Tag Archives: writing fight scenes

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

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

Why does it have to be one or the other?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at this snippet below.

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

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

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

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

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

Katie snorted.

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

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

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

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

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

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

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

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

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

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

Josh’s eyes dropped.

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

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

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

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

So, how much of this is real?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You need both.

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

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

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

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

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

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

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

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

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

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

Q&A: The Force of a Knockout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Force = Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Michi

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Q&A: You can be thinking or fighting… Listen, you want to be fighting.

When somebody is fighting, how much space is in their head for thinking? Sometimes you see writers put entire monologues in their character’s head, and that seems a bit excessive, but once moves become instinctive is it easier to notice/observe and process thoughts? So maybe it would be somewhere between “Thinking constantly of my movements” and “Let me theorize about my opponent’s background for paragraphs on end.”

You have enough time to make snap decisions, but that’s about it. If you actually stop and think during combat you’ll get hit because you weren’t focused on what was happening in front of you. The point of training is to internalize combat techniques to the point where they, and even combinations, become reflexive. This is because you don’t have time to think about how a technique is performed during combat where a fraction of a fraction of a second can be the deciding factor between victory and defeat. The goal is to give you the choice to act rather than just react. The time link between your brain and your muscles is dropped to near instantaneous in reaction so you know what to do next without having to think about it because you don’t have time to think.

See > Decide > Act is reduced to See > Act.

There’s no realization. There’s just action.

While you were thinking about what you wanted to do, I hit you. Your indecision is my opening to exploit. The world will not wait for you to be ready, and your narrative shouldn’t be waiting for your character’s either.

Consider this:

In the real world a street fight is over within twenty five seconds. With specific techniques, you can kill another human with your bare hands in seven seconds. That includes both the time it takes to do the technique and the time it takes for them to die. The reduction of time from seconds to fractions of seconds is the ultimate goal because the faster you are then the better chance you have. You want to get out ahead of your enemy’s brain and finish acting before they have a chance to realize what’s happening/happened to them.

All real observations and decisions happen before the fight begins. This is why tactical awareness is a key skill for any warrior, martial artist, or self-defense practitioner. This where your ability to be aware of your surroundings and observe human behavior will help you know when you are in danger. You can get into the necessary mental state where you are ready to fight before the fight begins, saving yourself on crucial seconds which could be the difference between victory and defeat. Being prepared for a fight reduces your reaction time before the first bullet is fired or the first punch is ever thrown. You don’t need to realize you’re in danger, figure out what you’re going to do, come to terms with harming another human being, and try to buy time until you’re ready, at which point the battle is already over. No, you know you’re in danger and you react accordingly in the moment.

“I didn’t really have time to think about what I was going to do. By the time I realized I was in danger, I was dead.

I saw myself falling, I remember that. The world shifted sideways. I hit the ground. My shoulder landed first. Then, I saw his face. Saw him looking down at me.

He grinned, a big toothy grin. The gun barrel moved. A blinding flash, then everything… you know, everything went dark.

I woke up here. With you.”

When you’re writing a fight scene, it’s important to realize that each sentence represents the progression of time and time doesn’t wait for your character to be ready. Speaking and thinking are not free actions, they represent critical seconds where your character could be acting either by attacking or defending. The narrative’s progression shouldn’t stop just because they’re thinking. Their opponents shouldn’t politely wait for the character to be ready.

Now, dialogue can be used as a defensive action and a strategic means of buying time for recovery. However, if your character strikes up a conversation with their enemy understand that what they’ve done is actually end the fight scene, ended the engagement  until the start of the next engagement. Dialogue can disrupt the flow of combat as a combat tactic, but thinking can’t.

For violence in the narrative, you actually need to stay on point or you lose your tension in the scene. In a visual medium like comics or movies, violence is often treated as spectacle. In a movie, what you’re actually enjoying isn’t the violence itself but the acrobatic movements of professional stunt performers. Certain types of movement on film are incredibly engaging visually and the film doesn’t lose much by letting these actors go at it for prolonged periods.

As writers utilizing a written medium you don’t have that option. You’re not a professional stunt choreographer and stunt actor, and even if you were you don’t get the perks visual action buys for you. You don’t get spectacle, you get novelty, and you’ve got to keep the scene moving quickly so your audience remains invested.

You want short and sweet with lots of little fights interspersed by running for your life or buying time or getting to cover instead of long, drawn out battles.

Treat each sentence like it’s a second. That’s enough time for an attack and for the attack to be over. Enough for several attacks if you’re good at conserving time.

Attack > Hit > Next Action.

Attack > Deflect or Attack > Deflect + Counter > Next Action.

Character A punches. Character B catches punch, steps forward, uses other hand to strike under the chin with their palm and force A’s head up.

If B sits around thinking about what they’re going to do next from this position then they give A time to attack them and take back the fight’s inertia. Once you have the inertia, you want to keep moving. While you’ve got your opponent off balance you want to make the most of their defenseless state while you still can. Consistent action doesn’t give them time to recover, but waiting does. Drifting into your thoughts while you consider your next move also gives your enemy time to recover.

Notice also, Character B just changed ranges within a single second. They went from punch range straight into grappling range and put A into a bad situation where they can’t see what’s going on. They’ve set themselves up for several options. One is to force A backward by applying pressure to their head until they fall over or transition their hand across A’s face to their ear and put them into a sideways throw utilizing the head, the wrist they captured, and their front leg.

If you just went… what? It’s this:

The hand on the wrist yanks backwards and pulls their opponent forward. This puts them off balance. The hand on the head applies pressure sideways and forces the head sideways. Where the head goes, the body follows. They turn sideways, catching their opponent’s back leg with their front leg and use that calf/knee as the tripping mechanism. This forces all the balance onto the destabilized front leg, which while already on the ball of the foot will give as the ankle twists, and when it does they are put on the ground.

Now, A is on the ground and B is still standing. B can do what they want from here to A, but unless A is very good at fighting while prone and finds a way to take B to the ground with them then the fight is over. Likewise, your fight scene is over in less than a minute.

That’s the other side of training.  You don’t just spend your time learning one or two techniques so you can do them without thinking about it. You train to link those techniques together into combinations so when the time for the next action comes you already know what to do.

The character doesn’t have to plot out: “I’m going to catch his punch, put my hand under his chin, and ram my opponent into that wall over there. After, I’ll rest my forearm on his windpipe to apply pressure and cut off airflow but not completely choke him.” They already know because they trained to do all that without thinking about it. This gives them time to perform an entire string of complex actions before their enemy has time to realize what’s happening to them. There’s also the classic, “From the position with my hand under his chin, I’ll transition my arm up and around his throat into a guillotine with my forearm on his windpipe then knee him in the groin before lifting up into the choke.”

“I hit you with the roundhouse to your ribs with my front leg and knock the air out of you, then retract into a chamber, swing my leg across to hit you in the head with a hook kick while you’re stumbling sideways, which dazes you and gives me opportunity to transition into a standing jump roundhouse off my back leg. Bye bye.”

This is the slightly more advanced concept called setup. You use your basic techniques in combination to fire off the large action finisher. This is actually what your characters beyond green belt level are fighting for the opportunity to do. (And… yes, some variants of taekwondo jump kicks and other discipline’s jump kicks can be performed with one foot already off the ground because the power leg that initiates the jump is the one which transitions into the kick. That’s where the momentum is.)

The ultimate goal is to reduce risk for yourself while maximizing the other person’s. Your character should be doing their observations and planning in the moments before the fight begins, not while the fight is occurring. You can get most of what you need through observation, and if you get a chance to observe their fights before you fight them then all the better.

You want your exposition in the moments between fights as a padding out breather for your audience before the next fight starts. Whenever the fight ends, the fight scene part of the scene ends. You’ll probably have multiple little fights which constitute a larger fight, but it’ll be easier for you to think of the scenes as scenes.

What you don’t want to be doing is thinking about what you’re going to be doing in the moment because then you’re not focused on acting and are instead taking a ridgehand to the head, which at worst will cost you two points on the sparring scorecard. This is much better than taking the bladed inside of your enemy’s hand to your temple. You didn’t just give them the opportunity to hit you, you let them hit you with an incredibly powerful but heavily telegraphed strike.

Your body will react for you, but you’re still piloting the vehicle. In some ways, it’s like driving and not driving on a highway. No, this is driving in a winding canyon with everyone around you going sixty to eighty miles per hour. If you space out that could be difference between your survival and you going off a cliff. You’ve got about enough awareness to say, “there’s an asshole tailgating me, and I better ease off the gas ’cause that’s a twenty mile an hour turn ahead.” So, if you’re not focused then your body won’t be either. So, you’ve got to focus on what’s immediately happening in front of you in order to react to it. Training just carves away all the excess thinking which will slow you down, like trying to remember how to do a technique, or trying to decide on which technique, or spend too much time focusing on strategy, or cracking wise. This way your reaction times have been shaved down to .25 seconds and you can perform several actions before the single second is over.

Realize > React > Act.

“I need to fight now” is a sentence you don’t have time for because by the time you’ve said it the punch has already arrived. The air is also now gone from your lungs, so you’ll need to breathe again before you act. On the page, a fight flowing at the pace time progresses while you’re thinking will look like this.

Shit!

Punch.

He’s not—

Punch.

Giving—

Punch.

Me—

Punch.

Time to—

Punch.

React!

That’s five potential punches per thought, and only if they miss. If you’re very lucky, your character may manage to multitask by thinking and dodge at the same time. However, because their focus is split they will be slower and may miss objects in their environment which can trip them.

So, was the time spent on thinking worth it?

For all that people talk about the simplicity of violence, you should know that hand to hand violence is actually very mechanically complex. You’ve got to be doing a lot of complex actions at the same time, which is why you train to perform them. However, that doesn’t mean the time you rid yourself of thinking of how to perform them is freeing you up for other things. You’ve freed yourself up for near instantaneous action. This is your trade off. If you pack other thoughts in where those previous thoughts were then you’re actually slowing yourself back down. Your focus is spent on the action itself. Your character’s goal is actually to finish the fight within a single sentence rather than an entire paragraph. That’s what all participants of violence want, for the fight to be over as quickly as possible. H2H is also the slowest form of violence with the least amount of risk when it comes to sudden death. With weapons, you better not be thinking because a mistake will result in broken arms, fatal stabbings, and getting shot.

You can think or you can fight.

Trust me, you want to be fighting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Using Violence

Hey I’m pretty far along in a book I’m working on, there’s a lot of hand to hand combat mixed with swords, bows and arrows and some guns (flintlock style). I’ve been doing a good job of keeping things fresh but as I’m coming towards the end of it I’m having a hard time varying the different styles so it doesn’t get stale. I was wondering if you had any tips to help my action scenes from getting stale? Thanks!

This is going to be one of those concepts that sounds utterly bizarre at first, but violence isn’t interesting.

It might be slightly more accurate to say, violence by itself is not interesting or engaging. Real world violence, especially, is not entertaining and violence for entertainment often follows when the violence is expected to carry itself. What makes an action sequence work is the mise en scène. Violence, in a narrative, has diminishing returns. If you prefer, you could phrase it as the audience builds tolerance to violence over time, but either term works.

So, let’s unpack these two pieces.

Violence, by itself is rarely interesting. This is, probably, the main issue you’re running into. The stuff that sells a fight scene is all of the stuff accompanying it. It’s the stakes.

When writing an action sequence, the important thing to remember is why your characters are there. It can be very easy to lose track of the larger context in the moment, but that’s what keeps the reader invested.

There are exceptions to the, “never interesting,” position. With some martial artists, the appeal really is simply the spectacle. They’re putting on an impressive physical performance, that’s engaging. Cool. But, it’s not the violence, which may sound like an incredibly fine distinction until you really think about it. You don’t watch someone like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Van Damme for the story or the acting, it’s the sheer spectacle of the physical performance.  Though, Jackie Chan may be a bad example, because you’re probably watching him for the comedy beats.

I realize this might sound slightly pretentious. “No one cares about your hero punching that guy, they need to experience why he punches them.” But, the reality is remarkably grounded. Your character decided to engage in this way. You need to convey that to the reader. And yes, sometimes the reason really is because: “damn that was cool.” There are ways to make that kind of spectacle work, but in general, it’s easier to remember why your character is acting, and keep their behavior rooted in who they are, and reflect that back to the audience.

 

The other thing is that violence is exhausting. This is true for both the real thing, and for your audience. The more violence you use in your story, the harder it will be to keep them engaged with the material. This also applies for severity, though it’s a little easier to see at work there; include a scene that’s far too brutal, and watch your readers disconnect from the material and wander off.

Unfortunately, precisely defining how much violence your story can support is not a hard and fast system. I would say, when writing and you come to a potential action sequence, ask yourself if you really need a fight there.

There’s a weird irony with violence, sometimes, the anticipation is better than the delivery. You can tease the audience with the idea that a fight is about to break out, and then find a way to release the pressure, rather than forcing your characters into combat. The anxiety over what could happen, especially if your characters are seriously disadvantaged, can vastly outweigh the impact of just another fight scene. As with outright violence, this will lose its impact over time, but it can help you keep your audience on their toes.

Over time, violence is fatiguing. Keeping fight scenes short and to the point can help. If you’ve got a fight that’s lasting more than a couple pages, you might want to consider breaking it up, and reusing parts for different encounters.

Repetition is another concept that can kill the flow of a story. If you’re writing another fight scene ten pages later, and it’s basically the same as the previous ones, just with one or two slightly modified details, it might be time to cut it. There are writing techniques that employ repetition, particularly in comedy, but that’s about creating callbacks and payoffs, not regurgitating the previous scene with slight variations.

As a writer, violence is a tool you can use. Using it can work, threatening it can also work, but, in order to keep its edge, you need to use it sparingly. Otherwise, the entire narrative can easily bog down in an endless procession of boss fights.

Now, I’m gong to contradict myself here a little, violence can be entertaining. However, you need to understand that the violence is there for entertainment. All the violence and fight scenes you see on television are devised with this in mind. When unsupported by every other narrative aspect, they exist purely to entertain. The difference between these choreographers and most authors is that they are professional fight choreographers often with black belts in multiple martial arts. They understand how to pace a scene, what will look good on film, which actions will be visually impressive and have a vast toolkit to work from in order to bring the entertainment portion of the fight to life. Violence is not entertaining on its own, it is created to be visually interesting and a massive amount of work is put into creating functional entertainment. What you enjoy when you watch an action movie is the work of the choreographers involved, the skill of the stunt doubles, the hard work put in by the actors, the musical scoring, the set design, and everything else which keeps the movie running.

To mimic this in fiction, you must internalize this understanding and learn to do similar work on the page. The writer is the fight choreographer, the actors, the stunt doubles, the set and costume designers. You are creating a musical score in the structure and rhythm of your sentences, in your visual descriptions. You are going to do the entire work of a full set crew in order to achieve about half as much. Creating interesting violence on the page requires understanding that martial arts choreography is an art form in and of itself. And it is, you know, there are entire divisions in many different martial arts tournaments now devoted to structured competitive choreography. These are creators who agonize over every punch and kick, every physical transition, every throw, carefully putting together the scene, practicing it out over the course of months, for, at most, forty-five seconds to a minute’s worth of action.

Writing convincing and entertaining action takes a great deal of practice, and involves actively working as hard as you can to learn everything you can about violence. In knowledgeable hands, two swords of slightly different lengths could become a tense fight where the protagonist faces a significant disadvantage and a hard uphill climb in a terrific test of skill. Or, it could just be a scene about two people with two swords. The trick is understanding concepts like reach, order of operation in fight progression, the advantages provided by different sword types, the techniques used by fencers, and more to make a fight work. The smallest differences in a fight can create incredibly tight stakes, but you need to know they’re there in order to include them.

Start by sitting down with your favorite novel sequences and movie fight scenes, start asking yourself what you liked about it and why it worked for you. Look into who created it, the work that went in, and what the surrounding narrative stakes are. What are the internal stakes within the scene itself, why is the protagonist fighting at a disadvantage? What caused their disadvantage? Why is that interesting? What tools are the characters using? Are they making full use of their available options? What is the decision making process? How is that helping and hindering them?

If you’ve reached the point where the violence is boring, then move on to understanding that you need to be the one who makes the scene interesting. You first must pinpoint why the violence has become boring, and usually that begins with a lack of stakes.

-Starke

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Q&A: When You Know Nothing A Martial Arts Manual Can Be Very Confusing

I have a character that’s been trying to learn to fight by reading books. Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible way to learn (she doesn’t really have other options) is there a possibility that someone who was actually trained in the tradition of those same books would recognize what she was *trying* to do? When the character does start getting actual training, how much would her knowledge of theory actually help?

The answer is in that quintessential Yoda line:

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Unlearn what you have learned means throwing away all your preconceptions and starting from scratch. You leave behind what you think you know because the truth is at the beginning of the journey you know nothing. Only when you accept this as a truth will you begin to learn. Otherwise, your preconceived ideas of what the thing is will color your training. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds. Every person comes to their training with baggage, no one comes in clean. It’s only after those are left behind, when the mind opens, that the training truly begins. In the case of Luke, this means redefining what he knows to be true about the universe itself and what he knows to be possible. Struggling with this idea in the beginning, learning to let go and leave our initial understanding behind is the beginner’s very first struggle.

The limitations are in what we think we know, and that false confidence is the first source danger which must be defeated. False knowledge, half-knowledge lead to misleading confidence, and that confidence is based on a false belief in their own ability. This is a very dangerous position for the individual. Enough knowledge to think you know what you’re doing, to get you into enough trouble that might actually become life threatening, but without the necessary skills to get yourself back out.

In some ways, as a beginner, it is easiest to start raw.  However, a person who truly enters into training carrying nothing with them is rare. Everyone comes with expectations, with bad habits, with misunderstandings of basic terminology, with pride; thinking they’ve mastered the little ideology they’ve had access to.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing, except that which you bring with you.”

The most dangerous enemy of the beginner is themselves.

The Empire Strikes Back really is a fantastic movie for understanding core concepts of martial arts training. For what its doing, it is actually very realistic.

For your character, the best example from fiction I can pull out is the first training scene from The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.  Alejandro pulls out his sword, and Diego uses his to just slap the blade right out of his hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it has merit. Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t even know how to hold the blade properly. The big thing to remember is that he thinks he does. After all, he saw Zorro fight as a kid. Like so many other kids, he practiced with the sword. He carries a sword because that’s what his hero did. His transformation under Diego is complete that Captain Love, who has encountered, fought, and totally defeated him before, takes forever to recognize him.

Your character is starting in the same place as Alejandro, except she has the added bonus of that she thinks she knows what she’s doing. She starts out with a little of that arrogance of someone who has studied the theory and thinks they know, even when they don’t know because they’re missing crucial context and the pieces she was expected to know before she read the document. This is what they don’t tell you about “How To Manuals” and demonstration videos: they’re supplementary. They’re great if you already know what you’re doing, if you’re a student with a teacher and has partners to practice the techniques with. They really suck if you’re starting from scratch. They won’t include basic detail because they’ll assume your training already included the explanation of why.

She’ll have spent at least the first day trying to figure out terminology, and she may never totally figure it out. Tempo or the use of time is a foundational concept in European fencing. Tempo directly relates to when and how the fencer has the opportunity to strike, it only loosely relates to a normal person’s grasp of time. For a fencer, the concept is so basic and ubiquitous that the manual won’t bother to explain, and a student reading the manual will be expected to already know what the manual is discussing.

Trust me, I’ve read lots of manuals written by seasoned professionals. They’re writing for a specific audience, and that audience is not the raw greenhorn.

The book won’t explain all the other little problems either, like vibration and the way that wears down the hand/wrist. How holding a sword at a specific angle for a prolonged period of time quickly wears down the  muscles. They probably won’t explain about the balance points within the blade. The problem is not that the sword is heavy. It’s the motion and stress on the limbs which wears you down. Hold your arm out in front of you, you’ll start feeling the drag of gravity on the arm. The  longer this goes on, the harder it gets.

Missing a practice partner, she’ll never learn about distance and the appropriate striking distances versus the safe distances. With a sword that lack of knowledge could get her killed right out of the gate. Theory is too far ahead of where she needs to be because she’ll skip past the basics. This leads to incredibly obvious flaws.

Alejandro gets the sword slapped right out of his hand. Why? He doesn’t know how to properly hold it, or angle his wrist, or brace his arm against an incoming attack. He’s either too tensed or not tensed enough, he’s not prepared for the hit, and the sword goes flying.

A training manual has just enough information in it to allow you to conceptualize the idea in your head, this will lead you to thinking you know what your doing and feeling confident. Understanding something mentally, however, doesn’t mean you understand it.

Now, once you know what you’re doing, then a training manual becomes extremely helpful. It can get you to think about the material and the techniques in new ways you didn’t consider before, offer up opinions, ideas, and philosophies which are in fact truly wise. The training manual can indeed help you, but only after you’re past the initial hump. So, when she’s an intermediate, what that training manual initially taught her will help. As a raw beginner, it will also trick her into thinking she knows more than she does and she’ll only begin to progress after she accepts this as fact.

My second suggestion is go over to Wikitenaur. You need to familiarize yourself with the special art of the written fencing manuals. “Wikitenaur” is a fantastic website filled with free translations of historical treatises written by the masters of their art. Read some for practice, and see how far you get without needing extra research to understand what it was you just read.

Take this passage from Le Jeu de la Hache (“The Play of the Axe”, MS Français 1996), written by an anonymous Milanese fencing master in 1400 and translated from French by Dr. Sydney Anglo.

[4] When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander. If you have the croix in front, you can step forward with your left foot, receiving his blow, picking it up with the queue of your axe and – in a single movement – bear downward to make his axe fall to the ground. And from there, following up one foot after the other, you can give him a jab with the said queue, running it through the left hand, at the face: either there or wherever seems good to you. Or swing at his head.

Tell me, what does this technique look like? What sort of axe are they using? Great axe? Poleaxe? Hatchet? One handed or two? Which end is the croix? Which end is the queue?

Some manuals have pictures, some don’t. Without pictures, you’re going to be even more at a loss.

I’ll take pity on you. This is about how to use a poleaxe. You’re essentially stepping forward and connecting at the head of the axe, switching directions to drive the blow to the ground and following up by hitting your enemy with the butt of your weapon which is the queue. If you didn’t know that the poleaxe is a polearm and therefore a staff weapon, you might’ve been completely lost. If you don’t know that you use both ends of a staff weapon, often interchangeably, you might still be lost. The end of a poleaxe is, after all, a metal spike.

The book in that second link has pictures and a much better explanation, but that explanation is an explanation of an explanation. Example Two here is unlikely to be the type of training manual that your character has access to, because number two is written from a historian’s perspective with the idea that the poleaxe is no longer a ubiquitous tool of warfare. Example Two is the one both you and your character needs, but that won’t be the one she has access to unless she’s reading a historian’s explanation of the fighting style; which is, again, not what she has.

Sun Tzu is a great example of a book entirely about theory and military philosophy, whose stratagems are so on point they’re still used as the beginner’s guide today. However, a book like this is thin on practical, because this book is written by a general writing to other generals about warfare. In terms of a character learning about generalized practical theory, The Art of War is a much better example than a technical manual. However, strategy won’t teach you how to punch someone.

The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. This is a very helpful book, and the five different books cover different aspects of combat from practical to spiritual philosophy. However, when it comes to practical technique, you’re still going to run into the same problems that we ran into with “The Play of the Axe”. These books are written for students who are already practicing the art, and not students who are considering whether or not they’re going to learn.

This is why I get much more out an instructional martial arts video found on YouTube than most of my followers do. I may get confused in places, but I come to it with a foundation which allows me to quickly grasp the concepts at play. This is a just matter of practice. I’ve spent more time with martial arts masters, I know more or less what to look for, and I understand the basics of language they’re using. A martial arts manual is not written for you, the beginner, but for the student. In this sense, the entire concept of a training manual or a “how to” book lies to you. You can ultimately end up more confused than you were than when you started, and, like Renaissance actors  and HEMA practitioners, you’re going to get nowhere without a lot of trial and error.

If this character lacks a training partner to test stuff out with then she never had a chance at trial and error. She only has what she knows in her head, and practiced with her body while under no duress. She has a fighting style filled to the brim with flaws that are just barely recognizable, and I mean they’re recognizable in the way a child trying to perform moves from a Jackie Chan movie looks like Jackie Chan.

So, could they recognize what she’s doing? Maybe. However, European training manuals were mostly created on commission by those with the money to pay for them. The masters themselves tended to be fairly secretive because this training is what they made their living on. The idea of sharing knowledge only helps the enemy. So, in the European set up, your character needs to have a relative who either purchased one of these (exceedingly rare) books or who commissioned one themselves from the master. Or who was a student of the master, or something.

These other characters, if they can tell what she’s doing is a bastardization of what they were taught, are going to be rather confused. They’re more likely to start off offended than feel a sense of kinship, and may transition to kinship but only in the way one feels toward an overeager puppy. Depending on how she behaves, they may view her as a pretender. She’ll need to earn her way in, and if she doesn’t have the coin to pay them for their time then she’s going to need to think of something else.

This is the second secret I’m going to blow, martial arts masters are always paid. Their teaching is a trade, and their skills are in high demand. Their disciples pay them in coin, with a position of prestige, or labor. Or, a combination of all of the above.

So, how is she going to pay for her training? (The standard one if she’s not rich is labor and can’t scrape together the coin to pay, as an apprentice which is a glorified term for an indentured servant.) It’s not just talent, it’s coin. This is a business. You’ve got to pay for the service, especially in the European tradition. Or be the servant of someone who hired the master and is paying for the service.  (Martial arts movies understand this one, but almost no one else does. Understanding this is key to writing a training sequence because physical labor like washing the sheets, cleaning the floors, and carrying water for the cook is a key component of your character’s training.) Begging is not out of the question. So, don’t shy away out of embarrassment or your character’s embarrassment. Embarrassment is actually a key part of the genre, a key part of training, and a key aspect of learning in general. Sometimes, you have to do silly things and get dumped on your ass. You’re going to get dumped on your ass a lot in martial training,  both metaphorically and physically.

A martial arts master is someone whose skills are in high demand, and the onus is on the character to prove why they’re worthy of being trained. Why should this master spend their precious time on them, especially if the master isn’t getting something out of it? The only time this isn’t true is the Chosen One dynamic, where the master is usually the volunteer, but even then the Chosen One has to take their lumps. Remember, your master is a character and not a prop. The same is true for the other characters who might or might not notice her.

-Michi

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Q&A: Don’t ask if the weapon works, consider what you did with it instead

I have a character whose weapon is a broomstick, like in Mulan’s training. I was pretty young when I came up with that, but should I change it ? Can a broomstick actually make a good weapon ? If not, what should I use instead ? All my characters have improvised weapons that they use for an extended period of time

Well, a broom is just a short or long staff with the side benefit of being able to potentially throw dust and detritus in the face of your enemy (and yourself) if wielded broom end first. (When did Mulan use a broomstick? Or a broomstick used like the staff Mulan trained with? Or when she was play fighting at home before she goes to training?) So, you’re asking if someone can do this with a broom? Then graduates into something more like this (starts 2:46,  for reference: this is high level martial arts choreography in competition from the SEA Games – Singapore (2015). This is equivalent to high level gymnastics. They’re choreographed fight scenes. Yes, there is a category dedicated to choreographed like a movie fight/dance sequence duels. Yes, this is one of the most popular and prestigious categories at some martial arts tournaments.)

The basic question to begin with is this: do you want the weapon to be a broom? Do you want the scenes to be serious or not? You can have a serious story with a silly weapon, but there is a vast difference between a Jackie Chan-esque fight sequence played for laughs when the experienced martial artist picks up the broom because it’s what they have available versus the character who has no idea what they’re doing and picks up the broom just because.

A Jackie Chan fight sequence will work like this:

 The experience martial artist finds themselves jumped by several guys, grabs the first weapon they come across. This weapon is a broom. They brandish it. (Pause.) The broom is a silly weapon, everyone (including the audience) laughs. Moment ends, and the fight begins. Experienced martial artist holds their own, kind of. Probably a few scenes where the broom head is shoved into someone’s face and used to wail about an enemy’s head. (This is Jackie Chan, so cleaning supplies may also be used.) However, this proves ineffective whenever the experienced martial artist attempts to fight with the broom end. They wield it like they would a staff, but only one end is helpful. They’re mostly free when more enemies arrive, someone brings an edged weapon.

New fight commences against more dangerous/experienced opponents. Experienced martial artist is pressed. Broom = advantage over unarmed enemies, less helpful against actual weapons. Fight sequence will have that broom head cut off by whichever enemy comes in wielding an edged weapon on the break beat. So, fight with the broom and kind of works; then broom becomes staff = accidental upgrade. Hero given new chance to make their escape.

Jackie Chan’s humor in his fight scenes, especially his early ones, is sophisticated in that it plays into your expectations and will subvert them several times in a single scene for laughs. We know the broom sucks as a weapon, so that brings in the uh-oh, but the martial artists/martial arts movie goers know the broom’s length and similarities to the staff will give the protagonist a slight chance against the enemies they’re facing.  Oh yay! Enemies underestimate the hero because their chosen weapon sucks. Hero proceeds to flail because the improvised weapon doesn’t behave the way a normal weapon would, hijinks ensue, but in the end they succeed… kind of. Hero either manages to make their escape from the bad situation or a new enemy shows up with higher stakes to raise the tension. (More skill, better weapon.)

Underdog > Winner > Underdog.

The beat goes like this:

1) We know the broom is a silly weapon. (Audience and Enemy expectation.)

2) After overcoming their own surprise/shock, hero does the first thing they can think of in line with their training: wield the broom like a staff. Proves to be successful. (Enemy and Audience surprised.)

3) Hijinks. (The hero turn tables and is winning… kind of. This is the period where the surprise is behind the hero, so they’ve a little room to mess around. Someone’s nose is getting tickled, or they’re taking a broom head to the face.)

4) The broom fails at key moments. (Enemy adjusts past their surprise.) Hero will find themselves in a position of accidentally striking with the broom head; which does nothing because, (surprise), you can’t wield a broom exactly like a staff. (Hero and weapon incompatible.) The hero becomes pressed as smarter enemies come up with new strategies.

5) Weapon conveniently breaks to create the needed staff against stronger enemies. Hero still at disadvantage.

What Jackie Chan does is a pretty sophisticated in the balancing of audience expectation combined with an understanding of how to balance weapons, enemies, and genre convention to create both humor and tension. That’s the root of his success as a choreographer, and why I do recommend watching his fight sequences compared to other less successful martial artists. His storytelling through action is much better, especially when you want unconventional surprises.

He understands the boundaries of realism, and incorporates the failings of an object into his fight scenes as well as the successes. He’s thinking from multiple angles, which is what makes his characters so relatable. Jackie Chan is king of making his fight scenes feel spur of the moment, his characters go with their gut and training when put under pressure. However, the situation doesn’t always fit that training perfectly (broom =/= staff) and so this creates new problems for the hero. He shifts the hero’s advantages into disadvantages and their disadvantages into advantages, this happens on multiple levels in the scene.

Hero has superior fight training (advantage), but there are too many enemies (overwhelming disadvantage) so they must run. Hero finds a weapon similar to one they’re used to using (advantage!), but the weapon is improvised (surprise disadvantage!), their training works to fend off multiple enemies (advantage!!), but fails to be totally successful so they end up only holding their own (disadvantage!!), then new enemies arrive with better weapons (overwhelming disadvantage!!!), and the pattern repeats with higher stakes.

The problem with improvised weapons is in the name: improvised.

A broom can be wielded like a staff but, when wielded just like one would a staff, it will fail at key moments. The broom is not a staff, a broom is a broom. For the most part, you can only use one end of the broom successfully where a staff uses both ends. For a character (like Jackie Chan) who is utilizing Chinese staff work, this is a big problem they’ll end up stumbling into. Staves are either used with the tip to stab if wielded by holding the bottom like one would with a spear, or from the center where they rotate between top and bottom in their strike pattern. A staff can strike at your head, and on the next strike at your opposing thigh. As a weapon, the staff is one of the most versatile and very easy to use. However, in this case, you’re going to end up switching between hard end/soft end on every second or third strike. (You can use this for humor too because humor is in patterns and expectations broken at surprising moments.) Hard (ouch), soft (fine), hard (ouch!), soft (fine?), hard (ouch!!), soft (fine?!), CRAP! Both characters glance at the broom head. Enemy smiles. Hero starts wailing on enemy with the hard end, and breaks the pattern.

Jackie Chan knows how to fight and understands audience expectations (primarily Chinese audiences) and genre conventions (primarily wuxia action scenes), which is why his visual gags work. He’s, honestly, in a class of his own when it comes to fight choreography because of this. Like most martial artists, he knows you can take the broom end off and then you’d just have a staff. Like a great choreographer, he’ll see the potential failings and weaknesses in the improvisation. Then, he’d plan to incorporate them into his scenes for humor. Funny comes from failure and surprise success.

The version of this for the character who has no idea what they’re doing (and therefore is not using Chinese martial arts), is Rapunzel from Tangled and her frying pan. The frying pan is an unexpected weapon, but it works and serves to emphasize to the audience that Rapunzel has no idea what she’s doing when it comes to violence. This is where a frying pan is different from, say, a machete or a tire iron. So, again, there’s humor in subverted expectations. We don’t expect the frying pan to work, then it does more than she expects. We’re consistently reminded that the heroine doesn’t really know what she’s doing and she’s never given a real weapon, which keeps her safely in the non-combatant role while allowing her to be active/assert herself at key narrative moments. Her character has other skills that are more useful, and the frying pan shows the audience Rapunzel’s resourcefulness as a character.

In fiction, weapons show us something about the character and create certain expectations that are based in genre cliches. The hero who picks up a named sword is the narratively anointed Chosen One, whether that is played straight or not. Improvised weapons serve primarily as a means of showing resourcefulness, but they are either props (like in the Jackie Chan example) to be discarded when a better weapon comes along or they’re character defining like in the Rapunzel example where the weapon is a symbolic representation of personality and role.

Rapuzel, as a character, doesn’t know enough about martial combat to reach beyond what works in the moment whereas a Jackie Chan protagonist isn’t going to stick with the broom because they know the broom won’t work long term. The threats a Jackie Chan protagonist is going to face will be primarily physical, and the resourcefulness he exhibits is the “whatever works” mentality. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s on an emotional journey of self-discovery and her primary antagonist is Mother Gothel.

Mother Gothel’s violence is entirely emotional. Flynn using the frying pan is a callback to Rapunzel using the frying pan which serves late story as a means to firmly unite the two characters together on a thematic level, so we the audience no longer question his loyalty. It also serves the character on a “well, it worked on me” level. We understand why Flynn might think using the frying pan is a good idea, which is the dual overlay you need. Internal justification to serve the narrative’s external thematic needs.

So, the question about using a broomstick as a weapon is entirely on you. It will certainly work in general as either a scene prop or an expression of identity. The question is whether or not it will work for the story you’re telling and the challenges your characters are facing.

An improvised weapon is spur of the moment. You can wrap the toaster to your hand and use it as an impromptu set of brass knuckles, but that doesn’t make it the same as brass knuckles. If you had a choice between the toaster and brass knuckles, you’d probably pick the brass knuckles. There’s the recognizably violent improvised weapons associated with mobsters and gangs like tire irons, baseball bats, crowbars, wrenches, etc; and those will put your character into the (middling) combatant category. There’s the machete which is practically a sword, and the sledgehammer which is practically a two handed warhammer, and the shovel which is potentially a spear. The last form of improvised weaponry is chemical warfare with household items and bomb building. The closer we get to the weapon category, the closer we get to live combatant territory. The narrative expectations are different for non-combatants and combatants, the behavior is also different.

The warrior is going to be looking for the better weapon. You’ve got a character with Mulan-style Chinese military training then the first thing they’ll do once they’re in a safe space is break off or cut off the broom end to make either a staff or a sharpened end for a spear. They’ll modify whatever they have to make it more dangerous. They’ll find the kitchen knives or the box cutters or whatever else is lying around that’s sharp. They’ll grab the tire irons and the wrenches; they’ll grab multiple objects because that’s how their mind works. They’re looking for what’s going to give them an advantage in the situation, especially when they don’t know what that situation is.

The staff is a helpful weapon because of it’s reach advantage. As I pointed out in the Jackie Chan example, you can use a staff to fend off multiple attackers and gain an advantage when you’re overwhelmed. Numbers are overwhelming, in that situation you’re better off armed than unarmed, and the distance the staff provides means keeping multiple enemies at distance is easier. In the Jackie Chan scenario, the broom is actually a great choice. The surprise is the broom doesn’t seem like it would be on the surface because we don’t think of brooms as staves. However, the underlying theme in the Jackie Chan scenario is you use the weapon until it ceases to be useful. While the drawbacks are funny, they’re also realistic.

The non-combatant like Rapunzel will grab what works and, for the most part, they’ll stay there. They have no experience, so if it worked once then it’ll likely work again and they’re going to approach every scenario the same way until personal experience or the wisdom of another more experienced character teaches them not to do that anymore. For example, Rapunzel wants to escape from the guards. She doesn’t want to fight them. They’re outside of what she’s capable of handling as a character, and violence is not her purpose. Her advantage is surprise, and the fact her enemy underestimates her because she is seemingly helpless, she’s a genuine, kind, mildly confused young woman without a combat background, and gives no sign of being dangerous to someone else who is vastly more qualified. Her character arc is her learning to stand up for herself. (Never make the mistake of believing “female” is universal for being underestimated. The character’s background is more important and more influential than their gender/sex.)

One of these setups has the violence at the forefront, and in the other the violence is on the back burner. There’s action and conflict, but the physical violence is not what you’d get in a wuxia film or Hollywood big budget summer action flick. You’ve got to answer which story you’re telling. That has nothing to do with whether or not the broom will work as a weapon and is entirely dependent on who your characters are. (For example, they can’t use a broom like a Chinese staff without training but they certainly could use it successfully as a self-defense weapon.)

Like with Rapunzel, an improvised weapon can be a great limiter that allows you to set a character’s ability at a certain level and say, no further. It is a hard limit, reflecting their personality; emphasizing what the character is capable of both in terms of their combat ability and their resourcefulness. It limits the kind of violence you’re going to allow in your story, because it limits the potential violence your characters can successfully participate in, and potentially the level of graphic detail.

In fiction, a character tackling a Navy Seal head on with a broom is going to be a joke and an act of desperation whether it’s played straight or not. You could certainly tackle a Navy Seal with a broom, you might even win, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s the point of the improvised weapon, they’re weapons of desperation. You use it until you can figure out something better.

Or, they’re magical. Everyday household item imbued with magic to transform it into Weapon X is a weapon the protagonist is just stuck with. See: The Spoon of Perpetual Torment. (“It’s perpetually tormenting me, okay!”)

If you plan to play this for laughs, the broom and other improvised weapons aren’t a joke that will last you 60,000 words. The spoon of perpetual torment won’t last that long either. You’ll get a scene out of the gag, maybe two if you’re clever. They require you understand how to use the broom, creativity, and an understanding of how staves work in combat in order to pass the gist on.

Humor requires you keep moving because you’re subverting patterns and expectations. The surprise broom weapon is a surprise once, the nervousness and tension accompanying its use will last you one scene. This is why, in a wuxia setup, the broom gets broken at an opportune moment to become a staff. We continue with the surprises by turning the tables one way or the other in order to keep the audience invested.

The weapons your characters choose are reflections of their decision making, they will say something thematically about them whether you wanted that connotation or not. Fight scenes are built on stacking advantages against disadvantages. Instead of just building a single chessboard, you put the chessboard on a spit, play for a bit, and then spin it to rearrange all the pieces when a new challenger enters. That shifting tension is where the interesting parts of the fight scene happen. How you get that tension doesn’t matter, really. The first step is recognizing that it’s there. The underdog serves an important conceptual purpose when balancing out what the character can and can’t handle.

That’s the external logic.

There’s also the character’s internal logic of why they chose this particular weapon. It can be as simple as they ran through the hall closet or past a bunch of cleaning supplies left out by the janitor.

They started by grabbing the bucket, threw gross soapy water at their enemy, then ran out of things to do with the bucket. So, they threw it at their enemies and grabbed the mop. The enemies slip on the soapy water spread over the floor, buying the protagonist time. The mop worked okay at keeping the enemies away, but the head was heavy because of the water and didn’t swing well. So, they threw it and ran. The time their enemies spend getting past the mop buys the protagonist time to find a new weapon, but less than last time. The bad guys are almost on them when, finally, they locate the broom. Trapped in an empty hall without a good exit, against three (now soapy) enemies. They went, “well, why not?”, whip around, and brandish it broom head first.

They look at the bad guys, the bad guys look at them. Then, the three bad guys look at each other and laugh. While they’re distracted, the protagonist lunges in. Attacks with the broom.

In this example, you see the internal logic based on character’s choice of action combines with the Goldilocks pattern of threes.  We know the third option is just right. The second is we get closer and closer to the right/best available choice.

The bucket didn’t work, and has no reach. The worst that happened was the bad guys got wet. However, the water on the floor provides the character time to get to their next weapon. The mop sort of worked, but the head was too heavy. When they throw it, their enemies trip over it, buying them time but less than before. The broom isn’t perfect, but we’ve seen how its a better version of the mop. However, the situation has changed and the protagonist is now in a worse situation than before.

The audience receives catharsis, has confidence in the character’s choice, but new problems have arisen to create new tensions. On top of that, the scene has served the secondary purpose of showing the character’s problem solving skills.

The changing environment gives the protagonist a chance to shine without hampering the tension provided by the three unnamed mooks, whom we know are dangerous because the protagonist wants to escape from them. The protagonist isn’t trying to beat the mooks, they’re trying to escape (because they’re smart, they know three on one is terrible odds. Take note from The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. Six bullets, seven enemies. Numbers kill.) They try to run, but the situation forces them to fight their way out.

Here’s what we learned from the scene: they picked the best weapon available to them, they’re capable of using their environment to help them, the change in terrain can provide an advantage (enemies trying to get across a slick floor), long weapons are good against multiple enemies (they create barriers), and light weapons with smaller heads are better than heavy ones.

Our protagonist is clever enough to turn a situation where they face overwhelmingly poor odds that should get them killed or captured to their advantage. The audience gets a tense fight and a chance to become invested in the main character’s survival. We answer all our narrative questions.

This is how you show a character is good at fighting. It’s not beating an enemy that matters, it’s how they did it, what the odds were, and how well you paced the fight itself.

The answer with everything is that it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea or not. Stories don’t exist in “good ideas”, they exist in “what happened when these two things combined?” What happens when a Chinese martial artist skilled at staff combat picks up a broom to defend themselves? What happens when a teenager picks up a broom? Both situations equally have the potential to be interesting. The question is, what happens? Munchkining your character to victory won’t help them, giving them better odds just means you do more work to stack the odds higher against them.

The odds and outcome will decide for the character whether their choice was right or not. Every weapon will have strengths and drawbacks. There is no one size fits all. A gun is great, provided you stay at distance but, eventually, you’re going to run out of bullets. Swords are great, if you know how to use them, but there’ll be situations where they won’t work. Both sword and staff could get stuck on a doorframe. Too many enemies is absolutely certain death, even for the most skilled combatant. A fight scene is heavily dependent on where it’s occurring, what’s happening around it, and where the priorities of the combatants are.

This is where the narrative’s internal logic is important. As the author, you can decide lots of things externally and be focused on Point A and Point B. You can get caught up on external themes. You can get caught on the plot you’ve envisioned, or the decisions you made prior to starting the story. However, if your characters aren’t justifying those choices through their actions in the narrative then all you have are dolls getting smashed together.

Essentially, like lots of authors, you skipped the question of: why the broom?

I don’t care why you decided on the broom. At some point in your life, author you thought it would be cool. No, I care about why your character decided they were going to carry this broom around with them. Why did they pick it up? Why did they decide to keep it? Spend some time thinking about the broom, and not as a combat weapon. Think about the logistics of carrying this thing around, what your protagonist is going to do with it, how other people react when they see it, how they feel about the broom. If this is challenging, just take a day and carry a broom around with you in a public place. If that’s too intimidating, then do it inside your house. Every time you move, everywhere you go, pick it up and carry it with you.

I can tell you, having had to carry staves around before, it’s gonna get annoying pretty quickly. However, you will figure out how to set it so it doesn’t fall over, rest it on your shoulder, and all the other day to day bits your character will need to do when they’re not fighting with it. Your ability to convey the broom and its importance to your audience is what matters, and the most important bonding factors have nothing to do with its usefulness to fighting.

She uses a broom because she either knows how to use it, is comfortable using it, or is confident in her ability to use it rather than another, better weapon. Or, ditch the broom and go with the staff. It is one of the most innocuous weapons.

Lastly, unless you’re really stuck on Mulan, I advise you to focus on figuring out basic staff movements in the cross-pattern before getting stuck trying to figure out (much less write) Chinese martial arts. Wushu is very pretty, but you may break your brain trying to figure out the mechanics of the neck spin trick as seen in the broom fight scene from Cowboy Bepop. If you haven’t figured out or conceptualized the concept of attacking with two ends interchangeably, grasping the reasoning behind the circular sweeps might be difficult.  (For reference, this is what the Mulan staff work translates to in real life martial arts competitions.) The question you need to answer is not just why your character fights with a broom, but why would they choose to if they were trained to fight with a staff? It is really easy to take one and get the other. So, why keep the broom intact?

-Michi

(Starke and I are still sick, so I apologize for any grammatical errors, slips in this post, and nonsensical sentences in this post.)

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Q&A: Two Weapons From Two Periods In Versus = Bad News Bears

I’m working on this story and for plot reasons there’s gonna be a spear vs. Poseidon-style trident one-on-one fight, so I’d like to ask your take on the trident’s viability as a weapon? And how much of a difference would it make between the other person having a hoplite-style setup of shield and spear, or just a two-handed spear like in Chinese wuxia stories? Thank you very much.

Not all weapons of similar category are the same, or those from a similar time period.

The wuxia spear seen in cinema transitions between being a one handed weapon and two handed weapon. The second hand in a two handed weapon is there for guidance and accuracy, but the techniques can be performed one handed.

For reference, the style you’re probably thinking of is more contemporary with the rapier than any ancient setting and some variants are even more modern.

There’s about two thousand years of technological advancement between the Hoplites and the Chinese martial art we’re talking about. The Wuxia of today is going to cover the martial styles that come out of Hong Kong cinema and Chinese film, rather than the ones that existed when the genre began as a form of Chinese storytelling in 300-200 BCE. This is the Warring States period, and foundational to modern Chinese storytelling. However, when looking at the Warring States period in modern Chinese cinema, it’s important to understand the period is depicted as a fantasy setting not unlike 14th Century Arthurian Camelot. Culturally important, not necessarily represented with accuracy. For example: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Emperor and The Assassin and many other films are set during this period. None of whose martial arts are historically accurate. The characters will also usually have superpowers by means of martial training/enlightenment as that’s a convention of the genre. This is the straight up origin of the Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers trope.

A wuxia hero can fly over/run up walls as a genre conceit, just like a Celtic hero can grow tall as a tree, talk to animals, or ride on the shoulders of salmon. (That’d be Sir Cai. Yeah, that Sir Kay.) Same with the Grecian mythological heroes. If we’re running mythology though, most of this post is moot.

The strength of the Grecian spear is the Phalanx formation, and it’s not meant for dueling. The modern version of the Chinese wuxia genre heavily relies on martial arts that didn’t exist or were not used in the historical period. So, having the wuxia spear go toe to toe with a trident from the Bronze Age would be akin to taking a rapier against an FN P90. It won’t end well. You’d end up with the same issue with any hopilite era weapon versus the basic wuxia spear, one is vastly superior in technological advancement and comes from a period where martial training was not only a thing but highly specialized in concept and materials.

The problem here is anachronism stew, and the assumption that all weapons within a single category are the same or equivalent. They’re not. Even when we step back and try to limit our options, those advantages present in one weapon style will heavily outweigh those in another with almost no way to make up the difference.

What I’m saying is that even if you took the anachronistic fighting style seen in 300, (mostly fine for the first part, but when we break from formation and hit dueling the fight choreography transitions into Chinese spear combat) or this fight scene between Hector and Achilles from Troy where the techniques with the spear are predominately and anachronistically Chinese. Even then, the style used by the wuxia staff/spear in Chinese cinema is going to wreck its day. If you see spear combat out of Hollywood cinema these days, the film choreography is taking its ques from Chinese cinema. This includes The Viper versus The Mountain in Game of Thrones. Compare to combat with the European spear.  Here, we have Roland Warzecha discussing dueling with the Medieval spear and a concept called “claiming the center” which is a necessary component to understanding blocks, counters, and striking distance. This concept did not exist for the Hoplites yet, but it will for any duels you see on screen today.

So, for wuxia, we’re talking a warrior trained in a complete and comprehensive martial style, who has been training for at least four to five years. You don’t pick and choose weapons out of Eastern martial arts, you don’t train in the spear and nothing else. Chinese martial arts are rooted in curriculum. Any wuxia style you look at is going to have movements which stem from a base in hand to hand, the staff transitions into spear, and even into the sword. Take a fighter of a Chinese martial style and they’ll have a grounded base in hand to hand, be able to use both the staff and spear, and possibly other weapons as well. These are martial arts where all aspects feed together to create harmony, and where one technique is the extension of another. While this is our modern understanding of how a martial arts curriculum works, this philosophy is unique to East Asia and India (where it originates.) The Greeks and the Europeans would not have viewed martial arts in the same holistic way, especially as Chinese martial arts are heavily reliant on Chinese philosophy like The Tao. (Also Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.)

There are cultures where you can just grab a weapon, get trained on that specific weapon, and run off with it. We still use these distinctions today with certifications such as knife training or sword training versus someone who is trained. Holistic systems are not built for a smash and grab, take one piece and you’ve consigned yourself to taking everything that comes with it. The weapon style isn’t built for the person wielding it to not understand the hand to hand elements. The concept of specialization is very different in Eastern styles than it is with its Western counterparts. The holistic approach is the purpose behind scenes in Chinese cinema like this one from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the warriors are just working their way around the room switching weapons.

This is important to understand, not just because the Greeks existed in a period before the modern concept of a trained military existed. You can’t separate a weapon from the time period it belongs in because weapon’s technology is still technology. This is scientific advancement. The closest the Greeks had to a trained military were the Spartans and, in the modern sense, the Spartans were highly inefficient. A Chinese martial artist from the Boxer Rebellion would wreck them in fairly short order. The Warring States saw the emergence of personal defense martial arts for commoners, so martial training wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the nobility.

The second problem is here: the basic misconception about two handed weapons.

Most two handed weapons are actually one handed weapons in that they can be wielded entirely with that singular hand. You use the second hand for finesse and guidance, the the first serves for rotation and power. The vast majority of the techniques can be done entirely with a single hand. Light spears like the kind usually seen on screen in Chinese film, are very light. The trick to understanding their movement is controlling their balance point. So, rolling a staff between your fingers or bouncing it off your shoulders isn’t that impressive. They’re parlor tricks that work off the same concept as a soccer ball, you’re controlling and bouncing the staff off its balance point. The same is true when rolling it between your legs, around your neck, shoulders, and the rest of your body.

Drop/throw the staff forward, kick it at its center with the ball of your foot, bounce it off the incoming fighter’s chest, and catch when it rebounds back. Favorite tactic of wuxia cinema.

When you’re looking at the Chinese spear spinning, they’re actually messing around with the balance point to create momentum in order to change position. A foot swipe with the instep kicks the bottom of the haft up to the power hand and into an action position. This works because the guidance hand is already holding the staff halfway up the haft at or slightly above its balance point. The balance point on a staff is found at the point where you can balance it on a single or two braced fingers.

Control of all weapons is based in balance, not in strength. The power of a spear comes from its momentum, and greater ability to generate it. You halve the thrusting power of a spear by gripping it at it’s center, which is the point behind holding it lower and using two hands. (You also have a greater reach, control, and can use spears with longer shafts.)

With the wushu spear, it is not uncommon for the wielder to switch their grip from the end to three-quarters/midway up the shaft. And to shoot it at their opponents from a couched position. A shoot is when you thrust the spear with your back hand and let go, then catch it with the front hand or the back hand before it escapes your reach. This creates a sudden onslaught of speed and power which can be used to break past an opponent’s guard or allow for a quick transition in grip. There’s a spear technique in wushu where you spin the spear around your neck, lock it horizontal on your shoulders, and shoot it out in a strike or simply strike with it from that position while advancing.

This is what we’re talking about regarding attack vectors, a key part of martial arts is getting yourself on an angle the enemy can’t block and there are lots of ways civilizations all over the globe have developed as a means of achieving this goal.

The third problem is this: Chinese weapons work off a foundational concept called information overload.

This is a strategic battle tactic which involves overloading the eye with as much movement as possible. This is part of why these martial arts work so well on film because the same rules apply. The flags and red tufts on the weapons serve this purpose. The more motion there is then the harder it is for the eye to track and, like a bull, your eye is drawn to bright colors. In the case of the basic wushu spear, the figure eight rotation is not just a flourish but an attack. The tip is sharpened steel is capable of cutting, so you get more motion than as a single thrusting attack. The shaft is lightweight, made from softwoods but durable which aids in its flexibility. This is crucial to understanding strike patterns seen in wuxia films. However, you can get Chinese staves with a full steel shaft, which will wreck any bronze era weapon via contact. The spear techniques will coordinate a chain of attacks together in continuous motion to distract the eye and knock the opponent off balance for when the final attack comes.

A dual technique shifting between striking Low at the feet to High at the head wasn’t really a concept for the Hoplites practiced in their spear combat. The European spear will just go under the shield, a Chinese spear will attack the bare feet. You can’t get the vector while holding the spear half way up the haft, but you can when holding it two handed. The fast forward movement where your opponent is driven back is what the cross-step is designed for.

The cross step: Instead of coming at you forward facing, your opponent’s whole body turns sideways, bends the knees and one foot steps behind the other then in front of the other in shifting rotation as you strike downward at the feet in synchronization with each step. There are variants of this shuffle, but it allows the fighter to move forward at a half-run while they rush their opponent and strike at the same time. (This pattern will allow for shifts into different strikes as the body opens, and a myriad of alternate stances. Footwork is the least understood and most commonly underestimated element for non-martial artists.)

They’ll do this until spear/shield falls over, they hit their foot, or spear/shield manages to get them off that vector which they will then proceed to roll over onto another one because they’ve got the footwork to open up the full 360 around their opponent. Spin steps are for direction changes. The basic martial arts strategy is always to begin by attacking the unguarded parts of the body in order to reach the parts of you that are protected. If someone carries a shield, the first order of business will be to get rid of it.

However, the methods in how this is accomplished changes substantially in sophistication depending on time period. This is why you can never count on two similar weapons from two different periods in history being the same. Combat marches forward. Basically, when pairing weapons for combat, you don’t want to choose weapons from different periods in history because technological advancement will wreck your day. A Hippolite is not going to be prepared for a warrior who can shift from a direct line onto a diagonal, much less one who can rapidly circle behind them via footwork. They won’t have the footwork to keep up.

A Chinese martial art style will not only be more efficient in terms of killing, but also more efficient in terms of conserving energy. They can attack more often, more quickly, and be less tired at the end of it. They practice conservation of movement versus the wide swinging seen in Hollywood which is great for camera work but not efficient. The main focus in terms of dueling with weapon/hand to hand advancement is discovering new vectors on which to attack that cannot be blocked. Those vectors shift from major to minor, from shifts in direction, diagonals, to simple adjustments in strike direction. This begins with counters.

A counter is when you block and then shift into an attack, all modern martial arts have these baked in to their training. This is natural, but it wasn’t for the time. This is what happens when your trident or spear gets blocked the first time on its strike, the other spear adjusts past it and comes forward into a follow up strike.

A martial artist trained in a similar style will make this more difficult because of arm position, hand position, grip, stance, tension, and the expectation of pressure in the lockup between two weapons. Both participants would be trying for the same follow up in their attack. A block isn’t necessarily enough to stop a Steel Era weapon, and certainly not enough for weapon from the 1600s. Knock away and strike. Slide around, protect yourself from the counter, and strike. Claim the center.

If you’ve ever wondered why weapons are primarily held on diagonals for defensive positions, this is why. Circular rotation is better for knocking weapons away or applying pressure, thus making it more difficult for the opposing weapon to hold position. The triangle creates a fulcrum of force with both parties attempting to break, adjust, or ease past it.

We do this in hand to hand too, the front hand works for catching, blocking, or redirecting an incoming strike to create the opening while the second hand (your power hand) strikes. It doesn’t always work that way though, the second hand can become the grab hand and you can use to pull the other person forward into a strike from the first hand. While the vast majority of martial artists from holistic styles have a preference for their power side or power hand, they are ambidextrous. They’ll be more technically proficient with the hand that isn’t their right/left primary because that’s the hand which does the guiding/defense/detail work.

In the Hoplite era, the shield is going to be doing most of the work when it comes to blocking. The combat is not going to present much of a threat to a more modern combat style, as it isn’t designed with later martial art or military tactics in mind. The hoplite shield is reminiscent enough of the metal shields of later eras used by the Chinese, so it would have techniques to get past it baked in. You may be wondering what the shield has to do with a trident, but the point is the shield was the best defense they had.

A trident is not a weapon, unless we’re talking about the version seen in Catching Fire. (Which is not, really, a trident.) Here is a historical breakdown on the different kinds of tridents from fishing to hunting to pitchforks and, finally, weapons. It discusses the Shaolin trident, which is also an axe. The trident has the potential to be a weapon, and the design was later featured in several European polearms like the spetum. However, again, the trident is not a weapon by itself. It’s designed with fishing, hunting, or farming in mind. Like the machete, it’s one of the better options you can turn to in a pinch. If its magical, that might give it a leg up, otherwise it will lag behind weapons that are actually weapons. The best advantage the trident has is using the outside tips to catch and lock up the spear to disarm. However, they’re not designed for that. They’d need to be able to catch the spear tip, lock up the spear, and disarm the spear before the other person recognizes what’s happening.

The main problem with the trident is that it’s a gladiator set up. Gladiators are arena combat in the same way prize fights, pit fighting, UFC bouts, and bare-knuckle boxing function. They’re designed to drag out combat as opposed to ending it quickly. Ironically, and much as I hate the stuntmen queuing in Gladiator, this scene emphasizes the point nicely. Maximus is a Roman General, he fights like a warrior. His intent is to finish the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is counter productive to the goals of the arena. The Roman Arena was a show, it’s entertainment. Functioned in the similar vein to modern prize fights with similar priorities, the fighting was structured to extend the show long as possible. The goal is to be as inefficient as possible.

Hence: the Trident.

Visually stunning, memorable, wicked, and, unless redesigned, utterly useless for anything other than surface injuries. The problem is that due to the three heads, the trident can’t penetrate as deeply as a spear. It gets stuck. It’s designed to, in fact, because you don’t need much penetration for fishing and the barbs hold the fish in place. However, while it won’t go deep, it will cause lots of bleeding and surface injury.

This is why the Romans used it in the arena, most of the damage stays superficial and surface level. This is why they carried the net and the knife, because the knife is what would do the actual killing.  Add in some wonky balance issues in comparison to the spear, and you’ve got a weapon at a disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean the design never saw use. There’s the dangpa which is a 17th century Korean weapon. You’ll notice though, it isn’t exactly a Poseidon-esque trident. It’s more like a fork. The head is much smaller, the tips are bladed rather than barbed, and its going for limited penetration with extra pig-sticking damage on the internals. It won’t go as deep, but its designed to make big holes for lots of bleeding. The dangpa was meant to go after pirates, so you get distance, extra damage, and limited chance of the weapon getting stuck.

Just as a general rule, never pair Bronze Age weaponry against martial styles where going into the air is an effective strategy. The hoplite’s overhanded with the spear, which significantly limits it’s mobility options and power. The spinning with the Chinese spear allows the user to create a defense while transitioning up and down the length of the shaft. They can control how close or how far they are from their target without stopping the movement/momentum of the weapon. The weapon style allows for the wielder to use the weapon close to the tip in short form grip and transition back to the end of the haft in order to swing it one handed. The swing will then transition into another position to make use of the ground they’ve gained. Basically, you’d be looking at something similar to the Donnie Yen/Jet Li fight sequence from Hero. We’re talking about someone moving a metal spear fast enough and hard enough that the metal bends as a result. That’s something some styles take advantage of and build toward, depending on historical period. The basic concept here is why you’d never want to pit these martial systems against anything Bronze Age. What gave the Spartans and the Persian Immortals the advantage in their period was the fact they were training and no one else was, but they were outliers.

We’re talking about a combat system designed for a period where a professional military force is nonexistent. The Grecian city states didn’t have the resources to keep a standing military force, they were ad hoc militia. It worked for the period. It didn’t work against the Romans, who had a standing military force that was much closer to what we’d consider professionally trained soldiers.

This is why versus with weapons sucks. Weapons are a form of technology, they belong to specific time periods and they’re designed for the problems existing within those periods.

A character with a Chinese spear out of wuxia legends would get:

Comes from a period where standing militaries exist. (Huge advantage.) Likely trained from childhood, but even if they’re not it doesn’t matter. Trained in a comprehensive martial system. (It is really hard to overstate how important this concept is.) Can chain multiple attacks together, different attacks, different techniques, with footwork, blocks, and counters.  They’re likely a professional fighter.

A Hoplite gets none of these things, and a Spartan (which is the closest they have to professional soldier) would get wrecked in a duel. The guy wielding the Chinese spear is working off a conceptual understanding of martial arts that doesn’t exist yet for them as a culture and they don’t have the luxury to develop. The heroes of wuxia myth have more in common with the knight-errant than they do with the Grecian heroes.

This is before we get to the fact that the Chinese spear can be either steel or wood. The Chinese had the resources to do it, they could and did make spears entirely out of steel from tip to shaft. There’s a huge technological jump between bronze and iron. One will fall apart on you in battle while the other will make the other humans fall apart. You can’t really make longswords out of bronze (the Celts did and they would collapse during battle) because the metal wasn’t stable enough.

China is one of the great martial powers of its region and era, it is comparable to Europe in terms of militarized technological advancement. You’ll get people who argue they were more advanced, which depending on period is certainly possible if not likely. For comparison, it’s basically like saying, “I want a Roman gladiator to fight a knight.” That could happen, but it wouldn’t end well for the gladiator. Or wanting a samurai to fight a US Marine. It wouldn’t end well for the samurai. It didn’t actually, when they encountered the Black Ships.

You can’t strip the training that comes with a weapon to make them comparable to one from another period in history, especially an older one. Early Era spear versus trident would be a very boring fight. They’d both be overhanded and poke at each other until someone died. The one with shield has the advantage because defense and the spear has greater penetration, so that’d be the winner. Give the guy with a trident a net and we’ve got a gladiator arena. It’d be a slow fight, but it’d be more fair. The net provides options, and allows the opportunity to negate the spear/shield.

It might be entertaining though for story purposes, that was the point of the gladiator arena. Entertainment as opposed to efficiency. The goal of storytelling is to be entertaining. The reason for a trident is spectacle and/or desperation, which is still spectacle.

Or the trident is magic.

That might change the rules.

-Michi

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Q&A: How to Fight Write

When writing about a sword fight (or sword and magic fight, in this case) is it better to give a general impression of the fighting, or go into play-by-play detail?

Have this bit from my current Nano efforts:

Dropping into a crouch, Orlya shifted. Head lowered, she prowled sideways along the gnoll. The end of her great tail rose, whipping back and forth.

We need to get out of here, Leah called to her dragon.

Orlya’s rage bubbled in Leah’s brain, a definite negative. There is no time.

Leah swallowed, hand falling to the plas-pistol holstered to her thigh. It wouldn’t do much against the spinosaurus other than make it angry. Pray the spino wants the fish more. Large predators didn’t like to fight unless pressed, and the spino wasn’t a carnosaur. With a closer food source and carcasses on the shore, Orlya’d be less appealing as potential prey. Pass us by, pass us by.

The spino’s head swung, noting the fish carcasses Orlya left. Head lowered, it took a step toward the lake. Paused. Then, the long snout swung back. Great yellow eyes narrowed.

Cor, Leah breathed.

Screaming, the spinosaurus raced forward.

Leah drew her pistol, fully merging into their telepathic link as Orlya sprang sideways. She aimed for the spino’s sensitive parts, the eyes and the nostrils halfway up the creature’s snout. Too small to register as a threat, she moved slowly. The spino’s eyes followed her dragon. Adjusting course toward the cliffs, the creature crossed the ground in massive strides. Leah waited until the spino closed, and fired. Neon-blue blasts struck the spinosaurus dead-on. The blast caught the creature’s snout, left a small hole. No larger than the width of her thumb.

The spino screamed.

Springing off her haunches, Orlya lunged. She came in low, seizing the underside of the spinosaurus’ neck. Her powerful teeth sank deep, blood spurting from the gash. Her jaws latched, unfurled claws sinking deep into the soft ground, and she dragged the creature down.

The spino screamed, scrabbling for a grip with its claws.

Orlya slammed her shoulder into its side, pinning its arms. She yanked, powerful jaws hauling the spino sideways. Stumbling, the spino threw its head up and whipped toward the cliff wall. Dragged about, Orlya lifted off ground. Swung in a circle. Her hindquarters slammed into the rock wall, hard. Pain lanced through their shared bond.

I mean, yes, that is a dragon fighting a dinosaur. However, notice the scene is neither vague nor an exact play-by-play of the situation. The characters are giving you enough of an understanding to follow, but it doesn’t feel like an “and then, and then, and then.” You may start out that way, which is fine. You won’t get it perfect on your first go, it may start out vague and grow more specific as you redraft or start out as a list of what you want that you then break down into action.

The keys to writing a good fight scene is this:

Understanding logical behavior patterns and how matter interacts. The above is a pretty good example of three different species fighting with various approaches based on their natural advantages.  (Though not necessarily scientifically accurate.)

Animals are pretty simple to write in fight scenes once you get a basic understanding of their attack patterns. They’re often extremely effective, but they don’t change much. They fight mostly on base instinct, behavior changing on learned experience. This is going to be different from humans, who are primarily tool users and problem solvers.

In this scene, we’ve got the dragon, a four-legged winged beastie whose fighting tactics are somewhere between a lion and a wolf. (I based her on my cat. Likes falling from great heights to break the back of whatever she’s hunting, it works.) She’s all springing and pouncing, but a pack predator working together with her human partner. Not unlike what you’d expect from a traditional relationship human and their hunting/working dog. This is a symbiotic relationship between two beings who need each other, not a human and their pet.

The spinosaurus is a solo actor, when under threat it uses its greater size to intimidate, close, and ultimately get away. What is its first reaction to a smaller predator latched onto it’s throat? It tries to claw it off. When it can’t uses its greater weight to gain momentum and try to throw them In this case, into a nearby hard surface.

The human would, under normal circumstances, be mostly useless in a battle between predators this big. However, she uses her brain. Of the three, she’s the most strategic fighter. She creates the openings for her dragon to attack. Her weapon can’t kill the spinosaurus on its own, not before it kills her, The creature is too large. However, by hitting it in the vulnerable places where it hurts (the eyes, places where the bones are close to the surface/hitting the nerves, other parts the dino is going to feel necessary to protect), using pain to distract the creature and split its attention. In this way, Leah shows the audience why her dragon needs her just as much as she needs it. The human provides the strategic understanding which makes the dragon a more effective predator in an environment where it isn’t the apex. Symbiosis goes two ways.

You wonder what this has to do with sword fights and magic?

On a simple, conceptual, and very basic overview, all combat works the same. This doesn’t mean you write it the same way because that’s silly. The approach and thinking stays.

What is the situation? The needs? The goals?

What is the environment?

What are the available tools? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?

A character who is a mage and primarily defends themselves with magic is going to be limited by the rules their magic functions under. Specifically: the length of time it takes to cast a spell. Unless they can cast very quickly, they’ll be ranged bombardment or will attempt to stay at range. (Like how you should be behaving with a gun, keep your distance.)

You’ve got a character who can do magic and you can’t? You need to take them down before they get their spells off. If they get their spells off, you dead.

So, you’ve got the one guy who wants to get the mage and the mage who needs to get away. This is how you get a basic setup. Now you know how both are going to behave as actors on the battlefield. Now, you can start strategizing on how one gets to the other.

In order to hit the magic user, the guy with the sword needs to get close enough to hit them. The magic user doesn’t want the guy with the sword to get close because then they focus enough to cast or it becomes more difficult. Their battle is going to function around these basic needs as they try to take advantage over the other, and the increasing difficulty of survival.

Next is the environment. They’re going to use their environment because terrain is a primary means of gaining advantage, often whoever uses it better wins. Whether that’s the spinosaurus throwing the dragon into the cliff face in order to dislodge them, or your sword user running from cover to cover hiding from a mage’s fireballs. They can’t stay in cover because fire. Even if their cover isn’t burning, the area around them is. Fire means smoke and fire is eating up the oxygen they need to keep their muscles moving and stay fighting.

These essential needs and limits are going to change how your characters behave and the strategies they employ in order to win. What’s important is grasping the movement of the battle, the physical ramifications of the actions, and how those affect the characters participating. There are set limitations on the battle i.e. how long your character can fight before reaching exhaustion, and the amount of damage they can do in that time frame. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes someone else gets there first.

The spino screamed in defiance, sides heaving. Blood raced down its neck, pooling on the dirt. Air sick with the stench of raw flesh.

Oh, c’mon! Leah leveled her plas-pistol, sighting down the barrel.

Orlya fanned her wings and frills, hissing.

The spino took another few lumbering steps, preparing to charge.

A flash of silver and ruby dropped from the sky, slamming onto the spino with the full force of its weight. Wings unfurled, body arched over the sail, a red dragon sank his claws into the creature’s sides; seizing the spino’s neck with his teeth. Leah saw his rider perched on his back, pike in hand, wearing red plasteel armor. The dragon too heavily armored.

The spino shrieked in agony, legs giving way. Unable to stay upright, fell forward and landed in a cloud of dust. Jaw smacking the dirt with a sickening crack.

The red dragon’s armored head gave a great shake before ripping upwards. White bone clenched in his teeth, he leapt free and landed on the gnoll. His wings tucking as he fixed Leah and Orlya with his yellow gaze. Blood dripping from his jaws, he grinned.

In Orlya’s case, she doesn’t win. Or, doesn’t have the chance to win.

All the little surface things most writers get caught on that they think are all important are ultimately ancillary. Your characters personalities and how that affects their decision making is ultimately secondary to their available tools and the needs of the situation. What comes after is their unique approach, which is the solution they come up with to win.

Then you add in Newton’s Laws. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” When you throw a bowling ball at a bunch of pins, what happens? You want a fight scene to feel real, you need to have your characters reacting to the imaginary harm in ways that jive with your audience’s expectations. Dem’s the rules.

If you shove someone, what happens? They move or they don’t, but either way their body has to take the force. You got a two legged creature suddenly hit with the great force of another monster pouncing on it from a great height, what happens? It’s going to be destabilized. It’ll fall. What happens when it hits the ground? Hard surface, the force is going to rebound back into it and the environment will respond accordingly. Fall in a dusty area, you get dust in the air.

You stab someone in the leg with your sword, what happens? They bleed sure, but blade’s gone into their muscles. Depending on which muscle that was and where it was, that could be very bad. You ever tried moving with a sprain? Or a cut? Now imagine doing it with a hole right through those muscles you need to move. How do people respond to pain?

Writing a character using a technique and naming said technique is only useful if you understand what the technique does and the effect it has. The effect is what’s important here. That is the show versus the tell.

You’ve got five senses. Use them.

Sight. Sound. Touch. Smell. Taste.

The sound of a scream. The scent of blood in the air, charred skin. Copper on the tongue when a character’s bitten through their lip or gotten blood in their mouth.

Action. Reaction. Action. Reaction.

You did X. I will negate and follow up with Y. However, both actions will do something. Both lead to their own results depending on success. So, what was it?

Orlya grabs the spinosaurus by its neck, a vital organ. The spinosaurus tries to grab her with its claws to drag her off.  In order to stop the spino from hurting her, she turns sideways and yanks the creature around and negates its arms by ensuring it can’t get an angle.

Your body is limited by its options for motion, arms can only bend so far. This is a universal truth, whether you’re a human, a dog, or a dinosaur. A key part of strategy in combat is getting on angles that cannot be countered. Animals will do this out of learned experience, just like humans do.

The spino’s first choice fails, but it doesn’t give up. Next, the spinosaurus lifts its neck to get her off the ground. Using it’s great weight it whips into a turn, gains momentum to throw her into the wall. Like a horse, bull, or other animal, it drags the unfortunate predator on a nearby tree or wall or rolls in hopes the stun will dislodge them, crush them, or break some vital bones. Like the Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that directs the tank into a mountainside while a hapless Indy hangs helplessly.

This is how you theorize a fight scene, and after that its just putting words on a page, drafting and redrafting until it works.

-Michi

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Q&A: Uneven Balance is a Tension Killer

I have a scene in my book where the two main characters fight soon after meeting one another, in an area where no one else gets in their way and they have a lot of flat empty space. Both are very skilled, but only one of them has weapons. It’s set in medieval times, so they only have daggers and such. The character that isn’t armed needs to win, and I’m not entirely sure how, realistically, he would.

I’d ask what two highly skilled characters are doing getting into such a silly situation when they know better, especially the one caught without their weapons. However, real people do stupid things too.  For all I know, they might of been drinking. Just know, the higher the level of training then the less likely it is for two characters to fight when they don’t absolutely have to.  Justification is good. Make sure you’ve got a reason for them to fight that feels natural for both characters beyond needing them to fight for the plot. I don’t know why they’re fighting, for all I know it could’ve started off a drunken row with one yelling, “Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!

These characters don’t actually exist, but it’s important to get yourself in the habit of thinking they could die. I could die is one of the major thoughts that will occur in the mind of anyone who is highly skilled, and more likely to occur than it is with someone who isn’t sufficiently trained.

Hotheads to who jump into fights at a moments notice over a slight or insult with something to prove are beginners. They’re not (usually) seasoned soldiers. Seasoned combatants understand the costs and consequences of violence, both to themselves and the people around them. They’re more likely to make mental calculations regarding risk, assess risk, and decide whether they will or won’t fight. The soldier understands that violence is unpredictable, that death is sudden, and no form of combat is ever truly safe. One mistake is the difference between life and death. Characters who are skilled will avoid violence because they understand its costs. They have nothing to prove. Remember, a knife is one of those “hell no” weapons. No one wants to be anywhere near a knife when they’re armed with one of their own, much less unarmed.

I could die. Is this worth it? I don’t want to die. Is this worth my life?

Often in well-written fiction when you’ve got an incredibly skilled character jumping into fights all the time for no real reason, it’s because they have a death wish. When someone does want to die, simply doesn’t care about living any longer, or sees themselves as already dead then that changes the stakes. There’s also, “I like to fight” which often translates into “I like to kill” in regards to unrestrained violence. Unless there’s a rules set down, two highly skilled characters have an excellent chance of killing each other. The weapons one of these characters has brought to this fight, say, “yes, I do intend kill you. I will make you very dead.”

This doesn’t sound like its a duel, but if you were thinking it might be then I’ll lay down some facts.

Duels are highly ritualized as a form of combat, and come with very specific rules of what does and doesn’t constitute a duel. (Much less the people who can take part in them.) Duels, Code Duello, Medieval Duels. If you’re up for reading some Medieval Charters in regards to dueling as a legal means of settling disputes, here’s some. In some cases, they’re a means of settling a dispute or challenge to ones honor.  We still have duels today as a point of fact, it’s just the duelists and their swords have been replaced with lawyers. For a duel to be a duel, they’d both need to be armed. Usually with the same weapon, otherwise its not a test of skill or fair. Weapons inherently offer advantages over each other, and if you’re not fighting with the same weapon then that would be cheating. This fight between these two is not be what we’d call Right Honorable Combat, and its probably illegal.

“Daggers and such” covers a lot of ground.  It could mean one of these characters has daggers, swords, polearms, or even a flail. Also, when fighting with weapons, you’re usually fighting with intent to kill. If that wasn’t the other character’s intent, they might put their weapon away when facing off against the character who is unarmed. I’m going to assume this unarmed character is squaring off against an opponent who carries a dagger. However, I did note the plurality of weapons. You will immediately run into trouble if you don’t hammer down which weapon the unarmed character is facing, or if they decided to dual wield with the second weapon as defensive. Different weapons require different approaches as each comes with its own concerns. Distance is a major one. The only universal rule is: don’t get hit.

Start with the assumption one of these characters is actively trying to kill the other, if he wasn’t then he’d put the weapon away. Outside of highly ritualized and carefully moderate dueling structures where one might call for time at first blood, a highly skilled character will understand weapons are for killing. With weapons, especially bladed weapons, skill level isn’t a matter of deciding when you kill and when you don’t. It is a matter of deciding whether or not you care to risk your opponent’s death. If they were interested in a test of skill or even just a friendly hand to hand bought, they wouldn’t pull it to begin with. Your main character needs to win this duel because if they don’t, they’ll be either grievously wounded or dead.

Working under a predetermined outcome when writing a fight scene is the worst decision. What we want in our heads won’t necessarily translate to the page, and more importantly characters who know they’re going to live will behave differently from characters who don’t know they will. Simulating the chance of death in your mind by entertaining death as a possible outcome will force them and you to work harder. They’ve got to earn their right to survive.

Now, your character isn’t planning to win because the plot needs to progress. He’s fighting because he wants to live.

Feel the difference? We’re now six inches closer to real tension.

Highly skilled doesn’t translate to guaranteed survival, it just means you’ve got a better grasp of what’s happening, how screwed you are, and potentially have more tools to escape a bad situation. They allow the character to recognize the danger their facing, what the intent of their opponent is, and, hopefully, act accordingly before its too late. There is, however, only so much training can give. Weapons are one of the situations where an unskilled character can make up the difference against one who is highly skilled. Weapons are the great equalizer. A guy with a knife is a guy with a knife. Whether you’ve been training for five minutes or eight years, there’s a extremely high chance of death if you’re unarmed and unarmored. The difference between the person who has trained for five minutes and the one who trained for eight years is that the experienced one has a better understanding of what it means when someone pulls a knife. They know it means they’re at an 80% or greater chance of death. They know a wrong move could, at best, result in an injury they may never recover from. Their chance of victory is razor thin where the margin of error is next to none. This is why smart warriors don’t fight other people with weapons without weapons of their own or, if they cannot avoid it, change the rules.

I’m going to assume too that you’re going with the old Defeat Means Friendship trope. You want Character A to be fought to a standstill by Character B who disarms them, then when put under threat to their life surprises Character A by letting them live and giving them back their weapon. (Which promptly causes Character A to stab them if we’re being realistic, but that’s not what the trope is about. If you want this trope, please give the weapon back later.) The problem, of course, is you’ll completely undercut Character A’s combat ability if you do it wrong.

Personally, my favorite rendition of this trope is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood film with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland where Robin Hood dueled Little John on the bridge with a staff after Little John called him out over his bow. Robin took Little John’s challenge (he can’t resist a challenge), dueled with a weapon he was less familiar with, lost, and got dunked in the river. Their friendship was born out of Robin Hood’s good humor over his bath and his appreciation for Little John’s skill. (This is a great foreshadowing for the archery competition later in the movie.)

In the film, we had plenty of opportunities to see Robin’s skill earlier. Little John needed to establish himself. By having him beat Robin with the weapon that is his specialty, we as the audience understand how skilled he is. Just as when Friar Tuck fought Robin to a standstill later as Robin attempted to recruit him. (And his men pranked him about the good friar’s skill with a sword, aka they lied.) Robin’s friendships with his men evolve not from his skill or how he’s better than they are, but in his ability to handle defeat gracefully and genuinely appreciate their skills. In both moments, we see him duel to test out these potential recruits. In both, he gets a good dunking in the river that is entirely his own fault.

You see, Robin establishes his ability much earlier in the movie when he lays claim to the deer killed by Much the Miller to protect him from Sir Guy of Gisborne. He then carries it into Nottingham Castle. (Saxon taking an illegally killed deer into a castle full of Norman knights alone.) Dumps the deer carcass on Prince John’s table in the Great Hall during dinner, and proceeds to tell Prince John, Sir Guy, The Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marian, the Bishop of the Black Canons, and all his knights over the dinner he’s invited himself to that he’s planning sedition to fight John’s rule. After hearing him out, John attempts to have him killed by the castle’s men at arms and all the knights present. Robin, still alone, then fights his way out of the Castle.

In the process he shows off his sword skills, his archery skills, his moxie, his fluency with treason, his strategic/tactical ability, and his quick thinking. (The fight scene that follows is probably one of the best if you ever want to write one person versus a whole room full of people. It involves the fine art of running away with purpose and the occasional murder.)

We know about about Robin. We know he’s brash, reckless, and incredibly skilled. That’s why the later fights with Little John and Friar Tuck have so much meaning when it comes to establishing their skills. They can go toe to toe with the guy who strutted into Prince John’s castle as a wanted man then got back out again while the heavily armed and armored inhabitants tried to kill him.

Whatever purpose you have for this fight scene, it’s important to remember what it is establishing in the relationship between these two characters. Take the lesson from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and understand it isn’t enough just to win. The fight scene needs to be there for a reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the kinds of fight scenes you write must revolve around what you’re trying to say about these characters abilities. Two characters you want to be seen as evenly skilled need to fight evenly. Friendships aren’t built on superiority. The protagonist being beaten is a different category from all other fictional defeats, it doesn’t delegitimize them the way it will a character we spend less time with. For the protagonist, defeats they survive are learning experiences and we learn far more about a person by how they handle defeat than we do when they win.

Robin Hood isn’t less awesome because he loses to Little John at the bridge, he’s actually that much more incredible than he was before. We learn its not just his skills he appreciates, but those of the people who best him. We know Robin is willing to fight others on their terms for the fun of it, rather than his own. Little John being better than Robin at one skill doesn’t take away from Robin’s previous victories. Robin’s acceptance shows his abilities as a leader better than being superior with a staff he made five minutes prior.

A character fighting another character when they have a weapon and the other character doesn’t isn’t showing that both are equally skilled. It’s actually showing one with a significant advantage over the other. When the underdog beats him, the underdog is shown to be much more skilled. That’s the point of unevenly balanced fights in fiction.

Little John: “I’ve only a staff and you threaten me with a long bow and a gray goose shaft. Are you not man enough…?”

Robin Hood: “Give me time to get myself a staff.” – The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Two characters fighting with the same weapons are on an even field, this is a battle of skill. Two characters fighting with different weapons are unevenly balanced, the shifting advantages make the combat difficult and the scene becomes about one character problem solving around their disadvantage. A scene where two characters are highly skilled but one is armed and the other is not will end with the unarmed character either dying or proving they are that much more skilled than the one with the weapon.

Disarms are difficult against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. There is no room for error, especially with a knife which can cut six different times in six different ways before you’ve a chance to grab it. Disarming someone who knows what they’re doing with their weapon is much harder.

A knife offers no room for error, every strike has the potential to be deadly. In order to disarm your opponent, you need to catch them by the wrist (not the knife) which puts one in direct line to get stabbed. You’ve got to catch the knife while simultaneously keeping yourself outside of stabbing distance. You can kick a knife out of someone’s hand, but then you don’t control it. You can attack the person instead of the knife as some self-defense disciplines encourage, with the theory being the person can’t use their knife if they’re disabled but so long as the knife is in hand that’s the present danger. Understand that inside their range the knife is as dangerous as the gun, if not more so. The knife is still as relevant today as a weapon as it was a thousand years ago. Think about that.

Daggers are essentially short swords, but the same principle is here. To stop a knife when one is unarmed, you need an immediate and brutal response. You need an immediate and brutal response when you’re armed too. This is not a weapon where you’re given time, consideration, and distance. It is fast, brutal, and over quickly. Any hit, even a glancing blow, has the potential to be end game. Character B can’t allow themselves to suffer no injuries, otherwise they’ll spend the next few months hoping their stitches don’t get infected or they’ll bleed out before they can get medical attention. This can be a problem as, against a knife, it’s often necessary to give up a body part in order to take it. It can’t strike other, more vital places if it’s in your hand. (Not a great option.) Or buried in the bone in your forearm. (Better.)

When fighting, one actually has to work around the knife. This is easier said than done, again knives are fast. They’re near modern fencing levels of fast while also much more deadly. They’ve got a lot less distance to cover and they’re very sharp. Forget about catching the blade unless your character has solid leather gauntlets (though those might get cut), metal is better.  They’re going to need to stop the arm long enough to take hold of the wrist and twist the dagger out of the enemy’s hands.

Disarms against weapons, especially when you have none of your own, are always incredibly dangerous. Skill means you can do them at all, but it doesn’t make them any safer or any more of a good idea. Gun disarms are for when you were going to get shot anyway, and you might as well go down fighting because there’s less than a 50/50 of success. Knife disarms are the same way.

The sad truth is that disabling someone is much more difficult than killing them, it is much riskier, and you’re much more likely to die in the attempt. We double that against someone who knows what they’re doing. Weapons are serious business and they’re designed around killing human beings.

Good fight scenes are about progressing the story forward. They teach us about the personalities of the characters involved, how they work, how they think, what their morals are, and they communicate more through the character’s actions than you think. Be careful with what you’re attempting to say.

An unarmed character disarming a mook with a knife will tell us a lot about their character without damaging anyone (except the mook we may never see again.) An unarmed character encountering and disarming another major character with a knife is a very different story, especially when this is the first time we meet them.

By and large, the rules of action are these:

  1. The protagonist is the baseline for understanding all narrative violence. They are the net point, all audience understanding of skill within the narrative begins with them. You want a character the audience understands is better than the protagonist? They beat the protagonist or beat someone established as being better than. (The villain murdering your martial arts master.) By constantly winning the protagonist undercuts everyone else.
  2. Have your protagonist lose or fight opponents to a standstill, usually on mostly even ground.
  3. They can defeat and disarm an important enemy, but only that enemy has thoroughly proved their worth in battle and you don’t wish to use them anymore. It can be a redemption kickstarter, but we need to witness their villainy and skills first. The hero better earn this win.
  4. Keep your characters on a relatively even playing field for tension unless there’s a very specific reason not to. Unarmed characters versus armed characters may seem like an easy way to establish skill, but you are catapulting them into a level of action you and they may not be prepared to make good on. (Also if one character beats another at the previous character’s specialty, what’s the point of that character?)
  5. Violence escalates and your story will escalate with it. Unless utilizing a different sort of action (see: Robin Hood), you can get caught in a cycle of enemies ratcheting ever higher in skill in order to maintain tension.
  6. Your villain is either more skilled than your hero or on an even keel with their own advantages that ensure they remain dangerous, no matter the humiliations they may suffer throughout the story. (Robin Hood steals Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s tax collection while he’s traveling in the forest, kidnaps him and his men, humiliates them, and makes them walk home. Sir Guy sets up an archery tournament and takes him captive, planning to hang him. He is saved by Marian, who sneaks out of the castle and visits his men with a plan.)
  7. Set your hero at the disadvantage, but stay within the realm of reason even when that reason may feel ridiculous. (Wesley fighting Fezzik in The Princess Bride.)
  8. Understand the kind of action you want in your story. Realism is the rules of reality within your setting. Worry about abiding by them and maintaining suspension of disbelief.
  9. Do not be afraid to humiliate your hero in order to set up the skills of other characters. If Character A is the protagonist, then Character B taking the knife from him could result in a good life lesson. (This is a traditional plot point when the protagonist meets their martial arts master. Not so great for showing two characters of equal skill level.)
  10. Inside out, rather than outside in. The justification of a fight is character driven as the character justifies the narrative. Violence is a means of problem solving, if your characters are not problem solving then they’re not using their skills effectively.
  11. Fight scenes are there to support your narrative, they do not have to be there. Don’t let the fight scene override the rest of your story. Act to maintain your tension.
  12. All violence must be paid off with resulting character interaction later in the narrative. Violence almost causes more problems than it solves.

Saying two characters are highly skilled is not enough, you need to show it and show it as a means that undercuts neither. A character who has already been proven as a great fighter earlier can lose to another in order to bolster that character’s cred with the audience. Remember, the POV character and protagonist always have more starting cred to their name than any other character.

I know that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I hope it helps.

-Michi

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Q&A: Spears and Scythes

heya. I sent an ask awhile back about two people engaged in fighting with staffed weapons. one with a cross-spear, and the other with a scythe. i should’ve mentioned it is not a farm scythe, but the war scythe (i just assume when i say scythe people know you mean not the strictly meant for farming one, but i digress). anyway, i just wanted to throw that up since im sure the thought of someone fighting with a farm scythe makes your eyes bleed by this point.

Our eyes do bleed a little bit when it comes to scythes, though I personally have no issues with the scythe as a magical weapon or a space fantasy/science fiction one. I don’t have a problem with Deathscythe from Gundam Wing. The best way to get past the scratch and sniff test is to call it a “war scythe” because then we’ll know what you’re talking about. However, if one really wants to fence with a traditional scythe, 16th century aristocrat Paulus Hector Mair has you covered. (It should be pointed out, this section of the manual is for dueling with the farm scythes rather than using it as a preferred weapon. If you look at the drawings, you’ll understand why.)

Let me start by saying that staff combat is going to look fairly different depending on culture.

It can look like this (Joachim Meyer) or like this (Andre Paurenfeindt) or like this (Paulus Hector Mair, peasant staff) or like this (Monkey Staff) or like this (Jo Sparring , Aikido), or like this (Kalaripayattu), and so on. You’re asking about European polearms so a site like Wikitenaur that catalogues and translates manuals from European masters is going to be your friend.

When discussing martial combat with polearms, the staff is important. Whether you’re talking about a spear or a war scythe, remember they’re in the same weapon family.  The staff is their base weapon.  Both build off those training techniques, and the differences come in with the weapon’s head. When you’re setting out to write any fight scene, you want to begin with understanding the base or fundamental weapon. If we don’t grasp how a staff works or functions in single combat then we won’t understand how the spear, poleaxe, halberd, or war scythe do either.

A single leap carried Varien to wall above the Templar’s courtyard, and he dropped inside. The magical barrier rose behind him, rippling in the air as Sariel circled overhead. The first Templar in the yard stood with his back to him, an old gruff man with a craggy face. Varien thrust the tip of his spear through his neck, severing the spinal column and exiting the esophagus— a single clean stroke. Planting his bare foot on the Templar’s padded back, Varien kicked him forward.

“Rolf!” cried a wide eyed, flaxen haired youth on the training sands.

The Templar stumbled, gurling. His hands clawed at his throat, blood rushing down his neck and collapsed on the green.

One of the girls closest to the wrought iron gate leapt for it. Her hands flashing with the dispelling magic Templars prided themselves on. She lay her hand flat against it, then released. Grabbing the bars, she gave it a hard shake. The gate stood firm. Her eyes widened.

Well, well, there may some life in them after all, his lips twitched.

A step forward and he crossed the courtyard, re-appearing between the trainees practicing sword technique on the sands.

The first boy cried out.

Varien struck him hard across the jaw with the butt of his spear. Leaning back as the second boy lunged, blade sweeping into a downward hew, he rolled around behind him. The boy stumbled. A single, one handed thrust sent the spear point through his chest. Whipping it free, Varien spun his spear round and sent it on an upward diagonal through the first boy’s neck.

Together, they died without a sound.

In a written fight scene, the importance doesn’t lie in being technically accurate. What helps is understanding how the weapon is supposed to work and, as a result, how it moves.

As you see in the example of above, Varien thrusts with the spear but he also utilizes the butt of the spear to strike. Switching up between various angles to strike between the first and second boy. He uses both sides of his weapon. He strikes the first with the butt of his spear to take him out of the fight, gets out of the way of the second boy’s strike, rolls around behind him and kills him with a thrust. Then, we see him switch the spear back over to strike in the other direction.

The danger with a polearm in a fight scene is focusing too much on the spear point and forgetting the shaft. In dueling, the staff is dual sided. We use the tip and the butt with the shaft itself for blocking.

The staff is a dynamic weapon, it moves. Sweeping arcs rolling into thrusts, striking with both sides of the weapon, changing hands, you’ve got a full eight point strike pattern that has the possibility to constantly be in rotation.

The major difference between a spear and a scythe is the spear point utilizes thrusting as the weapon focus while the scythe makes use of a heavier head for slashing (see also: the naginata). Both the spear and the warscythe can cut and thrust, but each has moved toward a single specialty. A weapon’s specialty drives it’s strike patterns, how it moves, and that dictates how we translate it on the page.

The spear wielder is going to stab and the war scythe is going to cut, and both will make use of the basic staff patterns for striking. If they come from the same culture or master’s style then they’ll use the same staff patterns, if they come from different schools then they won’t. What matters for you as the writer is learning how to visualize their move sets so you can choreograph them on the page.

Cut translates into: down, across, diagonal, around, rotate, swing. This is a circular pattern, you’ve got to line up the blade on to the strike, so if you’re going to swing it sideways, the whole weapon must rotate sideways so the blade points at the opponent. One hand guides the weapon, the other yanks back to create leverage for the blow.

Stab translates to: thrust, forward, jab, stab, drive, etc.  You want words that exhibit forward and direct momentum. The attack lines will be direct, and the spear is not going to move much off it’s focal point.

The war scythe is going to make use of leverage while the spear comes at you directly.  If it helps imagine one as a sabre and the other as a rapier. Circular versus direct.

Also, consider the hands. These weapons are both predominately two handed weapons. Though the spear can be used one handed, and it is in some schools of thought.  However, it’s thrusting power is diminished because one arm does not equal two. You can couch it like a lance. One handed will allow for some angles that can’t be reached otherwise. The spear can be dual wielded, but (and this is the big but) if you have trouble imagining one spear in motion then good luck trying it with two. They can also be thrown, but if you throw it remember that needs to be recovered.

We utilize our hands on a staff weapon in a manner similar to the longsword, one hand acts as the guiding hand and the other is the rotational hand or the power hand. With the war scythe, that second hand is going to be important because the second hand is where we get our leverage. Hand position on these weapons is often fluid, you can move up or down. The further from the center of the staff weapon you get, then the more reach you have. There’s also more power in the swing, but you also have slightly less control.

Remember, you can strike to all points of the body so going for the lower body like the feet and the legs are options.

Head (both sides and to), throat, chest, stomach, groin, arms, hands, legs, and feet.

The cross on the spear is just a cross-guard, it keeps whatever you’re poking from climbing up the weapon to reach you. There’s no special move set associated with it, really. A cross-spear won’t over penetrate, and the defensive measure keeps you from losing it in your target.

-Michi

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