Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Welcome to Writing

my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.               

Welcome to writing.

I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.

What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.

There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.

“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.

What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.

You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Take action.
  3. Pay attention to detail.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
  5. Change if it’s not working.

Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.

There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.

Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.

If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.

To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.

There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.

Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.

As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”

Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.

You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing that Intimidating Darth Vader Character

How do you illustrate someone that’s absolutely terrifying in a fight? I’ve got this plate-wearing, greatsword-wielding character designed in the style of Darth Vader or the Terminator, but I haven’t found a way to ‘show’ that she’s this terrifying, freakishly strong juggernaut without being sloppy or a blatant power trip, or turning other characters into ‘oh she’s so scary’ plot devices.

The answer is pretty simple, but also difficult in practice because the answer to writing intimidating characters is a concept called “presence”. In film, this is usually referred to as screen presence but in fiction (and in life) we’ll refer to this as body language.

There’s a mistaken assumption that you need to be large to be imposing, but what makes Vader and the Terminator so imposing is actually their body language and the way they’re framed. In their case most of this is visual, in the color palate, in the costume, but it’s also there in the body language. If you want to riff these characters in fiction, then you need to focus on how they behave and how the people around them react to their presence.

Why are they intimidating?

Why do they scare people?

You need to delve into the nitty gritty to translate what you’re feeling and seeing onto the page. You’re making a mistake in assuming that the character’s tools, the armor, the great sword, will do the work for them; but that’s not what makes someone intimidating in written fiction. You have to show what that armor and weapon mean.

The easy version of intimidation is total domination, total mastery, and total control. See below:

Lifting her eyes, Kadi took in her mother’s lazy stance, her blade in an almost ready position. She snapped forward, silver and green flashing in the mid-afternoon light. Re-appeared just behind her on the windowsill, ready to thrust.

Her mother’s blade caught her in the gut.

Kadi struck with her blade, blood spilling past her lips.

“Good,” her mother said, knocking the strike away. She caught Kadi by the collar before she fell, yanked back into the room, and flung her across it.

Kadi struck the wall, tumbled to the floor. Twisting, she landed on her feet. The blade spun in her hand. She rushed forward.

Her mother’s eyes gleamed yellow. “Your form and shape are tools.”

Their blades met in a clash of sparks.

“Control the flow of blood, and your body will not die until you wish it.”

She brought her blade up as her mother pressed inward, twisting sideways. Dodging her mother’s punch, she struck toward the inside of the thigh.

Her mother slipped away. “Never yield. Continue after the last enemy is dead.”

Their blades met again, and slid along the sharpened edges. Gritting her teeth, Kadi ignored the pounding in her ears. Her blood slipping down her stomach. She flicked the blade up, and drove the tip toward her mother’s neck.

Her mother’s foot caught Kadi’s gut wound, kicking her into the opposing wall.

Kadi landed hard.

“Get up.”

“Wake the Dead” by C.E. Schmitt

Keep in mind with this training sequence, the characters in this passage aren’t remotely human. So, you don’t have to worry about the long term ramifications of damage to a physical body. The purpose of the sequence is to teach both Kadi and the character about a body’s disposable nature. Kadi is learning how to fight through extreme injury, and even death.

You’ll notice Kadi’s mother doesn’t move from her position at all throughout the scene. Kadi attacks her, trying to break her defenses. We see her give Kadi a gut wound, save Kadi from falling out the window, and see her attack the gut wound. We see Kadi focusing while her mother instructs, multiple attempts by Kadi to attack her mother none of which are successful.

You don’t need to ask the question: who has the power in this scenario? It’s clear Mom does.

If you want your character to be intimidating in the classic villain sense then, not only do they have to win, they need to win without breaking a sweat. They should exude a sense of confidence whenever or wherever they go, regardless of what room they walk into. Other characters in setting get a chill just hearing their name. Knowing they’re nearby makes even seasoned established badasses freakout and suggest heading for the hills.

You have to let them do their thing, let them win, and let them keep winning until the time comes for them to lose.

Characters like Darth Vader and the Terminator put incredible pressure on the heroes until the end of the film, they evoke feelings of fear and desperation because they are so unfazed by the best warriors and conventional tactics. They represent overwhelming power, they are so unconcerned with ensuring their impending victory that they walk rather than run. By their own design, they’re better off used sparingly than spending the novel front and center or acting as the protagonist rather than the antagonist. These two aren’t just villains, they’re supporting characters. This is the Terminator, even in films like Terminator II where he’s a re-programmed good guy rather than a bad guy. He’s a bodyguard. There to kick ass, take names, and bond with John Connor. After all, Sarah Conner is the hero of both Terminator films. (OG Sarah Conner in Terminator II is not a bad character to look at for this kind of stone cold badass.) Due to their designed role as supports, you have to do a lot of work to remake them into protagonists.

As you’ve discovered, writing a character who is convincingly scary and intimidating is more difficult than it sounds. You have to walk your talk, and walk your walk. If you oversell and can’t make good, the character falls flat. If you tell without showing, then the tell has nothing to back itself up. You can’t tell me the character is a dangerous, unstoppable juggernaut and have the heroes defeat them two pages later. You oversell the character, and eliminate reader trust. They might not believe the next villain you trot out is a legitimate threat, which undercuts your narrative tension.

They need to live up to their reputation.

They need to inspire fear in others.

We need to see why people fear them and their skills.

Attitude – “I don’t have time for you.” These characters tend to be gruff, but they’re mostly condescending. They tend to be reserved even when they take up space. They’re in the rare situation where both their rudeness and confidence are justified by their ability to back it up. (You have to justify it, you can’t expect them to do it on their own.) You have to really stack up the odds for them to start getting ruffled. Therefore, it’s up to you as the author to figure out the narrative limits within your own setting. This way, you can keep your story consistent from scene to scene. One thing is common with all these characters is they take up space, they’re unapologetic about it, and when they walk into a room everyone notices. Also, get off my lawn.

One versus Many is an old hat narrative trick to establish a bad ass via fight scene. You need to be careful overusing this one, and then there’s the question of whether or not you as the writer can write a 1vX scenario. Juggling multiple enemies looks easy on screen, but isn’t when it’s just you trying to figure out how you write that.

The 1vX ups the ante when the seasoned antagonist takes on other top tier members of their group/established narrative badasses solo and handily wins. Well, you know they’re strong.

Deeds – What have they done to be worthy of their reputation? A warrior who slaughters farmers at the request of their overlord comes off as a bully. A warrior who slaughters the king’s best soldiers and then slaughters farmers afterward without mercy is goddamn terrifying.

The Power Stance – This is where the character stands forward facing, shoulders squared and chest lifted. Head up. The juggernaut fighting style involves not moving much unless you have to. They don’t draw their weapon unless they need it. You should probably view the weapon draw as the character signaling she’s getting serious, rather than her first go to. She’s not going to be serious in a bar fight because this is a character for whom the normal rules of safety don’t apply. (Also, the armor significantly limits all threats.)

Everyone Wants to Be the Best – The climb to the top is long, hard bitten, and fraught with danger. If you have a character who is the best at what they do like Darth Vader, you should respect the time and effort they put in to get themselves there. These characters often have very specific and job oriented personalities often to the point of obsession. For someone to be so on top as to have the reputation they do, they must have killed a lot of people. They’re the ones with a target on their back, the one everyone’s gunning for, who everyone wants to kill, and that doesn’t bother them at all.

Establish the Bottom – If you want to establish how much better a character is than everyone else, then you need to figure out and establish both the low bar and the average bar before jumping at the high bar. If the high bar is all people get, then they’ll think that’s where normal is. You need to establish why the power and skill gap between this character and others is so immense right from the get go, from our first interaction with the character. They should be pulling things off other characters can only imagine. For this reason, they usually don’t work well as POV characters.

Walkin’ Into Danger Like It’s Tuesday – Yeah, you know the famous line from Bison, “The day I graced your village was the single most important day of your life but, for me, it was Tuesday.”

The horrors they inflict are foundational for other people but, for them, what they do is normal. They’re the chaotic tornado upsetting other people’s lives, memorable to other people, but other people aren’t usually memorable to them. After all, they’ve done this for so long the faces begin to blur together.

Again, See Below:

The hellbeasts stalked into a semicircle, their long jaws slavering as they grinned to display razor sharp teeth.

“Get behind me, Emma,” Chastity said, drawing her blade. She stepped forward. “It’s going to be all right.”

Beside her, Jayse pulled his pistol. He didn’t question Chastity, they didn’t need Emma freaking out. Still, with the five hellbeasts in front of them, more on the rooftops, neither of them could make any promises about keeping an untrained neophyte safe. Chastity lacked the skills to deal with this many wargs on her own, and she was low in the rankings. He’d have to dip into his own powers to even the scale, even then he couldn’t make any guarantees.

The hellbeasts lunged.

Emma screamed.

The world exploded in a flash of hot white light.

Sharon Kelso stood where the hellbeasts had been, watching dust particles left behind by atomized bodies drift through the air. Her right hand stuck in her jean’s pocket. Her eyes glowed bright white. A small, winged imp-like creature squatted on one shoulder. Casually, she broke off the end of a candy bar and handed it to shriveled green thing.

The little imp snatched the bar, stuffed it into its mouth.

Kelso tilted her head, surveying each surprised face in the circle. “Go home.”

“Yeah, yeah!” the little imp yelled. “If ya don’t, we eats ya!”

“Eats! Fucker wants eats!” cried a second, tucked behind her leg. It titled its head, mimicking its mistress. “Wait. Can we eats them, Boss?”

Keso smiled faintly. “Not yet.”

“We can’t eats ya yet!” the first imp yelled.

The second shook its fist. “Stay for dinner, and we will!”

Kelso looked away, her expression dispassionate. “Go.” Her blazing white eyes scanned the nearby alleys, studying the shadows. “I don’t babysit.”

Jayse got to his feet, brushing off his arms. He tried to catch Kelso’s eye. Failing, he sighed and slipped his dagger back up his sleeve. She was definitely in one of her moods. They’d have to talk about her people skills, or lack thereof later. He resisted the urge to shove his hands in his pants, that’d just confirm he was still the disgruntled teenager Stewart believed he’d let himself become. “We should do what she says.”

“S-s-she just disintegrated them,” Emma whispered.

“She does that,” Chastity sighed.

Emma blinked. “Just like that?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

Jayse pushed back his hair, his eyes on Kelso. “There’s a breach in the sewers, third level. You shouldn’t go alone.”

She glanced at him, the light dying in her eyes. Brown irises flickered yellow in the street lights, and, for a moment, he saw confusion there. Then, her lips curled into one of her creepy, villainous smiles. The light flared back up inside her pupil as she rubbed her nose. “Amateurs.”

“Amateur! Amateur!” the little imp on her shoulder cried in a sing-song voice, and the second joined in to chorus, “amateur ashes all fall down!”

Jayse stiffened.

“She’s Number One for a reason, Jayse,” Chastity said. She reached out, and tugged at his sleeve. “We should let her do her thing.”

She’s Number One?” Emma squealed. “Wait. Number One? What does that even mean?”

Chastity smacked her forehead. “I knew we never should’ve let Emma out. There’s a dimensional breach. We got crossways of Kelso. Stewart’s gonna kill us.” She sighed heavily, biting her lower lip. “Our luck sucks.”

“You’ve no idea how right you are,” said another voice from behind them.

Kelso looked away, and the fiery light returned to her eyes. She walked down the alley, her shadow spread up one wall but not the other. As her shadow moved across concrete and brick, a pair of wings lifted off her back. Kelso finished off her candy bar, tossed the wrapper, and kicked off the manhole cover at the alley’s end.

“See you later, suckas!” the imp cried.

Kelso, imps on both shoulders, dropped into the sewers.

“Great,” Emma muttered. “She’s an asshole and she litters.”

“And she could stick all your internal organs on the outside of your body with a wink,” Chastity said.

When you encounter this character, they should feel like someone you really wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley.

– Michi

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Q&A: A sword is not load Bearing

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

So… There’s this scene in a book where a swordsman thrusts at a guy with two knives and the thrust was deflected so the swordsman stumbles forward. Knife Guy grabs the swordsman’s collar and then demonstrates to an apprentice that he can a) stab Sword Guy in the throat b) stab Sword Guy in the chest and/or c) cripple Sword Guy. Is Sword Guy just a bad combatant or is this actually usable?

I’m hoping this scene occurred in a safe training environment and not in a live scenario because so many more problems pop up if it did. They’d be a whole other post about why you don’t train people while fighting for your life (even against a subpar opponent, you’re confident your trainer character could beat.) That would be a whole other post about how stupid that makes characters look.

The short answer is that whether or not Sword Guy is supposed to be a good combatant is dependent on the narrative and the author who wrote it. There’s a lot about the scenario that doesn’t make sense and makes both characters look like idiots, along with a general side of “not how this works”. This includes a third arm problem. The author knew just enough to be aware of certain concepts like deflection, stumbling, and grabbing someone by the collar but not how they work or what causes them.

Let’s start at the top.

1. A sword is not load bearing.

Swords weigh between two to four pounds. They’re not heavy. The only way it’d be possible for the swordsman to stumble on a thrust would be if he had to throw his entire weight behind the sword, and have the forward momentum carry him forward. (Which is why the great axe is swung in a figure eight pattern.) However, you don’t need deep penetration with a sword and a thrust is about the tip, not the whole sword. A thrust moves off one leg, not both, in a step forward (if that) and a deflection will not unbalance your opponent on its own. If the weapon weighed twenty pounds, then it couldn’t be deflected. It’d have too much forward momentum. The swordsman would never come close enough for the Dual Wielder to grab him, and the Dual Wielder couldn’t grab him by the collar anyway because he’s duel wielding.

However, this is all predicated on the idea that the swordsman stumbled close enough to be in range for the Dual Wielder. Swords add an extra four or so feet of distance. He wouldn’t be close enough for the dual wielder to reach him. Dual Wielder would have to come to Sword Guy and not the other way around. An experienced knifer would know that.

2. Dual wielding knives is about a sacrificing defense for offense.

Outside specific tools like parrying daggers (which are not the same as regular daggers), knives exist to accentuate hand to hand. Using two means you’ve made a conscious choice to sacrifice utility and defense for more offense. Sacrificing utility includes collar grabbing. He would either need to drop one of his knives (bad) or he sprouted a third arm.

You can hold the knife or grab the collar, not both.

3. The sword is never out of play.

A good rule of thumb is: deal with the weapon first.

This technique that’s being shown off assumes that your enemy will politely stand there while you move two ranges in (from sword to hand to grappling) so you can grab them by the collar to stab them in the throat or chest or stab them in a joint to take them out of the fight. (Let’s ignore the chest too because you’ve got to deal with the breastbone and the unprotected stomach, abdominals, gut is just a few inches lower.)

Of course, Sword Guy still has his sword and edged weapons can cut you coming and going.

If sword guy is using two hands then he can rotate his sword and come back across on the deflection. It assumes the blade is not coming on a downward angle on the thrust, which is not getting deflected. This also assumes sword guy is not half-handing (where one hand is halfway up the blade) which can’t be deflected/parried.

So, all Dual Wielder did was open up his side to a blade that can be reoriented and brought sideways. Which assumes the deflection could happen in the first place, which is unlikely because…

4. You don’t parry with knives.

Again, that’s what your free hand is for.

There’s a problem with this scenario regarding the size of the knives in question. Some knives or daggers like bayonets are long enough they could concievably parry a sword, and get away with it. However, if your blade is long enough that it can parry a sword then grabbing someone by the collar is superfluous because you will be able to strike them before you are in range to grab their body. You’d also be putting your weapon outside the range where it is most useful to you, which is goes against the lesson this teacher is trying to impart.

5. There’s a misconception about depth.

You don’t need to go deep with a blade to do damage. Think about how painful a papercut is, or how easy it is to cut yourself while cooking. Surface level cuts to the skin can cause you to bleed out over an extended period, especially during times of high activity when your heart is rapidly pumping blood through your body. You don’t have to go deep to start cutting muscles in the arms or legs, which can debilitate your opponent.

A lot of writers obsess about stabbing someone in the heart or running someone through with a sword, but the true danger of bladed weapons is that it doesn’t take much against an unarmored opponent. That’s why people wore armor, and part of why the formality of first blood in duels exists. A single cut can be deadly. Surface level injuries with these weapons in the right place can kill you, especially if left without medical attention. Every cut you land is bad for your enemy.

6. We moved two ranges in.

We talk about range sometimes on this blog, but the key thing to remember is that range just means the distance it takes for a specific attack to hit your opponent. Grabbing hold of someone’s collar puts you in grappling range, which means that the person is right up next to you. This is close enough that your arm couldn’t reach full extension if you punched. This is the range where hooks, elbows, and upper cuts come into play.

The kind of stumbling this scenario is talking about is the kind you get when you grab someone and pull them forward. It’s actually very hard to get someone to stumble on a basic attack because most stances will have you set your balance, and your body moves together when you attack. So, in order for you to stumble a large amount of force must be delivered into you or you’re purposefully knocked off balance. All a deflection does is shift the strike off vector so that it misses. If you follow up with nothing, then the other person either resets to their original fighting stance or changes tack and like rotating the blade, kicking, or striking with their other hand. There’s no reason for Sword Guy to stumble at all, certainly not stumble through two other ranges (sword and hand) into grappling without the Dual Wielder needing to do anything. The best way to get someone to stumble forward is to catch them off balance and yank, which can’t be done if you’re holding a weapon.

Conclusion:

The basic problem of this scenario is that it sounds good on the surface but falls apart when you stop to think about it. The scene also lacks key understanding of how these weapons function and why they work. Dual Wielder has an overfocus on the neck/chest, neither of which are particularly good strike points. Remember, the sternum protects the heart from a stab or downward strike. If you want to get there, you’re going to need to go through the ribs. The neck is difficult because if you’ve got short weapons then you have to be up close. Both these places sound good to novices because they know they work or that they should work.

Writing weapons means brushing up on your anatomy. You need to study how the human body works, where it works, and how it breaks. You can cut someone on the wrist, either going after the artery in the forearm or just to distract them while you move in on the better protected target. With knives, two cuts are better than one. You don’t need a lot of penetration.

-Michi

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Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Villain In a Heist is reliant on the Wall

quietemptydiariess said to howtofightwrite: I’m writing a female lead heist film with two lead characters. The villain is one of the women’s best friends. However, I’m having writer’s block on creating the villain character. I haven’t come up with anything.

The antagonist of a heist film is the security systems put into place to prevent the theft of the valuable object the thieves want to steal, the villain of the narrative is either someone who protects the valuable object (like the art museum’s security director) or the owner of the object the thieves want to steal. They can be the owner of the object, another thief who stole the object first, a private collector, the runner of a museum, an interpol agent, an FBI agent, or someone like an insurance investigator put in place to protect the millions of dollars the insurance company will need to dole out if the valuable object gets stolen. Or, there can be multiple secondary villains/antagonists set in multiple positions in the narrative. We have the criminal who owns the piece the thieves want and will kill them if they catch them, the interpol/FBI/insurance agent who is investigating the thieves and applying external pressure, and the security director who is the primary head to head nemesis our thieves are working around.

With a heist narrative, the big antagonist is always the security systems put in place to protect the valuable object. If you don’t have that then you don’t have a story and you don’t have villains.

A heist narrative has two primary antagonists, one are the characters actively working to prevent your thieves from stealing the object and the security systems being put into place to keep the object from being stolen in the first place. The foe in the heist story has to catch their opponent, they can’t simply find and kill them. They investigate them.

The security systems are a wall antagonist, your characters have to find their way around or over a wall. The live antagonist is ultimately secondary to the security precautions, which is the problem your characters are looking to solve.

Heist films aren’t about a race against other people, but your characters are the ones setting the tempo. How do you get the information you need arousing suspicion? When you’re under suspicion, how do you ensure you don’t move too fast that you start making mistakes but also don’t move so slow that you miss the window of opportunity? Your characters are putting themselves on the clock, they need just enough time. They need to be precise.

You, as the author, are setting up a puzzle box.

If you’re having trouble with your villains, you’re having trouble with your puzzle. If you’re having trouble with the villains, you need to be spending more time on your puzzle. The live actor is not the driving force of the narrative, they are reacting to the actions of your thieves. The thieves are the ones who are pushing the story forward. The live actor, the villain, is someone who is just doing their job and the tension with them in the end is they either do their job or they don’t. It’s up to you to build the character drama on whether the best friend will turn one of your heroes in at the end of the film or give them a pass.

The heroes of the heist narrative are active rather than reactive. This can be difficult if you’re not used to working with the heist genre and female characters specifically can have issues with proactivity. Women in fiction tend to be passive (by design), in supportive roles or acting under the direction of an authority figure, they’re reactive rather than proactive. You’re going to have to fight against that impulse, which is to step aside and let someone else (usually male) set the tempo. The villain of a heist narrative doesn’t have to do anything, if your characters never make the first move then what they have isn’t under threat and they don’t need to defend it. Your characters have to get in first and keep moving because if they do nothing then the other side wins by default.

What do you want?

What do you need to get it?

How do you get it?

How do you avoid getting caught?

What are the complications?

This is a chess game. Your heroes are playing white, the villains are playing black. White moves first, black responds. If white doesn’t move, there is no game. You’re playing both sides, and occasionally trap doors will open to take your pieces. After all, this game is about winning and not about rules. White will cheat, but if black catches them cheating it’s also game over.

Heists are exercises in your characters’ creativity.

Your villains are reacting to your characters’ actions.

Relax, and focus on the circumstances surrounding the object the characters intend to steal and how this other character relates to that object.

Once you have your puzzle, you’ll have your solution and then your answer.

-Michi

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Q&A: Common accidents are not cliche

For a beginner attempting to use rope/chained weapons, how cliche would it be to have them getting it wrapped around themselves?

I kid you not when I say the first and most common injury you’ll get from the three-section staff when first learning to wield it involves hitting yourself in the head.

Chain/rope weapons are about gaining force with momentum, which means you’re learning to keep the weapon in a state of constant motion. With a weapon like the shaolin dart, the nunchaku, or the whip chain, you use your body as the guide to redirect the weapon while it is moving. This is not just your hands and your wrist, but your upper arm, your shoulders, your sides, your legs, and even, in some cases, your neck. The more complicated the motion, the more difficult the weapon, the more likely you are to make mistakes during training, and chain weapons are the pinnacle for weapon difficulty.

Look at the three-section staff, if you can’t imagine it rebounding at the wrong angle and hitting you squarely in some place very painful during the learning process then… well… lol. That’s unrealistic.

You’re going to lose control of a chain weapon at some point (probably multiple points) during training. And, honestly, you’re going to end up with it wrapped around you at some points on purpose simply because that’s a great way to make it stop moving.

The question about whether or not this will be cliche in your writing is going to depend not on the character getting their weapon wrapped around them, but how this occurs and what kind of motion they were going for to begin with.

Take a moment, (or an hour if you watch this instructional video with John Su) to familiarize yourself with the movement patterns of the weapon you want to write.

If your character is doing a forward spin at the side of their body, then the chain is unlikely to wrap itself around their whole body as part of a mistake. The chain is actually unlikely to wrap itself around anything. In fact, the weapon is more likely to lose the forward momentum, hitch in the middle, stop spinning, and fall to the ground. The chain whip is likely to only wrap itself around the neck, for example, if the practitioner is doing a specific technique which involves the neck. Or a technique which involves their body, and in those cases more likely to wrap around a specific body part in a tight spiral than the whole body.

So if you were imagining the whip chain wrapping itself around the character’s feet and body in such a way that they fall to the ground then you’re not just edging toward the territory of cliche but also that of unrealistic. Mistakes that come from the chain moving in an unnatural manner for the sake of showing the character making said mistake are going to be cliche.

You have to be going pretty fast for the weapon to wrap around you multiple times, and part of your training is learning to control it just enough so you can perform a catch and release. This involves learning to not just moderate your speed at specific junctures during the technique, but also mastering the patterns of circular movement. It’s not just that the weapon is going to wrap around you, but that you control when and how it does.

See take this example. They won’t be going this fast in the beginning, they should practice slowly and in individual pieces or they’re far more likely to hurt themselves. However, even an experienced practitioner can end up with the whip chain hitting them or wrapped around them in a way they didn’t intend.

Still, the term beginner is also a misnomer. The whip chain or nine section chain, the rope dart, the three section staff, the nunchaku, are all advanced weapons at the end of a comprehensive martial arts curriculum. They are Eastern weapons, and there is a specific pattern of advancement all students follow before they reach a point where the weapon becomes accessible. So, you don’t join a martial arts school and get to start using a chain weapon right off. You will begin building the whip chain’s technical foundation while studying the staff, just as you begin with hand to hand techniques before gaining access to the staff weapons. If the character you envision learning to wield the whip chain does not have at least three to five years of martial arts training under their belt with a firm foundation in hand to hand and, at least, some training on the staff then that is not realistic. More likely they’ll go through the staff weapons and the bladed weapons before they get to the flexible weapons. (This is especially true if you plan to have them using the whip chain in combat rather than exhibition.)

Your character may end up a specialist in flexible weapons, but they should have a solid foundation in martial combat before they get there. Remember, this is a weapon that specifically builds on the techniques of other weapons. They progress together, and you can’t learn one without the other.

Now, there are weapon traditions like some Western traditions where you can pick and choose what your character knows. These specific chain weapons are just not one of them.

Don’t forget.

The chain weapon isn’t just going to wrap around your characters so they get tangled in it, it’s gonna full on hit them too. More often than not. Sometimes in the face.

Example: Downward arc over the head, under the left armpit, across the right shoulder, and whumph right into the nose/mouth.

If you want this weapon wrapping around your characters, you gotta get that circular patterning down so your audience can visualize the misery your characters inflict upon themselves.

-Michi

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Q&A: Size Matters Not, Medieval Shoes, and Knife Fighting

Hello! Recently I heard that there is no way that a 60 kg woman can defeat a man weighs more. Is that true? There is a rumour that woman are also mostly useless as policemen and firefighters because of their lack of strength. Is that so? You’re my most reliable source.

Whoever said this is a moron. The weight argument is the preferred stomping ground of idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t regularly make arguments that a man who weighs 140 pounds is completely useless as a police officer compared to a man who weighs 180 or 220, do they? Remember, you heard it from them, all men who weigh 160 pounds need to give up on his sports dreams now and go invest in knitting. And a man who can’t get above 150? Forget it, he’s trash. (Remember, Bruce Lee weighed 60kg, 132 pounds.)

“Someone who is short can’t defeat someone who is tall.”

We take gender out of the argument and the argument itself becomes ridiculous. This is an argument that’s not based in facts or reality, but rather one based in gender bias and societal conditioning. The “science” argument is just there to legitimize their position, but has no real basis in reality. The argument is telling you a woman can’t defeat a man because she’s a woman. Ask, what about a 220 pound woman? And watch them sputter.

This person you were speaking to was fantasizing all violent conflicts as duels, or physical conflicts with no surprises. Violence is not a stats game. Weight will do jack all against a knife, for example. This fantasy man will go down like a wet paper bag from a blow by a tire iron. Let’s not talk about guns. Even with weapons removed from the mix, weight isn’t an issue except in grappling. Here’s the thing: weight is a main consideration to the untrained, the ones with no martial training.

They hyperfocus on size rather than technique because size is the only advantage they have. They think weight is unbeatable because it has always worked for them. Weight does matter on the playground, size is intimidating when you’re six and up against a bullying boy of twelve. Starke likes this comment from a police officer once told him which is, “most people haven’t been in a fight since high school.”

Martial combat places its focus on disruption. You roll your wrist against the thumb when someone grabs you to escape because the thumb is the weakest point in the grip. You block a punch before it extends, because you put your extended arm against a fist with the elbow still bent that fist is going nowhere. Step between someone’s legs and a simple push to the chest or head can destabilize their whole body. The force of a punch comes, not from physical strength, but from the hips and shoulders, from the momentum generated by your body. You can control a tall man by grabbing him by the head and craning it sideways so his whole body is off kilter. Where the head goes, the body follows.

Size has its advantages, and its weaknesses. Exploiting those weaknesses is what martial training is all about.

This person can’t conceive of a world where weight isn’t considered important, where it doesn’t really matter because you’ve already learned to deal with it. There will always be someone who is taller, someone who is physically stronger, who is physically faster, who is more clever, who is smarter, who is more gifted than you are. However, that’s no reason to give up.

There are policewomen and female firefighters, female soldiers, female EMTs, guerrilla fighters, mercenaries, a female soldier just recently qualified for special forces training this November. You can check out Samantha Swords if you want to look at women who practice HEMA. There are women all over the martial arts world. They own their own schools, they compete in tournaments, they are self-defense specialists who run their own seminars teaching other women.

“No way”, especially when used broadly about an entire gender that reflects half of the planet’s human population, is an argument you can ignore.

I’ve been researching, but I don’t know if I’m just really bad at it or what, because I was wondering if it would make sense for my medieval military to wear tall, slightly heeled boots kind of like Wonder Woman’s, and if the boots would inhibit their movement too much or if I should change their footwear

Historically high heels are riding shoes and they’re for your cavalry, so the foot stays in the stirrup. Your standard infantry would not wear them. Generally, the shoes word during the middle ages (depending on period) were completely flat. The high heel didn’t become a fashion item until the 1700s and, in the beginning, were still worn by men.

Here are some middle ages shoes. Here are more shoes. The sabaton is the piece of armor which goes over the top of the shoe and protects the shin. This is the armor, depending on period, your soldiers (who were able to afford the armor) would wear. Wool and leather were also armor worn during the period. You can also watch Lindybeige discussing the reenactment medieval shoes he ordered for his HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) and why they work well with sabatons.

Some other resources: Medieval Warfare, Scholagladiatoria, and Wikitenaur.

If you don’t mind helping, what type of build would a knife fighter need/develop? And how would they train/be trained? Thanks so much.

An athletic build like the kind you see off of long distance runners. Their muscles will be long, developed by hours of stretching them out versus thick like you get off weight lifting. This build will be more a product of their physical conditioning regimen than their training, and what you’ll get off most martial arts combatants who don’t run around in heavy armor or are bowmen/women. You do a lot of physical conditioning in any sort of martial training to build up your endurance. This means lots of running, lots of wind sprints, lots of development of the lungs, and the body’s core to build up balance. They’ll be doing a lot of sit ups.

How they were trained would depend on the era they exist in, the country where they live, and the kind of blades available. This is part of the problem with general questions like this because martial combat training is very specific to and heavily reliant on the world your character exists in. Combat and martial training are responses to environmental threats, so a character who has to deal with heavily armored opponents on the regular will be trained differently than someone who grew up in South Central.

Knife fighting is butcher’s work. You don’t need to be trained in the use of a knife to wield one effectively in close quarters. They’re a fast weapon that is used to gain significant advantage in hand to hand combat. Bull rush, stab a guy in the stomach six times, and he’s done. The knife itself is a utility tool in most martial arts systems and primarily used to support other weapons, or, again, as a hand to hand tool. You use the knife because you want an advantage in unarmed situations.

Ergo, your knife fighter will also be/should also be a skilled hand to hand combatant because if they have been trained to fight will start with hands first. Hands are safer, and in a structured system provide the building blocks which are necessary for the more deadly techniques.

Marc MacYoung’s “Knife Fighting Lies” is a good breakdown about the difference between knife fighting taught in martial arts versus knife fighting in the real world. Keep in mind when reading that he’s specifically discussing knives in self-defense and rebuking the fantasies of martial arts, but it is a good breakdown if you want to bring a knife fighter into your fiction.

When asking about knife fighting, I assume you mean systems like Indonesian and Filipino martial arts such as Silat and the kerambit. Or, something similar. The graceful, deadly knife fighter of fiction is going to come out of traditional martial arts systems that heavily emphasize hand to hand where the knife is a utility tool accentuating techniques the student has learned. This means the knife fighter’s training won’t really be any different from that of the standard martial artist. Their training will depend on the system used, and what that system prioritizes. Use of the knife will be the last thing they learn rather than the first. They will never train with a live knife, especially never with a practice partner. The practice knife will be made of rubber or wood or blunted metal (like all practice weapons, the only time you will train with a “live” weapon is sticks or staves, and even the ends of those can be padded during sparring.)

Knife fighting is deadly. Knife fighting is about killing other human beings. Knife fighting can easily end in a double homicide with both participants dead if they both have knives. Knives are ambush weapons, so practically its not good to think of them as dueling tools. Knife fights are usually over in a few moves, so we’re talking a fight that lasts (at best) thirty seconds. Most likely, the fight will be shorter than that. Any wound from the knife can kill you, and you won’t escape unscathed.

Sammy Franco has a good discussion of knife fighting you can find on his website.

Kill or Get Killed by Colonel Rex Applegate (1943) is still considered the go-to manual for Western style hand to hand combat. I’d say this is a good starting point for anyone with an interest in knife fighting from a modern combat/warfare perspective.

-Michi

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Q&A: 1vX? RUN!

Hi, you’re backlog of answers and posts is both impressive and intimidating. It is my personal goal to reach the very first post reading back from the most recent. I thought I’d pose my own question while I’m at it: the prospect of being very outnumbered and the way it’s addressed in fiction. With no combat training, it always rings bullshit bells, whether they are fighting off hordes at once or discreetly dispatching one after another. It feels like a person’s fatigue would catch up with them.

If you go back far enough, you’ll find the posts we’ve done on the 1vX. Fighting multiple opponents is possible but difficult, the fight is brutal, and, if caught in this situation, you are probably going to die. Fiction likes to show of the 1vX because it is the most difficult type of combat available which if done correctly will cement your character as an amazing fighter, and when done incorrectly breaks all suspension of disbelief. The best films to showcase the basic theory for fighting multiple opponents are some of the old school Jackie Chan movies where you see him bouncing off the walls while he runs away from the hoarde of mooks like a madman. That’s basically how it works — you run, you get in a hit or two, you shove a few into each other to slow them down, then you run again.

You’re juggling.

You’re not really fighting so much as dragging them into each other so they can’t coordinate. If you cede the floor to them, if you let them surround you, it’s over. You can’t stop and fight one at a time because they all come together, and they work together. These are not the stuntmen who sit in the queue patiently waiting their turn until their time comes to be beat up by the hero. Humans are social creatures, we’re pack animals, and even untrained groups will come against you together. The more opponents there are then the more the difficulty exponentially increases, and it was already sky high. Two people working together can easily kill you, even when you know what you’re doing. Eight will murder the shit out of you, and eight combatants is the maximum limit the single human brain can handle at once. People work together. The better coordinated they are, the more used they are to working together, the worse it is. An individual can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and it doesn’t take many for that to start happening.

One of the most common tactics from school yard bullies to prison inmates is to have one person lock their target down while the other person, grabbing hold of them either from behind or at another angle while the second wails on them (or knifes them.) This means the individual can’t fight back and is rendered helpless. This is the group’s ultimate goal.

The single combatant in a 1vX situation needs to keep moving. They can’t afford to stop. If they have a long or mid range weapon like a staff or sword then they might be able to hold down a single defensive position provided that position defends their back. With enough open space, the staff is better for this than the sword.

You’re in a sprint for your life. The fight is brutal and exhausting, you cannot afford to make mistakes. Once you lose the initiative, once the group takes control of the fight’s pace, it’s over. You turn your defense into offense.

Fighting multiple opponents is possible, but, especially with unarmed/hand to hand, we’re talking top tier difficulty situations which will most likely kill you. Two on one is likely to kill and has killed people who are experienced combatants. A Navy SEAL getting knifed by six bikers behind a bar shouldn’t be a surprising result. If your character is trying to protect someone else and get separated from them, then you should remember that the group is not all going to turn around and come at you. Some of them are going to keep chasing their original objective, especially if there’s more than two.

Fiction obsesses over the 1vX for fight scenes because the difficulty grade is excellent for showing off the hero’s skill and also because in visual mediums they’re exciting to watch. Then, they end up in situations where they’re breaking down the combatants levels by the numbers of enemies they can fight at once then utilize this to define the villain’s skill level. This narrative technique works well under the right circumstances but when you’re imitating the structure of the martial arts genre without understanding the nuts and bolts of why it works, we run the risk of the scene running wildly out of control. At this point, power creep sets in and numbers cease to matter. The narrative tension goes when this happens, the illusion breaks, and we get dolls slapping each other on the page or stunt actors punching shadows. Most 1vX fight scenes in film, especially in the US, are actually just the fight choreographer throwing as much action onto the screen as possible to overwhelm your eyes/brain and hope you don’t notice. They’re there to convince you that the character has control over the situation instead of a revolving door of, “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” Where you’re trying to track a crazy amount of movement and split your focus between three different people when they all just need to focus on you.

The problem with the presentation of the 1vX in fiction is that the sequence type has become so ubiquitous it tricks the audience into thinking they’re easy to write. A well-written 1vX fight does require a fairly sophisticated understanding of how martial combat works because you’re juggling multiple fighters and you run the risk of queuing (lining your different characters up to make attacks so the character only fights one at a time while the others wait their turn.)

-Michi

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Q&A: Translating Film to Novel with Raptors

I don’t have much experience with writing scary stuff and I need advice. I’m trying to write a scene similar to the one in Jurassic Park where the kids are dodging the raptors. But I’m having trouble translating the tension and terror in that scene into prose.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is a horror novel. If you haven’t looked at the book yet, I suggest giving it a read. You’ll find more insights into the source of the horror and how to write horror with dinosaurs in the novel than in the movie. The best way to learn about writing horror is to read horror novels. You can also read The Lost World by Michael Crichton, which isn’t a sequel to his first novel but a novelization of Spielberg’s second movie. You might glean some insights there also on the nature of translating visual mediums to the page.

Now, let’s move on to Jurassic Park the film. The raptor sequence is the capstone to the film’s subplot. The emotions you feel while watching this scene have been carefully managed and developed by what we’ve learned about the raptors, what they’re capable of, and what we’ve seen them do to the movie’s adults; including Muldoon, the park’s gamekeeper. Scenes in novels and film aren’t individual pieces which can be broken off. They’re part of a collective whole where all the pieces are working together for that climactic moment. Taking what you like from a book, a television show, or a comic is all well and good, but don’t forget to take your time and figure out how the narrative got there. What were the pieces leading up to this scene with the raptors which foreshadowed and emphasized the danger they represented? In the raptors’ case, the foreshadowing begins with the opening sequence with Muldoon and the workers putting a raptor into the cage. We never see the raptor, but we can hear it. Then, later we see Grant, Ellie, and the little boy at the digsite discussing the raptor skeleton. “You’re still alive when they start to eat you.”

This is all a careful structure on the movie’s part to build audience anticipation, including Grant having this discussion with a little boy rather than an adult. The possibility of the children being eaten in the beginning feeds toward that final scene in the movie.

The problem with looking to film specifically when trying to replicate is the presentation of a scene is visual. You need to look past the camera placement, and delve into the other four senses. The horror of Jurassic Park is a particular subgenre, one should probably familiarize yourself with on a conceptual level.

Your characters being hunted.

This is probably already obvious to you, but think it through. The scene with the raptors in Jurassic Park with the kids involves the children being hunted. With the way the shots are framed, we see both. The raptors are communicating back and forth with each other as they try to problem solve on the location of the children. The kids figure out where the raptors are through the sounds they make, and their reflections in the stainless steel cabinets. The kids need to get past the raptors and make it to the single exit from the room or else game over. The narrative has already established these animals are some of the most highly advanced and intelligent pack hunters to ever exist.

So, how do they escape?

From a written perspective, you don’t want to show the raptors. You don’t want the audience to know where they are because that heightens the tension. We see what the characters see, we hear what they hear, and the tension in a written context largely comes from what we don’t know. Based on what we don’t know, we can’t relax and neither can your characters.

Anyone can die.

You may have already planned it out for how these characters survive, but here’s the thing… you need to forget that they’re going to live and focus on them trying not to die. If you let them relax into the idea that they’re getting out of this because you already know that they are then they won’t try to survive and they’ll cheapen the scene.

Horror is about characters getting picked off one by one until only the few remain. The death count is necessary because it heightens the danger our antagonist represents, but keeping that monster in the unknown is also important. Survival should never be guaranteed. If it’s not, you’ll be focusing on the “problem solving” aspect of your characters, them figuring out under pressure how they’re going to escape this situation, and delve into the necessary “run for your life” aspect.

These characters don’t have the tools they need to fight this monster, all they can do is run. However, if you run from a Jurassic Park raptor then the raptor will run you down. They’re as fast as you, as agile as you, and more clever.

This is the video game stealth sequence where if you fuck up, you die and there’s no reload, no do-over. You’re done. So, knowing that, how do your characters behave while under pressure?

Don’t Be Afraid to Throw Out the Outline

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you need your characters to make the right choices. Don’t munchkin your way to victory. Desperate people don’t really make the right choices, they make choices which feel right to them in the moment and hope they work out.

As a creative, I loosely outline but never make myself beholden to it for the express purpose of making changes. In my first draft, I let my gut dictate where the story goes. This means, sometimes, characters who I wasn’t expecting to die do die and characters I wasn’t planning on having live ultimately survive. This gets cleaned up in later drafts, but this means that my characters are always making snap decisions in the moment. Sometimes, they work out. Sometimes, they don’t. This works well for me as a writing tool, keep in mind that it may not for you, and it’s only one option.

Think from the Perspective of Your Characters

When you watch the raptor scene from Jurassic Park, put yourself into a position where you’re re-imagining the scene from the perspective of the kids. You’re not trying to copy beat for beat. Think about how you would feel when put into a similar situation. What would you do in a similar position, what would the characters you’re writing do? We’re talking about a character being hunted, even an act as simple as sticking their head up to look for the monster can be fatal, where the sound of their breathing is a risk, when any movement could alert the monster to their presence. The kids aren’t skilled at moving without a sound and they’re in a kitchen loaded with opportunities for their hiding spot to be discovered either by a knocked off object or just by touching the thin steel wall of the cabinet.

Do you go left or right? Do you look for the monsters? How do you do this? Do you peer under the cabinets? Try to watch their reflection? Lift your head up? Do you crawl on the floor or run?

You’ve got to make a choice. If you stay in one place, you’ll die.

The raptors are looking for you. You can hear them calling back and forth to each other, but you have no idea what they’re saying. The sound hurts your ears. Your heart is pounding so loudly you’re sure the raptors can hear it. You’ve already seen so many of your friends die. Fall down, trip on the floor, not close a door fast enough, make mistakes, and, ultimately, get eaten. They’re all gone now. There’s no adults around. No one to protect you. There’s just you.

So, what do you do?

Make a dice roll. Hope you succeed.

This is really how you write action/adventure, and how you imitate Spielberg’s work in your writing. You’ve got to bring the scene home to the stakes for survival, the emotions of the characters, and the consequences of failure.

Know Your Horror

Horror thrives on the idea that your characters are ill-equipped to handle the situation, and are out of their element. They’re not perfectly suited to deal with what’s happening to them. If they are, if you present them as hyper competent and supremely capable, then it will kill all of your tension. You want completely average people trying to survive in situations where they are way over their head. The horror monster has to have the advantage, otherwise this isn’t Aliens or Predator. We’re in Aliens versus Predator territory and, whatever else we might say about them, those movies are not horror. Another example is the later Jurassic Park films like Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World which are straight up theme park action adventure, more and more outrageous as the dinosaurs become less and less legitimately dangerous to the health of our protagonists.

You need to be willing to let your characters look silly, weak, fumbling, and incompetent. Normal kids who love books on dinosaurs and computers, who constantly bicker to the point of driving everyone else around them crazy. Kids who cry, kids who whine, and clamp their hands over their mouth to keep from screaming.

-Michi

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

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

Why does it have to be one or the other?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at this snippet below.

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

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

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

Tianna squeaked and ducked low behind the headstone.

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

Katie snorted.

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

Lifting the Jack, Katie took another long drink.

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

“You talk too much,” Katie replied.

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

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

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

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

His forearm came up, blocked her wrist.

Their eyes met.

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

Josh’s eyes dropped.

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

He tumbled to the ground, screaming.

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

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

So, how much of this is real?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You need both.

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

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

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

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

Garrett grunted, stumbling backwards.

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

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

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

He wiped the blood off his mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you shouldn’t stop with violence.

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