Tag Archives: writing fight scenes

Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

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Building Narrative Tension: How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting

Let me start by saying that violence by itself is actually rather dull.

I’m talking, of course, about fictional violence. Fictional violence is meaningless until given meaning by it’s creator.

Have you ever asked yourself, why violence is terrifying? If you haven’t, ask yourself that question. Why is violence so frightening?

Answer that question for yourself, in detail. Now, don’t just settle for one answer or a broad answer. Keep digging until you get specific, until you get personal.

One of the major problems writers face when writing violence is the assumption that the violence or the act of violence is going to do the work for them. The truth is, it won’t. You’re going to need to put in the effort to move your characters from stick figures slapping each other to people with meaningful goals and stakes. Action means nothing without emotions to hook into, without costs and consequences.

So, again, why is violence scary?

Think about your favorite fight scenes either in written fiction, comics, or in film. Consider why it works for you. Why were you invested? Why did you care?

You’ll probably have different answers depending on the scene you chose, but behind each one, you’ll find a host of them. Those which are overarching in terms of plot, those which are personal on the character level. Goals. Desires. Stakes.

Part of the reason why it is so hard to provide good examples of fight scenes, (just like every other fictional scene, really) is that the real impact isn’t actually in act of the violence itself. In fiction, a fight scene is actually a climax, a culmination, and release of the tension built up in prior scenes. You might immediately think of a climactic battle at the end of a narrative like the Battle of Gondor, but it can be as small as two people arguing in a bar until one of them hits the other across the face with a glass mug.

A is standing at the bar, chatting with their friends. They’re a little tipsy, they’ve been drinking, but they’re not so drunk as to have lost all cognitive or motor function.

Enter B, at a nearby table with their companions. B is a mercenary from a unit garrisoned just outside of town. B gets up from the table and goes to the bar. B elbows A’s friend, a member of the local militia aside to order from the bartender.

A’s friend stumbles.

A grabs B by the shoulder and pushes him back.

B glares at A, demanding to know why he’s in the way.

A insists B apologize.

B refuses, insults the state of the local militia.

A’s friend tries to break in, stating they’re fine. They think everyone should calm down.

A takes a breath, relaxes.

B spits in A’s face.

A grabs their glass mug off the bar, clocks B across the face.

B stumbles backwards.

Pause.

Let me break this down:

A hitting B with the glass is actually the moment where the scene ends, the tension releases, even though the action continues into a new scene with B’s reaction. We’ve got our setup, our dilemma, our decision, and then action. On the action, the tension releases, and you start all over again.

An example is the scene from The Princess Bride where Wesley is climbing cliff and Inigo offers to throw him the rope. This sequence is a separate scene from the following duel, but works as establishment for the characters and the kind of men they are. The scene climaxes when Wesley tells Inigo to throw him the rope and enters it’s denouement as he finishes making his way to the top.

This sequence is crucial to the duel. We begin to really care about Inigo, feel a sense of camaraderie. This camaraderie is now in conflict with our desire to see Wesley save Buttercup and, as a result, we worry over Inigo’s future. He’s no longer just a mook, but a compelling character in his own right.

If you wanted the true underlying tension of The Princess Bride’s duel, it’s this conflict and not the duelist’s skill level.

The equal skill provides additional tension against the goal of saving Buttercup, but, due to Princess Bride’s fairy tale structure, we know Wesley is going to win. What keeps the duel itself interesting is, how will Wesley win and will he defeat Inigo before Buttercup is killed by Vizini?

The same question is asked in the following duel with Fezzik with a similar structure. Then, we see the same structure play out again with Vizzini. Wesley matches their skills against his in a fair fight, and, ultimately, defeats them.

There are, however, multiple fight scenes within Wesley and Inigo duel. You can see those breaks when they stop fighting, to give the audience a breather and breaking the fight up to ensure the scene doesn’t become monotonous. With action sequences, monotony is, ironically, a real danger. Putting in breaks allows you to extend the action without losing audience attention, and let’s their brain rest.

These breaks are just as important in writing as they are in film. You want to make sure you keep ratcheting up and releasing that tension, along with audience expectation.

(If you’d like an interesting breakdown of how historical fencing compares to The Princess Bride, Skallagrim’s got a good one. The Princess Bride itself is a love letter to the likes of Zorro and swashbuckling films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, digging into it’s influences can help you if that’s a genre you want to chase.)

You should start thinking of every fight sequence in your novel as not one scene, but many little scenes broken up around character action and dialogue. Build up, up, up, then release, and start over.

Setup: This is the moment before your characters engage, where you establish the stakes and potential consequences. The surrounding pieces at play, A is drinking with their friends, B is a mercenary, A’s friend is in the militia, and there might be some bad blood between them.

You start establishing your tension here, your pieces stressed against each other before we start ratcheting up.

Rising Action: This is where the tension really starts to build. Depending on the type of scene you’re structuring, your character’s violent actions could actually fit in here. Most likely, initially, prolonged violence will be part of the second scene.

Climax: Your tension dissipates on the opening strike. Then, the characters must decide if they’ll escalate. Any violence in the following scene can end here.

The climax of the example is A hitting B.

Denouement: I like to call this “The Decision”, the fallout, the realization, where characters decide if they’re going to back out. This can be the retreat, where they try to get away before being forced back into a fight, the dialogue where characters try to buy themselves time, realizations of injuries, or just their breather between bouts.

The denouement of the scene is B stumbling.

Escalate: The violence in the next section escalates, which means the situation becomes more serious, more intense, more violent. Basically, things get worse.

The escalation of the scene? If A continues to attack B, or if B’s mercenary friends join the fray.

The consequences of violent actions are, usually, events escalate into more violence.

Remember, violence is about problem solving. It’s a tool in the box of conflict resolution, one which often acts as a short term solution but ultimately makes the situation worse in the long run. If your character has chosen to resolve a conflict this way then they have limited their options to resolve the conflict differently. This is true whether you’re looking at widespread warfare or an interpersonal dispute. Violence closes off alternative routes for resolution, and builds expectations for audience over what will happen next.

When you build your world, your characters, and your narrative, you are making promises to your reader. A large part of the tension which comes from violent actions by your characters, or fight scenes, will be consequences resulting from them. If you promise, say, that violent actions by your MC will result in swift, harsh consequences which could cost them their life, then you better deliver. The character doesn’t need to die, but something should happen. Showing up to work the next day like nothing went down, especially if someone else in a position of authority saw it? Now, you’ve not only undercut your narrative tension but devalued your world and broken the reader’s trust. You promised consequences. You didn’t deliver. At that point, there’s no reason to take any other threat presented to your characters seriously.

Suspension of Disbelief is not built on realism, it’s built on your compact with the reader, the rules you’ve set for your narrative and their expectations, the narrative you’ve promised to deliver. You need rules because they create a framework for your story, for your scenes, and, especially, for you fight scenes.

Your fight scenes are only a part of your story, but they’re important. They provide an opportunity to expand your character and also create disruptive inciting incidents around which action occurs.

If people complain your characters aren’t realistic, you shouldn’t immediately jump to make events and characters more like the “real” world. Rather, you should step back, look at your worldbuilding and the expectations you set in the early pages. Did you do the prep work?

You can’t win ’em all, but, often, the criticism you’ll get won’t be helpful until you realize what it means. Everything is permissible, so long as you put in the work to set it up first.

A bar brawl at the beginning of your novel could be the foundation of the entire story with all the spiraling consequences falling like dominoes from that one action. And that, my friend? That is tension.

Tension is uncertainty. It’s in the question, what will happen next? What will happen to these characters I care about? Will they be okay?

Turning heel, Leah raced toward the window at the cavern’s opposing end.

Soldiers struggled to stand, clamoring off the benches. Some of the beta-kings drew their lasabres and laspikes, while the pteroriders yanked out pistols and force-blades.

Leah dodged past a soldier reaching for her, jumped onto the table, and flung herself forward with a telekinetic thrust. She landed hard, half-way free, lasabre springing to life in her hand. An orange flash sliced through a long wooden table hurled at her head. The pieces fractured cleanly and broke apart into two flat planes. Thrusting them behind her, she didn’t wait for the crash but heard the screams.

Overhead, footmen moved to the edges of the balconies, rifles ringing the room. They took aim as a unit, and fired into the crowd.

Dancing between the bolts, Leah dove through fleeing petitioners. Three strong presences flashed through her.

A knight in silver lunged into view, a turquoise blade ignited in his hand. His armor shone, his identity hidden by his mask.

Another, familiar, presence closed in from behind.

Nathan, Leah thought. Cor!

They were going to cut her off, pile on like raptors in the diplohouse. 

Leah’s jaw tightened. She needed to get out. That meant reaching the cavern’s overlook. Her eyes moved to the left-side balcony. There!

Orlya thrummed with approval.

Leah spun, diving into the crowd.

Two knights gave chase.

A third followed, but at an easy pace. Petitioners screaming as his telekinesis seized and hurled them from his path.

Switching off her sword, Leah catapulted high into the air, over the soldiers at the balcony railing, and landed hard. Shoulder and back aching, she rolled to her feet.

Several men stared at her.

Leah smiled.

A soldier lifted his rifle.

With raised hands, she stepped backwards.

Roaring, Hector Darenian dropped in from above — a raging ball of sapphire blue. He crashed into the gathered soldiers, plowing through them, blade shearing through their bodies. Hot blood cascading across the stone, Hector slammed headlong through the opposing wall.

Leaping over the fallen, Leah landed neatly on the balcony’s railing and stepped off. She hit the cavern floor. Another quick dash carried her to the overlook.

“Stop!”

We can sit here and talk about tension, but tension is all about the pieces you pressure against each other. External factors pressure internal goals and desires, external consequences cut off alternate paths. You can switch up with more techniques, add new odds like more enemies or more dangerous enemies, change the rules like switching from the left hand to the right, pull out new pieces of information, but there also needs to be the promise the event is going to lead somewhere, that it will affect something, that this furthers our story.

Some writers, especially new writers, have a habit of writing their story like it’s modular. The scenes are individual rather than interlinked. The hot boy gets into a bar fight to show how cool and dangerous he is, but that’s the only narrative purpose the scene has. However, you can add tension to this scene and the MC’s relationship with said boy if the police show up at their house a day later to ask questions about the brawl. Now, interacting with him could have real consequences for their own goals, their future, how good an idea is this? And, suddenly, we’ve got stakes.

If your violence serves no purpose, it has no purpose. In the world of fiction, your fight scene is what you make it. You can’t expect real world expectations or fears or the concept of violence itself to do the work for you. You’ve got to latch the actions into both your characters and your world.

How does a bar brawl between two factions affect the relationship of the town militia and the mercenaries camped outside? How does a bar brawl affect A and B’s relationship with the other locals in the bar? With the bartender? With their friends? How do the injuries sustained change the severity of what happens? What if someone dies?

Your inciting incidents are what you make of them. Your fight scene can be a workhorse building up your narrative, or it can be meaningless fluff with stick figures clashing together on the page.

-Michi

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Q&A: Fight Scene Length

Do you have any advice for scene length/impact? I’m realizing that if writing a three page play by play of a sword fight is hard, reading it must be even worse, so I’m trying o shorten it up without diminishing its importance or the impact it’s supposed to have.

Usually, the shorter the better. I’ve talked about this before, but different mediums lend themselves to different approaches to combat.

Film and games thrive on a longer, drawn out, format. In a film, each strike can carry individual drama because you’re getting the responses of the actors. Film can also thrive on spectacle, a visually exciting environment and engaging choreography can sell a fight that, on paper, is fairly dull.

Comics thrive on spectacle. It’s not about how long the fight is, it’s about being able to have dynamic moments that your artist can bring to life. If you have that, your fight can be one panel or it can comfortably go for pages. I haven’t pointed this out before, but in comics, as a writer, you really need an artist who fits what you’re trying to do. You’re equal parts of a team.

In prose, you want your fights to be as brief as necessary. Note: “As brief as necessary.” If it’s just a fight between two characters, that can be over in a couple paragraphs. Even if it’s part of a larger battle, that stuff can be pushed to the side for this individual fight. However, background elements can intrude, extending the fight. For example: If a fight is interrupted by other characters, and one chooses to break combat to escape, you could have a much longer encounter without resorting to a blow by blow.

You want to avoid a rhythm of repetition at all costs. RPGs can easily break down combat into round after round of, “I hit them with my axe,” and the sound of dice rolling. There’s nothing wrong with that in that format. The experience that sells that is three fold: First: You’re a participant. This isn’t something affecting a character you care about, it’s affecting your proxy in the story. Second: The outcome is not preordained, you’re still rolling dice. Third: It was never about the content to begin with, it’s the people you’re there with. So combat that gets repetitive isn’t a problem because it’s not the main event. This is not true in prose, and one of the most dangerous things about transposing combat from a game system into prose.

This may sound a little stupid but, each time your character acts they should be trying to achieve a goal. Yes, “harming my foe,” is a legitimate objective, but if they can’t do that directly, they shouldn’t resort to, “I’m going to repeat the same action a dozen times hoping for a different result.”

If your character is in a fight, they try to attack their opponent, and the attack is defended, they need a new approach.

There are a few things your experienced character should do that will help with this. First, they don’t start with direct attacks, their first goal should be to test their opponent’s defenses. So, they’ll start with probing attacks, looking for weaknesses in their foe’s defenses. They’ll be studying how their opponent moves. On the page, there’s a huge difference between a character simply attacking, and specifically trying to tease their opponent’s parry to get a look at it. Once they have a solid grasp of how their foe fights, then they’ll probably move in for the kill. This could be complicated by other events. This is the background, the environment, or even sustained injuries. This stuff is not safe, and minor miscalculations could result in your character being injured, which then becomes a complication they’ll need to deal with as the fight progresses. If your character can’t exploit their foe’s weaknesses, they’ll need to find a way to open them up. This could include attempting to wound in order to create a future opening, or forcing them into a disadvantageous position. Once they’ve taken control of the fight and gotten it to a position where they have a decisive advantage, then they’ll kill.

While your character is trying to take control of the fight, an experienced foe will be doing the same. Obviously, if only one character knows what they’re doing, it will seriously impact how all of this plays out, and the fight will be very one-sided. It’s entirely possible the veteran will simply disarm and kill the rookie.

Impact is a more complex concept. I think the simplest way to describe it is: Impact is determined by how quickly, and sharply, and scene goes wrong for the characters.

In a fight scene, you want to clean it up quickly because your readers will get bored. When you’re asking about impact, you need to it to resolve fast or the impact is lost. The scene needs to transition from, “thing are going well,” to, “everything’s fucked,” in as few words as possible.

For example: Let’s look at that template above. You start with your protagonist testing their foe’s defenses, finding an opening, and moving their foe to a position where they think they have the advantage. Their opponent is struggling to deal with their assault, and then when they’re about to press and kill them, their enemy lops off your protagonist’s sword arm and executes them.

The part where things are going well can be longer, but it needs to go wrong, roughly, that fast. You can also foreshadow this in a lot of ways. If you’ve established that their foe is a more skilled swordsman than you’re seeing in that fight, you’ve warned the audience that this will happen, but in the moment they’ll think your protagonist is just that awesome, or that the villain’s reputation was unearned. It’s only after the walls are painted in blood that they realize you realize your protagonist walked into a trap.

The second thing about impact is, your audience will acclimate very quickly. You can get away with a hard shift like this, maybe, once per story. If you’re reusing characters, you don’t get that back, you’ve already turned things sideways once. If you want to hit hard again, it needs to be completely different. In the example above, if you started by killing a protagonist, you’re not going to get that kind of impact with another death. You’ve already told your audience that you’re willing to go there, and doing it again isn’t going to surprise anyone.

Fight scenes need to be as short as necessary. Impact has to as fast and hard as possible.

There is no, “this number of words/pages,” for how long a fight should be, because the answer will be different. It depends on the specific scenario. It depends on your style as a writer. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The only universal answer is that you don’t want to waste words in a fight scene.

-Starke

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Q&A: Throwing Knives Versus Throwing Knives, and Other Projectile Weapons

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: First of all, your explanation upon the dagger vs. sword battle is TRULY HELPFUL in my writing as I have no idea what to do about that kind of situation when one of my characters is in that scene. However, as you have stated, one shouldnt just carry a single dagger or a sword or a bow, and you must carry at least a bunch of weapons— So, what about someone who carries a handful of knives and is skilled in throwing them against someone with a sword? No matter the distance?

Are we talking about throwing knives or actually throwing knives, because one of those is a specific weapon type designed for projectile throwing and the other one is someone who likes to give their knives away. As a great Marine once said, “when you’ve thrown your knife, you’ve given your opponent your knife.”

Distance always matters. The type of projectile you have, its weight, is relative to understanding it’s effective range. I know you brought up throwing knives to get away from the range discussion, but, you know, different projectile weapons have effective ranges too. This is a question of force and momentum versus inertia and wind resistance. The weapon needs enough force behind it to not only reach its target but also impact at high velocity, otherwise it doesn’t do much.

A thrown weapon has a shorter effective range than a bow or a crossbow. The throwing knife has the additional problem of being much lighter than other throwing weapons like the throwing axe and the javelin, meaning it can’t travel as far. They’d still have to be decently close to the sword guy for their knives to maintain effect. A standard knife is even less aerodynamic than a throwing knife, meaning you need to be even closer. That’s not the only issue with throwing a knife though.

The combat problem with throwing knives as a weapon is they fit a specific niche and are, basically, trick weapons. They can be dangerous but only under specific circumstances. You can use them against someone who is unarmored, but you’ll just annoy an armored opponent. This will include the city guards, local knights, and anyone with a dense wool coat. If padded armor can stop an arrow, a throwing knife has no chance in hell. They’re among the weakest of the projectiles, both in speed and force. A swordsman who has experience dealing with projectiles could parry them without much cost. For reference, they lose out to the throwing axe and the javelin.

Throwing axes can be parried in flight, but due to the weapon’s weight combined with its momentum it has a higher cost to stop. Martial combat is all about physics, which is a discussion about weight, inertia, momentum. Even when you successfully block, parry, or clash with an opponent, you take a portion of that force into your body. This is to say, vibration. A little like what you feel after hitting a large metal bell with a hammer. So, “ouch!”

In case of the javelin, the Northern Germanic Tribes used to catch those in flight and throw them back at the Romans. They played a game as children where they would throw sticks back and forth, and that translated into catching and throwing Roman javelins. Turned out to be an ugly surprise for the Romans.

You’ll run into a similar problem with knives, especially if you’re just throwing regular knives. Knife throwing is a common parlor trick. The further back into history we go, the more common it becomes. People used to (and still do) play knife throwing games similar to darts. Bored soldiers and sailors liked to throw their knives at things. The knife is a small weapon, doubling as a utilitarian tool, and less vital than some others so soldiers would play with them. They shouldn’t, but they did. Modern soldiers still do. So, the chance your character would run into people completely unfamiliar with knives and the throwing of knives is unlikely. Given how weak the knife is as a projectile (especially one not designed for throwing), the worst thing that can happen isn’t that another character catches the knife and throws it back, but they take the knife and keep it. Now, your main character is down a knife and that knife may be used against them next. Besides, knives aren’t exactly cheap to replace. This is doubly true when talking about specialized projectiles that aren’t regularly requested from the local blacksmith.

They’re going to need money to support their hobby. Throwing knives aren’t like arrows which can be produced easily, cheaply, and are more in demand. You’re more likely to find a local fletcher who can make good arrows than a blacksmith who’ll reproduce a carefully crafted throwing knife from a set of throwing knives. The less common the gear, the harder it is to replace.

Crossbows and bows have the reputations they do for a reason, they were warfare mainstays. The longbow, in particular, served as the artillery of their day. Eventually, generals replaced bowmen in the back lines with cannons. I understand the resistance to utilizing the bows or crossbows, especially if culturally stereotyped Archer doesn’t fit the archetype you have in mind for your character. However, it’s worth remembering that there’s often a vast gap between media and real life. In fiction, dangers presented by archery is often downplayed. The upper body strength question is also usually ignored. Bows are given to lithe, skinny people like Legolas (who is an elf and supernaturally strong), our cultural ideal of Robin Hood, or female characters like Katniss. In a lot of fiction, the bow (even more than the crossbow) is treated like the equivalent of a gun. Which, no. The bow isn’t at all like a gun.

For one thing, the bow requires a lot of conditioning for upper body strength. Different bows have different draw weights, so you should always investigate the type of historical bow you envision a character using. Unlike swords and other melee weapons, the draw happens in the shoulders with the most strain placed on a single arm. With medieval longbows, you’d be looking at a draw weight between 90 to 160 pounds. They require a lot of upper body strength in the shoulders to draw and wield effectively. They also require a lot of care on the part of the archer to maintain combat readiness. The English and Welsh archers of their day could draw and fire roughly eight to ten arrows per minute. The crossbow was slower with one to two bolts per minute. Modern bows, comparatively, you’re looking at 30 to 60 pound draw weight. A lot of advancements in technology make the drawing easier while applying greater force.

The strength of the bow is you can fire a single shaft, carrying a lot of force that impacts on a single point. The end result for the weapon’s effectiveness is the amazing power of physics. The bow still sees occasional use in modern warfare today because, unlike a gun, it’s a truly silent killer.

Despite what anime and some fantasy narratives will tell you, bolts and arrows cannot be parried by a sword mid flight. They are too fast and have too much force behind them, especially arrows. Arrows and bolts, depending on type, can go through armor. It isn’t guaranteed, but they can. Arrows and bolts never completely invalidated armor, including plate armor, the way firearms eventually did. Bolts from crossbows have a shorter effective range from arrows. While crossbows fired more slowly, but they were easier to use.

Both Lindybeige and Scholagladiotoria have some great videos about arrow ballistics, bows (longbows specifically), and (English) warbows. Which I recommend watching, if you’re interested in historical archery either for writing or just in general. I really recommend watching the Lindybeige video for an in depth discussion on the additional gear your archer would wear to avoid the injuries they might get, along with proper posture, and Hollywood cliches.

You might assume, due to common assumptions that body types are static rather than changeable, if you weren’t born with the ability to easily build muscle in your upper body (like a man, unlike women who build muscle more easily in their legs) or aren’t a big, brawny sort of person that you can’t wield a weapon that requires a lot of strength.

This is wrong.

Very few people have all the correct muscles preconditioned for success and seamlessly learn to perform any sort of martial arts without effort. Training is what you need, specifically conditioning, to build specific muscles you’ll be regularly using. Outside your bone structure, which isn’t as malleable, athletics change your body. In fact, some health and fitness gurus have developed programs and exercise regimens which will help you achieve a specific type of body rather than just the healthiest version of you. Fiction will tell you that the type of body have will decide what sort of heroic profession or martial type you’re best suited for. That’s crap, straight up.

Some women and men might face more difficulty learning to use a bow in the beginning, or take longer to build up muscle for bows with heavier draw weights, but a slow start never negates a strong finish.

What separates the skilled from the unskilled is enthusiasm, being unwilling to give up in the face of difficulty or challenge, and lost, and lots, and lots of practice. They might have natural talent, but skill is the product of hard work. Conditioning is the part of your training which builds up your wind, your muscles, and your flexibility. These are your runs up with the hill, your wind sprints, your jumping jacks, your push ups, your pull ups, and other exercises.

I do recommend watching Lindybeige’s Three General Principles of Combat as he does a good job of going over the basic principles. Though, one thing he neglects to mention when discussing ideal ranges is that the size differences between two children are actually greater than the size differences between adults. So, it is much easier to get to your ideal range in a fist fight. Hand to hand ideal ranges are defined less by size, and more by the type of discipline you practice.

Different martial arts have their ideal ranges for where specific techniques are most effective, translating loosely to kicks, fisticuffs, standing grappling, and ground fighting. While most martial disciplines cover all four, they often specialize in only one or two. A Taekwondo specialist will prefer to start further away from their opponent so they can make good use of their legs versus a boxer or a wrestler who’d rather be up close. There are outliers like Muay Thai, where the kicks and stances have been adjusted to be effective in the hand range, but we’re discussing general principles.

That said, however, there are historical examples of individuals unscrewing the pommels of their swords and chucking them at their opponents to win duels at tournaments.

So, you know, anything’s possible.

(If you’re questioning the validity of pommel throwing, understand they did it as a method of distraction rather than immediate victory. It’s a specialized dueling tactic where you’re technically not cheating by bringing a second weapon, but you’re cheating. Throw pommel. Distract opponent. Gain the initiative. Hit first. Win.)

-Michi

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Q&A: What The Value of a Good Education?

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: Since there’s a definite advantage, what DOES mean the difference between the training a Marine gets versus what a criminal gets? Experience and refinement, since the military has had so many years to figure out what’s effective versus the criminal who’s more or less starting from scratch? Focus, since the Marines are getting Actual Lessons versus the criminal’s just sort of learning on the job, as it were? Something else?

There’s a few basic problems in the way most media approaches violence which is what throws people who’ve never received any training off.

  1. There’s an assumption being good at violence comes from talent and not hard work.
  2. There’s an assumption that violence is not a skillset.
  3. There’s an assumption that if you’re good at one kind of violence, you’re good at all of them.

None of these are true.

Violence is like any other skillset. Education is king, and the quality of education you receive, as well as who you receive that education from, matters. Education opens up your possibilities, exposes you to new ideas, individuals, and experiences you might never have considered. It allows you to learn from others whose experiences are great than yours, and lets you learn from their success and their mistakes. In an organized system, you have a system backed by a few hundred years or more. This system is co-operative with multiple people working toward a singular goal. The value of this cannot be overstated, especially in the world of violence where everything changes with every new discovery.

In the US Armed Forces, training is updated every six months in response to newly developed counters, tactics, and strategies that upset the current status quo. We often view the military as stuck in its ways and, socially, that may be true. However, when it comes to developing new technologies, new fighting tactics, new strategies for a changing combat environment, they are on the cutting edge. They have access to the militaries of other countries, and are constantly adopting new techniques into their curriculum either from allies, guerrilla fighters, or from individuals while being stationed in foreign countries. A Marine’s hand to hand training pre-WWII and post-WWII are very different beasts. Every Marine today benefits from experiences gained by servicemen in previous eras. They learn from their successes and their failures.

Criminals don’t get training. Usually, they have to learn on the job and most of their additional education comes from other criminals while networking in prison. They can be very good at what they do, but the scope of that technique is limited. The chances they’ll have a general or even hand to hand skillset to back up their chosen specialization is low. If they have learned hand to hand, most of it comes from television, boxing lessons they had in high school, or what they’ve experienced from police or witnessed police use. They have fewer options, every weapon they learn how to use is on their own dime and based on what they can scrounge or barter from their local arms dealer. There is no coherent system, a low chance of mentoring, no real opportunities outside a limited pool, and even if you do get mentored, you’re at risk to be the fall guy.

The value and benefit of training cannot be overstated. If you ask someone who has had martial training what the value of training is, the first thought after staring at you in confusion is everything. You get everything from training. Training provides you with the building blocks, it provides you with your connections, it provides you with the scenarios where you can practice. Someone who is self-taught has no stances, they have no base and therefore no defense, they don’t know how to maximize the effectiveness of their punches, they probably can’t kick at all, they’re not particularly flexible, they may or may not have learned the value of cardio.

Self-taught criminals are very good at ambush tactics, but lose out in a protracted conflict. Why? They have nothing else and need nothing else. Ambush tactics are sufficient to deal with most people, including professionals (if you can catch them unawares). Criminals are better served by developing their social engineering, their ability to appear different than how they are, to blend in with society until the time comes to make their move.

Criminals and Marines have different approaches to violence because their goals are not the same. Criminals, especially assassins, have more in common with spies than they do soldiers. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because when you appear suspicious, you’re a second away from getting caught.

I think there’s a perception among some writers that if you write a self-taught fighter, you get to skip having to learn about violence. You don’t have to dirty yourself by learning about government organizations or other groups whose perspectives and attitudes you may not like. You get some additional cache for beating the system. If you know nothing about violence, getting to skip the hassle of learning is definitely an attractive idea. Most of the authors whose novels I’ve read that had fighters who were “self-taught” took this route. The characters and the narrative suffered for it. All they really wanted was an excuse where they wouldn’t need to explain how their character knew or could do what they did.

Violence isn’t any different from acquiring any other type of skillset. Studying martial combat is just like studying basic mathematics, learning to speak a second language (or even your first language), or learning to read.

This question is a lot like asking, “what’s the value of high school?” or even just school in general. What do you learn in school that provides you with an advantage over people who’ve never been to school? What is the value of a good education?

-Michi

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Q&A: An Amateur Professional

Hi guys! I have a character who’s a dangerous criminal, highly proficient in hand-to-hand combat and using weapons (from knives to sniper rifles) just how realistic is it for him to win in a fight against a marine (who served for well over 5 years) and what points should I cover in their physical conflicts? Since one was professionally trained and the other (criminal) self-taught? With the criminal using underhanded tactics opposed to the marine who prefers “clean” fights?

It’s been awhile since I’ve come down on someone, but there’s a lot here:

Marines aren’t paladins. For all the jokes about Marines being idiots, they’re smart enough to treat combat seriously. This is their job, and they’ll (almost) always maintain a degree of professionalism about killing some John Wick wannabe.

Self-taught fighters suck. Combat is a skillset, like any other. You can learn on your own, but you’ll never be good enough to compete against someone with formal training. Combat’s a little different from most skills because, if you screw up and fail, you die. In case there’s some confusion here, death is not a particularly useful learning experience.

Someone without formal hand-to-hand training isn’t going to win in a fight with a Marine. No matter how “dangerous” they see themselves. It’s not about fighting dirty, it’s simply that your character doesn’t know what they’re doing.

As for what would happen? Your character would attack, the Marine would interrupt the strike and end them. That fast.

Remember, Marines are trained to kill people. That’s their job. Their hand-to-hand training is focused on this. In fact, instructors overseeing sparring are specifically cautioned to look for recruits that are devolving into, “sport fighting.” Every action the Marine takes needs to either be creating an opening or finishing their opponent.

You can learn to shoot with enough ammunition. In fact, once you do know how to shoot, you need to spend some time with your gun and ammunition to get a feel for exactly how it will handle. No, “I’ve got this cheap ammo, but I use special stuff in the field,” won’t cut it. You need to practice with you’re carrying.

You cannot learn to win a gunfight on a shooting range, no matter how much ammunition you bring. Putting a bullet where you want it when you’re on a range is no problem. However, it won’t teach you what you need to know in order to deal with a live fire situation.

I’m reminded of a story from a soldier who wrote an article for Cracked, back when that site was still good. The guys they were fighting had learned to shoot from video games and TV. He described the rookie mistakes he saw, such as the enemy fighters dropping behind couches to take cover. Thing is even a handgun round will go through that. So, someone ducks behind the furniture, you just shoot through it.

When it comes to vehicles, the engine block will stop a bullet, and that’s pretty much it. The rest of the car can conceal where you are, but it doesn’t protect you from incoming fire. If your hitman watched Taken and tries to take cover behind a car door, the Marine will simply shoot through that.

There’s a phrase I’ve used before, which will be immediately familiar to your Marine, “the only unfair fight is the one you lose.” Combat isn’t about having a “good, clean, brawl.” Dirty fighting isn’t some forbidden collection of highly effective fighting techniques, it’s just stuff you were told not to as a kid, because the risk of injury was too high. As an adult who is trying to kill their foe, the concept is not relevant. So-called dirty fighting is throwing sand in someone’s eyes. It’s a sucker punch before the bell rings or someone yells, “go!” It’s shooting the medic first. You want to hammer into your head that dirty fighting is just about going outside a formalized socially constructed structure which tells you what fighting should be i.e. duels and everyone does it. Everyone wants to go home alive and therefore no one fights fair. Remember, marines are trained to shoot through the hostage.

A Marine is not a policeman. Police are required to uphold specific standards, are governed by rules and laws regarding “use of force” that are more limited because they’re supposed to be dealing with civilians who break the law. Marines are soldiers first.

What you’re presenting, right now, is an amateur going up against professionals. That’s not going to end well.

Flip this around for a second, though, and there’s nothing wrong with writing some ex-special forces operator who’s transitioned over into criminal activity. I’d like to say there’s not precedence, but that would be a lie. Unsurprisingly, being trained to kill people for a living meshes remarkably well with killing people for a living as an independent contractor. Government pay is not that great, and someone with that skill set could, potentially, make a lot of money killing people for unscrupulous individuals.

The doesn’t mean your assassin would go around explaining their full backstory, that would be a liability, but they wouldn’t be self-taught. It also doesn’t mean they’re American, they could just as easily be ex-SAS, ex-Spetsnaz, or from any number of other special forces or militarized intelligence agencies.

When writing an assassin, or anyone else who kills professionally, you want to avoid, “fights.” If they’re going to kill someone, they want to engineer the situation so that their foes cannot react in time. In the case of that Marine, it probably means shooting them in the back of the head, rather than letting it turn into a melee.

If there’s no upside to fighting someone, your character shouldn’t do it. They’re not here to prove how much of a badass they are; they know they can kill everyone in the room. They’re here to get the job done, get paid, and get out safely. Starting an unnecessary fight works against those goals.

-Starke

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Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: What You Bring To A Fight Scene Creates excitement

geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.

On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.

If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.

The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.

A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.

You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.

Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.

“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.

Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.

You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.

Her lips curled.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.

He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.

Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.

The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.

“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.

His jaw clenched.

“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.

The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.

Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.

The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.

Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.

Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”

The vampire in white leapt first.

She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.

The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.

Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.

“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.

“You annoyed me,” Katie said.

Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz

Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.

What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.

Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.

This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?

It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.

Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?

Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.

There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.

So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?

At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.

Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.

For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.

-Michi

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Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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