All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Even Prodigies Have To Learn

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

OK I know you said that martial arts needs a lot of practice to be good. But how about real savants? I mean in real life Varsha Vinod has a black belt at age 5. This type of thing truly is possible obviously. Or are you talking about grades beyond black belt? I don’t know much about that. But perhaps there is obviously still a difference between actually fighting a bad guy (but not trying to kill you. bad guys do have limits too or don’t want a murder rap.) than training??

There’s an unfortunate assumption that a lot of people make about child prodigies: they put in less time and effort.

To be a black belt at age five, Varsha Vinod started training at roughly age zero. Yes, I am saying she was literally trained from infancy. Time compression means more training rather than less. She had a father with two black belts. He could train her all day, every day, and he did. While you were learning to walk, she was learning stances. While you were playing with your friends, she was learning katas. The first five years of her life were karate. If you think that sounds fucked up, well, it is.

There are a lot of kids out there like Vinod, I’ve known some of them or known people who trained with them. Ernie Reyes Jr was competing in adult divisions at twelve. They are very impressive, but gaining that kind of skill that early comes at significant cost.

While Vinod has (or had) impressive hand eye coordination and muscular control for her age, acquiring adult level technical skill requires an extensive daily time commitment. (We also don’t know if she had adult level skill. Unlike Junior, she didn’t compete in the adult divisions.) The time commitment is more than if you mediated out your training. For most of these children, that “youngest female in the world to ever achieve a first degree black belt in karate” will be the high point of their lives. The vast majority fade out or fade into the sea of similarly talented individuals who started later but are also more driven because they were given a choice about what they wanted. You’ll notice Vinod has not continued her trajectory, her meteoric climb through the ranks ended at five.

The second assumption you made is actually a common one as well, which is the idea physical talent or skill equates with intellectual and emotional maturity. Child prodigies are not little adults, they’re still children. Vinod had a technical proficiency at five which qualified her, under the standards and grading systems of her martial art, for the rank of first degree black belt. This doesn’t mean she could, at five, fight an adult on equal footing. More importantly, karate is a traditional martial art and a recreational martial art. It has a very specific range of application, which is the Japanese annexation of Okinawa. Karate is unusual because it’s not a reconstruction, but it reoriented its purpose. Karate is designed for fighting samurai at a very specific moment in history and is very good at what it does, but you’re unlikely to be fighting a samurai anywhere in the world today. What I’m saying is: you can’t use karate to fight bad guys.

My shotokan instructor specifically pointed out that you can’t use shotokan for self-defense, and, since he was also a police officer, I trust his assessment. We’re talking about someone with seven black belt ranks who needed to leave the US and test with the grandmasters in Japan. Journeying to the origin of your martial art is a customary practice in many martial arts traditions when you achieve a certain high rank.

There’s the final major issue of your question. You’ve assumed a black belt means more than it does. When you strip away all a black belt’s mystic, what you’re left with is a certification. In karate, a black belt means you’ve memorized a fixed number of katas with an acceptable level of technical proficiency. This certification is also fluid. It changes based on who is doing the grading, what school it is, and who the student is. It shouldn’t, but it does.

There are a lot of kids like Vinod, some of whom are far more famous. Jet Li was the national Wushu champion in China at twelve, Ernie Reyes Jr competed against adults in the forms division and made some significant strides in Hollywood as a child martial artist, Rhonda Rousey is another individual who was trained from a young age in Judo. She has an Olympic gold medal. The irony is they aren’t any different from Simone Biles or any number of other high level athletes. They’re not warriors. They’re athletes engaged in competitive sports. As a UFC fighter, Rousey and Ernie Reyes Jr (who competed in StrikeForce competitive kickboxing) could charitably be considered gladiators. This is still entertainment.

You’ve confused skill with intent, and it is a common misconception put forth by anybody outside the martial arts community. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding martial arts and martial combat. For the East Asian martial arts, there’s a lot of orientalism to go with it. All of which are problematic because it gives an inaccurate impression of a skill set which primarily breaks down into a lifestyle —  personal empowerment, spiritual enlightenment, self-betterment — and a sport. These aren’t skills comparative to those learned in a modern military. You aren’t collecting a new weapon.

This is why I suggest parents enroll their kids in martial arts programs. Their kids aren’t going to learn to kick ass, what they will learn is mental determination and how to overcome adversity. These are important life skills anyone can benefit from. If you train a child to become a weapon, what you eventually get is an emotionally broken adult. 

If you want a standout warrior as an adult you need to follow the pattern gifted to us by a millennia of warrior cultures. What you’ll notice about these cultures (with the exception of the Spartans, who produced emotionally broken adults) is they let children be children. Instead of condensing their training, they stretch it out. They learn other skills in association with martial combat like strategy, tactics, command, and hunting. They structure training exercises as games. When the child is old enough, in their pre-teens or early teens, they are assigned an apprenticeship with another seasoned warrior. They don’t start engaging in serious combat until their mid to late teens, and complete their training at twenty.

You can throw a child into combat at twelve. There were plenty of cultures who conscripted soldiers that young. It doesn’t normally work out. There are exceptions, but they’re not the rule.

I know the idea you can cheat past the acquisition of skill is appealing, but it’s also as much a fantasy as a unicorn. This attitude ultimately devalues the time, effort, and dedication it takes to become skilled. You lack appreciation for how much work and sacrifice was made for Vinod’s achievement. You also lack the context to understand those sacrifices were not her decision. They were made for her by her father. The irony is, because she was so young, she needed to put in more effort and more time on a daily basis than a child twice her age. Karate was Vinod’s positive reinforcement, and it’s a fucked up thing to do to a kid.

The treatment of prodigies as magic in fiction bothers me, and the villainization of them also bothers me. Talent does not replace learned skill. Talent is just a building block letting you start a little further ahead of everyone else. You’ve still got to put in the time. The younger you are, the more talented you are, the more likely it is you’ll be putting in more time than other kids your age. And, honestly? That sucks.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Actions Create Plot: Let’s Talk About Shakespeare (Don’t Run)

I know, Shakespeare is a subject that makes many high school students crawl up inside their own heads and shriek in agony. (Unless you’re a theater kid, had an excellent teacher, or were like me, went to college, and had his plays properly explained.)

So, buckle up. We’re gonna talk about Shakespeare’s use of character, structure, and dramatic tension. Specifically, we’ll be discussing how Shakespeare used the same narrative five act structure for both his comedies and his tragedies. He built happy endings and tragic endings from a character oriented perspective, the personalities of each character, their flaws, their foibles, their human failings, from the information they had on hand, and the decisions they made as a result. Most importantly, this will be a discussion about how you can apply these helpful lessons to your writing, because that’s what this blog is about.

If you’ve ever been confused by Shakespeare and the language, understand, it’s not your fault. Language is always changing, reading the language of Shakespeare, Elizabethan English is like reading a completely different language. I missed almost all the jokes and the insults when I studied Shakespeare in high school (both high and low) or I didn’t understand why they were funny, and there were a lot of them.

Below, I’ve included a passage from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing where Claudio breaks his engagement with his fiancee Hero after he and Don Pedro are convinced by Don John that Hero is faithlessly meeting with another man.

There, Leonato, take her back again.

Give not this rotten orange to your friend.

She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor.

Behold how like a maid she blushes here!

Oh, what authority and show of truth.

Can cunning sin cover itself withal! Comes not that blood as modest evidence.

To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,

All you that see her, that she were a maid.

By these exterior shows? But she is none.

She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.

Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

When Claudio calls Hero a “rotten orange” in Much Ado About Nothing, he’s calling her a prostitute. Changes the tenor of the scene, doesn’t it? A man drags his fiancee before her family and his boss to break the engagement, and claims she’s a prostitute. This is a comedy!

And so it is, because Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. However, the play could just as easily been Othello or Romeo and Juliet if the crucial information of Hero’s innocence and Don John’s treachery had not been revealed on time. If Benedick had dueled Claudio as Beatrice requested, in her anger, and they’d slain each other. Everything might have fallen apart, and we’d be left with a tragic outcome.

One of the things to understand about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, even his romances, is they all share the exact same structure in the first four acts. At the ending of the fourth act, when events come to a head, as we head toward resolution, our characters hit their tipping point and the whole play rests on a razor’s edge of whether our story will end tragically or happily. The villain of the play incites the action, sets the fall, but ultimately it’s the choices of the other characters (and the timely arrival of crucial information) which decide the outcome.

We, the audience, are given information throughout. We know all, from Don John’s plot to the fact Hero is not dead but still alive. We feel more dramatic tension from that anxiety, wondering how or if, the characters will ever find out. Will Claudio learn he has accused Hero falsely? Will Benedick be forced to duel his best friend? He will, for the woman he loves and her belief Claudio has slandered her cousin. And what of Hero? Will her name be cleared? Will she get the happy ending she deserves?

There’s that building anxiety, even when we know what the outcome will be, until the tension finally releases at the climax.

In the tragedy, the truth is never revealed, opportunities are missed, offers of reconciliation are rejected, and our heroes set themselves on course for the worst possible outcome. Their decisions based on the knowledge they have and their own personalities, their strengths, their flaws, their foibles shown throughout the earlier acts, ultimately create these tragic endings for their stories.

If Romeo wasn’t such a hasty overly emotional twit… (ah, youth.)

If Othello had only accepted the evil in Iago… If only he’d believed Desdemona…

If only…

If only…

Except, it couldn’t have been otherwise. If it were, they’d be different people and that’s the core of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so great. That’s why we still put them on four hundred years later. Love him or hate him, it’s one hell of an accomplishment.

So, what can you learn from Shakespeare?

Actions create plot. The actions of your characters. A single decision, one small action, can change the course of an entire narrative.

Many writers think of plot as external, overarching, moving from Point A to Point B with events happening because they need to. The end result is characters who are recipients and passengers rather than a force driving their narrative forward. This isn’t true with Shakespeare, nothing happens because it needs to. The entire narrative is driven by the decisions of various characters from major to minor.

We never ask, why did that event happen? We don’t need to. We know why, we know who, we understand the exterior circumstances which forced the issue, how the character made their decision, and, for good or ill, why they acted the way they did.

Instead, we ask, why didn’t X, or Y, or B choose differently?

There have been endless debates, discussions, and scholarly papers written about the decisions and choices of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. They’re treated as such a gold standard, a hallmark of excellence in storytelling, that their brilliance is often not explained unless you choose to make a study of them.

If you were to take one lesson from Shakespeare, I would say look at each choice your character makes without thinking of where you want your story to go and look at the array of potential outcomes.

Every moment in life is filled with choices, of maybes, of might have beens. Your characters have a kaleidoscope of options, pick one, and ask yourself what happens as a result? What are the external forces which lead to cascading dominoes? And as the dominoes fall, what results from them? At what point are your characters locked in? When in your narrative have they passed the point of no return? What was the decision which got them there? How do other characters react to those decisions?

Human beings are messy, they’re imperfect, and filled with flaws. Every quality which leads to greatness can just as easily be the hubris which causes the fall.

Write your stories with such tight characterization and plotting that your audience never asks, why did that happen? They won’t need to. They’ll know it could not have been otherwise.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Building Narrative Tension: How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting

Let me start by saying that violence by itself is actually rather dull.

I’m talking, of course, about fictional violence. Fictional violence is meaningless until given meaning by it’s creator.

Have you ever asked yourself, why violence is terrifying? If you haven’t, ask yourself that question. Why is violence so frightening?

Answer that question for yourself, in detail. Now, don’t just settle for one answer or a broad answer. Keep digging until you get specific, until you get personal.

One of the major problems writers face when writing violence is the assumption that the violence or the act of violence is going to do the work for them. The truth is, it won’t. You’re going to need to put in the effort to move your characters from stick figures slapping each other to people with meaningful goals and stakes. Action means nothing without emotions to hook into, without costs and consequences.

So, again, why is violence scary?

Think about your favorite fight scenes either in written fiction, comics, or in film. Consider why it works for you. Why were you invested? Why did you care?

You’ll probably have different answers depending on the scene you chose, but behind each one, you’ll find a host of them. Those which are overarching in terms of plot, those which are personal on the character level. Goals. Desires. Stakes.

Part of the reason why it is so hard to provide good examples of fight scenes, (just like every other fictional scene, really) is that the real impact isn’t actually in act of the violence itself. In fiction, a fight scene is actually a climax, a culmination, and release of the tension built up in prior scenes. You might immediately think of a climactic battle at the end of a narrative like the Battle of Gondor, but it can be as small as two people arguing in a bar until one of them hits the other across the face with a glass mug.

A is standing at the bar, chatting with their friends. They’re a little tipsy, they’ve been drinking, but they’re not so drunk as to have lost all cognitive or motor function.

Enter B, at a nearby table with their companions. B is a mercenary from a unit garrisoned just outside of town. B gets up from the table and goes to the bar. B elbows A’s friend, a member of the local militia aside to order from the bartender.

A’s friend stumbles.

A grabs B by the shoulder and pushes him back.

B glares at A, demanding to know why he’s in the way.

A insists B apologize.

B refuses, insults the state of the local militia.

A’s friend tries to break in, stating they’re fine. They think everyone should calm down.

A takes a breath, relaxes.

B spits in A’s face.

A grabs their glass mug off the bar, clocks B across the face.

B stumbles backwards.

Pause.

Let me break this down:

A hitting B with the glass is actually the moment where the scene ends, the tension releases, even though the action continues into a new scene with B’s reaction. We’ve got our setup, our dilemma, our decision, and then action. On the action, the tension releases, and you start all over again.

An example is the scene from The Princess Bride where Wesley is climbing cliff and Inigo offers to throw him the rope. This sequence is a separate scene from the following duel, but works as establishment for the characters and the kind of men they are. The scene climaxes when Wesley tells Inigo to throw him the rope and enters it’s denouement as he finishes making his way to the top.

This sequence is crucial to the duel. We begin to really care about Inigo, feel a sense of camaraderie. This camaraderie is now in conflict with our desire to see Wesley save Buttercup and, as a result, we worry over Inigo’s future. He’s no longer just a mook, but a compelling character in his own right.

If you wanted the true underlying tension of The Princess Bride’s duel, it’s this conflict and not the duelist’s skill level.

The equal skill provides additional tension against the goal of saving Buttercup, but, due to Princess Bride’s fairy tale structure, we know Wesley is going to win. What keeps the duel itself interesting is, how will Wesley win and will he defeat Inigo before Buttercup is killed by Vizini?

The same question is asked in the following duel with Fezzik with a similar structure. Then, we see the same structure play out again with Vizzini. Wesley matches their skills against his in a fair fight, and, ultimately, defeats them.

There are, however, multiple fight scenes within Wesley and Inigo duel. You can see those breaks when they stop fighting, to give the audience a breather and breaking the fight up to ensure the scene doesn’t become monotonous. With action sequences, monotony is, ironically, a real danger. Putting in breaks allows you to extend the action without losing audience attention, and let’s their brain rest.

These breaks are just as important in writing as they are in film. You want to make sure you keep ratcheting up and releasing that tension, along with audience expectation.

(If you’d like an interesting breakdown of how historical fencing compares to The Princess Bride, Skallagrim’s got a good one. The Princess Bride itself is a love letter to the likes of Zorro and swashbuckling films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, digging into it’s influences can help you if that’s a genre you want to chase.)

You should start thinking of every fight sequence in your novel as not one scene, but many little scenes broken up around character action and dialogue. Build up, up, up, then release, and start over.

Setup: This is the moment before your characters engage, where you establish the stakes and potential consequences. The surrounding pieces at play, A is drinking with their friends, B is a mercenary, A’s friend is in the militia, and there might be some bad blood between them.

You start establishing your tension here, your pieces stressed against each other before we start ratcheting up.

Rising Action: This is where the tension really starts to build. Depending on the type of scene you’re structuring, your character’s violent actions could actually fit in here. Most likely, initially, prolonged violence will be part of the second scene.

Climax: Your tension dissipates on the opening strike. Then, the characters must decide if they’ll escalate. Any violence in the following scene can end here.

The climax of the example is A hitting B.

Denouement: I like to call this “The Decision”, the fallout, the realization, where characters decide if they’re going to back out. This can be the retreat, where they try to get away before being forced back into a fight, the dialogue where characters try to buy themselves time, realizations of injuries, or just their breather between bouts.

The denouement of the scene is B stumbling.

Escalate: The violence in the next section escalates, which means the situation becomes more serious, more intense, more violent. Basically, things get worse.

The escalation of the scene? If A continues to attack B, or if B’s mercenary friends join the fray.

The consequences of violent actions are, usually, events escalate into more violence.

Remember, violence is about problem solving. It’s a tool in the box of conflict resolution, one which often acts as a short term solution but ultimately makes the situation worse in the long run. If your character has chosen to resolve a conflict this way then they have limited their options to resolve the conflict differently. This is true whether you’re looking at widespread warfare or an interpersonal dispute. Violence closes off alternative routes for resolution, and builds expectations for audience over what will happen next.

When you build your world, your characters, and your narrative, you are making promises to your reader. A large part of the tension which comes from violent actions by your characters, or fight scenes, will be consequences resulting from them. If you promise, say, that violent actions by your MC will result in swift, harsh consequences which could cost them their life, then you better deliver. The character doesn’t need to die, but something should happen. Showing up to work the next day like nothing went down, especially if someone else in a position of authority saw it? Now, you’ve not only undercut your narrative tension but devalued your world and broken the reader’s trust. You promised consequences. You didn’t deliver. At that point, there’s no reason to take any other threat presented to your characters seriously.

Suspension of Disbelief is not built on realism, it’s built on your compact with the reader, the rules you’ve set for your narrative and their expectations, the narrative you’ve promised to deliver. You need rules because they create a framework for your story, for your scenes, and, especially, for you fight scenes.

Your fight scenes are only a part of your story, but they’re important. They provide an opportunity to expand your character and also create disruptive inciting incidents around which action occurs.

If people complain your characters aren’t realistic, you shouldn’t immediately jump to make events and characters more like the “real” world. Rather, you should step back, look at your worldbuilding and the expectations you set in the early pages. Did you do the prep work?

You can’t win ’em all, but, often, the criticism you’ll get won’t be helpful until you realize what it means. Everything is permissible, so long as you put in the work to set it up first.

A bar brawl at the beginning of your novel could be the foundation of the entire story with all the spiraling consequences falling like dominoes from that one action. And that, my friend? That is tension.

Tension is uncertainty. It’s in the question, what will happen next? What will happen to these characters I care about? Will they be okay?

Turning heel, Leah raced toward the window at the cavern’s opposing end.

Soldiers struggled to stand, clamoring off the benches. Some of the beta-kings drew their lasabres and laspikes, while the pteroriders yanked out pistols and force-blades.

Leah dodged past a soldier reaching for her, jumped onto the table, and flung herself forward with a telekinetic thrust. She landed hard, half-way free, lasabre springing to life in her hand. An orange flash sliced through a long wooden table hurled at her head. The pieces fractured cleanly and broke apart into two flat planes. Thrusting them behind her, she didn’t wait for the crash but heard the screams.

Overhead, footmen moved to the edges of the balconies, rifles ringing the room. They took aim as a unit, and fired into the crowd.

Dancing between the bolts, Leah dove through fleeing petitioners. Three strong presences flashed through her.

A knight in silver lunged into view, a turquoise blade ignited in his hand. His armor shone, his identity hidden by his mask.

Another, familiar, presence closed in from behind.

Nathan, Leah thought. Cor!

They were going to cut her off, pile on like raptors in the diplohouse. 

Leah’s jaw tightened. She needed to get out. That meant reaching the cavern’s overlook. Her eyes moved to the left-side balcony. There!

Orlya thrummed with approval.

Leah spun, diving into the crowd.

Two knights gave chase.

A third followed, but at an easy pace. Petitioners screaming as his telekinesis seized and hurled them from his path.

Switching off her sword, Leah catapulted high into the air, over the soldiers at the balcony railing, and landed hard. Shoulder and back aching, she rolled to her feet.

Several men stared at her.

Leah smiled.

A soldier lifted his rifle.

With raised hands, she stepped backwards.

Roaring, Hector Darenian dropped in from above — a raging ball of sapphire blue. He crashed into the gathered soldiers, plowing through them, blade shearing through their bodies. Hot blood cascading across the stone, Hector slammed headlong through the opposing wall.

Leaping over the fallen, Leah landed neatly on the balcony’s railing and stepped off. She hit the cavern floor. Another quick dash carried her to the overlook.

“Stop!”

We can sit here and talk about tension, but tension is all about the pieces you pressure against each other. External factors pressure internal goals and desires, external consequences cut off alternate paths. You can switch up with more techniques, add new odds like more enemies or more dangerous enemies, change the rules like switching from the left hand to the right, pull out new pieces of information, but there also needs to be the promise the event is going to lead somewhere, that it will affect something, that this furthers our story.

Some writers, especially new writers, have a habit of writing their story like it’s modular. The scenes are individual rather than interlinked. The hot boy gets into a bar fight to show how cool and dangerous he is, but that’s the only narrative purpose the scene has. However, you can add tension to this scene and the MC’s relationship with said boy if the police show up at their house a day later to ask questions about the brawl. Now, interacting with him could have real consequences for their own goals, their future, how good an idea is this? And, suddenly, we’ve got stakes.

If your violence serves no purpose, it has no purpose. In the world of fiction, your fight scene is what you make it. You can’t expect real world expectations or fears or the concept of violence itself to do the work for you. You’ve got to latch the actions into both your characters and your world.

How does a bar brawl between two factions affect the relationship of the town militia and the mercenaries camped outside? How does a bar brawl affect A and B’s relationship with the other locals in the bar? With the bartender? With their friends? How do the injuries sustained change the severity of what happens? What if someone dies?

Your inciting incidents are what you make of them. Your fight scene can be a workhorse building up your narrative, or it can be meaningless fluff with stick figures clashing together on the page.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: No One Decides How Many Chances You Get (Except You)

flowerapplejacks said to howtofightwrite: I have always felt that the phrase “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not only patently false but harmful and ignorant. It seems to romanticize the concept of pain and suffering always leaving potential for individuals to grow. Often times the reality is completely opposite. Pain cripples and stunts, it doesn’t help you grow. What are your thoughts?

So, what is the alternative? Lie in a corner and hide from the world, and hope it all goes away? It won’t. You can roll over and wallow in the pain if you want. Sometimes, you need to. Sometimes, you’ve got to nurse your wounds. The problem is you can’t lie on the floor forever. In the end, you’re gonna have to get up and figure out what you’re doing next.

You can’t stay on the floor.

You shouldn’t stay on the floor.

Don’t give up.

I say this as someone who’s lived with clinical depression since I was thirteen, I’ve lost most of my family members, lost my dog, broke my leg when I was twelve. I’ve learned from my pain. My mistakes have taught me a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today (or who I am today) without them.

I’ve been in the pit. I climbed out. It took twenty years, but I made it. I wouldn’t have, if I was avoiding pain.

One of the truths about life is that it’s painful, often in a variety of different ways. You can learn a lot from pain. You learn about yourself, about your body, about your personal weaknesses. You’re often stripped of the illusions you had about yourself, about your bravery, about how far you’d go to protect your ideals, about the kind of person you are, which can be damaging all by itself.

What I don’t like about the statement “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is that it’s passive. It assumes a positive outcome rather than acknowledging the courage, hard work, and emotional toil which often comes with overcoming traumatic incidents, overcoming injuries, or even just getting up to try again after you’ve made a mistake. I think what you’ve missed is the core message of the statement, which is that if it didn’t kill you then you still have the opportunity to make things better, to rectify your mistakes, to be better than you were before. If you’re dead, there are no second chances. That’s it. That’s the end. There’s no more you.

Pain is your body’s response to getting hurt, and also for saying, “don’t do that.” Like all natural instincts, it’s not always right. Not all pain is bad for you, and some of it, like the kind you experience from change, is unavoidable. Learning to distinguish between the two is a natural part of living. Learning to distinguish between the pain from a stubbed toe and a major injury is important. Learning to push past the limits your mind has set for you, that’s important. It’s just like learning to ignore or push past your fear when it’s standing in the way of what you want. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you should be. You need to learn which fears are valid, and which are standing in your way.

My feelings on pain are very simple. Pain is one of life’s constants. You will experience a lot of different kinds of pain throughout your life. Emotional pain, pain from fear, from disappointment, from rejection, from loss, from embarrassment, from change, from growing up, from your memories of past, painful experiences. You’ll experience physical pain from injuries major to minor, you could break your leg, you could bump your head, or just walk into a door. You experience low-grade pain from working out. Your stomach hurts when you’re hungry. You’re gonna feel pain from stubbing your toe. Getting hurt is an eventuality.

My approach to pain is the Rafiki quote, “you can either run from it, or learn from it. So, what are you going to do?”

If I took your advice, that pain should be avoided at all costs because pain is bad, I wouldn’t have two functioning legs. I wouldn’t have eventually reached acceptance with my father’s death, which has taken most of my adult life. I wouldn’t have three black belts. I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t run a successful blog while also managing clinical depression. Hell, I wouldn’t be managing my depression. My depression would be managing me.

When I was twelve, I fractured my tibia (the big bone in your leg) doing martial arts and I needed to get surgery. The break itself was incredibly painful, yes, but so was the recovery. Learning to use crutches was painful, I made mistakes and those mistakes hurt. Every day, I had to work on stretching my leg and performing exercises to keep the musculature up in my leg. I had to learn, among other things, to navigate a world not designed for people with physical disabilities. I had to learn to deal with my situation when my circumstances were no longer novel to my friends, when they didn’t help anymore. I had to learn to deal with the stares and curiosity, and even bullying.

However, I learned from it. I learned how to open doors while in a wheelchair when there was no one around to do it for me. I learned how to navigate and get to my classes on time. I learned how to get around on one leg with just my own internal balance. I learned how to handle classmates who hid my crutches. I learned how to get into a house that had only stairway access. I learned how to take showers without getting an infection. I learned how to not just live with my broken leg, but thrive with it while I worked toward recovery. I had school counselors who’d tell me the story, years later, about how they were so impressed with how I figured out how to open my junior high’s heavy, double doors in my wheelchair. And do you know why I figured it out? I couldn’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it for me.

Yes, pain hurts. Pain can be uncomfortable. Pain can be horrible. Crippling? Only you really get to decide that. Stunted? Again, being emotionally stunted is something you can address.

You’re going to get hurt no matter what you do, even if you spend your life trying to avoid it. The act of learning… anything, really, is painful. You’re going to make mistakes, and making mistakes can be painful. It’s also unavoidable. Life is short. You’re going to get thrown by the horse while learning to ride, and I say that having been thrown by many horses. You’re going to lose people you care about. You’re going to face rejection. You’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to fail. You’re going to fall down. You’re going to get injured. You’ll face setbacks.

However, that pain can help you develop resilience. You can develop emotional strength, and the courage to face what you’re afraid of. When you encounter setbacks, you learn how to push past disappointment. You realize the pain isn’t as big a hurdle as you thought, that you are tougher than you previously believed.

When you get knocked down, you have two choices. You either get back up or you stay down. And, you know? Some people do choose to stay down. Some people choose to wallow. Some people never try again. Some people need time before they’re ready. Getting back up isn’t always easy, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

No one ever gets to tell you how many chances you get.

The question of what you do after the pain occurs is what matters. Just because you got hurt doesn’t mean you should give up. Maybe you should take a step back and reassess before trying again, but you should, probably, try again.

I broke my leg trying to do a tornado kick. Now? I can do a tornado kick. I could have given up, but I didn’t. I could have avoided dealing with my father’s death, I could have run from it and there were certainly points where it felt like I’d never feel anything again, but now I get to celebrate his memory.

Pain is a learning experience, but what you learn from it is up to you. You’ll experience so many different kinds of pain. You’ll learn to distinguish the good from the bad and the mild or middling from the terrible. Hurting yourself more to get better might feel like an oxymoron, but, sometimes, you need to.

Celebration of survival isn’t irresponsible. Sometimes, the simple act of existing requires courage. Courage deserves recognition. If you’re bothered by someone saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” then you might not have come out the other side yet. You might not be ready to celebrate how your experiences and what you’ve gone through have made you the person you are. In the end, it’s not really any different than saying, “you know, we went through some rough and tumble times but we made it!”

Do you stop playing on the jungle gym because you bashed your funny bone? Probably not, but you might be a little more circumspect about where you put your elbows.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: The Drawbacks of Teleportation

bakahimesama said to howtofightwrite:

I’m trying to write battle scenes in a war with an overpowered MC. The main character is 1 of only 5 mages in the whole world (she gained the favor of a God). Her power is the ability to teleport herself, and up to 2 other people, anywhere she can see. She has been knighted, and is currently being used as a “secret weapon” against to weaken and confuse the enemy. Would guerrilla style tactics be the best method? And how would the enemy effectively counter her, without a mage on their side?

When you call a character overpowered, it’s because you’ve already decided in your mind that they’re unbeatable. This is bad for your tension, and your combat sequences, and your story in general.

If you don’t know how a character can be beaten, then it’s because you haven’t given them, their powers, their strengths, and their weaknesses enough thought.

Your character is only one of five mages in the world who can do magic, but if all she can do is teleport and is limited to being able to see where she’s going then that’s not really overpowered. You just need to acknowledge the power’s weaknesses. She’s also not going to be a “secret weapon” for very long, extended encounters with enemies will solve that problem. (If you’re justification is, “no one will believe that!” then you may want to re-think it. First time? Yes. The next five or six? No.) If she’s actively using her powers and lacking in mental modification powers like telepathy, she’ll never kill enough of them to keep the secret safe. At some point, the secret will be blown. Likely sooner than later. Also, just in general, people talk. If your character was a nobody who got knighted after they received their powers, people (not just the enemy) are going to want to know why.

Don’t underestimate the characters without powers and their ability to both acknowledge and adapt to new situations. Don’t underestimate intellectual curiosity, or curiosity in general from side characters. Many writers do to their detriment. Remember, your main character isn’t the only one who can affect the world around them or the narrative.

Now, let’s talk about teleportation.

Teleportation:

By itself, teleportation isn’t actually an OP superpower. Like all superpowers, it can feel overpowered in the right hands with a character who can use the skill effectively and creatively. Teleportation can have devastating results, but, by itself, with a character who can teleport themselves (and two friends) rather than teleporting other people at range, they’re already limited in what they can do. If their reaction times are human (rather than supernaturally enhanced), if they don’t have the ability to read the situation before they jump then they’re going blind, and they’re even more limited. They’re also not that difficult to counter.

A character who can’t teleport an opponent at range, can’t teleport their opponent into space, into the sun, into the Marianas Trench, or kill them with fall damage (and the added psychological horror of dropping them on their comrades) without significant risk to themselves. They also can’t teleport themselves to total safety if things go wrong. If they have to look and see where they’re going as opposed to seeing where they want to be in their mind (like say five miles in the air or on a mountain peak), then their ability to use teleportation in combat will be significantly slowed.

If they can only teleport places they can see, then they can’t get to someone who’s outside their line of sight. They can’t conveniently get to high priority targets like commanders and generals who may not be on the front lines, and are unable to surgically disrupt the enemy’s ability to plan their battle without significant effort prior. There’s no casual, “your general’s encampment is way over there, right? Imma gonna go kill him. Peace.”

The teleportation/telepathy/precognition combo is brutal if the character is an assassin. Rip the secret location from your enemy’s brain, check what trouble you’d get into if you went there, and then go there.

If the teleportation is a conscious decision which requires focus rather than a reflexive ability, allowing for movement without thinking, then it’s combat advantage is also more limited.

Martial combat, for reference, is reflexive. The goal of training is for you to be able to decide what to do and do it without needing to think about the mechanics. You’ve trained your body to react to specific stimulus, meaning you can react and even attack before your conscious mind has time to catch up. When the focus is in your conscious mind, requiring concentration, you can only perform one action at a time. This means your MC would be at her most vulnerable in the moments before and after her jump, and that would be the point an enemy would exploit.

This translates into: teleport then attack versus teleport and attack.

One way to get around this issue is to have some physical component to the teleportation which allows for the port to also become an attack by itself. There’s lots of singular teleportation powers/gap closers in games which do this, but it’s something to consider for your mage character.

Personal Transport versus Ranged:

The problem with singular teleportation versus ranged teleportation is your only real advantage is surprise. It’s a great power for someone who specializes in ambush tactics, but can quickly turn into a one trick pony if the writer and character aren’t careful.

The key to understanding any power is grasping both it’s strengths, and it’s limitations. Most characters you see in fiction that have OP teleportation skills like Ciri from The Witcher or Nightcrawler from X-men either have a subset of secondary powers they can utilize to enhance those powers or the teleportation itself is a secondary to their greater abilities. 

For example: if you want a character who can appear multiple places and attack the same enemy in the same moment like Ciri does in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, then you also need a character who can control time and space. In Ciri’s case, her teleportation abilities are a byproduct of her true powers, which are primarily instantaneous dimensional travel and the ability to control the flow of time. 

Teleportation does not allow you to appear in multiple places at the same time, unless you’re also breaking dimensional physics, have the ability to spawn clones, or speed up the flow of time so it’s actually your after image someone else is seeing as you complete multiple attacks (seemingly) in a single moment.

The problem with ambush tactics are they’re not built for prolonged conflict, if the MC’s reflexes aren’t better than the individual they’re attacking then it’s possible they and their teleportation could be defeated or driven off by an unpowered human opponent of superior combat ability.

Combat teleportation can come with a lot of issues: 

  • Visual Tells —  when the character is moving in and out. 
  • Audible Cues — sound of the air they’ve taken with them disappearing and reappearing, or similar disruptions. 
  • Timing – time delays for them in the moment they disappear and reappear. If they’re not actually carving holes and moving through a different dimension for travel, they may not be able to completely control the timing of their re-entry. So, they have to mentally calculate it. This means if their opponent figures out their attack patterns and strategies, they can predict where they’ll reappear and be waiting with a surprise of their own.
  • Reflexes – a character who is gifted with powers, rather than having them naturally occur, is going to need to train their reflexes even more thoroughly for combat teleportation than the one who came by it naturally. While regular teleportation isn’t going to be much of an issue, short burst teleportation in a high stress environment where you could be coming out into an opponent’s weapon, or getting shot at range is a different beast. If teleporting isn’t a reflexive action to protect from danger that doesn’t require concentration, this is easier.

Remember, a character can only protect themselves from dangers they’re aware of. This leaves them incredibly vulnerable to weaponry, tactics, and ambushes outside their perceptions. They are limited by what they know, what they see, what they hear, and their own strategic and tactical abilities.

Don’t get so caught up in your character that you give them access to everything you know about the world they live in. You need to keep them separate from you and let them make their own mistakes. When you’ve got a character who is supposed to be hyper-competent, your first instinct might be to cheat for them. If they’re your protagonist, do yourself a favor. Don’t.

Countering Superpowers: Target the person, not the powers.

This one may seem counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t be. Counters are about your techniques, yes, but long term strategy is also about sussing out the habits and preferences of your opponent. Their strengths and their weaknesses. An army is not one person, it’s a lot of people working together toward a common goal. They have an advantage your MC doesn’t: multiple creative minds working to solve a problem. More importantly, the combat strategists and tacticians are also usually backed up a solid network of spies and informants about all the strategies/advantages their opponent has.

The longer a technique is in the wild, the more opportunity the enemy has to see it and develop counters around it. The clever enemy general will use battlefield observation and your MC as their guinea pig for developing a means to kill them.

The problem of the teleporter is you don’t know where they’re going to show up. This is true if you don’t know who the teleporter is, but familiarity breeds contempt. The more your MC participates in battles, the more familiar their enemies are going to become with their style, their strategy, their preferences, how their morals and personality quirks affect their battlefield choices. They can move quickly, yes, but they can’t take an army with them.

There are some easy counters like ranged weapons. (Can they escape a bullet, an arrow, or a cannon barrage if they don’t know it’s coming?) Martial combat is predictive by nature, put the blade where they’re going to appear and let them impale themselves (less difficult than it sounds.) Bait and bodyguards, wherein you set a rather nice trap and put everything you’ve learned about them to use. 

If teleportation relies on concentration — disrupt it. 

If the teleportation is reflexive — exploit it.

You don’t attack the powers, you attack the person wielding them. If you don’t need to kill them to achieve victory then this is even easier, all you have to do is distract them away from the battlefield. Distract them. Delay them. Feed them poor information. Lead them away from the fight so that by the time they realized they’ve taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker, the battle is over.

Your MC is both empowered by and held back by human emotion. Their feelings like fear, rage, embarrassment, hatred, overconfidence, etc, can be used against them. You need to figure out their personality flaws, and then craft enemies who can use those against them.

Don’t just think about your MC as the only target for these villains. If they’re fighting an enemy army, then that army will be interested in more than just them. Your MC is an impediment.

Your villains also need to stand on their own as strong characters. Find the internal and external antagonists for the narrative. Your villains should get just as much love, if not more love, and care as your hero. Antagonists are the backbone of the novel. Without a strong one, you’re dead in the water.

– Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Can a Woman Pick Up A HOUseCat?

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I was wondering since I read this in a fic… how true is that a woman wouldn’t able to use a great sword since it uses strength and mass?

Complete bullshit.

Great swords, like zweihanders, only weigh eight pounds. That is considered heavy, by the way, for weapons. They can be wielded one handed. You probably wouldn’t want to, but you can. If a small man can wield a zweihander, a small woman can to.

The argument a woman can’t wield a weapon because it’s too heavy is he-man machismo chest beating that’s often wriggling its way toward outright misogyny. It’s right up there with women can’t fight, and the bow being a weapon that doesn’t take much strength to wield. (Which can be true, but that depends on the bow’s draw weight. War Bows like the English Longbows? 180 pounds. That’s lifting a normal sized man with one shoulder. The strain these bows produced was so high they warped archer skeletons after periods of prolonged use. Now, if you’re asking, could a woman draw one? With enough training, yes. Same goes for men. You gotta build the right muscles.) We invented crossbows because shooting with regular bows required a lot of skill, and was difficult for the average person.

The irony is that heavy weapons work against battlefield goals. The heavier the weapon is the more drain it places on the combatant’s energy reserves and their endurance, meaning they can’t fight as long as they might with a lighter, but similarly effective, weapon. The trend in weapons development is always to make the weapon more effective, more streamlined, more usable, and ultimately more deadly. The better the forging techniques, the lighter a weapon became while maintaining its structural integrity. Bronze isn’t just a soft metal, bronze is heavy.

You don’t want a weapon (or gear) that’s heavy to carry when you’ve got to march six or seven miles to the battlefield and then fight. You don’t. Male or female, you can’t fight forever. The more exhausted you are, the higher your chance of being killed.

While often treated as anomalies, history is filled with examples female combatants. The truth is that women have always fought, even if they are often forgotten by history as leaders, battlefield tacticians, strategists, and warriors. As it turns out, the Amazons were real. They were Scythian, and recent archaeological discoveries about their tombs have discovered that about one third of Scythians originally assumed to be men were women. This has happened a lot to women warriors in history. Many archaeologists assumed skeletons buried in warrior tombs were men when they weren’t.

The truth is that the impediments to women pursuing a career in combat is cultural not physical. You don’t believe me? Read this article by Micah Ables from the Modern Warfare Institute refuting arguments against female combatants in the US Military. (That’s the West Point website.)

Martial combat is about enhancing your own advantages and stripping the enemy of theirs. Skill is the hallmark, experience, endurance, and luck are the secondaries. The arguments against women are dressed up in discussions about physiology, but it’s really just enforcing cultural gender norms. It’s racist and sexist phrenology all over again. (This is the 19th century pseudoscience which argued that because women had smaller heads than men they were less intelligent. Then, when they realized women had proportionally larger heads in connection with their bodies and thus proportionally larger brains than men, argued women were intellectually similar to children because children also had proportionally larger heads.) This is just someone trying to use science to justify gender bias and chauvinism. They show their hand by focusing on physical differences and factors which are simply not relevant. Or, they don’t understand martial combat enough to grasp the importance (or lack thereof) of upper body strength. Just look at this short list of weird things men have believed about women.

Think about this, the idea a woman couldn’t lift an eight pound weapon, much less effectively wield one, is as idiotic as the idea women can’t do math.

Now, go watch Hidden Figures.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Rings Versus Brass Knuckles? There’s No Comparison

pomrania said to howtofightwrite: I’ve read that wearing rings while you punch someone can act as brass knuckles, and I’ve also read that it will break your fingers. Which of those is true? Both, neither?

Brass knuckles are one solid object that reinforces your fist and is designed to take the impact. More importantly, as a single object, it can spread the force across the surface, lessening the impact your hand takes.

Rings? Not so much.

A good rule of thumb is to remember that wearing jewelry during fights is inadvisable. Piercings can, and often will, be pulled out. Or, worse, if your opponent doesn’t take the easy gimmey to cause immense pain by tearing out a nose ring or dangling earring, they get can tangled on clothes or hair, stuck, and tear anyway. Someone’s probably not going to garrote you with your necklace, they usually don’t have enough integrity for that. However, like your clothes, they can provide a temporary handhold that forces you to choose between breaking free (and breaking your necklace) or stopping. Clothes are better for this tactic because your clothes are unlikely to tear enough to allow escape, but never discount the power of mental anguish.

Rings? Well, while some rings can provide superficial cuts or bruising depending on type, they won’t benefit you like brass knuckles. The real danger with rings is that you don’t really know what that hard metal band is going to do to you on impact. It could do nothing, or it could get caught and deglove your finger. Ring avulsion is not a joke (only look that up if you have a strong stomach.) That’s what happens if your ring gets stuck on something and tears off your finger.

Will it happen every time? Probably not. Is it enough of a risk you don’t want to take it? Yup.

There’s multiple problems with wearing an object that’s not reinforced and protruding off your finger when you’re punching someone. In a normal fist, the connection point is the first two knuckles/fingers which is to say your index and middle fingers. These are the fingers in the fist which are reinforced by your ring and pinky finger, and by your thumb.

If you put a protruding object on your ring finger or your pinky, that is the object which will hit first and take the full force of impact. With an object that has a small surface area, that’s even more force directed back into your hand. That’s where the potential break is going to come in. Instead of your whole hand and wrist (and forearm) taking the force of the blow, it’s just that one finger. Too much stress is how some breaks happen.

What most people who never do martial arts don’t understand is that your hits aren’t free. Whatever impact you deliver into someone else’s body in hand to hand combat, you will receive a portion of it back. The harder the region is that your punching (like the face, where the bones are heavily reinforced and close to the surface) then the more of that force you take. Vibration will wear out your muscles, though the risk for that is more pronounced with weapons.

When you punch someone (if you’ve been trained to punch someone), your whole body tightens on the moment of impact as the arm reaches extension. Your fist, your wrist, up the forearm becomes a singular funnel to both give force but to also take the force of the blow. The vibration of impact goes through the hand, up the wrist, and into the forearm. This lessens the risk of any singular part of your hand receiving the full directed force of impact.

You run less risk punching soft targets like the stomach or the throat than hard targets like the face. Even then, you’re still dealing with the force of impact.

Any sort of exercise causes increased/faster blood flow, resulting in minor swelling. The swelling isn’t normally noticeable, but you may find a ring that sits comfortably on your finger when you’re resting to be tighter when exercising. When you hit objects, even soft ones, your hands will swell. Impact does that. This is before we get to any major swelling resulting from real injuries.

Now, none of that is a guaranteed outcome. It’s risk. With combat, there are already so many other potential risks and possible injuries, taking on more just isn’t advisable. Especially for an object that really doesn’t offer much in return.

Let’s be honest, you’re not going to be wearing rings for self-defense. You’re going to wear rings because you like them. The whole bit about rings being the same as brass knuckles is just someone looking for a justification to wear their rings (or have their character wear their rings) in situations where they know they shouldn’t. The problem with wearing anything you like during a scuffle — and you may not be given a choice — is you risk that object being destroyed. One assumes you were wearing the ring because you liked it, and the value of it is personal.

The problem with wearing your rings, just like wearing your favorite article of clothing is you could lose it. Your ring might need to be cut off to save your finger. You might, in the worst case scenario, lose your ring and your finger. Your ring could end up doing more damage to you than your opponent. You might have to choose between your ring and your safety.

A good rule of thumb to assume is when anyone says X objects that aren’t weapons are comparable to X weapons, they’re usually full of it. There are a few improvised weapons that really can get the job done (crowbars, tire irons, cans of spray paint, household chemicals) but most of them are subpar options in comparison to the weapon, which is an object designed for the job, or they’re not comparable at all.

In this case, there’s no comparison. Brass knuckles will straight up break the bones in your face, they will destroy internal organs. They deliver a lot of force with minimal cost for the user. They act as dual protection for the hand on force of impact and upgrade the partially blunted force (which spreads across the knuckles and fingers) behind a punch into a narrower focus. That narrower focus focuses the point of impact, strengthening the hit because less force is lost. The same punch with brass knuckles will have greater impact on the opponent than a punch without them. They are a weapon, a weapon that is relatively easy to use and easy to conceal until you need them.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Q&A: Pay Attention

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: I see on this blog a lot of important self-defense lessons include avoiding sketchy situations, places, or people. However, a lot of women have been attacked by dates, friends, bosses, family members. Why does so much of self-defense seem to focus on potentially defending yourself against some mugger or, basically, a stranger and act like you won’t ever have to use your self-defense if you stay alert? How do you stay ‘on’ around your father or husband? Unless I am mistaken about this.

You are mistaken about this.

1) We’ve said multiple times that this blog is not a self-defense blog and it cannot teach you self-defense. No internet blog can. No post on the internet can. No pictures can. You can’t learn self-defense from a video or a gif.

You need a real class, or a real school that can actually physically instruct you because all articles on the internet do is… not much, actually. You need to train with professionals.

2) The people who have this perspective? They’re the people who aren’t in the community and who haven’t actually ever taken a self-defense class. So, you are trying to make a point about something you know nothing about.

The truth about self-defense is that there is no one single established curriculum, there’s a lot of different approaches. As many different schools of thought as there are martial arts. There are curriculums which focus solely on weapons self-defense from guns to knives. There are curriculums designed by women for women. There are curriculums, which may be the most common, based off a civilian designed variation of police adapted judo. There a curriculums which come off of the military strands. This is a big, complicated field that is constantly evolving. Some curriculums focus on home defense, some focus on muggers and stranger danger, others teach you skillsets for how to deal with someone right next to you. Some teach you how to deescalate fights starting between other people. Some do all of the above.

Right now, you’ve learned something about statistics and you’re scared. That’s rational. You’ve learned the world is a far more dangerous place than it initially appeared. However, while you have the statistics, you don’t understand how those statistics translate into the real world, or what you can do to protect yourself.

What you need is a self-defense specialist.

Again, the purpose of this blog is not self-defense. The irony here is that the self-defense posts we’ve written in the past are about threat management and threat evaluation. Threat management applies as much to people you know as it does to people you don’t.

Right now, the way you look at the world involves divvying spaces up between dangerous and safe. We’ve talked about spaces considered safe not being safe on this blog before, but you’re still applying it to muggers and scary alleyways rather than the party at your dorm, a bottle of booze, and an open door. You’re not thinking about the cute guy at the coffee shop, whose smile maybe puts you on edge, but he asked for your number. You’re not thinking about the college professor or high school teacher who touches your shoulder in ways overly familiar and says very complimentary things about your work. You’re not thinking about the team doctor who showers with you and the others after practice. The senior mentoring the lonely kid at the back of the classroom.

The problem is that you still think tells for dangerous situations come with road flares, that they’re framed in ways exceedingly obvious. Unfortunately, that’s a common assumption most people make about self-defense. The general culture has trained you to think that way, but it isn’t actually true. A lot of the lead ups and tells are subtle. You can train yourself to be alert for them. However, that involves admitting you haven’t been. Lots of people can’t or won’t, because they think they already do. Or, they feel they shouldn’t have to. If you think people aren’t aware of the statistics, because you weren’t, then you haven’t been looking or, in this case, listening.

Learning to constantly evaluate the people around you can become as natural as looking both ways before crossing the street. It’s not fear, or a result of paranoia, it’s habit. Checking their behaviors, their expressions, their postures, learning about their families, their backgrounds, noticing who their friends are, who they hang out with, who they talk to, and what they say.

Pay attention to what people around you say about your co-workers, or your classmates, or your family members. Pay attention to who men and women around you home in on, how they behave when they’re brushed off or encounter a no. Who do they favor? Who do they ignore?

When new information comes up, reevaluate.

Accumulate information, not out of paranoia but because information is good to have. The same habits which can save your life or tell you when to exit a bad situation are also great for figuring out the best presents for a friend.

The danger is not from riding the bus at midnight, the potential danger is the other person on the bus. If the danger comes from people and opportunity, then there’s no difference between that person on the bus at midnight and your creepy cousin cornering you in the garage. By extension, the creepy cousin in the garage isn’t any different from being screwed over for promotion by your co-worker or dealing with an emotionally abusive parent. They all have tells.

Unfortunately, while you can learn situational awareness from martial training, it’s far more common among children and adults who grew up in unstable environments. If you don’t have the habit, you probably haven’t encountered a situation where you’ve needed to develop it.

Self-defense training should be preemptive, just like learning to drive a car, but for most people it isn’t. Part of this is the way violence is presented in media, which is as a natural extension of the self rather than a skill to be learned. The other half is most people feel they don’t need to learn because they believe the world they live in is inherently safe. While danger exists, it exists elsewhere. Or, if it does, there’s nothing they can do about it. The vast majority of people you’ll find in self-defense courses are law enforcement professionals, recreational martial artists, people who’ve already been victims of violent crime, and kids like boy scouts/girl scouts who are there for the extracurriculars.

When my high school had a mandatory self-defense PE course, the students mocked it. They thought they wouldn’t need any of the techniques or the theory. Statistically, some of them did.

The problem is that you think about threat management and situational awareness directly relate to physical violence or threats of violence. As a result, you think of it as a state of mind to turn off and on. Instead, you should think about it as habitual, observational skill. No different from noticing which of your friends is the one with an explosive temper, seeing the tells for when they start to rev, and intervening before they can explode. Violence isn’t just physical, it’s behavioral, and behavior patterns are the warning signs.

Look both ways before you cross the street.

Again, you cannot learn self-defense from the internet. You can’t learn it from self-defense blogs, from videos, from pictures, or from gifs. Anyone who says you can is lying to you. You can’t learn self-defense from books. You can pickup some good theory, but for practical you need an instructor. If you want to learn self-defense, you need to seek out programs in your area. Usually, your local community centers (if you have one) or local precincts are good places to start. Like with everything, there are different self-defense specialists with different focuses. You want a specialist, not a recreational martial artist who moonlights with a few evening courses every few months to round out the curriculum.

If you feel you need a self-defense program, find one. If you have questions about what a self-defense program offers, speak with a professional instructor. Speak with multiple instructors. Quoting statistics will not help you, learning to determine the behavioral tells in the people around you will.

As a writer, you really should be learning to observe the people around you for your craft. You’re a student of human behavior, and you can’t find stories if you don’t look for them.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.