Tag Archives: writing tips

Q&A: Nerding Out, There’s no Shortcuts for Research and Learning

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any tips on thinking up interesting fight scenes and how to get ideas on movements, weapon use etc? 🙂

In a way, you’re trying to run before you can stand by putting emphasis on interesting. By interesting, I assume you mean spectacle, which isn’t a criticism. All Hollywood fight scenes in cinema (with a few rare exceptions) prioritize spectacle over realism. It’s important to remember that spectacle is visual entertainment i.e. the scenes are geared to specifically capture the imagination via movement that you watch. Spectacle doesn’t translate readily to the page because it’s a different medium. The “set you on your ass” realization which should come with that is every fight scene you watch in live action from the excellent to the terrible is choreographed by martial arts masters with decades of experience and a team of stuntmen whose entire job is creating an entertaining sequence in line with the director’s vision. This is in line with every published author you’ve read having spent decades honing their craft.

That’s why I say “don’t try to run before you can stand” because when you’re at zero the worst person to compare yourself to is master. It’s only after you gain appreciation for the art, learn how tall the mountain is, how much effort went into scaling it, and begin the climb yourself that you write interesting fight scenes.

The art of writing is really, at the end of the day, the art of being a perpetual student. You get ideas by learning what things are, how they work, and why. Martial arts from martial history to the uses of violence in the real world, the effect of violence on the psyche, the changes training makes to both the body and and the mind, to it’s use in modern day entertainment is all on the table to be learned. So, pick up a book, crack open YouTube, it’s time to study.

An interesting fight scene, requires an interesting scene, which requires an interesting story...

Consider you’ve been consuming violence through media for your entire life but when the time came to put your ideas to the page, you didn’t know how to bring them out. That’s because even though you’ve watched carefully sanitized violence occur on your television, you don’t understand the grounding behind it, how it works, and why. Learning and consuming are distinct and separate skills. Beginning to critically examine the media you consume to figure out how these stories have the effect they do and why is an important first step.

A good fight scene is ultimately built on the nuts and bolts provided by a lot of other scenes to build a good story. Violence in entertainment acts as a form of catharsis. Catharsis is the release of narrative tension rather than the building of it. After every fight scene you need to build tension again within the consequences of the action and the decisions made by your characters, unless that release of tension is at the end of your story.

A good fight scene is a payoff for the goals and motivations of your characters, and treated as intrinsic to who they are rather than the way they fight acting as a separate aspect or aesthetic bolted on top of them. On a functional level, violence is an act of problem solving. A fight scene is your characters choosing to solve their problem in this particular way and it is imperative that you, the author, establish the groundwork for their decision before the scene occurs.

Interesting fight scenes are created by interesting characters making interesting decisions and dealing with the resulting fallout from their choices. Consequences are part of what establish “realism” or create the suspension of disbelief.

When you write a story, you create a pact with your reader. A promise that your story will function in accordance with the rules and laws you’ve set forth that govern your setting. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, whether that’s fantasy or contemporary. When you break your rules for whatever reason, even if it’s to save your characters, you break your audience’s suspension of disbelief and your fiction dies. Basically, if you write yourself into a corner with a villain who is too strong and/or imbalanced against your protagonists, be brave enough to let them win and learn to balance your narrative better next time.

The rules you create are intrinsic to your fight scenes and maintaining your audience’s suspension of disbelief, and you will be tempted to break these rules when you run into issues, such as characters being injured, or captured, or dying when you don’t want them to. Or not being willing to to put your main cast in real jeopardy, to risk their lives because you need them for other parts of the story down the line. Your story runs on its own internal logic and there’s a lot of ways you can completely fuck your stakes for a “cool” moment. And, honestly, you will. Failure is a key part of learning. You’ll learn by trying out ideas and coming up empty, but every failure feeds into every success. You won’t know how to balance tension in your story until you learn to balance tension in your story.

Basically, you’ll never learn how to write an interesting fight scene until you master the art of writing an interesting scene. You can’t get anywhere if your audience doesn’t care.

Think critically about the media you consume…

I know I said this above, but this is important. If you want to tell interesting stories, you need to learn how stories work and the best way to learn how they work is by critically analyzing the media you consume. The best ideas you’re going to get for your own scenes is through what you see whether that’s in fiction, live action film/television, comics, cartoons, anime, history, or from the people in your life.

Ask questions. Like, why did I enjoy this? What specifically about this scene did I enjoy? How did the author get me to feel this? What were the previous scenes that built into this moment within the narrative?

Art begins in imitation. There are no original ideas, just interesting interpretations and influences/inspirations the audience may not immediately recognize. The works of those you love will become part of you, they’ll inspire you, and factor into the stories you tell. We color within the lines until we become dissatisfied with self-imposed limitations and want to draw outside them.

By learning how the stories you love work and function, what inspired their creators, what influenced their work, you can choose what aspects you’ll take with you and what you’ll leave behind. Otherwise, in copying, you’ll grab a lot of the nuts and bolts working under the surface that you didn’t intend. It’s cool to love Star Trek and it’s characters, and want to adopt them into your own work, but if you don’t take the time to understand Rodenberry’s goals in his writing, his themes and intentions, then those themes, ideals, and beliefs (which are built into the character’s bones) are coming with you whether you want them or not.

A story is never just a string of actions. By stepping beyond imitation, by going full theft, sacrificing the original into the flames of your imagination, you leapfrog off inspiration to your own creation.

If you’re not sure how to do this, there’s plenty of excellent critical breakdowns of media properties all over YouTube to show you the way.

Love Star Wars and want to write a story like it? Read Dune. Watch Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, watch the Westerns which inspired Kurosawa, and then watch the Westerns that were inspired by him. Study the psychological texts and philosophy of Carl Jung. Then, watch Star Wars again. The interpretations of interpretations through the lens of an interpretation or inspiration can help you gain new understanding for how something you love is put together.

The only trade off is you’ll never see that work the same way again.

Learn all the things…

You want to get ideas for how humans move for your fight scenes, you need to learn how humans move.

Again, you can find inspiration for this anywhere. Go to the park and watch people run around. Take a martial arts class. Sign up for fencing. Watch videos online. Ideas are everywhere. Once you have an idea, once you see something you like, commit to learning about it, learn everything about it that you can. Start with regular Google searches and escalate from there. Become a nerd.

Seriously, become a nerd.

If you love Rurouni Kenshin learn about Kendo, Iaido, Jiu-Jutsu, and the other samurai arts, study the Meiji period of Japanese history and the real individuals a lot of the characters were based on. Read historical accounts of duels between samurai. Read The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Learn how the katana cuts in comparison to other swords of it’s type. Watch videos where sword nerds tear the myth of the katana apart. Hell, play Hakuoki for a completely alternative take on the Shinsengumi.

Be a nerd.

Personally, I watch the fights of the Fate/Stay Night series a lot. I maintain subscriptions to most streaming services. I kept all my college texts. My shelves are full of all kinds of pencil and paper RPGs, books of myth, books on magic including ones that catalogue real historical events people thought were magic, political texts, philosophy texts, books on martial arts from various different masters, comics, instructional manuals on writing, survival manuals, lots of fantasy novels, etc. I keep tons of reference material on hand from a lifetime of collecting, and you should start a collection too. You should also love the internet and your local library because we artists are poor.

Writing is an art, writing well takes work, but it’s a craft that can be learned if you’re willing to put effort into learning it. Learning to make use of a world full of reference material will help you.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Disadvantages of Battlefield Brawling

How would a fighter class fight in a war? Especially if their main skill set is brawling.

If their main skillset is brawling, they’re going to need to learn a new skillset. Knowing unarmed fighting can be a useful skill for a soldier, but, it’s never going to be their primary fighting method. The biggest problem is the lack of reach, and the lack of natural weapons.

If you’re trying to wage war by punching people, and the other side has a bunch of spears, you’re out of luck. They just poke you to death before you can land a single hit.

The problem persists even if their armed with shorter weapons, like swords or axes. You still need the ability to close the gap, before brawling will become a viable option.

It is important to understand, there are applications for knowing how to throw a punch, even in the middle of a massive battle. Times when your character may not be able to use their weapon for whatever reason. A good example of this is if enemies are too close for a character’s primary weapon, which can occur in melee. However, it’s never going to be a soldier’s first choice, and even in very tight quarters, as a knife or dagger would be preferable.

It’s also not particularly viable to strap blades onto your arms, to augment your punches. Weapons like bladed gauntlets, wrist blades, and (worn) cestuses may look cool, but they’re wildly impractical in warfare. If the weapon is damaged, it cannot simply be discarded, and you’re stuck with a weapon you may not be able to use.

Beyond that, these styles of worn weapons will be slower than a carried blade. Because you need to put your entire arm into the strike, you cannot match the speed of a weapon that pivots on the wrist. That will impair your ability to block or parry incoming strikes, and quickly end with your death. There are very real reasons that worn weapons never caught on or saw widespread use; they’re impractical.

Now, having said that, there is a specific place where these kinds of weapons are ideal. Gladiatorial combat. It’s important to remember that, from a structural point of view, any kind of arena combat will be entertainment. That can be modern sports matches or Roman(-style) gladiators. In cases like those, having “non-viable weapons,” like wrist blades strapped to the participants is entirely legitimate, because it’s not about efficiently killing the enemy, it’s about having inefficient, and bloodier, combat for the crowd. While I can’t remember the name off-hand, I’m pretty sure there was a Roman gladiator variant who was armed with a pair of cestuses, and nothing else. You wouldn’t want to take that to war, but it would produce a bloody spectacle in the arena.

Fighter classes tend to be combat generalists. For most RPG systems, if you’re wondering what the infantry of that setting looks like, the answer are low level fighters. If you’re wondering what the elite units are comprised of, also low to mid level fighters. Who’s commanding? Probably a fighter. What about the city guards? Probably fighters. What about the gang enforces the guards scuffle with? More fighters. What are the gladiators in the arena? It’s yet more fighters.

Now, that’s not all RPGs. Some will break apart the fighter into distinct classes (or sub-classes.) So, it’s possible you’re looking a game where, “Fighter,” refers exclusively to a kind of gladiator, and there’s a warrior or solider class for characters with a more militant focus. I’m not familiar with any RPGs which do that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. (My first suspect is The Dark Eye, but I’m not familiar enough with that system to know for sure.)

Many RPGs encourage hyperfocusing on a single weapon for your fighter. Even D&D does this through the Weapon Focus and Specialization feats. While having a character who is a master of one weapon, but otherwise mediocre is a reasonable character concept, it’s not particularly realistic, or at least, it should be considered as a serious character flaw and/or limitation.

Being an effective combatant is about knowing how to use all your available tools, and a single weapon fighter can’t do that. They have one option, and only one option. All weapons are situational, and an unarmed fighter in a war is a long way from any of the situations that benefit them.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Rapier, the Cloak, and the Whip

antiv3nom said to howtofightwrite:

hi! i know in the gtn post y’all did, you mentioned that capes and whips can be used as offhand weapons for rapiers, but i haven’t been able to find any good resources on how exactly that would work, so could you many explain some of the basics? apologies if this is outside your wheelhouse!!

I mean, a little, but we can get you moving in the right direction.

One of the best resources for historical martial arts is free and it’s Wikitenaur.

At Wikitenaur, you can read translations of historical martial arts treatises of created by fencing masters from the 14th to the 19th century from the German to the Engish to the French and the Spanish. Reading the treatises can be a little dense if you lack a grounding in martial arts, or any familiarity reading historical manuals that (while some have pictures) won’t provide too many definitions as they were written with the expectation readers already had a knowledge base. However, there’s a lot of great information here about all types of different weapons combat from the sword to the baton to medieval grappling techniques to fighting in armor versus without armor, all in addition to whatever else you might be looking for regarding the rapier. Useful to know about. Useful to use.

(This is where I found information on using the whip with a rapier, though I don’t recall which Master pointed it out. It wasn’t common, but it worked.) You’re probably better off looking at Filipino Escrima, or the whip itself separately. It’s a weapon that is very difficult to practice with safely, so you won’t find as many videos with people messing around with one.

I’ll discuss the whip’s general uses as a off hand harassment tool below.

Let’s talk about The Cloak:

The cloak is used in a way that somewhat similar as a tool of harassment, visual disruption, and also as a quasi-shield. It should make sense that the cloak was far more common as an off-hand tool. People wore cloaks, and any too you have already on hand is always better than a tool you have to remember to bring with you. The cloak is actually a really good one too.

Matt Easton discusses the uses for the cloak in fencing here. (He has a lot of really useful videos about Historical European Martial Arts.)

Giovanni Rapisardi gives a more in depth demonstration with the cloak. (Video is in Italian with subtitles.)

An hour long crash course from the Tavern Knight’s Barracks with a lot of discussion on the cloak.

Martin Fabian’s The Fabulous Cape video is Part 8 of his Learn the Rapier series.

This video from Salle Saint-George demos the Spanish rapier with the cloak, this might be helpful for some of you as the Spanish rapier is, at times, visually different from it’s Italian counterpart. I’ll include this video of Italian style versus Spanish style from DennisLuko for emphasis.

Then, two dudes from the Academy of Historical Fencing who show that just chucking a cloak at your opponent is a viable combat move.

Basically, the trick with the cloak is that if you wrap it properly around your arm, you create an excellent guard against cuts. (Thick fabric, there’s a reason you shouldn’t underestimate padded armor.) The cloak hangs over part of your body, obscuring your low-line from your opponent’s sight. You can use the cloak as a harassment tool, you can swing it at them to distract and visually cloak your own movements while thrusting (not unlike a matador), even wrapping and trapping an opponent’s blade for a disarm. You can even chuck it into their face. If the cloak is brightly colored, that adds to the visual confusion for your opponent as they attempt to hit you.

Useful, fashionable, and you were probably already wearing one.

Now, let’s discuss everyone’s favorite off hand for Zorro, The Whip:

This was never a popular choice. The whip was not a common weapon to see on the streets of Western Europe and, even the shorter lengths are difficult to use in densely packed streets. You can probably guess where it would be more commonplace without me having to tell you and the reasons why someone from the period might be carrying one.

The whip falls into the category of other soft weapons of it’s type, like the Chinese whip chain and the rope dart, where it’s a very powerful and useful weapon to understand how to use but also extremely difficult to master in a way that will be helpful during the frenzy of live combat.

As an offhand weapon, the whip is a weapon of pure harassment. For the most part, without modification to make it more lethal, it only does surface damage but when you’re hit with it? It hurts. It’s also loud, which is me saying you can use that cracking noise for intimidation. It has reach, quite possibly more than your rapier. The whip strikes on an arcing pattern that is nearly impossible to accurately predict or block, which, while your opponent is distracted by trying to counter the whip, creates the opening you need to thrust with your sword (assuming you’re close enough). So, you don’t use these two in conjunction so much as you’d use one to destroy your opponent’s guard to create the openings for the other. The whip, being the more unpredictable, requires more focus, making the rapier the secondary of the two.

However, for all its strong points, the whip can be undone by your opponent’s choice of clothing. It isn’t good for cutting, or going through heavier material. Basically, the whip’s threat is friction.

In summary, the whip is fast, potentially loud, difficult to see, difficult to predict, visually confusing, has reach, can tangle up, even disable an opponent, but is limited by its ability to only inflict surface damage, high skill level requirement (it’s one of those weapons where you either get it or you don’t), and complex nature.

Probably the best whip work I’ve seen for fight scenes on film come from Anthony Hopkins in Mask of Zorro and (if we remember Trevor Belmont’s whip is magic and animated) Trevor Belmont in Castlevania.

Probably better as the offhand weapon of a second string anime villain your protagonist has to overcome rather than in the hands of your protagonist themselves. Ultimately, also a better weapon for visual media rather than written. Still, if you can figure out how to make it work on the page, it’s a fun option to keep in your back pocket.

– Michi

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Q&A Followup: Assassins and Spies: Famous in Government

I’m not aware if you do part 2’s to Q&A’s but with your other post about being a famous criminal would it be under the same terms if the only the government was aware of the assassin existence?

Yes. Ironically, this can go either way, depending on the structure and scope of your story.

If the government who knows about your assassin is friendly, (as in, the assassin is a covert operative for them), then you have the situation where a character could safely build a reputation privately.

If the government is hostile to your assassin, then you have the normal downsides of your criminal’s behavior being well documented.

The irony is, both of these states would probably be true simultaneously. With the government (or at least the intelligence community) your character works for being aware of their existence, while simultaneously, hostile governments would be aware of, and on the lookout for them.

This is something that is sometimes capitalized on with James Bond. He is incongruously famous for a spy within his world’s British government, but, simultaneously, some of his villains are able to instantly recognize him, even though his cover is technically intact.

I didn’t specify this during the previous post, but that is a real problem for spies (and probably would be for assassins as well.) As a spy engages in espionage, they will get added to databases and official records. Intelligence agencies are notorious for maintaining files on anyone who ever catches their attention. As a spy’s career advances, and they are involved in more and more places, those dossiers will gradually out them, and it will become more difficult for the spy to operate covertly. I don’t know if this would also be true for an assassin, but it seems likely. Especially if they took on targets who were protected by government security services.

To a certain extent, it’s irrelevant whether an assassin (or any criminal) is publicly famous. The real question is whether the authorities know who they are. So, asking if the government knows, is really just cutting this one down the people who matter for the purposes of consequences.

-Starke

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Q&A: The hazards of Fame for a Professional Criminal

Are infamous assassins bad and are they more likely to be caught? Is it better to have an assassin who rather unknown than one who is infamous.

Yes.

This applies for almost any professional criminal: Their job will be easier and safer if no one knows who they are.

Realistically, being a world famous assassin or thief would be a nightmare. They’d be the first suspect whenever anything high profile happened in their general vicinity. They’d also be under tighter scrutiny, if they went anywhere publicly, they’d be carefully watched. (Either by the authorities, security, or both.) It would be significantly harder, or impossible, for them to do their job.

There’d be a real risk of being implicated in crimes they had nothing to do with. Fabricating a case against a famous assassin or thief would even be an effective tactic for anyone who wanted to neutralize them (either for revenge or to further their ambitions.)

It’s also, legitimately questionable how these characters could build up infamy. Murdering someone is, as you may be aware, somewhat frowned upon by polite society. So, if you have a character who’s built their reputation by murdering people, it raises the question, “How have they avoided the consequences?” The real answer would be, “by avoiding detection,” but being sneaky and escaping attention is the opposite of how one builds a reputation.

In the real world, there’s debate whether any, “master-class,” assassins actually exist. The entire nature of the job requires that they avoid detection, and if they’ve done so successfully, they’re effectively unknown. The assassins we do know about are the amateurs, and low-skill professionals, because they are identified and prosecuted. In that sense, becoming infamous as an assassin is somewhat analogous to being bad at your job.

Things could be a little different if your setting has some kind of legalized assassins guild. “World famous,” assassins are a staple in certain flavors of fiction. Some kind of secret society of assassins would give its members a safe space to develop their reputations, but they would be virtually unknown outside of their organization, (and groups it associates closely with.)

So yes, being famous (or infamous) would make an assassin’s job nearly impossible.

-Starke

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Q&A: Assassins vs. Spies

Not sure if this is the right place to ask and sorry if this is a dumb question in which it seems fantasy like. But is it possible for an assassin to have a to kill a spy who is undercover, not that the assassin is aware of that. Sorry if this is broad.

It depends on the degree of fantasy, but this scenario could play out. It’s entirely plausible someone could be contracted to kill an undercover operative without either the assassin or the client knowing the target’s real affiliation. This could even be a result of the spy’s activities being identified as a threat, without realizing that they’re a professional.

For example: Organized crime corruption could incorrectly identify a spy as someone gathering information for law enforcement, rather than a foreign power. Similarly, an operative’s activities could interfere with organized crime (either intentionally or not), and become a target without the organization knowing what they’re really dealing with.

It’s also possible someone could hire an assassin to deal with a spy, but not tell their assassin about the target’s true occupation.

There’s two problems with this question, the first is simply, “what do you think an assassin and spy are?” The second is the phrase, “have to kill.”

“Have to kill,” is a little strange, as phrases go. It implies that they need to kill their target, rather than they were simply hired to do so. There are situations where this could happen, such as if the spy was a witness, or if the assassin’s target was someone the spy was close to, and the assassin doesn’t know anything about them except that they need to be dealt with. However, in a lot of cases, if the assassin realizes they were hired to go after a spy, and that information was withheld, it’s entirely reasonable they’d cancel the contract when they found out (and depending on their status, maybe even blacklist the person who took out the contract in the first place.) Though, obviously, that might not an option if the assassin isn’t a freelance killer.

Spies and assassins are both careers that are radically distorted in popular culture. The James Bond style superspy is a superhero variant, with about as much relation to real world espionage as Batman does to being a functioning, well-adjusted adult. Similarly, master-class assassins like 47 or John Wick don’t appear to exist in the real world. (There have been a handful of assassinations which are hard to pin down, but at the same time, the entire point of being an assassin is to go undetected, and it’s the amateurs who fail to get away with murder.)

With that in mind, depending on the level of fantasy you’re imposing, your spy could just be an individual with exceptional social engineering skills, and a technical background slightly more advanced than you’d expect given their cover story. They could also be a superhero, living a double life, with a suite of implausibly advanced gadgets hidden in their home.

Depending on the level of fantasy, your assassin could just be some guy with a .38 and a dream, or they could be a professional contracted by a shadowy international organization, with decades of experience, with an access to an arsenal of hardware that starts with “top-of-the-line,” and quickly ascends into borderline sci-fi.

There’s room for stories at either end of those spectrums, though mismatching them could have peculiar results. Somewhat obviously, a superspy vs superassassin story is going to be very different from an accountant with social skills vs a cheap hitman. There’s also room for either character to be the protagonist in those stories.

It’s also worth remembering, when you’re looking at the skillset of characters like Bond and 47, they’re both very similar. Bond isn’t an assassin by trade, but he has the skillset, and assassinates people on occasion. 47 isn’t a spy, but, he is incongruously skilled blending into a crowd, (to the point of parody.)

Ironically, an excellent example of this similarity is Jason Bourne. In the novels, he’s a spy undercover as an assassin (when he loses his memory), while in the (Matt Damon) films he always was an assassin.

On the low end, with a, “realistic,” spy, it’s entirely possible that their killer never learns about their real job. On the superhero end of the spectrum, that would be need-to-know information, and the assassin could be reasonably put out with their employer for withholding that detail.

While not 100% reliable, if you’re an evil mastermind, it wouldn’t be the worst way to dispose of an assassin who was becoming troublesome. Send them after some James Bond proxy’s cover identity and let the problem sort itself out. Worst case: You’ve dealt with one annoyance (either the assassin or the spy.) Best case: They’re both dead and you can go back to your evil masterminding business uninterrupted. I mean, it’s not like they could team up and come after you together, that would just be silly.

-Starke

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Q&A: The Reasons Speed and Finnesse are so Important in Combat

Is there any form of serious real-world fighting that doesn’t care much about speed or finesse, and just wants to pick up a big, heavy object to clobber the enemy with? Or is this a fictional shorthand for “this character is a dumb brute” without a real-world referent?

tinker-tanner

Not really. I was going to start with a joke like, “axes, hammers, and cruise missiles,” but the truth is, those do require precision and speed.

You can’t do without speed, that is absolutely vital. Even in the cliché example of a character swinging a massive club, it’s physically dependent on speed to inflict harm.

A quick, and very basic, physics lesson: F=MA. That is to say, “Force = Mass * Acceleration.” In the case of clobbering someone with a massive object, you need to get it up to speed. Once you do that you can deliver a lot of force to the target, however, it’s also harder to get it moving. You need to expend energy to get that object going, and the larger it is, the more energy you’ll use. This is where a tradeoff happens in weapon design: A heavier weapon can deliver more force, however, it will require more energy from its wielder. If they can’t get it up to speed, it may actually underperform a lighter weapon.

(In general, lighter weapons actually come out ahead here, because getting them up to speed takes dramatically less energy. It’s been years but, my recollection is that the energy needed increases geometrically to linear increases in mass. So, if you keep the acceleration the same, doubling the mass of an object would quadruple the energy consumption. Someone with more of a physics background might be able to correct me there.)

Additionally, if you lack speed, your foe will have time to respond before you complete your strike. A lot of combat exists in a range where you’re pressing against the brain’s ability to process information quickly. Specifically, there’s some lag between when you see something occur, and your brain processes what happened. This is in fractions of a second, but when you slow down, you’re giving your opponent more time for their brain to catch up with what’s happening.

(This is also why most real combat styles focus on keeping your arms inside your profile, while visual media prioritizes placing them outside. Your brain identifies and tracks objects by finding the outline. If that outline is clear, tracking the object is easier, and significantly faster.)

For example, if you’re fighting with a baseball bat, it is significantly more effective to jab with the tip, rather than swing it. Swinging the weapon creates a massive, clear, outline that your foe can track, while simply jabbing them is faster and offers limited visual information. It may connect with less force, but it will reliably connect, where a swing gives your opponent plenty of time to interrupt the strike.

As for a fighting style that eschews finesse? That’s called, “the real world.” There’s a very noble goal for being able to manage how a fight flows, but in real combat, it’s not happening.

So, let’s pull this apart a little. In violence, finesse is a means, not an end. You’re trying to use as little energy as possible to inflict as much harm as you can. The thing about this is, you always want that. It’s a survival instinct. The less energy you expend to neutralize a threat, the safer you will be. The less energy you have after a fight, the less you’ll be able to defend against future threats (until you’ve recovered.) Getting into a battle of attrition is incredibly dangerous, because you can’t be certain you’ll outlast your opponent.

Finesse is being precise with your strikes to maximize their effect.

The problem is, precision in training and precision in combat are worlds apart. When you’re training (even when you’re using something big and kludgy) you’re going to train to strike for maximum effect. When you’re fighting, even if you’re fighting with, “a weapon that requires finesse,” you’re going to be struggling to land blows exactly where you want. Your opponent is moving and fighting back. While training may have prepared you for this moment, you’re going to have to adapt, and that adaptation will not be graceful.

Combat is not graded on who looked cooler. It’s not graded on who had the better technique. The only thing that matters is who survived and who didn’t. You train to be precise so that when the actual fight starts you have a better chance of ending it before it gets out of hand, and if that fails, you’ve got a better chance of getting in a decisive hit.

So, if the question was, “did people ever go out there and beat each other to death with hammers?” The answer is yes, but, the hammers were much more agile than you might have expected, and the people who trained to use them had a pretty good idea of how to be efficient with the things.

-Starke

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Q&A: Pike Walls, and Minimum Lethal Distance

Is it possible to engage in close quarters fighting with a Pike? What about halberds? How do you deal with weapons that have long handles in combat with somebody armed with a short sword. I vaguely recall that Pikeman typically carried side arms for close combat, but assuming that you couldn’t switch weapons what would be the best strategy?

Before we start, it’s important to remember that the pike and halberd are very different lengths. Your average pike was somewhere between 10 and 25 feet long. The halberd was 5 to 6 feet. You can absolutely use a halberd indoors, in tight quarters, and at close ranges. It’s ideal for use as a close range polearm, because you can easily adjust your grip to deal with a variety if situations.

The pike is a mass infantry weapon. Because of the length, it’s difficult to maneuver regiments of pike wielders in combat. They can advance, or hold position, but turning them without breaking formation can be a real challenge.

The pike’s primary value is a defense against enemy cavalry. You can’t charge directly into pike wielders and expect your cavalry to survive the experience. (You can charge their flanks or from the rear, if those approaches are unguarded, because the pikes are pointed in the wrong direction.) This is still true against charging enemy infantry, as they’ll still get pincushioned if they charge head long into a sea of pikes.

However, if a pike regiment gets overrun, or is attacked from behind, that’s why soldiers are issued sidearms. Their best option at that point would be to switch to their swords.

This leads to something that might sound a little strange at first. The pike is not a particularly good fighting weapon. It has real value on a battlefield, but it’s more about denying options to your foe. It seriously restricts enemy cavalry, and can form an effective barrier to protect artillery and ranged units (such as archers or handgunners) from enemy harassment.

So, it might be slightly more accurate to say, the pike is not a good weapon by itself; it only really shines as part of coordinated battlefield tactics.

I realize this is somewhat subverting, the intention of your question, but it is possible to circumvent pikes and fight the wielder in some situations. A lone pike wielder is not likely to be a significant threat. It’s one weapon and that can be fairly easily bypassed. Once you’re past the pike’s head, you have a foe who is defenseless unless they abandon their weapon and switch to something else. In some cases this might be as easy as simply grabbing the pike shaft and moving it away from your body. This is part of why I’m calling it a battlefield weapon.

For a pike to work, it needs to accompanied by many more pikes, and pike formations create multiple layers of weapons (sometimes five ranks deep) which means even if you neutralize one, you cannot close the gap to attack its user. If you manage to get past the outermost perimeter, there’s still multiple layers of pikes waiting to run you through.

The multiple layers, and massive safe zone around the pike wielder create two significant weaknesses. If a pike regiment has their weapons readied (forming the pike wall) they cannot turn to face enemies coming from a new direction. Similarly, it is very difficult for the unit to do anything other than advance. It is possible for pike users to engage in more complex battlefield maneuvers, but it requires either an extreme level of training and discipline, or for the unit to raise their weapons and reposition, before re-readying for combat.

There is a third weakness with the pike. Pike walls are not ideal for countering heavy infantry front lines. The pike shines when you’re dealing with horses rushing in at speeds where the individual weapons can’t be countered. If pike infantry is up against armored infantry units (particularly shielded ones), the pike wall will (eventually) collapse. At this point, the pike wielders probably hope they have less-specialized infantry behind them, so they can fallback through their own lines. However, because of the pike’s role, that wouldn’t always be the case.

The very short version is, that pike infantry has a real battlefield role, but it is a unit which has limited mobility once it’s readied for combat.

The pike is a really good illustration of something we’ve talked about in the past. Every weapon has a range where it can be used effectively. Very importantly, this is not just a, “maximum range.” It is both a minimum and maximum distance where you can effectively use the weapon. In the case of a 25ft pike, it cannot be used against a foe closer than about 20ft. The pike’s wielder can reduce the minimum lethal range by migrating their grip up the weapon, though there are still limits, because they’ll end up with an ever lengthening shaft behind them, limiting their ability to maneuver the weapon. My suspicion is that you’ll really start losing use of the pike somewhere around the mid-point on the shaft, but I don’t have any experience trying to fight with polearms that long. This also means that a 10ft pike could potentially be useful as close as 4 to 5ft, but you’d still have the back end of the shaft to contend with.

Also, if the shaft of a pike is broken, that also means the new, shorter, weapon may be useful at much closer ranges than the original. In extreme cases, this might even leave the user with an improvised, but effective, thrusting dagger.

The pike was a very important part of the late medieval and early modern battlefield. It has a very real tactical application. However, it’s not a particularly good weapon as a one-on-one dueling tool. A pike formation really is more than the sum of its parts.

-Starke

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Q&A: More Demystification of Martial Arts and Romance

autumnimagining said to howtofightwrite:

I just read your excellent response to the question about the martial arts romance. I was wondering if one way forward to help increase a sense of sexual or romantic tension would be to have the couple slowly go through the moves together, rather like a couple learning to dance. Slow, soft touches and gentle placements of each other’s bodies around each other. It would eliminate the intense physicality of sparring while still being consensual and might resemble a fight without risk of injury.

The irony is that the violence of the sequence doesn’t matter so long as the individuals are on the same page and the audience understands the context. The romantic tension doesn’t come from the activity itself, it’s about two people engaging in an activity they both enjoy separately together. Here’s an example of a character dynamic that, in isolation, doesn’t seem romantic but is within context.

In the 2010 action comedy R.E.D. (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), the KGB agent Ivan (Brian Cox) explains his longstanding, complex romantic relationship with the MI-6 assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) to Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) who is retired CIA officer Frank Moses’s (Bruce Willis’s) new girlfriend drawn into the plot’s craziness of Frank going to war with the American government after they put out a hit on him.

Ivan shows Sarah the scar on his chest where Victoria shot him as a parting gift when they parted ways at the end of the Cold War. A scar Ivan is still fond of to this day. Sarah visibly recoils, not understanding how Ivan could perceive Victoria attempting to kill him as romantic, and Ivan says (and I paraphrase), “she shot me in the chest, she could’ve shot me in the head.” What he means is, Victoria chose the maybe kill instead of the certainty. Giving herself cover to say, “well, I tried my best” when reporting in while giving him a chance to survive. This, for Victoria, was an expression of love and it’s one Ivan understands because he knows her well. They’re bonded together by a mutual shared understanding, respect, and admiration for each other’s skills even when they are, technically, enemies on opposite sides of a conflict. Ivan is one of the few individuals in Victoria’s life who knows and loves her for who she really is, a ruthless, badass, highly skilled, and extremely successful assassin. And his competence is a major reason why she loves him. (Enemies to Lovers, but We’re Still Enemies in the End.)

The problem is you’re still looking at it from the perspective of the physical interaction being what makes the interaction romantic, what shows the romance to the audience, but it isn’t. Violence isn’t romantic and martial artists physically touch each other all the time as a matter of practice. So, there’s nothing special or unique about them touching a specific person. What makes the interaction special is the context, what each character emotionally brings to the scene and their motivations.

If you’ve got two characters who really enjoy fighting and enjoy testing their skills against each other, you have the grounding for a scene where the fighting itself could become an expression of love (whether that love is romantic or platonic.) The street brawls of Yusuke Uremeshi and Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho are a good example of platonic fighting that forms a foundation friendship. It’s not the fighting itself but the enjoyment of fighting for its own sake, the pride both characters take in their skills, and in testing those skills against each other which creates the bond.

Kuwabara comes back time and time again for another sound beating because he enjoys fighting a challenging, superior opponent. Kuwabara respects Yusuke’s raw, scrappy fighting talent (long before Yusuke ever dies and gains spirit powers) while Yusuke comes to respect Kuwabara’s bullheaded tenacity and realizes that his rivalry with Kuwabara wasn’t antagonistic like he thought but rather a gesture of friendship. This friendship wouldn’t work if both characters didn’t genuinely love fighting rather than using violence as a tool of domination or a means to take power over another individual.

One of the problems for some authors (mostly American authors) is that some cultures (American culture, especially for boys) are extremely touch-starved or engage in touch-starvation due to more rigid social mores and restrictions. So, the act of touching another person gains more importance, often being read by the audience as sexual even when there are other important connotations at play. The problem they face (which acts as a form of culture shock) is that martial sub-cultures are extremely touch-heavy by necessity, you can’t train without constantly touching someone else and being touched, so the expectations that might be perceived in the mere act of touching just aren’t there.

Example: the only characters who get really excited by an instructor laying a hand on their stomach to remind them to tighten their gut and breathe from their diaphragm is the neophyte and constant training quickly disabuses them of that romantic notion unless they choose to cling to it.

Now, the same action could become romantic. However, it’s the sort of the action which requires both characters to be on the same page, when screwing around instead of focusing becomes mutual as opposed to the same action detracting from the lesson.

What I’m saying is that it’s not martial arts that brings people together, but their individual love for the martial arts that brings people together.

The act of training is cooperative interaction, but we ultimately train because we want to become better. It’s difficult to focus when you’re thinking about how much you like (or would like to bone) your training partner. The martial arts trainee usually learns to compartmentalize and put aside those feelings for the duration of training. Romance becomes a secondary consideration dealt with in the before and in the after, rather than the moment. For romance to work it’s way into the scene, it has to be what the scene is about with both characters on the same page with both ultimately okay when it comes to screwing around.

The irony is, the same is true with characters in an all out battle against each other while on opposite sides of the conflict. If you can define your characters as idealogues who separate their personal interests or romantic feelings from their work, there’s nothing inherently abusive in them trying to kill each other. They love each other, yes, but there’s this belief or code or aspect of themselves which they love more. It’s when the romance is tied to the violence and the pain they inflict on each other that situation and romance becomes abusive.

Writing your character taking it too far in a training exercise, harming their romantic interest as a means to realize they have feelings, and using one character’s injury to justify them growing closer with the person who hurt them? That’s where the asymmetrical power structure and abuse are.

Two characters who really enjoy sparring, who especially enjoy sparring with each other, sparring together? That’s fine.

Characters training together? So long as they can put their feelings aside in the moment and knuckle down, it’s cool.

For romance to work at all, your characters need to be characters. What violence is useful for is creating challenging circumstances which push characters to grow, evolve, and change. The choices we make in response to violence and in committing violence can reveal us for who we truly are, stripping away the false notions and preconceptions common in the infatuation phase of a relationship. It’s very common for people to fall in love with who they perceive someone to be or who they decide they are, the person they create within their own heads, rather than the actual person themselves. (Ironically, it happens more commonly in the romance genre and fiction in general than most authors would enjoy to copping to.)

If you’re going to sit down and write a romance, regardless of whether it’s a romance with characters who are warriors or martial artists, ask yourself some specific questions:

  1. Why do they enjoy being with this person?
  2. What is it about them (beyond the physical) that they like?
  3. What hobbies and interests do they have in common?
  4. What are the quiet moments in your story where each of these characters looks at the other and goes internally, “I really like you.”
  5. What do they admire about the other character?
  6. What annoys them about the other character? (Not hate, annoys, irritates, gets under their skin.)
  7. Are the aspects that they admire and which irritate real or they are perceptions the character has that aren’t exhibited by the other character on the page? (Is what your character sees in their love interest representative of what the audience sees?)
  8. What do they believe in, in absence of their love interest?
  9. If they are a warrior, why do they fight? Who, or what, do they fight for?
  10. Are those feelings compatible with their lover interest’s goals?
  11. What do they respect about their love interest?

-Michi

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Q&A: Martial Arts, Violence, Pain, Abuse, and Romance

Hello! I’m writing a martial arts kinda romance story thing (I’m a new writer and may have bitten off more then I can chew). I have the couple I want to eventually get together fighting in a consensual battle. They’re not intending to kill, but they will get injured (as anyone does in a fight; nothing too terrible though). Is this okay or does it promote abusive romance? Is it cringey?

Abusive? Probably not, but that’s a more complicated issue. Cringe? Yeah, “cringe” doesn’t really cover it.

Sparring is a real thing. The way it is frequently presented in popular media is as “play fighting,” or a safe way to stage duels between characters without risk of harm, is incredibly incorrect. Sparring in fiction tends to be a bit like hacking in fiction. Yeah, the term is technically real, but the fictionalized version is unrecognizable to reality.

In a lot of fiction, sparring is used to allow two characters to fight without worrying about them being horribly injured. Thing is, if you’ve got people who are just flailing at each other, someone’s going to get hurt, if it’s not stopped quickly, that risk will rapidly increase.

Hell, twenty-five years later, I still have a visible scar on my lip from where I took an elbow to the face during practice. We were practicing methods to break free from someone grabbing you from behind, which would end with you running your elbow into their face. My training partner was a little too enthusiastic, and as a result my teeth were permanently rearranged, and had a gash on my lip that would not stop bleeding.

So, are there, “martial artists,” who will, “spar,” as depicted in pop culture? Yes. And they will get weeded out, and ejected, from any competently run school. They are a legal liability. If you let the students beat on each other, someone is going to get hurt, and the school is going to get sued.

This is something you nailed perfectly. If you play around, “sparring,” with another student, someone’s going to get injured. It probably won’t be anything incredibly serious, but there is a real risk of inflicting (or suffering) a life altering injury. Spinal and cranial damage are the two that come to mind, but, my teeth are, literally, not in their original positions because of a training mishap.

The mistake is in thinking that those injuries are an acceptable outcome. Any sane school, which wants to continue doing business, needs to take steps to reduce that risk. This is also applies with militaries and any other system training you for real combat. The reason is that if you are injured, you can’t train and, worse, you will need to be retrained after recovering from your injury. Conditioning, which is your endurance, your speed, all those attributes your thinking of, have to be maintained through constant, daily workouts. If you slack off, you will lose your conditioning. It’s why a lot of people from high energy activities gain weight after they stop training at the levels they were at previously.

Instructors are not omniscient. Mistakes and accidents happen, and you can get situations where students go off-syllabus. This can result in students injuring one another because they weren’t given sufficient direction, or weren’t supervised. Either way, letting this progress to a fight is negligence by the instructors. A good instructor will shut that down before it goes that far.

Now, if you’re wondering whether your story promotes an abusive relationship, given the information you’ve provided, it is impossible to say with certainty.

This may sound strange, but not all violence is abusive. Also, not all abuse is violent. This is especially true when talking about forms of romantic abuse. One of the important metrics for evaluating abuse in a romantic relationship is determining whether both parties have equal agency in the relationship. This can be incredibly difficult to determine from an external perspective, as it hinges on the psychological and emotional states of both people.

The problem is that people can, and do, have entirely healthy relationships that may appear very aggressive or even hostile.

Granted, if they’re both trying to inflict physical harm on one another, that’s not a great sign. And, yes, some couples do use pain as foreplay, however, I’m drawing a significant distinction between, “harm,” and, “pain.” Harm is where there is a lasting injury (physical or emotional), while pain is a sensation.

If harm is involved, there’s an inherent asymmetry in the relationship. It doesn’t automatically mean it’s abusive, but you are walking a very fine line.

If you have a couple who are into inflicting and receiving pain, the priority is being able to trigger the sensation without causing lasting damage. Lasting damage stacks up, and means you have to wait for wounds to heal before you can go again, which just kills the momentum.

I can’t speak for every martial artist, but if pain is one of your turn-ons, I seriously suspect that extended martial arts training will numb you to that. Training is painful. You’re going to be pushing your body way past the point when it’s done with this whole, “physical activity,” thing. This will completely destroy the novelty of pain for you. And, that’s something you’ll find with most martial artists. Pain is just something we all live with at one time or another. It could still get you going if that’s your thing, but it’s probably not going to excite you.

It is also important to mention, in a fictional context, that the sexual tension of a fight scene is not drawn from the violence or the infliction of violence on their partner but from the characters enjoying each other’s company. What draws people to the Battle Couple is not that they are violent individuals. What people love is the way their relationship becomes an equal partnership with the two characters unconditionally supporting each other. In order to fight back to back with someone in battle, you need to trust them completely and trust they can take care of themselves. It’s a “partners first, lovers second” relationship.

So, sexual tension in two characters sparring comes from those characters engaging in an activity they each enjoy separately and doing it together. If your characters are not established as enjoying the practice of martial arts or taking pride in their skills, they will not enjoy sparring each other and the scene won’t be sexy. In the end, they’re not sparring because they enjoy hurting each other. They’re sparring because they enjoy testing and showing off their skills. This only works with two characters who are on the same page. Otherwise, it’s assault.

Hurt/Comfort resulting from a sparring match is one character abusing the other, and any blossoming relationship will be tainted as a result. Asking your reader to overlook one character’s potential romantic partner breaking the character’s arm because they took the competition too far is messed up. Also, a hard no. That is not love, that is abuse.

So, while I can’t speak for every martial artist, I’ve been the guy standing there bleeding from deep gashes on my hand thinking, “well this is fucking annoying,” not, “oh my god this hurts.” Incidentally, if you have the option, I do not recommend taking cuts on the fingers or palm; you way too many nerve endings there, and it is singularly unpleasant.

(Michi Note: When I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by some dude, my immediate response is “I can’t breathe” and not “oh god, he’s hot.” Times I’ve been attracted to guys on the martial arts floor (and I went through puberty doing martial arts so it happened a lot) was usually while watching them demonstrate, not from physical contact. I also don’t get warm fuzzies from guys from physical corrections, like putting my elbow into the correct position. Grappling was distinctly nonsexual for me in my teens and, my school was usually short on girls, I trained with a lot of guys of different age ranges. So, wrapping your legs around someone’s waist is not inherently sexual, especially when it ends with you choking them.)

Thinking, at least for me, the moment that changed was probably when I was dealing with that split lip, and having to tear away damaged tissue to get it to stop bleeding, but this outlook is not unique to me.

If you find experiencing pain sexy, I’m not going to judge you, but it is a completely alien concept for me. I understand it on an academic level, but I can’t relate. For you, it may be an exciting and intoxicating experience, “but for me, it was Tuesday.”

(Worth noting, I’m not talking about the BDSM community here, but I’ll come back to that in a second.)

If you want to avoid writing abusive relationships, my advice would be to make sure both characters are equal participants. That doesn’t mean they have to be the same person (they should be distinct individuals), but they both need to have an equal say in what they’re doing. When one of the characters has far more power or control than the other, you have a serious risk of an abusive situation. Especially if you have a situation where only one character has the option to walk away. This is especially a risk when one of the romantic partners is a teacher and the other is a student. An imbalanced relationship is not automatically abusive, but there is an extreme risk.

If you’re familiar with the BDSM community, a lot of the community’s rules are there to prevent abusive situations. As I just mentioned, when you have imbalanced power dynamics, you have a real risk of abuse occurring. The thing is, BDSM isn’t about the pain (it may be an important part of the experience for some, but it’s not the raison d’être), it’s about managing asymmetrical power and control dynamics between the participants, while keeping them safe from abuse. The rules that the community creates are there to protect them.

Again, no judgement on this count. I’ve known a few martial artists who were also in the community. Granted, not many, but, it’s also deeply personal information, so the number may be higher than I aware of. If you are going to delve into this subject, I strongly recommend you do your research on how the community actually operates. Their presentation in pop culture is often played for shock value or as a joke, which stigmatizes the community. The are real consequences for real people as a result.

As a new writer, you do deserve some serious credit here. Unpacking everything you’re wanting to do here would take some serious work, and this is tapping into some difficult subject matter. I would not recommend these topics until you’re comfortable enough in the full ramifications of those subjects.

Even as a non-writer, when you’re looking at these concepts, it is very important, for your growth as a person, to really sit back and consider what’s being said by the media you consume.

-Starke

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