Tag Archives: writing violence

Hello! My main character (who has considerable knowledge of fighting) wants to incapacitate another guy without killing him, wounding him (considerably) or knocking him out (and she probably doesn’t have time to tie him up or drug him either), and she wants to do this with hand-to-hand combat. Is there any way in which she can do this?

It’s probably worth stressing again: there is no such thing as safe
violence. You can try to mitigate the harm done, but you can’t negate it entirely. When you’re
looking at a situation and saying you need a solution that ends without
anyone getting hurt, the only ones which can guarantee that are
non-violent. If you’re resorting to violence, it has to be with the understanding that harm is an acceptable outcome. As someone with “considerable”
combat experience, your character would know and understand that.

Note that, I said “acceptable,” not “desired.” You can get a lot of
mileage out of someone who wants to deescalate the situation, doesn’t
want to hurt their opponent, but is running out of non-violent options. The final duel in Return of the Jedi is a classic example of this playing out.

Responsible hand to hand combat is (usually) about balancing the amount of force you need to achieve your objectives, without harming your opponent(s) excessively. Unfortunately when your goal is to incapacitate, that’s going to require a lot of harm. This is also why you’ll see actual martial artists try to defuse the situation rather than resorting violence. It is the safest way to achieve their goals (of not having everything pear-shaped around them).

With that said, joint locks and submission holds come to mind. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the solution you were hoping for, because it means you can’t just wander off, you need to stay there, physically holding your opponent in place. If your character wants to try to talk their opponent down, these do allow for the attempt, but it’s still better to start with talking, and only resort to locks when persuasion fails.

Locks work by manipulating your opponent’s body into a position it can’t escape from. Twisting the arm up behind the back is a classic example, you’ve probably seen in film and TV. This is mostly because it’s a very easy lock to fake for the camera. But, there are a lot of joint locks (particularly ones that start with the wrist) that can completely immobilize a foe from basic counters.

If you just need to hold someone in place to buy time for reinforcements or the police, then this is the ideal solution. Honestly, generally speaking, this is the best option in a self defense situation, when it’s viable.

Even then, this isn’t harmless. In a controlled environment, locks and holds can be practiced safely. But, if your opponent struggles against the more effective holds, and refuses to submit, they can seriously injure themselves. Also, if you misjudge the hold, it is possible to lose control. These are temporary solutions at best, not permanent ones.

If you need your character to stay mobile, that’s not an option. If their opponent is just an obstacle, they need to get around, then simply bolting past may be the best option.

If they need to immobilize their opponent, and stopping him is the priority, then one good option is restraints. These aren’t harmless, or foolproof, but it sets a good balance for neutralizing them without adding unnecessary force.

Zip tie restraints are pretty cheap, disposable, and allow you to “tie someone up” in a matter of seconds. Depending on the style, you can get them for less than $2 a unit, meaning even if they’re on a budget, your character can probably afford a few. They’re also fairly secure, unless you know what you’re doing, most people cannot get out of these on their own.

If you need something a little more secure, police handcuffs are going to cost, but unless you’re dealing with police, or an escape artist, getting out of these is probably not happening. Of course, they’re also a lot more expensive, so just leaving someone in cuffs is probably not happening, unless they’re very well funded.

Still, your best option is probably to try to talk it out, and, if need be, bolt. Or accept that if violence is necessary, someone’s going to get hurt.

-Starke

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What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)

-Starke

Control Points: The Head

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

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

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

Control Points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading:

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

On Hair Pulling

Pulling Piercings

If you have a strong stomach:

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

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

Hello, I have a character who is a black belt in Taekwondo. She does competitions and she uses it in combat. Is this realistic. And also do regular tournaments use the Olympic form of competition (with full contact) or another form.

Unfortunately, there’s almost no crossover between tourney competition and live combat. So, he or she is developing two separate skill sets and that means they’ll have to train twice as hard. Self-defense taekwondo relies mostly on hand strikes, using the legs as a base. All the kicking done is low-line, to the shin, knee, ankle, and groin instead of to the stomach, chest, and head. The reason for this is because kicks rely on friction to function and when faced with a variety of terrain, it’s very easy for the kicker to fall over. Once you end up on the ground in a fight and you’re opponent is still standing, you’re done (and not in the nice, everybody stop fighting way), so it’s better not to take risks.

It might sound funny to say it, but being good at tournament sparring will most likely hurt your character’s ability to do general fighting (or vice versa). The reason for this is that because whichever they do the most of, their minds will settle on that variation (in this case, it’s most likely tournament) and they’ll roll with the kind of combat that they’re familiar with. Depending on their opponent, this can leave them vulnerable to people who don’t play by the rules that they’re used to. It works much like the historical Norman knights versus their Saxon foot soldiers. While it was possible for a knight to lose his life in combat (and many did), if they were captured they could expect to be ransomed back to their family or liege for a purse. Their version of combat had a complex set of rules which they naturally expected to apply to them, which made combat a little less life or death and a little more game. A foot soldier had no such luxury, if they were caught, there was a likelihood they would be hanged, have their eyes put out, their tongues cut out, everything and anything that a Norman noble would not inflict upon another.

You can apply this back to sport fighters versus those who have actually been trained for combat. The mental expectations that they’ll have when going into combat are going to be different from the expectation their opponent has and those expectations of rules (even in situations where those don’t apply because it’s what they are familiar with), beyond their general skill, are what can hurt a martial artist the most when fighting for their life.

One can achieve their first degree of black belt in only three years, but in Taekwondo, the black belt itself is not a symbol of mastery. The black belt has ten ranks and requires a lifetime of study. 2nd is five or more years of training, third is a sign of seven or more, and so on. It’s a mistake to assume that just because your character is a black belt that they know everything there is to know.

WTF (World Taekwon Do) recognized tournaments (the traditional point sparring) all use the same rules, the rules for the Olympics are the same way. Fighters who take their taekwondo on the road to other kinds of fights (MMA or underground street brawls) will obviously be used to different rules. An example would be Cung Lee from StrikeForce and MMA. So your character could be on route to doing different things with their fighting if they lose interest in traditional tournaments.

I hope that helps!

-Michi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example of what I mean:

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

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

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

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

“No?” He asked.

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

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

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

She hit the door, fingers fumbling for the knob.

“You won’t escape from me, Leah!”

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

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

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

-Michi

Writing Violence (Part 3): Pacing

Pacing. There’s tons of advice out there about pacing, including pacing for fight scenes. However, I thought it would be important to talk about pacing in the context of how to write violence (including violence beyond just physical fight sequences) because it’s all important to selling your fight scene.

In this article, we won’t be talking about pacing as an overall focus on the whole story. Instead, this will be specifically fight scene oriented.

As a literary term, pacing is essentially the speed and rhythm with which your plot unfolds. Developing that sense of speed, rhythm, and, most importantly, timing is crucial to making an individual fight scene work. For combat, rhythm and timing are crucial. Too much description will get in the way, too much exposition slows down the scene, and too much dialog will reduce the sense of immediacy that a sequence requires to be effective. Ultimately, communicating the actions of violence is about delivering sensation. Tangible, tactile sensation.

Word choice, sentence length, and punctuation are the means of showing and experiencing those sensations. More importantly, a well paced fight scene doubles up beyond the physical. The speed and rhythm of the sequence can tell a reader a great deal about your character’s inner emotional state, how they handle violence and tense situations. Pacing tells the reader how quickly the scene is moving, how immediate it’s becoming, the fact that things are—to put it bluntly—spinning out of control, and that gives us no time to stop and breathe, until finally, at long last, we slam into a wall. Head first!

Okay, that was a joke. What is important to remember about pacing is that there is no one way to do it, in fact, different characters will pace their scenes differently. So, it’s up to you to figure out each of your character’s rhythms if you write from their perspective. Some may like to blend sentences together like I did in the last few sentences of the upper paragraph. Some may need to stop.

They have to think.

They need breaks in paragraphs.

Every few sentences.

Every sentence!

Some may like to punctuate the end of every sentence. It gives them a sense. A feeling. They are in control. They know what they are doing. They want the reader to know. They are thinking. No. Don’t stop them.

Long sentences that consistently get shorter and shorter as they blend together can lend a sense of immediacy. Sentences that start short and are clearly punctuated can slow a scene down but can also serve to ratchet up the tension, much like a roller coaster rising towards the pinnacle before rocketing downward. Alternately, it can show a character who is methodical, thinking through their situation, and in control.

No matter what you choose to do with your scene, remember, violent confrontations are high stress environments. They are periods of extreme emotion coupled with the body’s instinctual reactions that may hurt or benefit the character in play. It’s important to ratchet up that tension, the feeling in the story that things are moving faster, more quickly. You can use many different kinds of pacing as a scene progresses to express and support the actions that are occurring in the story.

I tend to pace my action sequences around strong emotion (or the lack thereof). The idea is that because violence is so directly linked to emotion, everything in my work links back to what I am trying to express in the scene. Who a character is and how they behave when in a violent situation is an important part of who they are and how they handle things. This is obviously not the only way you can do it and I encourage you all to play around with different ideas to find what works best for you and for your story.

So, think about it. Instead of thinking about the right way, think about what you’re trying to present. Think about what your characters are feeling, which can be frustrating when you’re already focusing on what they’re doing. Pacing can be an easy way to communicate those emotions and show the effects without having to exposit. Remember, what makes violence effective is the human component (or alien, or vampire component, or ork component).

Remember, these are just suggestions. You can do what you want, experiment, and most importantly find the path that works best for you.

Extra Credit Writing Exercise:

Pick a strong emotion, any emotion, and write a scene about it. It doesn’t have to be a fight scene. Instead of describing the emotion, talking about the emotion, or even using any words to describe the physical reaction to the emotion, attempt to express and communicate it using only sentence structure and punctuation.

-Michi

Writing Violence Part 2: Cause and Effect

This is the second article in our series about Writing Violence. In this post,I thought I’d talk a little bit about Cause and Effect. For me, Cause and Effect are on the level of Show Don’t Tell in their importance both to descriptive writing and to generating a plot. Your plot is based entirely on a cause or an action and the effect of that cause or action on the characters and the world around them, your plot is put together through sequences of scenes that are based around your characters’ actions, their reactions, and the world’s or society’s reactions to those actions. Causes and their effects can be big and small, when working with violence, be that violence intellectual, emotional, or physical, and be those causes and effects big or small, they are all important to developing a realistic feeling in your story as a whole and in your characters individual actions.

Starke and I refer to this sense of realism as weight, as in your story feels grounded in reality. Ultimately, when we discuss realism in writing, it doesn’t matter whether your story is a high flying fantasy adventure, far flung future sci-fi, a historical piece, or a horror novel. So long as it crafts it’s own reality in keeping with the rules of cause and effect, you’ll be able to give your story, and the violence within it, weight.

Below, we’ll discuss how to do that.

Every Action Causes An Equal or Opposite Reaction

To steal one of Newton’s Laws, let’s talk about one of the biggest failures in fight scenes. Often, in many of the stories I read, authors are so focused on getting the fighting or the techniques used in the scene “right” that they neglect consideration of the surrounding details.

Take, for example, the line: “Virginia punched Charles in the gut.”

Now, in other kinds of descriptive writing, I might ask what kind of punch it was, but that’s not the most important question that you should be considering when looking to improve the sentence and the scene. The real question is: what happened to Charles?

Without changing much, we can improve the scene by adding a second line.

Virginia punched Charles in the gut. Body curling forward, Charles stumbled back as his hands rose to grasp his stomach.

Neither of these is, admittedly, very good, but see how much the scene improves? Charles’ body curling in to protect the important bits is a natural reaction to the pain inflicted on it by Virginia.

Now, let’s expand on the concept by adding a bench and another character named Amelia to the scene.

Virgina walked toward Charles. Instead of extending her hand in friendship as he’d expected, her fingers clenched into a fist. She rolled them over, slamming her knuckles up into his gut. Body curling forwards, Charles’ eyes widened as he exhaled sharply. As he should, she thought with a smile, all the air he’d stored up had just been forcibly expelled from his diaphragm.

“Charles!” Amelia, his girlfriend, shouted.

Charles stumbled back, calves knocking into the park bench not a foot behind him. The bench rocked and Charles tipped too far forwards onto the balls of his feet. Head swaying and green faced, he fell. His knees hit the dusty ground. His eyes rolled back. He leaned forward, inches from the toes of Virginia’s calf skin boots and, then, he hurked.

The scent of half-digested turkey and sausage stuffing lingered in Virginia’s nose.

“Charles!” Amelia cried again as she sank down beside him, gripping his shoulders. She glanced up at Virginia, her eyes harsh, flat, and furious. “What have you done?”

Virginia’s action of punching Charles causes the physical reaction of him throwing up on her shoes and Amelia’s emotional response condemning it. Violence is both physical and emotional in the reactions it evokes and should be represented in the destruction it causes on the surrounding environment. Remember, the glasses, chairs, tables, and tankards your characters destroy in a bar brawl are valuable property to the owner of that establishment. Your characters may have to pay the cost or risk never being able to go back there. The characters they beat up in the bar are going to be someone’s husband, sister, or friend. They may be more beloved in the community that they’re part of than your wandering drifters. Also, breaking a bottle will involve your character getting glass a fist full of glass embedded in their hand. A prolonged fight will cause your character to perspire and they run the risk of getting sweat (or blood) in their eyes.

Important details run from big to small, but they all work together to create that ‘weight’, that feeling of realism in your work. X happened so Y was the response. When Beth kicked James through the door, she broke it and had to pay $200 to repair it. When Jenna threw her dishware at a home invader, she had to buy paper plates to eat off of for that evening and she invited her friend John to stay over because she no longer felt safe. Then, Jenna cut her finger cleaning up the ceramic remains and had to repaint the walls where the plates hit.

This is the important push and pull, action and reaction, the consequences of even the most flawless plans yielding unintended catastrophe and unexpected results. This is important to remember when writing scenes involving violence because it is inherently divisive. Characters who engage in violence, even when that violence is justified, face harsher penalties and greater risks both to their physical selves and in their personal life.

Once you begin to think in these terms, the tension and drama inherent in your story will naturally unfold and writing violence will come a little easier.

-Michi

The might be a stupid question, but other than out of aggression why do people fight? Other than the need for self-defense too? I realize it’s a sport and competitive too but can you enjoy getting hurt and beating other people up? As someone who know’s little self defense I’m unsure who to give someone a reason for wanting to fight.

Yeah, this is not, at all, a stupid question. It’s not an easy one, though.

Yes, some people do enjoy hurting others, but there are a lot of other possible reasons.

People will resort to violence if they feel that’s the best way to achieve their goals. Sometimes their goals require violence, sometimes they don’t see any alternative, and sometimes they have genuinely exhausted their other options. Also, some will abandon their goals rather than use violence to achieve them.

When you’re writing a character, you need to know what they want, and how far they’ll go to achieve it. Once you have that, you can then decide if it’s appropriate for them to use violence.

Actually, let’s step back and look at this as a character clinic. You need to know who each of your characters are before you write a scene with them. There’s a lot of ways you can go about this, but ask yourself, “what does your character believe?” or “how do they view the world?” and “what do they want?” Once you have a vague idea of those answers, you should have a much easier time deciding what they should do in a given scene.

Also, when you’re asking questions like that, don’t be afraid to add more questions. Each answer will give you a better grasp of who your characters are, and open up more options in your writing.

Okay, so, when will a character resort to violence? When they feel it’s necessary, or when they want to. Someone who views themselves as the most important thing might not see anything wrong with harming others. Someone who enjoys control might enjoy inflicting pain. Someone who sees an imminent threat to something or someone they’re protecting. Someone who feels they’ve been marginalized and disregarded might resort to violence to “prove themselves”. Someone who’s afraid, and wants to hide it might resort to violence or aggression to mask their own fear. An adrenaline junkie who gets off on the rush might use violence to get their fix.

And, this isn’t an even remotely exhaustive list. There are a lot more possible reasons. Also, most of these aren’t mutually exclusive. A character could be both an adrenaline junkie and have sworn to protect someone else, for example. A character could see their cause as the most important thing, and anyone who dies along the way is just a necessary sacrifice.

-Starke

Writing Violence Part 1: Developing Characters and Comfort Levels (And You)

We’re going to do a small series about writing violence, mostly because we haven’t covered some the basics yet and these are important. There are a lot of important steps that go into writing about violence, these include language choice, the intensity of the violence, the characters in question.

Today, we’re going to talk about developing your characters and more importantly than that, how to asses your own comfort zone.

There are many pieces that go into building a successful fight scene and many of those pieces begin to build together before your character ever pulls the trigger or throws their first punch. The way a character looks at the world around them is infinitely important to showing the reader the kind of fighter they are (or the kind of fighter they will be) before combat happens. Characters with different skill levels and different outlooks will all approach combat differently; the same is reflected in a character’s strategic preferences (if they have even thought that far ahead), their honor code, their choice of weapons, and the techniques they choose to use.

Not every character enjoys visceral combat. Some characters like squelching their opponent’s eyeballs with their thumbs, others will wince at the thought, others will be indifferent, and some upon witnessing the act will come to their enemy’s defense because that’s just too cruel. Every character is different and that’s part of what makes writing these sorts of scenes so hard, because a fight scene involves much more than just knowing how to throw a punch right. In fact, as funny as it sounds, for writing that is one of the most inconsequential parts. You can write your combat perfectly, but if it doesn’t reflect your characters and the themes of you’ve been setting up in the plot then it will still fail. A scene with flat out wrong combat can be the best part of a book if the sequence remains in harmony with the rest of the story and furthers the development of both the characters and the plot.

 Establish Your Violence Comfort Zone

You can write a level of violence in your story that you’re not comfortable with, but you will have a great deal of difficulty writing a character who is exhibiting a level of violence that they are supposed to be comfortable with but is uncomfortable for you. Given the attitudes towards sex and violence in American culture, it may sound funny or cliché when I tell you that writing about violence is a lot like writing about sex. How graphic you get is going to depend on your audience and your own comfort level before it reaches your character. A sex scene where you were wincing every few seconds as you were writing it is going to feel uncomfortable to the reader; the same is going to be true with violence.

Some of you may be wondering, but aren’t violent sequences supposed to be uncomfortable? Some of them are, but if you are writing a character who relishes violence or an epic sword duel and you are wincing on each sentence then you have a problem. Or alternately, if you honestly, truly believe that torture is completely unacceptable, that it is always bad, always evil then don’t try to write a character like 24’s Jack Bauer. Whatever you write, you need to be able to completely submerge yourself in your character. You’re going to write characters who don’t believe the same things you do, you are going to write characters who are not you, who will do and say things that you would never in a thousand years imagine doing. But violence is difficult, it hits on a core of human experience, of misery and suffering that is hard to capture. If you can’t convince yourself in the moment to believe in what your character is doing then it’s time to step back. You must ride the ride after all and if you’re getting sick on the loopty-loops, then maybe this rollercoaster isn’t right for you.

It’s fine if it isn’t, just because this didn’t work doesn’t mean the entire amusement park is off limits. You just have to figure out what you like and learn when something goes far enough outside your comfort zone that it affects the integrity of your work. Stepping out of it can be a good thing, sometimes it’s going to be a necessary thing depending on the genre you are working with and the line in the sand will shift as you adjust to new concepts.

The only way you’ll figure it out is by experimenting, so don’t worry about it so much. The only way you can really fail is by not trying at all.

Some Helpful Tips:

-Find authors whose fight scenes you admire and who you want to write like and study their techniques

-Watch movies that represent the kind of combat you’re writing about

-Play videogames, simulation often helps up experience new things and gets us thinking

For example: the combat between Assassin’s Creed, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, and SpecOps: The Line can all evoke different feelings and emotions through the kinds of combat they present. When you want to get in the right mindset for what you’re writing, this can help.

-Listen to music that reflects the characters and scene you’re working on

Establish a violence threshold for each of your characters

Just like you, every person has a threshold of violence that they are comfortable with and it’s similar to how some people like action movies and some people prefer slasher flicks. Just keep in mind that the media entertainment someone consumes doesn’t necessarily relate to the level of violence they’re willing to inflict on someone else. A character who loves Disney movies can still cheerfully pick up the lead pipe and bash your skull in on the cold hard concrete.  So, try not to think in stereotyping details.

When working to establish a threshold, to figure out what your character is willing to do and what they’re not present them with different situations that are outside the context of your story. It’s best to do this when you’re not sure of who they are and, ultimately, is exactly the same as filling out any of the numerous character questionnaires floating around the internet.

Don’t try to forcibly decide for them. Don’t focus on the right way, the techniques that are supposed to be used, what they are supposed to know. Don’t worry about any of that, you can correct it later. Instead, present them with situations and let those situations play out in your head or as you write them down.

Do you have to do this for each of the major players in your story and not just your protagonist? Yes. Yes, you do. When writing a story about violence, the level of violence a character is willing to inflict and what they are comfortable with can clash with another’s, by figuring out each character’s threshold whether it’s part of the supporting cast, your antagonist, or the henchmen, you’ll have a better sense of how they’ll relate to each other and what kind of interpersonal conflicts can arise.

Below are some helpful questions with corresponding examples to get you thinking. The more situations you come up with on your own, however, will be more helpful to you in the long run.

Examples:

Example 1: Character X is walking down the street and sees a man being beating, what do they do?

On the far side of the street, Amelia could see two shapes. They were vague and hazy in the drifting fog, just outside the splash of yellow light from the lamp that stood on the corner. A big man with broad shoulders stood over a much smaller individual; she couldn’t see it well from this distance. It could have been a smaller man, or a woman, or even a child. The big man’s frame blocked her as he drove a giant booted foot into his victim’s side. All she knew was what she heard, pathetic whimpering and shrieks pitched higher with each hit. Whoever they were, they’ be dead soon.

Well, she shrugged, it wasn’t her business. Things were hard in Darkside, people died daily, why risk bringing more heat down on herself by intervening? Better to let it play out and disappear before the big man noticed her.

Example 2: Character X is breaking into a building and has made it inside, at the end of the hallway there are two guards, all that stands between them and what they’ve come for. The hall is long and narrow. The guards haven’t seen them yet. What do they do?

Amana flickered, her shape re-entering the Living Space. The bare skin of her breasts pressed against Guard 1’s back, right arm sliding up under his jaw, tilt head back, stand ear to cheek. Forearm into windpipe. Bone in and increase pressure. Cut off oxygen. Left hand down, take holstered sidearm. Glock 17. Flick safety off.

 It leveled at Number 2’s skull.

“Holy shi—”

Bang.

Example 3: Character B has been hit by Character X, someone they trusted, how do they respond?

Leah stumbled. Hand rising, she pressed cool flesh against the warm, stinging buzz that was now blooming across her cheek. A sharp, shuddering pain was striking out from behind her eye and the world swam in dots of black and white. Her vision dropped to the floor, the crevices between the floorboards were suddenly so sharp and clear. She could see the tips of black boots lingering inches from her own.

John’s boots.

“Leah,” that was John’s voice.

John. He had hit her.

Why? She was surprised to hear her own voice echoing her thoughts cramming into the space between them. “Why?”

These are, like I said, just some examples. You can come up with whatever scenarios you want. But when establishing a violence threshold, they should involve violence of some kind. By developing the different violence thresholds for different characters, you better understand the actions that will bring them into natural alliances or conflict with one another. One of the key ways to keep readers invested in your stories is the interpersonal relations between the major players. Once you know the boundaries the characters ascribe to, what they are willing to do, what they aren’t willing to do, the lengths that they will go to and know when they will stop, you can push them outside of that comfort zone and craft development that is naturally in line with where their story is going.

From the first example, I know that Amelia is the kind of character who puts herself first. She doesn’t believe she can make a difference and doesn’t want to deal with the trouble that intervening to aid someone else could bring down on her head. She could engage, but doesn’t want to. We know that those reasons have nothing to do with being incapable of those actions, she just won’t try because she’s not going to get anything out of it. If I were to write this character, I’d give her a plot development that forced her to engage, someone she doesn’t know, someone desperate, probably a break in at her apartment while they are running from people who are hounding them. Someone she can’t say no to, even though she wants to. She is forced to take action and then eventually she will continue to do so of her own volition.

Voila, a character arc.

So, find your character’s comfort zone and then pop them out of it. The same is true for violence, there is a level of violence that your characters will be comfortable participating in and then there is a point where they are pushed past that into uncomfortable territory. You can only get X by starting with Y. Cause and effect. Conflict that is both external and internal.

Conflict is good. Conflict is crucial. Write conflict.

-Michi