Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Stage Fighting

Hi! I’ve seen you analyze movie characters’ fighting styles on this blog before, can you do a post like this on Eliot Spencer from the show Leverage?

Not really, because there’s not much to say. Christian Kane used a fairly normal mix of stage fighting techniques when he was playing Eliot. This isn’t a real style. There’s no combat application. To someone with hand to hand training, it’s just kind of “there.”

Having said that, stage fighting is a real thing, though the “fighting,” part is a bit of a misnomer. These are choreographed techniques designed to allow actors to present the illusion of combat with minimal risk.

Stage fighting isn’t foolproof, and a number of techniques require both participants to work together to avoid injury. Which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s effective, it’s not.

Also, this fool someone who knows what they’re looking at. Even when Leverage’s stunt choreographer is tightening stuff up to make it look cleaner, it’s immediately recognizable. Again, the idea is for something that looks like a martial art, but isn’t actually one. It needs to look like your actors are attacking one another, when they’re not.

The big tell for stage fighting is also what makes it fairly useless in combat. It’s easy to follow. Stage fighting looks good, it has clear movements, especially in the outline. This does two things, it lets the audience know what’s going on, and it lets the actors know what’s happening. As we’ve said, for actual combat, this is a huge liability. You do not want your opponent to know what you’re doing. Stage fighting does that.

There is some potential application for stage fighting in a con job. If two of the con artists are working together, this can convince a mark that the sympathetic con is in real jeopardy. This works on some marks, with a story about how the con artist is being harassed and attacked, and they just need some money to get a loan shark’s heavies off of them. (I can’t remember Leverage ever using this specific approach.) There’s similar tradecraft applications, to convince someone that an individual is under threat. That said, this entire approach requires witnesses who don’t know what to look for, so it’s already very situational, and lends itself more to con jobs than to espionage.

Worth knowing, this isn’t cinematic trickery, it’s slight of hand, and works in person. I suspect, because it originated on stage, rather than on film. Also, part of the reason it tends towards large movements, because the audience in the mid rows needs to be able to follow the action. It falls apart if the audience is combat literate, but a minority of the general population, and most martial artists are willing to wave it off, because actual hand-to-hand is dangerous.

The result is a bit like firing blanks. It’ll look and sound good if you don’t know what to expect, but if you know what should happen, you know something’s off. It’s not as dangerous, but it’s not completely safe.

Eliot mostly exists to provide some spectacle to a series that could otherwise devolve into a lot of head and shoulders talking shots. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. For most con artists and thieves, combat is a failure state, so it’s something they need to work to avoid at all costs, but here’s a character that specifically exists to operate in that state. It defuses some of the tension.

-Starke

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Q&A: Pistol Whipping

How effective (or ineffective) is “pistol whipping” or bashing someone with the butt of a rifle or a similar weapon in real life? Is it a load of bullshit (I imagine most guns being hollow) or can it actually work like in the movies?

flowerapplejacks

You imagine incorrectly, except on a technicality. Turns out, “technically correct,” isn’t the best kind of correct after all.

The barrel is hollow. That’s a necessity, otherwise you can’t fire the bullet. The receiver needs to have a void, so that’s another technicality. Beyond that? It varies.

Most handguns store their magazine in the grip. This means that while the grip is technically hollow, under most circumstances it will be filled with bullets. This can significantly increase the weight of the gun, and make being on the receiving end of a pistol whipping unpleasant.

Rifle butts are a similar story, but this gets into more complex engineering considerations. The short answer here is that you are “sometimes correct.” Some rifle stocks are hollow, some are not, depending on the exact weapon, this might be a relevant consideration, or might not.

Some rifles do use full wooden furniture. Getting struck by this will not be fun. Again, there’s some variation here depending on the wood. Doesn’t matter if it’s pine or walnut, getting tagged will suck. Probably less than if they connect with a polymer stock, but still, would not recommend being on the receiving end of that hit.

Any rifle patterned off the AR15 has a recoil spring in the stock. This is, mostly non-negotiable, and the only exceptions I’m aware of moved the recoil system above the barrel, like an AK. This means any AR pattern rifle will technically have a hollow stock, which is pretty cold comfort, because it’s still the stock, and as a result, still a stable, heavy, chunk of polymer you don’t want to see used as a blunt weapon on your face.

I mentioned AK rifles a moment ago. In this case it really depends. The stock could be wood. It could be polymer. It could be a simple collapsible wire construct, in which case, probably not the best thing to use as an improvised melee weapon. Or it could be absent entirely, in which case, you’re not going to get hit with a stock that doesn’t exist.

I’m bringing up those two examples because the vast majority of assault rifles are based on one, or the other. (Technically, the AK was based on the StG44, but the AK is the one we all know.)

When it comes to other rifles, it will depend on the specific weapon. So, it’s kind of hard to generalize. If the gun has a stock that can clock you in the face, it can clock you in the face.

The thing that is “bullshit,” is getting knocked out. Taking loaded handgun to the back of the head will suck. It might even put you on the ground. But, it’s not going to magically knock you unconscious. Striking someone with the butt of your gun can create distance to allow you to open fire on them. It will not knock them out safely. That is a myth.

So, if that was your question, “can my character clock someone across the back of the head with their handgun to knock them out?” then, “no.” They can do that, but it’s just going piss off and knock down their opponent.

Generally, I would not recommend this. You never want to take a handgun into melee if you have the option. So, if you have functional handgun, shoot them, don’t walk over and slap them with it. Similar situation with a rifle. This is large, easy to grab, object. It’s far more effective when your foe is not close enough to wrestle with you for control.

-Starke

In a strange moment, while writing up the tags, I’ve discovered that we answered a similar question two years ago. The auto-import from Tumblr messed things up a little, but you can find the post here.

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Q&A: Relationship Advice

I’m going to break this “question” into two pieces. They’re related, but they really need to be addressed separately.

Wow if someone expected me to automatically know their triggers without telling them and then threw me without making sure I was okay after, I’d leave them. You can’t expect your non-combat s/o to do all the work and for the combat s/o to none. I have several triggers but I make sure to tell my s/o what they are.

In broad strokes, I agree with completely.

If someone expects you to automatically know who they are; that’s a problem. It happens, but it’s a problem, and it’s not the kind you should dismiss. Relationships require communication. They require work. They require mutual respect. There’s the romantic ideal of an effortless relationship, but that is just a fantasy; kinda like being a superhero.

It’s very easy to fall in love with someone that does not exist. People do it all the time. They think they know the object of their attraction, but they never really take the time to pay attention and find out who that person is. To some extent, this is human nature. You meet someone, start a crush, fill in the blanks, and then expect them to still be the same person in daylight.

It doesn’t work that way.

Like I said, honest communication is vital. You need to talk to someone to start to get an idea of who they are. Watching them is also important, but if you don’t communicate, you don’t have a baseline. You can’t expect everyone to be able to explain everything about themselves; most people aren’t that introspective. However, it will go a long way. So, yes, talk to them. Learn who they really are. Be honest, because if you’re not, you’ve only yourself to blame if they believe you.

What’s worse are the people who expect someone else to magically conform to their ideal version of them. This is abusive, and depressingly common. Many people, when presented with the reality of their significant other, expect them to cede their identity in favor of the illusory version.

It sucks, but you can’t have a relationship with a dream. Sooner or later, someone’s going to get hurt.

With only one exception, every single incident I can point to, where someone tripped another’s reflexes, it’s come out of a lack of respect, so let’s talk about that.

Relationships require mutual respect. Not, one way. Not, “you must respect them,” because the inverse is also true. If you’re not respecting one another, it’s not really a relationship of equals, or even healthy.

Ambushing someone, regardless of what you think their feelings on the subject will be, is disrespectful. You’re saying that what you intend to do is more important than them consenting to your action. Then you’re taking the extra step to deprive them of the opportunity to consent. You can’t say, “I’m going to do what I want without permission,” and say you respect that person. These are mutually exclusive.

Context is important, and there are plenty of situations where people will engage in behavior with each other that you wouldn’t. There’s also plenty of behavior you might participate in that someone else wouldn’t.

How do you know this context? Get to know your partner. Seriously. If you don’t know them, you don’t have a relationship with them, you’re involved with an illusion, and cannot respect the actual person you’re using as a proxy.

If your friend says, “hey, I do martial arts.” You might express interest in trying to figure out what that means. The same goes for your crush, regardless of their sex or gender.

If your friend says, “hey, I don’t like it when you startle me like that.”

Don’t do it.

The signs are there long before you ever trigger someone’s reflexes, and that starts with paying attention to what they tell you a long time before anything drastic occurs. If you respect another person, you respect their boundaries. You want to get to know them, learn the situations where they’re comfortable. You’ll pay attention to their body language. These reactions don’t come from nowhere, and, in general, the extreme examples are when the other person ignored every other sign leading up to the moment where the combat response happens.

Like I said, this experience happened once with a significant other in my teens. It has never happened with strangers, or other kids in High School, or in college. The only other person who has ever triggered my reflexes is my brother, who is a fourth degree black belt. These stories are always about an intentional act taken by another person when they disregard stated boundaries and comfort zones.

Tripping the fight reflexes are not common occurrences. They’re extreme examples that happen with a specific trigger action and are a result of ignoring the other person’s boundaries. You’ll figure it out if you respect the other person enough to pay attention to them.

If someone engages in unprovoked violent towards you, leave. There’s no room for debate here. It’s over. Time to move on.

However, conflating physical abuse with these specific instances is also a problem.  But… I didn’t do anything wrong. Yes, you did. If this happens, then you ignored the warning signs to the point where a response that occurs once in a decade (and only with provocation) happened to you.

You’ve learned a concept exists and, like a kid in a candy store, think the natural occurrence of combat reflexes unintentionally damaging a significant other because they stepped wrong is far more common than it actually is — which is next to never.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you don’t know anyone who actually has these reflexes, or been in a community where they’re common. So, trust me, when I say I know more about this situation and what triggers it than you do.

You know what this behavior gets used for, don’t you?

Bullying.

Kids without combat training, just like you, will use this on kids with combat training or just sensitive reflexes because they A) don’t believe the other child when they say stop, and B) because they know they’ll get sympathy when/if the other child goes off. They get away with bullying and look like a victim when the inevitable occurs. They want the emotional response you had to protect them from the big bad child over there, even though they were the instigators.

If you think this doesn’t happen in relationships, think again. Abuse goes both ways, and having a capacity for violence doesn’t necessarily protect you from it. You do get a lot less belief and sympathy when the abuse, be it emotional or physical occurs, because of uninformed attitudes which buy into the idea violence equals strength.

I have more stories about these kinds of people than I do the other.

 I think, in a romantic situation in fiction, the non-combat s/o shouldn’t be ‘punished’ in the narrative and trauma-related responses shouldn’t be ‘weaker’.

As with the above statement, I agree fundamentally, but it’s a little more complicated. If you’re writing a couple, it’s important that they have some kind of equilibrium between each other. The advice above still applies: they need to be able to communicate with one another, there needs to be a baseline of trust and respect, but they also need to both bring something to the table. I in the real world, that’s work, but in fiction it can easily be their skill set.

It’s easy to become fixated on violence as an overly useful skill set. This isn’t true to life, and it can be very important to remember that non-combatant characters have lives beyond violence.

The simple thing is to remember that all of your characters, whether they’re in a relationship with one another or not, need to be characters in their own right. You need some balance to show them as functional people, or they become trophies and McGuffins; which brings us to your complaint.

At a certain level, combat is like any other skill your characters may have. A character who doesn’t have any combat skills can’t fight effectively, a character who can’t pick locks, can’t sneak into places, a character who is unskilled with computers can’t diagnose their own technical issues, a character who isn’t trained in criminal investigation isn’t going to know how to investigate a murder. A character who’s basically honest will have an extremely hard time lying convincingly.

You can have battle couples, where both of them are trained and proficient in combat. They may be in the thick of it together with similar skills, or they may have different focuses that they can work together. By the same measure, you can have couples with similar skillsets, such as hacking, or subterfuge, with similar considerations. Or, you can have characters that have very little overlap in their skills, but can still work together in differing capacities.

The problem comes in when you say, “this skill set” is more valid than that one. In some occasions that may be true, but it’s something you want to be careful about.

On a related issue, it is worth pulling characters out of their comfort zone regularly. A character who never encounters a problem they need to get creative with can easily become monotonous, in a, “when all you have is a hammer,” kind of way. This is one of the times where having a couple with mismatched skills can become incredibly useful. Especially if your combat capable character is just as out of place when they’re in their partner’s area of expertise.

If you have a character that’s permanently out of their depth, especially pairing them with someone who’s hyper-competent, that’s flirting with bad writing. I can think of a few counter-examples, but this is something you should be very cautious about.

There’s a real trend in the real world of people not believing people when they say, “don’t do this. I don’t like it.” This is the basis of the trope we were discussing. If you triggered someone’s fight reflexes, chances are very good that it wasn’t an accident. The person who did it just didn’t believe the other person when they said, “don’t do that.” You made a bad assumption that the non-combat S/O is going to be the one with the trauma responses or even that the combat triggers are trauma related at all. Or that they’d cause trauma to the non-combat S/O. If you interpreted one as “weaker” than the other because they don’t have the same skills as their combat S/O, then that one is on you.

Relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on communication and mutual respect. These mishaps happen specifically when boundaries are not respected, when the other person is not believed because these aspects of who they are doesn’t fit the image their S/O has of them. While these are ingrained reflexes, it does actually take work to get someone to reflexively lash out.

Modifying your behavior for the person you love is not a big deal when they’re doing the same for you. If someone you like says, “I don’t like you tickling me.” Then, don’t tickle them. If they say, “Please, don’t flash your hand in my face.” Don’t flash your hand in their face.

If you feel adjusting your behavior is unfair, don’t date.

-Michi

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Q&A: Reality Or Entertainment? You need both.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

Why does it have to be one or the other?

The answer is both. You want fight scenes that are entertaining and convincing, and the only way to learn how to do that is study the applications of practical combat, martial arts, choreographed fight sequences, and everything in between.

The written medium is not the visual medium, so the way one entertains their audiences is ultimately different. Besides that, the vast majority of you are not a professional fight choreographers with multiple black belts in different martial styles and years of experience in the business. You lack skilled actors and stunt performers to carry out your vision, and, because movies are a visual medium, you don’t have a moving image or even an image like in comic books or art to attract the eye. You can create an image with words, but it isn’t the same. In visual medial, this is an image you are beholden to if you want to keep your audience engaged and entertained. Realistic violence is not engaging in the same way as choreographed fights in films. They are fundamentally different due to the necessity of motion. Movies specifically go in for wide sweeping attacks like the roundhouse punch or the roundhouse kick or the wheel kick because a spinning or circular motions look better on camera. Large easily telegraphed moves so the audience can see from a distance and follow along.

In a written fight scene there is no moving image, no sound effects, no music, no lighting effects, no jump cuts, no professional actors, stunt actors, choreographers, or costume crew.

There’s just you and what you, the writer, can bring to the table.

The visual medium has different requirements than written. Try as you might, you’ll never engage your audience at the same level because you lack the tools. If you try, you’ll end up with unworkable fight scenes which are too long, unwieldy, and ultimately bore your audience.

What use is a character performing six back flips or cartwheels on page to get to the other side of the room and grab the weapon on the opposing wall?

This is a visually engaging stunt piece on screen, but the effect lays in the quality of the movement and how your eyes are stimulated by it. The over the top aspects and overlong fight scenes of your traditional action movie are a liability because their goal is to create a visual spectacle and they take a long time to get to the point. You can get to the effect much faster in a written format and be just as effective.

Now, the question you should be asking about choreographed fight scenes is precisely what those six cartwheels are conveying to the audience about this character’s combat proficiency. Why cartwheels versus them running to the opposite side of the room and grabbing the weapon? Yes, gymnastics are entertaining to watch but that’s not the only reason why they had the character cartwheel. There’s no practical reason for it, but the act is communicating an aspect of the character and the plot to you. You should learn those signals, because you can figure out how to apply those to your writing (without needing cartwheels.)

However, you’ll still face a basic issue. Can you write interesting and entertaining fight sequences if you know nothing about violence?

Let’s look at this snippet below.

Katie smiled, her fingers grazing the .44 Magnum on her hip. She pulled it, grabbed the bottle of Jack, and rolled to her feet. “Hey, Josh.”

Joshua Barnett stood across from her, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his leather jacket. Obsidian bangs fell across one eye, jaggedly cut with a razor. His look was intent on some sort of punk aesthetic, all red and black rocker tee, thick silver chains, and black designer jeans. A loose, shark tooth earring dangled on a chain off his right earlobe. He cocked his head, studying her with one, visible, inky black eye. “Look at you stealing my look.”

Katie’s lips quirked, the revolver tucked in the shadow of her thigh as she swirled amber whiskey around thick glass. She never saw much point in spending one hundred and twenty dollars on an outfit that’d be ruined by sun up. Leather was a practical choice. Spirits had an aversion to tanned flesh. Besides, leather jacket and jeans held up better when doing dirty work. She steered away from wearing earrings, piercings had a nasty habit of getting torn out. And steel-toed work boots? All the better for breaking shins.

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

Josh’s eyes moved past Katie, falling to where she tried to hide. “Step away. Me and this bitch’ve got unfinished business.”

Katie snorted.

Josh took a step forward, spreading his hands in his pockets. “Hey, I’m just doing my divinely mandated duty. Am I gonna have to snap you apart like a kit-kat bar?” He grinned. “I’m kinda looking forward to tearing your weak halfsie arm out of that socket, but, you know, Cass won’t like her pet coming home broke.”

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

Josh stood stock still, his arms half-out, and his stupid grin stuck waiting for a response. Then, he looked away. He dropped his hands and brought the black jacket back to his waist. “You never were any fun.”

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

He nodded to the Jack Daniel’s bottle in her hand. “Hey, I’m not the one who comes to the graveyard with a weak ass club like that.” He chuckled. “Didn’t Cass teach you? Don’t bring weapons to a fist fight when you plan to go mano a mano. In a duel, it’s not sporting.”

Katie walked forward. She didn’t like to talk. As she closed, she dropped her arm. On her last step, she swung the bottle at his head.

Josh grinned, and Katie knew why. He was a full-fledged Follower of Ma’at. To him, her fastest, hardest swing moved in slow motion.

That’s why I stopped relying on hand to hand.

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

The .44 Magnum appeared from behind her thigh, pointed at his knee.

Josh’s eyes dropped.

Katie fired. The bullet struck flesh, hollowed through muscle into bone, and exploded. The lower half of Josh’s leg went with it. Blown off.

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

“Fulminated mercury rounds,” Katie said. “Can’t take normal hollow points against vampires. Dense bones, denser musculature. You need a little extra. Just like Followers, Joshua.”

“Wake the Dead” – CE Schmitt & Michael J Schwarz

So, how much of this is real?

  1. Jack Daniel’s bottles are made from dense, heavy glass, and unlikely to come apart in your hand like a regular glass bottle. They work exceptionally well as clubs. (If you want to watch one in action in a visual medium, you can find it used Dirty Laundry – the Punisher short film with Thomas Jayne by Phil Joanou from Adi Shankar’s bootleg universe. This is very R. Be wary if you’re squeamish.)
  2. Fulminated mercury rounds are real. You load fulminated mercury up into hollow point rounds and create an explosive. They’re liable to explode within the chamber of a semi-automatic handgun, but the .44 Magnum is a revolver. Different delivery mechanism. Boom.
  3. Hiding a drawn gun in the shadow of your thigh is a real tactic. The position masks the profile of the gun, your arm blends with the leg, so the eye doesn’t catch it.
  4. Katie distracts Joshua from the gun and her arm’s position with a visible weapon: the bottle, then by swinging the bottle at his head. She intentionally trips his fight reflexes i.e. flashing motion in his peripheral vision and forces him to focus high. (Standard martial arts feint, where you throw a false strike to camouflage your real intentions.) This keeps Joshua from seeing the second weapon until it’s too late.

In this scene, we’ve got an underdog character turning the tables on their opponent by immediately shutting them down with superior force of arms. The fight scene lasts less than a page, but it’s effective at teaching you who this character is along with the kind of combat tactics they use.

However, the point is not what’s real; only metric you’re graded on is what you can convince your audience of. There’s plenty of embellishment in this scene, but the actions and behaviors of the characters are grounded in a real place. They’re behaving logically, in ways which make sense to them, and are on par with what we might expect of someone with their combat background. While “realistic” is not what makes a scene enjoyable, it can help you create more interesting fight sequences and sell the idea your character knows what they’re doing. A large part of what makes this scene interesting is the entire ten page setup that you’re missing, the emotional investment in Katie and why she’s brutally murdering another teen, which is part of what’s needed to get the reader invested in the fight on page.

Remember, fight sequences are often a release of tension. They ultimately create more problems than they solve as violence invariably escalates out of control, but they serve as a stress valve for the narrative and, with good ones, a reward for your audience.

If you know nothing about violence, the weapons used, how strategy works, and what the techniques look like, can you write the scene you imagine? Can you telegraph to your audience through classic show don’t tell? Did you realize there was more to show don’t tell for written fight scenes than simply showing your characters fighting? Do you know what makes a fight scene entertaining?

A writer has different tools available in their arsenal to create an entertaining fight sequence, but in order to write that sequence you need to understand how violence works. The physicality of it, the kinetics of it, the psychology of it, the way violence feels, tastes, and smells.

You’ve made a basic mistake in your assumption about “realistic”. Narrative Realism is based in the substructure of your story. Realism is whatever the rules are in your setting say is real. What creates suspension of disbelief for your audience is how well you adhere to those rules, this covenant you create with your audience. When your audience cries, “unrealistic!” You’ve broken their suspension of disbelief, you’ve broken the established narrative rules of your setting. You broke your covenant with your audience.

The goal of understanding “realistic” lies in learning about the realities of violence as combat, understanding the entertainment factor requires looking at the art portion of martial arts.

You need both.

Structuring a scene requires understanding violence from both an unrealistic and realistic perspective. You need to know what you’re sacrificing in order to be entertaining, heighten your tension and character drama, and then what you’re keeping. Your characters’ goals, decisions, and the way they choose to take action will be based in realism and a realistic extension of what makes sense for them. Meanwhile, the combat element will be driven from the perspective of entertainment choreography which is based in, you guessed it, real martial arts.

He had a handsome face, far as humans went, and a smug expression. Her fingers clenched into fists. She wanted to beat his smug face in.

He lifted a hand, and flicked his fingers. “Give me your best shot.”

Lunging across the distance, Katie came at him low. Her first strike a feint, she cut under his block and drove her left fist into his solar plexus. The Mark above her heart burned, energy flowing into her fists. Pinpoint like a brass knuckle overlay. Her mind hazy with deja vu. She punched him a second time in his abdomen with her right, then cut up. Her strike caught him under the chin. She drove her follow-up elbow into his throat.

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

She ducked past him when he retaliated. Wheeling, she kicked him in the calf. Her leg came up, and she slammed her heel into his kidney.

Garrett turned, seizing her ankle. With one arm, he flung her over the couch.

Katie landed hard on the coffee table. The table gave way, cracking apart in a spray of wood and glass. She hit the floor. Pain spiked through her back, glass shards cut through her jacket and skin. She tasted copper on her tongue. Electricity swarmed the fingers on her left hand, alive and tingling.

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

She rolled back, kicked up, and landed on her feet.

“Wake the Dead” by CE Schmitt and Michael J Schwarz

We’ve got two characters who are not human, so the normal rules don’t apply. Still, we’re following the standard progression in the combat from Katie based on distance. She lunges strikes him with her left then her right fist in his stomach, up into an upper cut, and then follows up with an elbow to the throat after creating her opening. The upper cut knocks his chin up, exposing his throat and the arm drops into a perfect position to deliver a powerful blow with a close-quarters strike. That is four strikes together. This is called a combination. More importantly, these are four strikes structured with an understanding of both distance and placement i.e. how close you need to be in order for the strike to realistically work.

Like Katie, Garrett is not human and he has super-strength. He can throw her like a ragdoll with one arm from a standing position without needing any extra help from her incoming momentum. He gets hit by her heel, has it driven into his kidney via some version of an axe kick, and then he retaliates by one arming her across the room. This is him showing his superhuman resilience, even though the reader is liable to brush it off because of what they’re used to seeing from action movies.

The goal here is to be entertaining, to attract the imagination, but what helps sell the fight is the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter.

As a writer, knowledge is your ouroboros. Everything feeds together in a never ending cycle. The more you learn, the better the writer you become. If you want to write entertaining fight sequences, you need to learn as much about violence as you can in all its different aspects. You need to figure out why violence is entertaining, why these acts capture the human imagination, and also how they actually work within the real world so you can bring that knowledge to your fiction. Every new bit of knowledge you uncover is a new tool in your box which can be applied to your writing.

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

Learn as much as you can about everything you can get your hands on. The more you explore, the more you discover, and the more you learn to operationalize knowledge gained, the better the writer you will be.

Q&A: Wired Reflexes

Is the moment where a trained character not being able to control their “fight reflexes” or whatever ends up hurting an innocent bystander or loved one a real thing? Like somebody sneaks up on you from behind and you just elbow them in the groin or something? Or flip them over? Then you’re like, “Oh shit babe, don’t scare me like that”.

I did this to my now ex-boyfriend when I was fifteen and a freshman in high school. We were at my house, in my kitchen. He came up behind me with the plan to hug me (bear hug style) and, before his arms had even gotten around me, I elbowed him right in the gut. Full strength strike with a full extension and he walked right into it. The arm went out and came right back into his stomach, aimed at his diaphragm. He coughed, bowled over, and it took about five full minutes before he recovered.

After asking if he was okay, my exact response was: “You can’t come up behind me like that.”

The one aspect you’re missing in this whole scenario is you think this is a fear based response. It isn’t. I wasn’t scared, and neither are the characters you’re describing. Fight reflexes are hardwired responses to specific movements occurring within your environment, movement happening or beginning within your peripheral vision. I actually had the widest peripheral vision out of my entire science class when we measured in the eight grade due entirely to my martial arts training. The goal of this training is to see the movement coming before the motion begins. You’re trained to see it before it starts and respond immediately. In a fight scenario you have tenths of a second between blocking a hit and getting struck. If you want to stop a blow, you need to go when they do and get there before they reach extension. You don’t wait, you just go.

The key to understanding what happened with my ex was the bear hug.  He was behind me, his arms were out and coming around my body. My training dictates a response before his arms get a chance to lock in, so my reflexes kicked in. There was no emotion involved, it happened because that’s what I’d spent ten years training my body to do. The training worked exactly as intended, the only difference was the person it happened to. What we got was a false flag, but in the same scenario where I was actually in danger I’d have responded the same way. I’d have started the fight with the would be attacker bowled over, unable to breathe, derailed by what happened, and at my mercy. The battle over before it had a chance to begin, which is what we’re training to do.

Starke’s had a few of them himself, but has been able to stop himself before following through. His friend’s father, a Vietnam vet, once grabbed one of their mutual friends by the throat when he failed to announce himself before walking into the room. Starke’s friend’s father was up out of his chair, turned around, and had his hand around his throat before he registered who he was looking at. According to Starke, he didn’t apologize.

This isn’t PTSD or mental illness. This is the training we were given working as intended. When you’re in a situation where you need to move without consciously ordering your body to do so, which is the beginning of most fights, your reflexes take over. The difference between victory and defeat lies in the first initial tenths of a second before the fight begins.

The only difference here is context. You go flashing your hand in the peripheral vision of someone with combat training and you may end up with a response you weren’t expecting, even when that person is someone you love and who loves you. (And you shouldn’t be flashing your hand in their peripheral vision if you love them.)

The fear response is going to come for your significant other. There’s a vast gap between consciously knowing your loved one can hurt you and experiencing it first hand. My ex-boyfriend was a jock who played soccer. He used to overpowering other male teens if he got into a brawl. However he justified it to himself afterwards, he got wrecked by his 128 pound girlfriend without ever having the opportunity to defend himself and he had to live with the knowledge she could do it again if she wanted to. He didn’t look at me the same way after that. It is one thing to consciously understand, another to know they can hurt you, really hurt you in the blink of an eye, and another after to know they just might on accident. Your safety is gone, and you might experience the vertigo of being unable to exert control over your situation. There are plenty of real life relationships which end due to this problem.

If you’ve never been thrown before, you might not understand how terrifying it is. If you’ve never been thrown full force into a hardwood floor, you definitely aren’t going to grasp how much it hurts and how out of control you feel when you’re significant other is standing over you going, “oh, hey.”

The response you’re going to get is not, “oh my god, what have I done” either or intense remorse. It’s more “oops” and “don’t do that.” We all knew exactly what we were doing when we did it, we just didn’t remember who we were doing it to. For the person without these trained reflexes, this response can seem cold and unfeeling. Like their significant other doesn’t care they just hurt them. From the combat SO’s perspective, their significant other did something incredibly stupid and they’d rather they didn’t do it again. They worked very hard to develop these reflexes and incorporate them into part of their identity. There is no switch to turn them on or off. They’re always on.

Now, these ingrained fight responses are avoidable if you recognize that they’re there, they will happen, and you take steps to avoid triggering them. This can be as simple as “please say something before you walk into the room” or “let me know you’re there before you tap me on the shoulder” or “tap me on the waist instead” and “don’t hug me from behind.” The more serious the person’s experiences, the more necessary this becomes. The reflex can be consciously restrained, but it takes genuine effort to cut yourself off at the pass before you follow through. There’s mental pain involved, and you spend a great deal of time after the fact fighting the ingrained reaction off.

This is part of why it’s easier for two people with combat training to date each other than date someone without combat training. Their SO is aware of the situation, shares it, understands their limitations, and will work to circumnavigate without needing to talk about it.

Starke and I do this with each other, and we haven’t ever had a problem.

Media will often play this trope for laughs, which is a problem. Or roll these fight reactions into PTSD or mental illness, which is also a problem. Or they’ll have the combat SO be disingenuous in their reactions like you were suggesting to show how dangerous they are.

The mixed up part of this conversation that’s difficult for non-martial artists or combat veterans to understand is it’s much easier for you to avoid tapping me on the shoulder than it is for me to avoid throwing you if you try tapping me on the shoulder when a hand moving in that specific way within my peripheral vision is a motion I’ve spent ten years re-training my response to.

If you care about your SO, you shouldn’t ask them to fight themselves in order to be around you.

Remember, the non-combat SO initiated the situation. They acted first. They violated their SO’s boundaries. The only difference here between a combat and a non-combat SO is the ability to preemptively physically stop someone from violating their boundaries without requiring a verbal response. The combat SO wouldn’t have responded the way they did if the other person hadn’t initiated. If you are in a relationship with someone, you need to respect their boundaries and what they are comfortable with.

If your SO is someone who’s ingrained response is to throw someone when they sneak up behind them, then you should not only know not to sneak up on them but have enough empathy to understand this action is a violation of their personal space. This is also a violation of the trust their combat SO places in them. The non-combat SO is not the victim of their partner’s uncontrolled violence or experienced an intentional desire to do them harm. They acted first. They shouldn’t treat their combat SO’s combat reflexes like a light switch where exceptions can be made. In this situation, the non-combat SO is actually the one not respecting their partner and in the wrong.

The moral of this story is that when I was fifteen my then boyfriend violated my physical boundaries, did not let me know his intentions before acting, did not ask if his action was okay with me, and took an elbow to the gut for his trouble. I didn’t feel remorse at the time for knocking the wind out of him, I still don’t now. Ultimately, the response stuck with me. The action convinced fifteen year old me that maybe I didn’t want him touching me after all, which is what led to our break up. And, in the end, I was the one who broke up with him.

That said, in my whole life, I’ve only ever experienced my combat reflexes getting triggered in a way where the response was immediate three times.

People aren’t props. The main issue with this trope in fiction where the set up is supposed to lead to intense remorse from the combat SO which results in a cute scenario after is that the non-combat SO violated their SO’s boundaries. They don’t really care about them, or not enough to respect the other person’s experiences. If they repeat, they definitely don’t.

If your knee-jerk response is “but I shouldn’t have to change my behavior” then you shouldn’t date them, period. If they’re out there intentionally hurting you that’s different, you should run away fast. However, everyone has their boundaries. Learn to respect them before intentionally triggering someone with combat training.

-Michi

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Q&A: Impractical Footwear

Would wearing high heels be a good tactical strategy for a female combatant? Because stilettos have a sharp point at the end that can poke somebody’s eye out, right? Tell me if this is logical or impractical.

flowerapplejacks

It’s impractical. So, in order, “no,” and, “yes, but still impractical.”

There’s some history here. High heels started as an evolution from men’s cavalry boots. So, there was a practical application: a slightly raised heel would grip into the stirrup more securely than a flat sole would. These went from combat wear, to men’s fashion, to women’s fashion, where the height of the heel increased dramatically. You could think of them as a 17th century version of all those stolen hoodies.

You’ll still see a slightly raised heel on things like motorcycle or cowboy boots, and those can be practical combat wear, but we’re talking about a 1 inch heel at most (see above.) Unlike high heels, these won’t disrupt the user’s balance, and they will provide protection to the foot itself, from casual injury. Again, these are practical considerations for their use, if you need to lock your foot into a stirrup, a raised heel will help you do that.

Ask any bouncer who’s had the job long enough, and you’ll find stories about drunken women trying to take each other’s eyes out with stiletto heels. This happens. They’ll take the shoe off and try to brain someone with it. As an improvised weapon, it’s not great. Wouldn’t recommend.

I mentioned this, but high heels shift your balance. They force the hips forward, increasing the curve of the spine, and pushing the chest out. Women’s high heels are about modifying the wearer’s posture to make them more attractive. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to run or fight in them, just that you’ll almost certainly wish you weren’t. In fact, if someone is in a dangerous situation wearing high heels, in most cases they’re better off removing them and going barefoot. (Yes, breaking the heel is, technically, an option, though it has it’s own issues.)

So, what you’re describing is impractical. If your character is planning for trouble, they’re better off in flats.

-Starke

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Q&A: Dual Wielding: Power and Control

is it actually possible to wield dual weapons like swords and axes? I ask because I always thought swords were kind of heavy

galaxytiger700

Yes, it’s possible. You’re also understandably mistaken.

The weight of a given sword or axe will vary depending on the individual artifact. So, you could reasonably find an absurdly heavy ornamental sword, designed for display, which would be impractical to use because of its weight. These certainly existed, and there are many surviving examples. But a sword intended for combat would be quite light.

In fact, it’s possible, though somewhat more taxing, to wield the “heavy” 2h swords like the Zweihander or Claymore with one hand. The key piece of information is, even the large greatswords rarely exceeded 8lbs (~3.6kg.) Put this in a frame of reference you’re (probably) familiar with: A gallon of milk weighs more than that.

A one-handed European sword would weigh somewhere between 2 to 4lbs (~0.9-1.8kg). Easy enough to lift and operate in a single hand without issues. Early modern light blades, like the rapier, would weigh even less.

Saying they’re too heavy to wield in one hand is, kind of, ridiculous. Now, it is defensible to make this mistake. A lot of RPGs get pretty sloppy with weapon weights. D&D used to err at the upper edge, so if you crack open a 3rd edition book, it’ll give you the upper values I just listed as the default weight. (5th Edition’s corrected this with average weights.) Fire up something like Skyrim, and it will glibly tell you that a Steel Greatsword weighs 17 “units,” whatever the hell those are. Though, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bethesda meant 17lbs.

There’s a similar misconception with armor. The idea that armor is heavy and cumbersome. Sometimes taken to the point that there are people who legitimately believe a knight in full plate who was knocked over couldn’t get back up. Again, as with the display and parade weapons, there is a little truth to this. Particularly with armor designed for tournaments, that really impair the user’s mobility in the game of greater protection. However, any combat equipment that is too cumbersome or heavy to use in a real fight is fundamentally flawed.

Swords and other weapons intended for combat were kept light. Strength is not the issue, endurance is. If you’re going to be fighting all day, a heavier weapon will wear you out faster. While you could lift and swing a 20lb sword around, it would quickly exhaust you. This is fine if you’re working out, trying to build up conditioning, or putting on a performance, but when you’re trying to kill someone, that’s a detriment. If it’s heavier, it’ll be harder to control and more exhausting.

As a result, even the big, “heavy,” swords were kept pretty light. They’re agile, lethal, and require skill to use effectively. When fighting an armored opponent, the goal was (usually) to find gaps in their armor and run it in through there, rather than flailing wildly and hoping the kinetic force got the job done. (Hint: it wouldn’t.)

So, is it possible to dual wield an axe and sword? Well, yes. It is. It also wasn’t done with any frequency. You’re, ironically, better equipped to face off an opponent two handing a single blade or axe, than you are if you try dual wielding. This goes back to what I just said, the heavier the weapon the less control, and more exhausting it is. If you have your offhand free to aid use of the sword, you can use it to help with control and power, making far more dangerous, than an opponent who’s splitting their attention on two offensive weapons.

While I’m not being explicit, most of this also applies to an axe.

There’s one very common form of dual wielding that most people don’t think about: The sword and shield. Yes, this is dual wielding. The shield is a weapon, more defensive, making it less viable for use on its own, but still a weapon. 

So, the short answer is that people did dual wield, just not in the way you’re thinking. Wielding two offensive weapons will, counter-intuitively, put the combatant at a significant disadvantage against an opponent with one weapon.

There’s an argument for a sufficiently skilled combatant dual wielding, or an experienced combatant using an off hand weapon opportunistically. (Such as grabbing a discarded weapon to exploit a moment’s vulnerability.)

The main reason to have a character dual wielding is because it’s visually dynamic. As with many other things, if you’re not working in a visual medium, that effect will be lost, and you’re making more work for yourself without the benefit.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Force of a Knockout

How hard does one actually have to hit someone to knock them unconscious? It’s a really common thing in media, but never fully explained. I know it’s not the most crucial detail I’m just curious. P.s. this blogs content is incredible.

The prevalence of the knockout in fiction and visual media like television is actually for narrative convenience. When you have a situation where there’s no easy way to end a scene and you don’t want the character to kill or permanently injury the other guy, then a knockout is a convenient way to end the scene. Fiction uses the knockout as a convenient tool, often to the point where it becomes a crutch, in order to quickly switch from one sequence to another. The end result is often consequence free violence.

A knockout is when the other person falls unconscious from being hit. This is the brain saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I give up.” And passing out. Given the brain is the necessary organ which controls your entire body, if it fails in function, you don’t live, it can’t stay shut off for an extended period of time. Knockouts usually only last for a few seconds, and you’ll see this one with boxing and their ten count. If a boxer can get up again after being knockout out in ten seconds, then they can continue. If not, the match is over. If they don’t wake up within the ten seconds, they’re rushed to the hospital. If a human is knocked out for a significant length of time then there’s a chance they’re not waking up… ever.

Now, knockouts are difficult to achieve with just your hands. It’s very difficult to knock a human out in general, but the arm doesn’t generate enough force on its own in a basic strike to successfully knock someone out. You either need repeat actions (which are unlikely to cut it, and you don’t want to punch someone in the face because you’re likely to break the bones in your hand), use a greater method of delivering force to the head like with your feet, or aim for a pressure point like the jaw or the temple. The knockout punch in boxing is a hook punch that aims for the point of separation where your jaw connects with the upper portion of your skull. This is pressure point, a cluster of nerves, which when successfully struck can potentially cause a knock out. (Potentially, this is not a guarantee, and it is a difficult mark to hit even when you’ve created the opening to get there.)

So, the second reason for the prevalence of the knockout punch in fiction is that as a stage punch, the hook, haymaker, or round punch completes the Hollywood trifecta. The hook is easy to learn, easy to whiff, and looks impressive. It is also cost effective, and most of your actors can learn to make it look good without needing to switch them in and out with their stunt doubles. Round houses and wheel kicks are stunts requiring a higher level of technical proficiency, and are more dangerous because they have a greater chance of knocking someone out on connection.

Hand strikes to the head that aim for knockouts are the hook aiming for the point where the jaw meets the upper portion of the skull, the ridgehand strike aiming for your temple where there’s a gap in your skull and soft tissue. We’ve also got strikes like the spinning backhand, which targets the temple and generates greater force than the average hand strike by spinning. Now, when we move onto spinning strikes, jumping strikes, and kicks, we’re discussing the real force delivering blows of martial arts.

We can knock someone out by varying means, as pointed out above, by application through pressure points. The others include cutting off flow of oxygen or blood to the brain by means of a strike, choke, or submission hold. The frontal portion of the skull is a where some of the strongest bones in your body reside, and is well protected against most of the dangers you’ll come across. Punching someone’s face with your bare hand is actually more liable to break you than you are to break them, which is why the advice is to aim for soft targets on the body, or the throat. Or hit someone in the back of the head, where the skull is softer.

Now, you asked specifically about the amount of force necessary to knock someone out. Which is to say, you asked how to give them a concussion.

Force = Momentum

So, the greater your momentum, the greater your chance of dealing a knockout blow.

  • Someone who is running at you will hit you much harder than someone standing still.
  • Your legs are much more powerful than your arms.
  • Spinning and jumping are means of gaining speed, which lends to greater momentum when connection occurs.

Ergo, a technique which combines running, jumping, and spinning with a kick will deal the greatest force all together than just one or two. However, one on its own is enough to knock someone out because all three together can kill you. As can one, just by itself. Go watch some compilation knockout videos for martial arts, specifically from kickboxing, and you’ll see what I mean. This will look very different from what you’re used to seeing on television.

If you’re sitting here, thinking that sounds like a lot of work for a knockout… you’d be correct. Knockouts are actually rare. They’re the intervening place between dazed/stunned and death, where the brain has decided it doesn’t want to function anymore. Concussions aren’t convenient or safe, and can result in long term damage to the individual who experiences one. With fictional knockouts, they’re essentially just deaths that the narrative uses as a convenient method to rid itself of Mook A. This doesn’t cover the damage the victim can do to themselves in the uncontrolled fall, if you don’t catch them on the way down, which could also permanently injure or kill them.

The actual process of subduing someone without permanently injuring or killing them is very involved, much more risky, and takes a long time. Then, there’s the question of what’s to be done with them afterwards. This requires they give up, don’t run off to get their friends, and rally. If you subdue them to the point where you can tie them up and leave them, their buddies might find them and even if they’re no longer in a position to fight they can still provide their friends with actionable intelligence on you, your goals, your fighting style, etc.

So, in real life, you’ve got to make a choice about what you’re going to do. How much time you have to waste. How you’re going to reach your objective because time doesn’t stand still and wait for you to finish. They’re working toward their own objectives, and its a race to see who is going to get there first.

In fiction, the knockout is a convenient crutch which ensures you don’t have to. The fight is over, but you don’t have to ask questions about what happens next to the other character. There’s comfort here, and the presentation of realism without being realistic. Very little of what you see in fictionalized media/television is connected to reality. This starts with the techniques they use, which are big motions clearly designed to send tells which allow you, the audience, to understand what’s going on.

Knockouts in fiction are the same way. They’re a convenient means of moving and removing your pieces through slight of hand that your audience is already conditioned to accept. This feels legitimate, and if you take nothing else away from this learning experience then you should understand that the feeling of legitimacy and internalized logic of the scene sells far more to your audience than any reality because they don’t as a whole know what the reality looks like.

Often, when asking questions about force, the question is wrong. Force in martial arts isn’t generated by physical strength but from momentum the body generate while in motion. The development of your musculature is for control and endurance, which is what allows you to fight longer. A human being is not fragile against natural threats. Most of fighting is not a metric of force v. force, but a combination of strategy, tactics, and opening techniques which lead to more damaging techniques. When we start adding in weapons, then the situation changes. For example, the kind of force I could deliver with my arm and hand alone changes when I use a steel pipe. It would be easier for me to use a lead pipe to bash your head in than it would be for me to kick you in the head with a wheel kick.

TLDR of this post is: knockouts are hard to set up in real life, they’re rare without having someone beat on for an extended period of time, and they’re convenient in fiction because they set up a situation where the audience believes you’ve gotten rid of the other character without having to ask moral questions about killing them

-Michi

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Q&A: Knee to the Face

If my protag managed to get the person they’re fighting to kind of double over (probably by punching them in the gut) would it be at all realistic for them to break the other guy’s nose by slamming his head down while also bring long their knee up?

Yes, that’s an extremely common and effective strike combination. Well, the sucker punch, less so, but running a knee into their groin or stomach, then following with a quick knee strike to the face is. Face strikes are an excellent stun, and it’s more effective than relying on a knee to the groin incapacitating your opponent. There’s the added bonus of a lot of blood from the nose, but the real kicker for the knee strike to the face is the force generated by slamming their head down into the rising knee. The force comes from two directions, not just one. This is what makes the knee to the face more effective than the knee to other parts of the lower body.

You’re going to do more to them than break their nose. They’ll be dazed, disoriented, and bleeding profusely from their nose. They’ll also be crying, not from the pain but because a broken nose will do that to you. Depending on your character’s combat tactics and amount of time they have available, they’re free to bring the head up (because they’ve still got hold of it) and repeat steps two and three. Or, they may move on to working the body over because they’ve got the other character in a state where they’ll have difficulty fighting back.

A lot of combat combat works like this. Create an opening, and immediately exploit it before your opponent can react. This is how real combat works, but you don’t often see it from writers without a background in violence. They’re working off the attack, defend, attack rules turn based combat from RPGs, or the queing system from television. Real violence is a function of taking the initiative from your opponent and pound on them until they can no longer retaliate. Combination strikes, the process of stringing multiple attacks together into a cohesive combat strategy, are often difficult for the unitiated to wrap their heads around. For a lot of readers, thinking ahead in combat like this will impress them.

A lot of basic attacks utilize a simple one-two setup-exploit structure like the sucker punch with the follow up knee to the face. Getting your hands on your opponent’s head and bringing it into a solid knee strike is an effective tactic utilized by many different martial arts from around the world. The technique is also an easy one two the slightly better than average schoolyard bully can master.

The big thing with head strikes is making sure the bones you’re connecting with are more solid than the bones you’re striking. For example, you do not want to strike the forehead. It’s basically just a large, heavy, bone plate. Either side of the forehead, where the plates meet, is an excellent target. You’re aiming for a structural weakness. The face is made up of a lot of relatively fragile structures, with a chunk of soft cartilage for good measure. Your thigh, in contrast, is a massive, solid, load bearing, bone, reinforced with heavy musculature. Yeah, hit them with the end of that. Their face is way more fragile. (Your kneecap should be pretty securely locked in place when you connect, unless you’ve got some serious medical condition.)

This is the same danger with punching, and other hand strikes. Your hand has twenty-seven delicate bones, they allow for fantastic flexibility, and utility, but your opponent’s skull has eight fused plates, and fourteen in the face. Still want to punch them there? Personal advice, aim for someplace softer, or use something better suited to abuse than your hand. (Your knee is much better suited for that.)

So, let’s talk about combat inertia for a second. This is an abstract concept, but it’s a way to explain why combos like this work. It’s easy to get into a “turn-based” view combat. Your character takes an action, their opponent acts, your character acts again. In the real world, combat rarely works like this unless both fighters are completely exhausted.

Combatants are often looking for ways to exploit their opponent’s defenses, find/create an opening, and use this lead in as a launchpad for their real attacks. Tagging someone in the groin, or in the gut, won’t incapacitate your opponent, but it can buy you a little inertia to follow up. Usually, a knee to the face won’t put your opponent down. But, use the first to transition into the second and you’ve bought some time. No turn for them right now.

Here’s a fun thing about this specific combo. You can do it from nearly anywhere. If you’re on either side of your opponent, or facing them, you can deliver a quick strike to their gut, and follow it with knee strike. Usually from one knee strike to another, though punches and elbow strikes can certainly get you started depending on the exact positioning. Anything that will make your opponent double over. Depending on placement, this can smoothly transition into a number of chokeholds. This is a tool, and it can be mixed with fluidly mix with other options. The sucker punch to the stomach, into a knee strike to the face, can easily transition into a guillotine choke when forward facing or a standard triangle choke from the side. The strike can transition into a push kick, such as sucker punch, knee strike, push kick to the stomach where you crank the knee to your chest and shoot your foot outward. Or, simply rinse, lather, repeat with the knee to the face until they can’t stand up anymore.

Also, inertia doesn’t mean you have to stop at two strikes. You can keep going until you wear yourself out. The important thing is being efficient, and not getting into a situation where you’ve exhausted yourself against a fresh foe.

Combining, or chaining, moves like this is an important part of hand-to-hand combat. Surviving a fight means keeping control of a situation, and refusing to let your opponent(s) do the same. Preventing them from ever attacking, because they’re too disoriented by your attacks is a good way to do exactly that.

-Starke

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Q&A: Abuse and Training

I read something about coaches hitting or dragging athletes around when they make mistakes. Some see this as abuse and others as standard that produces winners. But this reminded me of the post about abusive teachers not being very effective. Any thoughts? Where is the line? Is it different or the same for sports? Should athletes or martial arts students tolerate what might be considered abuse because they want to be there or is there a line they should look for between conditioning and abuse?

The line is when it transitions from conditioning to abuse. What you’re describing? That’s abuse.

The line is consent. You go to someone; say, “I need to get better at this, push me.” That’s the road to conditioning. That’s training. You’re consenting, you’re signing up, and you’re asking someone to push you until you can do things you didn’t believe were possible.

In a lot of ways, Martial Arts training is all about this. It’s asking someone to help you push yourself past the illusory boundaries you believed were real.

Also, important to understand, this requires mutual trust. You’re trusting your instructor that they have your best interests at heart, and that they know what they’re doing. They trust you to give your all, and that you’re trying to improve.

This relationship is a two-way street. It’s not a relationship of equals, but you are working with your instructor to improve.

This is also true of coaches. A good coach is there to talk you through. To teach you about the game you’re playing. To guide. To help you learn. To push you. Because that’s why you’re there.

There’s a simple truth, personal growth is uncomfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It requires you to do things you don’t want to. A good coach, or instructor, will put a path in front of you and tell you to go. To push you. While also paying attention to ensure you don’t harm yourself in the process. It’s the goal you’ve set in front of yourself, and telling you how to get there. They’re there to help you get there safely.

An abuser doesn’t care what you want. Their goals are what’s important. There’s no two way street. You do what they say or else. Your well being is, at best, an afterthought. They may tell themselves that they get results, that they’re providing a necessary lesson. Tough love. But, in the end, you’re not working together, they’re just working you over until you do what they say, or you break. At best, you might get somewhere in the vicinity of where you wanted to be unharmed. More likely, you’ll be wounded (emotionally or physically) along the way. Your safety wasn’t a consideration, just the end abuser’s goal.

Physical abuse, like you’re describing, happens, but it’s somewhat rare. Emotional abuse is far more common and insidious. Again, it’s not cooperative. The difference is just whether the experience is physically or emotionally painful. Ironically, this is the easier of the two to recognize subjectively. If you have an instructor or coach that makes you feel like shit, who is pressuring you and using your connection to your teammates to push you past your established physical limits, that’s emotional abuse.

The worst part is this transition can happen after consent is given. You can ask for a push, and the instructor turns around and pounds on you. This doesn’t really change the line. You trusted them, and they violated it. Unfortunately, for many, the realization that something’s amiss only happens when a serious harm occurs. The lesser injuries, stresses, and psychological strain, tend to get missed.

The thing about abusive teachers is, they’re not effective. I can say that from personal experience. I had a swim instructor nearly kill me when I was younger. All I learned was to stay the hell away from swimming pools.

Abusive methods can result in short term behavioral changes. That is to say, yes, you can pound on someone to, maybe, make them do what you want right now. But, it comes with steep long-term costs. Anyone who says that abuse builds character, or toughens people up is coming out of a position where they really do not care about the well being of their charges.

Not everyone who’s abused realizes it. Depending on your background, this is one of those incredibly counter-intuitive statements. Someone who thinks that coming away from a lesson or training feeling wounded may legitimately believe that’s normal. That everyone feels that. If they’re still getting some value out of their training, they may even believe that this is the way things should be. This is where a lot of abusive coaches and instructors come from. They went through this kind of hazing, so they believe it must be necessary.

The hard part about this is, there’s a gray area which is entirely subjective. It’s abusive if the behavior is harmful, but not abusive, if both participants can build from it. As with a lot of social interactions, context is key.

-Starke

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