Q&A: Boons and Stressors

What do you think of altruism? Can it make someone more resilient or does it make them weaker?

This feels a little overly simplistic. It’s saying this a direct consequence, but my suspicion is, it’s a little more nuanced.

So, there’s a theory that receiving help actively makes you weaker. This is one of these things where the person espousing the idea is taking a model for how they think the world should be, and applying it irrelevant of evidence.

The problem is, this only makes sense if you think that you learn nothing from receiving help, and that the world will queue up more difficult challenges as you progress. The former is absurd, because you can learn from seeing what others do, and the latter simply doesn’t reflect how the world works. Yes, the challenges we face can escalate as a result of our actions, but the world isn’t trying “keep up with you as you level.” That’s an abstract concept that has limited relation to reality.

There’s a legitimate idea that if you become dependent on others to help you, and they abandon you, you’ll have nothing to fall back on, but that’s justifying a philosophy with the most extreme scenario.

There’s also the inverse, if you’re burning resources to deal with challenges, it can actually leave you in a weakened state if you’re insisting you need to face every challenge alone. Additionally, you probably won’t have anyone to call on, because you didn’t build those connections earlier.

In case it’s not clear, I don’t have a particularly high regard for the entire self-sufficiency argument. I’m fine with saying that you should prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to face challenges alone. It’s a good contingency to have. However, I don’t buy into the, “sanctity of being self-sufficient.”

With that said, there as a satisfaction from overcoming a challenge. As an individual, you may find greater satisfaction from overcoming it on your terms.

That’s the other end of this. I don’t think receiving altruism directly increases your resilience, however, I do think it’s a very reasonable consequence, so, let’s talk psychology.

Your overall mental health does affect a host of things. “Resilience,” is a pretty nebulous term, but your overall mental health does influence nearly all of those factors. It can improve your immune response. It can affect your emotional resilience. It can’t protect you from physical harm, but it can help you cope with that. It can even help offset fatigue. (You still need to rest, but it will help you push on.) This is not an exhaustive list. So, being in a good state of mind can help with all of those things. It can even help you cope with tragedies and misfortune.

Altruism can help with this, but it’s not just receiving it, being on the giving side can also provide that. There’s also a major caveat, the altruism needs to be a positive experience.

There’s a pair of psychological concepts, “boons,” and, “stressors.” You can find other terms for these, but the basic idea is sound. A boon is a, “nice,” experience. It makes you feel better about your life in a small way. A stressor is a negative experience, and it wears on you. Individually, none of these will change your life, or even ruin your day. However, when you start stacking stressors together, it can have a corrosive effect. Similarly, when you start stacking boons together, it can make a significant difference, and help you deal with the challenges you face.

As an example of a stressor: I have a burn on my hand from the coffee press back flushing and spraying boiling water over my hand on Friday. That was not fun. It didn’t make my day better. Individually it didn’t ruin the day, but these kinds of experiences can stack up. And, yes, this a valid example; boons and stressors can be very minor things. Even a brief conversation with a friend can be a boon.

So, why do I have an issue with, “altruism makes you more resilient?” Because it’s a boon. In some situations it’s a significant one. That kind of help can make you feel a lot better about yourself, your life, you future. In turn, that can increase your overall mental health, and increase your resilience.

Please note the conditional statements. “…that kind of help can make you feel better…” “…that can increase your overall mental health…” It is not certain that it will. Remember the people who view accepting help as a weakness. For someone like that, receiving help can be a stressor. If they need it, or cannot refuse it, it’s an indictment of their self-sufficiency. Meaning, two people, in similar situations, can receive the same help, and have radically different psychological responses.

Remember when I mentioned that overcoming a challenge on your own terms can result greater satisfaction? That’s a boon. So, there are circumstances where someone will benefit from facing and overcoming their challenge alone. This is a factor in whether or not help will be beneficial. To be blunt, this isn’t simple. Someone may need help, but not want it, or state that they don’t want it for appearances, when assistance would be welcome.

As a general statement, altruism will be more beneficial than not. However, the topic is a bit more nuanced than just, “receiving altruism makes you more resilient.”


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Q&A: Self-Defense Goals

I have a 5’4. 110 lbs woman who knows self defense. She gets in a bar fight with a guy who is much bigger than her. (Think 6ft, 250) Would her training trump the guy’s size and strength? (And that he doesn’t know self defense) My beta reader thinks not. They also think that whether the guy is drunk or not doesn’t matter. True? If it is. What kind of training would she need to make her winning plausible?

There’s a lot of detail here, but there are two questions you need to ask yourself, something that needs to be remembered and one error that needs to be addressed.

First, does she actually remember her training, or was this something she did six years ago and mostly forgot? If its the later, her training isn’t going to be that helpful. We talk about the importance of updating your training, but you also need to practice. Updating means you’re also getting refreshers on a regular basis. If you don’t have access to that, you’ll lose things. Stuff that requires a partner will go first, though, it is possible you’ll eventually file a lot of your training away and forget about it. You can get this back if you take a moment to recall. In a fight, you don’t have a moment to dig up your training; you need it already there.

Worth remembering that combat training is the least valuable thing in a competent self-defense course. Most situations can be averted long before they turn violent.

Being drunk is significant. Remember that intoxication is a spectrum from slightly buzzed to barely able to stand. However, unless they already had ingrained hand to hand training, it will quickly render them unable to fight, with rare exceptions.

Second, is she willing to use her training? This sounds similar, but there’s a real social stigma against engaging in violence, particularly for women. It’s easy to think, “Hurting people is bad, and makes you a bad person,” even in situations where a violence is appropriate. If you feel it is important to be “a good person,” it can create a serious dilemma. Her self-defense course should have addressed this, and gotten her comfortable with the idea of using her training, but it’s not guaranteed those lessons took hold.

Self-defense isn’t “a martial art.” It’s a combat objective. This is how you want to use your martial arts training. In the US today, most “self-defense,” is a modified form of Judo. This form only dates back to the mid-twentieth century. That doesn’t mean it’s the only option, as a lot of martial arts can be adapted for use in self-defense. I specified, “a competent self-defense course,” before, because you will find less scrupulous schools billing their normal classes as, “self-defense.” You miss out on a lot. You don’t learn threat assessment, how to manage escalation, or how to create an exit. Worst case, you may not even learn martial arts that will be useful in a live situation.

I tend to paint those schools pretty harshly, but it is possible they have good intentions. The problem is that, as I’ve said, the hand to hand component is a small part of self-defense training. It is important, but it’s the act of last resort.

The last part here, and the major issue is a single word in the final sentence. You don’t take self-defense classes to win fights.

If you want to win fights? Take up boxing, Muay Thai, MMA, or any number of other competitive sports.

You take self-defense classes to learn how to extract from a bad situation. Self-defense teaches you how to quickly neutralize an attacker and escape.

Winning is for prize fights. Self-defense is about getting you out of there in one piece. It is not about getting into a stand up fight and beating your opponent into submission. It is about making sure your attacker cannot follow you.

So, if some drunk guy attacked her, yeah she could put him on the ground, no problem. However, bar fights are nasty, and her goal should be to get out of there as fast as possible, not stick around for a Pyrrhic “win.”

It may sound like I’m being overly pedantic here, but it is a very important concept. Combat training (whether that’s hand to hand or armed), sets specific objectives. You don’t train, “to fight,” you train to achieve those goals. If your goal is to kill someone, train to kill people. If your goal is self-defense, train to create an opening and escape. When to train to fight, you’re learning to prolong combat, and wear your opponent down. This does not work when you go up against someone who trained to end combat efficiently.

Pop culture teaches you to fight (badly.) It draws out the engagements, prolonging the experience is for entertainment value. If you don’t have a background, it’s easy to think this is how combat works. If your attacker doesn’t have a background, and is just going off what he’s learned from Chuck Norris films, he’s going to lose. He cared about winning. Your character doesn’t, her only objective is to get out safely, and she can do that without getting into a prolonged fight. In fact, it’s easier for her to do that without letting the fight go on. She throws him and, while he’s trying to get back on his feet, she bolts. That’s it, fight’s over, she’s gone.


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Q&A: Embrace the Scrap Pile

Hi guys! I’ve just spent a solid two chapters building up to/procrastinating on a grand battle and I can procrastinate no longer. The enemy is right frigging there. Any tips on writing this monster from the perspective of A) an army general/king/etc (someone physically there and able to see what’s going on from a ((ttly safe)) distance) and B) someone in the thick of it? We’re in a fantasy setting with swords, arrows and pirates on a river in the desert, if that plays any relevance.


I feel like I’ve written this recently, but a general writing tip would be: don’t procrastinate. If a scene isn’t necessary, take it out. Every word in your finished work should serve a purpose. If a scene does not need to be there, it shouldn’t.

With that in mind, there’s no shame in writing scenes no one will read. You never know when a useful turn of phrase or a good idea will appear. If something works in an unnecessary scene, set it aside and save it for later. We learn from doing, so your scrap pile is a valuable collection of experience and experiments.

The joy of your scrap pile is that you have complete freedom. “How do I do this?” is a question best answered in experimentation. Write your battle. If you’re not satisfied with what you wrote, go back and do it differently. Keep at it. Learn the things you like, the things that fit what you want. Remember those, and throw out the things that disappointed you.

On your question: preparation for battle lets you set the stage before it begins. You can show the forces your characters are commanding. You can cover their readiness and morale. You can examine what your characters know about the enemies they’re about to face. You can discuss their plan of attack.

For example: You can literally show the troops on your side. Your characters can walk among them inspecting how prepared they are. They can talk to them, either individual or collectively. This basic set up can change dramatically from if you’re dealing with professional soldiers or if you have mercenaries and irregulars who are already weary from a long campaign. In fact, in a larger work, you can track the deterioration of the army as a campaign wears on.

The environment is vitally important for you. Moving over rough terrain will wear more heavily on your forces. Loose sand is extremely taxing to move through. It will slow them down and exhaust them. Unless they’re at a bridge or ford, the river creates a natural barrier which they’d be unable to cross. This is means they can’t be flanked from that direction, but it also means they can’t move in that direction, would be easier to surround, (because you don’t have to get behind them.)

As for how to explain what the creature looks like, you need to describe it. Remember that in prose you have access to all five senses. Okay, four senses, taste would be a little weird in this context. Work out a mental image for how the creature moves, and keep track of how it behaves. Keep track of details. Things like physics can sell the “substance” and reality, of your monster on the battlefield.

The big thing is just, don’t be afraid to rewrite the battle with something radically different if you’re not happy with your draft.


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Q&A: Historical Research

Hi! First of all I love your blog ! So i’ll try to say this as clearly as i can: basically how to write accurate and realistic fights scenes, with miedeval weapons in my case, and develop fighting strategy when you have 0 notions in these domains? My characters are knights , they master specific weapons and strategies of battle. But i have no idea how to put it with words. Sorry for my english. 🙂

Depending on your native language, that may be an asset. There are a lot of surviving training manuals out there, and most were written in languages other than English. Being able to read German, Italian, Spanish, or even French can be a huge boon to studying how these weapons were used historically.

If you want to get a look at this stuff, Wiktenauer is an open source wiki focused on collecting, and digitally preserving, surviving primary sources. Expect to do a lot of reading. Understand that what you learn won’t be 100% correct. Keep an eye on things you’re warned not to do, because it means people did that often enough to piss off the author.

You may also want to do some basic reading on the exact timeframe you’re looking for. Weapons and armor were constantly changing and evolving.

There’s a lot of good literature on historical battlefield tactics and strategy. I can’t make recommendations for your native language, but I am sure the material exists. Nothing will give you better examples of how people fought in history than studying how actual battles played out. Detailed battlefield maps which track troop movements, is a major plus. This will help you see how the forces were arrayed and fought.

A slightly oddball suggestion would be Medieval II: Total War. I haven’t played that entry, but the Total War series present semi-realistic battlefield strategy playgrounds. This can teach you basic concepts, and let you experiment with strategies. The downside is (if later games are anything to go by) some of the systems are going to be poorly explained. The game doesn’t force “proper” deployment structures, so you would be free to make mistakes without learning from them. The game is focused on the entire army operating together, so you couldn’t focus on just your knights. It doesn’t do small scale skirmishes between a couple units, it’s focused on full armies clashing. If you’re zooming in on the units, don’t expect to learn a lot about how to use a weapon, the animations are fairly primitive. Finally, you might want to verify your language is supported.

Even video games are not your thing, there is a lot of potential in tabletop wargaming. This is going to be somewhat dependent on finding a game that fits the time and place you’re focusing on. Normally I’d suggest checking Avalon Hill’s back catalog, but the translation issue makes that a bit tricky.

For strategy, I’m certain The Art of War has been translated to your native language, and even if the book itself would be anachronistic, it is something worth reading to help with the mindset you’re looking for.

I hope this helps get you started.


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Q&A: Badly written Violence

What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to portrayals of something violent?

A few things come to mind: Violence without purpose, violence without consequence, and violence without thought.

A basic piece of writing advice holds: Everything in your story needs to serve a function. If it’s not building your world, characters, or advancing your plot, cut it. You may have written something you enjoyed, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose in your story, it should not be there. Violence is no exception; it can do any of those. The best fight scenes do all three at once.

When someone inserts a fight scene because, “there should be a fight here,” that’s where I check out. It’s easy to understand how this happens. I don’t have a problem with gratuitous violence, but if it’s not doing something for the story, it should have been cut.

There’s a few wrinkles here. Visual media (both comics and in video) can get away with stylish violence. If you are here for the spectacle they can satisfy. The extreme end of this is probably Kill Bill: Vol. 1, where the entire film is just one spectacle fight after another with the context stripped out. Except, each one does what a scene needs to. They explore the characters, build the world, and advance the plot, almost entirely through violence.

The other wrinkle is games. Not just video games; any game. Violence can be adapted into a rewarding play loop. You can build your entire play experience around violence and have an enjoyable game. Many strategy games build of the idea of managing violence, whether that’s a battle or a war.

Roleplaying games, both tabletop and electronic often have a heavy focus on combat systems. Some of this is because D&D was originally developed by tabletop wargamers, and that influence cast a long shadow on the genre. If you’ve ever participated in a tabletop D&D campaign, you’ll be familiar with entire nights lost to a few minutes of combat. You can build entire RPGs around nothing but violence. In video games this where things like Diablo came from. Taking the experience of traditional RPGs and distilling it into a pure combat gauntlet.

If I’m being completely fair, any scene can suffer from lacking purpose. This isn’t a problem exclusive to violence, however, it is easier to accidentally build your world and characters by letting them talk.

The second issue is somewhat related to the first, violence without consequences is deeply unsatisfying. If the violence changes nothing, then it has no purpose in the story, but it goes beyond that. It’s not like I’m looking for specific, or even negative, consequences from violence. I’d just like to see some indication that your character was almost killed a couple pages back.

Violence is messy, it’s destructive. Having characters roll over from a fight like nothing happened without any aftermath just causes me to ask, “why bother?”

Violence can instantly remove characters from your story. It can introduce new challenges, such as lasting injuries, further complicating characters’ lives, or even just draining resources. If it’s not doing anything, why use it? This is a very dynamic tool for a writer. It kills me when an author pulls it out and does nothing with it.

This last one is a little more complex. When a character’s approach to violence is irreconcilable to the rest of their identity, that’s a hard no. This can crop up in a lot of ways, but it starts with the author thinking about violence as a flavor for their scene, and not a part of their story.

“My character is a good person, they would never kill!” as they leave someone stranded, and wounded, hundreds of miles from civilization, in a hostile environment that will ensure they don’t make it out alive. This is a Bond villain routine being passed off as moral high ground.

Shooting to wound ends up in here. The author wanted to use guns, without the morally icky idea of killing people, “so let’s just set those firearms to stun,” like they’re fucking phasers. (And, no, shooting to wound is not a thing. You can bleed to death from a limb almost as easily as a center mass hit.)

Violence is ethically complicated. You can have an ethical system to moderate yourself, but if you’re going to engage in violence, you will harm others. If “being a good person” is important to you, you need to spend some time meditating the ethics of violence. So of course, you get the authors who are sure that, so long as their character doesn’t personally drop the hammer, whatever horrors they inflict on their foes are entirely acceptable.

In fairness, I have a pretty low tolerance for hypocrisy, so this may be related.

If your character is going to engage in violence, be honest with yourself about the kind of person they would be. Violence, and the will to commit violence affect you as a person. This holistic, and affects the entirety of you you are. Including characters who have that capacity affects your story. Again, the entirety of your story. “But my character’s a good person, they would never…” And that’s when I start pounding my head into the desk, because anything other response would end with, “…and that’s when I shot them, Your Honor.”

Like I said, violence is a fanatic tool for an author. I love it. However, if you’re going to use it, actually use it. Don’t just pull it out as a way to break up a few scenes, and go right back to where you started.

The ethics of violence is an incredibly deep subject, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about, and it absolutely kills me when an author tries to table the entire thing in favor of logic that would have been embarrassing in a Saturday morning cartoon.


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Q&A: Dextrocardia

I’m not sure if you could help as this may be more medical but someone in a fight gets stabbed in the heart with the weapon left in the body and left for dead. Thing is, that’s not the heart because the victim has dextrocardia, in other words the heart is on the other side of the body. Can the victim survive this? Or would the attacker know they missed the heart. Or do most attackers want to miss the heart because they don’t want arterial spray all over?

That’s not how dextrocardia works. That’s not where your heart is.

Your heart is in the center of your chest, between, and behind, your lungs. The organ is asymmetrical, and the left side is responsible for pumping blood, meaning it is larger on that side. However, if you’re trying to stab someone in the heart, that’s going to be center mass. Dextrocardia or no, you’re going to hit their heart.

If, for some reason, you decided to skewer their pericardium, and could find that in battle, but they had dextrocardia, you’d still collapse their lung. It’s not like, “oh, yeah, that’s not where I keep my heart, I’m fine.” You would still seriously mess them up.

Incidentally, impaired cilia functionality is sometimes associated with dextrocardia. The lung’s cilia are “hair-like” tissues that assist with respiration, and help protect the lungs from infection. This means that the sufferer may experience reduced resistance to airborne bacterial and viral infection, and they may have difficulty getting sufficient oxygen. These have serious developmental implications.

Something I’m not entirely clear on is whether dextrocardia is merely associated with heterotaxy, or if it is a form of heterotaxy.

Heterotaxy is a catch all of genetic mutations where the subject’s internal organs either aren’t where they’re supposed to be, or are oriented differently from normal. This can be benign in rare cases, but those internal organs don’t, usually, function properly. Additionally, some organs can appear as multiple smaller variants (which don’t function properly), or an organ can be outright missing (with severe consequences.)

In the case of dextrocardia, a common form of heterotaxy is a missing spleen. You need that for your immune system, and it’s absence is a pretty big deal. This will often require the subject to supplement their immune system with antibiotics.

Additionally, dextrocardia is frequently associated with other heart defects. It makes sense that the heart might not be in working order, but this can get wild, including the ventricles being reversed, a perforated intraventricular septum (this is the tissue that separates the ventricles), failure of the heart’s walls to develop properly (or at all), the complete absence of a ventricle, (meaning the subject has a single ventricle heart), or having both the pulmonary artery and aorta connected to the right ventricle, with the left ventricle being basically unused.) All of these can result in poor circulation (at least), and saying, “what if they get stabbed there,” comes after a host of other symptoms.

Worse, with already poor circulation, a collapsed lung is significantly more dangerous, before we remember they’re probably immunocompromised. Yeah, that would still kill them. If both ports are on the right ventricle, this also means they’ll have abnormally high blood pressure in their lungs. That place they’re now bleeding from.

There is one, slightly less dire diagnosis, though it’s not dextrocardia. Situs inversus is a rare condition where all of the subject’s internal organs are “mirrored” from normal. The heart leans to the right, the right lung is smaller, the liver is left(ish), the spleen is on the right (and functional.) This is usually benign. It occurs in ~1:10,000 people, and can be the result of a recessive genetic mutation, or it can be a non-genetic result of an embryo splitting during gestation creating “mirror twins.” One of the twins may have reversed internal organs. Worth noting, most mirror twins do not exhibit situs inversus, it’s still a rare condition there. (Most mirror twins will have normal internal organ configurations.) Because it’s benign, it’s rarely diagnosed directly, and usually comes up when the subject is seeking medical attention for something else.

Basically medical trivia, but someone with situs inversus cannot have dextrocardia (as a disorder), and instead would have levocardia. This because the name, “dextrocardia,” includes the direction the heart is leaning. Situs inversus with levocardia is exceptionally rare. Though there are a few documented cases.

So, can it save your character? Even with situs inversus, your heart is in basically the same place. Getting stabbed on the “wrong” side would still collapse your larger lung, and either hit your heart (if they’re close to center mass), or (if they were a little low) your liver. So, no, it would never be, “oh I left my internal organs in my other chest,” it’d still be a lethal, or near lethal, chest wound.


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Q&A: Broken Bag

This might sound silly but can someone actually generate enough force to break a punching bag or you have to be superhuman? My character is enhanced, thought.

No. It’s about wear and tear, poor construction, or improper use, not raw force. If you have a bag in good condition, which is properly set up, you won’t be breaking that by generating too much force.

So, where can this go wrong?

Wear and tear is the big killer here. Punching bags are designed to take a lot of abuse, but that does stack up over time, and they will wear out. Usually you would want to replace your bag when you start seeing damage before it fails catastrophically.

If you’re getting cheap bags, those will wear out much faster, and could could break under normal use. A major place to cut costs is in the shell materials. So, instead of leather, or ballistic nylon, you get nylon, or vinyl. This will start coming apart fairly quickly.

When you’re setting up a bag, unless it’s free standing, you’ll need to secure it to something. It may have a stand, or you may need to mount it into the ceiling. If it’s the ceiling, it needs to mount into a structural hardpoint, like a joist. For heavy bags, this could require holding over 100lbs. (The guildeline is that a heavy bag should be roughly half the user’s own weight.) Simply bolting that into “whatever,” won’t cut it, and the bag will tear free. If you’re lucky, it’ll come down when it’s first hung, though it’s theoretically possible you’d get the balance just right, and tear it out of the ceiling with your first hit.

One possible point of failure here is if a bag was properly mounted, but then replaced with bag too heavy for the rig. It would put extra strain on the mount, and potentially cause it to break.

There’s one specific kind of misuse that can result in all hell breaking loose: Replacing the bag’s stuffing with something much heavier. Most heavy bags are stuffed with scrap cloth (scrap leather is another popular choice.) If someone gets it into their mind that the they should replace it with sand, the resulting bag will be dramatically heavier and rock hard. This means the shell, stitching, mount, chains, everything will be under significantly more strain, and the chances of something breaking are much higher.

So, can you strike hard enough to break a punching bag? Not when you’re using it as intended. However, eventually, it will break, not because you hit it with superhuman strength but because it’s worn out. Punching bags have a fixed lifespan, and you’ll need to replace them as you use them up.


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Q&A: Calling Your Shots

Question. How do you write fight scenes with magical girls / knights where they have specific magical attacks (that they announce the names of) without making the whole fight painfully telegraphed? I always think that if you’re faster then you can hit them while they’re announcing what they’re about to do, so I’m stuck on how best to make sure that it’s logically sound while also keeping the genre’s conventions of magical attacks with names. How would you guys do it? :c


Calling out your attacks is a very specific motif, but there’s a lot of stuff baked in here, so we should probably pull this apart.

If you’re writing a comic, and you want to express exactly what your character is doing, your options are limited. You can only show movement up to a point, and if the idea is that your character is performing some special technique, it’s very easy to simply have them announce that. Your character isn’t simply punching, they’re using their signature move.

In prose, you can simply say that. You don’t need to cross into dialog. In film, or animation, you can simply show it. However, in panel to panel art, it is more difficult. Injecting captions is another option, but unless your narrator is an established character, that tends to feel disconnected.

There’s also a piece of real world truth in this. A real martial artist won’t belt out that they’re about execute a tornado kick, or a chudan punch, however, they may chi shout. The name makes it sound mystical, but it is a practical exercise. Stepping past the discussion of energy, whether you believe in that, the exhalation of air can help you focus the force of your strike. Yelling at your opponent has psychological value. It can startle, distract, or unsettle them. The key here is speed. Probably a single syllable you yell as you strike.

This is not universal to all martial arts. Many martial arts do not include shouting at all, and among those that do, it’s not a critical component. You can still attack, even if you cannot perform a shout.

Worth knowing, chi shouts can be a detriment. If your opponent is acclimated to them, you’ve given them an aural cue to defend themselves. Even if they’re not used to them, it can cause them to defensively flinch.

Of course, if you’re trying to be stealthy, this is not something you want to do. In cases like that, practitioners who do shout, may revert to a sharp, non-vocal, exhalation, or do away with it entirely.

There’s also a mystical possibility with some real history. There’s a lot of real world mysticism built around the idea that words, names, and phrases have intrinsic power. In some cases, this power is believed to be so potent that certain names cannot be uttered or even written without invoking some portion of that power. This would mean your character is actually shouting out spells. This isn’t an optional activity, it’s not a flourish, they must complete the incantation or their attack fizzles.

Unless the invocation protects your magical girl, they would be vulnerable to attack while, “winding up.” It’s possible interrupting certain phrases could have horrific consequences, leading to situations where a knowledgeable foe wouldn’t even think of stopping them, because the alternative would be worse than taking a beam of weaponized friendship to the face. It also opens the door to a less educated foe accidentally turning one of the magical girls into a mystical nuclear detonation at arms length.

The short version on how to avoid telegraphing with called attacks is, “you can’t avoid telegraphing the attack.” Calling out attacks is a form of telegraphing. There is no escaping this. However, once you have committed to that, the real freedom comes from the consequences. You’ve said this is what they will do, but what happens next may not be exactly what they intended. Your character has committed, they spoke the words, and now they have to live with that choice. They’re forced to telegraph, which means, their foe knows what they’re about to do, and has a moment to defend themselves.

The other side of this is that, just because you have been telegraphing, doesn’t mean that you cannot break expectations.

Take the example above: If you establish the callouts are dangerous to interrupt, and present a series antagonists who understand not to mess with them in mid-incantation, having someone kill one of the girls mid-spell, and the resulting fallout would be shocking and horrifying. Not because of the death, but because your villain just broke a major rule in your world, and your audience is about to see why previous, ruthless antagonists weren’t willing to cross that line.

Looping back to the basic answer, we’d do this is by locking down rules, and using that framework to dictate how the characters can operate. Those rules need to serve the intended story, so it’s not just system building. However, once that system is in place, it offers a lot of tools for unexpected interactions. That’s a large part of my approach to world building. However, that’s not the only legitimate answer, and not necessarily the right answer for you.

It is worth remembering these callouts are part of the genre, and you do not need to justify them. “Why do the characters announce their attacks?” “Because they’re Magical Girls, and that’s what they do.” If you wanted to jettison this entirely, that’s another valid answer. You’re not bound to the way others have interpreted the genre. They are a reference point, but if you decide, “what if this wasn’t here?” no one can tell you to stop.

What if calling their attacks wasn’t necessary at all? Maybe they were told it was, but eventually learn they don’t need to. Maybe the callouts only empower their attack, meaning they could save it until they needed that extra oomph. Or, hide their discovery from friends and foes alike, until they needed to strike without warning.

Maybe the callouts protect them. What can you do in a fight with a power that grants you temporary immunity to enemy attacks?

Callouts are also useful for characterizing your magical girls. Examining the nature of their power, or even offering you new ways to explore who they are. The callouts could even become reference points for their character arcs.

What happens if your character’s callouts stop working without warning?

What happens when a character’s callouts start to change in ways other characters are not comfortable with.

There’s a lot of possibilities here. The only limit is how creative you can be. If you’re not happy with them, find a way to make your callouts work for you.


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Q&A: Parkour

Can freerunning or parkour ever be used for today combat? Or escaping? Even in our modern world? I mean, jumping and running in all weird forms and making a lot of flip flops, to confuse your enemy ( well if said character has a lot of stamina), or catching someone, or running away from a bullet or something.

So, it’s worth remembering that parkour is only a few decades old. Obviously, athletic training is nothing new, but the specific combination of skills that has come together to form parkour would have been somewhat “singular” until very recently.

Extremely condensing the sport’s history, it started as an extension from military obstacle course training a little over a century ago. The specific transition to the modern sport started roughly thirty years ago. In that sense, parkour distantly derived from combat training.

Along the way, proto-parkour was used as advanced mobility training for firefighters. (This was in the mid-20th century.) I’m bringing this up because it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of applications for mobility in difficult environments, not just combat.

The actual combat application is the same as those the original obstacle courses, mobility. Being able to effectively, and efficiently, move across the battlefield is incredibly important. There’s been a move in the last decade to incorporate some unique elements from parkour back into military training.

The more acrobatic elements, like flips, don’t have a combat application. You’re not going to bounce around to, “confuse” an enemy. It’s important to remember, the application is being able to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Flourishes you don’t need, don’t benefit you, and burn energy you’ll need for more vital actions.

Having said that, there is a practice of using large amounts of movement to distract an opponent. You’re overloading their brain with sensory data, so that they have difficulty defending against your attacks. You wouldn’t do that with simple parkour tricks, but there is some science and application behind that idea. Parkour simply isn’t a way to do that.

Parkour is an excellent way to build up physical fitness, and condition yourself to withstand exertion. That alone would be enough to say, “sure, if you want,” however, because it opens up movement options parkour has real potential.

Now, you asked about, “running from a bullet…” No. You can’t outrun a bullet. The current human speed record is Ursain Bolt at close to 28 miles an hour. A slow bullet will be doing more than twenty times that. You can run, you’ll just get shot in the back. Now, a moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one, and if you’re moving at an angle to the shooter, it couldn’t hurt, but you’re not, “running from a bullet.” Similarly, no matter how good your reflexes are, you can’t, “dodge a bullet.” The thing’s just moving too fast.

Parkour offers a significant advantage for running someone down. It allows you to move more quickly through an urban environment. For the same reason it’s a significant advantage to escaping from an attacker or pursuer. If you can get moving, and they don’t an athletic background, you’re gone.

Parkour is not a replacement for hand to hand training. It won’t (reliably) let you close to melee against someone who’s armed with a firearm, though it may let you attack from unexpected directions. For example: coming in behind them, when their back is to a dead end alley.

So, yes, parkour has combat applications. You don’t use it on someone else, but the mobility offers some real value, and extra physical conditioning isn’t a bad thing.


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Q&A: Gun Tropes

Not sure if this is your domain, but I will still ask a general question: Using guns. What are some common tropes that people get wrong/right? For example, I heard that dual wielding has no use in real life and let’s not forget about the villains who never seem to run out of bullets.

Poor trigger discipline drives me up a wall. Poor barrel discipline is probably a close second. I’d lump in general gun safety issues, but those two are the biggest offenders.

“Trigger discipline,” is a central rule of gun safety: Do not touch the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Usually you’ll keep your trigger finger straight, or rest it along the frame when you’re not about to fire. In some cases, and depending on your hand, you might rest it against the trigger guard. Regardless, do not touch the trigger until you are sighted in and prepared to fire.

The problem is a generation of directors and photographers have insisted on poor trigger discipline for their films and photo shoots. Often with the justification that, “it looks more dangerous.” Of course, this is because it is significantly more dangerous. It’s a recipe for an accidental discharge.

Barrel discipline is another of these. The safety rule is, “never point the gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.” The full implication extends a bit further than that; you want to maintain awareness of where your gun is pointed at all times, and don’t point it at anything you’re not okay with putting a round into.

I’m a bit touchy about these because I have been around people who didn’t take them seriously. Mercifully, I’ve never seen these go horribly wrong in person, but these are central rules to gun safety for very good reasons. If they’re not respected, there’s a very real danger of a catastrophic accident. I still have a .gif around here of someone playing with a laser sight and accidentally putting a round through his hand, as a bit of schadenfreude.

Related to both is a problem where characters are way too happy to draw their gun, long before its warranted. This is the same reason, it communicates danger to the audience. However, this actively dangerous behavior. It’s reasonable if someone’s going to open fire if they see you, but someone who wouldn’t open fire on someone simply for being there is more likely to start shooting if they think that person is coming to kill them.

Threatening someone with a gun is illegal. It doesn’t matter if the gun’s real, fake, if you really meant it, or if it was a bluff, it’s brandishing, and that is a crime.

I’ll confirm the dual wielding thing for you, it doesn’t work. Modern pistols are two handed weapons. You stabilize the gun with your off-hand. While you can hold one in each hand, the result is going to be messy, and you’re not going to hit what you want. The entire philosophy of, “but I’m firing twice as many bullets,” doesn’t really play because you can’t put those rounds where you want them. Also, trying to manage mismatched pistols is just distracting. If you’ve got different ammo counts, you’re going to be staggering them out or running one dry much faster than the other. Reloading is disproportionately more cumbersome. I get that it looks cool, but it does not work, and is not as fun as it looks.

The other example you’re coming up with is a little more complicated than it sounds, so we’re going to be here for a minute. Also, some of these numbers might be a little off, I haven’t thought about film production in years, so I’m spitballing numbers from memory.

Ammo accounting while filming is hard. The more rounds a weapon loads, the harder it will be for the editor to ensure the weapon isn’t firing beyond its capacity. Especially given that the editor is probably not a firearms expert. They had a consultant on set who can quote off the specs, but it’s unlikely the editor and armorer ever met.

You have a film where the protagonist carves through people with a shotgun before running dry, discarding it, and switching to their sidearm. They have two spare mags for the sidearm, and it carries 15+1 rounds. The shotgun carries 8+1, with a 4 shells in the carrier.

As fights on screen goes: this is a pretty easy set up.

They shoot the initial sequence. Everything goes well, except a squib pack fails to deploy on one of the stunt performers. At this point the pistol hasn’t been used at all, the shotgun’s run through 11 rounds.

The armorer restocks the shotgun, and they shoot the initial sequence again. This time it goes to plan.

The armorer restocks the shotgun, and they collect a set of insert shots. Close ups of hands. The protagonist moving shells from the carrier into the shotgun. The protagonist is filmed dropping the, “empty,” shotgun three times. The second time, the shotgun is scuffed when it lands, and is replaced by another rental of the same make, model, and modifications. (These are called hero props, by the way. If you get a closeup of it, that’s a “hero prop.” If you’re seeing something it wide shots, it might actually be a facsimile. Hollywood uses a lot of plastic guns for scenes where you’ll never get a good look at it, and it’s never fired.) If they have to go back and do some pickups of shots they did earlier, it will now be with a different shotgun, because the first prop has now been visibly altered by that scuff.

Second sequence is shot, this more elaborate, it involves involves a lot of insert shots, a lot of cuts. There’s a wardrobe change midway through, as the protagonist’s jacket is damaged by gunfire. They’re also, “injured,” requiring a makeup change.

The shooting schedule says that everything after the injury was shot last week, along with a couple dialog scenes and some shoe leather for the post fight wrap up, so that’s already done. Everything after the wardrobe change will be done in the afternoon. Wardrobe says they have four copies of the “damaged” jacket on hand. (Same reason you have the extra shotgun: If something happens to one, you need a replacement on hand immediately.)

So, shooting begins. Each of the shots on the schedule for the day have to be done repeatedly. Again, I’m being generous here, but we’ll assume a few go on the first take, and some require a few tries. An easy way to make sure it works as intended is to carve up the shots into the smallest pieces possible, so if something does go wrong it doesn’t cascade out, they can call “cut,” and redo that specific component.

So an individual shot may just be the lead firing a couple rounds, or reloading. One of the henchmen getting shot, taking a dirt nap. Some of this may be arranged by who’s available at the moment, and some of the shooting may get slightly out of sequence if something malfunctions, or they have to swap out props.

Still here?

Six months later, an editor is handed the film, along all of that chaos. They now have roughly 10 hours of footage, of which they’ll use a few minutes. Remembering they’re not an expert on firearms, they do not know what the handgun can hold, or how many rounds you can put in a pump action shotgun. They now need to construct a coherent fight scene from yards of film that are partially out of sequence, and were shot on different days.

When the film gets to theaters, someone who sits down and carefully counts will note that the protagonist just fired 19 rounds from a SIG P226 without reloading.


This even happens with films that are very careful about this stuff. I may be misremembering, but I could swear there’s a scene in John Wick 2 where he fires 11 shells from a Benelli M4 without reloading. For reference, a military variant of that shotgun will usually carry 7+1.

On the downside, some directors and editors really don’t care. So you won’t have any shots of reloading or the reloading inserts will get dropped by the editor. (“Left on the cutting room floor,” used to be literal, not a figure of speech.) There’s a lot of things that can happen here. I don’t generally hold a grudge about it. “John Woo clips” are their own kind of joke at this point. That said, when you see director and editor who are being careful about this minutiae, it’s always a nice touch.

“Clips,” and, “magazines,” are both correct terminology, however, they’re not interchangeable, and most of the things non-gun users refer to as clips are magazines.

Every repeating firearm will have a magazine. It’s where extra rounds are stored before being loaded into the receiver. In the example of a pump action shotgun, it’s the tube below the barrel which holds shells in reserve. Magazines do not need to be removable, though it is convenient when they are.

A clip is a device which holds lose rounds in place and assists in feeding them into the magazine. On many rifles with integrated (non-removable) magazines, a clip will be used to quickly feed loose rounds.

The easiest rule of thumb is, “if the object mounts into the gun and stays there,” it’s a magazine. “If the bullets are removed, the object is emptied and discarded, during the reload process,” it’s a clip. I can think of a few oddball counter examples to those specific descriptions, but the basic idea is there.

So with that in mind, “John Woo clips,” is technically incorrect, because the weapons in his films used detachable box mags, however, that’s the idiom.

Extremely rare guns will sometimes raise an eyebrow for me. The Pancor Jackhammer comes to mind. It was a fully automatic shotgun developed in the late 80s and has a very distinctive look. That said, it never hit commercial production, and only three prototypes were ever built. At least one of these ended up with a Hollywood Armory, and was rented out extensively in the 90s.

The handheld minigun from Predator and Terminator 2 is a similar situation. There’s one prop, and it keeps getting reused in films. The real M134s are mounted weapons, not handheld.

Conversely, I’ve got a soft spot for the M91, because the gun never existed. A Vancouver gunsmith rigged the thing up in the early 90s to fire blanks. I’m not sure how many were made, but they pop up intermittently, starting in the early 90s.

There’s an inverse example where production companies will simply use standard firearms as advanced sci-fi hardware. I still hold a grudge against the BSG reboot for handing out unaltered Vektor CP1s and FN P90s. Firefly, is another egregious offender here.

In contrast, there’s stuff like the M41a Pulse Rifles in Aliens, which were actually Thompson SMGs, with mounted underbarrel SPAS-12s. Good luck realizing that while watching the film.

Star Wars is infamous for kit bashing existing firearms, and I do really wish people would stop modifying surviving Mauser C96s into “BlasTech DL-44s.” That’s a fairly rare antique they’re destroying. When they could just get a non-firing replica for a fraction of the price. Fun trivia: If you watch carefully, you can actually see the Stormtrooper Blaster Rifles ejecting 9mm shell casings in some scenes from ANH.

I’m not wild about Desert Eagles. They’re simply not worth the price. I get why they’re used in film. It’s a very distinctive looking gun. It’s a very intimidating design. But, it’s not a good weapon, and every time I see someone who’s supposed to be some kind of special operations badass pull one, I’m immediately gone.

Bullets pass through objects. If you’re shooting at someone, and they “take cover,” behind a couch or an interior wall, just shoot through it. Those won’t stop a handgun round. You need solid barriers to protect against gunfire. It will punch through things. Taking cover behind the engine block of a car or the wheels is an option, but hiding behind the body won’t work. The bullet will simply pass through that, and you.

You cannot snipe with a laser at long ranges. Lasers can be useful at very close ranges. If you’re in the same room, it can help you get a bead on where your round will go without having to sight in. However, a laser is still a focused beam of light. It gets wider the further it lands from you. Meaning, as an aim point it loses its value. Second, and more critically, your bullet is a physical object, your laser is a stream of photons. Your bullet is affected by gravity and wind. Meaning, at range, you’ll need to adjust for bullet drop. It is not as simple as lining up the crosshairs and pulling the trigger. At extreme ranges (over a mile) it gets really complicated. Short version, a sniper with a laser gets nothing from it, except the ability to inform their victim a bullet’s about to hit.

Suppressors do not silence a weapon. They can significantly reduce the sound from a gunshot, but it’s still going to make a lot of noise. The sound of the gunshot is the rapidly expanding, burning gasses. If you could fully capture those, you would dramatically reduce the noise a gun makes. This is somewhat possible with purpose built firearms designed to be as silent as possible, however it takes a lot more than just screwing a can on the end of your barrel. Suppressors do let you fire a gun without alerting the whole block, but everyone the immediate area will still hear the (quieter) gunshots.

Related bit, threaded barrels on firearms are a little unusual. Most commercially available guns in the US cannot mount a suppressor without modification. Variants with threaded barrels do exist (for many), though getting access to those will take extra work.

When it comes to silencing a firearm, the magic number is 343m/s. If your bullet is traveling faster than that, it is faster than sound, and the bullet will create an audible crack as it travels. This is, literally, a mini-sonic boom and the only way to prevent it is to keep the initial velocity under that. Incidentally, if you’re using a modern 9mm pistol, your muzzle velocity will be at least 360m/s, unless you’re using subsonic ammo.

“Gangsta Style,” shooting, where the the gun is held horizontally, doesn’t work. You can’t hit anything. You need to be able to use the sights of your weapon.

Do not close your opposite eye while aiming. You might squint a bit, but you need that eye to help judge distance, and improve awareness. This might not hold true when you’re firing a .50 into an adjacent zip code, but, 99% of the time, keep it open.

Magazines aren’t disposable. Those are actually fairly expensive ($15-$20 USD on the low end for common magazine types.) You really don’t want to just drop them on the ground and forget about them. You want to swap a partial mag for a fresh one, depositing the partial in a convenient pocket, pouch, or whatever. Restack your mags when you have time, after the shooting is over.

Related to that, you don’t want to run a gun dry. Reload when you have a moment and are starting to run low, not after it’s empty. The only time you want to empty your gun is when you’re doing practice shooting on the range. The last thing you want to is drop a hammer an empty chamber when someone’s trying to kill you.

Firearms magazines aren’t cross compatible between weapons, except when they are. Handgun mags are, very rarely cross compatible. If a weapon is built to a specific pattern, like the Beretta 92/M9 knock offs, Then magazines built for that pattern should be compatible with other pistols of the same pattern. The entire point is to allow multiple manufacturers to supply military contracts.

There’s one major exception with handguns: Glocks are very cross compatible. If the magazine is sized for the correct cartridge, you can cross load any magazine from a larger, compatible Glock. For example, the Glock 26 is a subcompact 9mm. It will accept magazines from the full frame 9mm (the Glock 17), the compact 9mm (the Glock 19), and (I assume) a few of the more recent 9mm variants like the Glock 46. Conversely, your Glock 17 can not load any of the smaller magazines.

When it comes to assault rifles, there’s a couple standards, and a lot of rifles that aren’t interested. In the early 80s, NATO adopted the STANAG format. This isn’t a single magazine type, it’s standards on how the magazine should interface with the weapon, so that they are cross compatible. The entire idea behind NATO was transnational joint operations, and the STANAG was adopted along side the selection of 5.56mm as the standard assault rifle cartridge. Having a shared magazine format would make logistics easier to manage in situations where multiple armed forces were operating together. The Warsaw Pact had a similar standard, it’s used in the AK, though I’m unaware of what the formal name is.

Ammunition names are more than a little idiosyncratic. Generally speaking there are three different conflicting measurement systems.

Metric is the simplest, this is the diameter of the projectile, expressed in millimetres. Sometimes this comes with a qualifier, or with the length also expressed. So, 9mm Parabellum and 9x19mm are the same round. This is often abbreviated to 9mm without qualification, but that’s actually a problem, there a lot of common 9mm cartridges. So, 9×19, which is “the standard” 9mm cartridge you’d think of. There’s 9mm Makarov (9×18) which was the Warsaw Pact 9mm pistol round, there’s .380 (9×17), there’s .357 Magnum (9x32mm though you’ll rarely see the metric measurement for this one.) If it’s a .38 (including the .357 family), it’s a 9mm round.

Caliber is where the wheels come off. In theory, the caliber is the diameter of the bullet in hundredths of an inch. In practice, it sometimes adjusts that value as a ratio against the length of the cartridge. This is probably why a .38 and a .357 are both the same size, even though the .38 should be significantly larger if it were just hundredths of an inch. (And, unless my math skills are worse than usual, 9mm should work out to around .36, so probably .357, meaning the .38 is the one messing with us here.) I say, “probably,” because sometimes the caliber changes on a whim. The .30-06 comes to mind. It’s a .30 round but the “06” refers to 1906.

Gauge is used exclusively for shotguns, and this one is a really goofy measurement system. The size of the bore is calculated based on a lead sphere weighing one pound divided by the gauge. So, a 12 gauge is the diameter of a lead sphere weighing 1/12th lb. So, a 12 gauge has a bore diameter of 18.53mm (and yes, I had to look that up.) This means, as the gauge goes down, the size goes up. It also means looking a metric measurements for shotguns is really messy.

If that’s not confusing enough, there’s also one shotgun shell (the .410) which uses a caliber instead of a gauge. It’s also the smallest commercial shotgun shell.

While we’re on the subject of shotguns, it’s worth noting these things have a lot of range to them. This is very dependent on the individual shotgun, but figure a “normal” 12 gauge pump loaded with buck will have a six foot spread at 100 yards. There’s two implications to this. First, it kill someone at 100 yards. Second, you need to aim. It’s not a scatter gun that will paint everything in the room.

There’s also a very specific consideration with shotguns, slugs or shot. A shotgun can put a monstrous slug down range, and if you have rifling, that’s going to be fairly accurate, and lethal, beyond handgun range. Shotguns are a little weird here, because there’s multiple roads to rifling. You can have a rifled barrel, you can have rifled slugs, or you can have a rifled choke. Firing shot down a rifled barrel will widen your cone (not sure exactly how much, I haven’t done this personally.) If it’s a slug, you want to make sure you’re getting rifling somewhere, or the slug will tumble in flight, and your accuracy will suffer.

I’m not sure when this transitioned from a list of gripes to a firearms primer, but here we are. I hope you enjoyed.


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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.