to pulp, but you can live through it. Obviously, having your torso or head crushed is going to be less survivable. Though, having the lower torso crushed is particularly nasty, as it won’t result in immediate death. There’s also some nasty permutations, where simply cutting off the flow of blood to a limb for an extended period of time can do horrific things to you when blood flow is restored, even if the limb itself is mostly intact.

Note, in both cases above, this is only buying time. Someone who’s had a chunk of rebar run through an artery will still bleed to death, but they may have hours instead of minutes. Similarly, if your thigh has been pulverized, the weight will keep you from bleeding out for awhile, but it probably won’t stop the loss of blood entirely.

After surviving the initial collapse, a major threat is asphyxiation. This can occur either because there’s insufficient access to breathable air (pulling fabric over the mouth and nose as an improvised mask can help), or because of weight on your upper torso interfering with breathing (without it actually crushing you.)

A major danger is the search and rescue teams who come in to find survivors. This is for a couple major reasons. Moving the ruble has a real risk of causing the debris your under to shift. This could either allow you to start bleeding again, or it could crush you. The second major threat is once they’ve found you. Successfully extracting victims from a collapsed building is dependent on having on-site medical attention. Again, any of these injuries that won’t kill you on the spot are survivable with medical attention. Now, the good news is that most well trained Search and Rescue teams understand the things I just outlined, and have sophisticated tools for finding survivors, and understand the need for on site paramedics.

Also worth knowing, the odds of survival start out pretty good, but drop off sharply after the first day. So, it is possible to be trapped under the rubble for up to a week (depending on injuries), but if your character has suffered serious trauma, the clock is ticking, and without rescue, and medical attention, they will die.

So, this is survivable, but it’s also going to be a life changing moment. It can get pretty horrific before it kills you.

-Starke

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Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Prescience

Would there really be an advantage for a character who is precognitive and knows your moves ahead of time so they can prepare to counter and avoid them? They actually done something similar in Agents of Shield where one character read the minds of opponents and thus knew what moves they were thinking of.

You’re describing two very different things.

A psychic combatant that can read their opponent’s intentions could, potentially, have a significant advantage in hand-to-hand. It’s not insurmountable, and they’d probably be vulnerable to whatever your setting’s counter-psi training permits.

Of course, if your setting has psychics, it seems a little unlikely they’d need to resort to hand-to-hand if they have the ability to broadcast. Why, punch someone, when you can just overload their senses with simulated pain?

If they can’t broadcast, and it’s receive only, then it might be helpful, but that’s determined by how easy it is to process the information they’re getting. At worst, it could be a detriment, as the telepath would need to filter through more information. At best, they may be able to streamline that information in the moment, to the point that they could react before their opponent strikes. Though, the issue here is the idea that your foe will be thinking about their tactics mid fight; that’s not happening.

Hand-to-hand combat by trained fighters is extremely fast. We’ve talked about how this stuff starts running up against your brain’s ability to process information. In a fight, you’ll never think, “I’m going to hit them there, then follow up with that.” Hand-to-hand training is about revising your reflexes. No conscious thought necessary, which is good, because you don’t have time for that. This can bite someone with practical training in the ass, because they’ll respond to a perceived threat when the cause was benign. What’s a psychic going to do about this? Well, you can’t really read what your opponent is thinking, and then plan ahead in the fray.

Telepathy can help in a gunfight. The combat tempo is slower, and you have time to read their intentions and adjust your tactics accordingly. That’s not true in hand-to-hand.

In both cases, telepathy can grant a significant advantage before the fight starts, adjusting your tactics to specifically counter your foes. But, it does nothing for melee combat.

Clairvoyance, prescience, precognition, whatever you want to call it, is fundamentally different. You’re not reading their mind, you know what they’re going to do. This is, in a lot of ways, the exact opposite of telepathy, depending on how far out you can see.

Again, there’s a real risk that your oracle will be overwhelmed and distracted by the information they have. If they see too much, that’s more things they need to filter through, and it can impair them.

A character with even one second of foresight will have a huge advantage in hand-to-hand. They really will have time to see what their opponent will do, and counter it. The advantage is defensive, they know what to defend against.

It’s also possible they may have the ability to see multiple outcomes, which would make this an offensive ability, picking the most devastating attack, while leaving them less certain what their opponent will do. I’m thinking of Midnighter (from The Authority) here, but there are other examples.

It, probably, wouldn’t be viable to switch between modes mid-melee. I’m basing this on how the human brain processes information. That said, seeing the future isn’t exactly normal, so, maybe they could switch on the fly. It depends on how your setting’s superpowers work.

When you step back and look at something like ranged combat, prescience becomes far less useful. You’re not reacting to what your opponent does, you’re reacting to their tactics, and those won’t be apparent until they’re in position and executing them. Though, prescience may let your character “dodge” the occasional bullet.

There’s an edge case here where you might have a character who is borderline omniscient. Paul Atreides comes to mind. But, that’s a special case, the character is, nearly, all knowing, and can see their opponent’s plots and strategies before they’ve even devised them.

It’s also possible you have a character who does both. Star Wars‘ Jedi are an example. Technically, The Force grants them a limited degree of prescience, but this comes with a degree of extrasensory awareness that allows them to counter tactics on a slightly larger scale. That said, the same limitations also apply; they’re blind to larger plots and strategies. Anything that specifically works around, or excludes The Force tends to slip past them. It’s a reasonable limitation from a character perspective. The Force grants a very potent set of superpowers, so it makes sense that Force Users are prone to overlooking anything that doesn’t pop up on their radar.

So, yeah, this can be useful, you can make this work. But, as with a lot of power sets, it’s limited, and as a writer, you need to be aware of those limits when you’re working.

-Starke

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Q&A: Long Hair

Is it not yet completely insane for someone who engages in combat a lot to have long, say shoulder-length, hair? I saw your posts about armour and put two and two together when you said anything that can be grabbed isn’t that good of an idea, so hair…?

This one’s pretty simple; you’ve identified one of the two main issues.

So, long hair is a detriment to combat effectiveness, but it’s not terminal. You don’t want hair that will get in the way, and you don’t want hair that can be grabbed. After that, do what you want.

So, long hair will, usually, get in the way. No matter your best intentions, it’ll fall in front of your face, get in your eyes, and, generally, make a nuisance out of itself at every opportunity. Before someone tries to come down on me for this: I’ve had long hair for most of my life. I know.

The simplest answer is: You bind it back in a tight ponytail; that will keep it out of the way. Historically, this has been men’s fashion in a number of cultures. Ideally a shorter ponytail is better than a longer one, but to some extent, it doesn’t matter. Buns are also an option, as are dreadlocks and tight braids. Anything that keeps the hair out of the way will do the job.

So, why bother? Because in colder climates, long hair will keep your head warm. Hair is a fantastic insulator, and if you’re living on a tundra, that will help keep your head warm when you’re out working. When you’re fighting, you’ll probably want to tie it back.

The other reason is, yes, someone can grab you by your hair. There’s a couple caveats here, and they depend on the kind of combat you’re in. In a fight with bladed weapons, going for someone’s hair is a good way to get carved up. You’re giving up one hand, and limiting your mobility, and hoping your opponent won’t use one hand to grab your weapon arm, and the other one to run you through repeatedly. This is less of a consideration if your foe is wearing armor, though, at that point, you probably are as well, and getting into the situation in the first place is going to be harder.

Also, ponytails blunt the effect of having your hair pulled. I suspect this has something to do with how it distributes the force across the scalp, but a ponytail will not offer the same control grabbing a fist full of loose hair will.

In ranged combat, somewhat obviously, you’re not going to be getting a grip on someone’s hair, and some the same considerations apply as the previous example. If you do get in close enough to grab their hair, they’ll probably pump a couple rounds into you.

Not, strictly related, but long hair can be a detriment when working around heavy machinery. If it gets caught, it can get pulled in. So, that’s something else to avoid. At that point, even the ponytail can be serious safety issue. This is more of a general, “yeah, long hair can be a detriment, than a specific issue, and shoulder length shouldn’t be a problem.

So, no, nothing insane about having hair, that’s normal, and long hair is common enough, but it does come with special considerations.

-Starke

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