Tag Archives: writing combat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would they deal with that?

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

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

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

-Michi

writingcatsworld said: Although, if they’re stiletto heels, you could theoretically still use the heel as an improvised weapon?

Not… really? Someone is chasing you, and in order to use the heel, you’ve got to stop and break the heel off the shoe (it’s going to be very awkward if it’s still on it) then turn it around. This assumes you can get the heel off quickly. Stiletto heels are also extremely short, so very limited amount of range. Shorter than a knife with less puncturing or cutting power. It’s also difficult to hold onto and without a good grip, there’s very little you can do with it. In the end, the only thing you’ve got is a ruined pair of shoes.

Honestly? You’re better off grabbing whatever is nearby, a plate, a mug, a beer bottle, a piece of plywood, a broom, a wrench, whatever is on hand and in easy reach. Hell, in a purely fictional context (because doing this to someone in real life is cruel), if you really want something that screams “women power” then get the cleaning supplies from the laundry room or under the sink and spray the asshole in the eyes. Then, when they open their mouth to scream get them in there for good measure. As they are hacking, coughing, crying, and vomiting you can then use this golden opportunity to either escape or finish them off. (Side Note: Doing this to someone in real life has a likelihood of blinding them or killing them. It will also, probably, hurt you. Don’t fuck around with chemicals. This is writing advice only.)

Still, if it’s all you’ve got then it’s all you’ve got. I’ll take a screwdriver over a stiletto any day though. Unless we’re talking about an actual stiletto, but that is a weapon.

As for stamping, well, balance is still an issue. To get the best power out of a stamp, you’ve got to tilt your foot up and slam the heel down one the other person’s foot. That’s the body’s natural movement. However, it’ll put the stiletto at an odd angle. Besides that, the foot is already arched. So, any force you’ll get out of dropping it is minimal at best. This is also assuming that you’re perfectly balanced on the other foot and can stay that way while in a scuffle with another person, who may be doing any number of things. If it doesn’t puncture (and it probably won’t, it’s more likely to slide off), it’s going to hurt a hell of a lot less than stamping some asshole barefoot. It’ll still hurt… maybe. The other person is most likely wearing shoes too. So, the heel has to make it through that too before it reaches the foot. How well it does that will depend on what they’re wearing. If it’s industrial work boots, biker boots, or combat boots, or anything leather then, you know, good luck.

Even if it does puncture, what then? Now the shoe is stuck in some idiot’s foot, and you’ve got to get it off in order to get away. Unless we’re talking about the knife, a stiletto is designed for walking on the street. It’s blunt, it’s dull, and it’s oddly shaped. It’s going to have trouble getting out. This will lead to you being stuck within easy grabbing distance, regardless of whether or not your back is turned. And for them, when you’re not that far away and walking isn’t an issue, well, pain isn’t quite as immobilizing as most people think. This is especially true when that person is angry. Pain can be a showstopper, it can also act as incentive to make the other person stop whatever it is they are doing.

It’s also probably worth pointing out that, when it comes to the foot, it’s the instep that’s horribly sensitive and not the top of the foot. The top can take a lot of abuse. The toes not so much, but really, you are going to to want to be able to hit more than one. Plus, high heels, and especially stiletto heels, make it awkward to go after the real money shot: the shin.

With the shin a lot of nerve endings and the bone are close to the surface, unprotected by a nice layer of muscle. Much like stamping the instep, kicking the shin (provided it’s exposed) has immediate, painful, and viable results. Kicking someone in the shin still requires a decent level of balance though, especially if you’re knocking them with your heel instead of your toes.

When it comes to combat, the stiletto heel is a Hollywood conceit. It’s like the catsuit. A lot of people will use stupid arguments to try and justify it, but at the end of the day a tank top, khaki’s, and combat boots are just the smart choice.

-Michi

As the door slammed shut behind them, Ella, Beth, and Serenity came skidding to a stop. Ella’s reddened fingers gripped the knob. Blood leaked from a set of shallow cuts on her knuckles, discoloring smooth white skin. Her second hand pressed to the wood, ear close. Music pounded on the door, loud even this far from the gymnasium. It drowned out the sound of following footsteps.

“Okay,” she said with a slow exhale. “We should be safe, for the moment. Kick off your heels and grab a weapon, girls.”

“Gotcha, boss,” Serenity replied and she started across the room.

“Weapon,” Beth mumbled. She patted down her chest. Black silk and chiffon tickled her thighs. Not much there, she thought. She had her belt, but it was a cheap chain. And I left my purse back in the gym. Biting her lip, her eyes dropped to the silver sandals still strapped to her feet. The heel was only three inches, but… Better than nothing. Well, she thought, at least they were cheap.

With a regretful sigh, she undid the straps and stepped out of them. Picking up the left, Beth gripped the base of the heel and gave a wrench. The shoe buckled, silver plastic biting into her hand. Beth gritted her teeth.

And, after another grunt, it popped free. 

Rolling it around in her palm, Beth loosed a relieved sigh. “I know it’s not much,” she said. “But…” Her gaze rose, then it stopped.

Both girls stared at her. Their pair of matched expressions could only be categorized as chagrin.

“What?”

The other two chuckled.

Ella lifted a pair of finely plucked black brows. Then, she shook her head and turned back to the door.

“Really?” Serenity asked. There was something in her hands. Long, thin, pipe-like, it rolled between black fingers. A set of perfect, pearly white teeth flashed between ruby lips in a brilliant grin. “You sure that’s the best you could find?”

Frowning, Beth shook her head. “Sure,” she said. “I… I mean…” her eyes moved back to the smooth tool in Serenity’s hands. For the first time, she glanced around the dimly lit room.

It was big. Much larger than their normal classrooms. In the center, a small silver car lifted up on some kind of steel platform. It had no wheels and was more than a little rusted. Tall moveable steel cabinets stood beside her. Red doors. Like the ones her father kept in the garage. Large wooden desks were set up all around the room. Plenty of long tables – no, she thought, not tables, work benches – mostly clean with a few exceptions.

“I…” Beth swallowed. Her cheeks burned. “We’re in the machine shop, aren’t we?”

Ella’s lips twitched as she stepped away from the door and to some sort of desk next to it. A rattle followed. She produced a pair of thick brown gloves, work gloves, from inside the shelf. Pulling them on, she strode past Beth and snagged a small rotund canister off one of the shelves.

It looked, Beth decided, like a blow horn. Or a blow torch. What would she need with a blow torch though?

“Coach gets a little lax after he’s had a few beers,” Serenity said. “Leaves a lot of this stuff unlocked. Accidentally, of course.” She turned back to Ella and Beth thought she saw a wink. “Right, Ellie?”

“Yup,” Ella replied. She didn’t look up. “Toss me the tire iron?”

“Catch!”

The hand extended, twisted, caught the spinning steel object in a single sweep, and the girl set it on the table next to her. A warm orange light burst in the darkness. It turned beneath Ella’s calm hand and she pointed it at the knob. Firelight flickered off her hair, illuminating a cold expression in her eyes.

Beth’s stomach twisted. Ella’s my friend. Sometimes, even though they’d only met three weeks ago, it felt like they’d known each other all their lives. But this Ella? This wasn’t a girl she knew. “What’s she doing?” Beth whispered.

“Doing prep,” Serenity said. Her navy dress swirled around her, silver bracelet jangling on her wrist. Crinkling brown-black hair bound back in a small knot on the top of her head. Bare feet padded on checkered tiles. A second weapon, another like the one she’d tossed Ella, rested in her hands. “We don’t have to just sit around and wait, you know.”

Right, Beth realized. Tire iron. This place probably had plenty of those. A warm hand gripped her shoulder and she glanced up.

“You should grab a weapon,” Serenity said. Her dark eyes glimmered in the moonlight, their expression not unkind. “Then, find a good place to hide. Fight only if you have to.” And she gave Beth a good squeeze. “We’ll take it from here.”

“Like a hammer?” Beth asked.

“Or a screwdriver,” Serenity laughed. “Since you seem to like stabbing things.”

“A wrench would be best,” Ella said. “And pipe down, they’re getting close.”

Beth stiffened. Memories of the gym flooded her. Normal looking boys and then, their strange hands. Claws. All twisted up in her hair. That’s what would be coming.

“Don’t let Ellie over there spook you,” Serenity added. “You’ve done well for your first time. Besides,” she leaned in and Beth felt her cheeks warm. “First time always sucks, anyway.”

“Yeah?” Beth asked.

“Oh yeah,” Serenity replied.

This is more of a conceit of mine, because the problem with using a shoe heel as an improvised weapon involves writers pass up better (smarter) options that are in the scene with them. Almost anywhere your character is, there’s going to be better options.

Ultimately, sticking to the heel just involves the character looking silly and, more often than not, inept.

If you are wondering what the plan was in this scene, it runs like this:

Ella sets heats up the door knob so it burns anyone trying to open the door. (She may have suffered a few burns.) With turning the knob out of the picture, when they try to break it down she opens it on them and lets the first one come tumbling into the room. At this point, Serenity whacks them back with the tire iron. This gives Ella time to get a hold of her tire iron (though with the gloves, she can still use the door as a weapon), allowing her to ambush the next one through the door. The doorway stalls out the approach of the group, forcing them to come through in ones or twos. While the second one chases Serenity, Ella gets him from behind (presumably they know there’s not third man or if there is then that’s where the fight starts to turn).

The power of teamwork.

One of the hardest things to do in a fight is to make it look like you’re trying to kill someone without doing permanent damage. They don’t teach any half-moves in combat training. There are moves designed to kill and maim as efficiently as possible. If those are off-limits, one option is opening your fist right before a punch lands. Painful, but the force is distributed. Another showy option is a kick to the shoulder. It might break a rib or two but if you aim right, nobody’s going to the morgue.

Michael Westen, Burn Notice 204: “Comrades”

Fight Scene Strategies: The Individual versus Group

In this article, we’ll talk some about structuring and writing combat between an individual and a group. As the title suggests, this article will focus primarily on unarmed/hand to hand strategies for dealing with multiple opponents. We’re going to avoid weapons for the most part in this discussion because the strategies can change dramatically depending on what weapon it is that your character is using and this article is going to have a heavier focus on how different groups behave and the problems you have to watch out for in your story when working with them.

So, let’s start by tearing down a few myths.

The Group is the Most Dangerous Opponent Your Hero will Face

No, really.  A group of mooks together are going to be an all around tougher fight than the antagonist who waits at the end of the tunnel. Due to the rise of comics and Hollywood’s building up of the “One True Badass”, the difficulties an individual faces when fighting a large group are often overlooked. In real life, groups are much more dangerous to the lone combatant than single individuals and even the toughest fighter can be easily taken down by the untrained if he or she fails to control the situation. The reason it’s become commonplace on television for the roving badass to dispatch a group of random mooks with ease is because it is so difficult to do so in the land of reality.

This is important.

The truth is that even when you have years of training, something that seems as simple as a two on one bout can seriously screw someone over. The more people you add, the more difficult it gets. The maximum number a well-trained human being can take on at any one time is eight. The brain cannot handle tracking a number higher than that, but the truth is that even three or four is a difficult challenge.

Why is fighting groups so hard?

There are a higher number of limbs versus the singular defender

The part about there being more limbs is important. A person only has two arms and two legs (unless they are a mutant or an alien) with which to fight. Those two arms and two legs will have a difficult enough time fending off the attacks of one person, much less having to deal with four more coming in on vectors that your character can’t control. It doesn’t matter how many punches your character blocks, one will probably get through and that one can be the deal breaker. This is bad enough when the character’s opponents aren’t communicating. It gets much worse when they start, which they will because it’s a thing.

People work together

Yes, they do. Humans are social animals and they work well together in teams, very well in fact. You know the scenes you see in the movies where the stunt doubles will circle up and wait around the fighter (as seen on Buffy) for their turn to attack in a series of duels? They have a habit of coming in one by one. That doesn’t happen because it doesn’t play to the group’s strengths.  If your character lets them, a group will attack together. If they can, they’ll surround the character, dogpile, and knock them to the ground. Often in more sophisticated groups that are used to working together, one or two will distract the fighter from the front while others close in from behind and either hit them in the vulnerable places like the spine, the hamstrings, and the lower back or seize control of them via the hero’s neck or limbs.

All groups work together on some level, even the uncoordinated ones. The better trained and more used to working together the individual members of the group are such as gangs or professionals like soldiers, cops, and mercenaries, the harder the fight will be.

Yeah, even the untrained will naturally start flanking your hero. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The Hero expends energy faster

Fighting is high energy exertion, it’s like sprinting and thus, it doesn’t last long. So, the hero must take down all their opponents before they themselves can no longer fight. Thus, they walk a much tighter tightrope of how fast it will be before they’re done.  They have to track more variables, their opponents, their surroundings, potential weapons, escape routes, how much time they have to hold out or finish it up before they or their enemies receive reinforcements, etc. It’s tough, tiring work. They have to know and keep track of where everyone is, actively strategizing, and moving to outpace their internal body clock.

Professionally trained combatants will approach a group, any group with a certain level of caution. For the untrained or untried hero, fighting a group can be where they find themselves in over their heads. It’s common for us to focus overly on the dangers we understand and ignore the ones we’re unaware of. Martial training can breed a certain level of arrogance in the early parts of an individual’s career before the fighter learns that everyone has the potential to be dangerous to them. Yes, even the little kids and old ladies. Disregarding the dangers of a group of lesser fighters or random idiots on the street is in character for most heroes.

Punish them for their mistakes. It’s a good humbling experience.

Well, it is if they survive.

Strategies

So, how can a character deal with groups?

Run away

This sounds like the coward’s way out, but it’s not. There’s no shame in living to fight another day or retreating to find a different approach instead of wading in. Don’t think of running away as giving up, think of it instead as retreating to find a more advantageous position. When faced with superior force and superior numbers, it is important for characters to seek to fight on their terms if they have the option to do so and to try anyway, even when they are pressed for time.

Run Away With Purpose

I call this rabbiting. When dealing with two or more individuals running away is an acceptable option as a means of breaking up the group so that they become easier to manage. You see this happen more commonly in action movies with stars that already know how to fight. (Example: Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx) By chasing the character, the more athletically adept will pull ahead and the less will fall behind. Characters with a firm grasp of their surrounding area can lose members of the group in the terrain. The character can then turn the situation around to their advantage and fight the smaller groups or individuals on their own terms.

This is only an effective strategy for characters that have good stamina, understand their area, and excel at thinking on their feet. It can go wrong for characters up against groups who can communicate over long distances and who are trained to outmaneuver that tactic. This includes the police (Example: Southland), the military, former military professionals, mercenaries, characters who possess some sort of telepathy, and characters who draw from a Pack mindset (werewolves, animalistic characters, etc).

Keep the opponent in front of you and protect the back

If a character cannot run or doesn’t have the option, then they might have to stand and fight. This can be difficult, given the tendency of a group to circle around and dog team (one distracts from the front, while another shoots in from the back or the side to tag the fighter before shooting off again, as the fighter attempts to recover from the blow, another comes in, and then another, and then another until they’re done) their opponents. A character fighting a group needs to keep the group in front of them. It can be difficult to defend from behind and while there are techniques (such as elbows and kicks) that allow characters to defend against individuals coming in behind them but they are limited. Characters fighting groups will want to keep moving, forcing their opponents to stay in front of them to limit their avenues and vectors of attack. By constantly moving, the character forces their opponents into each other as they attempt to attack and attack their enemies one at a time.

You can only attack one opponent at a time, so don’t waste movements

A character may switch between enemies, but they can only attack one enemy at a time. All their enemies may attack them and they don’t have to take turns. At best, they can block two, if they are really, really Jackie Chan fight scene choreography good then maybe three. But it’s best to have them focus on one at a time as they attempt to lock up the others. A fighter only has time for six to eight movements per fight, so they have to be dispatching each of their opponents in two or three blows depending on the numbers. Even the gentlest character may be forced to become ruthless.

All fights end on the ground, the character should make sure they don’t go down first

Suggestions on Writing:

This sort of chase scene or group fight can be tense an exhilarating and is helpful for establishing the nature of the fighter, especially if the audience is aware that they are up against a greater force. It can be a better reveal for who they are and what they’re willing to do when they are forced to be on their A game. However, as the writer, you need to be on the ball. Each of the characters in the group need to be clearly identified to the reader so they can track what is happening. Writing combat against a group is actually very difficult, because it is very messy and confusing. The sequence must be carefully choreographed in order to keep the tension kept high.

Graph out the setting area where the scene takes place, much like mapping an environment, writing and creating becomes easier when we know the pieces and materials that are at our disposal. A fight scene needs it’s the environment to be an active part of the scene because it changes the nature of the fight. A character running into the woods to escape a group hunting them will have different tools available than someone starting a chase in an urban environment. A character fighting in a bar may have nowhere to run but more objects at their disposal to throw and use in their own defense (beer bottles, chairs, tables, glasses, etc).

If you’re writing your character is going up against a group, then their understanding of their environment may be key to their success. Fights with groups are tense and require more than just skill for survival, creativity is also important. So, get your set pieces in place and see what happens.

Clearly identify each member of the group. Give them names based on distinguishing traits that a character observes about them, such as Number One and Number Two, The Brown Haired Guy, Blue Eyes, Buck Teeth, etc.

It’s important not to humanize the group members too much unless you want the audience to feel sorry for them, they shouldn’t be clearly evil, but they need to remain menacing. Knowing a character’s name humanizes them, so it’s not just a question of description, it’s a question of how much. Writing violence requires walking a careful line with the audience between just enough and too much.  Managing the emotions that your story evokes is important; too much makes it difficult to sympathize with the hero.

Examples:

Garvey came at Kel from the right, punching at her head. She slid away from his punch, grabbed his arm, pushed her right foot forward, and twisted to the left. Garey went over her hip into Vinson, who’d attacked on her left. Joren, at the center, came in fast as his friends hit the wall. Kel blocked Joren’s punch to her middle, but his blow was a feint; his left fist caught her right eye squarely. Kel scissored a leg up and out, slamming her right foot into Joren’s knee. Joren hissed and grabbed her hair. Someone else—Vinson—tackled her. Kel let his force throw her into Joren. Down the three of them went in a tumble. Joren let go of her hair, fighting to get out from under her and Vinson. Kel elbowed him in the belly and turned to thrust her other hand into Vinson’s face, encouraging him to get off her by pressing his closed eyes with her fingers.

Page by Tamora Pierce

This sequence by Tamora Pierce is compact, but it shows the sort of attention to detail you need when writing an individual versus a group. It’s not the only way to do it and whatever we suggest here, there are always many more strategies for you to uncover and develop in your own work.

We hope this has been helpful!

-Michi

Fight Write: A Basic Upper Body Primer (Open Hand)

In this post we’ll be talking about open hand strikes, how they work and what they do. While closed hand strikes are more popular in fiction, the ones working with the open hand are also important. We’ll start by talking about the advantages and disadvantages of the open hand, and then try to give some insight into some specific strikes with some examples on how to write them.

With open hand strikes, there’s honestly not that much to say. Or there’s not much I can say, aside from a few common ones, they’re not my specialty. But try not to let that worry you too much, I’m avoiding the spear hand on principle because it’s finicky and the chances your character would have to use the strike are so limited (and so obvious) that it’s better to just ignore it for the moment.

So, let’s get down to it.

Open hand strikes can be, in the right circumstances, more dangerous than a closed fist because they focus the force of the strike into a much more concentrated point than the fist. It’s important to remember that most of the conventional wisdom about force application we have in popular culture comes from observations made about various sport styles and exhibition fighting, such as in movies and staged fights at martial arts tournaments. The assumption becomes that those moves were chosen to be allowed because they are more effective, not less. The problem though, with that assumption is that while goal of fighting is to win, it’s also to do so with relative safety and not kill the opponent. Injure, wound, and maim perhaps, but again not kill. The same is true for both tournament demonstration and media in general. Many of the open hand strikes are, in fact, designed not just for killing but also screwing with the body’s internal energy flow and its nervous system.

Open hand strikes are useful in that they can transition more easily into blocks than the closed hand strikes.

Below: the open palm strike, the half-palm strike, the knife hand, the ridge hand, and the slap.

The Open Palm Strike:

A common strike in Karate and Tae Kwan Do, the palm strike (open and half) is one that allows the attacker to hit their opponents body with minimal risk to the delicate bones in the hand. The open palm strike specifically hits the opponent with the meaty portion of the lower palm in the vulnerable areas of the body. It is important to remember, that the strike does not use the whole hand. The palm strike uses the wrist as the driving force behind the assault, with the hand vertical to the rest of the arm. It’s important to keep the entire hand and wrist tight to absorb the impact. Like the punch, the palm strike goes upwards at a 45 degree angle to the face (hitting the nose, it drives the cartilage into the brain) and straight to the stomach. If the strike is low enough, it can connect with the throat, but it’s also important not to catch the fingers on the chin. There is, however, a variation on the half-palm strike that goes to the throat and it is discussed below.

Remember, like all strikes, the power of the palm strike comes from the hips, the shoulders, and the pivot of the front or back foot, not the muscles in arm. Martial arts is a full body exercise.

How do you write it? Here’s an example:

Amy stepped in as her opponent’s arm came up. Folding her fingers in until they touched the underside of her knuckles, she bent her hand up to expose the fleshy portion of her palm. There wasn’t enough distance between the two of them for her to strike his nose and he was closing rapidly.

Well, Amy realized, she’d just have to take a chance.

Jaw clenching, her elbow and shoulder pulled back. Then, her hand shot out, slamming her palm into the small, vulnerable opening underneath his chest. As the wind went out of him, she threw herself forward. Her hands rose to clinch the back of his head, her fingers locking together as her elbows folded in around his throat. Drawing him down as her hip came up, she rammed her right knee into his groin. 

The Half-Palm Strike:

The major difference between the open palm strike and the half-palm is that the first one comes in with fingers straight, the second folds the fingers and tucks them in tight against the bottom knuckle of the palm. When the half palm is vertical to the wrist it strikes the same as the open palm. However, when it’s horizontal and in-line with the wrist, it strikes with the joints to the windpipe or the stomach. It can be performed overhand (with the palm facing down) or underhand (with the palm facing up).

Common Beginner Mistake: The open palm strike is commonly taught first, on the basis of beginners risking a finger break. The joints of the fingers are extremely delicate, so if it connects wrong such as the practitioner forgetting to pull their hand all the way back to expose the meaty portion of the palm when the hand is vertical or connecting with a bony part of the body such as the cheek, chest, or chin when doing the horizontal version the fighter risks damage to themselves.

So, how do you write it? Here’s an example:

Alan’s fingers folded in and he rolled his hand over. Drawing his arm down to his waist, he struck upwards at a forty-five degree angle. The tender joints of his fingers met his opponent’s windpipe, but instead of slamming through, Alan pulled back. After all, this was just a training exercise. Jim stumbled, hands rising to his throat. He hacked and wheezed, drawing air up in through his nostrils. Then, he lifted his head. Narrowed eyes glared at Alan as Jim turned his head to the side and spat.

The Knife Hand:

We’ve talked some about the knife hand and how dangerous it can be in previous posts, but we’re going to talk about it again! Why? Why not! The knife hand is a bread and butter strike from quite a few different martial arts from all over the world, though it was popularized, attributed, and defanged by Hollywood to Karate in the 60s and 70s in the spy genre with “the karate chop”. Contrary to popular belief though, the knife hand isn’t actually a safe knockout strike to the side or back of the neck. It’s a kill strike and when it’s within range, it’s a fairly efficient one. So, be careful with it. If your character is practicing any variant of Karate or more traditional forms of Taekwondo then they will be exceedingly familiar with this strike.

The knife hand or the sword-hand uses the blade of the hand, the outside edge opposite the thumb that runs from the little finger to the wrist when the hand is flat and tightened together. The wrist locks in place to support the hand and the fingers point to create the visual profile of a knife or single edge sword. The knife hand strikes in a chopping motion either up and down or on a diagonal, it doesn’t stab. The knife hand targets soft points on the body from the carotid artery in the neck to the outside pressure point midway up the upper arm between the biceps and triceps. The strike closes the carotid artery and when it aims from the spinal column or the back of the neck, it’s looking to sever vertebrae. The blade of the hand allows for much deeper tissue penetration and more pinpointed strikes.

Common Beginner Mistake: Your character has got to keep their entire hand tightened, if they loosen up before impact they’ll damage their hand and won’t really damage their target. This is where thoughts like “I don’t want to hurt anyone” will really screw you, because it both damages a character’s ability (and yours) to fight effectively (thus ending the fight quickly before anyone is hurt more than they need to be) and the good intentions open the character up to retaliation by the person they’re fighting (who often really does want to hurt them). The knife hand, while a simple strike, doesn’t have a lot of room for error on the part of the practitioner before it’s no longer capable of dealing damage. The mind and body need to be in sync with each other.

Example:

Tightening her hand into a blade, Sonya slammed it on a downwards diagonal into the side of Misha’s throat.

The Ridge Hand:

The ridge hand is the opposite version of the knife hand, it uses the inside portion of the hand to strike on a diagonal arc to different portions of the body, such as the mastoid muscles in the neck, the jugular, the temple, the eyes, the nose, and the groin. It’s a strike that I personally feel is more dangerous to the wielder than the opponent because of what happens if they miss, but that’s why it’s high risk and high reward. Unlike the knife hand, the ridge hand is a very big strike. Much like a haymaker or roundhouse punch, it requires a rather wide arc to be successful and thus is very easy to see. This is not a stealthy strike. Like I said: high risk equals high reward.

 To perform a ridge hand, tuck the thumb against the hand (or under it in some styles). Lock the fingers together, tighten the whole arm up to the shoulder and swing the arm on a diagonal, high or low, to the point of impact. The ridge hand doesn’t strike with the fingers, but with the inside side of the first knuckle on the hand. When on a high diagonal strike, the arm swings up and arcs downwards into the target, even when going across into the nose or eyes. When going to the groin, it just swings straight up between the legs while stepping through the opponent.

Common Beginner Mistake: The ridge hand really requires fairly exceptional accuracy when dealing with an opponent in non-sparring circumstances. A beginner has a greater chance of missing, which means they’ll hurt their hand in the process. It’s better to stick to safer strikes. Safer for the beginner, I mean.

Example:

Sarah whipped her arm up and slammed it downwards in a wide arc, tucking her thumb tightly against the side of her hand. The first knuckle of her hand collided with Ethan’s left temple and he stumbled backwards. Then, his eyes rolled back and he dropped to his knees.

The Slap:

The slap doesn’t get a lot of love and with good reason: there are better techniques out there that work faster and do more damage in a shorter amount of time. The slap mostly plays out in the hands of street fighters, amateurs, and wife beaters because it’s a safe strike for the hand, and spreads the force over a wide area, and is a stunner more than a hitter. But, for a character who is not sure how to fight and is worried about breaking their hand on someone else’s face, the slap is actually a pretty good strike to use when disorienting and distracting an opponent. Its fellow technique is the bitch slap which uses the knuckles on the back of the hand to make more of an impression.

The slap comes with some nasty connotations for abuse, so be careful with it.

The slap uses the whole hand to whack the opponent across the face, it’s usually going for the cheek or, more specifically, the sensitive exposed cheekbone underneath the eye. Places on the body with exposed bone like the shin, the cheek, and the elbow’s funny bone tend to be more sensitive and easy places to produce pain for a stun to lock up the opponent.

Common Beginner Mistake: This one’s more about perception of an opponent than it is about actual fighting failure. The slap is very safe and easy, but because it’s used as a controlling strike and often gets lodged in as the favoured strike of abusers and bullies, writers and their characters often underestimate those who use it. Someone picking on or hurting someone smaller and weaker than themselves is (a bad person) not necessarily a weakling that a stronger character can take out. Sometimes it’s that simple, but often people are more complex than that.

Example:

Do you really need an example for how to write a slap? I didn’t think so.

Other primers that may be of use to you:

The Kicking Primer (Basics) Part 1

The Basic Upper Body Primer (Fists)

Fight Write: Don’t Underestimate the Slap