Tag Archives: writing advice

In your opinion, would an army (or maybe even a specialized unit within an army) have an advantage with human soldiers who cannot feel pain for the duration of battle?

No. Pain isn’t a weakness, whatever any “pain is weakness leaving the body” mantra would have you believe. Outside of very specific circumstances, not being able to feel pain will actually reduce a combatant’s effectiveness more than the pain itself would.

Combatants need as much information as they can get. Deprive them of necessary information and they will make mistakes and die. Pain is critical information. It’s their body telling them, “hey, this thing just got broken.” If you take that information away from them, they can’t distinguish between a minor injury and an immediately life threatening one.

When adrenaline is pumping, you need to suffer a pretty grievous wound for the pain to actually slow you down. If the injury is serious enough that you need to stop what you’re doing, you’ll feel it, if it’s not, you probably won’t.

Gunshot wounds have a reputation for not triggering this, by the way. The body doesn’t know what to do with it, so there’s no “hey, I just got shot” warning until after the adrenaline wears off. But, this is a special case, where that filtering actually works against you.

While we’re on the subject of firearms; during prolonged combat, some weapons will generate enough heat to sear flesh. If your pain immune soldier grabs the barrel, they’ll cook the meat off their hand. This will result in burns that could outright kill them, or at least cost them the hands. As opposed to some nasty burns from accidentally touching it and pulling away immediately.

Outside of combat, pain is a lot more acute. It’s your body saying, “hey, you broke this thing, I’m trying to fix it, stop messing with it!” Sometimes, when you’re setting a limb, or performing surgery, then you need to deal with or suppress the pain, but, the rest of the time, it’s there for a reason.

In both circumstances, you do have to condition yourself to endure pain. As with so many other things, your own natural instincts will work against you. But you still need your pain response. If it’s as simple as, “hey, you’re cooking your thumb on the frying pan, cut it out,” or realizing that just because tetanus shots will cause your entire arm to hurt for a week doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using it, dealing with and assessing pain is something you need to be able to do in everyday life. Combat is no different.


fulminata2 said: Your position works if you plan on reusing your troops. Seems like a unit of expendable berserkers, immune to pain, could turn the tide at a critical moment.

You’re absolutely right. I don’t tend to write with the idea that soldiers are expendable. But, if all you want are shock troops, convincing your soldiers that they’re invulnerable is a classic tactic.

Usually, with questions like this, I make the assumption someone’s asking for their protagonists, and not their villain’s stormtroopers. Partially, because, the smarter your villain is, the better your world and story will be.

What are some movies or tv shows that do an excellent job at fight (and gun) scenes? I wanted to know what you think, so that I can use them as a reference — be it for drawing or writing a story.

Okay, there’s an easy way to do this and a useful way, let’s start with the useful route. Find names. Not actors, and not usually directors. You’re looking for stunt choreographers, sword masters, or fight choreographers. Unfortunately the name for the positions vary. They will usually be credited in the stunts section on IMDB, if you’re using it. These are the people that actually train the actors and stunt performers. I’ll be honest, these guys can be a pain to track down. If you’re looking for excellent swordplay, the late Bob Anderson is probably the place to start. If you want hand to hand choreography, you’ve got more options, find someone who’s style looks good, and see if you can find other entries in their career where they’re actually coordinating the stunts.

Also, shows will trade off stunt coordinators, sometimes on an episode by episode basis, 24 had at least four different coordinators over the years. Films will sometimes trade off stunt coordinators when they shoot in different cities. So, if you’re looking at a specific fight, make sure you find the stunt coordinator from that episode or scene.

Everyone in stunts are criminally under-appreciated. These are often, very talented martial artists whose names you’ll never know. Tracking down a specific stunt fighter can be tricky, following their career can be even harder, but it is more likely to be useful than a loose list of random films and shows.

So, here’s the random list of films and shows that can get you started:

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films have absolutely fantastic swordplay. Some of it is a bit over the top, Tolkien’s races of men aren’t really human, like the setting’s Elves and Dwarves, they’re a mythical race of super beings, so keep in mind that normal people can’t actually fight while being turned into an arrow pincushion.

Heat and Collateral. Both are focused on highly trained professional criminals with military backgrounds. Heat climaxes around the halfway mark with a North Hollywood shooting style bloodbath. Michael Mann’s work also deserves special mention for his commentaries. After you’ve watched Heat and Collateral, go back and rewatch them with the director’s commentary. Some of this is simple cinematography, or story development (which should still be useful for you), but some of it gets into his observations on criminology, and operations. The remake of Miami Vice also has a standout commentary from Mann (as I recall).

Spartan is focused on a semi-anonymous government operative. It’s treatment of violence is instructional. Also, if you’re writing characters with military hand to hand training, this is what they will do to people.

Strange Days. This is one of the rare films where the violence is really unsettling. It hammers home a lot of things we say on a regular basis, like how going up against multiple combatants is a losing game. (Also, one of the antagonists is a rapist who kills his victims, so a Trigger Warning: Rape is in full effect.)

Burn Notice, sometimes. The early seasons are better about this, but the narrator does offer some pretty solid advice, from talking about how to stage an ambush to explaining why you can’t just burst in shooting, this will give you a lot of the “why”, that controls what your characters do.

24. The writing’s hit or miss, and some of the seasons don’t really coalesce into a single story. You’ll probably learn more about staging and executing cliffhangers from the series (that is it’s forte), but it keeps the violence brief and explosive. It also goes through characters like kleenex, so it’s worth watching for that. The torture scenes waffle, and you’re going to have to use your own judgment on what you’ll accept. If you want to use torture, this is a good primer, then watch Burn Notice to remember why torture just doesn’t work.

If you’re dealing with a setting where some of your characters (particularly your villains) have superpowers, Blade Runner. Most of the combat in the film is unusually slow, as the replicants try to subdue their foes with their strength alone. It does show why the whole “stronger = better fighters” is crap. It’s also a fairly solid presentation of a character who is effectively a hired killer, going up against foes that can literally rip him limb from limb.

Highlander: The Series. Adrian Paul’s hand to hand form is a little unusual, but he is pretty good. The show alternates between actors someone tried to train in martial arts, and good martial artists turned actors. Still, there’s a lot of good swordplay, and writing that’s far better than it has any business being. If you’re wanting to write immortals of any streak (including especially vampires), this is a must see. The sword work in the first two seasons were choreographed by Bob Anderson, so, if you’re using swords, keep this one in mind.

If you’ve never seen it, watch Aliens. The first film is good, but not really relevant for this list. The important thing going in is that Aliens is a Vietnam war film set in space. Disciplined, well equipped soldiers up against a guerrilla force.

The film adaptation of Starship Troopers takes some of the same themes and pulls it clean into uncomfortable territory. I’m not going to recommend it for its combat, (though, that is well presented), but I would say it’s worth watching for the insight into military jingoism. Then realize you’ve been basically cheering for Nazis and now want to go vomit blood.

For reference: the film of Starship Troopers is a subversive parody, and the critical cue is seeing Paul Verhoeven’s name as the director. Similarly, Robocop (1987) is a pretty brutal take down of using violence to solve problems. Though, again, this is played straight.

Man on Fire (2004). I keep wanting to skip this one, but the fact is, it’s actually pretty good for what it’s doing. It also manages to convey, in a visceral sense how unexpected violence in the real world can feel. Though, I’ve probably spoiled that sensation by listing it on here. Forget that you read this here, forget the title, forget the fiery image on the cover and go watch it.

Sandbaggers is probably the most realistic presentation of violence in the espionage genre. Which is to say, avoiding it at all costs.

The only Tarantino film I’d actually recommend is Reservoir Dogs. The violence is self contained, and the bulk of the writing is the characters responding to the violence. This is actually some pretty smart writing, and you can probably learn something from it. (For the record, I like most of his work, but, it’s just not as applicable here.)

Mortal Combat (1995) is a goofy movie. But, as we’ve said before, the martial arts are technically good, and slow enough you can follow.

I almost never recommend video games, but, Spec Ops: The Line is an exception. (You can ignore the prior games in the franchise, they’re completely unrelated.) At first glance it looks like a conventional cover-based modern military shooter, it isn’t. The game isn’t particularly realistic, at least the combat isn’t, it’s also not conventionally “fun.” But, it is a very solid study of combat fatigue as well as the burdens and responsibilities of command.

This is a game that will make you do really horrible things, wear you down, and leave you numb and exhausted. If you want to tell the story of an action hero presented with real combat, you really need to play this. No, you need to play this. Nothing will cure a casual violence addiction faster.

Watching LP videos won’t carry the same effect, this is one of those times where you really need to be the one responsible for your actions, to get the full effect.

This is a Heart of Darkness homage (it’s not really an adaptation), if you want a hint of where it’s going thematically.

(Also, TW: Violence, because Spec Ops gets really messed up in a way nothing else on the list approaches.)


Ok. I know this sound “weird”, but I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to decapitate someone with a punch. I don’t believe it, but I have read this line in some books, as a way to show how “badass” the male protagonist is.

I’m going to go with “no.” Unless someone has axe blades for hands, this just isn’t happening.

Given the way the human skeleton works, I’m not even sure a character with superhuman strength could do this. Strike them hard enough to break bones and get their brain to say, “good bye cruel world?” Yes. Get their hand wedged in the middle of someone’s skull? Yeah, maybe. Tear it off and hold it over the crowd screaming, “fatality!” Sure, why not. But, decapitate with a punch? No.

Without superhuman strength or a weapon, it’s pretty hard to even snap someone’s neck, much less take their head off.

As general writing advice: be very careful about trying to make your character come across as badass. This is basically a suspension of disbelief thing, you have a baseline of what your characters can do, and when you push past that a little, you’ll get a character that’s a badass. But, if you don’t understand that baseline, you’ll end up with ludicrous examples, like characters clinging to the edge of bridge for five minutes, fighting for more than a minute, or, yes, decapitating someone with a punch.

This won’t make your character a badass, it will make them a parody.

My advice is, don’t try to write a badass, ever. Write characters, you might end up with a badass along the way, but it’s one of those times where actively trying to create a thing is counterproductive.


Hey! I’m writing a character that will be attending a fancy ball undercover and will be carrying a concealed firearm. What would you recommend for her to carry and where should she put it? I know the stereotypical place is on the leg, but I don’t think she would be able to draw it quickly enough, unless she wears a dress with a split, and in that case it might be revealed accidentally when she moves…

This one’s actually simpler than that. If the gun is not mission critical, don’t carry it.

If your character’s cover won’t allow them to carry a gun, then they shouldn’t have one. This may sound risky, it is, but it’s a lot safer than risking their cover by carrying equipment they don’t need.

It doesn’t matter if your character’s a spy or an undercover cop. If finding a gun on them would blow the operation, they won’t take it.

Here’s the thing. If your character manages to sell their cover, they won’t need the gun. If they fail to, six rounds will not save them. And, if someone does find the gun, it could make selling their cover much harder.

If it’s an assassination, or a smash and grab, then things get a lot more complicated. In situations like that a gun may very well be mission critical, and your character’s going to need a way to get it in.

If there’s no security cordon, then she could probably get a Glock 33 or any other subcompact pistol in by sticking it in her hand bag. (I’m picking the 33 because it fires a SIG .357 cartridge, but the subcompact Glocks come in 9mm, .40, and .45.) Worst Case, she might be restricted to something like a SIG P232 or P230.

If there is a security cordon, her best option will be a dead drop or using a different venue for access.

With a dead drop, she’ll need to have the gun on her for as little time as possible. This means the drop needs to be someplace that security didn’t check. Somewhere she can easily and quickly gain access to, and someplace close to where she’s going to use it. Combine this with a need to ditch the weapon as quickly as possible, and an exit option, and you’ve got a rather annoying list of requirements.

The better someone’s security detail is, and the more control they have over the event will dictate what is a viable hiding place. With little to no security, anyplace could be a viable hiding location. In tight security, they may even take down the sub ceiling long enough to verify that nothing’s been stashed up there.

Also, remember, even if the target isn’t the person the cordon’s being set up for, they’ll still benefit while they’re in it. This could make a party like this a spectacularly poor time to execute a hit, unless generating a high profile is the point.

Finally, the other option is to go in as someone in building maintenance or catering. This would afford your character clothing options that allowed for them to more effectively hide a weapon on their body, and it would make them harder to identify before and after the hit. Also, clothing your character could actually fight in. Fighting in a suit isn’t fun, but it’s preferable to fighting in a dress. In some cases, it would even put them under less security scrutiny. It’s easier to disguise yourself as a member of the waitstaff, and retrieve a handgun from behind the dumpster, where security hasn’t checked, and wander back in, if they think you were just going out for a smoke break.

Another possibility with a hit would be to trade up the handgun for a garotte. Wires are much easier to hide, can be made from materials that won’t show up under most detector systems, and won’t draw nearly as much attention as a gunshot. The trade off is, they take longer to use, and your character needs to be right next to the target.


(Tails anon here:) That’s fine, there’s not really anything else to cover. As a followup question, would furry ears (something about this size www(.)otenba-files(.)com/7.0(.)html ) be a similar liabilty to long hair and need similar treatment (such as tying back or covering)?

Basing this on actual animals? Cats will actually fold their ears down and back to protect them in a fight, or when they’re feeling threatened. Theoretically you could probably still grab them, but it wouldn’t be any easier than going after a human’s ears. Also, having your ear grabbed in a fight sucks. Just putting that one out there.

Honestly, if you’re going to write anthropomorphic characters, you should probably spend some time studying the animals you’re using. Fortunately, there’s nothing the internet loves more than posting pictures and videos of cats.

Also, if you want a reading reference for anthropomorphic characters, I’d start with the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. It’s been years since I read them, though, so I honestly can’t remember if there’s any cat characters. (I think so, but… I’m not sure.) Also, it’s worth pointing out; Redwall is about anthropomorphic animals, not humans with some animal features.


I am a young writer and it helps me a lot in writing some action scenes. I was wondering about how can someone fight using sound, you know, like, ability to manipulate the soundwaves with own will and create sound from nowhere. I love your blog.

You can’t. I mean, sound based weapons have certainly popped up in sci-fi a few times, Dune comes to mind off hand (at least the David Lynch film). DARPA’s been funding research into sound based weapons for decades with a little success, though, DARPA will fund research into pretty much anything.

Throwing your voice is an old stage trick. It’s not making sound come from someplace else, but tricking people into thinking your voice is there. I don’t really know the details of how this works, so you’re going to need to do some research on that front. But, what I do know is, you’re probably going to be asking a lot more from this than is actually possible.

DARPA’s been trying to get people to design less-than-lethal weapons for years now. Sonic weapons are one of the kinds that’s made the list, but DARPA’s anything but choosy. If you’re not familiar, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is just a funding organization, and they will fund nearly any weapons technology research, no matter how bizarre. If you have an insane technology that might have combat potential, you can poke them with a stick to get funding. This results in some really weird and goofy research, like a vacuum cleaner powered, suction cup wall climber, net guns, glue guns, and of course, sonic weapons.

You can use sound in combat to distract and confuse your opponent. The best example of this is Bruce Lee, and his vocalizations in combat. Most martial artists learn to shout when striking, it help focus their strikes, and time their breathing. But, in it’s era, Lee’s technique was psychologically disruptive to practitioners. Sound can play a key role in psyching out your opponent, though, simply taking Lee’s vocalizations and bringing that into the modern day wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Now, what you’re describing, “using soundwaves to fight” would actually end up in the superpower range. There’s a couple comic book characters with exactly that power set, in fact. If you’re going for the superhero genre, then your fine. (Remembering what I said at the beginning, there’s a pretty solid interpretation of Dune that plants the novels solidly in the superhero genre.) It doesn’t mater that it’s physically impossible, it is their superpower. But it isn’t something normal combatants can do.


I’d really appreciate your opinion: Is there anyway to pull a Deux Ex Machina without it being cliche? And if so, how?

Yes; but, only if no one else ever sees it.

Here’s my experience with people (myself included) and deus ex machina. This tends to happen when you’re ending a project, and you get stumped. You need to finish the story, and you have no idea how to end it. So, you pull something out of your ass, and call it a day.

It’s all fine, except for the calling it a day part. See, if you pull something out of nowhere at the end of your story, you need to immediately go back and start building that solution into the rest of your story. You don’t need to be explicit, but the deus ex machina needs to feel like a natural event or consequence, rather than “and then something random happens.”

If you’re doing serialized work, like webcomics, getting stumped is a real issue. The previous parts of your story are already out there, and it’s too late to go back and start blending a new element in. So, you need to toss your solution and work out one that makes sense. This is why planning ahead is vital for serialized writing. You don’t need to know everything that’s going to happen, but you do need a very solid outline to work from, and you need to know how every thread will end before you start them.

The exception is comedy. There’s a certain kind of comedy writing that thrives on closing with absolutely random final acts. Except, no, even then, you’re looking at paying off jokes that came up earlier in a completely unexpected way. It’s a logical deus ex machina, but, that’s because the story doesn’t matter, paying off the old setups is what’s important. (Watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you don’t understand what I’m talking about here.)


Hey, I know you said you were done with one-armed fighter questions, but I figured I’d provide some info on fencing since you mentioned the sport wasn’t your area. I’ve met and fenced several one-armed fencers, who were all very good. Two arms are not required for the sport – this means that a character who is dueling traditionally (with an epee, for instance), could also be one-armed since use of the off-hand was usually illegal in formal duels. I guess that’s v specific, though.

Cool, thank you.

All I meant with the “finally done with” bit was, I’d cleared all the one armed questions in the inbox, not that I wasn’t willing to talk about it any further.


How would an unarmed person fight someone who has a sword?

Running away. Getting stabbed and bleeding to death is also a valid option. I’m being a bit of a smart ass here, but this is not a good situation to be in.

In competent hands, a sword can keep your character from getting close enough to actually harm their foe. Even in incompetent hands, it can easily debilitate your character.

For an unarmed character, they need to be able to stay out of the sword’s reach, or get too close to use the sword effectively. Without weapons, even improvised ones, once the character with the sword is ready, this just isn’t possible.

So, your character needs to close the distance before the other character draws their weapon, or run.

All of those martial artists blocking, parrying, and catching swords with their bare hands? Those are exhibition techniques. They look really cool, but trying to use them in a fight will only result in death and dismemberment.

In the past we’ve said there’s no unarmed technique for dealing with a sword, but this is an exception. If your character is wearing plate gauntlets, with articulated, metal grips, (or, better yet, full heavy armor), there is an option to grab an opponent’s blade. So, your character in full plate might be able to deal with someone armed with a sword.

So, yeah, run away or get creative.


For the one armed anon, a good reloading trick would be to use speed loaders. Simply fit the bullets onto the frame, place against the chamber, and it’s quickly reloaded with minimal effort.

The issue with speed loaders is, most modern revolvers reload by rotating the cylinder (the revolving component that holds the rounds) out 90 degrees. This is fine if you have two hands, and are right handed. A speedloader will let you quickly swap in a fresh load of shells.

The problem is, if you shoot left handed, or you don’t have a second hand, revolvers can be a real pain to reload. You need a place to actually brace the revolver safely, while reloading. If the character only lost their right hand, then they can brace the revolver between their torso and arm, and use a speedloader or just load it one round at a time.

But, if they’re left hand is missing, the revolver will open into their torso, if they try the same thing. They could flip the gun over, but that would be awkward as hell, and we’re still at the point of needing the forearm.

I believe you can modify some revolvers to load left handed, but I’ve honestly never really looked into it. I just rotate the revolver 90 degrees to get access to the cylinder with my right hand.

Now, there are revolvers that breach open, but, these fell out of favor for one reason or another. Those could be reloaded in the armpit, using a speedloader or a fresh cylinder. But it’s still a less than ideal situation.

Finally, there are revolvers that can’t use speed loaders at all. I’m thinking of the Peacemaker here, and it’s modern replicas. It’s a weapon that can be fired very easily and comfortably one handed, but reloading it does require two hands, one round at a time. (Actually the Peacemaker is more comfortable when held one handed rather than in a modern Weaver stance.)

Either way, a character can shoot someone else if they only have on hand, and that was the point I was making.