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

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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

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Q&A: Magical Warfare

How would a magical war go? Like, what would be the set up for platoons specifically?

How magical, and what kind of magic?

The problem with a question like this is that, from a world building perspective, magic basically takes the form of alternate technology. It exists and develops alongside technological advancement. In some cases it may evolve faster, but, the overall concept is identical.

So there’s two factors we need to look at. How powerful is your magic, and, how common is it?

The more powerful your magic is, the more it will disrupt how warfare is fought. This is also true for overall political power in your world. The more powerful your mages are, the more they’ll be able to completely exclude non-mages from all power structures.

For example, if your mages can casually obliterate non-magical infantry, your world won’t have much use for “conventional,” infantry. You might even see mages waging war against one another directly via spellcraft, rather than any conventional concept of warfare.

Why invade a resisting city when you can rain fire on it, or consume the souls of all it’s non magical residents turning them into a kind of zombie? Why not just drop it into the sea, and be done with it?

This is where the exact nature of magic in your world becomes very important. You need to create rules for how magic works and then plan accordingly.

How common magic is in your world also heavily influences warfare. If magic is incredibly rare. If mages only come from a few noble bloodlines, you’re not going to see a lot of magic on the battlefield.

On the other end of the spectrum, if magic is relatively common. If anyone can be taught to cast basic spells, you could easily see a situation where combat magic is the norm. Where every soldier in a battalion was expected to understand a basic ranged spell, and a shield against incoming spells.

Worth noting, when I’m talking about how common magic is, there’s a few potential factors to consider. How often can someone cast? Are there any significant costs associated with magic? How hard is it to teach? And of course, who can cast magic? Obviously, if your setting allows anyone with some education to cast magic, that’s going to look very different from a world where magic is exclusively the purview of a few hereditary bloodlines.

If magic is powerful enough, but it takes some time to train up magic users, you might see a situation where military forces constricted significantly. Where a few squads would be considered enough to secure and occupy an entire city.

Similarly, if spells have a considerable cost associated with them, or can only be cast on very restricted schedules, that will have less of an overall impact on the way your world develops than if they can cast at will.

Another important question is, “what are they fighting for?” Historically, more wars have been fought over resources than ideas. When your world allows for basic transmutation of one good into another, for example converting something into gold, then gold has no value. You can’t fight over gold, because it has no value. If a mage can conjure up enchanted plate, then steel isn’t going to have much market value. If a mage can easily produce enough food to feed a thousand, then you won’t have a need for farmers or agriculture. Things get weird. Do empires war over magical materials that are consumed to produce goods? Do they battle over nexuses of magical energy? If they can use portals to bounce around at will, do they even bother securing their own borders, or do they operate out of heavily fortified enclaves leaving everyone on the outside to fend for themselves?

As a writer building a world, magic is open to your imagination. You can do, nearly, anything you want. The only thing you’re tested on is how creative can you be? Can you create a scenario that fits the shape of the world you want? Magic in warfare can be anything from magical artillery to squads of superheroes. The only question is, “what do you want to do?”

-Starke

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Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN

espn published an article ‘could bruce lee win a real fight’ that left me somewhat confused but not sure if I was just vastly out of my depth. the writer draws a line between ‘martial arts’ and ‘real fighting’–the latter referring to UFC/public sport matches seemingly–that seemed unclarified, and referring broadly to a unified principle of ‘martial arts’ being about conquering yourself not an opponent. am i just confused bcs of inexperience?

So, a couple things floating through here. The short answer is, no, this doesn’t reflect on you. Dotun Akintoye, the author, makes a common mistake among prize fighters, and their fans, classifying prize fights as, “real fighting,” without remembering that violence exists in the real world as well.

We’ve talked about this before, but there is a divide between traditional martial artists, sport martial artists, and combat training. When you live inside the competitive sports martial arts bubble, it’s easy to forget that real combat exists. When you train for competitive fighting, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re not training for combat.

Similarly, if you’re training for a different purpose, you’re not going to excel in competitive martial arts. This an observation that Mr. Akintoye gets from Mike Moh (who played Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), when Moh states that he’d need need months of specialized training before going into MMA. He has a fifth degree black belt in Taekwondo, but that’s not competitive MMA. He’s very well trained… to do something else.

In that sense, Akintoye may have a point, even if he’s correct for entirely the wrong reasons. It’s difficult to track down the details, but Lee was involved in street fights growing up. This what led to his eventual martial arts training. So, if we’re talking about, “real fighting,” as experiencing combat, Lee did that. Additionally, it seems to have affected his view of how to train with, and use martial arts. This is someone who saw a three minute fight as lasting too long.

According to Akintoye, it was a specific three minute fight against another martial artist that caused Lee to abandon many of the tenets of Wing Chung, and develop Jeet Kune Do into a full martial art.

That three minutes is a problem for competitive fighters. You can’t have a three minute prize fight. It’s way too short. For competitive sports fighting, you need to draw out the action. People paid a lot of money to come and see the bout, and if it’s over in seconds, they’re going to leave disappointed. This is the fundamental problem with “real” violence and entertainment. Violence is over quickly. Mr. Akintoye even reports a fight between Lee and Yoichi Nakachi where Lee defeated him in 11 seconds.

So, could Lee have been a professional prize fighter if the organization existed during his life? I’m inclined to say, “yes,” but I doubt it would have appealed to him. We’re talking about someone who looked at Wing Chung, and decided the martial art was too slow, before retooling it into something more efficient, while also pulling in techniques from other martial arts. That’s the behavior of someone with a practical combat focus, not what we associate with traditional martial arts, or competitive sports fighting.

Additionally, Akintoye even recounts Lee’s flirting with competitive fighting in the day, and how Lee didn’t enjoy it. Specifically citing the padding on boxing gloves as something Lee disliked. In case it needs to be said, the purpose of boxing gloves is to draw out the fight by weakening the strikes each participant receives.

Mr. Akintoye puts a lot of emphasis on Mike Moh’s appearance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but, I’m sorry, that’s not evidence of anything. There are many positive things you can say about Quentin Tarantino, and I have in the past, however his relation to historical authenticity is, “extremely flexible.” Weirdly accurate in some respects, and completely missing the mark in others.

Tarantino chose to draw from the fight between Lee and Gene Labell. The real history is that Lee had, apparently, been rough with the stunt actors while shooting The Green Hornet, and the stunt coordinator told Labell (who was already a heavyweight Judo champion) to restrain him. Labell picked up Lee in a fireman’s carry and started running around the set with him. Observing that Lee didn’t even try to counter him, probably due to surprise.

If you wanted historical accuracy from Tarantino, you might have missed Inglorious Basterds. In OUATiH, the audience is offered a fever dream that barely relates to reality, and involves a prolonged fight which never occured.

As Akintoye mentions, it was the beginning of a friendship between between Lee and Labell. Both taught each other, and it’s extremely likely that the grappling techniques that Lee incorporated into Jeet Kune Do came from Labell.

It’s also very important to remember that Labell was not just, “some guy,” he has two separate tenth degree belts, and a ninth. While he wasn’t that advanced in ’66, he was already a world class martial artist. This guy is one of those singular examples who have mastered multiple martial arts.

The article on ESPN’s site leads with a snippet from an interview with Stephen Thompson, who suggests Lee was a pioneer in mixing martial arts together. I don’t usually think about it, but I suspect he’s correct. We probably wouldn’t have modern MMA without Bruce Lee. It’s a very interesting observation that’s easy to miss.

While it’s petty and unrelated to anything else, I’ve got a hard time taking Mr. Akintoye seriously after he puts Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s names next to each other as examples. I understand why, but the inclusion of Seagal betrays how little he knows about martial arts beyond The Octagon. This is even more significant, when you remember that Van Damme was a competitive kick boxer before breaking into acting. I don’t hold it against him, but it did affect my perception of the article, and I need to acknowledge that.

I didn’t see what you said about Kung Fu, so I’m not 100% sure where that’s coming from. However, there’s a real reason why we almost never use the term on the blog. Kung Fu is not martial arts.

Okay, that’s not true, Kung Fu can be a martial art, but it can be a lot of other things as well.

Before I go further, it’s important to understand, I don’t speak any Chinese languages.

So, here’s what I’m sure of: Kung Fu can be any art which demands dedication, and persistence from the practitioner. This means it does include martial arts, but also includes many other activities. If you dedicate a chunk of your life to a skill which required focus and dedication, that’s “Kung Fu.”

The extreme end of this would be the idea that a concert pianist would be an example of, “kung fu.” They spent time, energy, dedication, and in the end, mastered their skill.

This where you can find the philosophy that, “kung fu,” is making yourself a better person. You’ve taken this time and energy to focus a skill into excellence. Now, I don’t know how accurate that is, and I’ve never seen it discussed outside of fictional contexts. So, either this a cultural norm, or it’s incorrect, and I don’t know which. As I mentioned, I don’t have the lingual background to make that assessment.

You can look at self-improvement as a struggle against yourself. You don’t need to be perfect, but you do need to be better than you were the day before. Is that, “Kung Fu?” I don’t know. Maybe?

Martial arts is a way you can seek self improvement. So, the idea that you’re facing yourself and pushing on has merit.

The short version is that you’re not out of your depth. Mr. Akintoye has a very specific perspective on what constitutes, “real fights.” That idea is not real world violence. His perspective then distorts his presentation of the facts. He’s pulled some very specific examples, sometimes without context, and constructed a narrative from that. I can’t blame him for that, every one of us will sometimes let our perspective distort our presentation of the facts. That’s just dealing with human beings.

There’s some interesting stuff in the article, but, Akintoye is working from the idea that Bruce Lee wasn’t good enough to be an MMA fighter, which doesn’t mesh with what we know about the man.

-Starke

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Q&A: Adrenaline

hello! so, i’ve been reading your posts for some time and i was wondering about how the adrenaline really works in a fight. i read an article saying that adrenaline, specially when “normal” people fight (not pro fighters), works like an advice to run for your life. not like something that inspires you to fight. but, i can’t confirm this information, because i can’t find another person talking about it. so, may u write something about how adrenaline works in real situations? thank u so much!

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The short answer is that adrenaline is a hormone. When threatened, your adrenal gland secretes epinephrine (adrenaline.) Like most hormones, it affects a many organs uniquely.

I’m going to be a little reductive here, the major effect is that adrenaline increases the conversion of sugar into energy, and reduces the production of insulin, meaning you’ll keep that energy longer. It also increases your respiration rate, hyper-oxygenating your blood, and your heart rate, getting that hyper-oxygenated blood to your brain.

Adrenaline increases your pain tolerance significantly. Though, I’m not sure what the mode of action is for this effect. It also increases your apparent strength, though this is a little misleading. Humans are, in general, much stronger than most people realize. However, we moderate to prevent self-injury. Because adrenaline reduces pain, in combination with the other changes, this results in a significant strength increase. The reason you wouldn’t normally do this is that you’ll pull, wrench, and sprain muscles. This is still true during an adrenaline rush. You just don’t feel the pain, but it doesn’t make you more resistant to damage.

The entire result is vaguely analogous to, “overclocking,” your body. It will function more effectively for the duration, but the process is very stressful for your body overall. It’s a biological function that prioritizes immediate survival over general health.

After the immediate threat passes, the individual will be left with a lot of nervous energy from the rush. They’ll be jittery. This leads to a comment I’ve made before; I deeply dislike adrenaline rushes. It’s useful in the moment, but in my experience it always outlasts the provoking incident. Though, I’m fully aware my experiences are not universal. While it’s not going to be true for everyone, figure your adrenaline will crash roughly an hour after the initial rush. (The exception would be if you’re under constant stress. In those cases, the heightened adrenaline levels can persist for the duration.)

When your adrenaline crashes, you’re going to feel exhausted (and potentially nauseous.) This is the normal consequences of what you just put your body through. You will become aware of injuries you sustained during the rush, including some of the muscles you overtaxed.

If heightened adrenaline levels are maintained for long periods of time, this can have disastrous effects on the heart. You really cannot safely sustain the elevated heart rate, and eventually it will fail. Because adrenaline rushes are triggered by stress, they can be caused in situations where they’re neither useful nor helpful. This can include constant adrenaline production because of stress. PTSD is one situation where adrenaline rushes can be triggered by an inappropriate stimuli. This can pose a real health threat. This can kill you.

Adrenaline will not grant you insights into fighting. The fight or flight response is a biological response to danger. It’s important to understand, “fight or flight,” is a single response. It’s not like you have a, “fight,” response, and, a separate “flight,” response, it is a single biological response for either course of action.

Adrenaline is not “blind instinct.” While it will affect your brain, it’s not going to shut you down into a feral fugue. You’re still (theoretically), a rational, sapient being. Adrenaline doesn’t change that. You will be thinking faster, but not smarter, so if you’re prone to making dumb decisions you can now expedite that process.

In two words, “not fun.” Adrenaline is a useful survival tool. It can be the difference of living and dying, however, it is just a chemical your body keeps around in case things go horribly wrong.

-Starke

Q&A: Mary Sues: Deja Vu Edition

how can i write my protagonist as accomplishing stuff without them turning into a sue?

Didn’t I just cover this?

It’s entirely reasonable for your character to be skilled. It’s entirely reasonable for your character to have past achievements. The only question is, “does it meshes with their history and focus?”

The problem with the Mary Sue label is that it’s over applied to female characters, and drastically under applied to male characters. This means there’s a lot of people who don’t understand the term. They’re sure that being a Sue is a bad thing, but all they understand is it’s pejorative for characters they don’t like, and a label to cry about when it’s attached to a character they like.

I’ve provided multiple definitions, many times, but the very short version is that a Sue is an uninteresting character who trivializes the rest of the story they appear in. The result is that the character overpowers the work as a whole. You don’t get a compelling story. You don’t get anything else of interest. All you have is this single character, and they tend to be fairly boring.

Okay, so, here’s the problem, most Sues (male or female) are going to be overpowered. When you don’t have a concrete grasp of what a Sue is, it’s easy to mistake any powerful character for a Sue, and just apply that label whenever you dislike a character, while arguing that characters you do like couldn’t be Sues.

What this means for you is, if your character is interesting, and doesn’t overwhelm the story, they can be powerful without becoming a Sue. Like I said, I’ve gone into far more depth on this in the past.

Something else I’ve said before, and I’ll repeat it for those in the back, misogynists are always going to label your powerful female character as a Sue. It doesn’t matter how well written they are, whether they fit their world, whether they’re actually overpowered, or just powerful enough to participate in the story. They’ll attack, and there was nothing you could have done to avoid it.

Do not be afraid to write powerful characters. Be careful, but not afraid. Someone will lob the term, “Mary Sue,” around because invoking a fifty year old parody fanfiction might hurt your feelings. As critique, it’s mostly meaningless.

If something in your writing doesn’t work, don’t be afraid, work on it, and fix it. But don’t give up the dream because somewhere a “well akshully” neckbeard feels threatened.

The only important thing to remember, when writing any character: Your loyalty is to the story not the characters. The story you’re telling is what matters, there’s no value in making things easy on your characters. The harsher their trials; the sweeter their tribulations.

You will always have people who dislike your work. That’s life. If they can articulate things that don’t work for them, you might see weaknesses in your work that you can improve. Don’t take criticism as a personal failure, look at it as an opportunity to improve. If a critique doesn’t tell you anything, it’s not useful and you can junk it. “Your character is a Mary Sue,” without any further discussion is not useful.

How can your character be powerful without being a Sue? Tell a good story with compelling characters.

Be unafraid.

-Starke

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Q&A: This Will not be on the Test

I was wondering what are the standard teachings that comes with fighting? I mean, what else do you learn? You seem knowledgeable about medical stuff. Is it your merit or do people get taught about those along with their education etc.

There isn’t a single, “standard,” here. Martial arts classes will teach you whatever the instructor feels is relevant to your training. If they think you need anatomical knowledge, they’ll teach you that. If they think you’ll need to learn about human behavior and psychology, they’ll cover that instead.

So, with that said, I didn’t learn this in martial arts. My medical training, such as it is, comes from two sources.

First, I’m an Eagle Scout, including some limited medical training. I don’t remember how many medically related badges I have. At least two, probably more.

The second source is more informal. I was raised by a clinical pharmacologist, and a Methodist Minister who decided he wanted to become an EMT after a midlife crisis. While we’re not close, I also have a brother who’s an MD. The short version is, I grew up with an unusual amount of medical information getting thrown around, and picked up some more along the way..

My exposure to medical ethics came from psychology classes I took in college. It’s the only field where I maintained a perfect 4.0.

So, as I say in the tags on every medical post, I’m not a doctor. I can render first aid and that’s close to the end what I’m willing to do to another person. However, I have enough knowledge that I can offer advice from a writing perspective. Also, because of the informal background, I rarely have issues understanding online resources.

My formal education is, I have an associates in Computer Programming, and a Bachelors in Political Science, along the way I ended up 3 or 6 credits short of a minor in Psychology. Yes, that’s a weird educational path, and no it’s not a medical background.

Scouts included some medical training. Now, anyone who sticks with scouts will get some basic first aid training, however I also went back for merit badges on the subject, so my medical training was more extensive.

If anyone’s wondering, “how could you have forgotten which badges you earned?” I have over 40, I could not give you a list from memory if you put a gun to my head. I can’t even remember the names for all of them looking at my sash.

One of my self defense classes, the one in the late 90s, was explicitly from the Boy Scouts. The Scout Master was a Captain in the Air Force, he grabbed a Sheriff’s Deputy he knew and put the entire Troop through a couple weeks of training. Ironically, this was the least responsible round of training, as it prioritized the hand to hand component rather than focusing on situational awareness, threat assessment, creating an opening and extracting.

If you want to learn medicine, go to school for it. There’s certainly a need for medical professionals in the world. Just, be aware that it’s a very unglamorous profession.

If you want to learn martial arts, take a course. You can do both, unless you’re in your residency.

In general, a well run class (of any kind) will include the information you need to understand the material presented. (Or, in academia, will have published prerequisites.) There are definitely martial arts classes out there where you’ll learn a bit of A&P along the way. I probably learned some anatomy from martial arts and simply didn’t realize it. However, you’re not going to get medical training from enrolling in a martial arts class.

-Starke

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Q&A: Shot in the Leg

So I read your post on gunshot wounds to the leg and it was very helpful, but what I’m looking for is a little more specific. My character gets shot in the leg, clean, nothing major hit. The wound is bandaged. But immediately after she gets shot, she passes out and isnt aware of anything. Is that believable? If the wound was bandaged right away, would she survive being carried for an hour before even reaching the hospital?

So, what caused her to pass out?

There’s nothing wrong with being able to survive for hours after taking a bullet if it didn’t hit anything vital. Some gunshot wounds can take a long time to kill you. Bandaging it is a good idea, because it will slow the blood loss.

Blood loss can result in losing consciousness. You lose a lot of blood, go into hypovolemic shock, lose consciousness, and bleed to death. If a patient loses consciousness shortly after suffering a gunshot wound, that tells you to look for serious blood loss. You may want to double check and make sure you didn’t miss any internal hemorrhaging.

You know will not cause you to pass out? The pain from getting shot. I feel like I’ve written this recently, but pain does not make you lose consciousness. Pain will keep you awake. While I’m a little less confident of this, I’m pretty sure getting shot will keep you awake. Even if the pain doesn’t, the adrenaline will.

If someone gets shot and passes out, they’re losing blood fast. You lose consciousness when you’re down ~20% of the blood in your body. You die when you lose between 30% and 40%. Napkin math says, if someone gets shot, and it takes 30 minutes for them pass out from blood loss, you’ve got a bit less than 15 to 30 minutes before they’re dead.

So, you have a character who gets shot. Their leg gets bandaged, but they lose consciousness within five minutes of the wound, they’re not going to survive for an hour without medical attention. Even if it takes two hours for them to lose consciousness, taking another hour to get them to a hospital would be an extremely risky decision.

Now, if they’re semi-conscious for most of the ride. Say, the first 50 minutes, and lose consciousness about 10 minutes out, it’s going to be touch and go, they’ve still lost a lot of blood, but that is survivable. If they pass out ten minutes earlier, it’s distinctly possible they’ll be dead on arrival.

If she’s being carried by hand, that carries extra risks because it could aggravate the wound and accelerate blood loss. Especially if they’re carrying her with the gunshot wound at a lower elevation than the heart. The ideal situation would be to lay her out on a vehicle’s bench or a stretcher, with the injured leg elevated above the heart. If you’re bleeding to death, don’t let gravity help finish the job, make your heart work to kill you. It will buy you time.

Also, hand carrying another human being for that long will be exhausting. It’s not impossible, but unless someone’s in excellent physical condition, they might not be able to carry her the distance, and shuffling her between carriers runs the risk of aggravating her wound, making things worse. This is less of an issue if they’ve got her on a stretcher or some other kind of stable platform.

Now, it’s possible she lost consciousness due to some other factor, but I can’t think of any off-hand, that would improve her odds for her survival.

If she lost consciousness shortly after getting shot in the leg, it’s a very bad sign. She’s probably losing blood much faster than anyone realized and would be dead in minutes. My suspicion would be an arterial bleed, which can be managed to a degree by keeping pressure on the artery to reduce blood loss. However, we’re talking about a character having to shove their finger into her wound to stop the bleeding (which requires some fairly specific anatomical knowledge.) Given how fast she lost consciousness, I’m pessimistic about it buying more than a few minutes without serious medical attention.

So, is it believable? No. It’s entirely believable she’d remain conscious, going into shock. It’s entirely believable she’d lose consciousness shortly after the injury, and die a few minutes later. Unfortunately, it’s one or the other.

If she’s bleeding out, her initial symptoms would include a headache, vertigo, nausea, and increased perspiration. These aren’t particularly worrying. She’s loosing blood, but she’ll probably live. However, over time, she’d start manifesting more serious symptoms. These include losing body temperature (and feeling cold), starting to suffer from impaired cognitive function, particularly confusion. Her skin would become cold and clammy, and would get paler as blood pressure dropped. Her pulse would get faster and weaker, also as her pressure dropped. It would become harder for her to remain conscious. Eventually, she would lose consciousness. The faster these symptoms manifest, particularly the more severe ones, the more dire the situation. If she’s going straight to passing out, and help is an hour away, she’s already dead.

I’m sorry, but if she drops after the firefight, you just killed your character.

-Starke

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Q&A: Thigh Highs

I’m sorry if this is more of an athletics question rather than fighting but how easy would it to fight in thigh highs? Either in boots or socks. I’ve sometimes seen it being a common design choice for female fighters (usually anime or video games), even in more realistic settings. I assume that it would be a bit constricting, especially on the knee and the part where it ends off on the thigh. But maybe Im overestimating how much of a hinderance it is?

It’s there because it looks attractive, not because it’s practical. So long as it doesn’t interfere with your mobility or balance it basically doesn’t matter. There’s two potential problems, is if it too stiff and impairs bending the knee and if it has high heels.

Elevated heels started with a practical use, it makes it easier to keep your boot in a stirrup and remain mounted during cavalry combat. The earliest use of high heels in women’s fashion were deliberately playing off of this.

Over the centuries, high heels have exaggerated, going higher and pushing the wearer off balance. They barely resemble the military riding boots that inspired the trend, and are completely unsuitable for combat now.

Heels affect the wearer’s posture by forcing the pelvis to tilt forward, forcing the wearer to compensate by bending the spine and accentuating their chest. It’s not a stable stance to fight from. You’ll frequently see characters in high heels, fighting, sprinting, and generally engaging in activities that are functionally impossible with their footwear. As you pointed out, this is very common in media where reality can be distorted without having to account for an actress undertaking the acts described. In addition to animation and video games, comics are another common source for this.

Much like cosmetics, high heels are designed to increase the sex appeal of the wearer. If you’re fighting to save the world, or even just your own life, this is probably low on your list of priorities.

The question about how much it constricts will come down to the individual article of clothing. While it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the majority of women’s thigh highs heavily constrict movement, and are completely unsuitable for combat, you can reinforce a leather boot going up the leg, and allowing articulation at the knee. At that point, if the leather is thick enough to offer some protection, and the knee can move with minimal effort, it’s armor. Leather doesn’t make the best armor, but a layer of the stuff can protect against a lot of minor injuries. It’s also sturdy enough to use as a base for mounting heavier armor components.

However, we’re probably talking about a boot designed to make the wearer look good, rather than something that allows freedom of movement, and at that point it becomes a liability.

The only real potential use for a thigh high combat boot would be in situations where you wanted to armor the thigh, had a boot with a flexible knee joint, and it had a flat, or nearly flat heel. Ironically, riding boots are one of the rare moments where these would make some sense, as it would protect most of your leg from minor injuries, and if you did loose some mobility in the knee it would be less of an issue, since you’re not going to be running around on foot anyway. That said, you’re not going to get much more protection than you would with lower boots and heavy pants. So the value is limited.

Assuming the character is wearing shoes, their socks are not going to matter much. If they’re not wearing shoes, then socks can have serious issues with lack of traction, but that’s not what you’re talking about. Also, if they’re wearing heals that will still have a negative effect, but we already discussed that.

Since we haven’t mentioned this, a skirt isn’t a problem, so long as it’s lose enough not to interfere with movement, and isn’t long enough to get caught.

The real answer is thigh highs are used, mostly, for aesthetic reasons. While there are some potential uses, they’re vastly outweighed by sex appeal. You dress a character like this because you want them to be attractive, not because it’s practical combat gear.

-Starke

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Q&A: Insert Witty Banter Here

Can two people really have a proper conversation while fighting? It’s my first time writing a fully engaged fighting and I keep remembering 1) all the action movies I’ve watched where they either fight as they talk or stop between moves to taunt each other 2) a tv channel that showed different martial arts completions and there were waiting between moves but no stops. So I’ve been wondering if it’s actually realistic or not.

To abuse a quote I can’t remember the source of, “No, but also yes.”

You’re not going to have a coherent conversation mid-fight. It’s a bad idea that will end poorly. Basically, when you’re in a serious fight you don’t want to split your attention between the person trying to end your life, and sounding witty at the same time.

In a firefight, you don’t want to announce your location to people armed with weapons that can blow through whatever you’re hiding behind, so belting out threats and taunts isn’t really going to work there at all.

However, in melee, there is value in distracting your opponent. While I’m hesitant to classify anything in the 1989 Batman film as “realistic,” the idea of asking someone, “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” has some merit. (Or, at least, would in a world where that film doesn’t exist.) It’s a very strange question that has the possibility of confusing your foe. It won’t work on a disciplined enemy, it won’t work on the same person twice, but having a weird question or two, that you can spout off without thinking has some value.

Similarly, taunts, screams, and weird noises, all have uses. At best, they’ll distract, confuse, or unnerve your foes. At worst, you’re going to be exhaling as you strike anyway, so you’re not giving up much.

If you’re not trying for a, “real world,” feel, there’s a lot of justification for including witty banter, or clever dialog in your fight scenes. Characters talking shop while trying to kill one another creates a comedically mundane feeling. For them, the act of fending off assassins has become so mundane they’re tuned out. It replicates the feeling anyone working a mundane job has felt but transposes it into a context that should be exciting. Except that novelty has worn thin for the characters, and now it’s just business as usual. This can be darkly comedic, and the is some reality here as well.

People who deal with violence, or the aftermath of violence, on a regular basis, can develop an unusually dark sense of humor. Police, soldiers, doctors, EMS, and anyone else who deals with violence or its aftermath on a regular basis will start to normalize this, and at that point, their unfiltered sense of humor can become truly disturbing to the uninitiated. That even extends to us. I remember once accidentally horrifying an Australian over Discord because I was joking about a Mafia assassination from the mid-1930s with Michi while on a hot mic.

This would never result in comparing notes with someone trying to kill you, but that mindset isn’t completely unrealistic, and the humor of it isn’t as out there as it first appears.

Characters bantering with one another can be valuable for you. It will help keep your fight interesting. It allows you to play with characterization you wouldn’t normally see. (If your characters would never sit down and snark at each other, having them do that over crossed swords can let you explore that material.) If the end result is entertaining, it has done it’s job. It’s not true to the real world, but that was never the point.

The high water mark here is, probably The Princess Bride. That has some the best combat banter you’ll ever encounter. It’s high tempo, so it never drags down the fight. It’s punchy when it needs to be. It explores character relations and motivations. It helps you get to know these characters. Finally, it is eminently entertaining. That cast had a beautiful chemistry going, and the end result is some of the finest banter you’ll ever see on film.

In the specific context of film, breaking for dialog is also very useful from a production standpoint. It gives the actors time to pause and recover between bouts of action. Somewhat obviously, this is not something you’d want as a real combatant, you want your opponent exhausted and then dead, but when you’re making a film, that would be a less desirable outcome.

As for martial arts competitions, it’s there the name, you’re competing with the other participants. Even if there’s no ill will, you’re going to maintain a degree of discipline between techniques / bouts / rounds / whatever. This is less true with competitive sports like boxing or MMA, where attempting to psych out your opponent is part of a legitimate strategy. So, the exact downtime interactions will depend on the sport’s culture and competitive rules.

Professional Wrestling is a good example of the boxing / MMA behavior amplified to the point of parody. Interactions between participants will have their own scripted theater events outside of the bout. Again, it’s not real, but it was never supposed to be.

Incidentally, the wrestling likes this for the same reasons it’s convenient in film. It gives the performers time to recover. There’s also a few other non-verbal variants there, including some of the holds, which are designed to give both performers a breather without looking the match is stalling out.

Now, there are a few real applications for trying to talk to your foes, instead of fighting them. However, note that last bit, “instead of fighting.” If you’re trying to defuse a situation, or stall for time, talking can do that more efficiently than fighting (and is generally much safer.) That said, this won’t be interspersed into a fight. When you’re writing a scene like this, the dialog is carrying the tension, because if your character miscalculates, the situation could turn violent.

So, you won’t see witty banter mid-fight in the real world. At least, not unless both participants think, “that’s how it’s supposed to work,” and are playing into the cliche. It won’t end well for a character who tries this against someone who knows better. Yelling at your opponent, trying to distract or confuse them, does work, and you may see that, but it would be more in the range of, “weird nonsense,” rather than true snark. You can use words to defuse a dangerous situation. That’s real, though there’s complex psychology involved.

However, you will see witty banter in fiction because it’s very useful for many reasons. This isn’t a mark against fiction for being “unrealistic,” when it is useful, and the work as a whole benefits.

So, as I misquoted at the beginning, “no, but also yes.”

-Starke

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Advice and suggestions for writing fight scenes.