Tag Archives: combat reference


This is what medieval sword fighting probably looked like- two fighters being defensive and testing each other with sharp blades. This video comes from the wonderful swordsfolk at DIMICATOR , based in Germany.

This martial arts school reconstructs the practice of historical European swordsmanship. They focus on unarmoured fighting with sword and buckler, as described in late medieval German manuscripts. 

On the topic of knocking people out, will choking someone into unconsciousness do permanent brain damage the same way a concussion K-O would?

Choking someone out is essentially starving the brain of oxygen or cutting off the blood flow. It’s medically different but with similar results. Like with a concussion, you can come out of it okay.

The problem is that this gets treated as an easy and convenient “no kill” solution in a lot of fiction. Where, it really isn’t. Also, the longer they’re out the more likely it is something has gone wrong. I mean, you knock someone out with a choke, stuff them in a closet, and they’re still out when you close that door? They’re probably dead.

It’s very difficult to get someone to stop breathing. It’s also very difficult to tell where the line is between unconscious and dead. Some chokes like the ones that cut off blood supply are very quick, it’s easy to hold it too long. When practicing these kinds of martial arts for safety reasons, you tap out the second you start to feel it and it’s your partner’s responsibility to let go when that happens.

It is dangerous.

The trouble with a lot of fictional fighting is that there’s a desire (an understandable one) to want to make it “safe”. To say that there’s an easy determining line where “this won’t kill them but that will”. That there’s a safe way to do it that will lead to a happy conclusion where the character doesn’t need to bear the brunt of hurting other people. Films like some James Bond movies, other action movies, Saturday Morning Cartoons, present this idealized state where so long as the character doesn’t kill anyone else then they get to remain a “Good Person™”. This often leads to weird, unironic moments in fiction where the main character is doing straight up terrible things to people such as crippling them for life i.e. “Disabling shots”. While the narrative pats them on the head for being cruel and unusual while the villain is just straight up ending people’s lives.

There is no line. It is all gray area.

Choking someone out, asphyxiating them is denying their brain the oxygen it needs to function to the point where they pass out or die. That is what a traditional choke does. It starves the brain of oxygen. Starving the brain of oxygen can result in permanent damage. It can turn you into a vegetable, it can damage functionality and can leave long term issues even if they live. Starving the brain of any resource it needs to function will kill you. The good news is that when it comes specifically to air, it takes a while.

The point of the choke when you’re not trying to kill, in a lot of ways, is to scare them into giving up so they’ll stop fighting. If you get them to the point where they pass out, there is a good chance that they’ll never wake up again or that you did permanent damage to their brain.

There’s a basic understanding that I feel is hard for people to grasp when it comes to writing fight sequences in fiction which is: your character is going to hurt somebody. For some of us, this obviously trips up the part of the brain which goes “but if my character hurts someone, doesn’t that make my character a bad person?” which is a natural reaction to have. The secondary question comes: “does that make me a bad person?” because we often relate to our characters.

The answer to that is no. Your character comes from you, but they’re not you. It is okay to have these thoughts. It’s okay to think about killing people, so long as it stays in your head or in a fictional space where it belongs. Writing any character who fights is, on some level, crossing over into the realm of questionable morality.

Violence creates uncomfortable questions that we have to ask, both about ourselves and the human condition in general. They don’t come with easy answers. Trust me. Some of the greatest philosophers in human history have mulled over these questions and failed to find satisfactory answers.

Not being able to answer them is okay.

And not running away from those questions will make you a better writer. Lots of characters are going to ask them and the answers will be different each time, they may even differ from the ones you found for yourself.

At the end of the day, violence is about causing pain to someone else. It’s about harming them. You can justify it to yourself. You can understand the situation. You can review it over and over again. But, at the end of the day, that’s what it is.

Accepting that is probably the first step to writing really good fight scenes.


In continuation to your last answer: Are there are ways to incapacitate someone to the point where tying them up isn’t the more efficient option?

Break them. Their arms. Their legs. Their hands. Whatever else they’re using that you don’t want them to use, like their jaw to keep them from talking. Their spine. Paralyze them.

It will probably do more permanent damage and will be difficult to move them if you have to, but you can cripple them for life.

Break them.

That is an option.

The guy with the fractured or snapped knee cannot chase you. The guy with the broken jaw can’t yell for his buddies. They may be able to swing their arm, but they can’t use it if it’s broken. You damage them to the point where they are no longer capable of fighting back.

Or… drug them.

However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Drugs affect people in different ways, the amount you need is based on their height, their weight, their body, and their susceptibility to it in the first place which is very difficult to judge if you don’t have access to their medical history. You gas a room and even if it takes out like 90% of them, you still have to stay alert for that 10% where it didn’t quite take.

Drugs are the other cheat which end up in fiction a lot as the easy way out. They don’t work as advertised. They are not any more consistent than anything else. It’s a situation where the amount you need to put one of the guys to sleep is just going to flat out kill the one next to him. There is no one size fits all dosage.

And you have to keep dosing them consistently at regular intervals or it will wear off. You have to come back and check to make sure they didn’t come to. And you should probably tie them up anyway, just in case.

Just to be clear, your choices are:

Cripple them for life.

Kill them.

Tie them up.

Run away.

Find a way to deescalate the situation.

Using your own body as the lock up point like in a hold or a throw or just sitting on them still counts as tying them up. The downside to that is you have to keep holding onto them or let them go. This is why breaking them is better if you need to exit a situation because they cannot pursue.

Lastly: superpowers. (Which will technically count toward “tying them up” 9/10.)

Introducing fantasy elements will change the game some, but doesn’t change the fact that a violent altercation between two people or more is about deciding “me or them”.

Any mook your character leaves alive is one that can come back at them later, even if they’ve tied them up. They can pass on information about them to their friends. They can holler for the guards. They can come after you while your back is turned because you thought they were incapacitated, but they really weren’t or only passed out for three seconds. Or your characters will run into them again later with more of their friends. Thought two mooks were bad? Try eight? Try fourteen and they turned on the gun turrets.

Depending on what they have access to they can really ruin your day.

It’s an interesting character choice.

Do they leave these guys alive knowing that they can screw them over later? Are they in a position where they can afford that possibility? What are their feelings on this subject? How does that conflict with other characters in the narrative?

This is the problem. Your characters choices actually have consequences outside of the fight, outside of their relationship with these very specific characters. While that can go on to become “a moral lesson” about the importance of kindness and pacifism, it can easy go the other direction.

Which is the chance you take.

Media tries to use the K.O. as a substitute for death. There is no substitute for death. Only dead men tell no tales. (And even then, they still do. It just takes longer.)

Fighting to subdue takes longer and it is more difficult that fighting to kill.

There is actually nothing more efficient in a fight than killing.

The question is not what is “most efficient”. It’s is killing really the best solution to this problem? Is it something your character or characters can stomach? Where do they draw the line? Is there a line? Does it line up with their goal?

Death can be just as detrimental to the overall goal as leaving the mook tied up.

You live in the uncertainty of the right choice. All your characters can do is make choices in accordance with what they believe and then live with the consequences. There will always be consequences. However, the question is: did they achieve their goals along the way?

Once your character chooses to engage in violent action, they are closing off alternate options and are signing up for not only the possibility of death but the likelihood. Violence is about hurting people, once your character chooses to engage then they’ve moved away from the options that lead to no one getting hurt or the vast majority of people surviving. If you don’t want to hurt anyone, then don’t fight. Really. There are always other options, even in your fiction and they are actually worth considering. The presentation that death is the worst thing that can happen to someone in regards to violence and that anything else that happens, so long as they remain alive, is… really screwed up, frankly.

Remember, knee capping some poor asshole is crueler than just flat out killing them. There are a lot of ways to inflict violence on someone that actually makes death the kinder option.

Plus, violence often creates as many problems as it solves.

Avoidance and death are both more efficient than subdual. Even if you incapacitate someone with a taser, you still have to tie them up.

That’s the problem.

They will become a problem. You have to eventually let them go. Or someone else will. (Or kill them.)

Hard choices.


If a character is grabbed in a “bear hug” from the front or back, how can they break free or fight back?

The good news is that the “bear hug” is one of the most common grabs and most self-defense courses will teach you how to break free from it because it’s surprisingly easy in concept once you know how. It’s like the one handed wrist grab, there are a lot of ways to do it.

As always, this is purely conceptual. If you actually want to learn any of what I describe in this post, then always seek out actual real world training from someone in your area.

For those that don’t know, the bear hug is when someone wraps both their arms around your body in a hug that pins your arms to your sides. Essentially, they use their body to trap you. Doing so traps their arms too, though. When you’re looking at it in an actual fight context, this normally means you’re dealing with multiple opponents. In a self defense context, it can run the gamut. You could very easily end up trapped in a bear hug by someone trying to kiss you when you don’t want to be. So, it’s not automatically linked to violent situations. It’s a useful method of intimidation used usually by someone larger to control, it’s easy to to do so it’s common, and because it’s intimidating it is effective.

When you’re trapped in a bear hug, most of the normal avenues of attack that someone who has never been trained to deal with the situation usually doesn’t think of. It’s our first instinct to actually use our hands rather than any other other part of the body, and those usually take the shape of fairly wide swings (less power, but feels powerful). So, the initial natural human reaction is going to be to flail and panic. Being trapped is terrifying, feeling like you’re helpless or powerless often causes the mind to shut down or give up. This is where the bear hug itself is actually most dangerous because panic means you don’t think critically and if you can’t think then you can’t observe your surroundings or determine a plan of attack then you can’t actually fight.

This is why mentality and your character’s mental state is very important to combat. Your ability to control your mental state is a weapon in and of itself, which is why I keep saying that training will change your character on a fundamental level.

A lot of techniques used in combat attack on two levels, the physical and the mental. They are there to exploit the way the body functions and the way the mind thinks. Which is why the ‘natural instinct’ some writers love so much as an excuse doesn’t work at all when dealing with normal trained humans. Whether or not their naturally inclined toward fighting is immaterial in regards to anything other than a character level and a willingness to learn. It may help when performing the unexpected against school yard bullies who can’t adapt to change, but not the more sophisticated ones. Human behavior is fairly easy to track, adapt to, and exploit once you’ve been at it for a while. Other than that, nobody is gonna just bust out a perfect roundhouse on natural instinct. There’s nothing natural about trained combat techniques.

This is why the bear hug is so common. It’s easy and it’s effective.

Thrashing doesn’t usually work (unless their grab is really weak). You can’t punch or elbow because the trapped arms mean no leverage, no chamber, no chamber means no arm movement, no arm movement means no punch. So, the question is: what’s left?

The answer: every other part of your body.

Breaking a bear hug is about convincing your opponent to let go usually by causing them pain. (Though persuasive conversation is not out. I know you’re asking for violent solutions, but peaceful solutions are always an option if your character can get them to work.)

Remember, you’re not trapped in here with them. They’re trapped in here with you.

So, let’s go over these in sequence and since there are many, many ways to do this, I’m absolutely sure that I won’t get anywhere close to listing them all. You also don’t have to pick one, most of these are complimentary. They’ll work if you do several of them.

Forward Facing:

The forward facing bear hug is when you’re trapped while facing them, so your nose and their nose are pretty close. Maybe they’re grinning down like a loon. The easy solution to that is the headbutt. So forehead right to their face. Biting is also an option. Kick them in the shin.

The shin sounds funny, but unless they’re wearing heavy work boots, leather boots, biker boots, or any kind of shin protection then it’s actually a very good target. It doesn’t cause much damage, but any place on your body with exposed bone or places where muscles are thin like your funny bone is direct access to a lot of nerves. Hit it and it hurts like a mother.

It’s not as good as hitting the nose because a broken/swelling/swollen nose impacts their ability to see, (tears, the nose gets larger, blood in the mouth, all very scary) but it works.

The point is to cause pain as quickly as possible. The goal is to get the arms to let go so you can free your hands. Holding onto someone requires that you keep thinking about it and focusing on that. Pain is distracting. When you damage the face anywhere, the hands will automatically start to rise to defend it. Natural instinct.

Once their hands no longer around you then you are free. Run or fight, you’re choice.

From Behind:

Again, there are a lot of ways to break free from this and the same principles apply. I should say that most of these come with corresponding holds/locks/grabs/attacks, but I’m not going to go over them because we’d be here all day. Also, I really don’t want anyone getting in the habit of thinking there’s only one way. A major problem in recreational martial arts self-defense beyond just the problems in writing is that you get locked into repetitive actions or single techniques because there’s not enough freedom to be spontaneous. This is for safety reasons, but it also hampers growth.

What I want you as writers to really think about when looking at your scenes is “what does my character do next?” and not assume there’s a right answer to this question. Because this is all in your imagination, you’re not in a situation where you could be hurting someone for real. Think about it.

What your character does once they’re free can tell you a lot about who they are.


Go limp, forcing them to hold the whole of your dead weight. They go from holding 30 something or less to a hundred or more. Boom.

Drive the heel into their shin. The heel works even better than your toes.

Lean forward against the hands, then spring back driving the back of the head into their unprotected face.

Clasping both hands together in front of you, bring them up above your head. This leverages against their grip, forcing their hands to pop open. Step sideways, drive elbow into gut.

From Behind, if they aren’t trapping the arms:

Lift hands to face, grab skull, put thumbs against the eyes.

All the rest still work.

I know there are others, I just don’t remember them.

Remember, this blog and any internet information/videos are not a substitute for real training. If you are interested in learning self-defense or practicing martial arts, seek out training from a qualified professional in your area.

Please use whatever information you find here responsibly.


Simultaneous Action, Writing 1vX combat

“But no, not Velociraptor. You stare at him, and he just
stares right back. And that’s when the attack comes. Not from the front,
but from the side, from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were
there. Because Velociraptor’s a pack hunter, you see, he uses
coordinated attack patterns and he is out in force today.” – Doctor Alan
Grant, Jurassic Park

You may think that using a
quote from Jurassic Park about raptors to discuss writing when fighting
groups of individuals is strange. However, for all the talk of lone
wolves, humans are pack animals. They are very capable of working
together, even those who have never been trained, to overwhelm through
even haphazardly coordinated action. The better the group of opponents
are, the more practice they have at working together, then the more
dangerous they will be.

There isn’t a “level limit” like in video
games in real combat, and there really isn’t for dealing with groups of
enemies. In movies and television (which follows into books and other
media, then vice versa), we fall prey to the trait of the “most badass
stands alone”. A single individual facing multiple people is
challenging, even when those enemies don’t know anything about fighting.
bring: Communication, coordination, tactics, strategy, and the ability
to limit movement. They come together, use each other as distractions,
circle, and come at angles that you can’t defend yourself well from. It
gets worse when they know the terrain and can use the environment to
their advantage.

Much like fighting groups in real life, writing
groups is actually a very difficult endeavor because of those qualities.
It’s probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing fight
sequences and the easiest to botch. Whether you’re writing
semi-realistic fiction or combat with magical/super powered elements,
there are some things that are commonly forgotten.

The action is fast, it comes in multiples, and is nearly simultaneous. Take this example below:

reappeared, lunging toward her. Her feet blurred on the on the ground,
magic pumping through her legs. Both blades drawn back, she swung in

Eirwen flicked her sword up, catching Dirthara’s first strike
along the edge of her blade. She knocked it away. The deadened trails
of their energy filtered through her. The second blow would come toward
her ribs. No.

This was wrong.


Blade tip rotating, she flung Dirthara’s second blade up and threw herself sideways.

spun past her. Blades wheeling in a dizzying spiral around his body, he
shot through Dirthara. Black tendrils dripped from their edges as a
dark shadow lengthened out across the stone behind him.

Dirthara straightened. Holding her blades out before her, one high
beside her cheek and the other low before her chest, she resettled into a
deep stance. The right foot extended, it pointed directly toward
Eirwen. The back lifted onto the ball, turned on a slight angle.

Revas also stood. The blades in his hands parallel to the ground. His
head swung. Blonde hair drifting across his forehead, the long nose of
his profile clear and distinct under the moon’s light. The curving
tendrils of his tattoos shone brightly on his cheek as a single,
visible, blue eye narrowed.

Behind them, Fals remained motionless.

“Well,” Eirwen muttered. I can’t afford to be defensive. She
stepped back, turning sideways as she leaned on her rear leg. Left hand
secure on her hilt and the right on the pommel, she lifted it until the
blade until it was nearly perpendicular to her cheek. And I can’t afford to be offensive. “This will be tricky.”

wrote this while messing around with more Anime-esque combat and it’s
not really accurate for conventional confrontations, but this is
essentially the principle. Attacks are coordinated, enemies will circle
if they can and they’ll come from multiple angles. If you’re choosing to
have the character stand in fight, then the one in the 1vX is going to
be primarily on the defensive. They’ll be ducking and dodging, blocking
and pushing, trying to control their terrain, keep all their enemies in
front of them. It’s a lot like juggling, they’ve got to keep all the
balls in the air or they’re dead.

This means that you as the
writer can’t focus on any single opponent, but you can’t afford to waste
time either. One of the biggest failures of a 1vX scene is queuing like
you see stuntmen do in the movies. The author will focus all their
attention on one opponent or they’ll assume that a single hit will be
enough to take someone out. It won’t.

It’s true that you want to
take out the X number of opponents very quickly, but you can’t just
stand around trading blows. You must keep the defending character
moving. A character can only afford a few hits at a time, they have to
create their own openings through delaying tactics and by forcing their
opponents to fight each other.

The ground shook
beneath her feet. Fals brought the hammer down, shattering the stone
ahead of him into a few hundred tiny pieces. Some fell into the gaping
hole. Others floated up, caught in the pull of Myrian’ magic.

Shit! He’s bringing this platform down.

jumped back, letting Dirthara sail past her. Her body twisting in time
to catch the edge of Revas’ spinning blades with her sword, she levered
hers up and slid out of the way in a spray of sparks. Heel skidding
across the rock as she spun out.

Foot catching on the stone,
Revas’ ankle rotated about, and his whole body whirled back. Racing
toward her with stomach nearly parallel to the ground, he came in low.
The tip of his left blade swung toward her middle.

She shot
forward and, instead of letting their blades meet, passed through his
body. Landing behind him, she let her gaze rise to the stones ripping up
out of the ground. Dirthara’s energy was on a rapid approach from her
right. Felas’ hammer was coming down again. That one. Another hit and the whole platform would fall.

her sword, Eirwen raced across the fracturing ground. Her index and
middle fingers flicked down. Magic flooded them. Cutting between the
rising shards, hopping off the stones that gave way beneath her feet,
she leaped over the gap protecting Fals with the other two hot on her
Tethers from her mind flung out, spearing down through Myrian’
control to hook into his brain. She seized them with mental fingers and
hauled him up short.


Eirwen landed, crouched
atop his war hammer. It hovered just centimeters off the ground, utterly
still. Her eyes snapped up just in time to see his widen. A faint smile
curved her lips and she launched upward. Palm slamming down on his
helmet, she twisted over his head. Magic flowed down off her fingers,
embedding itself on the inscribed runes in his armor. She hit the ground
on the other side and cranked her knee to her chest, slamming her foot
into the small of his back.

“Sorry, friend,” she said. “This is where you get off.”

Fals stumbled forward, head turning in time for her to register his surprise.
Her fingers flicked out, eyes narrowing as the magic she’d left behind sank into the runes. Three, two… Her smile widened.

His armor buckled.


outward in a dizzying blast of blue, Fals cried out. As fire licked up
his body, his voice rose to an eerie scream. The magic ate away at his
skin, cracking down his exposed arms, his eyes burning with white
flames. His hammer fell to the loose ground and the rock beneath his
feet gave way.
Fals dropped, vanishing from sight as he plummeted toward the icy mountains below.

leaped over him. Legs a blur, she landed on a surviving piece of the
platform and flung herself forward with a maddened scream. Wicked
daggers gleamed in the moon’s red light.

Eirwen brought her hands up, blue rippling over her shoulders.

Revas lunged from the shadows behind her, winged blades whirling toward her spine in another deadly spiral.

The ground rolled and rocked beneath Eirwen’s feet, disappearing as quickly as Dirthara advanced.

We’re going down.

Focusing on one of the larger floating pieces of stone overhead, Eirwen closed her eyes.

Revas spun through her ghostly shape, leaving a cold shiver as he went.

With a sharp inhale, she disappeared as the ground fell away beneath her.

her feet dropped lightly onto a much smaller piece of rock. Large
enough for one. A hot burn spiked her center. Hand clenching over her
chest, she dropped to her knees. Can’t expect that to work too many more times.

sank into her lower lip and she bit down, blood welling on her lower
lip. Swallowing, she sat up. Her fist tightened on her chest. She let it
go, forcing the pain to recede.

Below, the first of Myrian’
platforms crumbled. Great pieces of granite tumbling down to crash into
the distant, smoking ground. Other pieces, more structurally sound
pieces, were rising. On them, Dirthara and Revas stood. Their eyes
locked on her.

Well, she sighed, left hand settling on her sword hilt. It’s not like I expected that to stop them.

the battlefield restructured itself. New platforms populated the air,
held together by winding silver staircases. Among them, Myrian’ disk had
grown wider as he ripped more and more pieces of the temple out of the
ground below.

It’d be an easier to fight if she managed to land on any of them.
That’s quite a long way up, though.

short range teleportation, even the advanced form she’d recovered
through her memories was not enough to cover such a distance.

I’ll have to outrun them.

Dirthara and Revas had begun to move. Leaping from one floating rock to
the next as they made their way toward her position.

The chances of that? Unlikely.

Eirwen smiled and freed her sword from its sheath.

Only one path left, I suppose.

fire rippled along its edges, tiny runes lighting beneath the
cross-guard as they raced down the length of the blade. Her right hand
extended out and the rune embedded in her palm crackled. A thin circle
of green energy appeared beneath her fingers. It spun, rotating around
and around as heat simmered on her skin.

She leaned off the edge, focusing the primary portion of her magic into her feet.

Then, Eirwen flung the chakram down and dove after it.

So, how do you do it?

a 1vX is like juggling, you have to bounce between characters. You
can’t have the character stop and duke it out with one guy and ignore
everyone else.  They have enough time to land one hit, which is unlikely
to be permanent, and continue to fight so they can create openings.
Even when fighting with a plan to kill, this is difficult because
multiple enemies working in tandem have way more options than a single
character working alone.

It’s a race against time.

combat goes on, we get more tired and, as we get more tired, we begin
to make mistakes. You’re at your best when you’re fresh. The more energy
that gets expended now means that less will be on the table for later.
The defending character can’t expend too much energy on any one person
because it means they won’t have that energy for the others that are
still fresh. A group can share the burden of the expended energy, an
individual can’t.

1vX group combat is interesting because it
forces the character to start making new and different choices,
immediate choices based on their survival. If there’s yet another enemy
waiting in the wings, then those choices get even harder. The character
must finish them or provide themselves with some means of escape before
they become too exhausted.

They must be flawless. Every hit they
take is dangerous, because all openings in the defense will be
exploited. Every attack they make when they open up their defense must
count (and it might not), they must pick their targets carefully, and
constantly remain on the move or find a more easily defensible position
so that they’re harder to get to.

Control the field.

character who lets multiple enemies do their thing in a 1vX is lost.
Being surrounded means having portions of your body that are left open.
You can’t really just stand and fight.

Prioritize the enemies.

character has to pick their targets for who they’re going after first.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but they need to start looking for where
the threat is and go after those. The enemy which gets prioritized may
not be the most dangerous. Even if they’re just faceless mooks, when it
comes to creating a clear picture it’s easier if you name them. They
don’t have to be their usual names: “the big guy”, “the short one”, “the
blonde with blue eyes”, “the guy with nice teeth”, “Frizzy hair”,
“Seahawk’s jersey”, etc.

In the above example, Eirwen prioritizes
Fals because he’s attacking the terrain while the other two distract
her. If she stopped to finish her fight Revas and Dirthara, then she
wouldn’t be able to control when the platform went down. Fals was the
least dangerous of the three overall, but the most dangerous in the
moment. By getting rid of him, she could focus on the other two.

Emphasize teamwork.

you’re writing combatants who are supposed to be good at what they do,
then they need to be using teamwork. Dirthara and Revas come one right
after the other, nearly simultaneously, while Fals focuses on bringing
the platform down. They’re working together as a distraction to keep
Eirwen off balance (if they kill her in the meantime, it’s all good)
while Fals destroys the ground they’re on so they all tumble to their

Punish them for using the same tactic over and over.

up the routine. You want to create an adaptive environment, one where
the enemy observes and responds to what a character is doing while their
fighting. Counters are a huge deal in combat. The main way they’re
developed is by witnessing how a technique works, then working out a
means to disrupt or stop it. If your character is using a “signature”
move, it won’t be signature for very long. Besides, forcing a character
to change their battle tactics when they’ve gotten too comfortable is an
excellent exercise for the writer who has also gotten too comfortable.

you start thinking a character is unbeatable, then change the routine.
You don’t need MOAR POWER, but what you do need is creativity and
characters that are focused on problem solving. See one technique enough
times and the game starts to change, the enemy starts figuring the
character out. Change or die.


We’ve talked about a single individual combating groups before:

Fight Scene Strategies: the Individual versus the Group

Just a small question- what are the types of ways someone can fall unconscious whilst in a fight- apart from the obvious whack to the head? And for how long? I try to resolve physical fights in my writing without one person falling unconscious, but a lot of the time the only way they can end is someone going down. Not sure if you’ve already answered something similar to this- a link to anything will be more than enough. Thanks in advance!

The two big ones are asphyxiation and head injury, so basically strangulation or a head blow. The other one is cutting off blood flow to the brain, which happens in some chokeholds via the carotid artery rather than going after the windpipe. It’s worth pointing out that the head blow doesn’t have to come from another person. You can be knocked out by falling into a wall or furniture (or having your head rammed into a wall). Some chokes take much longer than others.

Also, blood loss.

All three are incredibly dangerous. And, again, if they’re out for more than a few seconds that’s a really, really bad sign. If your characters are leaving another character passed out on the sidewalk, Passing out is also not necessarily a sign someone will stop, know when to stop, or realize they should. Adrenaline can cause us to misjudge how much pressure we’re applying or miscount how much time has gone by and it’s not uncommon for the person to be continue to be hit after they’ve gone limp because the other party is just so wound up. This isn’t exactly you’re question, but combat is very stressful, the adrenaline is pumping, they’re probably angry, and more than a little scared. This is the other major reason for why a character fainting in combat is bad.

They have no means of defending themselves and if they’re abandoned, then there are no guarantees for what happens to them. They can also fall wrong, break a bone, and even die if there’s no one to catch them. A lot of characters in novels just go clattering to the concrete, but have you ever fallen on concrete? Now, imagine falling without your body having any ability to compensate.

Finally, people don’t normally pass out from just being punched in the face once,
usually it takes multiple hits or the other person is targeting
specific places on the head like the back of the jaw (near the ear,
where the lower jaw separates from the upper part of the head) or the
temple. The back of the head also, the bone is much weaker there. Most
people are pretty durable, most of the time anyway.

Half the assumption that goes into a lot of these scenarios is “well, my character is a good person so it’s okay”. Or the writer is looking for an easy way out of the situation that doesn’t require anyone feeling bad. Here’s the thing: fights can end with no one knocked out or dead. People do give up or decide it’s no longer worth it. Or they’re injured to the point where they can’t continue and give up. Or they just fight to a point where they can escape and they run.

It’s a bit messy.

However, if you’re running into situations where it feels like the only way a scene can end is if someone goes down then you may want to step back and consider things like objectives versus physical exhaustion. Because we’re working within a fictional environment, concepts like time and the intense physical activity of combat become optional (though they shouldn’t be). There is no real clock, so five minutes can easily translate into twenty episodes if one isn’t paying attention.

Stop and consider the objectives of the combatants in question. If their goal is to kill each other, then one or the other is most likely to succeed. If their goals differ though, say one wants to kill the other while the other wants to stop a bomb then the fight will look very different. The person who wants to stop the bomb just needs to put distance between themselves and their attacker, they need to keep moving and find a way to ensure they don’t. They could end the fight by slamming a door in the other person’s face or on their hand. All they have to do is ensure the fight can’t continue and there are great many ways to do that which don’t involve punching someone else in the face.

Oftentimes, we get into a nasty headspace born of machismo and action movies which says a real action hero will stop and deal with all the problems in front of them “like a man” (or a woman). You don’t have to do that though. These characters are no lesser in their badassery by prioritizing what is important. Your character doesn’t need to knock out every person in a building just to make off with one well-guarded prisoner. Especially since that scenario relies on a magical logic in which people are stupid and no one is capable of communication.

The human desire for survival is a powerful thing and if you manage to get yourself into a headspace of “if this continues, I really will die and what does that mean for what I want” when you’re writing then a lot of options open up.

Remember: exhaustion. Apply the eight move rule to yourself. You have eight moves before your human characters are utterly exhausted and cannot continue. Limit the time you have. Apply that limit to their objectives. How does it line up with their overall goals? The reasons behind each fight are important and govern how they play out.

Everyone has a limit. The only way a character can go on forever is if you let them. Apply that hard line to your characters and they may begin to behave in new and interesting ways.


Would a strong hit to the spine kill someone if they got hit from behind? I’ve been wondering because I have a character who sneaks up from behind someone with a bat and knocks them in their lower back.

A hit like that is, at it’s best case and without a freak accident, most likely going to paralyze them (or just damage the spine). The paralysis will be from the waist down, what gets paralyzed and how long it’s paralyzed for will depend on the type of damage involved to the spine itself. I don’t know enough about the spine to make an educated guess on that. However, usually what gets affected in the body is whatever is below the point of the injury. The spine is very complicated and very well protected in terms of what injuries to it have a chance of killing you. (The Hollywood neck snap lies to you, it’s not that easy without some kind of super strength.) Basically, if you want to kill someone via a spinal injury, you’ve got to aim for the neck or the base of the skull where it connects and even then there’s no guarantee.

Here’s the Mayo Clinic page on spinal injuries.

What is more likely to kill them is a blow to either side of the lower back which crushes a kidney. This will cause internal hemorrhaging where they bleed out over the course of several days before finally succumbing. You’re more likely to kill someone with a bat by causing some serious blunt force trauma on a full swing.

The big thing to remember with the bat is that:

1) It’s an improvised weapon.

It works very well as one and it can do a great deal of damage, but it doesn’t work precisely in the same way as a club. Bats are weighted so that it’s all in the tip and in a traditional that’s where all the force is. You connect with the end to hit the ball. Using any other part of the bat as a weapon is difficult for this reason, because all the force is in the tip and trying to use another portion involves fighting inertia.

2) It telegraphs.

The full swing with a bat is a huge windup. It’s huge and compared to other kind of attacks, it’s not very quick. With all the force in the tip, you need to connect with the tip on that swing. Which means that to hit the lower back for a stealth attack, they need to stand far enough off-center so they can hit (about the length of the bat), lift the bat (big motion), turn back on a forty-five degree angle (not so big, but if they haven’t noticed something is off yet, they probably will), and swing (big motion). If the other person manages to avoid such a big motion by getting out of the way, then you’re up a creek because it’s much harder to reverse course and you’re left entirely open.

You can bring it above the head and swing it down, but that’s also a very big motion. That’s more likely to connect with the upper back/shoulders or head.

The last way to do it is to hold the base with one hand and grab the bat halfway up with the other. This halves the amount of force the bat can bring to bear in it’s swing, but allows form much finer control with a smaller motion and you can use it more ways. You can drive the tip into the other person like a battering ram or clock them with it. Basically, it’s less force but more options and more likely to hit.

Basically, that’s it.


If I have a character who wants to deliver a disabling but not lethal blow, would she be able to realistically use the butt of her battle axe handle or the broad side of the blades to knock a man out? To clarify, she’s not using it like a club, she’s using it like a battering ram against the side of his head while he’s kneeling over her comrade, not paying attention to her.

A protip for disabling blows is that any weapon strike toward the head is intended to be lethal. Knocking someone out is causing them brain damage, it’s hitting them hard enough so that they’re brain goes “nope! I’m not working anymore!” and you can deliver more pinpoint directed force by driving a weapon sideways into someone’s head than you can by swinging it. The ends of most weapons in the middle ages like the pommel of a sword or the end of the shaft in a battle axe were designed so they could be used as weapons. Even the flat of a blade can be dangerous, though less so than the others. She’d either be hitting them in the cheek, the jaw, or the temple.

This opponent on the field of battle is also, more than likely, going to be wearing a helmet. So, even then, it’s not really going to work.

Frankly, unless there’s a specific reason not to kill this person then it’s best to just finish it. Either that or stab them so they can’t follow and pray. If you’re going to write characters that fight, especially characters who use weapons, it’s best to get used to the idea that they’re going to kill people.

Disabling doesn’t work like it does in the movies where a single blow to the head knocks someone out and it’s all good. It’s slightly more involved. Disabling blows will be striking the hands, the wrists, or the other joints like the knees and shoulders as a means of stopping the other person from hitting back. With the exposed body, you can also strike bone and muscle with a blunt weapon to stun it and make moving painful. Pain is a decent motivator (which doesn’t always work) to making someone else stop. The success tends to depend on the person who is on the receiving end. They’re the ones who actually decide how far the person trying to disable them has to push, and they can hurt themselves more than necessary by refusing to give in after they’ve been secured.

Unless you’re trying to actually kill your enemy, you don’t move to any of the serious vulnerable points. The key to understanding disabling as a fighting style is that the goal is to keep your opponent awake and conscious, you’re just starting on the outside of the body and working your way inward. This is going to be much more difficult if they’re in armor.

If you’ve hit someone hard enough in the head that they’ve blacked out, then you’re running the risk of them never waking up again. The risk of them actually dying goes through the roof if they’re unconscious for more than a few seconds. Again, this is brain damage. It isn’t “and then, sleep”. Even if they do manage to luck out, we get into other problems that aren’t solved with a knockout like what happens to them next. The other characters leaving them unconscious on the battlefield is under the assumption that they’ll be fine, but without any guarantee. There’s no guarantee no one else will kill them. No guarantee they’ll stay down long enough for the characters to get away.

If the character wants to disable this other character then they have to either damage them so they can’t fight back or chase them if they’re planning to run. If they’re planning to stick around, then they need to take them prisoner.

The easiest way to do this if the other person doesn’t see them coming may be to simply press the tip or edge of their blade against some exposed portion of the enemy’s throat while standing behind/beside them. Of course, if they’re side isn’t in control of the battle then they’re in a stalemate that has an out. If they’re not, then they’re in a stalemate that will probably lead to their eventual death or capture.

They can wound them or cripple, which will vary in difficulty. It does count as disabling and will be quicker than trying to do it without leaving a permanent injury. However, this won’t stop them from yelling or trying to attract attention from their friends. It also won’t stop them from screaming. It also doesn’t guarantee that they won’t die. Whether that death comes from blood loss, infection, or another less scrupulous warrior finishing them off after our heroes have gone on their way. Even if they are killed, they may not die immediately. Death can take awhile.

This is where I say that disabling or subduing someone else in a way that doesn’t harm them takes time. It takes a great deal more time and effort than simply killing them. It’s the kind of time a lot of characters just don’t have. A lot of violence is risk assessment and the weighing choices. Characters accept they can’t control everything, they’re in a race against time where they have to start making hard choices about what they need to do rather than what they’d prefer to do. They’re making decisions based on the information they have available.

Depending on the surrounding situation and their understanding of it, this character may be asked to choose between the life of their comrade and the life of the enemy who is kneeling/standing over them.

They can knock them over and take them prisoner, but if they have to run then they’ve got to run with them or leave them to tell their superiors where they’ve gone. If they’re friend is wounded, then they’re trying to save/carry their wounded friend while holding this prisoner hostage as they attempt to run.

In fiction, the knockout has become a sort of cheap way out so characters can avoid consequences or guilt over causing a death. None of this means you can’t do it, but it’s worth thinking about alternate avenues that are ultimately more interesting and put more stress on the characters in question. At it’s heart, violence in fiction is about consequences and how a character deals with them is a defining aspect of who they are. Your character could knock this guy out on the assumption that he’ll survive, only to learn later that he died.

How would they deal with that?

Some people might say it’s cheesy, but accidentally killing someone is real and it happens. Unintended consequences are a huge part of violence confrontations and are most often forgotten unless the writer is looking to teach the audience “a lesson”. However, it’s worthwhile to think about. Especially if you’re dealing with younger characters or those new to violence. Older/more experienced characters look for ways to mitigate them. There are answers to how they handle it which go beyond the breakdown or the angst-ridden cliches.

I’m not going to ask why this warrior is doing something as risky as stopping and kneeling if they’re still in the middle of a battle. That is a very exposed position. If they’re planning on actually killing them, they’ll stay on their feet as it’s more defensible and check their face (to see if they’re worth money) then cut their throat with the tip of their blade. You don’t need to be leaning over to do that. (And if that’s the case, the character probably won’t get to them in time.)

Otherwise the character is attacking someone… who may be friendly. Possibly might be, causing them brain damage is probably a bad idea.


can you speak a little as to the use of kiai in martial arts? I see a lot of people, usually not trained in Asian styles, who just refer to them as “silly shouting noises” or something similar, and it kind of bugs me but I don’t know anything about it myself.

I think we’ve talked about it before. The kiai (sort of) translates to “Empowering Shout” in English, which is actually a great definition of what it does, and it serves several functions within training. One of the strengths of many styles throughout Asia, but especially the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ones is the strength of tradition. One of the downsides can be a lack of explanation on why techniques are taught and the purpose they serve. This obviously comes with the caveat that it’s entirely dependent on both a master’s way of teaching and the practices of the school.

1) The kiai is a breathing exercise. It’s first function is to teach a student how to breathe properly. Breathing is one of the most important aspects of martial arts training and not just because it’s necessary to have a steady supply of oxygen when engaging in activities involving high cardio. It’s part of learning to synchronize yourself with your body and to synchronize each part of your body into a whole. This is one of the few aspects of martial arts that you can test for yourself. Like with many other sports, as well as singing and dancing, you learn to breathe with your diaphragm. So, when you inhale this tightens up your stomach and abdominal muscles. When you exhale, you can tighten your stomach muscles further by squeezing all excess air from your stomach.

If you stand with your feet apart, put your hands on your stomach, inhale using your diaphram, and then make a hard exhale like a “HA!”. You’ll feel your body curve slightly inward as your stomach tightens again.

Why is this important?

It teaches you to tighten your muscles on command naturally so that over time it becomes second nature. When either attacking or defending, you’ll need to be able to tighten your muscles very quickly. You can’t stay tensed up all the time because it slows you down. Try walking around with your muscles all tensed up, you waddle like a turtle. You need to be fluid, loose and then hard, the kiai becomes the signal where you take that “HA!” exhalation and do it at the full extension the strike, locking up your body for that split second to put the entire force of the blow into a pad or someone else.

Ridding your body of air, also helps you tense. Tensing helps mitigate the damage we take hits from hits. It’s still going to hurt, of course, but would you rather punch a stomach that’s loosey goosey or a stomach that’s hard as a rock? One of the common (and real) examples for training this at higher levels is using the kiai in combination with a training partner. Your training partner practices their roundhouse kick or punch into your stomach, while you practice the kiai or the yell. This teaches one student control outgoing after they understand the technique (because they don’t want to hurt their partner) and the other learns how to time their breathing in association with being hit.

You inhale, the air comes back, and you’re loose again.

You need to learn when and how, breathing is the first step because when done properly it will tense your muscles naturally for you. It also adds to your defense. The yelling aspect is helpful in the exercise because yelling is a natural hard exhalation, one you don’t have to think about.

Breath is central to all martial arts, even though they don’t approach the subject the same way or use the same techniques.

2) It helps teach timing. We discussed timing a little above with the tensing of muscles and synchronizing your body. But many martial artists use breathing to create the tempo of their movement, the inhalation and exhalation mirror the body’s movement from the beginning movements to the tensing up. We inhale at the beginning and then we exhale at the end. Even without the kiai, you’ll often hear martial artists making a hissing noise when they perform moves. The hissing is a slow release of breath. Again, emphasizing our control over our breathing and control over our bodies.

In the early stages of training, breathing can be very difficult for new students. The kiai acts as an early guiding point that allows a new student to immediately tell if they’ve timed their breathing right with their strike. They learn the movement of the strike, then they learn to apply the kiai to the strike, then they do the two together while in combination with other movements when put together into a kata or a form.

3) It pumps you up. Yelling is very freeing. It feels good and it builds confidence. It reminds you that you are strong, powerful. Remember, kiai is essentially an “empowering shout”. Beyond all the other benefits, yelling feels good and gives you a point onto which to focus. It clears away worries, anxiety, and nervousness. It clears your mind.

4) It can intimidate the other guy. It may not seem like it if your only experience with a kiai is through a television screen, but someone screaming in your face is actually very intimidating. If someone is knocking the kiai but talking up the berserker, they may want to rethink their stance.

You’re going to be asked to do a lot of things when you’re training in martial arts that may feel silly and be embarrassing. Not just because of failure or messing up, but because you don’t know the purpose of them yet. It doesn’t mean that they’re not worth learning. Silliness and embarrassment are part of life. The kiai, the kihap, and other similar vocalizations are a core aspect of many martial arts beyond the continent of Asia.

The downsides: If you’re good enough, you can track when someone’s about to strike based on changes in their breathing. The yelling is the obvious sign, but martial artists don’t actually need the yell to be effective. One of the most famous examples that has become a staple of cinema history and part of the American view of Asian martial arts are Bruce Lee’s vocalizations.

Bruce Lee covered his breathing tells with those noises, so his opponent couldn’t rely on listening for a shout to know when he was about to attack. It also sounded awkward and weird, which was the point. It’s intended to be confusing and unsettling, because the goal is to confuse and unsettle the person listening. If they’re unsettled and nervous then they are less likely to be offensive and more likely to make mistakes. It knocks them off their game. Psychological warfare is a valid tactic.

The more you know, right?