Tag Archives: writing reference

I asked about the feasibility of a dual-bladed cutlass as an anon earlier, and am sorry if I over complicated the question! Here’s a rephrasing: Is this a doable weapon in a melee situation like a siege on a town? What are some possible downfalls and advantages to a weapon like that in the hands of a military-esque trained pirate? Thanks again for your time!!

It’s not really doable to wield two at the same time and a military-esque trained pirate (like a former officer of the British Navy) would most likely be wielding a saber instead of a cutlass. You can dual wield in fencing, but that’s using a long dagger and the second weapon is meant for defense. You can also fence with a small shield. Dual wielding swords, unless they are short swords like the butterfly knives/swords of Wing Chun, is a bad idea because the blades get in the way. Unlike escrima “sticks”, where you don’t harm the weapons by banging them into each other during early training, a swordsman is more likely to harm and be hampered by the length of the weapons when striking, the weight of his weapon in his offhand, and is at risk for destroying them when he clangs them together. Your character will have better speed, dexterity, and striking power with just one.

Edward Kenway fights with two sabers because the game is, I guess, trying to make a point that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing and that shows in his style when compared to Ezio or Altair. However, your military-esque pirate would probably carry four pistols and those would be more useful to him. Pirates carrying multiple pistols was also a real, historical fact. Edward’s fighting style is actually hampered by the fact he’s carrying two. The Assassin’s Creed IV doesn’t make a point of that though. You will notice, though, that Edward commonly uses the offhand weapon for defense.

There’s a bad habit in Hollywood and games where it’s believed that two weapons used together equals more skill or more offense. I personally blame D&D, but the second free hand is important for balance, used for distraction, has more dexterity, and creates better openings than a second blade. Also, and this is important, your pirate would not carry two swords. Why would he carry two swords when he could carry a pistol and a sword at the same time?

This is important logic.

-Michi

Character Development: Superhero Powers

Character Development: Superhero Powers

Okay so I was wondering how for one of my fight scenes the twelve year old could beat an adult. There are two characters in the scene, one a renowned assassin trapped in the body of a twelve year old and a 22 year old information broker who’s armed with a knife. However, the info broker is kinda hesitant (he’s not a bad guy) although he knows what he’s doing. Any tips on how it should go? The child is aiming for the kill.

Well, you’ve got a serious problem and so does your assassin. (For purposes of the question, I’ll assume it’s a he, change to the appropriate pronoun as needed.) Although he has all his training, knowledge, and experience, he’s suddenly taken a huge hit to his coordination, speed, strength, weight, and bone density. Not only that, but because of his previous training in a much larger adult body, the reach he’ll expect to have versus the reach he’ll actually have are world’s apart. Even if he was originally trained as a child, the days where this could have helped him in a physical sense are long behind him. He’s going to have to adapt to work under an entirely different rule set, all of which will leave him vulnerable to getting killed if he tries to continue in his line of work in the same manner he would have as an adult.

He can’t fight the way he used to and the best choice for him (which he’d know) is to not fight at all. Assassin’s aren’t really trained for standup, straightforward scraps anyway. If he’s intending to kill the Infobroker (I’m not even going to ask why, but infobrokers are more useful alive), then he’s going to stalk him and kill him, preferably without the infobroker seeing him or he’ll use his child stature to get close to him and prove he’s not a threat before shanking him somewhere lethal.

In a child’s body, he’ll be much more reliant on surprise and he’ll be walking the razor thin line (which he’ll know) that if he gets caught, he’s dead as opposed to when he got caught before, he only might’ve kinda been dead.

No more jumping off rooftops. No more sniper rifles. He’s going to be limited to a very small subset of guns that don’t have much recoil. It seems weird to me that he’s not carrying a knife on his person, unless he has a rather thick skull and hasn’t gotten it through his head yet that things are no longer business as usual.

A child has two major means to beating an adult: surprise and superior force of arms. They can’t take them in one on one physical combat, it doesn’t matter how skilled they are or what they’re willing to do. Your twelve year old is about four to six years away from having a body that can use those skills. So, alternate approaches are necessary.

The Infobroker is not a bad guy, which is something he’ll pick up on because an assassin should be good at reading people and social situations. The Infobroker, like most non-psychopaths when faced with a small child, doesn’t want to kill him. He’ll use that to his advantage. Your assassin can do two things, engage in a game of cat and mouse by running away and coming back later at a more opportune time or he can curl up in a small ball and start to cry. The crying is a ploy to get the Infobroker to drop his guard, once that happens, he’ll take the knife and shank him.

If neither of these solutions work, the assassin will run with the purpose of leading the Infobroker on a merry chase to a place where he can fight to his own advantage. This may be a place he knows like an alleyway with a ready supply of objects that can easily become improvised weapons. A place with lots of people so he can convince the cops to arrest the infobroker and then sneak back in to offer him a means of escape from the precinct in exchange for information.

He can’t straight up fight him, but if the infobroker has something he wants, then the body he’s in is a convenient way to convince other people to do his fighting for him. This can be anyone from random bystanders, to crooks, to convincts in lockup, to policemen on the force. He looks small and innocent. He appears to be helpless. People who would have spat on him before will help him now.

The answer to the question is: the character must use the advantages he has access to and his brain, not the traditional combat skills he never used much anyway. Though, if he’s famous, he might not have been doing his job right anyhow.

This isn’t me saying don’t do this and I know it’s not what you were after, but it’s important to recognize the limits a character is placed under and how they use those limits to prove who they are. The most interesting thing you can do with a character who is exceptionally good at their job is put them into a situation where they have to use skills that they haven’t spent a lot time cultivating. You get all their experience but also force them to deal with the world in a new and different way. Your assassin can’t just pick up where he left off. This includes many of the combat skills he’s cultivated over his years in the profession, he has to deal with life as a child and with a child’s limitations. If he remembers what it was like to fight adults as a small child, then he’ll know what he’s in for. If he doesn’t, then he better learn quickly or risk not just death, but crippling injury.

-Michi

On Writing: Gun Safety

readingwithavengeance:

Few things will tick me off faster than improper gun safety in fiction.  Unfortunately, many authors fail to properly research guns, gun usage, and gun safety.  Guns are so ubiquitous in our culture that many people think that they already know all they need in order to write gun usage into a story, but what one picks up from cultural osmosis is even less accurate than your average summer blockbuster.

Deaths and injuries from gun accidents are distressingly high, and most of them could be prevented by following the three basic rules that every gun user is taught (assuming they go to a professional class). 

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Cause and Effect: Fight Scene Examples

One of the things that really sell a fight scene is the physical reactions and it’s one that many authors overlook, even if these things are just external. So, let’s do some examples with a few different sequences to show how fights can be improved with the inclusion of a few crucial details.

Example 1: John hits Grace in the face and she kicks him in the shin.

In this example, we’re going to do two characters that are friendly with each other. One of the best ways to run fights between men and women is to treat them as equals within the context of the narrative. Below, we’ll show a few different sets that include more details that will really help your fight sequence come to life.

1a:

John punched Grace in the face. Glaring at him as her jaw set, Grace snarled, “you bastard!” Pulling her leg back, she drove her foot into his shin.

The above is serviceable and one you will see in many different novels and short stories depicting violence. Though sparse, it covers all the bases by depicting an action and a reaction. Both of which are important. However, you don’t get anything more than that and while serviceable, this example isn’t what I would call “alive”. Let’s add some normal human reactions to getting hit and see how it changes.

1b:

Drawing his arm back, John drove his fist into Grace’s nose. Head flying as her eyes locked on the sky, Grace stumbled. Her left foot slid on the concrete and she braced the heel of her sneaker against the rough ground. Her hands rose to cover her nose, eyes squeezing shut. A single tear leaked down her cheek. Head coming forwards, nose throbbing, she glared at John over her fingers.

“You bastard,” Grace snarled.  “What the hell did you do that for?”

“You weren’t listening!”

“Oh?” Grace said, lowering her hands. “Well, jackass, listen to this!” Grace stepped forward, left leg pulling back and struck out. Her instep slammed into John’s shin with a solid crunch. John yelped, his right leg lifting off the ground, head dropping as he leaned forwards. Seizing the back of John’s head with her fingers, she forced his skull down and rammed her knee upwards into his face.

Now, this is much better. The head moves when it’s struck due the kinetic force of the strike and because the head is knocked, the body becomes unbalanced causing the fighter to stumble if they were unprepared for the hit. The hands automatically move to protect the injured body part, in this case the nose. From the pain in the nose, the eyes shut and water causing the fighter to cry (though they don’t feel sad).  The result is the fighter feels angry and, if the other person didn’t move to take them out of the fight, may strike back as Grace does here. While there are a few more things that can change here and there, there’s one big one that can be added: sound.

1c:

Drawing his arm back, John drove his fist into Grace’s nose. Head flying as her eyes locked on the sky, Grace stumbled. Her left foot slid on the concrete and she braced the heel of her sneaker against the rough ground. Her hands rose to cover her nose, eyes squeezing shut. A single tear leaked down her cheek. Head coming forwards, nose throbbing, she glared at John over her fingers.

“Boo bas-turd,” Grace snarled.  “Bhat da bell did boo do bhat fer?”

John covered his mouth. “I didn’t hear that, Grace,” he said. He leaned forward, hand cupping his ear. “What did you say?”

“B’oh?” Grace said, lowering her hands. “Bell, backass, bisten do dis!” Grace stepped forward, left leg pulling back and struck out. Her instep slammed into John’s shin with a solid crunch. John yelped, his right leg lifting off the ground, head dropping as he leaned forwards. Seizing the back of John’s head with her fingers, she forced his skull down, knee ramming upwards into his face.

The decision whether or not to add a change in vocal patterns is entirely up to the writer, but it emphasizes something important (and funny) that can happen when someone gets hit in the nose (or bites their tongue). Because the nose helps govern the sound of our voices, getting hit in the nose can change what we sound like. However, the decision on whether or not to use this should depend entirely on the situation or what you’re trying to say because the character will sound a little foolish. Now, you can use this feeling of foolishness to great effect if you’re writing in First Person or Third Person Limited, but it may hurt how the audience perceives the character right out of the gate because, you know, it’s funny. It can also make the other character look like a jackass, which if you want the character of John to by sympathetic, may hurt them in the long run.

Writing Exercise: Sketch out a fight scene for yourself, much like the first example, then write down on a separate piece of paper your own experiences or what you’ve seen elsewhere about how the body reacts to getting hurt. Then, include those feelings and reactions into the descriptive aspects of the scene. See what you turn out.

All examples were written by me. If you find these helpful, I may do more. Happy Writing!

-Michi

Control Points: The Head

Disclaimer: The material present in this article is meant for academic study and writing only. It is not meant for instructional use in your everyday life.  This information will not be useful without physical instruction from a qualified instructor. If you are interested in this information within the context of self-defense, please seek out a martial arts school or self-defense program in your area. We are not liable for the harm you do to yourself or others with this information. We are also not liable for the legal ramifications that come with those actions.

In this article, we’ll discuss the weak target points on the head in order to help your fight sequences become more detailed.  The conventional martial arts advice is “where the head goes, the body follows”. The body has an instinctive desire to protect the head and face from attack, a clever fighter can trigger these instincts in a less (and even sometimes more) competent one by understanding how to use the body’s protective instincts against an opponent. A character can make these instincts work for them if they realize that they are there, they may learn to trigger them intentionally against someone else. They may not know on a conscious level or scientific level that they are doing it, they may simply be working off their combat experience or techniques that were taught to them by a more experienced instructor. They may not know how it works, just that it does. You, the author, need to know because you are the one who must relay these actions to the audience in your story. There is a vast difference between what an author must know and what a character may know, you are the deciding force behind the character’s actions and you must be able to communicate to the audience what happened in the scene. Fighting is, at its heart, a very sophisticated and scientific animal. To communicate it effectively requires a functional understanding of human behavior, bodily reactions, an understanding of the body’s physical form, and a good solid sense of physics.

So, today, we’re going to talk about the vulnerable places on the head and how they can be exploited in a multitude of different ways to distract a target and create openings in the guard that allow for finishing strikes. This won’t cover everything, but it should be enough to get you thinking.

Control Points:

The Skull: On the top of the forehead, there are dents in the skull where the plates are fused together. By placing pressure on these dents, one can effectively force the head to move in any direction (preferably backwards). The skull is made up of around eight different bone plates that are fused together. The places where they are structurally weak can be exploited. However, for the untrained or even general martial artist, these can be difficult to find in the confusion of combat.

The Hair: We covered a lot about the hair in a few articles, including Hair Pulling. The hair can in certain cases provide a good grip for fingers, be used to drag the head back or slam it forward. The hair follicles are all nerve endings which can cause pain (distraction) when pulled. If the brain is thinking about something else (ouch, ouch, it hurts!) it is less able to muster up the necessary concentration in order to fight back.

The Back of the Head: The bone in back of the head is actually much softer than the front. While it’s not a good striking point for hands, it is a common one for blunt force trauma using an object or by driving the head (when controlled using a control point, such as the hair) into something solid such as a wall or concrete. To abuse the back of the head in hand to hand, one must be facing their opponent. This usually only comes into play if they are close to a wall or on top of them when on the ground.

The Bottom of the Skull: The bottom of the skull, where the spine joins with the skull and the brain. It’s difficult to affect with hand to hand, but a strike from a knife, a sword, or a bullet can kill.

The Temple: The temple is an open gap and soft point that can provide direct access to the brain when struck. Pinpoint strikes may go here such as with the knuckles (in Taiji Chin Na), with the heel of the foot, or with a knife. Striking here will cause a loss of equilibrium and balance

The Forehead: The forehead is the densest and hardest point on the human body, which means that while a frontal assault is usually a pointless endeavor, bouncing the brain off it can get interesting. Much like the back of the head, the forehead can be a focus point for blunt trauma strikes (baseball bat, crowbar, tire iron, piece of wood) or be driven into a wall. Since the head must go back to go forward, someone driving the head into the wall or ground will have to be behind the individual. And in tips from Contemporary Knife Targeting by Michael Janich and Christopher Grosz: “Some traditional edged weapons systems such as Japanese iai-jutsu (sword drawing and cutting), purposefully target the forehead because it is highly vascular and, when cut, will bleed into the eyes, obstructing vision.” (20)

The Eyebrow: The eyebrow can be easily split or cut to bleed into the eyes, which is why it is such a popular one in professional boxing. Doing this with bare hands is not recommended because the forehead is so solid and one can cut their knuckles, which allows their opponent’s blood to mix with theirs, but it could be a priority target for someone wearing armor, brass knuckles, or using a knife.

The Eyes: The sense a human being relies on most is their sight, they cannot block what they cannot see. You know that instinctual reaction you have when you see something coming towards your face and know you can’t get out of the way; you squeeze your eyes shut? This is why. The body knows the eyes must be protected. Blind someone, temporarily or permanently, and they will have difficulty fighting back. This can be anything from blood in the eyes, to thrown dirt or sand, waving a knife blade near the eye, to faking out the peripheral vision by forcing someone to protect high when the attacker is actually going low. Moving towards the eyes will cause someone to flinch, while covering the eyes may cause them to panic. Strikes to the eye can be distraction based or lead to permanent injury, deep enough strikes to the optic nerve can cause unconsciousness, they can even kill by puncturing the brain (most commonly with a #2 pencil or a pen).

The Nose: We can go round and round about whether or not a palm strike to the nose can kill but, either way, the nose is a vulnerable target. Striking the nose, even if it doesn’t break, will cause swelling which can obstruct an individual’s vision, cause their eyes to water, and on impact to close. Placing the knuckle of the index finger directly under the nose and above the upper lip can be used to force the head back and the eyes up, creating openings for escape from grabs.

The Cheek: The cheek is a good control point because it can be used to drive the head sideways using the flat of the hand and create openings. A strike from an elbow coming in from the side can cause someone to bite their cheek hard enough to require stitches. Strikes to the cheekbone can lead to swelling and bruising, which can obscure vision.

The Mouth: We normally think of the mouth for biting, but the truth is getting knocked in the teeth really hurts. Knocking the head around can lead to someone biting through their tongue, biting their cheek, losing a tooth, all of which results in blood in the mouth. Enough blood in the mouth is a choking hazard and a hard enough bite can require a trip to a hospital, try to imagine how your characters would feel about spitting out their front tooth in the middle of a fight (or worse, a piece of their tongue).

The Jaw: The soft point at the back of the jaw where it connects to the skull is a vulnerable point that when struck can cause a knockout. However, the jaw has other uses too. Striking it specifically can lead to the jaw becoming unhinged or forcing it to clench (bite down), which means that it can chew into some of the mouth’s vulnerable places. This is why all sparring involves wearing mouth guards and why I side eye books that fail to mention mouth guards very hard. Most professional fighters will clench their teeth reflexively when they fight, those who spar will be practiced at breathing through their nose. They may or may not exhale through their mouth when fighting (mostly not).

Under the Jaw: Striking up under the jaw can cause the head to knock backwards, this is where some of the traditional palm strikes and uppercuts come in. However, a persona can also grasp under the jaw to control it (fingers should avoid the mouth or be bitten). The hand and forearm can also wrap around from behind and press up under the jaw to force head backwards, characters may do this when taking hostages or forcing someone else to look. A common way professionals will avoid taking a head butt from someone knocking their head backwards is to control the skull this way, allowing the neck no freedom of movement and pressing their cheek to their enemies’ ear.

The Ear: The ears, through sound, can control someone’s sense of equilibrium. Disrupt that and they may experience vertigo. The human being is very sensitive to sound and one of the best ways to screw with the brain is by hurting the ears. The ear is vulnerable to being boxed (two fists or palms come in on either side to strike inwards against the outside of the ears), they may be stabbed with a knife, or someone may scream into or use a blowhorn at close range (pressed up against the ear) to force a person to respond in a predictable manner (loss of balance, stumbling, falling over, etc).

Under the Ear: under the ear, there is a pressure point that when pressed can cause a substantial amount of pain. This pressure point is commonly taught in self-defense courses. A person who is familiar with this pressure point may also use it to stimulate response and keep themselves awake when tired.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and individual styles will all have their own methods and techniques of making use of these things.

Recommended Reading:

FightWrite: The Only Unfair Fight is the One You Lose Pt 2 (Brutality)

On Hair Pulling

Pulling Piercings

If you have a strong stomach:

Contemporary Knife Targeting by Christopher Grosz and Michael Janich is an interesting read. However, because the discussion is knives, it’s gory.

Taiji Chin Na by Doctor Yang, Jwing-Ming discusses the seizing art of Tai’chi and could be useful for those of you looking to learn about joint locking systems outside of Japan.

Speaking of knives and daggers, what about throwing them? Is there a difference? Can you explain?

The best knives for throwing are the ones that have been designed and properly weighted for it, you know, throwing knives. Knives that were created with the intention of being thrown. When throwing with a knife or dagger that is not for throwing, one must work to actively counter the uneven weight distribution to ensure that the pointy end goes into the target. Otherwise, it will harmlessly bounce off their chest. (It’ll hurt some, but hey, it’s their lucky day as you just gave them a knife!)

In the sub-spectrum of knives and daggers, it’s important to remember that there are many different kinds and each weapon has it’s own unique weight even ones that were forged to be identical or created by machines on an assembly line. So, every time a character throws a knife, they’re going to have to adjust to it’s weight and point of balance. If they are practiced at throwing, then they may do this automatically but it’s a good idea to give the nod anyway because it will lend a sense of realism.

Secondly and most importantly, despite it’s recent popularity as “the skill” in the YA genre, throwing a knife has very limited practical combat applicability. In the long run, the knife or dagger will be more useful to your character in their hand than it will be in some schmuck half-way across the room. The schmuck may be dead, but now your character has lost their knife. Depending on the setting they exist in, a well-crafted knife could be expensive and hard to come by. Even when using general throwing knives, every knife lost is one that they’ll have to replace and that can get expensive, fast. Most characters aren’t going to have time to go scouting through the bodies of the people they’ve killed looking to get their knives back and will view any knife they throw as an acceptable loss.

Unlike an arrow, which can’t really be used as a weapon (or makes a useful one) when not on a bowstring, a knife can be picked up by the enemy and used by that enemy against the knife’s previous owner. If you’re going to give your character knife throwing as a skill (but it’s weird when it’s knife throwing but not knife fighting), then this is an important concept to keep in mind.

Knife throwing can tell the reader that a character is comfortable with their knives, was possibly in a lot of situations where they were very bored with their knives, or they are living in a time period where they need to be able to conceal a ranged weapon and guns are not available. However, throwing knives is a tertiary skill, not primary one. You can’t really substitute archery for throwing knives and vice versa.

One of the qualities about the first Assassin’s Creed that I really liked was the mechanic of having to find new knives after I used up all the ones I was carrying. The game gave me two options: travel all the way back to the Assassin’s home base or pickpocket the local brigands. It was a nice nod to the fact that weapons do not self-replicate automatically and an important one to keep track of.

-Michi

You don’t need to answer this but I want to thank you for taking the time to walk me through the kidnapping thing! actually, it’s the kidnapper’s girlfriend, not the victim’s, who’s there who the kidnapper is avoiding to kill (it’s a complicated situation… and pronouns can be confusing sometimes sorry), but the situation is sort of like a Taken thing, where there is a system in place but it’s opportunistic. thanks so much though! sorry for all of the dumb questions I’m so embarrassed

Don’t be. What you’re doing right now is learning how to think, how to feel, how to plot, and how to plan from a perspective that is not your own. It’s a difficult thing to learn to see through the eyes of a career criminal because what they are willing to do and what you may be willing to do in real life are (quite literally) world’s apart. It’s fine if it doesn’t come naturally (and also fine for those out there whom it does). It is an important concept to start grasping and sometimes you need some help.

But since this is your antagonist and your antagonist (not your hero) is the backbone of the story through which all the actions revolve around, it’s important that those actions make sense and more importantly that they ring true to shared human experience. For someone who has never had to think this way, it can be very uncomfortable.

It’s also worth noting that while the kidnappers in Taken are opportunistic, their decision to take the girls is not a random snatch and grab. The tell comes from the handsome young man at the airport, who is the acting forward scout perusing and befriending potential victims (in this case young women traveling alone in a foreign country), when one of the girls gives him the address of where she’s staying and admits that they will be alone (in hopes of some vacation sex), their fate is sealed. The girls are identified and the kidnapping is planned in advance.

There are a few primary factors for why these girls were chosen:

1) They were naive enough to give away the place they were staying to a complete stranger.

2) They were traveling alone in a foreign country and because of that, it would be more difficult for the police to search for them as no one knows who they are and they are already busy enough dealing with local crimes.

3) There were no obvious signs of protection (in this case, due to the kidnapper’s religion and background, men) and because the family they were staying with was out of town, it was likely that no one would notice if they went missing until the girls were already across several borders.

All these things, information the man at the airport charms out of one of the girls, is the logic behind for their kidnapping and the setup for what’s going to happen in the story. The movie isn’t exactly coy about how one thing leads to another, but I also understand how that could be easy to miss as it’s not spelled out. (We do see the man at the airport chatting up another woman and playing the same gag when Liam Neeson jumps him for information.) If any of these things had been out of place or the girls in question had simply not fallen for the man at the airport’s charms, then the kidnapping would not have occurred. If Liam Neeson’s character had been traveling with the girls at the time, the kidnapping would not have occurred. But he wasn’t there and at the time, in the minds of the kidnappers, the threats he gave were empty ones because he was in a different country.

A career criminal doesn’t waste time and energy on unknown quantities if they don’t have to and they don’t usually have to. An airport is a logical place to scout for targets of a kidnapping and if those girls hadn’t fit the bill then there would have been several hundred others getting off different planes who might have made for good targets.

The most important skill you will ever develop as a writer is learning to identify and show to the reader: why these people? Why them? Why now? It’s not enough that the reason just be that they are your characters, there needs to be an underlying logic that works both in context of the overarching narrative and jives with the person (in this case the kidnapper) who is making the decisions. If you want your characters to come alive, then they have to seem human (or relateable) and we do that through human behavior. This particular logic isn’t savory and it’s a little difficult to develop, but you’re only just beginning. Through practice and dedication, you will improve and you were brave enough to ask the questions to begin with which is a sign of courage all on it’s own. Inexperience is not stupidity, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

-Michi

How can I make my action scenes come truly alive? I’m writing a lot of modern warfare, and am still trying to decode the process of a typical battle. Just trying to make it feel real. Is that something you can give me advise with?

Fight sequences live in the same world as the rest of your story in the rules of show and don’t tell. You’re going to have to let the sequence play out with an eye for selling it’s believability to the reader. Violence itself can be an intrinsic part of the human experience and everything you write should be trying to keep it in line with how individuals experience the world around them. Here are some tips:

Actions Have Consequences (Character Development): One of the best way to make a combat sequence come alive is to make it integral to your overarching story. This may seem obvious, but it’s actually amazing how few writers actually do tie combat and character development together or use the combat to further their character’s development in the story. The truth is that a fight sequence shouldn’t be treated as an outside force, but as part of the narrative, what your soldier characters experience in battle needs to follow them through the story. It may provide the crux of what inevitably uplifts or destroys them. Their experiences on the battlefield should have an effect on their interpersonal relationships, their personalities, and their outlook. If it’s not changing or affecting those things, then it often comes off as false.

Use these sequences to show something about the character’s experiences outside the of sequence’s necessity in furthering the plot. What do they feel about their own actions? What do they feel about the actions of their teammates? How do they feel about the civilians they are either protecting or whose country they are invading? How do they feel about killing those people?

Actions Have Consequences (Physical): Actions have physical consequences. When someone gets hit in the face, their head knocks backwards or sideways depending on the direction it was struck. They can bite their cheek or their tongue, which leads to blood being in the mouth or feeling pain in the teeth if the person in question forgot to tense or lock their jaw before they were struck. If someone is hit or shot, even if that person is an enemy, the character may notice their physical reaction to the experience. Gun fights in particular are nasty because they are over very quickly and it only really takes one well-placed bullet to put someone down. However, the consequences of a character getting shot should be on the page, including whether or not they have to take the character with them, patch them up, or try to console them in their last moments. Soldiers in particular are trained to think and behave as a group with an eye on the good of the whole, having to make a decision about whether or not they can take their wounded comrade with them or leave them behind to complete their mission, especially if the medical unit is not close by can be a good source of drama.

But whether it’s bullets ricocheting, someone getting punched in the gut, the physical effects the characters have on their environment is important to document to add that sense of realism. So, develop a grasp of physics and body mechanics because they will be important to beyond just word choice and language to selling the sequence to the reader.

Make Use of Your Set Pieces: Acknowledge the environment the characters are fighting in and the challenges it represents. For example, because kicks and knee strikes rely on friction to function, most combatants will be choosy about when and where they perform them based on terrain. The surrounding environment is important to helping the reader connect with the character because they don’t feel like an amorphous blob in a story where you could change where the fight happens and everything would still stay the same. If the character isn’t connecting with their environment, using their environment, their enemies using the environment against them, or finding that the environment is hindering them because they don’t know how to survive in it, then the fight sequence has a problem.

One of my favorite action movies, for example, is the first Die Hard. John McClain is trapped in a skyscraper trying to save his wife from thieves posing as terrorists. You have John’s internal struggle, his desire to reconnect with his estranged wife, while dealing with the fear of possibly losing her as the terrorist thieves discover more and more about him as he proves to be a proverbial thorn in their side. But better than that, we’re shown a character professionally capable of handling the situation (he’s a cop) but lacking the means to do so (he doesn’t start the movie with a gun or shoes). So, McClain must figure out a way using the infrastructure of the building to take on a great many well armed guards and subvert the terrorist plot. The movie is known for it’s utter willingness to beat the tar out of it’s hero by having him sustain injuries as he attempts to stop his enemies. These injuries are used as a second source of tension in the movie, watch how the running gag about McClain being unable to find a pair of shoes that fit lead to him cutting up his feet on glass scattered across the floor from bullet fire. Then, watch how his enemies use his bloody trail as a means of tracking him, adding yet another layer of tension and worry over whether or not he can succeed. Die Hard is definitely over the top in the same way most action movies are, but it was a reaction against most of the films in the 80s. It’s a great example of how to make a story, even one that is exceedingly over the top, still feel incredibly, nail bitingly, real.

Whether your characters are worrying about snipers on the rooftops in a confined urban environment, trying to identify and shoot targets through a window while trapped on the third story, fighting their way up a staircase, picking up a pen off a desk as a means of self-defense, or transforming someone’s liquor cabinet into an arsenal of Molotov cocktails, it’s important to track how a character deals with their surrounding environment, how that environment affects them, and what part it plays in a fight.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Quivering in her chair, Leah watched as the man in black approached the desk. She could hear the shouts of her father’s bodyguards outside, yelling for reinforcements. The crack of gunfire snapped through her ears and her teeth rattled, numb in her mouth. Echoing through the open window, the rat-a-tat-tat of controlled bursts filled the courtyard below her father’s office. There were more yells. Then, each familiar voice fell silent.

Her palms pressed against the desk, the green felt scratching at the pad of her right index finger. Sweat left her hands slick as she chewed her lower lip and wide, damp circles darkened on the papers detailing “The Trans-migratory Habits of the Native Red Squirrel”. It was the essay her father had spent the last few month typing up for the Chamber of Controlled Ecosystems. He’d refused to use a computer, she remembered, this document was typewriter only.

“So,” the man in black said as he placed his hands on the edge of the desk. “We meet again.”

Leah stiffened, teeth sinking into her lower lip. “I guess,” she replied, swallowing. Father always said it was important to sound calm. She looked down, eyes darted sideways to the ballpoint pen tucked halfway underneath another pile of papers to her left. Her father loved stout, metal pens. She leaned forward a little, letting her fingers inch towards it. A pen wouldn’t be as good as her father’s letter opener, but the man in black would definitely notice if she went hunting through the drawers. Leah’s eyes closed. “I mean,” she said. Keep your voice steady like Father taught. “I don’t know who you are.”

“No?” He asked.

Leah’s fingers closed around the pen. She looked up at him, meeting his clear, blue eyes. They were sharp and hard like the ice that froze the courtyard pond every winter. The courtyard pond that was probably now filled with red…she sucked in a deep breath, shoulders tensing. He was right, there was something familiar about those eyes.

“No,” she said. He tilted his head. Now or never. Leah shoved herself forward, body shooting across the desk as she seized his wrist. Yanking him towards her, off his feet, as he crashed into the edge, she lifted the pen high into the air. His right arm sent her father’s World Cup mug crashing to the floor. Her thumb pressed down on the top and she slammed it into the back of his exposed hand.

The man in black let out a howl, something caught between a scream and a roar, as he reached towards the wound. She let him go and he stumbled back, grasping the pen. Leah wasn’t going to wait for his response. Bracing her hands under the edge of the desk, she heaved upward and pushed forward. It toppled, much more easily than she’d expected, to the floor. All her father’s work dumped to the ground. Leah turned on the ball of her foot, racing around the desk as the man in black let out another savage cry.

She hit the door, fingers fumbling for the knob.

“You won’t escape from me, Leah!”

Glancing back over her shoulder as she shoved the door open, Leah swallowed. “I can try,” she said. Then, she slid out into the hall and slammed the door shut behind her.

It’s not perfect, but it might give you some ideas.

If you’re stuck on how the military works, it’s important to note that because Army field manuals are published by the U.S. government (Department of Defense/Department of the Army) that they are available to the public for free online as pdfs. This wiki page has the links, they may be helpful to getting a better grasp of military armed conflict.

-Michi

Hi! I was wondering if you have any resources on Tae Kwon Doe fighting styles? I have a female character (16 years old) who has been studying it for about 3 years. She’s not a prodigy at it or anything, but she isn’t terrible, either.

Ah, Taekwondo. Yes, I can tell you quite a bit about it. It’s a good thing you don’t want her to be a prodigy, because in the land of competitive sport martial arts competition is fierce and competing is really the only way to get any real name recognition in the national (sometimes even just local) martial arts community. There have been a few prodigies to come out of the sport, one of the most famous in the United States is Ernie Reyes, Jr. Who at the age of eight in 1979 was the first child to ever qualify in the National Top Ten (in the Adult Division). His father Ernie Reyes, Sr has also had a rather illustrious career. This is the second (and most important half) that when coupled with phenomenal talent allows a child prodigy to be successful.

So yes, good that you decided not to go with a prodigy.

As far as things go, Taekwondo isn’t actually a very old martial art. It has it’s roots in taekkyon and subak but has since evolved into it’s own martial form. Taekwondo dates back to 1957 as the official name for Korean martial arts. The Korean Taekwondo Federation was founded in 1961 and since then has gained worldwide popularity and recognition. The World Taekwondo Federation was created in 1973, taekwondo was accepted into the Amatur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1974, and became an officially recognized Olympic sport in 1988 where it was a demonstration sport. It has since become a medal sport. Taekwondo is an internationally recognized martial art that is practiced by more than twenty million individuals in 112 different countries. (Taekwondo Techniques and Tactics, p14) It is primarily a sport martial art with competitions ranging from the state, national, to international with events in the Junior Olympics, Collegiate Championships, World Games, World Cup, Pan American Games, and the Olympic Games (Taekwondo Techniques and Tactics, p14).

Taekwondo is primarily practiced as a competitive sport, but there are many dojangs that do focus their training on health and fitness or train for self-defense. It is not really practiced as a combative martial art outside of South Korea. So, if your character is serious about her martial arts career, she may be on the tournament circuit. If she wants to go to the Olympics, she’ll primarily focus on point sparring, if not it may be: forms, creative or open forms, breaking, and weapons to name a few. Most competitive martial artists do all of them. In today’s world of sport martial arts, she may also be into tricking which like the open forms above is a combination of precision kicking, high flying gymnastics, and dance routine choreographed to music. (Technically, any martial artist who focuses on kicks can do tricking, including karate, capoeira, different kung fu disciplines, etc. Taekwondo with it’s almost total focus on precision kicking at the upper belt levels just makes it a natural fit for the creative and gymnastically inclined). To train in Tricking, she’ll probably be taking gymnastics and dance lessons on the side. If she’s not, then there will probably be at least one or two (if not a whole subset) in her school who do. In a community sense, those kids who are into tricking or the tournament circuit will be the school’s rock stars, however, the flip side is that their entire life will pretty much be based out of the dojang (life, school, friends? what’s that?).

After three years in the taekwondo system, she’ll either have just received her black belt (1st degree, choganim) or be in training to take the test. This is at least a four day a week commitment to the school with early Saturday mornings thrown in for extra conditioning (she’ll probably have started doing these at blue or brown belt). How that test is run is going to depend on the size of the school and the instructors involved, my black belt tests were through the Ernie Reyes World West Coast Martial Arts Association which had the involvement of twenty or so schools and they were (are) huge, day long affairs with hundreds of testers participating and thousands of audience members who come for the night show in the evening. Your character’s school may be much smaller, possibly somewhere between 40 to 100 students with a testing group that could be anywhere from two to fifteen. The school will probably shut down on a Saturday or Sunday every two to three months to run belt rank tests.

Taekwondo: Taekwondo as a martial art is pretty much all about kicks. There are quite a few hand techniques which are mostly used in the different forms (sometimes sparring), but the primary focus is on precision kicking. The upper belt ranks and self-defense training steal a few joint locks and wrist breaks from jiujutsu and depending on the dojang, the curriculum may be padded out with some MMA ground fighting (jiujutsu/judo).

Character building:

Ask any white belt with two or three months of training what he has learned from his martial arts experience and the answer may surprise you. Certainly he will talk a lot about improved flexibility, strength, and overall fitness, but he is likely to conclude by pointing out improved self-respect and self-confidence. Through many long hours of arduous training and struggle to overcome fatigue and other physical limitation, the taekwondo practitioner perseveres to forge his will and enhance his life.

The taekwondo school (dojang) is a special place, a world unto itself. You take off your shoes before entering the dojang and when you step onto the practice floor. In the dojang, you are introduced to a code of ethics and morality that teachers nurture and strictly enforce. Respect, discipline, self-control, and honesty are words you hear—they are concepts you learn to live by. The new adult student will learn a lot about humility. Everyone comes to the school at the same level, regardless of race, religion, economic, or professional status. No one is given special consideration, and everyone is judged on diligent practice and dedication to the school, the art, and to each other.

(Yeon Hwan Park and Tom Seabourne, Taekwondo Technique and Tactics, p 2)

This is important to understanding and building your character and the supporting characters from the school including the instructors and the other students. In a Taekwondo studio, the instructor’s favorites and the school rock stars are going to be the kids and adults who spend the most time at the school. They’ve earned their status and they’ve earned the recognition they get from their fellows through years of dedication. They will also often be humble and spend a lot of time giving theirs back to their community. Higher level students are expected to donate and volunteer in lower belt classes. When your character started at 13, she may have had assistant black belt (1st, choganim and 2nd, busabumnim) in instructors helping the Head (3rd degree, sabumnim) and Master (4th degree bukwanjangnim or 5th degree kwanjangnim) teach the classes who were her age or slightly younger.

This can be frustrating for some students, especially adults, in the early years at a studio because physical age has almost nothing to do with showing respect. The color of the belt around the waist means everything.

It’s not just talent that sets someone apart in the school, it’s time. She’s probably already volunteering her time after school and before her own evening classes to work with the younger students.

Taekwondo dojangs develop a strong sense of family and community, the longer she’s been with the dojang, the more time she’ll spend there.

Most martial arts programs are actually fairly racially diverse, so her classes will usually have one or two (or more) ethnic minorities of either gender (though the instructors may or may not be white). For example: in my school, almost all the instructors were minorities and they ranged from African-American, to Hispanic, to Chinese, and Japanese. The uniform and rank are what you see, the rest stops mattering.

Lifestyle Hint: Quite a few black belts in their teens and in college pick up summer jobs working at their school once they’ve spent several months (or a few years) volunteering. They also can develop contacts among the parents of the younger students and pick up babysitting jobs on the side. After I joined the dojo, the people my parents hired to babysit myself and my brother were always late teen and twenty something instructors from our martial arts school.

Martial Arts Schools:

If her head instructor is a martial artist full time, then it’s important to understand that martial arts schools are a business. They have to attract a student population to survive and it is a very, very, very competitive thing. One of the few things that a martial artist can do with their knowledge (beyond becoming a stuntman) is teach, so many martial artists attempt to open their own schools. If the school is successful, then it has a high level of involvement in the community at large.

So, it’s important for you to come up with how she found her school before she received her training. What got her inspired and involved? She could have discovered her school a number of different ways.

Through a friend: this one is common, she may have had a friend who was a student at the school recommend her. Or through a birthday party, this is more for kids under ten, but often martial arts schools will host birthday parties for students and provide a freebie lesson with special activities.

Through a sibling: in a successful school, many kids who have a participating older sibling often get enrolled by their parents.

Through a parent: families sometimes sign up together as part of a family activity. Though, the parents are often the ones who stay long after their kids quit or have gone to college.

Through a demonstration: many martial arts schools put on volunteer demonstrations at local elementary and middle schools as a means of attracting students. They may participate in football half-time shows, special assemblies, or parades.It may have been something like this (which was how West Coast lured me in).

Through a desire for self-protection or a self-defense seminar: many instructors offer self-defense seminars in their local area and this can be one of the major ways they attract students.

Through a workout class: most martial arts schools offer workouts like kickboxing or yoga or other kinds of routines on the side to draw in the fitness crowd. If her mother or father is a health nut, this could be how she found the school.

Through an ad in the local paper or magazine or a flyer at the YMCA or at her school: this one is self-explanatory, but many martial arts schools advertise this way.

Martial arts schools have a fairly high turnover rate (less than 50% of all students make it to black belt) and they’ll offer classes for a range of ages, beyond just belt ranks. When she was younger, her parents may have used the martial arts school as a proxy “After School Daycare”, which would mean that she spent a lot of time there. Martial arts schools primarily make their money with the little kids, so there may be a higher focus on the small ones over the big ones. Kids have more free time in the afternoons and Adult classes will be later in the evenings (after the adults get off work).

These schools are often closed in the morning and open at 2 or 3. The classes happen in descending order and are often arranged by age, the youngest and the lowest belt ranks are earliest starting with the littles (4-6) and working up.

The school’s average schedule per day may look something like this and most classes last an average of 30-45 minutes:

White (poss Orange) (5-8): 3:00pm

Yellow -Green (7-10): 3:45pm

Blue (poss Blue I) (7-13): 4:30pm

Brown (poss Brown I) (8-13): 5:15pm

Red (poss Red 1, Red-Black) (9-14): 6:00pm

Black (10-15, Adult included): 6:45pm

Adult: 7:30-8:15

This is the weekday. Weekends: Saturday Morning: 9:30-10:30M. Often, they’ll be closed on Sundays. Saturday Morning Trainings will happen at a local high school or park and will be devoted to practicing techniques on a variety of terrain and conditioning. 7am to 8:30am is the usual.

Because the adult classes are smaller, they tend to have more belt classes lumped in together.

This is getting long in the tooth so: Recommended Reading:

Taekwondo Techniques and Tactics by Yeon Hwan Park and Tom Seabourne: this book will be very handy to you because it covers all the important bases from forms, to techniques (including combinations), how to choose a school, and the rules for point sparring competitions (and diagrams of the layouts). Everything you’re going to need to know to build your character’s base is in here, including tactics for how to use Taekwondo for self-defense.

We did an article on Basic Kicks: it’s a three part series

This article on Training and Physical Contact which may also be useful to you.

Commonly known fact: because of the focus on kicks, Taekwondo practitioners are notorious for dropping their hands when they fight and forgetting to guard their face. This can occasionally get them in trouble when they face practitioners from a different style.

Hopefully, this will help get you started.

-Michi