Tag Archives: knocked out

Q&A: Unarmed Knockout

Is there any relatively safe way to knock someone out with no resources but your hands? My character needs to knock this person out so they don’t run off, but he has nothing on him to do so. It’s necessary to the story that he be knocked out. Thank you!


We’ve gone over this, many times, before. There is no safe way to knock someone unconscious. By definition, you’re specifically attempting to damage their brain, with the goal of getting it to take a little vacation.

More than that, there aren’t even many reliable means to knock someone out. Blows to the head can, theoretically, work, but they can also, just as easily, piss off the person you’re attacking, without much ill effect.

Tranquilizers take ages to kick in, and are very difficult to dose. Too much, and you’ve got a corpse. Not enough, and you’ve got someone who’s groggy, but still ambulatory.

Choking is, in theory, the safest, but the fine line between unconscious and dead is still something you can’t spot intentionally. Choking is something that can be practiced in a safe environment, but using it in the field is incredibly finicky.

And, it gets better.

Strip away all the terminology and a concussion is just bruising on the brain itself. You get hit, your head gets jostled around, and your brain bounces off the inside of your skull. You may have been using that organ for something, and might understand why you don’t particularly want it getting directly injured. Either way, this will, absolutely, interfere with your ability to think, remember unimportant information like your name, or count the number of fingers some well meaning smartass is holding up. Still, probably won’t knock you out, though.

When you’re talking about knocking someone out, you’re really asking, “how can I directly assault their brain, without having to develop psychic powers?” Yeah, that’s never going to be safe. It turns out, getting the human brain to stop working, temporarily, is a lot like trying to get it to just flat out stop working in general, and it’s a crap shoot, which you’ll get.

Concussions are cumulative. This should be fairly obvious, when you actually think about it. If your brain has been pre-tenderized, it’s going to be more susceptible to future concussions, and the ones you receive will be more severe. This means someone who’s had a few before will be knocked unconscious or killed far more easily than someone with a relatively healthy brain. Even then, it’s not like there’s a stable baseline of, “you can hit your head this hard before it kills you.”

Knocking someone unconscious for more than a few seconds is very bad news. If you’re knocking someone out for more than a minute, there’s going to be irreparable brain damage. (The specific threshold is usually around 30 seconds, but for each unique brain, there’s equally unique catastrophic brain damage.) So, you’ve, “safely,” reduced someone to a vegetable. More than a few minutes and you’ve (probably), “safely,” killed them.

So, what do you actually do when you need to be somewhere else and someone is intent on getting you to stick around? Knock them off balance and run. Sucker punches to the stomach are a good option. If unexpected, they’ll usually wind the victim, and give you a good head start. Knees to the gut are another classic. One common variation is to knee the gut, and when they double over, knee them again in the face. Slamming a door in the face, or knocking them to the ground are also excellent options. Really, there are a lot of options. The goal is to simply create an opening and escape. You don’t need to knock someone unconscious to do that. You really don’t want to knock someone unconscious to do that.


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Hi I just read the post about knocking a friend out before they did something dangerous I was curious about your thought on a scene that is somewhat related to that but also different. Basically there is a group of bad guys in a burning building and the hero knocks out a fire fighter who enters the building, then brings them outside reasoning that they would safer out of the fight even with the risk of knocking them out.


So, this
is a follow up to this post, and it’s going to be a bit harsh. Hence, why I’m
answering it as an unattributed quote, instead of the actual ask.

As we’ve
said many times before, knocking someone out is a cheat. It’s an easy out, to
move characters around, without including any of the consequences that you’d
associate with attacking another character. Particularly a friendly character,
or one with plot armor. Also, there’s some other major problems in this

You have
characters burning a building. Okay, fine. You have your hero on the scene.
Again, that’s fine. If your character’s goal is to stop the antagonists, that
means they go where they’re needed. You have firefighters on the scene. Note
the plural. These guys travel in packs. They’re not the lone wolf type who will
rush into burning buildings alone. In most modern environments, this also means
the other first responders are going to be on the scene. That’s police and Emergency
Medical Services (EMS). So, the bad guys are here, the cops are here, the firefighters
and paramedics have arrived, and your character is bouncing around in the
middle. Still, this is fine, mostly.

But, this
is where problems start to catch up.

it may be different for firefighters (though, I doubt it), but with EMS, if the
situation you’ve been called into isn’t secure, you do not go in.

EMT certification
quizzes include questions like, “you arrive at a bar, the bartender tells you
someone was shot out back. The police aren’t here yet. What do you do?” If you
answer with anything other than, “wait
for the police to arrive and secure the scene,” you’re done. Out. You failed
the test with one question.

In the
hypothetical and in real life, you are to sit there and let someone die, rather
than run into a situation you don’t have control over and risk getting yourself killed. That’s a job for the police. They go in, secure the place, then you get to go in and do your job.
Not the other way round.

Your bad
guys are still torching the place. Firefighters will not go in until the police have stopped them. The only way
around this is if your bad guys are hiding. Which is possible, but it’s very
likely the 911 call that got them on their way mentioned psychos torching the
place. That means it’s a police problem first, theirs as a distant second.
Evacuate nearby buildings, help contain the blaze, and keep it from spreading?
Sure. Stumbling into a combat zone? Not so much. Stumbling into a combat zone
is more SWAT’s purview.

Second, firefighters
are a team, not loners. (Really, this is true of all emergency services.) If
you’ve got one going into a building to search for survivors trapped by the flames,
they’re not going to be doing that alone.

they’re looking for people, they’ll find your bad guys, and then pull out. Again,
people actively torching the place is an issue for the police. As soon as they
realize they’re dealing with people trying to kill them, their place is

the moment your character attacks an emergency responder, they’re signing on
with the bad guys. Okay, the bad guys might not accept the job offer, but it’s
the thought that counts. Remember when I said emergency responders were a team?
Yeah, in attacking one, your character is not only committing a crime, in the moment,
they’re also making themselves an enemy of the police and the other responders
on scene. In the moment, the larger context doesn’t really matter.

there’s a couple practical consideration to knocking out a firefighter, they’re
wearing 75lbs of armor. Granted, their turnout gear might not do much against
gunfire, but it will do wonders against idealistic fools who attempt to
incapacitate them. (Actually, given that turnout gear is made from a Kevlar
variant, it might be bullet resistant; I’m not certain.) They also have the
least to worry about, in there, since they’re protected against the flames, and your firebugs will go
after anyone, anyway.

This is,
of course, entirely ignoring the issues associated with knocking someone out (which
is to say, you can’t really do that.) For those of you who haven’t read our Concussions tag, here’s a very short recap: Getting knocked out is a life
threatening injury. It involves inflicting a severe concussion on the victim. If
unconsciousness lasts for more than a few seconds (30 is the rule of thumb),
the victim will have, almost certainly, suffered severe, and irreparable, brain
damage. We also have a Knocked Out tag, if you started thinking about chloroform
or tranq guns.
(There’s also a “Concussion” tag. Oops.)

someone upside the head, and having them rendered instantly, and harmlessly,
insentient until the power of plot compels them to rise is a fantasy. As a
writer, it may seem to be a convenient one, but it’s just cheap.

It’s a
buyout, to allow your character to freely remove characters from the current
scene, without facing the normal consequences of attacking them. In this case,
in an act of, “heroism,” that wouldn’t work.

So, you
have your bad guys torching the place. You have your hero, there to stop them.
Again, that’s all fine. You have your, “hero,” attack an armored bystander,
rather than, telling them that the people
responsible for the blaze are still there?

Wait, what?

Your character’s
first response, when presented with someone who is doing their job, is to
resort to serious violence to, “protect,” them?

understand the impulse, but this, really,
is one of those times where heroism is about not resorting to violence to achieve your character’s goals.

You cannot
safely knock someone out.

character’s best option is to tell the firefighters that the guys responsible
are still in there, let the firefighters evacuate them, and send in SWAT. Even
failing that, immediately attacking a firefighter is, quite possibly, the worst
available option.


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What about the good ol’ movie/television standby, rag soaked in chloroform? Is it as fast as they make it seem? Is the victim in significant danger?

It’s fast enough that it was used for general anesthesia. If inhaled, I’d go out on a limb and say under 30 seconds. Once the chloroform is discontinued, a couple minutes before they’re back up and groggy.

The problem is, chloroform is actually more dangerous as a general anesthetic than diethyl ether (which it replaced), and why it was discontinued. You can use either one to put someone under for surgery, in an emergency, but they’re not ideal choices.

Additionally, as with most general anesthetics, the threshold between sedated and dead is moderated by a good anesthesiologist. Just slapping a rag on someone and hoping for the best tilts the odds towards dead.

Also, a fun distinction with chloroform. At room temperature, it’s highly volatile; that is to say, it evaporates quickly. If you’re looking at the Hollywood rag tactic, you’d need to absolutely saturate the rag right before using it, and you’d be getting a lungful of the stuff yourself. Probably not enough to actually put you under, but it might slow you down a bit.

There is also one major medical issue associated with chloroform; it has a nasty habit of inducing fatal cardiac arrhythmia. (Where the heart beats irregularly.) In a controlled medical environment, this has a frequency of between 1:3000 to 1:6000.

So, yeah, no, Hollywood likes it, because you can stick water in a vial, pour it on a rag, hold it to your actor’s face, and it’s all safe. The reality is not nearly so accommodating.


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Okay, it seems like the bonk-on-the-head methods of knocking someone out “safely” are pretty bogus, so what other ways could you render someone unconscious for a long period of time without causing brain damage?

General anesthesia.

Putting someone under and keeping them there safely isn’t particularly difficult, but it does require someone to be actively monitoring the patient/subject/victim, and adjusting the dosage to make sure nothing goes wrong. If something does, you’ll need them, or end up with a corpse.

Properly overseen, it’s safe enough that we can use this on a daily basis in medical environments. It is a fundamental step in any major surgery after all. But, that’s with complete access to the patient’s medical history, and someone on hand who’s only job is making sure they don’t die on the table, from the sedatives.

Seriously, anesthesiologists are a very important part of modern surgery. You, literally, can’t do it without them.

But, that’s not combat. When you’re talking about something like a hostage situation, it’s not a safe option.

The biggest example is the Moscow Theater Hostage Crisis. In 2002 Chechens took 850 hostages and issued demands. The Russian solution was to try sedating everyone with a chemical agent. Which killed 130 of the hostages, and hospitalized at least 650 more.

I should probably stress, with chemical agents, it’s not that you can’t knock someone out with some kind of gas grenades, it’s just that it will kill some people. It’s also not instantaneous. Even if you’re trying to sedate someone like this, they will have time to respond. If they’ve got a gas mask, and the presence of mind to put it on, your entire plan failed. If they don’t, that’s still time to detonate a suicide vest, or start shooting.

There is also a serious risk of long term side effects from exposure that last long after. This will depend on the specific chemicals used.

It’s not safe by any stretch of the imagination. It can be the best of many bad options, but short of technology that does not exist, or magic, there is no safe way to knock someone out. We do not have the means to achieve that.


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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.


Hey! Uh with your most recent post about concussions… while concussions are very serious, I think you mixed up brain oxygen-deprivation and concussions. Depriving the brain of oxygen for even a very short period of time will cause irreparable brain damage and can result in turning someone into a vegetable.

Physical trauma to the brain, including concussions can also lead to irreparable brain damage and put the victim in a persistent vegetative state. The list of things that can break your brain in horrific ways is, sadly, not a short one. That said, cerebral hypoxia (depriving the brain of oxygen) is high on the list, and one of the reasons “just choking someone until they pass out” is not any safer than pounding their skull into a wall until they stop twitching.

Now, it’s probably worth pointing out, I was talking about grade 3 concussions. Since the question was about the character loosing consciousness, and lower grade concussions stipulate no loss of consciousness. As far as I know, more mild concussions are less likely to produce that kind of brain damage, at least on the first injury, but they also won’t knock someone out.

In deference to you; there are a lot of shared symptoms between cerebral hypoxia and concussions. There are differences, these are different medical conditions, with distinct causes and long term consequences. I honestly don’t know how much can (or should) be read into the overlap.

As always, I’m not a medical professional, though identifying concussions was covered in Scouts. Also, in fairness to you, a lot of the symptoms I think of for concussions are shared with cerebral hypoxia. The diagnostic training from first aid would distinguish them, but when I think of a concussion, the symptoms that come to mind are ones that occur with both (IE headaches, confusion, impaired cognitive function, impaired fine motor function.)


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.


Q&A: Kockouts

How plausible is it to knock someone unconscious without killing them? I have a monster character that, when people annoy him, picks them up and slams to either knock them out or kill them. One of my characters has to have this happen to them and they survive it, but I’ve heard it’s actually really rare to knock someone out and not kill them. Is it true that this isn’t plausible, and if it’s not is there anything else, like smothering, that they *could* survive? I love your blog by the way.

I know we’ve answered this one in the past, but it doesn’t seem to be properly tagged, so I can’t find it. The very short version is, “It’s entirely plausible, but your character will probably end up a vegetable after the fact.”

Being knocked unconscious is actually a concussion. It’s a life threatening injury. Being knocked out for more than a few seconds (of the top of my head, the number is somewhere around 30) will result in permanent brain damage for the victim. Being unconscious for more than a few minutes will result in either a coma or death. (For what it’s worth: I’m phrasing it like the symptom is the cause. The concussion’s severity determines both how long the victim is out, and the extent of other neurological damage.)

So, while it’s entirely possible to be knocked out by being body slammed into a wall, freeway support column or ‘57 Chevy, undertaking complex tasks like walking, talking, or remembering your own name, will probably be out of reach afterwards. Depending on the severity of the concussion these symptoms could last for minutes to permanent.

It’s also worth pointing out that concussions are cumulative. They’re literally bruising on the brain itself, from bouncing against the inside of the skull. These do stack up, meaning future concussions occur more easily, and are more severe. Knocking characters out repeatedly will kill them, quickly.


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What do you know about people being knocked out? How much force, how much damage, how quick can you recover?

Being knocked out is by definition brain damage, it’s a concussion serious enough to have caused the brain to essentially take a vacation. I think the limit is about two minutes for a head strike, if your character is down longer than that, then they’re dead.

The best part is that this doesn’t actually require a lot of force. The brain is basically four pounds of warm butter suspended in fluid, it doesn’t take much knocking about before it decides it wants to be elsewhere.

This is why even high school level football claims casualties from time to time and that’s with protective gear.