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Writing Examples: Sizing Up Opponents (Assassins)

Description is important. It’s important for all the reasons we usually think of when we’re writing, from making our settings come alive to fleshing out other characters. However, observations made by a character are also important to telling the audience about that character. It’s an insight into how they think and what they notice in the world around them. However – while this works as a basis for most characters – when working with a trained combatant, or even a fighter, we need to take it a step further. What a trained combatant sees and relays to the reader can be an important tip off, not just to who they are, but what they’ve been trained to do and what kind of combatant they are. It’s also a good indication that they are actively participating and this can lend a sense of danger to an environment. If you’re good at it, it may help the reader come to view the world in a way that they hadn’t considered before.

All these things are important to selling a professional operative, but they are necessary when working with an assassin.  Well, they are if you want the assassin taken seriously. Below, we’ll talk about how to do that.

If you have a character who is supposed to be an excellent assassin then they should probably be thinking about killing people. You know the line: “be professional, be polite, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet”? Well, your assassin should literally be in the middle of planning or beginning to plot to kill everyone they meet, even if they aren’t intending to murder them. The more adept your assassin is then the more obvious disconnect between the way they behave towards others and what they are thinking about doing to them should be to the reader.

Assassins plot to kill people in the same way that spies constantly tell lies. It’s as easy as breathing and they do it to stay in practice. A well executed assassination is all about the prep work: getting to know the target’s habits, observing them in their native or non-native environment, finding the weaknesses in their protection, determining what they love, and where they are going to be most vulnerable. This can actually be very helpful to writing an assassin because the assassin must be constantly on the move, constantly out in tense situations, and working hard manipulating key assets to get what they need to do their job.

They do not want people to know who they are. The more people who know and the more they broadcast their nature then the more likely it is that someone will track them down or recognize them when they are on a job. Assassins work covertly, if your assassin is famous then it’s likely that people on the street, the criminal element, and other assassins will prioritize eliminating them. When an assassin reveals their nature or has their nature revealed then they lose their advantage.

Personality Traits:

Good assassins are patient, skilled at social manipulation (including seduction), are excellent actors, have great social and situational awareness, and they are very observant. They are also meticulous and methodical.

What an assassin is looking for:

Use and abuse is an assassin’s mantra. They are looking for assets who can provide information on their target, they may manipulate these assets for information about their target or even convince them to follow or find their target for them. So, when an assassin is assessing a person or an environment they are looking for traits and quirks that will provide them with an advantage or be potentially dangerous to them. That assessment may come from what the character is wearing, their looks, how they stand, and thousands of other things


In this setup, I’m going to borrow a situation from Sarah J. Mass’ Throne of Glass with a twist: eight assassins are called to the King’s palace to compete in a competition for the cushiest and most boring job of all time. The winner will become the King’s Assassin, a warrior of such renown that all they can do is distract the King’s political enemies while the real work gets done and provide the Ladies of the Court with more reasons to swoon. In this example, our brave heroine Kayla will be sizing up her first target, the effervescent playboy that, for the sake of this exercise, we’ll call Number Five (also Pretty Boy).

It was easy to see why Number Five had been picked. He was very pretty and stood with a courtier’s grace. He had an aquiline nose, a tall forehead that disappeared into his chestnut hairline, wide set hazel eyes that languidly surveyed the room, and, of course, pouty lips. It was the sort of visage any girl or boy in court might swoon for and the kind that could be considered aesthetically pleasing to those who did not find him attractive. In his face, he had cultivated the appearance of likeability. Under his clothes, it was probably another story.  His finery stretched the length of his body, soft calf-skin boots, tight cream pants, and a decorated over shirt with wide sleeves that ran the length of his arm. When he moved, she caught the vague impression of wrist sheathes just behind the tapered cuffs embroidered in gold thread.

There were no knives in those sheathes –like her poison ring, Pretty Boy could not have gotten knives, enchanted or otherwise, past the King’s Guard or the Magical Alarm – he simply wore them to make an impression. Perhaps his intent was to lend the appropriate air of danger? Yes, Kayla thought as she lifted a glass off a passing tray, this was a man who would seduce the servants first and that could be a problem for her. She lifted the glass to her lips, fluttering her eyelashes coquettishly at no one in particular. Tilting the amber liquid toward her mouth, she held her breath and pretended to sip. Her lips did not touch the rim. If she had to guess from the way his eyes followed the bustles of passing females, he would choose the women first. It could make him useful. If he proved to be a cad, then he would drive potential sources among the servants to her. Shared hatred was a wonderful access point when looking to make new friends. If he’s not…

Then, she had found her first target. Kayla lifted the thin stem of her glass to Pretty Boy and the corners of his tightened in return.

Game on.

You can do a lot of things with your assassins and, as always, this is just an example.


Writing Example: Action and Set Piece (Motel Room)

In this writing example, we’re going to talk a little about fighting in a hotel room. One of keys to making your fight scenes sing is to make sure you’re using your set pieces. A fight that can happen anywhere and be the same anywhere is one that no one will remember because it doesn’t tie the character to the place, if you can put your character on a space station, in the White House, at the beach, or have them fighting in a back alley with no difference at all then your fight scene will have no sense of weight. You want to individualize your fight scene, to show how your characters react to different stimulus, how they behave when the rules and situations have changed. A good fighter is an adaptable one; they are capable of working within their environment. An untrained and desperate character on the run will turn to their environment first to find some sort of advantage. They may not look and see the same possibilities when they look at your set piece, but both will try to use it.

In today’s writing example, we’ll be using a run-down motel room as our set piece.

The kind of hotel or motel your character is staying at may change what’s available to them, so do some research on the kind of places the characters are staying at. In order to get a good grasp of what amenities and items could make for good improvised weapons. If you haven’t started playing the “what can I kill someone with” game or “what can I use as a weapon” when you’re out and about or even at home then it’s time to start. I’ll go first. To my right I have a coffee mug: it’s ceramic, fairly sturdy, I bought it at Wal-Mart, and right now it’s half-full of cold coffee with creamer. If I was attacked: pick up the mug, hurl the coffee in the mug at the eyes (the coffee is bad enough but the sugar makes them sticky), and slam into or on top of their head. If it didn’t break on the first hit, then keep hitting them until they go down if I can. Downside: I could find my hand full of ceramic shards. Upside: the same will be true of their head.  Other options include: a Texas Instruments T-86, a can of Clean DR Multipurpose Duster for electronic equipment (go for the eyes, Boo!), and a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

So, now that we’re in the mood, let’s brainstorm for a motel room.

A motel room has a limited amount space and the beds already take up a fair amount of the available square footage. It’s a bad place to have to fight if someone get’s the drop on you because there isn’t a lot of area to work with and if your characters get penned in then there’s nowhere to run. However, it can be a good set piece if your characters need a place to crash for the night or take a breather and are worried about getting attacked.

Possible Improvised Weapons:

chairs, lamp (take off the shade and unplug, hit with the back end for maximum effect or with the bulb to coat with glass), pens, Gideon Bible, Ice Bucket (if available), the coffee pot from the Coffee Maker (if available), the door (front, bathroom if necessary), pillow cases, ceramic coffee cups (if available).

Things to watch out for:

Really, really big windows that let other people see you before you see them.

Conventional Weapons:

Guns make a lot of noise and even mostly abandoned motels have staff and some guests, so if your characters or their enemies want to attract attention from other guest or the cops then these are a great way to get it. Unlike in the movies, a silenced pistol sounds like someone dropping a dictionary in the next room. People will hear it and they will come to investigate or phone the police. If your characters are running or don’t want to deal with cops then shooting up a hotel is out of the question. The same will be true for attention getting superpowers such as super strength or elemental.

However, it’s true that if the character is an experienced operative they may be able to line up a shot through a wall or the floor from above without the other character noticing.

Thematic Tips: The lack of available space can make things start to feel claustrophobic if the characters are scared, the bed may look inviting but if the characters need to stay awake then it will be an active temptation, and depending on the distance of their car from the room, their ability to get out fast if things get hairy can be a source of worry. Long hallways, elevators, and stairwells will make experienced operatives nervous.

The Example:

I was already moving before the knock on the door. I’d seen their shadows moving along the window. It was a solid impression made on the closed curtains by the rays of the lamp six feet up on the wall outside. This was the reason why I picked rooms on the end; you could always catch the idiots who forgot to base their angle of approach on the environmental variables and surrounding terrain. I crossed across off the bed, the lights in the room were off and my eyes already well adjusted to the darkness. Picking up the lamp off the table, I removed the shade, turned it over to grip the slim metal neck, and slid up to the door. Next to the knob, I waited. When they came through they’d be closest to me and that was when I’d catch them off guard with their pistols pointed at empty space. After all, I was the only one here who had to worry about cops.

Hopefully, they wouldn’t think to shoot me through the wall.

My back pressed in against the paisley and taupe wallpaper. My arm lifted. Number 42 Motels always had the blandest color choices.

The door slammed open and the first man walked through the door. Moving forward, I swung my arm down into the soft back of his skull. Down he went with a crack.

“Shi—” that was the voice of the second one. Then, there was the ka-chunk of a bullet chambering. Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of a Glock 17. This one wasn’t going to bother coming in.


Happy Writing!


Cause and Effect: Fight Scene Examples

One of the things that really sell a fight scene is the physical reactions and it’s one that many authors overlook, even if these things are just external. So, let’s do some examples with a few different sequences to show how fights can be improved with the inclusion of a few crucial details.

Example 1: John hits Grace in the face and she kicks him in the shin.

In this example, we’re going to do two characters that are friendly with each other. One of the best ways to run fights between men and women is to treat them as equals within the context of the narrative. Below, we’ll show a few different sets that include more details that will really help your fight sequence come to life.


John punched Grace in the face. Glaring at him as her jaw set, Grace snarled, “you bastard!” Pulling her leg back, she drove her foot into his shin.

The above is serviceable and one you will see in many different novels and short stories depicting violence. Though sparse, it covers all the bases by depicting an action and a reaction. Both of which are important. However, you don’t get anything more than that and while serviceable, this example isn’t what I would call “alive”. Let’s add some normal human reactions to getting hit and see how it changes.


Drawing his arm back, John drove his fist into Grace’s nose. Head flying as her eyes locked on the sky, Grace stumbled. Her left foot slid on the concrete and she braced the heel of her sneaker against the rough ground. Her hands rose to cover her nose, eyes squeezing shut. A single tear leaked down her cheek. Head coming forwards, nose throbbing, she glared at John over her fingers.

“You bastard,” Grace snarled.  “What the hell did you do that for?”

“You weren’t listening!”

“Oh?” Grace said, lowering her hands. “Well, jackass, listen to this!” Grace stepped forward, left leg pulling back and struck out. Her instep slammed into John’s shin with a solid crunch. John yelped, his right leg lifting off the ground, head dropping as he leaned forwards. Seizing the back of John’s head with her fingers, she forced his skull down and rammed her knee upwards into his face.

Now, this is much better. The head moves when it’s struck due the kinetic force of the strike and because the head is knocked, the body becomes unbalanced causing the fighter to stumble if they were unprepared for the hit. The hands automatically move to protect the injured body part, in this case the nose. From the pain in the nose, the eyes shut and water causing the fighter to cry (though they don’t feel sad).  The result is the fighter feels angry and, if the other person didn’t move to take them out of the fight, may strike back as Grace does here. While there are a few more things that can change here and there, there’s one big one that can be added: sound.


Drawing his arm back, John drove his fist into Grace’s nose. Head flying as her eyes locked on the sky, Grace stumbled. Her left foot slid on the concrete and she braced the heel of her sneaker against the rough ground. Her hands rose to cover her nose, eyes squeezing shut. A single tear leaked down her cheek. Head coming forwards, nose throbbing, she glared at John over her fingers.

“Boo bas-turd,” Grace snarled.  “Bhat da bell did boo do bhat fer?”

John covered his mouth. “I didn’t hear that, Grace,” he said. He leaned forward, hand cupping his ear. “What did you say?”

“B’oh?” Grace said, lowering her hands. “Bell, backass, bisten do dis!” Grace stepped forward, left leg pulling back and struck out. Her instep slammed into John’s shin with a solid crunch. John yelped, his right leg lifting off the ground, head dropping as he leaned forwards. Seizing the back of John’s head with her fingers, she forced his skull down, knee ramming upwards into his face.

The decision whether or not to add a change in vocal patterns is entirely up to the writer, but it emphasizes something important (and funny) that can happen when someone gets hit in the nose (or bites their tongue). Because the nose helps govern the sound of our voices, getting hit in the nose can change what we sound like. However, the decision on whether or not to use this should depend entirely on the situation or what you’re trying to say because the character will sound a little foolish. Now, you can use this feeling of foolishness to great effect if you’re writing in First Person or Third Person Limited, but it may hurt how the audience perceives the character right out of the gate because, you know, it’s funny. It can also make the other character look like a jackass, which if you want the character of John to by sympathetic, may hurt them in the long run.

Writing Exercise: Sketch out a fight scene for yourself, much like the first example, then write down on a separate piece of paper your own experiences or what you’ve seen elsewhere about how the body reacts to getting hurt. Then, include those feelings and reactions into the descriptive aspects of the scene. See what you turn out.

All examples were written by me. If you find these helpful, I may do more. Happy Writing!