Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Combat Magic

Hey! Sorry if this isn’t your area, but I’m writing a fantasy story set in a world where people have various individual abilities (i.e. one kind of magic each). There’s a villain character with a military background who has magic, who’s fighting a character without any magic. What kind of powers could someone have that would make them really effective on a battlefield/commanding troops, but put them at no great advantage in one-to-one combat of this kind? No worries if you don’t know. Thanks!

This reminds me of a post from a couple months ago. Obviously, it’s not the same question, but might be useful reference.

Support related magic could make someone far more effective in a command position, but have little effect on personal combat.

One irony is that the D&D bard fits your question, almost perfectly. The class is a real master-of-none situation. If you want to fight people you’d be better off with a fighter, paladin, or other front light combat type. If you want to heal them, clerics and druids specialize in that. If you want a mage, there are wizards, sorcerers, and a number of other, better, magic users. What Bards do is buff party members, improving their attacks, helping them resist hostile effects, and improving their skills, while filling in on all the other roles as a backup. Being able to magically inspire your troops may sound like a pretty minor thing, but it’d be a major strategic asset. The class gets treated like a joke by the community, but in the right hands it can be very potent.

Beyond examples like the Bard, even just having an unusual attunement to sensing magic at range could be useful for tracking enemy forces that have their own battlemages.

Remember not to discount your villains who don’t fight. Someone with a military background would know how dangerous powered opponents are in their world, and would take steps to prevent being ambushed by them. Because they’re not able to leverage their abilities in one-on-one combat, they’re probably going to ensure that they’re not alone when your hero comes for them.

Without knowing what kinds of magic exist in your world, it’s a little difficult to know exactly what kind of spell list your villain may have access to. So let’s split this up a bit.

Healing magic, particularly of a sort, on the spot, healing can be incredibly potent.

Being able to augment other characters, such as boosting their attacks or defenses.

Being able “debuff” enemies, reducing the same.

Necromancy, being able to call up the souls of the dead. This one depends a bit on how necromancy works in your setting, but if it involves prolonged rituals, that won’t help in a fight, but it will let you make some friends for when a fight does come.

Wards or bindings that prevent enemies (or certain kinds of individuals) from crossing borders or leaving specific places. Which would lead to your villain being able to bind your hero to a location while they ran for help. Illusion magic could help them make their own forces appear more fearsome, or powerful, significantly impacting enemy morale, while offering limited value in direct combat.

Counter-magic is a bit of a weird one, but could significantly help your villain. It wouldn’t make them more effective in combat, but it could help to negate enemy powers. On a larger command scale, it would give them the ability to specifically negate enemy powers that would be devastating if left unchecked.

As world building goes, magic is opportunity to get creative. You decide how the metaphysics of your world work, and then create powers that fit within that. At that point, your not limited to things like lightning bolts or fireballs, and you can start creating some really unique powers, if you’re so inclined. So, there isn’t really a wrong answer here, let your imagination run wild.

-Starke

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Q&A: Powered Armor Melee

Would the advent of powered armor change hand to hand techniques that soldiers are trained to use? If it’s armor, then there’s still a human being inside, but that human being has a lot more strength, speed, and durability on hand… so would that change the way they fight, or just up the ante on what they already do?

It depends on the armor. However, based on the real world research, it’s going to require a slightly different approach.

Current powered exoskeletal research programs have been mostly focused on industrial applications. The priorities have been granting the user increased strength, and allowing them to carry items that would be far too heavy for a normal human to move.

I did say, “mostly focused;” there are some real combat applications. Sticking soldiers in exoskeletons does have a lot of advantages. Melee is not among them.

The two major problems with powered armor are speed and agility.

Current powered exoskeletal research is based around a motorized frame. Without significant advancements in that technology, this will always be significantly slower than an unarmored combatant. When it comes to unarmed combat, speed is far more important for generating force than raw strength. So, while your powered armor soldier could try to punch someone, they’d be doing less damage on impact than an unarmored fighter. (With a caveat: If they’re slamming their victim into something immobile, like concrete, that’s going to get messy.)

One of the major advantages of powered armor is the ability to load up the fighter with additional weapons. There is some potential overlap, by mounting wrist blades, a flamethrower, or some kind of tazer rig. Barring that, most powered armor would be somewhat less useful in melee.

The other side is, of course, that if you’re wrapped in half of a ’57 Chevy, you’re going to be pretty much immune to someone punching you.

When I’m talking about agility, in this case, I really just mean the ability to connect with what you’re swinging at. This is an extension of the speed issue, because you’re not going to be able to connect a punch as easily in powered armor.

Now, all of this was based around the idea that your armor is using the industrial powered frames that are currently being researched. Something that’s come from prosthetic research is synthetic muscles. These are electroreactive polymer strands that behave, mostly, like human muscles. When exposed to controlled electrical signals they contract or expand (like muscle tissue.) The big difference being that synthetic muscles are significantly stronger than human ones. This opens the door to a semi-organic (Note: “organic” not “biological,”) variety of power armor, where the underlay is made from a synthetic musculature, that mimics, and enhances the wearer’s anatomy. This could address both the agility and speed issues, though, what hand-to-hand combat would look like is still a bit open ended.

Research in prosthetics has also lead to non-intrusive neural interfaces. This stuff is still pretty primitive, but the basic idea is you slap electrodes on and control the synthetic muscles with nerve impulses. The end goal is to give someone full control over their prosthetic, though the current tech falls a little short of that. We can’t feed sensory data back into the nervous system, and the user control is limited. It’s not that much of a stretch to see a future where you control organic components of a power armor rig with a direct neural interface, while receiving sensory data directly from the armor itself.

Regardless how your power armor works, your characters would need specialized training to use it. I’m not talking about hand-to-hand fighting, I just mean, “use the armor without harming themselves.” As anyone familiar with “worker’s comp” can attest, people are entirely capable of overstressing their bodies without the assistance of an external rig performing unlicensed chiropractic atrocities.

There’s a lot of variations in powered armor, from crude mobility assistance rigs, to bio-armor, to full on mechs. So, there isn’t, really, one answer to this. It would change how melee combat works, but I can’t say exactly how, with any certainty.

Depending on the variation, I usually think of heavy powered armor rigs as vehicles, rather than, “armor.” At that point, it stops being, “how would I punch them?” and becomes, “how can I turn them into red paste?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Writing Dungeon Treasure

In my WIP, my characters find a shield left in a thousand year old ruin. Are there any metals that the shield could be made out of so that it might still be useful if preserved properly in a locked chest or something? I immediately counted out iron because of rust, and maybe copper and bronze corrode too much. I was contemplating gold because it seemed to be the most durable age-wise, but maybe it’s not that useful weapon-wise?

Gold won’t corrode, but it’s far too soft for use in combat. Bronze, iron, and copper will oxidize. This doesn’t mean they can’t be preserved for thousands of years, but they wouldn’t survive in an ancient ruin’s chest.

As a bit of trivia, when copper and bronze oxidize, they turn green, not brown.

So, this whole thing builds off a fundamental world building problem of challenge/reward structures in games. This is relevant for writing, because it can affect how you build parts of your world, and you should consider the reasons behind your choices. So while I’m talking about game design for the moment, think about how this applies to writing.

If you’re asking the player to fight through an extended dungeon sequence, you need to give them something at the end. That doesn’t need to be a physical reward. For example, Skyrim’s word walls which provide tangible abilities the player as a reward are fine. In a more abstract sense, information can be an entirely valid reward. That’s fine. It’s also true to life, somewhat, because the real treasure of most ruins is information about the people who built it and lived there. There’s also a boss chest in there with a random assortment of items, that makes no sense.

The problem with the boss chest that awards random, level appropriate items, is when they player is the first person to walk those halls in thousands of years. Any tangible weapon, would have rusted, or rotted away. Skyrim is an excellent example of this, as the various tombs, ruins, caves, and other dungeons exist in a weird kind of suspended animation. No human (or elf) has been in that ruin since the Metheric Era (at least 4500 years ago), but the candles are still burning, and there’s a chest with Dwarven gauntlets that are thousands of years more advanced than the ruin’s builders. What?

This works for a game, because as a player, you’re looking for that dopamine hit. You get a cool item, you feel good about it. It’s reductive to boil games down to a Skinner box, but in this case, the comparison is apt: Push the button; receive treat.

This doesn’t work in writing. There’s a lot of pieces to why, but the short version is perspective. In a game, you are the protagonist. In a story, you are witnessing the protagonist. So, when the player gets a piece of junk gear that’s marginally better than what they’re wearing, that’s a dopamine hit. It’s something cool you can use, and you will get the opportunity to play with it.

In a story, you don’t care if one of the characters finds new leather gloves in a ruin, unless there’s something special about those gloves. You’re there to see them grow as a character, and their gear is incidental to that. If that gear facilitates new options, or spurs character growth, then you’ll care. If those gloves belonged to someone the character knew, and they’re a hint to what happened to them, then the reader will care. If the gloves have special properties which can help with a challenge the character is already facing, then the reader will care. If the gloves offer two extra points of protection (whatever that means), the reader will not care.

A thousand years is a long time. If you’re talking about today, a one thousand year old weapon might be a low quality steel sword. A thousand year old shield may have been wood, which would have rotted away unless carefully preserved. So you’d be left with the iron frame for a shield. Or, you might have a low quality iron shield.

Many fantasy settings exist in a kind of technological stasis. I mentioned Skyrim a minute, so let’s look at that. The games span a little under a thousand years (Elder Scrolls Online takes place 952 years before Skyrim). In that time, there’s been no meaningful technological development in the setting. This also not even an egregious offender on this front, Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Star Wars are also guilty of this, with, literally, thousands of years of history where no meaningful technological advancement occurs.

Contrast to the real world where the last thousand years saw the development of civilization from fractured city states into unified nations, the development of mechanized transport, near instantaneous worldwide communication networks, and space travel. Most of that, in the last century.

When you’re sitting in the moment, looking at the past, it’s easy to see things as static. “Yeah, people fought with swords for thousands of years,” but, when you start looking at the details, you realize, nothing is static. The swords taken on crusade in 1096 were substantially better than the swords the Roman Legions were using in 96. And those Roman Legions were terrifyingly well equipped in comparison to the Greek Hopolites in 404BC.

There are settings that can justify long periods of technological stasis. In Warhammer 40k invention is seen as religious heresy in almost all cases; this is an example where technological development would stall out. This is further reinforced because of how jealously the Machine Cult guards their technology, while still viewing it in religious terms. There’s something sickly amusing about the idea of a religious cult that would worship a toaster, but, it could explain this kind of stasis.

Post-apocalyptic settings (including 40k) have some justification, because the people who knew how this stuff worked are dead, so the survivors have to play catch-up. Insert a religious order that blocks technological progression, with the political power to enforce it’s views, and you’ve got some justification for technology lying fallow.

This is where the boss chest makes sense. (Sort of, anyway.) If the world has fallen from some forgotten golden age, it’s possible that whatever’s at the end of the dungeon could be weapons or armor made from some lost alloy, that survived the millennia unharmed. It’s even possible it was stored in a climate controlled armory, rather than in a wooden chest that should have rotted away centuries ago.

Golden age gear can also work as story hook, on the idea that this stuff is significant enough to be an important step in preparing your characters to face whatever they’re dealing with. It’s the rare moment where you really can get away with a loot hunt in a non-interactive story.

The other possible payoff to all of this is a shaggy dog. Your character goes through all of the effort to get through the ruin, and they find a ruined artifact. They put hopes and dreams on this chunk of corroded bronze because they believed it was their key to victory, and now they have nothing to show for it. Remember, your reader isn’t here for the loot, they’re here for your character. How your character deals with that, how they move on, that’s the reader’s payoff. That’s what they’re here for. There’s nothing wrong with screwing your characters over, so long the result is interesting to read.

I’ve said this before, but your job as a writer is not to make life easy for your characters. Your job is to make their lives interesting.

-Starke

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Q&A: Monster Hunting Solutions

So this may not be in your expertise, but in my setting (modern fantasy) my characters mostly fight monsters. My characters are faster than normal humans, and mostly have to use melee weapons, as monsters are resistant to normal metals, and the magical metal is too rare to reliably make bullets. I have no idea how to armor them. Speed feels like its the most important, as I can’t see how most armor could hold up to even a normal wild animal, much less one that is faster and stronger. Advice?

I don’t know what kinds of monsters your planning to throw your characters against. Enhanced reflexes would help, but, alone, it wouldn’t be enough to go into melee against anything significantly more dangerous than a human. So, if you’re fighting vampires, werewolves, or magically empowered mole men, your characters are in a bad situation.

I’d almost say the most important thing for monster hunting is practical knowledge of the creature your characters are tracking. Things like where it hides, what it feeds on, how it will behave. This becomes harder if you’re dealing with creatures possessing human levels of intelligence. Hunting a monster that is, basically, just an exotic apex predator is dangerous, but it’s something your characters can plan ahead for. Even in cases where they’re dealing with something that rivals human intellect, knowing how the creature is inclined to behave will give them a significant advantage for anticipating its actions. Remember how we’ve said, “instincts will get you killed?” Yeah, this one of those times.

Things can go wrong when you’re dealing with creatures that are significantly more experienced than your hunters, as this flips the script a bit. These aren’t the first hunters to come after this monster, and as a result, they’re the ones going through the familiar motions, and getting picked off.

Armor depends on what your character is fighting. If your characters are hunting monsters which can pass for normal humans, and have human (or better) intelligence, they can use a gun on their hunters. This is a problem for a modern vampire hunter, because while guns won’t (fully) affect the vampire, they will take down humans who come after it. Similarly, for a werewolf, if they shoot someone, that’s just a murder; however, if they wolf out, and tear someone limb from limb, now everyone knows something strange is going on, and monster hunters have more reason to come knocking. At that point, ballistic vests are your best bet. Just because you can’t shoot something doesn’t mean it can’t return the favor.

Also worth knowing, most modern armor has a shelf-life. Older kevlar vests would break down in hot and humid conditions (sort of like if you’re wearing them while being physically active for months and sweating on them.) I’m not 100% sure if this is still an issue. Additionally, taking bullets will mean you need to replace your armor. There’s also stuff like plate carriers, where you’ll need to replace the plates eventually.

In contrast, (assuming your vampires have enhanced speed and strength), sending your humans into melee combat with them is a death sentence.

So, you have a limited solution. You have melee weapons which can kill monsters. But, you still have guns, you just need to get more creative with them.

Ultraviolet (1999) did some interesting work chewing around this idea. (I’m spoiling some things here, sorry.) Because the vampires are immune to lead bullets, the vampire hunters use pressed carbon rounds to, effectively, stake vampires at range using conventional firearms. As a theme, the show presents both the vampires and vampire hunters adapting to modern technology, and using it to their advantage. I’d almost put this one as a must view for urban fantasy simply because of how it discusses monsters in the modern world.

Some other, “fun” things to remember about are dragon’s breath shotgun shells, which eject highly reactive metal strips that ignite on contact with air, essentially turning a shotgun into a sort of flamethrower.

White phosphorous is similar to dragon’s breath above, except, it’s a single bullet. Also, phosphorous is really nasty when it connects. The moisture in the wound will keep the phosphorous burning deeper into the victim, until it hits bone. This is a very horrific round, and if your characters are caught carrying around large quantities of the stuff, they’re going to have to answer some very hard questions.

Moving from borderline to straight up illegal, we’ve got high explosive rounds. There’s a lot of ways to make these. One that comes to mind is taking revolver hollowpoints, filling the tip with fulminated mercury, and waxing over it. You don’t want to use this specific example in a semi-automatic, as there’s a risk the gun will go off in your hand. In this case, it doesn’t matter if something’s resistant to metal when you’re literally detonating an explosive in them.

Bullets can also function as a delivery method. One example that comes to mind is, ironically, from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman. A character loads shotgun shells with bone beads, to block another’s magical abilities. (Hillerman’s novels are worth reading, but they’re murder mysteries, not urban fantasy.)

Also worth working out exactly why a monster’s resistances work. You can’t shoot a vampire because it’s already dead. So, if you make it bleed, that won’t kill it, you’re just taking away its dinner and pissing it off. However, that’s the same thing as immune. Hitting a vampire with a rifle round designed for putting down an APC might not kill it, but it should spread it around the room enough that you can put it out of your misery, before it’s back up and running.

Another option that might be worth considering are bows or crossbows with tips made from the magical material. The critical thing here is being able to retrieve the projectiles (most of the time.) This approach relies on getting the drop on the monster, which could be quite difficult if the creatures posses heightened senses.

If your characters are inhuman, themselves. If they don’t have to worry about getting shot. If they’re fast enough and strong enough to go into melee with a 9ft tall snarling deathbeast and live, then they might want to look into more archaic versions of armor that allow them to fight their foes.

It’s also possible your characters are relying on armor that mystically empowers them, (or powered armor exosuits) to level the field. In that case, the armor they wear will be dictated by the rules of their setting. If the artifact that grants your character the ability to fight monsters looks like a 17th century breastplate, then that’s what they’re going to wear.

-Starke

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Q&A: Weapon Preferences and Specializations versus Signatures

Would it be feasible to have a character that’s bad at fighting with a sword and doing hand-to-hand combat, but is skilled with using a bow and arrows? I’m asking because I’m not sure if being a good archer has any crossover with fighting with your fists, for example, in terms of skills needed. Or would this character be good at all three of them if she just practiced? Is it realistic that she could just have an affinity towards using the bow?

The concept of the signature weapons rather than comprehensive fighting styles is a fictional creation, usually you see them in anime and in video games. To use a bow doesn’t mean you can’t fight with a sword or an axe or with their fists, and, due to the changing nature of the battlefield or the situations they might find themselves in, it would be inadvisable for them to ignore close quarters combat. Even if you’re character was simply a hunter, they’d have a wide ranging skillset with various weapons, including the creation and setting of traps to knives and, possibly, even spears depending on the type of game they hunted. You don’t go after bears and boars with a bow.

One thing to understand about the medieval bow if you plan to have a character use one is that the weapon itself requires a lot of time to set up. A bow is not like a gun, you don’t just pull it out and start shooting. You’ve got to keep it oiled and carefully wrapped so its not exposed to the elements, you carry the bowstring separately so if you’re traveling and didn’t plan to use your bow then it must be restrung. You will also need to either go get your arrows after use, find a fletcher, or make them yourself if you’re not part of a military unit which will provide them to you (and even then, you still want to retrieve them.) The general use for the bow in your standard military was as artillery. They were the cannons before there were cannons. Archers also carried a sidearm in either a sword or axe in cases where the enemy broke through the front lines. At those times, they’d be required to fight in close quarters.

As a writer its important to learn the distinction between “preferred” and “can’t”. This character may prefer to fight with a bow, as a sharpshooter and at range, but combat specialists develop a wide array of skills so they can change out as needed. This includes fighting in hand to hand, fighting with swords (these two crossover), axes, spears, and other weapons.

If you choose to go with a character who only uses a bow and nothing else, then you have a character limited by their positioning who can’t fight in crowded rooms without finding higher ground (and can’t fight past enemies to get to higher ground), who can’t survive an ambush, who has to run and keep running until they put enough distance between themselves and their enemies, who will have difficulty fighting indoors or in places with poor visibility, who may face difficulty fighting at night, who is limited to a specific set of circumstances and does poorly in every single other one. This is a character without any self-defense skills, who is reliant on others to keep them safe when things don’t go according to plan or when they run out of arrows. They also lack the means to create advantageous circumstances for themselves while under threat, which limits their long term survivability.

Every character is going to have preferences for weapons they like to use, and things they don’t like to do. It’s like being told to eat your veggies when you just want to eat fruit, or that you have to do push ups when all you want to do is parkour. Some people prefer fists to kicks, some people prefer standing grappling or joint locks to groundfighting, but you have to learn them all in order to prepare yourself for a variety of situations. If you play shooters, you’ll notice the soldier characters carry a variety of different weapons from assault rifles to SMGs to handguns. That’s not counting the countless other weapons you can choose based on the situation you’re about to walk into. This is so they’ll always have a usable weapon when the situation, scenario, or battlefield changes. You don’t want to lose crucial seconds using a weapon poorly suited for the environment you’re in when a fraction of a second can cost you your life.

Remember, in the combined legends of Robin Hood, his standard kit includes not just a bow but also a sword. We have the legends of his fight on the log with Little John with staves. He might not be better than Little John at using a staff, but he’s trained to fight with one.

Martial combat and weapons work are skills. You learn to use them. Usually, when we’re discussing talent, we’re discussing people who have better than average coordination and great physical mimicry. There’s almost no gap between seeing a technique and applying it. That’s the talent. Your character’s affinity may not just be natural, but learned if she had parents who worked with bows and she grew up around archers. The bow would always feel more natural because she started learning to use one when she was five instead of fifteen.

It’s also important to remember that preference doesn’t always relate to talent. Your character might find learning to use a bow comes more easily to her or she has an “affinity” for it, but likes swords better. At the end of the day, the weapon you like better is the one your better at using because you invest more time into it. A character who uses a bow, might take their hand to hand training and get decent at using their legs for self-defense so they can defend their weapon as well as themselves.

Many writers use talent as an excuse to avoid explanation. Regardless of whatever you plan to write, you should learn as much about the subject as you can. There’s also this idea that you can only train in one thing and that there’s no crossover or blending. Learning to fight hand to hand or with a sword and learning to shoot a bow is no different than learning to shoot and learning to ride a horse. They are two separate skillsets which can be combined, so you can shoot a bow while riding a horse. Otherwise known as mounted combat.

At the end of the day, being a martial combatant is about having a diverse skillset encompassing a very large swath of possibilities in order to prepare for a variety of situations and eventualities. Fighting inside a castle is very different from fighting inside your local village full of houses with thatch roofs. Fighting in a forest is different from fighting on a plain. Fighting an opponent with a spear or staff is fighting a swordsman, or someone with a dagger. Fighting an opponent with a sword and shield is different from fighting someone with a single sword.

Combat is a form of problem solving. There’s never just one way to solve a problem, and you’ll never solve different problems the same way every time. If you choose to do so, your enemy will constantly be developing new ways to stop you and your solution will eventually be countered by new techniques and new technologies. The goalposts are constantly moving, even for characters who are the literal best at what they do.

Don’t hem your characters in, even if they prefer one weapon over others. Let them specialize, but don’t create a one trick pony. This gives you more options to when it comes to constructing scenarios and fight scenes for your characters. You’ll be able to plot a course of action reflective of both your narrative and your characters.

-Michi

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Q&A: More Bronze

I saw that recent ask about materials and it made me wonder… how much of a difference does the material of equipment make? Bronze versus steel, for example. Would having better materials convey any measurable advantage in a fight?

It’s significant.

There are a couple big things that happen when you’re switching materials, and jumping from bronze to steel is probably the best way to illustrate them.

First: Steel will hold an edge. You can sharpen bronze. Hell, you can sharpen silver, and some do still use silver cutlery. However, when you sharpen steel, that edge will stay much longer.

Second: Steel allows for much more mechanically demanding designs. The big thing here is armor, but this is also true with weapons as well. (Even if this isn’t what you’re thinking of when someone calls a weapon, “mechanically demanding.”)

Creating a structurally stable blade out of bronze is limited to a fairly short blade. I forget the exact length, but it’s somewhere around 24-36 inches. In modern terms, this is a shortsword. While the Celts tried to make bronze swords much longer, the result was not ideal, and the weapons would, “collapse.” in combat. A lot of this comes down to, bronze is a much softer metal. In contrast, early modern steel swords, like the Zweihander could exceed seven feet.

We’ve talked about combat range before, and how having a longer melee weapon is a significant advantage. In comparing bronze blades to steel ones, we have a return to the daggers vs longswords scenario. Someone with a bronze weapon can’t get close enough to stab someone defending themselves with a steel blade.

There is a major element here I’m skimming over. The predominant infantry weapon of the bronze age was the spear. So this isn’t quite as one sided as it looks. But, the advantage still stays with steel, as the sheer variety of polearms would explode with evolving smithing techniques.

Armor is a, mostly similar story. Bronze armor cannot replicate the mechanical complexity of articulated steel plate, and then take it into combat. Bronze being softer, the armor will wear and deform faster, and suddenly those articulated joints will jam. I’m making an assumption here, but I suspect the sophistication of armor designs advanced in step with the advancement of armor materials. This was true with weapons, and just looking at what you can do with bronze vs with steel, you can’t engineer that down to lower quality materials in most cases.

So, the end result is, you can make significantly better weapons and armor out of steel. Even when you’re replicating bronze weapons in steel, the result will be a more durable and effective.

The bronze to steel thing is a bit of an extreme example. You can see this more granularity when you’re looking armor and weapon advancement as the quality of the steel alloys improved.

To be clear, would a copper or bronze weapon BREAK from a single strike of a steel weapon? Or would the copper and bronze weapons/armor just need to be replaced more often than steel ones?

Probably not in a single strike, but there’s a few things I should address here:

First: You never want to parry blade to blade. Doesn’t matter what your weapons are, you’re going to risk damaging, or breaking, your own weapon.

Similarly, you don’t just hack away at someone’s armor; that’s also destructive to your weapon. Instead you’re looking for ways you can get your blade into vulnerable parts of their armor. So, joints for example. (There’s an exception here: If you have a hammer, just pound on them.)

Second: Weapons aren’t really disposable. You don’t travel around with a golf bag of blades and just swap to new ones as the old ones shatter. Historically, soldiers would carry a few backup weapons. A sidearm (usually a sword, or a handaxe), and a dagger, in addition to their primary weapon (usually a polearm), but people didn’t walk around with five or six swords strapped to them.

Most combatants would maintain their weapons, so it’s not like you’d just take a sword and keep using it until it broke. (At least, not if you knew what you were doing.) You’d be careful with its use to minimize the damage it suffered. You’d want to make sure that any minor damage was repaired to the best of your ability. That blade was kept clean and sharp. You never want to run a weapon until it’s destroyed.

Third: Bronze will not hold up in combat against steel weapons. That goes for both the armor and the weapons. I’m not sure a single strike would mangle a bronze weapon to uselessness, but it would not be in a good state, and a few solid hits would probably destroy it. (I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how much abuse it can take, because I don’t have a lot of experience working with bronze.

Ironically, that first point isn’t completely true if you’ve got steel weapons and going up against someone with copper (and possibly bronze), you might get some minor nicking along the blade, but it’s going to hold up far better than your experience would suggest.

Now, as I said, I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with bronze, so I’m not 100% sure how durable it is, beyond, “not very.” I’m familiar with the history, but this specific match up never happened, which is part of why I’m shying away from saying, “yeah, it’ll take X number of hits.”

The thing to remember is that there’s a huge technological advantage in the materials your smiths can work with. This is at least as significant as the kinds of weapons you have access to. Also, the kinds of weapons and armor you can produces are, functionally, “gated,” by the materials available. The reason no one in 5AD had a greatsword isn’t because they couldn’t imagine the weapon, they couldn’t make with the materials available.

-Starke

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Q&A: Knockouts Are Brain Damage

in a lot of film & tv characters get punched so hard that they are knocked out. i was wondering how strong would the person have to be/how hard would the punch have to be to knock the person out? and how long could the person be knocked it for (realistically)? thanks so much!

We answered a question similar to this one in the article, The Force of a Knockout.

The short answer is that yes, you can knock someone out with a punch. However, it’s not the get out of jail free card that media often presents it as. When you knock someone out, you are inflicting enough damage to their brain that the brain shuts down to protect itself. A knockout is you essentially putting someone into a short term coma, and the injury is a very serious one. Normally, they’ll only be unconscious for a few seconds and anywhere longer than thirty to ninety can indicate serious injury.

You can watch about twenty minutes of The Best Boxing Knockouts of 2018, if you watch closely (it’s blink and you’ll miss it) you will see the eyes roll back in their heads as they pass out on the slow-mo. Even if they’re awake again when that knee hits the mat, the referee jumps in. If you think, “well, what about girls?” then here you go. (Warning for blood.)

That said, strength in not in the equation. The knockouts you’re thinking of are caused by precision punches to pressure points. Usually, this is a hook punch to the jaw. You can’t hit just anywhere on the jaw either. It has to be on the back, near the ear, at the point where the jaw connects to your skull. There’s a pressure point (your nerves) in the gap, which if you hit it with meticulous perfection, can cause someone to pass out. The other version is they hit them enough times in the face that the brain succumbs after being softened up by enough continuous hits.

Anyone of any size can do this, the restriction is either skill based or an incredibly lucky shot. There’s no strength restriction. The hook is not the only means of getting someone to pass out, but it is the one most people are familiar with. You can sit there and pound on the back of someone’s skull (where the bones are softest) until they pass out. There are nerve pressure points elsewhere on the body which if struck will cause the victim to pass out. You can cut off blood flow to the brain through the carotid artery with a blood choke, and they will pass out (and die if it goes on too long.) You can strike someone in the temple (where there is a gap in your skull) for direct access to their brain. You can asphyxiate someone with a standard choke, they will pass out and, if you deny their brain oxygen long enough, eventually die. You can drive someone’s face into a rising knee hard enough that they can, under some circumstances, pass out. You can bash their head into a hard surface like a concrete wall, a sink, a metal door, a wooden door, until they (again) pass out or just can’t get back up. You can also kick them in the head to deliver even more force, resulting in more damage. Upgrade this to a spin kick or a jump kick, or even a spinning jump kick if you’re feeling adventurous. In terms of force, kicks outperform punches.

Here, watch some kickboxing knockouts while we’re at it.

Again, a knockout is brain damage. You have convinced your victim’s brain that the injury inflicted to it is so serious that it must temporarily shut down in self-defense to preserve their life. If they’re down for longer than thirty seconds, their chances of long term to permanent brain injury increase substantially. And there’s always a chance something else will do them more harm in the intermediary, from the fall itself (which can kill them or cause another greater injury which kills them) to what happens after you walk away.

Fiction likes to present the knockout as the Saturday Morning Cartoon death. You can essentially kill a character without having to say you killed them while ignoring the subsequent guilt and/or consequences of murder. This is why I refer to knockouts as fiction’s “get out of jail free card”, and why you should consider the knockout carefully before you choose to apply it. A lot of fiction writers have a bad habit of thinking anything up to death is okay or preserves a character’s moral good. However, violence is everything you do to a person from short term damage to the long term injuries. There are lots of unintended consequences, which are seeds of interesting stories all on their own.

You should never trick yourself into thinking violence in any form is safe, there’s always a risk assessment and built in cost. Your brain is floating in fluid, every time you take a hit in the face you’ll be damaging it. That’s not counting the swelling, the broken noses, someone taking out your eyes with their fingers, lost teeth from the force of a hit, boxed ears disorienting you, stumbling from taking a hit to the back of your skull, losing hair or even skin when your scalp gets raked/your hair pulled, blood leaking into your eye when your eyebrow gets split or cut by your opponent’s knuckles.

Remember this adage: where the head goes, the body follows.

Protecting your head and face is your number one priority. If someone gets control of your head, they can take you anywhere they want. No matter how hard you struggle, you will go with them until you manage to break their grip. If you ever had a question about why hair pulling is a legitimate tactic, it’s because you take control of their head and you have direct access to all the nerves around your hair follicles. You can control where they go, and it hurts. Why punch someone in the nose? A) it hurts, B) it’s a soft target so you don’t risk hurting your hand on the skull’s bone plates, and C) the swelling will disrupt their ability to see which hinders their ability to continue the fight.

You’ll notice too with most professional fighters in sports that allow ground combat like the UFC, the fighters will follow their opponent to the ground and/or keep hitting them as they go down. They get pulled off by the referees. In the rush of adrenaline and focus, it can take time for someone to realize that they need to stop. You can guarantee your character will likely have gotten in consecutive hits after their opponent has fallen, doing more damage to them than is necessary because they don’t realize they’re unconscious.

The average street fight only lasts for twenty five seconds, but rarely ends in a knockout. You’re much more likely to end up putting your opponent in a position they can no longer fight than you are driving them into an unconscious state. The exception is if you intended to. You’re less likely to knock someone out with luck than you are with skill, but either way its never guaranteed because everyone’s body is different.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing Training

What kind of things do you need to emphasize in a training scene? One of my characters, a fairly prodigious fighter, is trying to teach a craftsman’s apprentice the basics of fighting, and I want to show the learning. Your post earlier talked about the buildup & payoff to a fight scene, but how does it work with scenes that happen fairly early and don’t carry the same kind of weight/stakes?

There should always weight and stakes to any fight scene, any scene in your novel from big to small. You should always be on the lookout to figure out how to build into your small scenes because that will lead you into a bigger whole.

Let me ask you a question: What will happen if the craftsman’s apprentice never learns to fight? What happens if he or she fails? How does this potential failure impact their future? How does the prospect impact them personally?

Learning to fight is difficult. No matter how good your teacher, the onus for success is on the student. The student who doesn’t want to be there won’t be for very long, and the student who does may give up rather than persevere. The building of endurance, the slow pace, the physical requirements, the necessity of patience, focus on simple techniques broken down and studied piece by piece. Going to bed tired and aching every day if the training lasts for prolonged periods of time. The student learns quickly that all the glory they imagined is replaced by hard work. Most of them give up.

If you haven’t contemplated the possibility of this apprentice failing, you should. You should contemplate how this character behaves when they start to struggle, when they get bored, when they feel like they want to quit.

If they fail, does it matter?

Those are your stakes.

As for what you should emphasize, the sports movie training montage and training sequences are some of the best templates to choose from. Alternately, the martial arts movie training sequence and training montage or the military bootcamp training sequence and training montage. Once you’ve watched enough of these, they become pretty easy to conform into writing.

The basic template for traditional martial arts is:

  1. Student is excited to learn training.
  2. Training is not what they expected, training is repetitive singular motions which may not connect to what they thought they’d be learning (wax on, wax off, or hang up the jacket) and endurance exercises that wear them out. They go home every day tired and aching, don’t feel like they’re making progress.
  3. Student gets frustrated and complains to teacher. Teacher tells them to practice more.
  4. Student practices more, gets more frustrated. Threatens to quit. Because student is close to the hump, Teacher relents and shows them how the motions they’ve been practicing connect into a single technique. They realize they have been learning to fight.
  5. Student goes back to training, but more excitedly than they did before. Master gradually opens up to them.
  6. Several weeks/months later, student shows off their basic technical mastery. Leaves their master ready to face the world, the big tournament, or whatever it was they were training for.
  7. Encounters the real world, discovers that their training has prepared them well but will be much more difficult than previously expected.

This will be difficult for you is if the trainee is not the main character of this story, but a stop over point for the character who will be training them. Training another person to fight is a long and involved process if you want to do it well, and requires anywhere between months to years of commitment from both student and master.

If you don’t know anything about the technical details of fighting or the specific style your character practices, then you’ll find writing a training sequence to be extremely difficult. You can’t write what you don’t know. You’ve got to sit down and learn what you didn’t know before. Part of the reason I recommend watching a film over reading a novel is you’ll be able to see the physical intricacies of training which often get glossed over (outside some authors wanting to portray a romantic connection.) Training someone else to fight involves a lot of physical contact on the part of the instructor, this is usually in adjustments. They mimic what you show them, then you correct their positioning into the correct one so their body can feel the difference. They remember that sensation, and practice the motion until they can achieve that same feeling.

You’ve often got to move their feet into the proper position for their stances, remind them to bend their knees so they go lower, move their shoulders back or sideways so they’re on the proper angle, lift their elbows or shift the position of their arm while their hold position, tighten up their stomach/abdominal muscles, fix their breathing (breathe through your diaphragm and not your stomach. You want as little air in your stomach as possible.) Etc.

There’s no one size fits all training, you have to adjust your approach per student based on their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll rarely have the perfect student. They may have a strong grasp of their physicality, but a weak drive or poor endurance. Where some students grasp the basics faster than others, the slower ones with good endurance and drive can outpace the more talented students at higher levels because their grasp of the basics ended up stronger. Students who are rushed to the more advanced or difficult techniques (the way they usually want) are usually weaker than students forced to master the basics before given opportunity to advance. The reason for this is because the basic techniques form your foundation for both attack and defense, they’re also the most commonly used techniques.

The biggest component of training is endurance based. The assumption is that this is “strength” as in what you can lift, but it is not. Re-focus on long distance running and short sprints which build up lung capacity, climbing exercises which emphasize agility and dexterity, push ups, sit ups, and others which build your core muscles for better balance. You’ll see a focus on fine motor control, lengthening (endurance exercises) rather than tearing (weight lifting) the muscles. Unless you plan on having them wear armor or draw a bow, they’re going to develop the type of body similar to a long distance runner. They’ll train on a multitude of surfaces if their teacher has the option, indoors, in the flats of forest, in the mountains, on the beach, so they learn to adjust their body and their fighting style to effectively fight/conserve energy on different terrains.

If you’ve never tried to run on the beach, you’ll learn quickly you want to be running near the waves and were the sand is wet rather than on loose sand. The surface is harder and more stable where its wet, dry sand will sap your energy.

A good teacher will try to expose their student to most situations which can be done in relative safety. One of the advantages of training is the preparation and that preparation leads to quicker responses than from someone experiencing the situation for the first time. However, you cannot prepare your student for everything and some experiences can only be learned by experiencing them outside the safety of the training floor. As a writer, you’ll be making the executive decisions for your trainer about what is and isn’t too dangerous. This is where most of the suspension of disbelief breaks occur in these sequences because the trainer ends up requiring their student to do something far above and beyond what they could conceivably be asked in a real world scenario.

Two humans fight with real blades rather than training blades without any safety measures is one example. The scene may seem sexy, but contextually the decision is stupid.

Always treat your characters in your head like they’re real people. Your trainer is making decisions based on what is safe for your character to learn. Any serious injury the trainee suffers could lead to months of recovery time or them never fighting. You want to push them just hard enough that you take them beyond the limits they’ve set for themselves, but not past what they can actually accomplish.

Always ask yourself: what are they learning?

Training exercises generally have multiple lessons attached beyond the technique itself. Remember, training isn’t just training the character’s body but also their mind and their character. Their values are reshaped, their beliefs shift and mature, and they develop as a character. Training is character development. Consider who this character is at the beginning of their training and who they are by the end of it, if you don’t envision them changing you should ask yourself why.

Most writers are tempted to do what the student wants or sympathize with the student in their training sequences, this is either because the student is their main character and they empathize more with them or because they’re beginners themselves. Or, it could be both.

You’ll handicap your character and your narrative if you give them what they want, but most of your audience won’t notice. Only a very small contingent will respond with, “lol, no.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t try your best to do it right, I’m just saying don’t worry too much about blow back. You’ve got nothing to worry about. The vast majority of people can’t tell its not bacon.

Again, don’t trap yourself into thinking you need world altering stakes in order for your character’s story to matter. The stakes of any narrative are what you make them and they are driven by the participating characters’ desires, wants, dreams versus their situation and what they are asked to sacrifice or do in order to attain those desires. Leave yourself open to possibilities and uncertainty, contemplate failure even if you know long term the characters are going to succeed. Failure is not always malicious or malevolent, sometimes its unintentional. It can be easy as saying “I don’t want to do this anymore” and deciding a few days later that you really do, only to discover the opportunity has passed.

There is always an alternate world or worlds filled with the choices we did or didn’t make, and there are stories in all of those potential choices. Learning to make the most of those potential stories is part of what writing is all about.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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