Tag Archives: michi answers

So, this isn’t exactly a writing question, but I’m not sure where else to ask. Is it at all possible for someone with chronic wrist pain, such that they can’t take impacts on their hands for any significant length of time, to still learn a martial art? And if so, what martial arts would be best, like ones that focus more on kicks or grappling?

There are students with all sorts of disabilities who are training right now. So, don’t let that stop you.

I’ve worked with martial artists who had a variety of health issues, from those recovering from cancer to eighty year olds training for their black belts. I know of students in other programs ranging from blindness to deafness to only having one arm. Lots of kids with glasses train, and take their glasses off for sparring. One of my training partners for my third degree test was a woman who’d recently recovered from a stroke and had specific health concerns we worked around. There was a certain pace she needed to train at, which was fine. Master Reyes was upfront about it with me when he assigned me to work with her, and she was upfront about it with me. She passed her test by the way.

It is very common in martial arts schools to have students who have specific health concerns, chronic pain, and injuries. It is part of the job of the instructors at these schools to develop work arounds together with their students.  Whether the instructor needs to keep an eye on the time because one of the kids you’re training needs to take their meds during your class. These are all issues that can be worked out. (Consider the number of geriatric students who come in on the regular. There are quite a few.)

As martial arts instructors, we are legally obligated to care for our students when they’re on our floor. (And we care about them because they’re family.) You’ll find plenty of teachers who also have or have had injuries whether they’re permanent or not. One of my master’s had a blown out knee from a gymnastics injury, he was thirty years old and he limped around the floor.

People of all ages, all dispositions, and all backgrounds come through a martial arts studio’s door. Sometimes, they’re people with chronic pain, sometimes they have heart issues, sometimes they’re diabetics. 

A healthy body is not a necessary requirement for recreation the same way it is in the military or the police. In a healthy martial arts school, you will find instructors who are more than happy to work with you and find solutions that fit your needs. Unless you take a boxing-type martial art like Kickboxing or Muay Thai (and even then), you will be hitting air 90% of the time.

It’ll take time to work out your limits and to find alternative options. However, it will be up to you find those limits. Stay in touch with your doctor. Over time you will learn how to discern between good pain and bad pain, and you’ll be better able to moderate what you can do and how long your participate. It’ll also be up to you to keep your instructor updated.

As for which martial art would work best, I’d actually advise you to start with what you want to be learning (90% of success begins with interest) and work your way around to finding a studio in your area who’d be willing to make the accommodations you need. Those are the people you want to be entrusting your safety to. Those men and women are the good beans. Work with the people who want to work with you towards your success.

When you have a disability or chronic pain here’s what you do when looking for a school:

1) Start with a martial art that interests you.

There’s absolutely no reason why your disability or injury should stand in the way of you learning what you want. I guarantee there is a school out there full of martial arts masters who’ll become a second family to you. So, you should start with what you want. Want to fight like a ninja turtle? (I did when I was five, okay.) Run over to imdb.com or somewhere similar to figure out what the martial arts used in the movie were. Once you have that in hand, go to the internet and look up videos on the Tube. Want to study that? Great! To Google!

2) Do research over what is available in your area.

This is the tough part, your choices are going to be limited based on what’s available and feasible to reach. You may not find what you want available in your area. Google for the local martial arts schools in your area (this goes faster once you have a beat on martial arts you want), and see what comes up. Find one you like? Read the reviews, and make sure to look them up on other review sites like Yelp. Make a list of several (yes, several) you’d be interested in. Always have backups in case the first doesn’t work out. You’re probably going to want family schools, but go with what you want. You’re a customer, and if you sign up, you are going to paying them to provide you with a service. Keep that in mind.

3) Make the call

Once you have the schools and the numbers, give them a call. Most martial arts schools have someone working the desk and reception while the instructors teach. This is the person who makes the appointments and handles the gear.

Ask them if it’d be possible to visit the school, make an appointment, and look in on a class. (You don’t need to be upfront about your needs yet.) This is a common practice for students scouting out schools, so no need to be shy. I recommend looking in on an adult class as it’ll be easier to talk to those students after.

Remember, this is a business so they’re going to try to sell you. If you get easily flustered remember to write up and bring a list of questions to ask that you wrote up beforehand.

4) Look in on a class

Before you sign up for the first lesson, look in on a class first. Half the success of any martial arts program is going to be how well you sync with the people who are going to teach you. Watching a class lets you scout out an instructor’s teaching style and talk to the students without pressure. Come a little early so you can watch the students file in, how they interact with each other, and the warm ups.

Think about it like dating. You want a match who works for you.

The general feel and attitude of a good school is one that is relaxed. The teacher is in good spirits, humble, and explains easily. The students look happy when they’re on the floor, they’re in a good mood, social with each other both before and after class, and everyone is generally happy. They’re focused when they’re on the floor. Students who are happy with their school will try to sell you on it if you ask. They’re enthusiastic! You are looking for a warm, friendly, relaxed, and happy environment.

Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.

You don’t want to be in a school that’s controlling, where the instructor is uptight, angry, or yells at their students. If they’re prideful or act like the source of all wisdom, then you don’t want to be there. You don’t want a place where the students seem unhappy. If you walk into a place like this, leave. You don’t have to bring up your health issues. Know it’s not for you. Look elsewhere.

5) Talk to the instructor

Whoever you talk with on the phone will probably have told the school’s owner or instructor that you’ll be there, so don’t be surprised if they seek out out either before or after the class. If they don’t and you like what you see, introduce yourself. Express your interest and ask if you can set up an appointment (either now if you like it) or at a later date where you can talk more. Let the instructor sell you on their school.

You can either bring up your health issues at this point, or later when you talk to them again. See what they say. It is important to be upfront about it because whoever you will be training with values your health and safety. That is part of their job. Do not forget it.

You will, probably, find plenty of instructors who’ve worked with students that had health issues before. They’re either going to say thanks but no thanks, (if that’s the case, look elsewhere, you want the masters who want you) or they’re going to ask you some questions about your specific needs.

If you decide you like this person and their school, make an appointment to take the first beginner’s lesson. (This is usually free! Sometimes, you get a free gi too! Heyo!)

6) Take the First Lesson

What it says on the tin. They may ask you about your needs again, if they don’t remember or don’t bring it up then remind them. Anyway, take the lesson, see how you feel.

Like it? Like the price package? Yay! Sign up.

Don’t like it? Repeat steps 2-6 with another school.

7) Double Check With Your Doctor (Bonus, Important Step)

I’d double check your needs and discuss this course with your doctor in step 2, but do it again anyway. The school may ask for your medical documentation anyway, and you will, of course, need to sign a waiver. Have a list of everything that might possibly go wrong and what the signs are when your wrists have had too much. Give it to your new instructors, they will put it in your file and reference back to it over your time spent training with them.

8) Start Taking Classes

You’ve made it to Step 8. The last step. The big kahuna. Enjoy your new martial arts life. Remember to keep working to build the bond of trust between you and your teacher. Don’t be afraid to bring up your needs and remind them if they forget.

When I was a little bean, I broke my leg. During the latter half of my recovery after I finally got off the crutches, I still had specific activities I couldn’t engage in. I went back to my martial arts school, and started training again. I went from not being able to run (so I had to do other exercises when everyone else did) to not being able to jump (No jumping till June) until I was finally free. (”You can’t jump yet, right?” “No, busabumnim! I can jump today! I can jump!”) My instructors were with me every step of the way, easing me (twelve year old bean) back into it so I could test for my black belt the next year. It was a slow process, but it happened.

In the right school where you feel comfortable and trust your teachers, it’ll be the same for you. There’ll be things you can do, and things you can only do a little, and maybe things you can’t do at all. That’s not a mark against you.

The most important thing here is honesty. Your limitations are not insurmountable. A good school with good teachers will figure out how to work around them, and if you sign on that is what you will be paying them to do.

Now:

To my martial arts followers, please leave enthusiastic recommendations of your school and your master in the reblogs or comments so our Anon friend here gets an example of what to look for in their search.

Thank you!

-Michi

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Any way to get your breath back after getting winded? And I mean like, getting hit hard enough in the back or stomach that the wind gets knocked out of you and you can’t breathe for almost a minute. I had it happen to me as a kid and nearly fainted, and I can’t be sure whether or not me smacking my own back actually helped or not.

So, what happens when the wind gets knocked out of you is that all the air in your lungs is forcibly ejected from your body. (Literally, the wind gets knocked out of you.) The only way to recover from that is to get the wind back into your body, and that is all posture.

When we’re winded, our first instinct is often to lean over. You’re breathing heavily, your back gets tired, and you just hang there. (Basically what happens when you get punched in the gut, except the gut punch is the more severe version.) This is one of those bad instincts because it keeps you from getting that air.

You’ve got to get yourself upright and breathing, get the oxygen back into your lungs. The oxygen goes from your lungs to your blood to your tired muscles including your new injuries in the abdominal muscles and that’s what helps you recover.

You’ve got to straighten, open your chest, and force yourself to take long, deep, controlled breaths with your diaphragm. Your body won’t want to do that. It’s gonna hurt. Your body is going to want to stay bowled over. However, when you’re hanging there your ability to breathe is negligible. You won’t get enough air into your lungs for it to matter. Unless you’re doing a sport or practicing martial arts they’re not going to tell you how important breathing is.

One of the first things they will teach you in any martial art is how to breathe. Most people breathe using either their lungs or their stomach, you don’t do either. You breathe with your diaphragm. The faster you get air back into your body then the faster you recover. (This works in the short term too, the more oxygen you get into your lungs then the faster that gets to your muscles which helps them recover. If you cannot breathe then you cannot fight for long periods, or perform any sport. That hissing sound you often hear in martial arts movies that lots of people make fun of? That’s them breathing. The kihap is also breathing. They’ve trained their bodies to exhale on the strike, which negates the chance of having the wind knocked out of you when you’re hit in the stomach.) The more we work out and practice at this then the stronger our lungs get and the better we become at breathing.

Breathing is a learned skill.

The best part about rigorous physical exercise is that you’re used to being out of breath so you learn to work through it, recover faster, and get back in the game. Practice is how you get your breath back.

Basically, you had to straighten in order to smack your back which is what let you recover your breath.

-Michi

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Is there such thing called as “too much dialogue” in a story? Like can it ruin my story or make it less interesting?

You can have a story that runs entirely on dialogue and nothing else. No description, no nothing, just dialogue. Not even acted, just written. The question is not whether or not there can be too much or too little. The question lands squarely on your shoulders: is your dialogue interesting?

We can’t answer that for you. This is where you’ve got to experiment with your own writing. Mastering the fine art of dialogue takes time and effort, and mistakes. With really good dialogue, you’re characters can be saying nothing while still saying something and be entertaining to listen to all at the same time. Good dialogue moves the plot forward, develops relationships between characters, conveys critical information, often without the reader noticing.

Conversation instead of explanation.

-Michi

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I saw your posts about muscle mass not being a factor and just wanted to let you know that in grappling sports your weight is massively important, and let’s be honest the bigger you are the harder you punch and thats something that can’t really he denied if they know what they’re doing.

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Did I say or did I not say we’ve answered many questions like this before? There are entire posts on grappling and the problems of weight elsewhere on this blog. Learn to see the point of a question for what it is.

-Michi

Is it plausible for a relatively inexperienced fighter to defeat a trained guard/soldier in a knife fight? I seem to remember a lot of references to how knife fights are chaotic and quickly fatal, as well as based a lot on luck. Assuming it isn’t plausible, what advantages might the inexperienced fighter need (getting the jump, starting with the only weapon, etc) to make victory from their side seem likely? Thanks in advance.

The problem with this question is that guards don’t travel alone and soldiers don’t either. A good security setup ensures an attacker won’t have the opportunity to ambush the guards, at least not more than one. The entire goal of security is to not leave people alone where they can be isolated and picked off. Basically, if a guard can be ambushed then there’s no point in putting them there. If you don’t have the manpower for multiple guards, then you create choke points and controlled access.

You want people with overlapping fields of view. So if someone goes down or gets attacked, they don’t have to call it in. There’s already another person available to call in the attack and move to stop the attacker.

Ironically, of all the things Assassin’s Creed isn’t useful for, the later games are helpful for this. Even then Assassin’s Creed security is usually pretty shoddy in comparison to the real thing. (If you just had flashbacks to all the times your assassin got caught and killed on a stealth entry, that’s the way it often goes.)

A setup where the guards can be picked off one at a time out on the fringes is the opposite of security.

So, while a relatively inexperienced fighter could defeat a trained guard or soldier in a knife fight assuming they had the element of surprise, could get the weapon out before the soldier noticed, got their courage up, and rushed in to stab the guard/soldier in the side nine or ten times.

The question is could they manage all that without being discovered?

The answer is probably no. In addition to that cheerful thought when they’re discovered, they’re either dead or captured depending on how the other guards are feeling. While they might manage to kill one guard, the others will get them. This is the basic issue when it comes to any secured location, be it a prison, a bank, a military base, a castle, or a rebel stronghold.

Soldiers work in groups. Guards travel in twos, at least, with another somewhere above handling overwatch. Anywhere you find one, you can bet there’s probably around five more ahead all in strategic points overlooking each other. With the added bonus that they understand the layout of wherever they are better than the person trying to break in or break out.

The point of a secured location is that it’s secure. You can do it all with humans. Cameras are just dessert, they’re nice but they’re not necessary and the human eyes are positioned to cover the holes anyway. Fighting your way past a guard will inevitably lead to more guards swarming the area.

The best thing to do for someone who is relatively inexperienced is avoid the guards, rather than fight them. Someone trained in infiltration can fight, but the trick here is that they know how to. Even then, competent guards are no joke.

-Michi

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Q&A: From Behind

My MC is armed with a gun and another character [who is a hitman] has a knife. Mr. Other Character is out of Ms. MC’s sight and it’s night. How could Mr. Other Character possibly disarm Ms. MC or gain the upper hand without killing her? He doesn’t intend to kill her, because of her identity and the information she has.

Well, he could just walk up behind her.

When someone’s got a knife to your back or the threat of a knife to your back, the gun becomes a lot less relevant. A knife also lets him kill silently, while the gun makes a lot of noise. He can use the knife to disable the primary arm (or both arms) which she uses to hold her gun, and then the problem is solved. Miss the artery, go for the muscle or, better yet, a tendon.

Here’s your problem: just because he needs her alive doesn’t mean he needs her whole or in one piece. He just needs to make sure she doesn’t bleed out, and can’t retaliate. If he can’t harm her, well, that’s entirely different. But need? Needs her alive is code for, “what fun Mr. Tactical Baton and I will have!”

-Michi

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If muscle mass has only a small impact on fight abilities, what’s with the prevalence of weight classes? And why are martial arts and boxing champions generally men?

See, you were trying to sneak around it with that start on muscle mass but this is about the idea that women can fight and or fight as well as a man. We get these questions a lot, and the answer is always the same. However, the question itself always displays the asker’s ignorance on the subject matter and about combat in general. You aren’t the first to go, “but boxing!!!” as if it means something or is a winning point. Usually, “muscles” is a go to standard because that’s what so many have been led to believe makes men superior.

When I get these questions, I can always tell this person who asked has never been to a martial arts competition of any kind. If they had, they would know Women’s Divisions are a standard practice. They would also know that with an exception of major tournaments where there are enough participants to justify it, the girls and the boys spar each other at the ranks below black belt. Sometimes, the boys win. Sometimes, the girls win. The breakdown is by age (adults/kids) and belt rank, not by gender.

I’ll tell you though, none of the boy’s in the black belt division
wanted to jump in with the girls. Those girls were vicious. Men’s
sparring was much more laid back, and slower. Women’s TKD… yeesh.

Again, in most martial arts tournaments there are no weight classes. The breakdown is by age and rank, with gender as a secondary when there are enough participants to justify multiple divisions. Weight classes are a boxing tradition and other, similar bloodsports which rears it’s head when they have enough participants to justify one. In many Taekwondo tournaments, you can easily end up with a 150 pound black belt sparring one weighing in at 250. And you won’t know what they weigh anyway because there is no “weighing in”.

I’ve explained before why there are weight classes in boxing. The moment you stop and realize that it’s a sport with a purpose to make money, the reasoning behind the weight classes will become fairly clear. (Hint: it’s entertainment and aesthetics.)

That said, the “boxing champions are generally men” crap is, well, crap. They don’t let women box men professionally, or at the collegiate level. It’s hard to make a case for muscle mass when citing professional sports where women are barred from competing. Now, there was a time when there were women boxers who boxed with each other and against men. In the 1800s, it was called bareknuckle boxing. This is the granddaddy version of modern boxing, when it was all back alleys without gloves or handwraps.

That said, women’s boxing is making a comeback at the collegiate level. There’s a National Champion in Women’s Collegiate Boxing walking around somewhere in the US right now. There are multiple female martial arts champions from a variety of disciplines wandering around all over the world. The UFC has opened a division for female fighters. This is like asking why there aren’t female wrestlers (there are) or female quarterbacks (there are).
One of the greatest snipers in history is a woman.

You just don’t hear about them or the women who did the hard work pushing back to fight for the categories to be re-added.

That said, comparing the restrictions applied in sports to a person’s “fighting ability” is a mistake. You’re not asking an honest question so much as floundering for a popular misconception. It’s essentially the same as saying, “it’s ridiculous for there to be female fighters in this historical fiction because there were no female warriors”.

1) That assertion is patently false.

2) When one gender is barred from participating by the established rules of a modern sport whose history you don’t understand, you can’t then turn around and ask why most of the champions are men.

History makes a case for a lot of female combatants throughout history, but you’re not going to know they’re there if you don’t go looking for them. Their accomplishments tend to get wiped out.

-Michi

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When I was 11 and training in martial arts (internationally​ competitive and consistently​ placed in every competition) I had to spar against an adult in clads for practice and did break their ribs with a well placed kick and because they’d forgotten their chest padding. So, just speaking from personal experience that a child could break an adults ribs, but I was a very highly trained kid who’d been in karate for several years at that point.

Well, that was the point of my response. The character in question had no training. You know as well as I do what someone with no martial arts training throwing a kick looks like. What chances would you give them in a managing to successfully perform the technique in a fight for their life? The odds are not in their favor.

Just from my experience teaching martial arts, the number of kids who could what you did at age eleven in a sparring match is tiny. Possibly by dumb luck. If you competed internationally then you were obviously in the top tier, and that puts you in a league far beyond what most kids are capable of. Most adults too, for that matter.

Consider though, the amount of time per day you spent training for your
competitions in comparison to your classmates including those in
whatever school you went to. In all the karate students in all the world, you were probably in the top percentile of a select group that ever makes it that far. I can list on one hand the number of martial artists I’ve known who went to international competitions. That’ll really skew your perspective.

And, of course, the chances of sparring injuries increase substantially when we forget our pads.

While we’re on the subject of injuries:

My brother almost lost his leg, for example, when he decided to throw a roundhouse kick at Starke when they first met. My brother was eighteen (and a fourth degree black belt, who should know better) and Starke had police self-defense training from a cop in Wyoming when he was a kid. The cop was a little on the crazier side and taught small children the standard joint breaks they were teaching at the time to regular officers. One of them was the defense against the roundhouse kick, which includes a knee break. My brother came very close to walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Instead, he went on to become a boxing national champion in the welterweight division.

Those of you who’ve heard about my brother before might remember the time he almost lost an eye when our instructors were dumb enough to let two young black belts spar with UFC fiberglass gloves and perform head blows. To this day, he is (just a little) walleyed.

Then, of course, there’s the story I got off Starke from one of his karate friends in college. The two brown belts that the black belts let spar without restrictions and each of them ended up with a broken leg.

Not everyone highly trained is smart or responsible. Sometimes, they’re really, really dumb. Or not paying attention. Or criminally negligible.

Let this be a lesson to every writer out there who wants to write a “No Pads” sparring session with beginners or… just in general. There’s a really good chance that if no one’s paying attention someone will be leaving with broken bones even if the match started with the best of intentions.

This also isn’t counting what happens when the kids decide to spar and no one with sense is there to stop it. That happens too.

And then there’s the part that’ll horrify some of the readers out there, which is martial artists swap these kinds of stories around with each other and laugh about it after the fact. The explanation for this behavior is injuries get normalized when you’re in a culture where the chance for experiencing them is high. This happens with soldiers and cops too, in regards to their own. Then martial artists, soldiers, and cops will swap these stories with each other, because its one of the parts of all three cultures which cross over. It’s like the stories you tell about family vacations, and stupid things your friends did, except its about breaking ribs, dislocating joints and the time you watched someone’s leg turn into a screw. Panic in the moment, but funny later.

If you’re outside that culture, the casual disregard will sometimes sound absolutely bonkers. That casual attitude, however, is a nice tell for someone who’s been in the business awhile. The chance being injured or seeing an injury happen on a training mat or walking the beat is something you’ve adjusted too. Not that you want it to, but you’ve seen it. Plus, you’re getting little minor injuries all the time which helps when it comes to handling them.

Figuring out how to present various normalized mental states for characters of different backgrounds is hard because we’re so used to thinking about our state of normal. The problem is everyone’s version of “Normal” is different.

-Michi

You once said that a human trying to follow their instinct would get killed in a fight. But what about someone who is not a human, like a human/dragon hybrid. Being descended from a race of apex predators who have been hunting and killing prey and enemies with their own bodies rather than using weapons or tools.

The problem with this logic is that its avoiding the basic issue of instincts and combat, which is that the most basic combat techniques are designed to exploit your natural instincts. In this case, it’s your reflexes, your response to danger or when under threat. Combat is about finding holes in the defenses, in utilizing your opponent’s reactions, and even acting in such a way that tricks them into the response you want.

The reason why martial combat works the way it does is because the techniques are designed around dealing with human opponents, but it applies as much to say dealing with attack dogs as it does with humans. There are people out there right now trained in how to handle an attack from dogs, and utilize those same attack instincts and patterns against the animal in a manner that is either offensive or defensive. The same goes for any other animal, and it would be the same for any other species.

There is nothing natural, really, about modern combat when it comes to the human instincts. Your instincts are retrained over the course of your training, adapt as you learn new techniques and acquire new skills, then run the risk of getting exploited when these same techniques disseminate into common knowledge and your enemy develops a counter designed to mess with what previously worked.

On a purely cerebral level, from strategy to application, martial combat is all about fucking with your opponent.

Humans are persistence predators, we have the capacity as a species to simply keep going and to quickly recover. We excel at working together in groups. Apex predators come with their own drawbacks, and those instinctual drawbacks can be just as easily exploited when someone realizes what they’re dealing with.

When we’re looking at practical combat, you must continually update your skills to keep pace with opponents who are learning to counter what you were trained in.

Instincts don’t update. They may change over the course of thousands of years, but we’re talking about changes that need to be made within months and sometimes even days. That is why instincts put you at the bottom when it comes to practical combat, because that’s where you start when learning how to exploit people. When you’re fighting by instinct and up against someone who understands how your body functions, you may find anything between your nervous system being messed with, exploited by the way your eye and brain tracks moving objects, and walk right into their fist.

A character possessing different instincts don’t solve the issue because practical combat adapts around the idea of exploiting how your enemy’s mind and body function. In the advanced stages, it moves on to exploiting how a trained combatant’s mind and body have been trained to function.

A fantasy apex predator like a dragon attempting to hunt a human still falls prey to those same limitations and the same exploitation if the human can figure out their behavior patterns. If they learn nothing else, then they’re still at the bottom.

So, no, it doesn’t help them that much.

-Michi

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How effective are using people as human shields. In a lot of shows to protect themselves from getting shot characters pull people in front of them. How realistic is this and does it actually offer some protection from small caliber weapons.

There’s no guarantee that the hostage is going to stop the bullet, the point of holding someone hostage is to stop the other person with a gun from shooting in the first place.

It is, unironically, the exact same reasoning behind holding someone hostage with a knife or any other implement. The idea is that the person trying to stop you will care more about the innocent getting hurt than they will stopping you. Or they will want to get that person to safety before apprehending you, giving you time to potentially maneuver into a better position and/or escape.

It’s worth understanding that taking a hostage is usually an act of desperation. They’re taking a big bet on the morality and/or ethics of the person they’re trying to escape from. They are betting on the value of the hostage, whether that’s personal or political or simply because they’re an innocent.

This is part of why its an act of desperation, the other part is that moving while holding someone else and forcing them to come with you is difficult. The hostage taker is also betting on the hostage’s willingness to be compliant, that they will value their life more than they will attempting to get free or fight. They’re banking on fear, mostly. It’s hard to split your focus on two at once.

Now, hostage taking happens in real life though I honestly have no idea if it occurs with the same frequency we see on television. Television and movies, especially those surrounding cops, are addicted to the hostage narrative. It has become a genre cliche as much as a genre trope at this point. However, it serves as a cheap, fast point of narrative and character development for both the audience and the protagonists.

Hostage taking usually acts a convenient moral and ethical dilemma for the protagonist. This is more true of some shows than others, but its a staple trope in procedural and television dramas involving cops. Often, it’s here to tell us what kind of people these protagonists are and, if there’s more than one to make the choice, where their breakdown is. The good cop will usually try to talk the hostage taker down. The one who threatens them down by being a worse person. The “by any means necessary” risk taker often just shoots through the victim. There are other variants, but that’s the common breakdown.

Compare Law and Order to The Shield or 24 for comparisons in how the protagonists deal with hostages, hostage takers, and even, sometimes, take hostages themselves.

The ethical quandary is the centerpiece of a hostage negotiation. Whether you risk their deaths by acting, whether you try to save them and allow the villain to succeed, what you do when you can’t choose both. Lives are hanging in the balance. The greater good is pitted against the importance of an individual life. Either way, someone will die.

It’s great drama.

If you want to a fun fictional glimpse into the minds behind a hostage negotiation, working from procedure, then I recommend watching The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. The plot of the movie is Jackson’s character, a hostage negotiator being framed for murder and he tries to clear his name by… taking people hostage.

If you ever want to try your hand writing a professional in a hostage negotiation or just talking someone down, then this movie is a must see.

Burn Notice has some great episodes regarding this topic as well, offers up some information on the thought processes of those taking the hostages in various scenarios from bank heists to professional kidnapping, which will be helpful.

Television doesn’t do it because it’s a smart choice, because taking a hostage is never, really a smart choice. When someone has taken a hostage, it’s usually because they’re backed into a corner and are trying to bargain for an escape hatch. They’re betting on the fact that they’re willing to go further, faster, harder than whomever they’re trying to escape from. It’s a time buy, an attention getter, and a negotiation whether they actually intend to kill their victim or not. Outside of just human shields, the hostages often do die. Television plays this sequence for the drama.

When they really want to up the ante, they have the hero’s girlfriend, boyfriend, wife end up in the hands of the villains either as a human shield or on the other end of the line. That’s when it gets personal. Die Hard plays this one like a violin. The Chicago cop trying to stop terrorists who have taken the building hostage, while his estranged wife is one of the victims and constantly in danger of discovery.

The trick to making a hostage situation, whether its a human shield or people trapped on the 100th floor is to ensure the hostages are characters rather than moveable objects. They need personalities, agency, opinions so the audience has a reason to connect and relate to them. They don’t necessarily have to fight back, but its important for the author to recognize their importance as minor characters because a successful scene hinges on them rather than the major actors.

In fiction, the audience always needs a reason to care. Death or threat of death isn’t enough to create tragedy. If your audience isn’t following along with your hostage and facing the same moral dilemma as the hero, then the impact of the outcome will be lessened.

If you want to know why scenes like this fail, why death scenes in fiction fail, then understand its a failure to make use of the supporting pieces. Whether its a big death or a small death, a major or minor victory, those supporting characters need to get used. If you don’t put any effort into developing them before their untimely demise, then death is meaningless. We can hate them, love them, want to strangle them, but we do need to feel something.

-Michi

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