Tag Archives: writing reference

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.


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.


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.


I have seven teenagers against five well-trained, enormous, agressive men that double their size. The teenagers are 14 years old and have a very basic training on self-defense. The men attempt to kidnap them. How should the kids proceed? What’s their best chance? They have 5 minutes until help comes. I guess there will be some broken bones, isn’t it?

Unfortunately for you, five minutes is more than enough time for five well-trained men to capture seven teenagers with rudimentary training, especially if they have them cornered with nowhere to run. Self-defense training is meant to prepare one to face untrained assailants, not professional kidnappers, soldiers, and ex-special forces washouts.

The problem is that if they are kidnappers, then they are likely professionals and that means they are looking to extort something from them or their parents. They’ll have already chosen their targets and it’s unlikely to be a random chance event, instead it’ll be a premeditated targeting. This drastically reduces the teens chances of escape. They definitely won’t be able to hold them off. The men will be better at incapacitating them than they will be at holding them off.

The kidnappers will probably be carrying tasers and cans of mace for the express purpose of capturing the teens as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because the men are trained, they will work together regardless of their personal feelings with a focus on their goal. You won’t be able to break them up the same way you can with amateurs. These are professionals, they’ll have a game plan and several backups before they attack. They will be quick and efficient. Their preference will probably be to keep the teens alive, but that can go downhill quickly if they face serious resistance.

Now, much of the sequence is going to depend on where they are and who the five men are after. Do they have a specific target among the seven teens? Are their faces visible (if they can be identified, it’s likely that none of the teens will survive if they are taken)? What do they plan to do with the teens once they have them? Are they taking all seven or are some expendable, if so, which ones? If the kids give them problems, they may have to make some very harsh choices about who lives and who dies, who is expendable and who is not. If they are being taken to extort the parents, then it’s likely they will be handled more gently. If they are being taken for the slave trade, then the early troublemakers will probably be killed.

Assuming they are willing to incapacitate all the children (instead of killing a few) and have a vehicle close by, it’s a question of who they decide to take with them.

Run and hide is the teens best chance, if they stand and fight they are doomed. There aren’t enough of them to take on all five, especially not if the five are working together with a goal to capture only one or two of them. If they are capable of thinking on their feet, grabbing some sort of makeshift weapon is a good idea. What that weapon is will depend on what’s available for them to grab. So, think through your setting.

A few might try to be brave, but it’s the well-trained part, beyond enormous and aggressive that’s going to get the teens in serious trouble. Well-trained will mean that the men are good at working together, it means that they will be able to dispatch or incapacitate most of the teens in less than a few minutes, if not in a few moves. Ironically, the ones who put up the most fight will be dealt with first and harshly to make an example to the others. Because they are pressed for time (they may not know how much time, but they’ll know the kids have to be taken quickly) this may lead to them being sloppy and more likely to remove the troublesome ones. After all, seven are nice, but you don’t need them all for a payday. It would be best if no one got hurt, but if the kids push, it’s likely that someone will.

How to Survive a Kidnapping: take a look at this article

A Look at Kidnapping through the Lens of Protective Intelligence

Man on Fire both the books and the movie with Denzel Washington are worth looking at for how kidnappers operate.

Taken: I don’t recommend this Liam Neeson movie for the combat (it’s not bad, just not right for his SAS background), but it’s a good look at how kidnappers operate especially in the sex trafficking trade.

I also recommend watching the Burn Notice episode, Hard Bargain. In the meantime, check out the IMDB quotes page for the episode though this one happens to be my favorite. Burn Notice has a few great episodes dealing with kidnappers. Here are a few good quotes:

Michael Westen: [voice-over] A kidnapping is a business deal. The bad guys have negotiating power since they’re selling the life of a loved one. But then again, they have a market of one, so they *have* to work with you.

Michael Westen: [voice-over] About forty percent of kidnapping victims are released safely. These statistics are affected by a number of factors, including the nationality of the kidnappers, the age of the victim, and whether a hostage negotiator is employed.

Nick Lam: I can’t do this, man! What’s the point? They want, like, five million bucks!

Michael Westen: [voice-over] The odds go down sharply if no one has any money to pay the ransom.

The downside for your characters is that these kidnappers have a market of seven, they can stand to lose a few.

The question is, what do you want out of this scene? I personally would play it as a chase scene, possibly one told from the perspectives of a few different teens as they try to run and hide from the men who are trying to take them. A few will probably escape, because there’s not enough time for a prolonged chase and the kidnappers won’t want to spend too much time trying to track them all down. They’ll cut their losses early. However, the ones who try to stay and fight will most assuredly be captured, some perhaps killed. You can however have a very tense sequence that tips the audience off to the characters having good survival instincts and show that they are capable of thinking on their feet.

The big money is on what their lives are worth. Not to you or the reader, but to their parents and guardians.


You’ve talked a lot about how the height and weight differences between men and women don’t make much of a difference in actual combat, but what about the difference between and adult and a child? How might a kid take on an adult and still win?

Very cautiously and most likely using some sort of easily manageable weapon (knife or gun if available) to make up the difference in size, experience, bone density, and force generation.

Here’s the thing, as much as some societies have loved equating women with children (and, in some cases, animals) for a very long time, there are quite a few substantial differences between a child and an adult that hamper a child’s ability to fight (even when fighting other children).

Physical Maturity:

It’s not just that children are smaller than their adult counterparts, they aren’t physically mature. It’s not just that their legs are shorter, their bodies are smaller, and their hands are tiny. They’re still growing and any serious damage inflicted on them can significantly hamper that growth (both physically and emotionally).

For example: when I was twelve I broke my leg in a training accident. It was a spiral fracture to the tibia and required surgery to be fixed. The surgeon wanted to install a metal rod in the bone, which was standard procedure for adults at the time, however installing the rod would effectively end any further growth in that bone. While the rest of me would keep growing, that part of my leg would not. This would mean that when I finally achieved full size one of my legs would be several inches shorter than the other. This would have lead to a lifetime of significant difficulty. My parents insisted that wasn’t an option even though the second option required a longer recovery period and that’s why my legs are the same length today.

Softer bones lead to easier breaks. A child and even a young teen cannot generate the same level of muscle mass as an adult, even though their muscles have greater elasticity which means they can develop better flexibility. Serious physical injuries run a greater risk of being crippling or becoming so during the recovery process (because again, their bodies are growing and changing, you can’t rely on their bodies remaining static).

They are less capable of generating force both as children because they are very little (in a way that women are not), very light, and much less capable of making use of the body’s full rotation with hips and shoulders (though they can learn it).

They lack coordination. Children are inherently more physically awkward than adults. It takes them slightly longer to develop balance, coordination, and flexibility. While they do learn quickly, everything that you need to make a fighter happens more slowly. When you train them, what you’re doing is molding clay. Instead of thinking about a fighter who can fight right now, or within a few months of training, it’s important recognize that a child is a long term investment.

You’re building an exceptional fighter both in mind and body, but you won’t have one for ten years.

Emotional Maturity:

Children and even young teens (under eighteen with a lower limit of sixteen) lack the necessary emotional maturity to handle combat, especially against an adult. Even when a child can intellectually understand what it is they are doing, the emotional component to comprehend and deal with their experiences is still developing.

Violent action will shape their personality and too much, too fast can lead to long term psychological scarring.

A child cannot transition as quickly into the necessary mentality as an adult, though after years of training they will be capable of the snap shift. Once an adult attacks them, they will be at an extreme disadvantage both physically and emotionally. If they have more training than the attacking adult, this may help them some, but ultimately they will still run the risk of being physically and emotionally overpowered.

How to beat an adult:

Premeditation and planning. The child must intend to harm the adult in question, if they try to fight face to face, they will lose.

Strike in a moment of weakness. If the child’s abuser is a member of the family, the child will have other opportunities to attack their aggressor in a moment of weakness such as while they are sleeping or passed out.

A teen will have a better chance against an adult, but they are up against the adult’s experience and their authority. Both these things can be insurmountable if they try to face them in “honorable combat”. A child has to play to a child’s strengths, they can’t bean an adult on the adult’s terms.

Working together. Kids who have come out of paramilitary training regimens will exhibit a level of extreme discipline (as opposed to the adrenaline junkies the Dauntless breed in Divergent (they essentially make gangs) or the emotionally unstable/anger management plagued Careers from The Hunger Games), while they won’t have the level of emotional maturity to comprehend the effects, they will be more than capable of taking down an adult if they can get the drop on them first and if they are using superior force of arms.

Superior force of arms. Having a weapon like a knife, a gun, a baseball, bat, or a lead pipe will allow a child to take on an adult. So long as they can overcome the presence and authority an adult has over them and their mind.

Raising kids to combat:

It’s important to remember that, as I said above, training kids is an investment to the society’s (or corporations, or military’s) future and because they are, they get handled with a certain amount of care. Kids raised to combat such as the pages and squires who eventually become knights, or the kids who come out of many of the modern day paramilitary programs scattered around the country aren’t child soldiers.

They don’t behave like child soldiers and they don’t get treated like them. Child soldiers are a different psychological animal.

These kids have value. They are cared for. They are respected. They know and understand their place in society. They usually get trained with an insular mindset and are hardened against outsiders.

When you want to write kids who have been trained from birth for war or even just for the arena, you have to stop and consider what they are being trained for and why.

What makes a good soldier?

What makes a good warrior?

Why does this society need to train these kids young?

What is their value?

The more substantial the time investment, the more valuable the children are to the society or military they will be employed in. It’s important to understand that. Unlike child soldiers, kids that are raised for combat aren’t shock troopers. They are specialists and highly skilled operatives. This develops a very different kind of personality and society. And it’s hard to do well, especially if you start by looking at the wrong source material. (The Spartans only work if you look past the brutality and understand what they were trying to create and teach the kids.)

Experience matters:

This gets washed over in American society because of the focus on youth and youth being good (high school is the best years of your life bs). The truth is that experience is more valuable than youth, it trumps it. Unless the child starts training early (and even if they do), an adult will be one or two (or twenty) steps ahead of them. If they’ve been in more battles then they’ve seen more, they’ve grown more crafty, they’ve sharpened their cunning, and they’re no longer slaves to their hormones.

Fighting, for them, isn’t new anymore. This is the most important concept to really internalize when you’re writing characters who fight because the aged mentor figure is important and is, even when old and wizened, exceedingly dangerous.

Someone who has survived through enough combat to reach old age is someone who is very good at what they do.

Age and Treachery is a nasty combo, even against Youth and Skill.


Q&A: Gun Disarms and Reasonable Force

How would my character disarm the girl who is aiming a handgun at him? She doesn’t intend to shoot (although he doesn’t know that), and he doesn’t want to hurt her, just get the gun away from her. It’s his way of proving to her who he is (because he has the ability to disarm her). Everything I’ve looked up online for it includes hurting the attacker as some kind of defense mechanism.

It’s not a defense mechanism, it’s necessity. This is a culmination of a couple issues that we haven’t really covered in detail.

The first is reasonable force; basically, this is the absolute minimum amount of harm you need to inflict in a given situation to ensure your safety and the safety of others, including the person trying to kill you. Make no mistake, if someone’s pointing a gun at you, they are trying to kill you. (I’ll come back to this in a minute.)

The more training your character has, then under the law, the less harm they’re allowed to legally inflict. This is because restraining your opponent without hurting them is a lot harder, and requires more skill, than simply killing them.

Reasonable force is a bit of a pain because it is very subjective in the moment. It scales upwards based on a lot of factors, including the nature of the threat. If someone is threatening to “beat the shit out of you,” responding by crippling or killing them is (usually) going to be considered excessive.

Guns take that and toss it all out the window. Pointing one at someone is always a threat of lethal force. It doesn’t matter what the person with the gun intends. It is the weapon not the person that escalates the threat.

The second major issue is that gun disarms are really hard, and really, really dangerous. Most martial artists that attempt to use them in actual situations get shot. It’s a ratio close to 9/10, that’s 9 get shot to every one that 1 succeeds. Often, even if the disarm is successful, they get shot anyway during the attempt. An attacker who is already jittery on adrenaline will take the fast movement of the disarm i.e. the person moving towards them as a threatening gesture. They may fire reflexively, even if they didn’t originally intend to. The response evokes “oh my god, they’re attacking me” and that instinctive response will be even stronger and more immediate in someone who is untrained. This may also force a switch over in the attacker themselves from “I don’t want to hurt you” to “I’m going to shoot you because now you’re threatening my life”. It may not seem logical when they’re already holding the gun, but within their mind it is. An attack/disarm will escalate the situation because it shows them that the person they’re pointing the gun at (whom they may trust) is willing to hurt them or even shoot them. The person who is attempting the disarm is taking their power away from them and that is threatening, especially to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. If the gun is all they have to control the situation then they won’t let it go without a fight.

With most techniques, the consequences for not executing them perfectly are fairly limited, you might take a blow you didn’t want to, or strike with less force than you intended. But, for gun disarms, failing to execute the technique flawlessly can be fatal.

What this means is, when it comes to gun disarms, the priority has been to develop simple techniques that work, and screw everything else. Gun disarms are, as a general rule, easy to learn, but, they also come without any margin for error.

The result is, most gun disarms will wrench joints and break bones. Most disarms can escalate into kills, because they leave the martial artist with the gun in a ready to fire state. The martial artist themselves may accidentally shoot their attacker once they get the gun away from them because they are also jittery with adrenaline and they left their finger on the trigger. Disarms end with the gun pointed at the attacker. Once adrenaline gets factored in, it can be very difficult to not follow through with an execution shot. With the exception of outright shooting the gunman, this is all pretty solidly reasonable force. Many instructors suggest for students who are unused to guns to brace it on their hip, instead of holding it out in a ready to fire state, as this reduces the risk of them accidentally shooting the attacker or their attacker taking it back.

Finally, and this is a general threat assessment issue, but it does affect disarms. Untrained shooters are much more dangerous. Once the shooting starts, a trained shooter is going to be able to kill more efficiently, but an untrained shooter is more likely to shoot someone by accident.

If you have a character pointing a gun at someone they don’t want to hurt (outside of some edge, “I don’t want to hurt you; but, I will kill you,” cases), they’re not going to be trained in firearms safety.

What this means is, and I hate harp on this over and over, but, when you have a character pointing a gun at someone, they’re always threatening to kill the other person. Even if they gun isn’t loaded, even if they don’t want to hurt anyone, even if they just want attention. They’re still threatening to kill someone.

I’d actually argue that a trained shooter is safer to disarm, as well. Proper trigger discipline can work against getting a rapid shot off into the martial artist. Of course a “safer” version of an extremely lethal situation is still quite dangerous.

Now, non-harmful gun disarms do exist. But, they’re not a part of any martial art. Stage fighting includes a lot of techniques that can be practiced safely. The problem is, as a general rule, stage fighting is cooperative choreography between two performers. So the gun disarms you’ll see on TV that leave both combatants with all their fingers in the original sockets aren’t real combat techniques.

If you want to look at getting a gun away from someone safely, I’d recommend watching The Negotiator, it’s not about martial arts, but it is about talking people down.


Fight Scene Strategies: The Individual versus Group

In this article, we’ll talk some about structuring and writing combat between an individual and a group. As the title suggests, this article will focus primarily on unarmed/hand to hand strategies for dealing with multiple opponents. We’re going to avoid weapons for the most part in this discussion because the strategies can change dramatically depending on what weapon it is that your character is using and this article is going to have a heavier focus on how different groups behave and the problems you have to watch out for in your story when working with them.

So, let’s start by tearing down a few myths.

The Group is the Most Dangerous Opponent Your Hero will Face

No, really.  A group of mooks together are going to be an all around tougher fight than the antagonist who waits at the end of the tunnel. Due to the rise of comics and Hollywood’s building up of the “One True Badass”, the difficulties an individual faces when fighting a large group are often overlooked. In real life, groups are much more dangerous to the lone combatant than single individuals and even the toughest fighter can be easily taken down by the untrained if he or she fails to control the situation. The reason it’s become commonplace on television for the roving badass to dispatch a group of random mooks with ease is because it is so difficult to do so in the land of reality.

This is important.

The truth is that even when you have years of training, something that seems as simple as a two on one bout can seriously screw someone over. The more people you add, the more difficult it gets. The maximum number a well-trained human being can take on at any one time is eight. The brain cannot handle tracking a number higher than that, but the truth is that even three or four is a difficult challenge.

Why is fighting groups so hard?

There are a higher number of limbs versus the singular defender

The part about there being more limbs is important. A person only has two arms and two legs (unless they are a mutant or an alien) with which to fight. Those two arms and two legs will have a difficult enough time fending off the attacks of one person, much less having to deal with four more coming in on vectors that your character can’t control. It doesn’t matter how many punches your character blocks, one will probably get through and that one can be the deal breaker. This is bad enough when the character’s opponents aren’t communicating. It gets much worse when they start, which they will because it’s a thing.

People work together

Yes, they do. Humans are social animals and they work well together in teams, very well in fact. You know the scenes you see in the movies where the stunt doubles will circle up and wait around the fighter (as seen on Buffy) for their turn to attack in a series of duels? They have a habit of coming in one by one. That doesn’t happen because it doesn’t play to the group’s strengths.  If your character lets them, a group will attack together. If they can, they’ll surround the character, dogpile, and knock them to the ground. Often in more sophisticated groups that are used to working together, one or two will distract the fighter from the front while others close in from behind and either hit them in the vulnerable places like the spine, the hamstrings, and the lower back or seize control of them via the hero’s neck or limbs.

All groups work together on some level, even the uncoordinated ones. The better trained and more used to working together the individual members of the group are such as gangs or professionals like soldiers, cops, and mercenaries, the harder the fight will be.

Yeah, even the untrained will naturally start flanking your hero. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The Hero expends energy faster

Fighting is high energy exertion, it’s like sprinting and thus, it doesn’t last long. So, the hero must take down all their opponents before they themselves can no longer fight. Thus, they walk a much tighter tightrope of how fast it will be before they’re done.  They have to track more variables, their opponents, their surroundings, potential weapons, escape routes, how much time they have to hold out or finish it up before they or their enemies receive reinforcements, etc. It’s tough, tiring work. They have to know and keep track of where everyone is, actively strategizing, and moving to outpace their internal body clock.

Professionally trained combatants will approach a group, any group with a certain level of caution. For the untrained or untried hero, fighting a group can be where they find themselves in over their heads. It’s common for us to focus overly on the dangers we understand and ignore the ones we’re unaware of. Martial training can breed a certain level of arrogance in the early parts of an individual’s career before the fighter learns that everyone has the potential to be dangerous to them. Yes, even the little kids and old ladies. Disregarding the dangers of a group of lesser fighters or random idiots on the street is in character for most heroes.

Punish them for their mistakes. It’s a good humbling experience.

Well, it is if they survive.


So, how can a character deal with groups?

Run away

This sounds like the coward’s way out, but it’s not. There’s no shame in living to fight another day or retreating to find a different approach instead of wading in. Don’t think of running away as giving up, think of it instead as retreating to find a more advantageous position. When faced with superior force and superior numbers, it is important for characters to seek to fight on their terms if they have the option to do so and to try anyway, even when they are pressed for time.

Run Away With Purpose

I call this rabbiting. When dealing with two or more individuals running away is an acceptable option as a means of breaking up the group so that they become easier to manage. You see this happen more commonly in action movies with stars that already know how to fight. (Example: Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx) By chasing the character, the more athletically adept will pull ahead and the less will fall behind. Characters with a firm grasp of their surrounding area can lose members of the group in the terrain. The character can then turn the situation around to their advantage and fight the smaller groups or individuals on their own terms.

This is only an effective strategy for characters that have good stamina, understand their area, and excel at thinking on their feet. It can go wrong for characters up against groups who can communicate over long distances and who are trained to outmaneuver that tactic. This includes the police (Example: Southland), the military, former military professionals, mercenaries, characters who possess some sort of telepathy, and characters who draw from a Pack mindset (werewolves, animalistic characters, etc).

Keep the opponent in front of you and protect the back

If a character cannot run or doesn’t have the option, then they might have to stand and fight. This can be difficult, given the tendency of a group to circle around and dog team (one distracts from the front, while another shoots in from the back or the side to tag the fighter before shooting off again, as the fighter attempts to recover from the blow, another comes in, and then another, and then another until they’re done) their opponents. A character fighting a group needs to keep the group in front of them. It can be difficult to defend from behind and while there are techniques (such as elbows and kicks) that allow characters to defend against individuals coming in behind them but they are limited. Characters fighting groups will want to keep moving, forcing their opponents to stay in front of them to limit their avenues and vectors of attack. By constantly moving, the character forces their opponents into each other as they attempt to attack and attack their enemies one at a time.

You can only attack one opponent at a time, so don’t waste movements

A character may switch between enemies, but they can only attack one enemy at a time. All their enemies may attack them and they don’t have to take turns. At best, they can block two, if they are really, really Jackie Chan fight scene choreography good then maybe three. But it’s best to have them focus on one at a time as they attempt to lock up the others. A fighter only has time for six to eight movements per fight, so they have to be dispatching each of their opponents in two or three blows depending on the numbers. Even the gentlest character may be forced to become ruthless.

All fights end on the ground, the character should make sure they don’t go down first

Suggestions on Writing:

This sort of chase scene or group fight can be tense an exhilarating and is helpful for establishing the nature of the fighter, especially if the audience is aware that they are up against a greater force. It can be a better reveal for who they are and what they’re willing to do when they are forced to be on their A game. However, as the writer, you need to be on the ball. Each of the characters in the group need to be clearly identified to the reader so they can track what is happening. Writing combat against a group is actually very difficult, because it is very messy and confusing. The sequence must be carefully choreographed in order to keep the tension kept high.

Graph out the setting area where the scene takes place, much like mapping an environment, writing and creating becomes easier when we know the pieces and materials that are at our disposal. A fight scene needs it’s the environment to be an active part of the scene because it changes the nature of the fight. A character running into the woods to escape a group hunting them will have different tools available than someone starting a chase in an urban environment. A character fighting in a bar may have nowhere to run but more objects at their disposal to throw and use in their own defense (beer bottles, chairs, tables, glasses, etc).

If you’re writing your character is going up against a group, then their understanding of their environment may be key to their success. Fights with groups are tense and require more than just skill for survival, creativity is also important. So, get your set pieces in place and see what happens.

Clearly identify each member of the group. Give them names based on distinguishing traits that a character observes about them, such as Number One and Number Two, The Brown Haired Guy, Blue Eyes, Buck Teeth, etc.

It’s important not to humanize the group members too much unless you want the audience to feel sorry for them, they shouldn’t be clearly evil, but they need to remain menacing. Knowing a character’s name humanizes them, so it’s not just a question of description, it’s a question of how much. Writing violence requires walking a careful line with the audience between just enough and too much.  Managing the emotions that your story evokes is important; too much makes it difficult to sympathize with the hero.


Garvey came at Kel from the right, punching at her head. She slid away from his punch, grabbed his arm, pushed her right foot forward, and twisted to the left. Garey went over her hip into Vinson, who’d attacked on her left. Joren, at the center, came in fast as his friends hit the wall. Kel blocked Joren’s punch to her middle, but his blow was a feint; his left fist caught her right eye squarely. Kel scissored a leg up and out, slamming her right foot into Joren’s knee. Joren hissed and grabbed her hair. Someone else—Vinson—tackled her. Kel let his force throw her into Joren. Down the three of them went in a tumble. Joren let go of her hair, fighting to get out from under her and Vinson. Kel elbowed him in the belly and turned to thrust her other hand into Vinson’s face, encouraging him to get off her by pressing his closed eyes with her fingers.

Page by Tamora Pierce

This sequence by Tamora Pierce is compact, but it shows the sort of attention to detail you need when writing an individual versus a group. It’s not the only way to do it and whatever we suggest here, there are always many more strategies for you to uncover and develop in your own work.

We hope this has been helpful!


Advice/Resources: Winged Armor and General Armor

Advice/Resources: Winged Armor and General Armor