Tag Archives: writing knockouts

Q&A: Knockouts Are Brain Damage

in a lot of film & tv characters get punched so hard that they are knocked out. i was wondering how strong would the person have to be/how hard would the punch have to be to knock the person out? and how long could the person be knocked it for (realistically)? thanks so much!

We answered a question similar to this one in the article, The Force of a Knockout.

The short answer is that yes, you can knock someone out with a punch. However, it’s not the get out of jail free card that media often presents it as. When you knock someone out, you are inflicting enough damage to their brain that the brain shuts down to protect itself. A knockout is you essentially putting someone into a short term coma, and the injury is a very serious one. Normally, they’ll only be unconscious for a few seconds and anywhere longer than thirty to ninety can indicate serious injury.

You can watch about twenty minutes of The Best Boxing Knockouts of 2018, if you watch closely (it’s blink and you’ll miss it) you will see the eyes roll back in their heads as they pass out on the slow-mo. Even if they’re awake again when that knee hits the mat, the referee jumps in. If you think, “well, what about girls?” then here you go. (Warning for blood.)

That said, strength in not in the equation. The knockouts you’re thinking of are caused by precision punches to pressure points. Usually, this is a hook punch to the jaw. You can’t hit just anywhere on the jaw either. It has to be on the back, near the ear, at the point where the jaw connects to your skull. There’s a pressure point (your nerves) in the gap, which if you hit it with meticulous perfection, can cause someone to pass out. The other version is they hit them enough times in the face that the brain succumbs after being softened up by enough continuous hits.

Anyone of any size can do this, the restriction is either skill based or an incredibly lucky shot. There’s no strength restriction. The hook is not the only means of getting someone to pass out, but it is the one most people are familiar with. You can sit there and pound on the back of someone’s skull (where the bones are softest) until they pass out. There are nerve pressure points elsewhere on the body which if struck will cause the victim to pass out. You can cut off blood flow to the brain through the carotid artery with a blood choke, and they will pass out (and die if it goes on too long.) You can strike someone in the temple (where there is a gap in your skull) for direct access to their brain. You can asphyxiate someone with a standard choke, they will pass out and, if you deny their brain oxygen long enough, eventually die. You can drive someone’s face into a rising knee hard enough that they can, under some circumstances, pass out. You can bash their head into a hard surface like a concrete wall, a sink, a metal door, a wooden door, until they (again) pass out or just can’t get back up. You can also kick them in the head to deliver even more force, resulting in more damage. Upgrade this to a spin kick or a jump kick, or even a spinning jump kick if you’re feeling adventurous. In terms of force, kicks outperform punches.

Here, watch some kickboxing knockouts while we’re at it.

Again, a knockout is brain damage. You have convinced your victim’s brain that the injury inflicted to it is so serious that it must temporarily shut down in self-defense to preserve their life. If they’re down for longer than thirty seconds, their chances of long term to permanent brain injury increase substantially. And there’s always a chance something else will do them more harm in the intermediary, from the fall itself (which can kill them or cause another greater injury which kills them) to what happens after you walk away.

Fiction likes to present the knockout as the Saturday Morning Cartoon death. You can essentially kill a character without having to say you killed them while ignoring the subsequent guilt and/or consequences of murder. This is why I refer to knockouts as fiction’s “get out of jail free card”, and why you should consider the knockout carefully before you choose to apply it. A lot of fiction writers have a bad habit of thinking anything up to death is okay or preserves a character’s moral good. However, violence is everything you do to a person from short term damage to the long term injuries. There are lots of unintended consequences, which are seeds of interesting stories all on their own.

You should never trick yourself into thinking violence in any form is safe, there’s always a risk assessment and built in cost. Your brain is floating in fluid, every time you take a hit in the face you’ll be damaging it. That’s not counting the swelling, the broken noses, someone taking out your eyes with their fingers, lost teeth from the force of a hit, boxed ears disorienting you, stumbling from taking a hit to the back of your skull, losing hair or even skin when your scalp gets raked/your hair pulled, blood leaking into your eye when your eyebrow gets split or cut by your opponent’s knuckles.

Remember this adage: where the head goes, the body follows.

Protecting your head and face is your number one priority. If someone gets control of your head, they can take you anywhere they want. No matter how hard you struggle, you will go with them until you manage to break their grip. If you ever had a question about why hair pulling is a legitimate tactic, it’s because you take control of their head and you have direct access to all the nerves around your hair follicles. You can control where they go, and it hurts. Why punch someone in the nose? A) it hurts, B) it’s a soft target so you don’t risk hurting your hand on the skull’s bone plates, and C) the swelling will disrupt their ability to see which hinders their ability to continue the fight.

You’ll notice too with most professional fighters in sports that allow ground combat like the UFC, the fighters will follow their opponent to the ground and/or keep hitting them as they go down. They get pulled off by the referees. In the rush of adrenaline and focus, it can take time for someone to realize that they need to stop. You can guarantee your character will likely have gotten in consecutive hits after their opponent has fallen, doing more damage to them than is necessary because they don’t realize they’re unconscious.

The average street fight only lasts for twenty five seconds, but rarely ends in a knockout. You’re much more likely to end up putting your opponent in a position they can no longer fight than you are driving them into an unconscious state. The exception is if you intended to. You’re less likely to knock someone out with luck than you are with skill, but either way its never guaranteed because everyone’s body is different.


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Q&A: The Force of a Knockout

How hard does one actually have to hit someone to knock them unconscious? It’s a really common thing in media, but never fully explained. I know it’s not the most crucial detail I’m just curious. P.s. this blogs content is incredible.

The prevalence of the knockout in fiction and visual media like television is actually for narrative convenience. When you have a situation where there’s no easy way to end a scene and you don’t want the character to kill or permanently injury the other guy, then a knockout is a convenient way to end the scene. Fiction uses the knockout as a convenient tool, often to the point where it becomes a crutch, in order to quickly switch from one sequence to another. The end result is often consequence free violence.

A knockout is when the other person falls unconscious from being hit. This is the brain saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I give up.” And passing out. Given the brain is the necessary organ which controls your entire body, if it fails in function, you don’t live, it can’t stay shut off for an extended period of time. Knockouts usually only last for a few seconds, and you’ll see this one with boxing and their ten count. If a boxer can get up again after being knockout out in ten seconds, then they can continue. If not, the match is over. If they don’t wake up within the ten seconds, they’re rushed to the hospital. If a human is knocked out for a significant length of time then there’s a chance they’re not waking up… ever.

Now, knockouts are difficult to achieve with just your hands. It’s very difficult to knock a human out in general, but the arm doesn’t generate enough force on its own in a basic strike to successfully knock someone out. You either need repeat actions (which are unlikely to cut it, and you don’t want to punch someone in the face because you’re likely to break the bones in your hand), use a greater method of delivering force to the head like with your feet, or aim for a pressure point like the jaw or the temple. The knockout punch in boxing is a hook punch that aims for the point of separation where your jaw connects with the upper portion of your skull. This is pressure point, a cluster of nerves, which when successfully struck can potentially cause a knock out. (Potentially, this is not a guarantee, and it is a difficult mark to hit even when you’ve created the opening to get there.)

So, the second reason for the prevalence of the knockout punch in fiction is that as a stage punch, the hook, haymaker, or round punch completes the Hollywood trifecta. The hook is easy to learn, easy to whiff, and looks impressive. It is also cost effective, and most of your actors can learn to make it look good without needing to switch them in and out with their stunt doubles. Round houses and wheel kicks are stunts requiring a higher level of technical proficiency, and are more dangerous because they have a greater chance of knocking someone out on connection.

Hand strikes to the head that aim for knockouts are the hook aiming for the point where the jaw meets the upper portion of the skull, the ridgehand strike aiming for your temple where there’s a gap in your skull and soft tissue. We’ve also got strikes like the spinning backhand, which targets the temple and generates greater force than the average hand strike by spinning. Now, when we move onto spinning strikes, jumping strikes, and kicks, we’re discussing the real force delivering blows of martial arts.

We can knock someone out by varying means, as pointed out above, by application through pressure points. The others include cutting off flow of oxygen or blood to the brain by means of a strike, choke, or submission hold. The frontal portion of the skull is a where some of the strongest bones in your body reside, and is well protected against most of the dangers you’ll come across. Punching someone’s face with your bare hand is actually more liable to break you than you are to break them, which is why the advice is to aim for soft targets on the body, or the throat. Or hit someone in the back of the head, where the skull is softer.

Now, you asked specifically about the amount of force necessary to knock someone out. Which is to say, you asked how to give them a concussion.

Force = Momentum

So, the greater your momentum, the greater your chance of dealing a knockout blow.

  • Someone who is running at you will hit you much harder than someone standing still.
  • Your legs are much more powerful than your arms.
  • Spinning and jumping are means of gaining speed, which lends to greater momentum when connection occurs.

Ergo, a technique which combines running, jumping, and spinning with a kick will deal the greatest force all together than just one or two. However, one on its own is enough to knock someone out because all three together can kill you. As can one, just by itself. Go watch some compilation knockout videos for martial arts, specifically from kickboxing, and you’ll see what I mean. This will look very different from what you’re used to seeing on television.

If you’re sitting here, thinking that sounds like a lot of work for a knockout… you’d be correct. Knockouts are actually rare. They’re the intervening place between dazed/stunned and death, where the brain has decided it doesn’t want to function anymore. Concussions aren’t convenient or safe, and can result in long term damage to the individual who experiences one. With fictional knockouts, they’re essentially just deaths that the narrative uses as a convenient method to rid itself of Mook A. This doesn’t cover the damage the victim can do to themselves in the uncontrolled fall, if you don’t catch them on the way down, which could also permanently injure or kill them.

The actual process of subduing someone without permanently injuring or killing them is very involved, much more risky, and takes a long time. Then, there’s the question of what’s to be done with them afterwards. This requires they give up, don’t run off to get their friends, and rally. If you subdue them to the point where you can tie them up and leave them, their buddies might find them and even if they’re no longer in a position to fight they can still provide their friends with actionable intelligence on you, your goals, your fighting style, etc.

So, in real life, you’ve got to make a choice about what you’re going to do. How much time you have to waste. How you’re going to reach your objective because time doesn’t stand still and wait for you to finish. They’re working toward their own objectives, and its a race to see who is going to get there first.

In fiction, the knockout is a convenient crutch which ensures you don’t have to. The fight is over, but you don’t have to ask questions about what happens next to the other character. There’s comfort here, and the presentation of realism without being realistic. Very little of what you see in fictionalized media/television is connected to reality. This starts with the techniques they use, which are big motions clearly designed to send tells which allow you, the audience, to understand what’s going on.

Knockouts in fiction are the same way. They’re a convenient means of moving and removing your pieces through slight of hand that your audience is already conditioned to accept. This feels legitimate, and if you take nothing else away from this learning experience then you should understand that the feeling of legitimacy and internalized logic of the scene sells far more to your audience than any reality because they don’t as a whole know what the reality looks like.

Often, when asking questions about force, the question is wrong. Force in martial arts isn’t generated by physical strength but from momentum the body generate while in motion. The development of your musculature is for control and endurance, which is what allows you to fight longer. A human being is not fragile against natural threats. Most of fighting is not a metric of force v. force, but a combination of strategy, tactics, and opening techniques which lead to more damaging techniques. When we start adding in weapons, then the situation changes. For example, the kind of force I could deliver with my arm and hand alone changes when I use a steel pipe. It would be easier for me to use a lead pipe to bash your head in than it would be for me to kick you in the head with a wheel kick.

TLDR of this post is: knockouts are hard to set up in real life, they’re rare without having someone beat on for an extended period of time, and they’re convenient in fiction because they set up a situation where the audience believes you’ve gotten rid of the other character without having to ask moral questions about killing them


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