Tag Archives: writing advice

Q&A: Where do I begin? Anywhere you want.

Hi I can’t decide the timeline to start story. What should be the main event in story?

You included either a lot of backstory or potential plot hooks for your narrative in the question, all of which have the potential to be very interesting stories in their own right, and that’s why we’re going to talk about something else.

Where do I start my story?

This is the question a lot of authors wrestle with and the answer is surprisingly simple — anywhere you want.

You don’t even need to start writing at the start of your story, you can start writing the middle first, or even the ending, and then start from the beginning once you know where you’re going. When I get stuck, I often write the parts in the future which I find interesting and work my way towards it because that gives me a point to aim for.

You have to start somewhere, so start with what interests you.

If you find yourself getting caught up in massive details for a fantasy setting spread across multiple dimensions and lifetimes then… write the ideas down, make note of them, fill up your notebooks with all that detail for your setting bible. That way, you can always come back to it later for more inspiration. Once you’ve done that, move on to your characters. Take a moment to step away from the big world changing events, but on the individuals in your story. The ones who will ultimately be the driving force behind these events.

These smaller, individual stories are the ones which carry the overarching plot and a narrative that could encompass anything from multiple books, or simply be the epic backstory of just one.

So, who interests you? The great hero at the height of their reign? The Rise of the Big Bad? The hero reincarnated into a new world, scrabbling to put together the pieces of their past life? Or, is it someone else? The rebellious general who realizes the evil they serve isn’t creating the world they hoped for? A young scribe keeping notes in the halls of an evil sorcerer  who steals the mcguffin and runs off to join the rebels? A battered, down on their luck bounty hunter after the relic so they can sell it to the highest bidder? A frustrated and angry high school student stuck in a small world, who dreams of a more fantastical one, where they’re the hero winth incredible powers, who wants the world they’ve seen in their dreams, but when those dreams become a reality realizes it might be more than they ever bargained for?

Epic narratives (rather than epics, the genre) can come from any narrative. The bounty hunter could be hunting the scribe, who could wind up on a buddy/road trip adventure as they carry a mystical object toward their world’s salvation or destruction. This could be an epic narrative filled with humor, potential romance, and heartache. Or, it could be cliche.

The story could be cliche, or it could be fantastic, it might even be cliche and fantastic. (This is, frankly, my favorite type of story.)

You won’t know until you sit down and start writing it.

You won’t know until you’ve finished your first draft. (All first drafts are terrible.)

You won’t know until you’ve restructured the whole thing in your second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts.

You may end up with a story wildly different from the one you imagined when you first sat down to write. This is part of why the place where you start doesn’t need to be your beginning. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, a discovery of your own creative process.

So, pick somewhere. Don’t worry if it’s the perfect character, or the right place. You can end up at right and perfect, but you can’t expect right and perfect in the beginning. You can accept messy, clumsy, and unsure. Trust yourself to get to the gem you imagine inside your mind, keep working at it and you will. Remember that what you read from a published novel is the end result of a product polished to a shine. Where we start is with a diamond, or even a rock full of diamonds we’ll need to chip out of the mountain before we can show them off. Creation is often a messy, embarrassing process filled with horror, joy, and terror. There may occasionally be hair pulling and screaming. You’ll give yourself a lot more grief trying to avoid this, than you will by just embracing it.

You don’t have to write in a straight line.

You do write one line at a time.

So, start writing.


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Q&A: Lethal Superheroes

Whats your opinion of the whole ‘Superheroes shouldn’t kill’ argument that always pops up? Why is it say Iron Man is given a pass for killing Jihadists, but Batman or Superman aren’t?

I wouldn’t say it “always pops up,” because I see it fairly rarely. The important thing about Superman or Batman isn’t that they shouldn’t, it’s that they choose not to.

So, the short version with Batman is his prohibition against killing was added after the character was created. Initially he had no qualms about gunning people down. His aversion to firearms and killing in general, came as an attempt to move further from another fictional, nocturnal, New York vigilante and their brace of nickle plated .45s.

It’s kind of weird now to say that Batman’s refusal to kill was because he looked like a rip off of The Shadow, but here we are. Gotham is rarely used as a nickname for New York now. The Shadow gained actual superpowers to simplify the character for the radio show. And of course, Batman became wildly popular while The Shadow slipped into obscurity.

Superman, it’s a choice. It’s just his ethics, and a line he refused to cross. Not because he can’t, or because it would cause some horrific backlash against him: Killing a sentient being is against his code of ethics.  This is a line he won’t willingly cross. It gets into a complex discussion about who he is as a person,(or character.)

There are plenty of supreheroes that don’t kill people, for a variety of reasons. So, there’s nothing wrong with a character like Batman, Superman, or Daredevil saying they won’t kill.

There’s a lot of legitimate arguments for killing your foes when they’re literally supervillains. This is especially true for Bats, every time The Joker decides to nerve a mall. “Dude, you could stop this, but you won’t. He broke out of Arkham again, so you’re taking him back instead of just ending here?” There’s a lot more to that argument, but, it makes sense.

So, Tony Stark kills people. A lot of people. Not just the ones you see. (I’m going with the films here, because the Jihadists thing is from the movies, not as much the comics.) Stark Industries is a high-tech weapons manufacturer. They make so many weapons. It makes sense. I mean, Tony wasn’t there, pulling the trigger, but this is a guy with a lot of blood on his hands, seeing as he’s also their primary venue of arms R&D.

Kind of a, “what if Steve Jobs, made weapons instead of computers,” thing. Though, even in the films Stark Industries is also in the Telecom and Computer markets.

So, part of Tony’s arc is moving from this guy who sold the weapons that killed a ton of people and didn’t care about that, to a guy who’s far more selective in his violence. Given the circumstances, that makes sense. Hell, his alcoholism makes sense. Tony doesn’t get a pass for killing people. The people around him don’t care, they’re willing to accept that, but he’s not willing to accept that about himself. It also consistent with his personality and personal history, so this isn’t just some act of self-flagellation, but it does fit neatly into the character.

This is why characters like Superman don’t kill people. It’s not that they can’t; they don’t want to live in the aftermath. Tony already does, and that’s reasonable behavior. It’s also what drives him to be a hero; he’s trying to atone for past actions. By itself, this could be cliche, but expression is unique enough that you don’t think of him as someone who’s trying to make up for who they used to be.

Superheroes can kill people, but it depends on who they are. No one bats an eye when Black Widow, or The Punisher, blow someone away. It’s in character for them. They approach lethal violence as a tool to deal with their opponents. Also, I don’t want this to sound like it’s just a Marvel thing, DC also has a bunch of lethal heroes, (ironically, including The Shadow.)

Usually when someone’s questioning if a superhero should be killing people, they’re coming from one of two places. Either, they aren’t familiar with the character at all, or it’s out of character.

The best illustration of the former is that quote from Deadpool:

You’re probably thinking, “My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!”

So, no shame here. If you aren’t familiar with a character like Ghost, The Mask, or The Tick, you might think they’re not going to kill people. Well, credit you can figure out which of those characters are non-lethal from their names.

Alternately, it may be that it doesn’t fit the character. Having Bats suddenly decide to gun down a foe is a problem. Not because lethal heroes aren’t a thing, but because it’s out of character for him. That’s not Batman. You know it. I know it. It’s not right for the character.

It can be very easy to transition from poorly executed writing to, “that shouldn’t happen.” In a stray moment, from someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time reading comics, that could turn into, “superheroes shouldn’t kill.” It isn’t consistent with actual superhero lit, but it’s an understandable mistake to make.

On an ethical front, sure. If superheroes were real, with actual powers, yeah, use of lethal force should be very careful measured, and only used as an absolute last resort. In practice, it probably wouldn’t be as carefully measured, and there is an entire discussion about law enforcement dealing with superheroes, that usually gets skimmed over. I mean, if the cops decide to arrest Superman, what’re they going to do? What can they really do?

This can also be a justifiable restriction based on the genre you’re working with. If working from a Saturday morning cartoon or four color 1960s comic flavor, having characters who are lethal is a serious decision and probably shouldn’t be introduced lightly. If you’re trying to write a post-Watchmen critique of the superhero as  “unrealistic” no one’s going to bat an eye at your character carving people up like a Christmas Turkey.

It’s also possible for a non-lethal hero to break their personal code. This could be increasing stress, this could be the result of some traumatic event that causes them reevaluate their position. It could be a desperate act because there really is no other option, or it could even be an accident. When you have the ability to dead lift five tons, people are made of tissue paper. Apply a little too much force and you’ve got the world’s worst Will it Blend reboot.

That’s the other thing about Superman. He makes life harder for himself by not killing his foes. Simply put, he believes killing is wrong, and doesn’t stoop to that level. I mean, this does make sense with the character’s personality and beliefs. He’s nominally invulnerable to harm, and firmly believes that anyone can mend their ways. As a result, he’s willing to make life difficult for himself to protect others, including his foes, which is certainly one definition of a hero.

The inverse is, of course, also an option. A hero who backs off of killing people, or has a change of heart is entirely possible. I mean, we were talking about Tony Stark earlier, though he’s certainly not the only example. This can also create a situation where a selective killing is more of a setback than a full failure,  This could also be baked into their origin story. Though, to be fair, there’s also plenty of room for a superhero to have a change of heart as part of their creation and continue mowing people down on their very messy road to personal redemption.

Is your character inclined to kill people? It depends on the hero. If your hero was an academic, a reporter,  jazz musician, or some other “normal” profession, then it could go either way. They might, or they might not, depending on their personal outlook. If your hero was a soldier, hitman, or intergalactic warrior before taking up the mantel of superhero, there’s a decent chance they’ll be smearing their opponents across the walls.

Should superheroes kill people? It depends character, and their story.


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Q&A: A Thousand Words

How do you convey the feeling of an ominous/sad close up shot through prose? I have a scene that ends with a character taking off their SciFi armor because they are about to set off an EMP-like device that would make it a burden. The narrator doesn’t think much of it, but I want to give the reader a sense of trepidation.

The problem here is you’re asking how to write a picture. To a certain extent, this is natural; we’re all influenced by the media we consume. Sometimes you see, or read something, and want to use parts of that for your own writing. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you need to step back and completely reevaluate what you consumed, and realize that some of it doesn’t directly translate into your chosen medium.

You can adapt what you see into prose, but you cannot fully recreate it. You can’t exactly mimic the colors, you can’t get the totality of scope, or incorporate all of the detail work. In the case of film, you can’t replicate the musical cues. You can write a script, and work with other people to realize that image, but in a written work you can’t get everything. You shouldn’t want to, because you can do better.

Writing gives you easier access to the inner workings of your character’s heads. It also opens up the gates, and lets you start sketching out your world in ways that would be impossible in another format. In writing, you don’t need to force emotions onto your audience, because they have direct access to your characters’ states of mind. If your character is scared, worried, or anxious, you can say it. You can talk about it. You can talk about why, and go into details that would kill the pacing of a flow.

What you can’t do as elegantly is show the device. But, to an extent, beyond basic mise en scene, it doesn’t really matter that much if it’s riveted, or if it has slick, beveled plates. You might mention that when describing it, but it really is just set dressing to sell the moment. The important thing getting into your character’s head. Again, in writing, that’s really easy. It’s film where the director and actors need to take extra steps to sell the moment.

Case in point: your character doesn’t need to take their helmet off. Think about this for a moment. The entire reason to take the helmet off is to see the character’s face. If you’re inhabiting their skull as a PoV character, you wouldn’t “see” it when you take it off anyway. You don’t need to see the actor’s performance because there is no actor, just your character, and your audience stuck in their mind as the moments tick down. You actually miss out on things too. If their helmet has a built in HUD, you miss out on that frying and going dark when the EMP detonates.

Visual media excels in providing spectacle. If you’re shooting a fight sequence, you can let it run far longer than a real fight could ever last because you’re relying on the choreography to keep the fight interesting. You can mix this with a changing environment to make things even more engaging. All of this applies when you’ve got stunt guys going through the motions, performing visual art. In prose, you lose that. Long fights become exhausting for the reader, and replicating the spectacle is (effectively) impossible. So, you need to tell a different story with your fights.

Different media have different strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned, prose gives you the most control over your protagonist’s state of mind. Film and other visual media provide the most spectacle. Again, you’re never going to replicate the visual detail in text. Comic books stand between these two points, gaining some visual elements, but the trade off is that your audience is outside of the character’s head looking in, even if they have limited access to their thought process. Video games will give you an unparalleled connection between the audience and the events, as they’re an active participant rather than an observer, the trade off is, you give up a surprising amount of autonomy as a writer, as you have to find a way to align your audiences views with the character and their actions, otherwise they’ll disconnect from the material, or at least from your stories.

So, the short answer of, “how do I do this in text,” is to evaluate the scene in the context of your medium. How do you write a scene where a character is looking at a weapon of mass destruction about to detonate? In prose you’re going to spend a lot more time working through your character’s emotional state, rather than trying to get your audience to share in that experience via visual cues. They’re already in your character’s head. In that sense, you get to jump ahead of the line.


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Q&A: Writing The Tournament

I’m writing a story about a fighting tournament, but I’m not especially familiar with tourney structures except for video games. What are common martial arts tournament formats? I think double-elimination ought to work well for my story because it can get so dramatic, but there might be something else more suitable.

This is a pretty good breakdown on martial arts bracket systems used in tournaments.

I’m going to spend this post talking about how tournaments and the martial arts tournament genre works in a narrative context. This includes more than your protagonist, but your role in tournament management because you’re going to need to be all the parts in order for this to work. After all, the one who structures the tournament is you. If you’ve never actively participated in tournaments, any tournaments, or done anything behind the scenes when it comes to structuring them then going complex upfront will result in your narrative spinning wildly out of control.

The Tournament Brackets Are Your Plot

In a martial arts tournament narrative every match up is a character building exercise. The fights are the catharsis to the tension building between rivals and friends in the story. Each fight is the culmination of a smaller plot running parallel to the primary narrative. These are the not just the physical challenges the protagonist overcomes in chasing their dream of winning a championship, but also challenges their morals, their emotions, and their intelligence. Each fight is a building block toward the final conflict, resulting in the protagonist becoming a stronger and more well-rounded person as they are challenged to address their flaws in both fighting style and in their character.

Each of these fights are a very important step on the rung toward victory where the greatest challenge awaits. Every fallen friend, rival, rival-friend, enemy turned friend, and friend turned enemy is a just one more means to forge your protagonist in fire.  Each match up is carefully structured to maximize the drama, and provide unique challenges to the protagonist. Seeing the protagonist overcome these challenges is what makes the fight interesting, not the fight itself.

You should consider how many small character dramas you have it in you to write in addition to your main plots as we cycle upwards, the necessary subplots for other important rival characters and matches needed to establish these rivals as a legitimate threat before the protagonist faces off with them.

The tournament is your basic plot outline. Like with seeding in a real tournament, you’re going to want to be meticulous about your match ups before you sit down to write. You need to know who if fighting whom and how that turned out, including some specific events which can reach your protagonist in whispers even if you don’t show any of it on screen.

Drama is Created By Characters

I’m going to make this point upfront because I see the thought process with double elimination, but don’t make the mistake of assuming the tournament structure will do the work for you. An exciting tournament, whether fictional or in real life, is the result of someone’s hard work. In the real world, this is multiple people. In your novel, this is just you and whomever you roped in to help you build all the characters you’ll need for this story to function.

Unless you’re really good at writing fight scenes, and you better be if you’re writing a martial arts tournament, and even if you are, you’ve got to take time to establish a whole bunch of characters who’ll be important friends and rivals. You’re going to need extra chapters between your fight chapters to establish the character dynamics, so your audience can become invested in what happens to the major players.

Single Elimination

The tournament brackets are the layout of your plot, and this is the reason why Single Elimination is the popular choice for tournaments in both real life and fiction.

32 Characters = 6 Matches for your protagonist.

64 characters = 7 matches.

This translates to about six chapters to seven, this gives you a lot of time to focus on the other characters like your character’s rivals, future rivals, take a look at the next challenger, watch a match, get to know our other characters, develop friendships, and a whole bunch of other necessary stuff during the downtime between fights.

You can devote a lot of time to building up each of the fights as their own mini-narratives in a 70,000-80,000 word novel, and not feel as pressed for time with getting a lot of different fight scenes or character narratives jammed in.

Double Elimination

So, with double elimination, the most important aspect to understand is that if the protagonist loses any match then the highest they’ll end up is usually around third place.

You’ll have twice as many matches as single elimination, which means you have that many more fights to write. A protagonist goes from having around 6 to 7 matches to 12 to 14, plus the extra matches you’ll need to put together for the rivals and friends. Which, if you’ve never put together a match up between two characters, is a lot more work with a lot less time for ancillary detail. The lower brackets constantly fill up as more players lose, everyone gets at least two fights which is great for martial arts tournaments where you’re putting them together primarily for experience. This is about half your 70,000 to 80,000 word novel (if you want to get it published) of twenty to thirty chapters devoted to one character’s fights with less time for the build up your other necessary characters.

Remember, the novel’s secondary characters are important to keeping your tournament functional. In a double elimination system where you’re defeated twice you’re out, there’s no reason to pit the same person against the person who defeated them.

The attraction of the Double Elimination to most writers is going to be the idea of the protagonist getting knocked into the elimination bracket early by their rival and then being forced to fight their way up through that entire bracket for a second match against the rival who defeated them. Then, this time, they finally win.

Except, if you allow this to happen in real life then you create a situation where there are no victors because no one finished the tournament undefeated.

In real life, the second bracket has its own final which decides third place and the person who was previously eliminated will most likely never fight someone from that first bracket again. This kills the idea of rival revenge.

Rival revenge should be based on actions that happen in previous tournaments, the next tournament down the line, or actions taken outside the tournament, but not within the tournament itself.

Have I mentioned you need to be really good at writing fight scenes?

Round Robin, (See Also: Swiss and Dutch)

Everybody fights everybody.

This one probably won’t appeal as it is a points based competition where everyone keeps fighting until someone wins. It is a popular set up in smaller tournaments, particularly for sparring, which lets students get a lot of tournament sparring practice. It is really easy for the fights to get unbalanced early, and you essentially calculate the bouts based on the number of participants.

This is a very long tournament, multiday to multiweek, and you’d most likely be cutting a lot of it out from your narrative (though you’d still need to keep track of what happened in those other bouts.) This format is primarily for soccer and similar sports, while swiss is chess.

I don’t suggest non-elimination formats for martial arts.

Visual versus Written

It is worth understanding that the martial arts tournament genre is primarily designed for a visual medium. In this case, showcasing all the fights is important because your audience is there for the experience. Establishing unique visual motifs for each character is important because it makes the scenes more visually engaging when you’re watching these characters get slapped around. We see more than we need to, yes, but that visual stimulation is part of why people watch martial arts movies or the shounen anime fighting genre like Yu Yu Hakusho, Boku no Hero Academia, or Dragon Ball Z.

You don’t get access to any of this when you’re writing.

Your characters are going to be the driving force behind the drama in a written tournament narrative, and you can’t cheat off visual stimulation provided by skilled stunt actors or vibrant artistic explosions. The fight scenes are not the focus, you can’t expect them to hold the audience’s attention, they’re an extension of the character drama occurring within the narrative itself. This means a narrowed focus on one or two characters with a meticulous and careful structuring of character experiences.

The second problem posed by anime in structure is that the fights are designed to pad out an entire season, or an entire manga arc, which, from a written perspective, encompasses multiple books. In a manga, preparations for the preliminaries are an arc (novel), getting to the preliminaries is an arc (novel), the preliminaries are an arc (arc), then the first stages before finals are an arc, and then we get to the finals which are often an arc in and of themselves. So, if you pace your story like an anime then you get about five novels. They’re set up as serialized stories.

For a novel, you need to focus. You’ll do a lot of work in setting the whole tournament up, and the novel will show about a 1/3 or less of it because there’s a lot of stuff we don’t need to know about.

Character Progression Match Ups: Establish Your Rules.

The primary reason for establishing multiple fighting styles for various characters is to help create an unbalance or underdog status for the protagonist. However, in a written format you don’t get access to the tension built by one character primarily wielding fists versus someone who is a kicker in a mixed martial arts tournament. You’ll need a solid grasp of your protagonist’s fighting style, taking into consideration both its flaws and weaknesses. A better grasp you have on combat then the easier this will be for you.

You’ll also need to decide on how someone designates a win. Most martial arts tournaments are points based with different points being assigned based on the type of hit or difficulty of the technique. Taekwondo sparring matches assign one point for basic punches to the torso, two for basic kicks to the torso, three for a kick to the head, and technical kicks score more.

The various strategies your characters use will be based on the type of competition, though they will come up with different strategies based on their own preferred tactics. An example is that technical kicks in Taekwondo like spin kicks are more risky than basic kicks, and a more careful character might not use them even when they score higher. A character who is behind in their point count might feel pressed to use riskier attacks to get the five points off a single kick even though that is more difficult to pull off.

Your protagonist and their antagonists will devise strategies based off the rules. So, you’ve got to establish what those rules are and what constitutes a win.

Is it a forced concession like a tap out?

Is it getting knocked outside the right?

Is it a point based system scored on how well a character performs like in Taekwondo, Boxing, and Muay Thai? What does that point system look like?

Is it getting knocked out?

Is it death?

Are there places they can’t hit which result in penalties and eliminations? Is this no holds barred?

Does this tournament allow weapons?

What protective gear do they wear?

There are a lot of considerations to take into account, and for that reason I do suggest starting with a Single Elimination set up. It’ll be pretty easy to upgrade to Double when you get comfortable or run out of space, though I wouldn’t worry too much about not having enough fights or interesting fights. If you have that problem then adding more won’t actually help you.

Each fight match up with your protagonist is a cornerstone in your narrative, a point of character progression, a realization they have about themselves which helps them come away stronger and more prepared for the endgame. If you haven’t been looking at the fight scenes you planned for your novel in this way, then you should consider starting.

There’s not really much difference between an underdog starting from the bottom and never losing versus an underdog losing and fighting up from the bottom all over again except how well you did with the concept the first time round. Losing a fight is not a great way to get people invested in a character if they weren’t already. Besides, in a real world setup they’d never see that rival they lost to again.

Also, you need to be really good at writing fight scenes.


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Q&A: Violent Escalation

My characters are criminals are associate with other criminals most of the time. (Think Sutherland) Their first instinct is to believe problems can be solved with violence (which often creates more problems). So the violence does have various consequences. How can I portray that violence/crime isn’t something that will solve your problems if I’m limited by POV characters who believe it will or that others ‘deserve’ violence.

The short answer is, “you’re not limited to your POV characters’ beliefs.” You can show the violence getting out of control. This is the natural consequence of people who believe violence solves problems.  Violence leads to reprisal, reprisals lead to escalation, and before you know it you’ve got a full on crime war on your hands, or the cops running surveillance. That’s your outcome.

These kind of brushfire crime stories are widespread, in both fiction and the real world. Someone thinks that a bullet will solve their problems, which in turn causes more blowback.

You’re not limited to your POV characters’ perceptions. You also control what happens to them. Just because your character believes killing someone will solve their problems, doesn’t mean that it will. Violence could easily lead to someone associated with the victim (or the victim themselves, if they slaying doesn’t go to plan), coming for their head later. Failing that, there’s also the police investigation to consider. The more force your characters use, the more attention they’ll be getting from the cops.

This is assuming that the violence doesn’t get out of hand in the moment. Sure, your protagonist only meant to rough them up, but now they’ve got a corpse. This was more than they were planning on, and as a result, the consequences will be significantly more severe. In some ways, violence is a binary choice: You decide to engage in it or not. You can try to moderate the outcome, but you have no guarantees. There are plenty of real world examples where a trivial scuffle produced a corpse, leading to unexpected consequences.

There’s a reductive, and somewhat moralistic, “crime never pays,” approach that is justifiable when done well. Your characters do bad things, bad things happen to them. It’s a valid approach, but not completely necessary. You can track cause and effect, without needing to turn it into a morality tale.

Also worth considering that a lot of these narratives do tend towards tragedy. The narrative will build to a climax mid-way through the story, and then things will start to unravel for the protagonists from there. Characters die or are apprehended, plans fall apart because of people who were wronged during your characters’ ascent to the top. Seeing the changing weather, allies may abandon your protagonists. Enemies who’ve been sharpening their knives finally see the opportunity to make good on their threats. All it takes is a single misstep at any point, and the story can quickly degenerate into a figurative feeding frenzy.

It’s worth remembering that just because your characters say something, that doesn’t mean you’re endorsing it as a writer. What they say, and what happens weigh on your position.

You can use supporting characters as the conscience for your protagonists, or as venues for your position. There are plenty of people who would argue caution in the face of violence. These could range from family outside of the life, to veterans who managed to escape intact, or even police offering honest advice. These discussions can risk being cliche, so, some care will be needed, to ensure the dialog is properly tailored to what they know and believe, rather than a simple, “violence bad,” skit. If your character ignores that, it’s on them; they were warned.

Tragedy feeds on character flaws. Someone who believes, in spite of all evidence, that they can force their will on the world around them is an excellent candidate for taking the fall.

How do you deal with characters who think that violence will solve their problems? You let natural cause and effect tear them down. In your story, you’re responsible for applying the consequences. Wreck them.


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Q&A: The Sword is King of Mid Range Melee

We got a bunch of sword questions all in a row that don’t require particularly detailed answers, so I figured we could do them all together for efficiency.

So are swords really useful/practical weapons, or just iconic/popular for media and fiction?

The sword is one of the best weapons mankind has ever designed for killing other humans. While there are other weapons we could focus on (like the staff, spear, and other longarms that don’t get enough love), don’t fool yourself in selling the sword short.  This weapon has ruled as a fixture of combat since it’s invention, and only recently fell out of popular use. We know this because of how enduring the sword is throughout history and with countless cultures across the globe who all developed their own variants then refined, refined, refined them until we finally outdid ourselves by developing the gun. Even then, we’ve had guns since roughly the late Middle Ages, and it’s only in the past 100 years or so that swords have really fallen off as the preferred sidearm used in addition to other combat weapons. The sword was also a weapon of self-defense in Europe, and wasn’t just a weapon of the upper class.

The 20th century still saw swords being fielded as part of mounted cavalry units, and were used right up until WWI where they became obsolete in the face of modern weaponry.

The sword is the preeminent king of mid range melee combat.

Weapons endure because they are useful. Weapons are discarded when they are no longer useful, or no longer appropriate to the threats faced on the battlefield.

This is the rule of the weapons. It doesn’t matter how cool they look if you’re dead. If the weapon doesn’t work then cast it off. Weapons that no longer fit the combat of the day get you killed.

The ironic truth is that the sword is actually a much better, more well rounded, and versatile weapon than popular media makes it out to be. It is also a much lighter weapon than popular media would have you believe, which means there is no strength requirement. They weigh less than your average housecat, and a lot less than your laptop.  If your protagonist can’t lift two to four pounds then they’ve got bigger problems than just one weapon.

Some sword variants are more specialized than others, and are designed around specific battlefield functions. Not all swords are created equal, and some will work far better in some circumstances than others. It is very important that you view weapons from different time periods in terms of scientific advancement and ever changing battlefield requirements.

Your protagonists are doing more than accessorizing when they choose a weapon or martial art. Suitable is decided by the world they live in and the threats they face, and then, after a host of other practical considerations, by what appeals to them.

not sure how many questions you get like this and i’m sorry is it’s been asked, but world a dagger be effective with someone with a sword. would a weapon like Asuma’s from naruto actually be useful

Asuma wields a real weapon that saw use in real combat, primarily in the trenches of WWI. The weapon is called a trench knife. One part knife, one part knuckleduster or brass knuckles, this weapon excels in tight, close quarters combat. The name itself should be a  dead giveaway for the purpose it served in combat. This is an aid for hand to hand combat, and therefore not particularly useful against swords because the person with the trench knife risks getting cut to pieces by the sword wielder before they ever get into the range their knife is suitable for.

This is, in essence, the problem for knives or daggers versus swords. In a straight up fight, the sword has the range to attack at will while the person with the dagger is forever on the offensive with no means to break past them. You don’t have the option to attack, while they can attack you whenever they feel like it. Swords face similar problems against long arms like staves and spears.

This is a martial concept called range. Range is dictated by the distance it takes for you to reach your opponent versus the distance it takes for them to reach you. Range matters most when dealing with weapons. A common misconception about range is how much that distance given by height matters in hand to hand.

The end of this story is you’ll need to kill the guy with the sword before he has the chance to get his pants on, which actually makes a knife like the trench knife the perfect weapon for an assassin like Asuma. After all, they never planned to give you the option of fighting back. The knife is the “surprise! death!” weapon, and one of the fastest combat weapons from hit to kill.

Would a left-handed knight fight with their sword in their left hand and their shield in their right? I’m writing a left-handed character who fights with sword and shield, and I want to be aware of any advantages/disadvantages such a style will give them.

Listen to me when I say this, the shield is a weapon. That is the most important lesson I have to teach you about the sword/shield combination. The sword is a weapon, the shield is also a weapon. You can hit people with it. You can also kill people with it. More importantly, you can use it as a tool to lock up your enemy’s weapon  and kill them with your primary weapon. This is an active, not a passive, article working in conjunction with your sword and a defined part of your character’s strategy in their approach to combat.

The sword/shield is an offensive combo, not a defensive one. Video games and DnD will teach you that the shield is only good for defense. You’ll find people everywhere, including those giving advice on the shield outside the HEMA community who will parrot that assumption. It is a lie.

As with anything, the combo can be used defensively but you’re not actually giving up your offensive opportunities. You are, in fact, maximizing them by giving yourself one more means to break through your enemy’s defenses. You are dual wielding, and the off-hand shield serves a similar purpose for what you’d be doing with a second weapon like a knife or sword in that off-hand and with less risk of the two getting caught cross-ways of each other. The shield lets you be bolder in your attacks because you have more defense, but you’re not just going to sit there in the midst of battle and turtle like an MMO tank. No, you’re going to be proactive. More defense gives you more options to be aggressive because there are fewer risks involved.

What you sacrifice is the extra power, finesse, speed, and control lent by the second hand (your non-dominant hand) on two handed weapons like the long sword. This is the drawback: you give up the power, precision, fine control, and utility of a single weapon. Note, power does not mean strength in the way you imagine. That second hand is needed as a lever to provide your weapon with greater momentum than you can achieve with a single hand or arm. The front hand or gripping hand is the guiding hand and the back hand or the hand on the pommel is the power hand. You’ve limited yourself to attacks based on the movements of that single arm,and the power you can generate from that arm. You’ve also given up the utility provided by your off-hand for the shield.

In martial arts, the off-hand or the non-dominant hand is the control hand or the utility hand. It is much more important than your power hand, in fact losing your non-dominant hand is much more catastrophic as a fighter than losing your dominant one. The control hand lacks the power of the dominant hand, but because it’s harder to learn to control the side your worse with due to that hand being less natural during training you end up developing a lot of fine motor control. You use this hand to strike, to defend, to grab,  and create openings for strikes with the power hand.

Martial artists are mostly ambidextrous by necessity, all the parts of your body are going to be used. A character who is left-hand dominant will actually use their right hand in combat more often than their left, and vice versa is true. I’m right handed, but my left will almost always strike first. This is the side I predominately turn to for any and all utility. This is the opposite of my regular life, where my right is doing most of the work.

A left-handed person will use their dominant hand in a fight, but that doesn’t mean their right is useless. Their non-dominant hand is one of the most important combat assets they have. This is their defense hand, their blocking hand, the set-up hand, the fast striking hand, the risk-taker hand that seizes for joint locks. The non-dominant hand is the one with all the finesse. This is why the finesse hand/arm holds the shield, you’ll be taking complex actions with it.

This is going to be a backwards way of thinking if you’ve never done martial arts. Your dominant hand is not the hand that’s better at “doing things”. The dominant hand is the power hand, the finisher hand, it’s really good at hitting harder than the non-dominant hand which is why you want it handling your sword.

A left handed person can have an advantage over someone who is right handed because the left hand being dominant is less common than the right hand, and therefore someone who is right handed encounters left handed fighters less often. However, a left hand dominant fighter is nowhere near rare enough to hang your character’s hat on that as a decided advantage over the other warriors they encounter.

Writing combat with weapons requires an entire re-framing of what popular culture has taught you about combat, including concepts like “strength”. Power is not created by physical strength, but by momentum. Momentum is generated through proper technique. Proper technique is developed through training. Weapons are, by and large, not heavy because physically heavy weapons are difficult to wield for prolonged periods and you might have to fight for prolonged periods. A weapon you can’t wield is useless to you, and one which wears you out quickly is actively dangerous to you.  You don’t need a weapon to weigh much in order to generate the momentum necessary to kill another human being.

You’ll notice weapons like the warhammer and the morning star put most of their weight in the head of the weapon. Why? Not because you need to be physically strong to wield them, but to aid the wielder in generating more momentum on that downward swing.

Is a baseball bat heavy? Your answer should be no.

Someone in armor, with a shield and a sword has the opportunity to take more risks than the person without those. This leads to them being more aggressive, rather than less. That defense serves the specific purpose of allowing you to take actions you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Knights in heavy armor were both highly mobile and incredibly versatile, they weren’t slowed down much by that armor.

Weapons aren’t just an aesthetic choice for your character,  they’re designed with a specific purpose in mind. Most of what those weapons were designed for will, on occasion, actively roll against the grain of how they’re presented in popular fiction or used in video games. There’s a lot of missing nuance, strategy, and tactics in the application of a dice roll.


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Q&A: Partial Armor

Is it valid that the armor is not in the most vulnerable part of your body? What can justify it, the movement, temperature? I’ve been watching video game armor and some of them have exposed the lathe and crotch, even in other audiovisual materials like Voltron: Legendary Defender happens. Is it valid or does it only have aesthetic purposes?

No. Though, there is a caveat here. You identified a good point: You need to armor the most vulnerable places, which isn’t necessarily the same as the most vital places.

So, vital places are things like your head, your chest, your groin. Things that, if you take a 48″ piece of steel through them, you’ll die. Vulnerable places are likely to be injured.

So, armor that prioritizes protecting the outer thighs, shins, and feet, without much regard for the groin or inner leg, makes sense if your’re mounted. Your horse will protect your inner leg and groin. So, while those are vital, they’re less vulnerable. As a result, some cavalry armor does leave the groin (basically) unprotected.

An extreme example of this is boxing. A boxer will wear gloves, and sometimes a head guard, because those are the most vulnerable things that need to be protected. They don’t wear chest armor, because, while your chest is vital, it is protected from blunt strikes by your musculature and your opponent’s gloves. Your hands, however, are quite fragile, and as a result are more vulnerable (mostly from self-injury.)

This is also why you’ll sometimes see armor that prioritizes the outer arm. It’s protecting against an inward striking slash from an opponent. You’d still want to protect the chest from a direct piercing strike, as it’s both vital and vulnerable.

Another example would be additional armor on the left arm. Again, this is prioritizing additional protection where you’re vulnerable to attack from a right handed opponent.

Temperature and cost are both reasons why you might not have the best possible armor. Heavy armor will (generally) trap heat more efficiently, exhausting the user. Obviously, being really tired is preferable to being really dead, so when the option was there, soldiers still went with the best they could get. Though it is a reason, particularly in modern contexts, why a soldier might forgo armor that they felt was unnecessary. Particularly if they were serving in an auxiliary role.

Cost is a classic tension on armor. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with a militia, or an organized military with standardized equipment. No one has the money to outfit everyone with the best possible gear. This means that the armor someone would have access to would be limited by what they (or their armorer) could afford to equip them with. So, while a cavalry rider might benefit from full plate, they may be forced to make due with a gambeson, because the shock cavalry and heavy infantry are above them in the queue and claimed all the available plate.

So, yes, there are reasons why a character might not have the best possible armor. Characters frequently need to make do with the best they can get their hands on. That includes armor.


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Follow Up: A Lit Review of Humor


so I’ve been studying humor theory in literature and psychology, and it usually boils down to one of three things:

1. condescending/superiority theory (Bergman, Plato, Aristotle)

2. diffusion of tense energy or relief theory (this comes closer to what the author was saying but not quite, and is of course Freud)

3. comparison between two unlike things, incongruity theory (this is the most fruitful theory imo, Kierkegaard, Kant, others) the upshot is, humor has been theorized by a LOT of…

This is a good, quick, lit review. I’m more inclined to evaluate humor in the context of B. F. Skinner, rather than Freud. That is to say, humor as a learned and conditioned behavior. Which crosses all three strands depending on the initial stimuli.

Also, because I’m more interested in the reasons, than the outcome, I’m left with some amalgamation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power, and Skinner. I doubt that was going to end up in your review.

To abuse the Mark Twain quote, at the moment, I don’t care about dissecting the frog, I’m more interested in where the damn thing came from.

In the future, I would encourage you to reblog, rather than simply commenting, because it makes responses like this easier, and because it protects your post from being eaten, the way it seems to have been. There’s clearly more worth reading here, but it ends on a ellipsis.


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Q&A: The Price of Humor

What do you mean when you mentioned in an article, “Snarky Characters usually have a low sense of self”? Thanks in advance!

This requires you to answer a question very honestly: why do you crack a joke?

Humor comes from some deeply messed up places. At least, learning to be funny does. Well adjusted, emotionally healthy people do not normally develop the sense.

Normal people can spot things that are funny, but, for the most part they won’t. If you’re basically happy, you’re not going to be driven to pick at the edges of your world. The impulse isn’t there. As a result, you’re not really going to develop the skill. Same thing applies for writing and most creative exercises. If you’re satisfied, you’re not going to go take the time and energy to develop those skills. After all, if you’re happy in the world you see, you’re not going to  be driven to build a new one.

Now, it’s important to understand, just because someone’s funny doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or mentally unstable. Someone who was bullied in school may have developed a class clown routine to mollify their tormentors. Someone who was neglected or abused may have an upbeat sense of humor as a desire to draw attention to themselves, or a subversive, observational wit. Someone who’s suffered serious loss, may use humor to deflect from emotional wounds, or to keep the people around them at arm’s length, to avoid future pain. Over time, these kinds of behaviors become part of your personality. It’s not an act, it really is a part of who you are.

I’m not excluding myself from this. My sense of humor comes from some deeply messed up experiences that have left some pronounced emotional scarring. I would be neither the writer, nor the inveterate smart ass I am without that background.

It’s a little reductive to simply say that someone who’s snarking off must have low self esteem; they probably do. If you’ve got someone who’s constantly cracking jokes, particularly under pressure, they’re used to using humor as an emotional defense, and by extension, that’s covering some psychological scars. Just because you want someone to think you don’t care doesn’t mean you don’t care, and because these kinds of behaviors become baked into your identity, they can also outlast the factors which created them.

So, you can potentially see someone who has a razor wit and is mostly well adjusted now.

While it’s popular to look at the snarky badass as someone who is so confident in themselves that they can laugh in the face of death, it’s helpful to remember that most people who crack jokes are doing so to avoid facing the realities of their situation. Someone who’s legitimately unfazed by what’s going on around them won’t need to mouth off to assure anyone of their position. They don’t need bluster or bravado, they don’t need to seem tough. They already are, and they know it. Soon enough, you’ll know it too. If you’re dealing with someone who’s dealt with their issues, it’s entirely legitimate for them to get snarkier the more stress they’re feeling, as the old defense mechanisms start kicking in.

There are ranges where a character can use humor offensively, specifically to antagonize their foes into making mistakes. This is a little different, and it’s not something most characters can really weaponize. Again, this is somewhat dependent on a kind of snap psychological assessment, that’s more likely in someone who has a real talent for humor.

Now, to be fair, I think snarky characters have a lot of merit. This is a very legitimate way to deal with stress, it’s true to a lot of real life experiences, and it can create some wonderfully satisfying dialog. However, as a writer, it’s important to understand that most humor is rooted in pain. Keep in mind that humor is often a reflection of how worn and battered your character is, rather than how untouchable they are, and you’ll get far better results.

Also, try to be honest with yourself about why you crack jokes, and you might start to understand why, when, and how your character would get mouthy. I realize this is asking for open-ended introspection, but trust me, it will make for better writing.


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Q&A: In Fiction, the Groin Strike Proves Freud Right

How can i expose someone’s groin for a strike?

So, the groin strike is one of the most oversold attacks in fiction. You don’t “expose” anything. There’s not some secret or special means of getting there, it’s not particularly well protected (except when your opponent is wearing a cup, in which case… yeah, very well protected); it’s just a matter of being close enough to hit.

The groin strike with the knee features prominently in self-defense because it is:

A) easy.

B) You start within grappling range.

In most self-defense scenarios you will be defending yourself from someone who is already close enough to touch you. Someone who is standing right next to you. When you are facing them, the knee to the groin makes sense. It’s a reflexive and easy strike,  and relatively well hidden when they’re focused on something else. You can even play along, put your arms around their neck (with one hand strategically positioned on the back of their head to take control), and… bam. Knee to the groin.

However, like all pressure point strikes, the knee to the groin is a stunner and not a finisher. Whoever you hit with it will recover rapidly, which is why we combine it with other strikes.

Now, the knee to the face can be performed in the same range, and featured as the finisher in a combination with a groin strike. Again, the groin strike is not a “finish them” technique. It’s a distracting technique which opens up better protected parts of the body. You grab the other person by the back of their head, and drive their face down into your rising knee.

And… that’s about the extent of what we do with the groin.

You can kick someone there. You can punch someone there.

Both cases are more a matter of having poor aim or taking someone by surprise than a test of skill. The strike is an opportunistic one, not a dedicated martial move requiring a lot of setup because the move is risky. It doesn’t require a particular amount of skill either, you mostly just have to hit it hard enough to get lucky in clipping the nerve cluster. The issue with the groin strike is more that it’s considered a “dishonorable” move, which leads people to assume it’s a super effective one. They put it on par with throwing sand in someone’s face, but other dirty moves like throwing sand in someone’s eyes is actually much more effective as a battle tactic. There are better places to hit someone which lead to long term damage.

The short answer on exposing the groin is you don’t. You actually don’t need to because the strikes are not nearly as effective as Hollywood insists. Also, outside backroom bar brawls, most men (and women) actually do wear protection when engaging in actual combat or sparring scenarios. That protection is called the cup otherwise known as the jockstrap.

You don’t need to do anything special other than be close enough to pull off the hit. However, the question becomes why aim there? If you can get a better result from performing a front kick or a push kick into the stomach when you’ve exposed your opponent’s defenses then you’d aim there instead. The stomach has a lot of nerve endings too, you can forcibly disrupt the diaphragm, and hit a fair number of major organs. You get everything you’d get from hitting someone in the groin and more with results that last for a longer period of time.

In a friendly bout scenario, like in sparring sessions, hitting someone in the nether regions is frowned upon (especially if not accidental) and clipping occurs often enough that the intelligent wear protection.

In a self-defense scenario, a groin strike won’t be enough to stop your enemy in their tracks.

In a combat scenario, a groin strike suffers similar problems with the added benefit of likely being protected by actual armor.

Discussing groin strikes in fiction usually revolves around men, usually specifically around heterosexual women hitting heterosexual men in their “weak spot”. (If you never realized that sex is what this specific joke is about in fiction then I’m sorry, and, yes, this is a way to hypersexualize your female fighter. Why do you ask?) However, it is worth noting that groin strikes work on women.

If you write female fighters or just female characters in general, please do not fall for this bit of fiction about groin strikes. In the world of popculture fantasy, they’re just a means of proving Freud right. Everything is about titillation and the genitals.

In the real world, and I say this as someone with extensive experience in martial arts, the groin is not some secret weak point that must be defended at all costs. The groin is either convenient or just meh.


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