Tag Archives: writing violence

Hi there. the majority of stories I write are in first person which makes it even harder for me to write action or fight scenes. I’m always afraid of using words like “then I” or he/she” and so on. Like say if it’s just a fist fight. How could I make it interesting without being too repetitive?

First Person is the most interior of the different writing perspectives, which means you’re almost entirely inside out and can only rely on your character’s experiences. One aspect that you can do in First Person, which you can’t in Third is put the entire focus on the sensations the character experiences, their emotions, their fears, their feelings as they’re trying to sort through what is happening and what they’re going to do. You can make it extremely unique, personal, and immediate. Try focusing on intimacy in the sequence. Establish what exactly is going to happen in the fight, the setting, the characters, the surroundings, then put your narrative blinders on and see through your POV character’s eyes. Limit yourself only to that.

Here’s an example:

Ronald walked toward me, his head lifted. I watched as his chest puffed up, and he cast a glance over his shoulder to where his friends waited at the bar. He grinned and so did they. All of them grinning at me.

I took an automatic step backwards, bumping into the chair. I stumbled, but my hand found the table edge. Heart hammering in my ears, I raised my chin defiantly. I made a show of bumbling about, fingers scraping the table’s stick surface until I found the beer I’d ordered. Cal, the bartender hated me, so it arrived still sealed. Just over eighteen meant, I could totally drink around here. Still, Cal was old fashioned. When the law said eighteen, he still felt girls should drink only at twenty-one. Boys? Boys he let drink at sixteen. Fifteen if they were big. Bastard. Still, Cal hated guy on girl violence. Felt it was dishonorable, or something. If it came down to it, maybe I could make his old fashioned values work for me.

Slowly, tucking my bottle into the shadow of my left leg, I turned back to face the boys.

Ronald arrived in a few short steps, his body looming over me as he blocked out the light. At six foot four, he was way bigger than my five foot seven. I liked to think myself pretty big for a girl, but Ronald? Ronald blew all my confidence right out of the water.

“Hey, Ron,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Cal straighten up off where he slumped on the bar.

“Lizbet,” Ronald spat. His fingers clenched into a meaty fist. “I want my money.”

“Well, now,” I grinned and tossed my head, “there’s a problem.”

He grabbed the chair, setting it in front of him. He leaned down on it, and the chair groaned beneath his weight. “You lost it.”

“I didn’t. I spent it.”

Ronald snorted. “You got cheek.”

“I try.” I glanced back to Cal, saw his hand sneaking under the bar for where he kept the twelve gauge. Just need Ron to take a swing. Then, I could make a run for it. I let my gaze slide, casually, back to Ronald’s buddies. They were getting up too. Or, worst case, I wouldn’t be fighting alone. My eyes went up to the ceiling, to the hundred black dots embedded in the wood. Or, at least, I could hope I wouldn’t get shot.

Ronald’s head dropped and he glared into my eyes. “I want what’s mine.”

“Well, I don’t have it.” My fingers clenched around the bottle’s neck. “Take it up with Cal.”

His jaw clenched, molars grinding to together. Cheek twitching, tensed all the way up to his ear.

Our noses came close. Super duper close, the closest we’d ever been. Best shot I’ll ever have, I thought. With nowhere to run, it probably be a good idea if I hit him first. Bottle rolled over in my hand. I whipped it up, swinging it right into the side of Ronald’s head.

Remember:

Active verbs are your friend.

“I ducked behind a table.” “My foot found the table and I kicked it over, dropping behind it in time to hear bullets impact the wall behind me.”

Describe body language.

Describe the actions that lead to other actions. “I raised my hand.” “My arms tightening, I rolled my fist back, and slammed it right into Gerald’s face.”

Try to picture it in your head rather than focusing just on fists, go with feet, with the upper body, lower body, and the environment. Please, use the environment.

Use the environment.

Your set pieces are your friends and key to making your action sequences feel unique. In first person, it’s tight corner view. We’re experiencing what the character feels about their environment. How is it helping or hindering them? What do they do about it?

It’s hard to have a fist fight in a bar when you’re worried about running into a table, tripping over another patron, or getting caught in the back with a chair.

Don’t be afraid to get silly.

You may go, “I don’t want to be embarrassed or my characters to be.” Well, tough. Violence is messy, muddy, dirty, and interspersed with the seriousness we also get the ridiculous which is part of human nature. Terror is offset by humor. You may end up with your protagonist fleeing down the hall or hiding under a bed, beating themselves up about their life choices while they run for their lives. So long as you don’t forget that they’re running for their lives, it’s fine.

Honestly.

Screw ups happen, they have consequences. No one is ever going to get it 100% perfect the whole time.

Never forget you’re on the clock.

One of the rules we put forth for writers new to fight scenes is to try to limit your sequences to eight moves or less. Fighting is like sprinting. It’s high energy output and it’ll leave you exhausted at the end of it. A lot of fights make it feel easy to go on forever, but most are fast and over quickly. Throw in more stumbling, rocking, and describe what it’s like getting hit.

You’ve only got a certain amount of time before these people can’t fight anymore. Limit yourself. Make the most of it. The more self-imposed limits you have then the more creative you’re going to get within them.

Define your options

Your characters’ personalities slamming together are usually the defining factor on how a fight is going to go down, so take a good look at who they are as people. Violence is primarily about problem solving. It is not always about the most successful means of solving a problem, but rather how a person has chosen to solve it. Is this person direct? Do they like to have fun and play with their defeated foes? Are they prone to “RUN AWAY!!!!!”? Who are they? How do they perceive violence and it’s uses?

In the example above, we see Lizbet trying to plan how she can get the bartender on her side in the fight against Ronald, even though she is very clearly the one at fault. Think about it, is your character the type who involves other people or who fights alone? How do they feel about the people/bystanders around them? What if those bystanders decided to join and not with them?

All fights are an exercise in character development, but First Person fights are personal. Not necessarily in the events themselves, but for the character whose eyes we see through.

-Michi

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Could my character (a somewhat small woman) conceivably rip out her would-be rapist’s throat with her teeth? Also, if someone were completely awful at swordfighting in general but was just the most determined person in the world and just kept going at it until he attained something resembling skill, what would his fighting style be like?

In reverse order:

Like someone who had practiced until they got it right. When you’re training, how good you were at the beginning doesn’t matter when you’re done. If you have the dedication to commit, and push yourself you can do pretty much anything. You practice until you get it right. That’s where the dedication comes in. It’s about not giving up until you’ve learned.

An unremarkable student who commits to the training, puts in the time, and has a drive to “get it right,” can become a formidable fighter.

In comparison: a talented student who views training as a distraction, wants out as fast as possible, and thinks their starting point is “good enough” is doomed to mediocrity.

Just because you don’t have a natural aptitude for something doesn’t mean you cannot do that. It just means you’ll need to work harder. If you’re ready for that, then initial talent is no obstacle.

Okay, on to the first question:

Physiologically? Yes. Psychology? Maybe not so much.

It is physiologically possible. The throat is comparatively soft tissue, and if your mouth is right there, against a foe who is otherwise distracted, it’s a relatively easy target.

Failing that, the nose, ears, and lips are also vulnerable in this kind of a situation. But, it is entirely possible to bite a chunk out of an attacker.

The real question is, “can your character get to a place where they’re willing to kill someone with their teeth?” For most people, that answer is “no.” This is a state of mind that runs contrary to all of your social conditioning.

Biting someone else is a behavior that has been conditioned out of you since childhood. Everything you’ve been taught about acceptable behavior says, “this is not okay.”

For example, ask yourself, “could I bite that guy over there?” I don’t mean as a gag, for fun, or foreplay. I mean, can you look at that human being as 200lbs of ambulatory meat? Not just at an intellectual level, but in such a way that you could just rip pieces out with your teeth?

For most people, the answer is, “no.” They can’t force themselves into a mindset this feral. They won’t even consider it as a possibility. Maybe as an intellectual exercise, but not an option in the heat of the moment.

As I’ve said before, this is some pretty messed up behavior, with some very serious social consequences and medical risks. It can be done, but it’s something you need to build towards when creating your character.

This can work with a character who is feral in their own right. Either because they were never exposed to civilization, or because they’ve chosen to reject it. A D&D style barbarian or a character with some kind of animalistic approach. Expanding on fantasy concepts, a character who magically transforms into animals (D&D Druids and Rangers, or lycanthropes) could also probably get there pretty easily.

A character who is incredibly opportunistic, brutal, and disciplined enough to fully disregard social norms when it suits their purpose could work.

In either case, this will cause others to view the character as little more than an animal. In the case of the later, you’re informing your audience that said character is more of a trained attack dog rather than a person. In the former case… you’re telling your audience and anyone who witnesses the attack that your character is (at least partially) more animal than human.

Just remember: If one of your characters is willing to bite their attacker, this is sending a permanent message to your audience about who this person is. If you want that, then this is an excellent way to send a message. If you don’t, then this is probably something you should avoid.

-Starke

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Hey there. I have a concern as to how short and one-sided fight scene of mine is. Really it’s just one-on-one with a struggle over a gun in the beginning, but I was hoping you had some advice as to how long is long enough for a good fight.

About this long.

The fight scene needs to be long enough to get the events across. Anything beyond that is just padding, and can be cut. You can easily play an entire fight scene in a paragraph or two and be done with it.

The more complex the scene is, the longer it can run. But, for a simple setup (like two characters struggling over a gun) you can knock that out in a paragraph and then move on with your story.

Fight scenes are not created equal. It may actually be useful to think of it as a game. This character does this, so that character responds, so this character reacts, so that character would react, but they don’t have any options left. A fight scene running on that structure can run for pages, until your characters are out of options and cornered.

For a simple setup, you don’t need a long or elaborate fight scene, you just need to write the scene as you see it. If you can do that in a couple sentences, you’re golden.

There’s an easy mistake to be made here. On screen, or in comics, the violence is the payoff. You watch the fight play out, and that’s its own reward. In text, violence is a vent for drama. The meat of your story is what happens around it. In text, it is much harder to tell a compelling story where the violence itself is the payoff.

You don’t need to approach fight scenes like there’s a minimum word count. Write what happens, as clear and concisely as you can.

-Starke

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A point that comes up often in these post is if a character uses violence, they invite the possibility of doing great harm or killing regardless of their intent. I’ve been trying to write a character who is ok with using violence if necessary, but is opposed to killing and I’ve had some concerns about the feasibility of that. Is it possible to write a good character like this? If so, how? If not, what’s a good compromise?

It’s entirely possible. When you engage in violence, there’s a real risk of inflicting serious harm or killing someone. That does not mean you need to like or enjoy that. Some people do, some people eventually find a way to make peace with it for the sake of their own mental health, some people come to enjoy it, and some never do. The possibilities for the myriad of ways one can deal with or come to terms about the consequences or even prospect of violence are endless. It’s a part of where the internal conflicts of violence come from and the questions your asking have been asked by countless individuals over the generations.

The only good answer is this one: we all have to find it for ourselves.

For people who deal with potentially violent situations on a regular basis, the consequences are a constant concern. For themselves and the people they’re dealing with.

Realizing and weighing your actions against this is a cornerstone to writing characters who engage in violence in a mature way. With that in mind, there’s no real wrong way to write a character’s approach to violence. Potentially hypocritical approaches, but not wrong ones.

Everyone who deals with violence regularly will have slightly different outlooks on it. The best way to categorize this would be as a kind of personal philosophy. The trickiest part is simply making sure their philosophical approach to violence is internally consistent.

You could have a character who only resorts to violence as a last resort; will attempt to defuse any potential situation, and only resort to violence if someone else escalates to it first. They’re going to try to talk it out first, use their words, and remain calm instead of leaping into the action. They wait until the other person fully commits to an attack and then answers with violence of their own.

You could write a character who will preemptively engage in violence if they see no way to defuse a situation. This approach could be the same as above, or it could be based on them pre-empting simply by noticing events swinging toward violence in their environment. This is essentially the guy who hits the other with a beer bottle as he sees them going for a knife or gun. This one waits and attempts to defuse, but attacks before the other person can commit in an attempt to stop the fight before it begins.

You could write a character who responds to provocations, and engages in excessive brutality as a necessary evil. This could be the guy when passing by someone who yells, “hey your mother!” delivers to them either a solid punch to the face or even a crowbar. They are provoked, they escalate harder and faster than the other person can respond. Their logic is that excessive violence safeguards them by ensuring the other person can’t respond. This is possibly never, for any reason.

You could even write a character who goes out, tortures and kills people, presents themselves as a monster to scare others into line, and believes that killing is wrong, and no one else should engage in violence, because this is their burden or sacrifice or whatever. They’d be a hypocrite, but so long as you remembered that, and had your other characters calling them out over it, there’s nothing that will inherently make them a badly written character. A difficult to write character, but not impossible.

Someone can engage in activities they find distasteful, because they believe it is necessary. Violence is one possible example. Understanding that this can do dire things to other people, and have serious consequences doesn’t change the situations where it’s necessary.

It’s also possible that a character will engage in violence because they saw no other option, but have regrets and second thoughts after the fact. This is actually also fairly common in the real world. Just because you shot someone to save your life, doesn’t mean you’ll be automatically okay with that decision tomorrow.

Real world violence comes with a sickening sensation that it cannot be walked back afterwards. You can never undo the things you’ve done; only live with the aftermath.

A character who dislikes violence may make their decisions entirely on the aftermath and consequences, rather than a philosophical aversion. They may not want to engage in violence because the people around them will suffer, or because they know the consequences for intervening will be more severe than letting the current situation slide.

There’s probably a broader metaphor in there somewhere.

-Starke

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Let’s say I have a friend who’s about to do something stupid dangerous and I have to knock them out as quickly as possible without risking death/permanent damage. What would be the best (least damaging) way to render them unconscious?

Knock a friend out to keep them from doing something stupid and dangerous, like knocking a friend out?

I will say again, in fiction the knock out is mostly just a cheap problem solver that often has no consequences. One of the things you need to start embracing is that violence is not only a limited method of problem solving but it is also about hurting people. It doesn’t respect intent, only results.

You’re always at risk causing death or permanent damage. No matter what it is you’re doing with violence or how safe you try to make it, the danger is always there. It is real, it is present. No matter how skilled you are, there is a great deal about what may or may not happen that is outside of your control.

A person who cracks their friend over the head with a mallet or a glass bottle on the way out the door to do something really stupid is one who is on some level willing to risk them never waking up again.

Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But the chance? The possibility they won’t is always there. This is also true in situations where they try to drug them. This is why truly peaceful solutions which put no one at risk do not involve violence at all.

It is also incredibly difficult to put someone under in a high stress environment, even when you know what you’re doing. The question is not: do you want to kill them? It’s: are you willing to risk it?

They call it a dirt nap for a reason.

Oftentimes in fiction the “cool” response like knocking out a friend doesn’t match or merit the severity of the situation. Especially since it’s used as a means to sap out the sense of danger.

Lastly though, honestly?

It’s cheap.

You take your drama and you bitch slap it into next week. It’s even worse when it’s treated like an actual solution. Unless the stupid thing is time sensitive, you’re not stopping anything. You’re delaying it. In the end, the only one who can choose to stop themselves is the friend.

You have this scene in your story, two friends. One character decides to attack the other in order to stop them, they manage to knock them out and it works like it does in the movies where they’re out for hours instead of a few seconds. Then what? Is that the end? It’s that easy? Instead of popping the balloon, it sort of lets out a flatulent wheeze and flops over.

It’s a painful inverse of another common scene, which is one person tries to talk the other down and think they’ve succeeded. They relax. Then when they turn their back, the other person cracks them across the back of the head with a beer bottle and walks out the door.

One of these is escalating, the other is ending. In one, the character doing the stupid thing shows how committed they are to the cause of stupid thing. It can be either an anti-hero or villain moment depending on who the audience is asked to sympathize with and what the “stupid thing” is. Either way, it’s the character showing that they’re willing to hurt anyone, possibly kill anyone, even people they care about to see it achieved. It builds worry over what will happen next and what just happened to the character they care about.

You’ve already sapped whatever drama you had by wanting a “safe” knock out solution. The character drama in this scenario doesn’t come from the action itself but the decisions, the drama comes from being willing to risk harming another person, possibly permanently, in order to stop them from doing the “bad thing”. The drama isn’t in the knock out and neither is the solution, it’s in the character deciding that the risks inherent in violence are acceptable given the circumstances. It’s even more poignant between two characters who care about each other, possibly deeply. One character deciding that whatever the other character is going to do and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to stop them is worth possibly destroying them over or, at the very least, their friendship.

That’s the drama in the scene, that’s the gray area, and that’s where all the moral questions are.

What is about to happen that is worth the risk of killing or destroying someone you care about? What happened to make you even think about going there?

You don’t get to take violence back. Once you go there, that’s it. The other options are closed off. You embrace the fallout and all the consequences which come with it. You can only hope the other person is willing to forgive you, if you even want forgiveness at all.

Either way, in the end, violence is just a stop gap. It’s not an actual solution.

This is where the arguments about violence being a solution actually come from. Where the arguments for genocide and life sentences in prison are born from. Unless we kill them all, it will never end. If we let them back out of the cage and onto the street then they’ll just go back to their old ways. Where the central moral theme between the Punisher and Daredevil in Daredevil’s Season Two has it’s heart. Do you believe in the inherent goodness of people and try to rehabilitate the monsters? Or do you just murder everyone in the name of keeping innocents safe? And, honestly, is that really a solution? How many people do you have to kill until there are no more people?

Violence is not a permanent solution. It is a stop gap. It is a deterrent.

It solves nothing.

Unless the people involved change their minds about their own course of action, the danger will repeat itself. Over and over and over again, ad naseum on both a personal and global scale.

Commit to your course of action as a writer and be honest, but don’t look for a trick-ety trick solution that let’s you get what you want while bypassing reality or the legal, physical, moral, and emotional consequences which make the setup interesting to begin with.

You can embrace the fantasy and kill the drama or honestly look at what you’re trying to do in your narrative instead of going for the cheap way out, especially since similar sequences amount to very little for the narrative unless you work at making them interesting.

There are a few things you can do:

1) Talk to them.

It starts here because if the stupid/dangerous thing isn’t time sensitive then nothing will convince them to go right back to it after they regain consciousness or the minute you turn your back. Physical domination itself is a temporary solution, it solves nothing in the long run. The same danger will still be present, it’s just been delayed or they simply won’t mention it to you the next time.

The only way to get them to actually give up is to convince them to and that requires words, not fists. Make your choice between the stop gap of a few seconds of unconsciousness versus the actual end of the issue.

2) Physically restrain them with your body.

Sometimes, in order to get someone to listen, you need to corral them. Engaging in a physical confrontation that ultimately ends with you trying to physically stop them from leaving is valid. It’s also less dangerous and, ironically, less likely to result in permanent injury.

This is basic grappling, grabbing hold of the other person and not letting go. Pinning them to a wall, the ground, whatever. It can go wrong, but it’s one person trying to physically keep the other person from leaving. This can be anywhere between standing between them and the door, getting back in the way, trapping them in another room until the opportune moment has passed, or even grabbing hold or physically engaging.

You can actually get some really great drama off two friends beating each other up to the point where they exhaust themselves and actually have to discuss their issues. It works.

3) Be a friend to the friend

Get friend the help they need. Don’t resort to giving friend brain damage.

Brain damage bad. Friending good.

Help friend.

Support friend.

Call cops.

Real Life Notice:

If you have a friend who is going to endanger themselves or others in a serious way, please, please, please reach out to those with more training and ability than yourself to handle the situation. Whether that is the police or counseling services, please help them get the help they need and protect others without endangering yourself or at the risk of worsening the situation.

How much you involve yourself will always be a judgement call that you have to make on the spot and I do respect that, but it’s important to do what is best for them and yourself and to stay safe.

-Michi

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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