Tag Archives: writing advice

Hi there! Your blog is a plethora of helpful information, so thank you. I have a request–do you have any tips on writing tension? I think tension is 100% crucial to every story, but it’s hard to perfect and easy to under- or overdo. Thank you!

Thanks so much!

My advice for tension is that you always need to have your characters in some kind of real peril. There needs to be a possibility for them that they won’t win or else the tension in the scene and even for the overarching plot of the story will fall flat.

I always tell my characters both hero and antagonist that it’s an open race, whoever works the hardest will win. While I do plan my endings, I tend to get better results out of my villains if I give them the possibility of winning. I also get more worry and fear out of my heroes because they don’t know what’s going to happen next if they haven’t figured it out for themselves. One of the major tension killers in stories that I’ve seen in stories is when a character is cheating through the author or the character isn’t facing resistance from other characters in the story and everything is going their way. A great way to build tension is to tell them ‘no’, slam doors in their face, and don’t have everything negative that happens to them somehow tie back to the villain.

For tension in fights, start building the tension before the actual combat occurs. You can build it in the way you describe the scene, what they notice about their opponent, what they know or don’t know about their opponent going in, letting the reader know that things can go screwy and actually having things go screwy in the scene itself. If they’re doing something stupid or getting into a fight because they’re angry, upset, or acting out, punish them for it. The other characters can get there too late, even if they don’t die, they can be injured. If they’re the best fighter in the group, how will the story change if they’re going into the ending on a broken arm or a broken leg? Who will be there to pick up the slack?

For example:

In The Hunger Games, how would the story have changed if Glimmer had broken Katniss’s bow and her arrows? How would it have changed if she’d broken it in front of Katniss, like when the Careers had Katniss caught up a tree and were planning to kill her? Katniss may have gotten out of the situation, but she would have lost what the novel sets up to be her greatest chance of survival and in a way, it would have been her fault as much as Glimmer’s because she abandoned the bow for safety when the Hunger Games started. Her opponents know that she’s the designated favorite to win because of that bow, again, her chances hinge on it. So, why not destroy it or get rid of it in some way?

One great way to build tension is to show your character’s greatest strength (if they’re super good at anything) and then take that away from them. The skills they’ve built their whole lives and taken pride in are no longer useful, helpful, or they’ve been cut off from the resources that allow them to make use of those skills. Suddenly, the favorite becomes the underdog and even the jaded reader is given a reason to worry. 

The more real you make your story’s world, the better the tension you can create will be.

1) Always have some sort of active villain or antagonist in the story (it doesn’t have to be a person) with supporting circumstances that’s working against your character.

2) Make sure you give your character weaknesses and flaws that are useful to furthering the plot. Force the character to somehow be put into situations where they’re forced to deal with those fears and flaws. This will create great tension. Remember, a character can fail themselves.

Example: In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re introduced early to Indy’s fear of snakes. We know he’s afraid of snakes, so when he’s trying to recover a clue for the Ark and he’s faced with a whole lot of snakes, we the audience worry whether or not he can overcome that and thus we have another source of tension in the story outside of the physical antagonists to worry about.

3) Never be afraid to ratchet up the tension and run your characters ragged if that’s the kind of story you end up telling. Just remember that a story where the tension is constantly high can become boring if the character’s don’t have some kind of stress valve, the valve doesn’t have to be pleasant like most kinds of humor. There’s nothing wrong with ripping your characters apart, so long as the themes, the events, and the plot somehow support that. If it’s not, then a stress valve might be needed. A time for everyone to stop and breathe between the different bouts of action, for the tension to be released, and give the reader a chance to relax.

Think of tension like a roller coaster, you wind up, the brief gasp as you see the plunge before the bottom drops out and then the car races downward. The best rides always leave a few loops where the car has to slow down, the riders pause, laugh, and wind up again on another go before the ride completes.

I hope this has been helpful. I think that’s the best I’ve got at the moment.

-Michi

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9rtmxJrKwc

John Cleese on Creativity (by bedroomstudiotube)

This lecture by John Clesse has some very important implications both for you as a writer but also for your characters, with wider implications for what they can get away with in their behavior in combat situations.(Though he doesn’t discuss that in the video.)

The idea is this: combat happens when your characters in the Closed mode, it’s a high pressure environment where your characters need to make decisions immediately and decisively with no room for error or doubt. Humor in those situations is a luxury. It pushes the character into a more contemplative mode, the Open mode. It gets them thinking when they don’t have the time to be thinking( a distraction) in a fight.

Trash talking, joking, and one liners can happen before and after a fight, but not during. The only sort of trash talk that can occur during is the sort where your character doesn’t have to stop and think about it, but even then, remember that talking is not a free action. It requires breath, takes oxygen that should be going to your character’s muscles, while both loosening and relaxing the jaw which leaves your character more open to a knockout blow or biting their own tongue when they get hit.

Always dedicate points in your story for the times when your characters are capable of cracking jokes to release the tension (before and after) and when they need to buckle down for work (the fight itself).

So, watch the video, it’s useful and informative plus it’s John Cleese. It’s hilarious.

Empowered: Self-Confidence, Bullies, and the Martial Artist

In the real world, martial training (almost always) builds self confidence. This is one of those easy to overlook character building elements. What it means is, martial artists don’t, normally, have crippling self-esteem issues, they are less likely to be bullies, and less likely to be bullied. (Michi Note: this counts on a physical level only, martial artists and other trained combatants are just as open to being verbally mocked and emotionally abused. It’s just less likely that it will escalate to physical violence beyond some basic intimidation.)

This is a general rule based off experience with many different martial artists from a variety of backgrounds over the years, but there are exceptions. Keep in mind that martial artists are people, just like everyone else, with their own unique outliers and edge cases. So, first, remember that this article is about “most” martial artists, and if your character is supposed to be some fringe case then that’s fine. You just need to make sure you point out that they are a fringe case, or else your audience might assume the behavior is normal within the context of the story.

Second, martial arts training won’t cure mental illness. It can provide good coping mechanisms, but if a character has self-esteem issues from a personality disorder, then, again, that’s fine. (However, the normal caveat about mental illnesses applies: if you don’t want to be offensive, don’t write about one you don’t have a lot of experience with. It’s best to spend time with people who have the disorder that you know well, if you were not born with the disability yourself, and a clinical understanding of how it functions is also a good idea.)

Ultimately, if you are wanting to write a character with serious self-esteem issues, you can’t simultaneously say they’re a great fighter. It just doesn’t mesh with reality; like a professional chef who has no sense of taste or smell. It’s a possible character, but it’s weird, and contradictory. We’ve talked a lot about how the mind influences a fight, what we believe about ourselves and our own skills will influence the outcome. Negative beliefs like “I won’t get away, I’m too small and fragile, I suck, I’m terrible, I’ll get in trouble if I hurt someone, it’s better if I don’t do anything at all,” etc, have the serious potential to lead to a losing bout or the death of that character. The body is the weapon, but mind is what wields the body. Talent only gets you so far, undeveloped natural talent is just that: undeveloped. Natural talent is nothing compared to training and experience, and prodigies are nothing without the will and desire to make something of themselves. Those whose lives have always been easy have a very difficult time when the going gets tough (and it will always, eventually become tough). They are unused to facing resistance and are more likely to give up because of it.

So, a character with serious self-esteem issues will have to get (or has already gotten) over them in training, at least in the context of their training and their skills, or they won’t last long. Now, a lack of confidence in the beginning along with minimal skill can be a driving force for a character to desire to become better. But that changes the character from a negative outlook to a positive one: “I can do this, I want to become better, I will work harder,” etc, thus hurting the story’s concept of a character with shattered self-confidence, because a character with no self-confidence at all won’t really be able to believe in themselves.

I’d be lying if I said, I knew exactly why martial training builds confidence. I suspect; it’s a culmination of the ability to defend against potential attackers, the normal result of learning a new skill, and possibly some of the thought processes martial arts training attempts to instill. (Michi Note: There are some principles of the Fight Club mentality at play, this coupled with discipline and a general focus on respect and humility, help to keep the jock mentality at bay. Overcoming your own fears has a powerful effect on the way you see yourself, especially if it revolves around overcoming and working through significant amounts of pain and exhaustion.)

Additionally, martial art schools present a lot of opportunity for someone to keep challenging themselves, and pushing further. This means that any impulse to be “top dog”, will be captured and channeled within their school, rather than against random people on the street or in their (normal) school. They are focused and goal oriented in their desire for self-betterment and in a good school surrounded by those who will help them (and those they can also help) to achieve their goals. Martial arts, for the most part, is a focus on self-betterment and self-empowerment. (Michi Note: Professional fighters have a habit of landing in the jock mentality, but that might be because of a tangible “top dog” position coupled with money and fame.)

Martial artists make poor targets for bullying. This comes down to how bullies usually pick their targets, they’re looking for weaker prey. Bullying (almost always) originates from internal self-confidence issues. Training won’t always cure a bully of their behavior, but it reduces the appeal. Martial artists are unlikely to become bullies after their training. In fact, the confidence most martial artists present usually removes them from the bully target category. This doesn’t mean they’re immune, a bully can misread the martial artist, and I’m not accounting for stupid bullies here. (Ones that think they’re actually better fighters than the martial artist, and deliberately seek them out, in an effort to assert their dominance. (Though, I’d strongly caution you against using deliberately “stupid” characters in your writing. It’s very easy to end up with a character that adds nothing to the story.)) If the bully does misjudge the martial artist, their ability to defend themselves is usually enough to send the bully looking for a new victim.

It’s important to remember that most bullies aren’t looking to be seriously challenged and there is a huge difference between a character getting up in the bully’s face and giving them the casual brush off. If there are a number of individuals present to back up the leader bully, then the leader bully might be forced into a situation where they have to retaliate.

(Michi Note: when I was eleven, there was a girl in my class who was upset when I challenged “what she wanted” during an in class Greek Gods roleplay. Afterwards, she tried to physically intimidate me (with her much greater height and stockier body by crowding my personal space) into capitulating and never challenging her opinion in class again. Her attitude and body language suggested that she was used to being able to cow the other girls and even boys because she was so much taller and so much stockier than the rest of us. I was confused, because it was just a class exercise and I was playing my role. So, I told her “no” and wandered off. I found “bitch” scratched into my desk the next day, but it never went any further than that and she actively avoided me from then on. The fact she was trying to intimidate me didn’t even occur to me until years later, I just thought it was strange at the time…by that point I was pretty oblivious to bullies anyway.)

Sanctioned Violence versus Unsanctioned Violence:

It’s important to remember that the above only really applies if you’re character is a martial artist. A martial artist’s violence isn’t sanctioned. If they fight in the real world they face much the same, if not greater, legal threat as the person who is attacking them. They aren’t protected by law or by the government the same way someone employed by the government or a private firm working with the government is.

Characters in professions where the violence is sanctioned face different temptations. When a cop kills someone, they’re up before the review board and often, the crime is swept under the rug. If a soldier kills someone (unless they kill another soldier) then for the most part, they were just doing their job. There is a serious temptation to become a bully or have a bully appear in places where the power dynamics are different, especially in jobs where the perpetrator doesn’t have to fear any sort of reprisal.

It’s also important to think about for authors, not just from an in-world context but also outside of it. We’ll do an article on the dangers of action protagonists and ending up with a bully, because it’s a common occurrence in fiction to have heroes who are nothing more than author sanctioned bullies. It’s very easy, especially in a world where all violence is controlled by the author, to end up with a character that never faces consequences for their actions even when they are performing bully behavior, whether that be emotional or physical.

In Summary:

So, keep in mind that martial artists don’t normally end up as football style “Karate Kid” jocks and your character can’t really win a hand to hand fight without some level of self-confidence. This doesn’t mean they’re overconfident, they can be confused and worried by experiences that are new and different to them. But their lack of self-confidence in those areas can’t be crippling and can’t really extend into all aspects of how they view themselves and their lives.

-Starke

(Michi Note: we’re still moving, we were working on this one slowly all weekend. We’ll try to get other stuff up, but we’re heading into a major push this week and weekend to try to get everything out and moved. We probably won’t have internet the week after that. We’re trying but life stuff comes first.)

silver-tongue-bastard:

jayarrarr:

John Hodgman’s Advice to Writers

John Hodgman is an author and former literary agent. You may recognize him for his stint on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

One of the most important lessons you will ever hear about writing; get life experience.

This is so important to writing about fight scenes. Write what you know, but knowing what you know…that’s the hard part. Remember, all the advice in the world won’t make up for practical experience.

For example: my ardent desire to become a power ranger at five years old has served me remarkably well. Yup, it wasn’t the bullying. It was the part where power rangers were awesome. Anyway, just a thought.

-Michi

Fight Write: Some Thoughts on Height and Weight

“She’s taller than me, heavier too. She’s got the height and weight advantage.”

This sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds right and reasonable, like the character knows what they’re talking about. Except, they don’t. Assume for a second that the character who says this is maybe five foot six and the girl who says this is maybe five foot two, and that seems like a big difference. It certainly is visually, but the two have a difference of maybe twenty to forty pounds between them. That’s not actually a lot, even if one was to knock the other over. So, when does weight matter? When is height important? The answer is not often and not a lot, depending on training. An untrained fighter is mostly at the mercy of their opponent’s brute strength, so height and weight start to become very important. But what about for the trained fighter? The approach varies, depending on the style and the size of fighter.

With the exception of a few, pertinent points, height and weight actually matter a lot less than you might think they do. So, let’s talk about the advantages and the disadvantages of these two. Maybe, we’ll even debunk a few preconceptions along the way.

Small versus Tall:

It’s important to say when I talk about height and “short” on this blog, that we say short as the descriptor for anyone under 5”10 or around 6”. This may sound strange for some of you, because that relegates most women to the position of “short” even when they’ve been considered “tall” their whole lives. I could say this has to do with a median of male heights and most fighters in America being around six feet, but the truth is it has nothing to do with a person’s actual height at all. The difference is a mental one and small versus tall is reoriented into “advantaged” versus “disadvantaged” fighters. This is where the male versus female outlooks become relevant. Male versus female is not so much a difference in body type as much as a difference in how they see the world around them and shift their combat style accordingly. Tall, male versus short, female is usually how many martial artists break it down. However, because these are learned skills that doesn’t mean that the outlook cannot be adopted by a student of either gender, regardless of how physically tall or short they are.

This is where things get complicated. Most of the common wisdom about fighting that gets spread in society has zero basis in reality, the mind, how it sees the world, and what it’s been prepared for is actually much more important than a character’s physiology or their body type.

Remember, like any weapon, it’s the mind that wields the body, not the other way around. How someone sees themselves is more relevant to how they fight than what shape their body is.

There are only two questions you should really ask when your character is facing a taller or shorter opponent (someone who is taller or shorter than they are): what has my character been trained to do? Have they been trained to deal with opponents who are taller or shorter than themselves?

Most fighters who have trained to think of themselves as “tall” will discount a shorter opponent if they have no experience fighting them. A character with a “short” outlook will tend not to discount anyone on the basis that they’re used to being the smallest, weakest thing in the room and they have to fight harder to prove themselves.

On the physical side:

A character who is lower to the ground will have a lower center of gravity, this means that they won’t have to bend their legs as far to reach a stable stance to keep themselves from being knocked over. This also means that when dealing with a heavier opponent (while standing), they have more time to adjust for the weight before they drop so low that their knees can’t support them anymore. They will also have a better sense of balance, if they’ve been trained for that.

On the whole when we’re talking about women (in the physical sense only), the female body is more compact than the male one. Everything is just a little tighter and more evenly proportioned. This doesn’t mean women can’t be lanky, but they are usually less so than men. This affects their sense of balance and their ability to adjust under the weight of a heavier opponent, it’s true that a woman usually will be unable to develop the brawn of a man but they counter that by having better coordination and control overall.

Weight:

There’s some confusion about weight and fighting, for this I blame Hollywood and our “health” culture. It’s important to keep in mind that being on the heavier side, particularly for women, isn’t necessarily a sign of being unhealthy. On average, most fighters are ten to twenty pounds heavier than someone who works out primarily as a weight loss system. It’s rare to find a female fighter who is under 125 pounds. Even the thinnest female fighters have a habit of averaging out to about 130 to 145, even up to 150-160, without any significant difference in what they look like visually, this is because muscles are heavy. In fact, they are much heavier than fat, though they take up less space.

Then, some people are just built more heavily than others and no matter what they do, will just be heavy. If combat was something only skinny people could do, the world would probably have been at peace a long time ago and the Viking tribes of Northern Europe wouldn’t have conquered half the globe. Sometimes, weight just happens as we get older. So, it’s important to remember that muscle can be built up underneath fat, it can exist under fat, and if the person in question (male or female) is heavier than others in the class this isn’t an immediate detriment to their speed, flexibility, or power. It can be if they don’t have the muscles to support their body or if they’ve just started building those muscles.

I doubt anyone in their right mind would tell me that Sammo Hung, an old friend of Jackie Chan cannot fight.

Heavy Fighters: It’s important to remember that though heavier or even overweight fighters are not necessarily impeded by their weight, that there are some things they have to adjust for. But they have their own advantages too.

Balance: a heavier fighter is carrying around more mass than a light weight one, that’s not necessarily more power that they can generate, but they can build up more momentum once they get going. Again, strength in combat is related to speed more than physical strength. A heavier fighter can be like a freight train and you don’t want to be in their way once they start moving. Still, as in physics: the faster you go, the harder it is to stop. If a heavier fighter misses, it’s going to be slightly more difficult for them to readjust and reorient, so they have to moderate their speed. A heavier fighter’s kicks will still be very effective, but they may find their mass getting in the way if they try to kick above the waist. More weight also means more strain on the knees, so a heavy fighter will have to spend a lot of time learning to adjust their stances and footwork to compensate for their bulk. But the differences between “thin” versus “fat” fighting styles are so minimal that I usually forget to mention them. This isn’t to be exclusionary, it’s more that on a basic level it doesn’t matter and when it does, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Natural Armor: Fat provides the body with natural armor. It covers the muscles and provides some small measure of padding for the fall. Armies don’t want their soldiers weighing in at 300 pounds, but martial artists aren’t normally army. Fat also has a nice side effect of covering up the body’s pressure points and keeping them from being visible. On a physical level women have a natural coat of fat that covers the muscles and keeps the definition from showing (except in certain circumstances of muscle development), this is why it’s difficult for women to learn pressure points when they practice with each other. An overly muscled individual provides nice targets on their arms, chest, and legs.

When fat absorbs some the impact, it can be more difficult to damage a heavy opponent.

On the Ground: On soft areas like in muddy rivers or on the ground weight is king, especially if the fighter is used to adjusting for their weight. When lying flat on the ground or even just kneeling, the natural advantages of a shorter fighter are nullified. This is because it’s harder to adjust for the weight of a heavier person without the use of your legs, relying only on your arms, hips, and your ability to disrupt their position. Fighting is hard for women on the ground, because against men, they are usually dealing with an opponent who has at least forty pounds on them, while this difference is negligible while standing, the ground is an entirely different story. Greater weight + gravity = killer.

When Does Weight Matter? From the standing position it only starts to really matter when you’re facing an opponent that has between eighty to hundred pounds on your character. This isn’t a killing blow, it’s just important to note, especially if they get themselves into a situation where they are putting all their weight on top of the smaller person. You can adjust to handle the weight, of course, but there’s always the possibility that they will sink down far enough that your character’s knees will bend too far. The added momentum only helps them if your character is unable to block or they connect solidly, but it’s not going to be that much worse than if they were hit by someone of equal size and weight.

It’s also important to remember that even a tall, heavy character with a good stance can be difficult to bring down if your characters try to fight them like they would anyone else. The answer? Don’t fight them like you would anyone else. Start low and work your way up.

The exception to this rule, of course, is street fighting. Street fighters don’t really know what they are doing and so the weight and size of another fighter really start to matter there. All this advice is for a character who already knows how to fight.

Greater Reach:

I’ll be honest, greater reach only really matters in two places: when you’re on the defensive and when you’re working with a longarm such as a staff or a sword. The theory for greater reach is this: it will be harder for your opponent to hit you, while it’s easier for you to hit them because you don’t have as far to go.

This isn’t going to matter when there’s only a difference of a few inches. This isn’t even really going to matter if the smaller individual has been trained to fight against larger opponents. And it’s really, really, not going to matter if it’s just hand to hand with no kicks involved. The reason is that legs are longer than the arms and kicking involves leaning backwards instead of forwards with the punch.

The only time in my life I ever remember being really frustrated with a height difference was when I was five or six years old as a yellow belt out on my first sparring experience against our much taller second-degree black belt African-American Instructor, Alan. Alan was in his early twenties, well over six feet, and had very, very long legs. I was four foot nothing and my tiny legs could not reach him, while his were excellent at hitting me. It was very frustrating, especially since I had no clue what I was doing. (He did let me hit him a few times, but my little legs could only reach mid-way up his thigh.)

Speed is actually much more important than reach, being able to get in and out fast while taking minimal damage is when things start getting impressive. Outside of that, it’s not really a big deal.

Professional Fighting:

This is where you really hear the terms height and weight bandied about and they say it exactly like that, on repeat, over and over. Why? It sounds good. An announcer’s job is to drum up the excitement of the crowd, to get people yelling, to get them betting. The height and weight advantage can create a very clear picture in the eyes of the audience for who has the longest odds (if that’s the case). The goal is to convince the audience and the compulsive gamblers to bet on the loser, creating the ideal of the tough, scrappy underdog that people want to succeed. Not because they will, no, in the eyes of the tournament, they don’t have a chance. But they will have succeeded in taking the audience’s money by convincing them that the longshot might very well just be a sure thing. Or, alternately, it makes for a good show. Remember, professional fighting is as much about showmanship as it is about sportsmanship.

MMA fighters, boxers, and kickboxers are all broken up into separate class distribution based on weight. With these guys, we’re talking a difference of five to forty pounds (maybe, but usually not). That’s not actually a very big difference.

-Michi

Fight Write: “Learn To Fight Like A Woman”

When most martial artists utter this phrase, they don’t mean it as an insult. That may surprise some of you, but in most of the martial arts community (at least, the part of it I grew up in) women are actually well-respected. A smart male martial artist knows that women martial artists bring a different perspective to the table and that it’s one that cannot be discounted. Some of this is what I came up with while working on a post talking about height and weight, but since I might not be able to get that up today, I thought I’d leave you with this.

I’m going to break this down into two aspects: mental and physical. The mental aspects work across the board, some may see the physical part as exclusionary. But when talking about martial arts, we have to discuss both the body and the mind in equal measure. The body cannot function without the mind and the mind cannot fight without the body, both are important. This is going to be general information, this is because fighting is subjective based on the individual practitioner. Everyone fights differently and how they fight has more to do with who their instructor was, what they were trained to do, and how they see the world around them than it does with gender or body type. Your character will learn to make use of what they have, because they won’t really have the option of anything else.

Mental:

It’s important to note that many smaller male martial artists I’ve known have talked about the advantages of having a female instructor. This is because women, on the whole, learn to fight from a disadvantaged position. The vast majority of women will almost always be faced with a larger, usually male, attacker and they have trained themselves to fight with that knowledge. So, they’ve learned to make use of what they have. This begins with the way they see the world.

It’s important to remember that when I say “larger attacker” we’re usually talking about a difference between eighty to a hundred pounds and a height difference of several inches. From a mental standpoint, facing someone larger and taller than yourself can be intimidating. It’s easy to become afraid and petrified by that fear. “He’s bigger than me, he’s larger than me, he’s going to hurt me, and there’s nothing I can do because he’s stronger”. In America we’ve been conditioned to believe that bigger is better, more over less, and the largest opponent always wins.

Women have to actively work at getting over all the social programming that tells them how they should behave and how they should see themselves in relation to the men around them. Female characters who start training between the ages of four and seven will be less prone to this, but the intimidation level is still a hurdle they have to master. It requires an active approach to problem solving, learning how to get in first and fast, and overcome the fear of facing a larger opponent or a male opponent even when the physical differences have little bearing on reality.

The way we see the world is the way we approach it and in a world that seeks to actively strip women of both their power and their confidence, developing a solid base to work from is much harder than it sounds. But for a female fighter to be successful, she must first prove to herself that she can do it and then, she has to fight hard in her training to make it a reality.

It’s important to remember, then, for your own characters that a female fighter or “action hero” is never a passive player. If they trained from a young age, then they’ve already fought against all the reasons why they shouldn’t be doing this and if they still are, then they won. Even if they are insecure about some aspects of social life, they will have a strong basis in who they are and the skills that got them here.

After all, to fight like a woman is to fight like an underdog and all those battles are hard fought and hard won. There’s nothing like adversity to build character.

Physical:

There are a lot of different body types out there in the world and there’s no way we can cover all of them. Women lack a man’s capacity for brawn in the upper arms and shoulders, but they come with a different set of advantages. We already talked about hips and power in the “Women Are Not Weaker Than Men” post, so I’m going to skip over that.

On the whole women have a lower center of gravity, better coordination, more natural flexibility, and better balance than men because their bodies are more compact. Women tend to have shorter torsos, shorter legs and shorter arms than men. This doesn’t mean they are more in tune with their bodies, that comes from training. But it does mean they can combine their lower center of gravity with their better sense of balance and coordination to be more precise in their attacks. While they lack the ability to brute force their way through situations, this actually makes them better and more adaptable fighters. When male martial artists say: “fight like a woman”, they mean: don’t rely on your brawn, learn to understand your body, and learn to let gravity do the work for you.

Women have more to lose from having sloppy technique, so they tend to spend more time investing in the study of body mechanics and gravity, over just developing their muscle strength. Speed is important yes, but it’s the precision that’s the killer. Knowing where you want to go and where to put your body to make it happen, where the human body is vulnerable and the places people don’t think it’s vulnerable (but really is) are all important.

Women tend to be quicker about dispatching their opponents and they spend less time playing around. They’re also, on the whole, more serious and more devoted to their studies. Any good female fighter knows that she won’t get far by coasting on natural talent and that she has more to lose in a real life situation if she does.

Just some things to think about.

-Michi

Tip: Don’t Make Threats, Make Promises.

We’re going to do a few articles on villain/antagonist construction and on threats in general, but I figured I’d leave you all with this piece of advice today. Our coffee maker also broke.Threats are incredibly easy to botch in fiction, because frankly they’re also difficult to succeed at in real life. Your character needs to not only be convincing to the other characters in the story, but also to the reader.

Anyway, some of the best advice I ever got on making threats was from the movie Spy Game when Robert Redford’s character tells Brad Pitt after he succeeds during a training exercise “If she was your asset, then every lie you just told her would now have to be true.”

You, author, must be willing to follow through on every single threat your characters make. So, make sure you’re not only comfortable and capable of writing that in your story, but also able to enjoy it. It’s part and parcel to understanding what makes violence and the threat of violence so very terrifying. It’s not enough to just make a threat, the horror is in the follow through. You’ll always have to make good on at least one over the course of the story.

Remember, you are not just your hero, you also have to be your villain. You are them in body and mind, so commit to it. Don’t make threats. Make promises.

-Michi

Weapon Primer: Archery

With 2012 being jokingly called “Year of the Bow,” it was inevitable that we’d end up doing a primer on it.

The Weapon

The bow is an ancient weapon, it is in fact one of the oldest weapons in the history of mankind. Almost every civilization that has ever existed and perhaps ever will exist has invented the bow in one form or another. It is important then, to note where you choose to draw your inspiration from because there are many varieties of this weapon. Combat with a bow is not unique to any one civilization or society, just as combat tactics have mirrored each other in similarity between different civilizations throughout the centuries. It is also important to remember that unlike other weapons of war, the bow was not invented for the sole purpose of murdering the wielder’s own species. This is a utility weapon, one that is meant to fulfill basic needs such as providing food for survival.

Because of its history, this weapon should be 100% recognizable to any and all serious characters as a dangerous threat. They will know what it is and what it can be used for. This is a weapon that will be noted and noticed by any city guard or local authority, so you’re character better have a damn good excuse for carrying it around (even if it’s not true). In a society that restricts access to weapons, such as futuristic fascist cultures, the bow will not be allowed. The reason for this is that even though the weapon itself may be outdated, it is still a dangerous weapon and any intelligent culture you create will know that and act accordingly.

The bow is still used in modern combat, though it has lost its edge. That said, historically, the bow is not used as a primary weapon for single combat. It has a select set of uses but ones that have it fall short of other weapons like the spear and the sword. The bow takes a great deal of time to master, it lacks flexibility of movement, and a single archer must always be accurate and thus their sighting will be slower. No matter how good your character is, they will always end up in melee, the bow is designed for hunting not killing and there is a vast difference in both technique and tactics between these two approaches.

Historical Bows:

There are many different bows throughout history, many different versions of the longbow and the recurve, many reinventions of the same weapon over and over through time. Some versions are designed for combat on horseback and some are not. So, be specific to which one it is, research how it is cared for, any reader who is familiar with the care and maintenance of this weapon will know if you ignore it. A bow is high maintenance and finicky, you can skip over a lot with some weapons but you can’t with a bow.

An older, wooden bow requires more strength to draw than a modern one. More importantly, the care for the weapon will impact how easily it can be used. Historical bows require a lot of maintenance, even more than their modern counterparts: the wood needs to be oiled frequently, the bow needs to be kept completely dry, transport over long distances requires unstringing and wrapping the bow, finally fletching a half decent arrow involves a lot of skill, even with modern tools and resources. Any responsible archer must be able to fletch their own arrows or risk being unable to use their weapon. This requires a whole skill set, one common in history but harder to come by in more modern times. This is especially important if the character is alone and without resources such as an army or placement in a lord’s household.

The projectiles are just as important as the care and maintenance of the weapon. This is less true in a society or culture where arrows are more readily available for purchase and the bow is a common weapon, but in a world where it is rarer, then the character will have to fend for themselves.

Arrows are weight your character must carry, if they fire the arrow they must retrieve it or lose it. Arrows do not self-replicate through magic. They are a limited resource and that resource must be considered. So, always ask: how much does the character’s gear weigh? How many arrows can they carry in the quiver reasonably without a huge loss of stamina? How do they protect the arrows from the weather? Arrows are made of wood. If wood gets wet it warps. The sinew that holds the arrows will also warp. The metal heads of the arrows will rust. The quiver needs as much careful protection as the bow itself to maintain functionality and combat readiness.

Also: don’t set arrows on fire. It’ll put itself out the minute you fire it. Self-immolation is not a thing your characters signed up for. Though if you want them to for the sake of the story, go right ahead.

(Michi Note: So, when working with or reading about an archer, always stop and ask yourselves a simple question: where do they get their arrows from? If the storyteller cannot answer that or has not put the answer into the text, then they’ve made a critical error. More than that, where are they getting their bowstrings from?)

Modern Bows:

Modern bows are usually either fiberglass composites or the more mechanical, compound bows. Composite bows match the general idea of a classic longbow. Compound bows are the ones using pulley systems. Composite ones require upper body strength, to draw. Compound bows tend to have a catch, early in the draw, where the pulleys take over and the bow’s mechanics take a lot of the draw weight off the archer. Because of the mechanical systems, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a compound, and more than most weapons, mishandling will destroy one.

Most modern arrows are hollow aluminum shafts that are bought pre-fletched and have a plastic nock already mounted. The tips can be easily removed and swapped out for convenience.

Target tips are small pointed cones, about the size of the arrow itself. These are easy to pull from a target, and they’re slightly less likely to deal lethal damage if they catch you.

Hunting tips are flying razor blades. They’re usually three or four blades held at an angle working their way towards a tip. They’re designed to cut arteries as they pass through the target. Most also feature barbs that further tear the meat if something tries to remove the arrow.

Hunting

Hunting is the traditional use of the bow. The reason for its creation and evolution is pretty simple and most of you can probably guess why. This is: firing a projectile at an animal (such as a boar, a deer, or a buffalo) is much safer than trying to go into melee with it using a spear. Most humans who hunt as a profession (not as a sport) prefer some measure of safety and security in their job. When fighting an animal in close quarters there’s a risk of being gored by a tusk or horn, missing the animal with the spear, or frightening it off which is a waste of time, energy, and resources. It is important, though, to keep in mind that hunting an animal or hunting a herbivore is different from hunting a human or a predator. In nature, most of the hunters we hunt will hunt us in return. (Michi Note: This is part of the reason why we domesticated dogs.)

This usage of the weapon has remained popular among some hunters and is part of the reason why the bow can still be purchased today. The reasons of modern hunters, however, are completely unrelated to its value as a practical weapon. For hunting, the bow is an excellent choice. I’m told that killing game with a gunshot kills result in a different flavor to the meat, and of the two, bow killed meat tastes better. Of course, the people who’ve told me that have been bow hunters, so there’s your caveat.

A lot of bow hunters enjoy the additional challenges in taking an animal down with a bow. It’s a similar mindset to those hunters who use a revolver. That said, when you’re choosing a weapon for its “additional challenge” it’s not something you want to take into a fight.

Historical Combat

Historical bow combat was built around massing archers and using them to send a lot of arrows in the general direction of the enemy. No, seriously. The idea wasn’t to hit a specific enemy, but to put a lot of arrows in their vicinity, and hope that a few would hit something useful. In many ways, archers are more analogous to mortar teams or artillery on a modern battlefield, than snipers, or even riflemen.

A mass regiment or company of archers was incredibly dangerous, especially to cavalry, but they were almost never in amongst the footmen or on the front lines. The medieval combat disposition was to put a line of skirmishers in front of the archers to protect them from enemy infantry. This is because the bow really does suck in close combat and has no real defensive capability.

Modern Combat

There are a few places where bows excel over firearms: armor penetration and stealth. A skilled bow user can easily dispatch heavily armed and armored opposition, provided they can remain undetected.

That undetected part can be a real problem. The bow is very sensitive to movement by the shooter, meaning it’s impossible to fire on the go. Arrows are more sensitive to air movement and have a sharper ballistic trajectory than bullets, meaning it’s harder to fire quickly and accurately. This means that once a combatant is seen, their bow becomes dead weight, very fragile dead weight.

Finally bows are very short range (compared to modern firearms). You’re working with around 20 to 80 feet, or within shotgun range, meaning they need to get uncomfortably close to their enemy to use it, increasing the risk of detection.

Injuries

Even when hunting tips sever arteries, arrow wounds take a long time to kill. Tracking animals for hours, after they’ve been shot, is fairly common for modern bow hunters.

Arrows tend to seal up the injuries they create, a lot like knife wounds, so even if your archer severed something vital, it’s entirely possible that the character they’re trying to kill will survive for hours. There are confirmed cases, in the modern world, where people have taken an arrow, and survived for ten to twenty hours before receiving medical attention.

So, if your character is shot with an arrow, please do not have them rip it out. Much like the knife, the projectile must be removed carefully or stay within the body to prevent the character from bleeding out. Also, an arrowhead can do as much damage leaving the body as it did going in, so research how to remove an arrow or your character will die, if they don’t already die from infection in a medieval, fantasy, or even a modern day/futuristic setting. (Michi Note: GERMS!)

Character Options:

More than most weapons, bows represent a major commitment when constructing your character. It takes a lot of time and dedication to become proficient with a bow outside of combat, and it can easily take a character’s entire life to truly master the use of one.

In fantasy settings, you can pretty easily give the bow to any adult who spends a lot of time in the wilderness and lives off the land or hunts for a living. In a fantasy setting where firearms exist, bows become less common as guns become more accessible. These characters are more likely to use an axe or sword for actual combat, even if they have a firearm, instead of a bow.

In most historical or fantasy settings, you can have professionally trained archers, who operate as part larger military force. Just remember, these characters will have been trained to fire arrows over longer distances, without any real accuracy. As with the above option, these characters will gradually phase out as guns become more common. Historically: firearms started appearing in Europe and the Middle East in the 14th century.

In a modern setting, you’re basically left with bow hunters, and sport shooting enthusiasts. For these characters, they choose the bow deliberately, over more convenient methods of killing because they enjoy the challenge, prefer the purity, or like the idea of being self-sufficient.

In a post apocalyptic setting where bullets are hard to obtain or produce, the bow has some potential, both in the historical military applications, and for hunting.

In a distant future setting, a variation of the bow might make sense for its stealth and armor penetration aspects, particularly if characters are outfitted with equipment or implants that allows them to aim and fire more efficiently.

In a horror setting with traditional vampires, the bow might be an effective choice for vampire hunters, though, at that point, modern crossbows would probably be a better weapon choice.

I’m just going to go out and say, in a fascist/dystopic setting, unless bows are explicitly permitted or regulated, they’re a very poor weapon choice, because of the difficulty in concealing them, and the amount of training and practice required to gain proficiency with one. (Michi Note: the recognizability and difficulty in concealing them is the kicker here, it’s better to go with a weapon like the sling or the slingshot which is still quite dangerous but considered to be a children’s toy by many, so the adults will be more willing to overlook it and it’s much easier to hide.)

-Starke

Tip: Your character can only strike in the directions their hips point.

Hand to hand combat is all about strategy, tactics, improvisation, and making the most of basic body mechanics. Yes, basic body mechanics. I’ve talked before about how the hips lead the body and they do. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the legs, though each of the muscles has their place in making the body work. The hips are the guiding factor to creating momentum, the strength that comes from the pivot, the turning of the hips in conjunction with the upper and lower body to create force through movement. You create better results through conditioning the body and training your reflexes, but the limitations the body faces are its limitations.

 So, what are the directions you can strike in without stepping?

Forwards: front kick, roundhouse, shin kick, straight punch, cross, backhand, hammer fist, etc. Most of the basic strikes with the hands go straight forwards, the elbow can also strike going forward by coming across in a circular motion to strike at the face or the neck.

Side to side (right or left): The primary strikes on a sideways vector are the sidekick and the elbow. (Michi Note: Erp. I forgot the backhand, sorry.)

Backwards: the back kick, the mule kick, and other variations striking backwards (or with the fighter’s back to the opponent). Again: the elbow. The elbow is most useful for striking enemies from behind in close quarters, especially an enemy who is reaching in to grab them in a bear hug. Please keep in mind that the elbow is a close-quarters strike only, check it yourself by bending your arm at the elbow and bringing it across in front of your face. That’s the distance your character will have to strike effectively with the elbow, the elbow is the strike used when you are too close to get the windup for a punch to be effective. (Michi Note: my Divergent irritations are showing again, sorry.) Because of limited movement backwards, (yes, surprise! the joints betray us), the elbow is one of the most effective strikes from this direction. Strikes backwards are usually low (to the stomach) because visibility is either bad or non-existent, so the fighter is working off instinct. The stomach is a large, easy, soft target to aim for. (It’s not uncommon in the grab, if the arms are left free for a fighter to reach back over their head for their opponent’s eyes. Eye gouging is a thing, guys.)

It seems pretty limited when you stop and think about it. Forward, back, left, or right. Much of hand to hand and even basic weapons combat is all about maneuvering your opponent onto a vector they can’t strike from, while the protagonist is still able to strike them. This is both why stepping is important (focus on the feet). Now, it’s also important to remember that their opponent won’t want to go that way and may not be easily led. This is why stepping to get on diagonals or out of the way is important.

Always keep track of which directions all your characters in a scene are facing, what they want, where they are going, and what they are doing. It can be hard to visualize this and keep track, so always go back and double check (even triple check) that you didn’t accidentally magically move your characters to a different place just because they need to get hit on that line. Make sure the reader knows how they got from point A to point B to point C in the scene, even if the fighting itself is confusing for the characters.

Happy writing!

MBC Guerrilla Video Volume 1: Concepts (by StaySafeMedia)

So, I’m posting another Michael Janich video. This one is about basic concepts that have to do with self-defense and his own personal style that bases itself in knife fighting.

I’m a big fan of self-defense training for everyone, but on a craft level for writers especially. The difference is that many martial artists will focus their training on how to do a technique and not the focus of what it’s for until after the student has developed a decent base. This is fine, even good, for martial artists because it’s a necessary step. But it can make researching MAs rather obtuse when trying to divine how it works without the necessary years of training. Practice for real world situations often won’t happen until the upper belt ranks and sometimes, not until black belt. For example, I didn’t start working knife disarms until I started training for my second degree black belt test at 15.

Compare to self-defense, where training focuses on techniques that can be picked up easily and puts a primer on user understanding. The focus is not just on how to do a technique, but what it is and what it does, how it can be used practically and with different variations. This is the sort of information a writer needs to be able to write about fight scenes well.

Also, studying up on body mechanics and basic physiology never hurts.

I’ll be posting an article of my own later today. If you have any questions either regarding writing or self-defense, our askbox is always open.