Tag Archives: writing advice

How much force do you need for chooping a head off? First time it’s an axe that’s being used, the second is a sword. The first time is with a character who doesn’t have much strenght, and the other with the sword is very strong. Do you need to chop more than one time, to get through the bones?

We can’t really answer the specifics of how much force is required. However, if you look up decapitations as capital punishment in Europe, you will find a host of information regarding how well a headsman could decapitate their victim. There’s a great deal of scientific data from the time on it and that’s worth a look. It’s also worth reminding everyone that the guillotine was invented as a method of execution not because it was more expedient (that was an unfortunate byproduct) but because it was considered to be quicker and more humane.

For reference, the average commoner (and occasionally noble) got the axe. Royalty (and occasionally nobles depending on country) could opt for the more “humane” sword. As a method of execution, swords were sharper and less likely to miss, so the death was quicker and cleaner. The headsman would often miss the first or even second swing with an axe. The axe was commonly blunt or carried a dull blade and would get stuck in the spine. The headsman might have to swing his axe a few times in order to completely remove the head from the body. It was both a terrifying and agonizing way to die.

In combat:

The second part of your question relates to strength. We’ve talked a lot about upper body strength being less important compared to body mechanics. You don’t need to be a weightlifter to be an effective fighter (it is in fact less effective) and that is very true when it comes to weapons like the sword and the axe which rely heavily on momentum and a sharp edge over upper body strength.

Part of the reason this is a difficult question to answer is that there are multiple different kinds of swords and axes and they all go about decapitation in their own way. With an axe, is your character using a one handed axe or a two handed axe? A long hafted axe like the bearded axe that exists in a class similar to the claymore/zweihander (german, means two hands) will have no issues decapitating someone (assuming it’s wielder can wield it correctly) but will do so in an arcing pattern and come in on a diagonal instead of horizontally. A thrusting weapon like the rapier will drive forward on a direct line through the throat (and probably won’t bother with a decapitation because dead is dead). The longsword is better as a cutting weapon and could certainly go cleanly through the neck, provided it didn’t get caught on or deflected by the spine. It’s easier to aim between the vertebra than at them for a clean strike.

Many warriors may not choose to go fully through the neck at all and instead opt for a partial decapitation by going across the front of the neck through the wind pipe, esophagus, and carotid artery that are unprotected by bone.

Instead of focusing on physical strength, focus on how the weapon behaves by looking up the specific one your characters are using. It’s also worth noting that, for medieval warriors, it’s the armor that builds the body type. A heavy, bulky upper body will be common among warriors who wear plate mail because they must be able to fight while wearing it without become exhausted. This required a strong upper body and rigorous development of the shoulder muscles. This will also be true for both male and female warriors.

A warrior in lighter armor will develop a leaner body, but will be as effective at wielding their weapon because, again, greater physical strength is not what makes it effective.

-Michi

In what situations would punching with an open or closed fist be best? Like, if you didn’t want to really hurt someone or the like?

Second question first, no. If you’re fighting someone, “I don’t want to hurt them,” has left the building, wandered into the alley, and gotten beaten to death.

Combat is about inflicting pain and injury on another living being.

The first question is a bit meatier. Position of your hand is dependent on the technique you’re using at this moment, what you’ve been trained in, and where you’re striking.

The choice between fists and palm strikes is almost as much about protecting your hands as what you’re doing to someone else.

Palm strikes are slightly safer when targeting an area of the body where the bones are very close to the surface. Like the face.

Fists are safer when targeting areas where a palm strike is likely to result in injuries to your fingers.

Now, there is a difference to what a palm strike or a punch will do to someone. Open handed strikes, of all kinds, will deliver force over a smaller area. (With a palm strike, you connect with the heel of the palm, not the entire hand.) Fists will actually disperse the force over a larger area. (The entirety of the knuckles.) This doesn’t really change the amount of injury you’re inflicting, just how large an area you’re harming.

This is important when you’re looking at joint breaks, because you’re applying force directly against the joint, and a fist will blunt the strike.

There’s a perception that open handed strikes are less harmful, perpetuated by the presentation of martial arts in films, but the fact is, when properly executed, they’re both going to do a lot of damage.

-Starke

How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

How To Write a Sue-ish Character Without Sueism

If a character has their earlobes pierced, could you rib the earrings out of the ears? And how much force do you think you would have to apply?

This certainly can happen with most piercings. Almost, without exception, meat is going to be softer than metal, and if a combatant can get their hands on an opponent’s piercing, they should be able to tear it out.

How easy it is, will depend the attacker getting a solid grip. Rings large enough to slip a finger through are a massive risk, and very easy to pull out, small studs, with no easy way to grip are less so.

One fantasy outlier would be things like 40k’s service studs. These are piercings that attach directly to the bone, and pulling them out (particularly if they don’t have any easy to grab features) would be incredibly difficult in a fight. Of course, pulling them out would also be significantly more catastrophic. And, since we’re talking about Space Marines, there’s a possibility that the studs are actually softer than their bones, which isn’t usually a consideration.

-Starke

shortlimbs said: Just wanted to add—as a former baby sitter, I know that if an earring is dangly or a hoop, it takes approximately the strength of a toddler to rip it through the lobe.

*winces*

Yeah, an adult combatant can rip a piercing out with a thumb and forefinger, easily, if they can actually get a solid hold on it.

What kind of training does a character have to go through if he has to be able to keep going in a fight but was injured?

None. There’s actually two parts to this; the injuries themselves, and the pain from those injuries.

Nearly any physical activity will eventually introduce you to managing pain. Note: “managing”, not ignoring.

Managing pain isn’t something you can teach, you can’t rationally explain it to someone. You experience pain, and push on.

This is part of the point of all those extreme endurance training exercises, it’s as much about learning to deal with discomfort and finding your actual limits as it is about physical conditioning and fitness. The trick is to inflict as much discomfort as possible (not just pain) without actually harming the participants.

Of course, this also gets warped into outright sadism by writers that don’t understand the point. So, if you’ve got a story where they’re torturing characters as “training”, that’s probably what you’re looking at.

It doesn’t make you ignore pain, but it does give you a better grasp of what pain actually means.

You can’t power through injuries. If your character’s actually been seriously hurt, they can’t ignore it. This is the point where something in their body has been damaged, and there is no way you can simply go “I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got, Captain!” and keep fighting.

Minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises hurt, and could cause someone without any experience to think that something’s gone really wrong, but the fact is, it hasn’t. Also, remember, bruises take a few minutes to form, so they won’t really start until after the fight is already over.

Deep tissue cuts, severed tendons, torn muscles, broken bones, concussions, punctured lungs? These are things that your character will need to work around. You can’t use a broken arm to fight. It just doesn’t work anymore. The same goes for everything else on that list.  These don’t automatically mean your character is out of a scene, but they’re not going to be able to continue to fight.

-Starke

Are there any little tells that someone has combat experience? Such as the way they stand or the way they act?

Yes. Unfortunately, nothing universal. Specific schools, styles, and backgrounds will result in tells, but those are going to be unique to that individual.

For example: police will frequently walk with their arms well away from their body, this is to avoid the Sam Browne belt they wore when they were patrol officers, and it gets ingrained in their body language over time.

Here’s the problem, that’s only police, not even all law enforcement officers. Anyone who never wore those belts, for instance Federal agents who came out of a military or academic background won’t have that tell.

There are hundreds of examples like this, and I know for a fact that even if we racked our brains we couldn’t even scratch the surface of all the possible tells.

It’s going to be specific to who your characters are and what they’ve been through.

-Starke

About how long would it take the average person to become highly proficient in boxing? Thanks in advance! Love the blog!

I know some colleges offer boxing classes or have full competitive boxing programs. So, one or two semesters should be enough time to build a student up to competitive levels.

I’ll be honest, with hand to hand styles, “highly proficient” is a lot more subjective than you might think, and it makes this question a lot harder than it would seem.

A boxer is going to have to train constantly if they want to make a professional career out of it, and they will always be at a disadvantage when facing able bodied competitors with more experience.

Note the “able bodied” part. As with all sport fighters, injuries do pile up over time, and with boxing, concussions are a real risk, and can impair a more experienced fighter.

With non-sport combatants, more recent training has the advantage. Actual combat styles, including self defense, military and police forms evolve ridiculously fast. To the point that most of my hand to hand training is completely out of date. It will still work against untrained opponents, but I can’t take that and use it against someone with police training. And, again, makes the question of “highly proficient” really hard to answer.

This isn’t an issue with most sport forms, because the rules create a stable structure to work with, and it isn’t an issue with most highly traditional forms, those are trained a specific way because that’s how it’s done, and anything else is just incorrect.

In those cases, “highly proficient” will be a very rigidly defined point, but how long it takes to get there will depend completely on the style and it’s approach to progression.

-Starke

In my story, a nation is based on a desert made from whittled down iron from a meteor. Thus, they can make iron extremely easily. Because they have almost unlimited iron, they can make full plate for almost their entire military. What do you think would be an appropriate amount of skill and training for a knight wielding full plate, with this much iron at a nation’s disposal?

As we’ve said before, traditional knight training would last about 14 years. This has nothing to do with the availability of the materials and everything to do with the amount of time needed to train your combatants. If they’re just heavy infantry you could probably drop that to a year or two, but, that’s not really an issue, because you’ve got a few world building problems.

First off, meteors don’t contain a lot of iron. Meteoric iron was a real thing, and it did have some characteristics that made it desirable, but, this stuff is rare. For a meteor to deposit enough iron to really alter a nation’s economy like that, you’re looking at an extinction level asteroid strike minimum.

This means the strike either occurred millions of years before, or your city in the sand would have been splattered. If it was millions of years ago, then the asteroid would have been mined out long before the technology for full plate armor existed.

This is the other problem. Even if you have an infinite supply of metal, you still need smiths to produce it, modern drop forged steel is still at least half a millennia away (and would invalidate the advantages of actual meteoric iron), so that means your city will need massive numbers of highly skilled smiths working constantly to produce the armor. You can’t simply mass produce this stuff. In a pre-industrial environment, each weapon and piece of armor has to be handmade. This takes time, and a lot of effort. Removing the material availability doesn’t help you that much. You have iron, but you still need smiths.

This creates a massive knock on effect. You have smiths, so now you need to feed them. You can grow some food in the desert, probably, but you need a massive agricultural base. Egypt works as a possible model, the Nile created an incredibly fertile zone along it’s floodplain, but that’s not really a desert, or at least, it wasn’t. Deserts have a nasty habit of spreading, and chewing up more and more land over time. Most ancient civilizations didn’t actually choose to build in the deserts, it’s just, over time, the deserts decided they wanted to hang out with everyone else.

This is of course assuming the meteor didn’t contaminate the ground water, which is a real possibility. Water is a critical resource in a desert, and one you really do need for everything. You need it for the smithing, for the agriculture, and to keep people alive. The smithing doesn’t require potable water, but the rest does.

No water, no food. No food, no smiths. No smiths, no armor. No armor, no knights. No knights, no way to keep someone else from taking your chunk of space rock at blade point.

Of course another huge issue is that when you mix full plate with mid day desert heat, you end up with an inventive way to broil your own troops. Just, food for thought.

-Starke

In your opinion, would an army (or maybe even a specialized unit within an army) have an advantage with human soldiers who cannot feel pain for the duration of battle?

No. Pain isn’t a weakness, whatever any “pain is weakness leaving the body” mantra would have you believe. Outside of very specific circumstances, not being able to feel pain will actually reduce a combatant’s effectiveness more than the pain itself would.

Combatants need as much information as they can get. Deprive them of necessary information and they will make mistakes and die. Pain is critical information. It’s their body telling them, “hey, this thing just got broken.” If you take that information away from them, they can’t distinguish between a minor injury and an immediately life threatening one.

When adrenaline is pumping, you need to suffer a pretty grievous wound for the pain to actually slow you down. If the injury is serious enough that you need to stop what you’re doing, you’ll feel it, if it’s not, you probably won’t.

Gunshot wounds have a reputation for not triggering this, by the way. The body doesn’t know what to do with it, so there’s no “hey, I just got shot” warning until after the adrenaline wears off. But, this is a special case, where that filtering actually works against you.

While we’re on the subject of firearms; during prolonged combat, some weapons will generate enough heat to sear flesh. If your pain immune soldier grabs the barrel, they’ll cook the meat off their hand. This will result in burns that could outright kill them, or at least cost them the hands. As opposed to some nasty burns from accidentally touching it and pulling away immediately.

Outside of combat, pain is a lot more acute. It’s your body saying, “hey, you broke this thing, I’m trying to fix it, stop messing with it!” Sometimes, when you’re setting a limb, or performing surgery, then you need to deal with or suppress the pain, but, the rest of the time, it’s there for a reason.

In both circumstances, you do have to condition yourself to endure pain. As with so many other things, your own natural instincts will work against you. But you still need your pain response. If it’s as simple as, “hey, you’re cooking your thumb on the frying pan, cut it out,” or realizing that just because tetanus shots will cause your entire arm to hurt for a week doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using it, dealing with and assessing pain is something you need to be able to do in everyday life. Combat is no different.

-Starke

fulminata2 said: Your position works if you plan on reusing your troops. Seems like a unit of expendable berserkers, immune to pain, could turn the tide at a critical moment.

You’re absolutely right. I don’t tend to write with the idea that soldiers are expendable. But, if all you want are shock troops, convincing your soldiers that they’re invulnerable is a classic tactic.

Usually, with questions like this, I make the assumption someone’s asking for their protagonists, and not their villain’s stormtroopers. Partially, because, the smarter your villain is, the better your world and story will be.

What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)

-Starke