Tag Archives: writing advice

How would an unarmed person fight someone who has a sword?

Running away. Getting stabbed and bleeding to death is also a valid option. I’m being a bit of a smart ass here, but this is not a good situation to be in.

In competent hands, a sword can keep your character from getting close enough to actually harm their foe. Even in incompetent hands, it can easily debilitate your character.

For an unarmed character, they need to be able to stay out of the sword’s reach, or get too close to use the sword effectively. Without weapons, even improvised ones, once the character with the sword is ready, this just isn’t possible.

So, your character needs to close the distance before the other character draws their weapon, or run.

All of those martial artists blocking, parrying, and catching swords with their bare hands? Those are exhibition techniques. They look really cool, but trying to use them in a fight will only result in death and dismemberment.

In the past we’ve said there’s no unarmed technique for dealing with a sword, but this is an exception. If your character is wearing plate gauntlets, with articulated, metal grips, (or, better yet, full heavy armor), there is an option to grab an opponent’s blade. So, your character in full plate might be able to deal with someone armed with a sword.

So, yeah, run away or get creative.


For the one armed anon, a good reloading trick would be to use speed loaders. Simply fit the bullets onto the frame, place against the chamber, and it’s quickly reloaded with minimal effort.

The issue with speed loaders is, most modern revolvers reload by rotating the cylinder (the revolving component that holds the rounds) out 90 degrees. This is fine if you have two hands, and are right handed. A speedloader will let you quickly swap in a fresh load of shells.

The problem is, if you shoot left handed, or you don’t have a second hand, revolvers can be a real pain to reload. You need a place to actually brace the revolver safely, while reloading. If the character only lost their right hand, then they can brace the revolver between their torso and arm, and use a speedloader or just load it one round at a time.

But, if they’re left hand is missing, the revolver will open into their torso, if they try the same thing. They could flip the gun over, but that would be awkward as hell, and we’re still at the point of needing the forearm.

I believe you can modify some revolvers to load left handed, but I’ve honestly never really looked into it. I just rotate the revolver 90 degrees to get access to the cylinder with my right hand.

Now, there are revolvers that breach open, but, these fell out of favor for one reason or another. Those could be reloaded in the armpit, using a speedloader or a fresh cylinder. But it’s still a less than ideal situation.

Finally, there are revolvers that can’t use speed loaders at all. I’m thinking of the Peacemaker here, and it’s modern replicas. It’s a weapon that can be fired very easily and comfortably one handed, but reloading it does require two hands, one round at a time. (Actually the Peacemaker is more comfortable when held one handed rather than in a modern Weaver stance.)

Either way, a character can shoot someone else if they only have on hand, and that was the point I was making.


I have a character who lost an arm. How much combat could she realistically engage in? What kind of weapons or fighting style would best suit her?

Handguns. No, really. Losing a limb will make using most weapons, and styles in combat impossible. Your character won’t be as accurate with a single hand, but they could remain functional in combat.

Probably a revolver, specifically. They’re harder to reload, especially with one hand, but I’ve found most revolvers are more comfortable in one hand than semi-automatics.

Reloading is going to involve shoving the revolver into the armpit of the missing arm, popping a magazine out with their remaining hand, fishing a fresh magazine out and loading it. They’d need to chamber it using either the holster (rotating 90 degrees and pressing against the holster will do this with most semi-auto pistols), or by using the armpit trick… which I couldn’t really recommend in the real world.

Reloading a revolver is probably possible, but I’m not sure exactly how that would work.

There are other weapons you can wield with one hand, but in combat, especially in close combat, you really need the other hand, simply for the utility factor.

Knives are out because, once your character’s hand is tied up, their foe still has another hand free to attack with. The same is true with swords. Staves, and polearms can’t be wielded single handed. There are flourishes and exhibition techniques that are one handed, but they’re useless in an actual fight. No hand to hand styles will be able to keep up with someone who has more limbs than you, not really. So we’re left with guns, or a prosthetic replacement limb, if that’s something your setting supports.



lastgreatpoolparty said: Seems like the trick with the revolver is not needing to reload. Don’t miss, I guess.

That’s always been my takeaway. Revolvers can be frighteningly accurate (especially when manually cocked) in comparison to semi-automatics, so while shot placement is more important, it’s also easier.

so… how would you/burn notice recommend interrogating someone, if not with violence? thanks so much!

This is going to be like any other, adversarial, dialog sequence. You have two characters talking to each other, and they both want different things, and they’re going to try to convince the other character to give them what they want.

Anything with good dialog, and people arguing or trying to manipulate one another can be fodder for this kind of scene.

I would avoid good cop/bad cop. Not because it’s unrealistic, or because it doesn’t work, but because it’s so damned cliche at this point. The fact is, in police interviews, they don’t even need to introduce a bad cop. (They also don’t call them “interrogations”; always “interviews.” It’s 1984 style newspeak, but it also avoids conjuring up the images of telephone books and rubber hoses.)

Making friends is one way for your interrogator to get what they want, tricking them is another. Mixing those you can have your interrogator trying to convince the other character that they’re really on their side, either by being sympathetic (what police will usually do), or by convincing them that they’re a covert member of their organization.

Just remember, it’s just your character trying to persuade someone else, that’s all.


On Scars

Scars are the part and parcel to our life experiences. They are the marks left behind that we can point to and say: when that happened, I got this. Every character will have a few scars. However, whether they got those scars on the battlefield or from running into a piano when they were six is anyone’s guess. It’s important to remember that all scars can have meaning and they do not necessarily rate importance based on how traumatic the experience receiving the scar was. Scars are part of your character’s physical history and a memory inhabits each that only they may know.

Scars can be an important physical indicator of a character’s life experiences and whether your character is a casual martial artist or a soldier, it’s likely that they’ll have at least a few. The character who the scar belongs to is the only one that can tell other characters what it means, only they really know the full extent of its history and what it reminds them of. So, when you are writing about scars, it’s important to track what a character will say, what they won’t say, and what the scars they carry can give insight into who they are and where they’ve been.

In fiction, scars are mostly used to indicate that a character has a tragic past. In YA, it’s become common to show that the character is special or different in some way. However, scars can mean a lot of different things and not all of those are stories that indicate a tortured life. Not all scars are obvious and not all scars are ugly, some of them are almost nonexistent and they do fade over time. A character may be proud of their scars. They may pull them out to show when telling a funny story at parties. Depending on the character’s attitude, even the most doom and gloom scar can become one they show off.

It’s important to remember when you’re writing that scars aren’t universal. Each one can depict a different experience and, in that, a different emotion. I have several scars that I will tell stories about and some that I generally keep to myself. I used to have one on my abdomen that I got when pulling a cookie sheet out of the oven at sixteen. It was a long, thin, brownish red stripe that hung out just below my belly button. I still find it embarrassing, and even though it’s been gone for the past four years, I end up checking for it if my pants slip down too far. On my left hand, I have a scar that is a concentric circle on my palm. It’s just below my index and forefinger, and hidden in between the pads. I got it when I was eight and accidentally leaned down on the top of an electric lamp during a family camping trip. Our Head Instructor George used to say that he thought it was cool, but I have to stretch my hand to see it now. Midway up the outside of my right forearm, I’m missing a chunk of flesh. I lost it to a brick during my third degree test when I broke the first with a palm strike, but failed to break the second two. I lost the flesh during an adrenaline rush when we forgot to clear away the broken brick before trying again. The most noticeable of all are the four perfect circles from the external fixator that are located on my left leg, just above my ankle and below my knee. These scars are a milky white and made of smooth, waxy skin that differs from the rest of my pale complexion. I’ll often talk about my broken leg, but I rarely show the scars. One they are difficult to get to and two, the external fixator was a source of fascination among my peers in middle school and I don’t like to be reminded of the way they used to stare.

A character can use their scars to do many things. If they are ashamed of their scars or feel that others find their scars disgusting or off-putting, they may try to hide them. If they are the sort of loner who wants to drive others away, they may show them off and leave them exposed. Scars can be a source of great pain, showing a wound that never properly healed or be the reminder of wound long after it did. Scars can be a source of shame and disgust, but they can also be a source of pride. When other characters look on a character with obvious, visible scars they may shy away or feel afraid. Scars can make someone appear dangerous in ways that tattoos never can.

However, it’s important to remember that what other characters may feel when looking at a character with obviously visible scars is not necessarily a genuine assessment of who that person is. What a character may be trying to achieve by showing off their scars is also not necessarily true to how they got that scar.

It’s okay for your characters to lie about stories they’d rather keep hidden and okay for them to be wrong about each other. No one can ever fully understand the breadth of another’s life experiences.

So, think about your scars. Think about what they mean to you, good or bad. Then take those feelings and try to apply similar ones to your characters. What scars do you have that are funny? What scars do you have that are sad? What scars do you hide? Which ones do you show off? Come up with those and you can add some realistic details into who your character is and their backstory.


We need more Mary Sues. We need more unapologetically powerful female characters, on a wish-fulfilment level of awesome. We need them to be gods and superheroes and billionaire playboy philanthropists and science experiments gone wrong and normal kids bitten by spiders who now save the world. Why should female characters have to be realistic, while male characters have all the fun? Why shouldn’t a female hero appear alongside Iron Man and Thor, in a way where she can truly hold her own?

We Need More Mary Sues (via matchgirl42)


(via writingweasels)

I’ve seen a lot of these posts around lately. There’s one talking about Batman as the ultimate Mary Sue but it’s OK because he’s a dude so he can’t be a Mary Sue. There’s another one talking about how men get all the wish fulfillment stories and women get laughed at or accused of Sueism if they do.

I just want to clear up some things that make me angry about this whole movement.

  1. Despite the name, Sueism is not a gender-specific term. Do not hesitate to call male characters out on their freaking Sueism for the love of R’hllor. Male characters can be and are Sues! If you think that male characters are not being called out as Sues, then go do it. If men think their little fantasies are immune to scorn, then let’s call them out on it. 
  2. “There aren’t enough female heroes!” Damn right there aren’t, especially on the big screen. I would love to see a hero as powerful as Thor smashing her way through her foes. I would also like to see her well-developed, much as I would like to see any protagonist well-developed. Muscley idiots spitting out pithy one-liners are just as dull as perfect women. 
  3. “We need more female gods/superheroes/billionaire playboy philanthropists.” Yes, we do. We need more women who aren’t sexy lamps, who aren’t sexy at all, whose characterization has nothing to do with them being attractive (if they are), who don’t spend ¾ of their plot wrapped up in a romantic subplot, and who aren’t sexualized. Now make me a well-rounded god/superhero/billionaire playboy philanthropist instead of stooping to the patriarchy’s levels to win. 
  4. Wish fulfillment characters are boring as hell. This quote discusses the Marvel superheroes. I’ve seen all the movies and liked most of them, but overall the movies were formulaic and predictable: there’s some jokes, stuff blowing up, and the ~evil villain~ but you know at the end of the day the guy will win and get the girl. B-O-R-I-N-G. I yawned so hard my wretched soul escaped out of my body.
  5. Bad does not wash out bad. Your Mary Sues are not going to wash out decades of Gary Sues. We should have all characters of all genders developed as fully-developed people. 
  6. “But empowerment!” Guess what? You can still have female characters who are powerful and well-rounded. You can have male characters who are powerful and not wish fulfillment. It’s not mutually exclusive!
  7. Mary Sues are literally the worst character

tl;dr I don’t care where your character is on the gender spectrum. Don’t write them as Sues.

(via clevergirlhelps)

I think there is a nasty habit going around in the writing community right now that’s equating Mary Sues with powerful characters. Your female characters don’t need to be Mary Sues in order for them to be powerful. You don’t need to create a Mary Sue in order to challenge gender stereotypes. The truth is: when you create a Sue, you aren’t challenging those stereotypes. Characters who are Sues are usually treated as the exception in the narrative, they leave no room for other characters (regardless of gender) to follow their example. When we write an Action Sues, they often become the only one of their gender to ever do the thing and that only serves to uphold the damaging idea that women don’t or can’t handle violence. It says that women can only be good at combat if they are better than the men, that men are the golden standard and the only ones who have ever fought ever.

It doesn’t normalize the behavior, it makes the character the exception to the rule and that hurts all women out there who can and do fight. It upholds the myth, instead of looking at the reality.

We have all written Mary Sues at some point, they are part of the writer learning experience. However, they are not the end all and be all. Don’t be ashamed of them, but learn how to make them real characters and part of engaging stories.


Recommended… Reading?

If you want to be a writer, you need to read constantly, right? I mean, this is what we’ve all been told, repeatedly. So, when we’re asked to provide a list of reading recommendations for learning to write fight scenes we turn out a list of TV and films. Why?

The unpleasant truth is: ultimately, learning to write is something you need to learn for yourself. You need to go out, and write. Usually, you can learn from reading other writers, but when it comes to fight scenes, this doesn’t quite work.

The reason we recommend so few literary sources, when suggesting you look for good fight scenes isn’t because there aren’t any well written examples, it’s because there’s very few you can actually learn from, at an introductory level.

In writing, you need a concrete vision of what you’re describing. The reader creates this for themselves. But, when you’re standing on the other side, trying to write a fight scene, you can’t rely on the image you’ve put together if you don’t have a solid grasp of how combat works.

This isn’t something you can fake with short sentences or jumbled perceptions. If you don’t know what’s happening in a scene, your readers won’t. The best you can hope to do is trick your reader into thinking they know what they’re reading. (This is also why we tend to load our answers with a lot of background information. It’s an attempt to give you the tools to understand what you’re asking about.)

So, we recommend film and TV.

When we’re recommending films, we tend to be fairly picky, the material itself doesn’t have to be good, though, that is a perk, but the cinematography has to be clear and easy to follow. This is part of why we won’t recommend The Bourne Supremacy or Ultimatum. While the fights are actually quite good, everything is shot in a shakycam style that makes it really difficult to actually follow the fights.

It’s also why we’ll recommend (arguably) bad films, like Mortal Combat (1995). The martial arts are pretty good, and the cinematography is very clear. You’re never at a loss to follow what’s happening on screen.

You’ll always have a concrete grasp of what’s going on, and you can use that to start using that to work on your grasp how combat works.

As a writer, film and TV are your still life. You can study them over and over. You can write out what you see, and then check it against the original. You can subject your friends to it, and ask them to verify what you’ve written. In short, you can tell if you’ve gotten it right.

You will see things in film that you almost never see in print. This can include physical reactions to violence that a writer without a combat background won’t think to include.

This is the world we live in; it’s a massive cascading wave of cause and effect splattering out in all directions. As a writer you need to relate the major effects to your reader, but the minor details are what sell the scene. Use them with moderation and they’ll add authenticity to your work.

You can still pick up some writing advice from watching films, and we do recommend some for that, but when it comes to fight scenes, you’ll probably learn more from film.


Your Characters Don’t Have To Be Good People

No, really, they don’t. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. When you’re writing, especially if you’re writing violence, you can fall into an easy trap: you the writer know that violence is bad, but you also know that your character is good so they cannot perform bad acts and any act they perform is good so long as it was well-intentioned. You can get into the problem of your protagonist taking actions that are as bad as the villains they’re fighting and the only justification is: they’re not a bad person or they didn’t mean it.

Well, I’m sorry. Kant is made of fairy dust and bullshit.

Violence is a nasty business and characters must shoulder the burden of the consequences. Good people do bad things for good reasons and bad people do good things for bad ones, neither is any more or less culpable than the other. They exist in the same space because, you see, it’s the action itself that matters and not the meaning behind it. A reason is not the same thing as an intention.

Intention: “I shot that guy over there but I really didn’t mean it, so I’m not culpable.”

Reason: “I shot that guy over there so that the orphans over here wouldn’t starve, I’m definitely culpable but this is why.”

One character is trying to say that because they feel a certain way that the rules don’t apply to them. The other is making a choice to do something to achieve a goal, what that goal happens to be is up to the character. It could be something noble like saving starving orphans or it could be something cold like killing a man for money. Both acts can actually have good outcomes and they can also have bad ones, but what is important to remember is that the way a character feels about it changes nothing in how others may perceive them. However, their reasons may. This doesn’t require you the author to say that what they did was okay, even if their actions were for a good cause.

I’ve seen too many novels bend over backwards to attempt to morally justify the unjustifiable for one character and then condemn the same actions by another. Characters do bad things sometimes, but even then, they’ll still be worthy of love and respect from the reader.


I was wondering what sort of difficulties someone would face in fighting (hand to hand/wrestling or with, say, a sword) if they lost one of their arms as well as an eye. I have a character who relied on his brute strength but ends up losing an arm and most of the sight in his dominant eye. Would he be able to correct for this eventually? What sort of things could he keep in mind, etc? Thanks!

Well… they’d go into shock and die. So, there is that.

I’ll say this again. Fighting is not about brute strength; It’s about finesse. This is especially true of sword combat. Loosing an arm is just going to seriously mess with that. If he was using an epee or rapier, and was trained as in some variation of Italian school fencing, he might be able to adjust.

If he lost his dominant arm, I’m inclined to say no. You can learn to compensate for the loss of a limb in day to day life (even if you don’t have access to prosthetic replacements). But, you’ll probably be unable to ever get to a point where you’d actually be effective in combat again. (And I say this while fully aware of Götz von Berlichingen.)

The eye isn’t as serious an issue, especially if it still works. His peripheral vision would be impaired. If he’s effectively blind in one eye, you’re not going to want him trying to shoot things, but it’s not a career ending injury.


I’ve recently started re-watching Burn Notice to help with a story idea I have. What other recommendations do you have on how spies fight?

For spies, combat is an absolute last resort. They’ll use it because they have to. When they do get into combat, what they’ll do will be heavily dictated by who they’re masquerading as.

If they need to eliminate someone to avoid blowing their cover, they’re going to need to take them down as hard and fast as possible. Preferably in a way that doesn’t point back at them. Sometimes this means killing their opponent, but as Westen points out throughout the series, leaving a dead body behind can actually draw more attention in the long run.

Like most genres, spy fiction ends up on a spectrum between formalism and realism. The issue is, at the extremes, they’re almost different genres, so I’m basically going to have to write two separate recommendation lists.

The formalistic genre is your superspies. This ranges from espionage themed action to comic book level insanity. Your spies are a different flavor of superhero. As a tonal element, formalistic spies actually work better when placed against supervillains, because you get a nice parity between them.

The realistic genre is the brutally bleak tradecraft. These are settings where spies will die if they get into actual fights with trained opponents, and saving the day often means outmaneuvering your opponents without resorting to overt action. At its extreme, the realistic genre can actually get bleaker than espionage in the real world, and that’s saying quite a bit.

The best material in the genre finds a mix between these two points, and stays there. So, you’re going to get two separate recommendation lists, just remember to take elements from both.

Burn Notice’s is a bit schizophrenic. The narrator isn’t just a completely different character from Michael Westen, he’s actually at a different point on the spectrum. The show itself is fairly formalistic, while the narrator is talking about concerns and behavior from a realistic perspective. It’s part of why the show worked so well, but when you’re drawing from it, remember to keep those elements separate.

If you’re wanting to go more in the superspy direction, James Bond is the gold standard. License to Kill and Casino Royale are probably the most realistic (which isn’t saying much). If this is a good thing or not is a matter of taste.

The Bourne Identity (the first film only) is another solid formalistic example. (The second and third film have better fight choreography, but they suffer from a terminal case of shaky cam; which requires you already have a solid grasp of hand to hand to really follow.) The only part of Legacy I’ve seen was Jeremy Renner’s fantastic hand to hand work. It’s more cop than spy, but if you have the time, it could be worth looking at.

The novel is actually much closer to an American James Bond, with the serial numbers filed off. You can pick up some basic tradecraft from it, particularly Bourne’s thought process about blending into his environment can be very useful, and it’s something the film does skim completely over.

Salt is solidly in the superspy genre, the sleeper agents demonstrate supernatural resilience to damage, and the entire premise is a little crazy. But, if your spies aren’t really human, you could probably get some ideas from this.

Red is basically in the same vein, fun, but equally ludicrous. Again, if your spies have actual superpowers, go ahead and watch it. Karl Urban’s character might be worth looking at even if you are pushing for a more realistic bent.

Chuck wore thin for me. There’s stuff to like, so, it might be worth your time if you want to mess around with superspies interacting with the normal world.

The original Get Smart TV series is freakin’ brilliant. It’s a parody of the superspy genre that was partially helmed by Mel Brooks. Obviously, it’s not even remotely serious, but if you’re wanting to mock that genre it’s a must see.

If you’re wanting to run harder into the realistic genre, then you’re going to be looking at a much bleaker recommendation list. I’d start with The Human Factor by “Ishmael Jones”. This an ex-CIA case officer’s memoires, it’s easily available and deals with the current state of the American Intelligence community.

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson isn’t actually about spies per say, but it is about the political consequences of espionage (and foreign policy in general). This might not be something you want to delve into, but I’ll leave it on the list.

With the non-fiction reading out of the way, John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a classic in the genre with good reason. The novel’s been adapted twice, with Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman playing George Smiley. I haven’t seen either, but the novel is a good primer for writing spies.

The Fourth Protocol follows a retiring spy who’s investigating a Soviet plan to detonate a nuclear weapon on an American air base. Bonus points, in that the Russian agent is played by Pierce Brosnan. If you want to see how a realistic spy fights, then he’s probably the single best example. That said, it’s been about ten years since I saw this, so I could have accidentally slipped on rose colored glasses. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on.

Although somewhat dated, The Sandbaggers was a British TV series in the late 70s. Though the answer it gives on how their spies fight is “as little as possible.” Historically the show is actually based on how the CIA would task agents, rather than MI6.

Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country is a modern update of The Sandbaggers in comic form. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already seen Sandbaggers, but if you don’t have access to the show, then this is much easier, and cheaper to find.

Ronin is a mix of formalism and realism. It’s still an action film, but the tradecraft the ex-spies use is remarkably solid. Given that you’ve started with Burn Notice, you should have a pretty good frame of reference to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Also, I’ll say it again, this is also one of the best films you can watch for car chases, almost every shot in the film was done with stunt drivers on actual streets, and it shows. If you want to get an idea of what a trained operative could actually do with a car, this isn’t completely off base.

Spy Game by the late Tony Scott is a rather hectic mix of realistic elements. I’m more comfortable dropping it here because of how heavily cut together it is, and elements of the film’s plot. This is a very dense primer on tradecraft.

The other mix of realism and formalism is the Mission: Impossible TV series. Not to be confused with the film franchise, the TV series focused on characters actually being spies, infiltrating and manipulating organizations or individuals to achieve their goals. There’s a heavy focus on supplementing their operations with gadgets, but it’s one of the forerunners of the modern genre divide.

AEG’s Spycraft RPG was written so it could be played as either a realistic or cinematic (formalistic) game. It has a lot of resources for both superspies and real operatives. In a rare moment, the character creation system is also useful, as it illustrates the different specialties that are intrinsic to espionage.

Spycraft’s World on Fire supplement is insanely useful, it’s also incredibly hard to find. It was about blending one of the Spycraft settings with the real world, and it has an absolutely staggering amount of information on actual espionage in the 20th century. Unfortunately, a lot of it is mixed in with World on Fire’s six fictional factions. So, it’s useful, but tread carefully.

If you’re wanting to do a spy story set in a science fiction setting, I’d take a look at The First Line from Last Unicorn Game’s now defunct Star Trek RPG. Be ready to parse the Trek out of it, if your setting isn’t similar, but it does offer some fantastic thoughts on espionage and counterintelligence in a spacefaring civilization.

Finally, the line from Burn Notice, that “Spies are just criminals with a government paycheck” is entirely on point. You’re probably tired of me recommending Heat every other post… So I’ll recommend Payback instead. The lead character is a con artist, not a spy, but the general “messing with people” approach is very spy like. (If you’re digging this up, make sure you grab the director’s cut, it’s actually a different, more consistent, film.)