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Knife Fighting Do’s and Dont’s

Scott:What they gotcha teachin’ here, young sergeant?

Jackie Black:Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.

Scott:
Don’t you teach ‘em knife fighting. Teach ’em to kill. That way, they
meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to
hell.

Spartan, 2004

There
really is no right answer to knife fighting, except, perhaps, the above
quote. When you’re setting out to write a scene, it’s best to assess
your priorities first and what your story needs. In the real world,
knife combat comes in many different forms and works as a supplemental
weapon in most military disciplines. It’s a common weapon in
self-defense situations, and can be used both by the aggressor and the
defender.

What is a knife?

Primarily, it’s a tool
and, like all tools, there are situations where it thrives and those
where it dies. It succeeds as an ambush weapon, as a builder on hand to
hand, and when fighting in very tight quarters. Combat with knives is
very quick and very deadly. As an ambush weapon, it is often used to
close the distance or rush a target. Allow the knife wielder to get
close to an opponent wielding a sword or a gun before either can be
drawn and they will have the clear advantage. However, take the knife
out of tight environments and it’s effectiveness will decrease
dramatically. This is why it’s unlikely to be the only weapon in a
character’s arsenal, especially not when you’re writing a professional
combatant.

What kind of fight are you writing?

The
knife is a deadly weapon in the hands of anyone, it doesn’t require any
specialized training to be able to wield it. It’s more user friendly to
killing than even a gun and can require less maintenance. Basic
understanding works fine. You pick it up, you stab, and then you stab
some more. The stabs may all go to one place, often the gut, but five or
six into one place will leave the other character bleeding out on the
sidewalk.

It’s up to you on whether or not you want to (or if
it’s even appropriate to your story) write a scene which is more
sophisticated. Remember, it doesn’t have to be. The basic principle of
the knife is incredibly simple: You’re gonna shank a dude.

So, don’t freak out.

When
it comes to a knife, anywhere on the body is a convenient target.
Anywhere. This is one of the few weapons where you really don’t need to
know much about it to write a scene. The knife is fairly intuitive.
Unless your character needs to get fancy with their martial combat, then
you do need to study. Even then, you still need to pick your martial
art and do your research. Plenty of martial styles have a knife
component, so it’s more a matter of searching through the different
styles to find the one which fits your character and story.

Below
the cut, I’ll discuss some basic theory and suggestions that hopefully
will be enough to get you a jumping off point into the fine art of
shanking. This is no means a comprehensive list, just basic beginner
tips.

Knife
fighting isn’t sword fighting with minis. This is the first, and most
important, lesson. They belong in separate categories. Knives are
supplementary weapons in hand to hand and when included significantly
raise the threat level to what that individual intends. When someone
whips out a knife in combat, they are raising the stakes from “someone
might die” to “I definitely want to kill somebody”.

Knife combat
is very fast and any received injury will be devastating. Someone with a
knife versus someone without one has a significant advantage. Knives
are very dangerous and, if your character isn’t careful, a fight can
easily end with a double suicide when both characters are bleeding their
guts out on the side of a highway.

There are a lot of
different kinds of “knife fighting” out there and many different
techniques available for you to look into for your character. The
question is what kind of knife fighting are they trained in/used to?
Many traditional martial arts all around the globe have their own set or
subset of combat tactics when wielding a knife. Military and Police H2H
do as well, though the techniques employed by Police will focus less on
using a knife and more on disarming/subduing an opponent who carries
one. The knife is a very common weapon for street level criminals and
it’s genuinely viewed as the most dangerous of the weapons one can
encounter in that environment. (Yes, even more dangerous than a gun and
also more common.) Some of the more “militant” or “practical”
self-defense subsets advocate using knives for self-defense.

Whatever
you choose to go with in your story, it’s best to remember this one
simple rule when it comes to knife combat: like all bladed weapons,
knives are for killing. If a character pulls a knife on another
character then they are making an active threat on their life. Their
intentions no longer matter, the threat is “if you don’t give me what I
want, I will kill you” or “I plan to kill you”.
Knives are best
suited to opportunistic combat and tight spaces. In a wide view for the
professional combatant, they are usually the fallback weapon or
situational weapon that gets pulled when the character needs to either
be stealthy/carry an easily concealable weapon, or give them an
advantage within tight/confined spaces where a sword, pole arm, or gun
aren’t practical. Knives are easily concealable, very dangerous in
unarmed/unarmored combat, and often end with someone dead or grievously
injured.

If your character specializes in knife combat, then they
need to be able to accurately assess the appropriate situations where
knife combat is viable and where it is not. Weapons are specialized for
different situations. Accept that bringing a knife to a gun fight or
sword fight is a losing proposition if they try to take them head on.
What makes a character “skilled” is not their ability to face all comers
or overcome the rules by virtue of being awesome, it’s in their ability
to accurately assess a situation and develop a plan of action which
plays to their strengths. While their plan may go sideways (no plans are
ever guaranteed success), it’s the thought that counts.

Do Hang onto Your Knife

This
seems like simple and obvious advice, but your character is not
guaranteed to hold onto their knife throughout the entire fight. The
character’s knife can be just as dangerous to them as their opponent’s
if they fail to keep a firm grip. Without properly applied pressure, the
blade can simply slip free, slide through the hand and cut it open, or
be dropped when filled with adrenaline. Cutting and stabbing another
individual relies on pressure, if the character’s grip is not secure
then they may simply lose the knife.
Characters with little to no
combat experience will be more subject to this law. Even so, mistakes
can happen to anyone regardless of experience level.

Do Avoid the Blade

Knives
are very dangerous weapons, any cut your character suffers during the
fight can potentially be lethal. The reason for this is blood loss. The
more active you are, the more blood your body pumps through your heart,
if there is a hole in your body then the more blood will escape during
the fight. The more holes you get, the more blood escapes and there is
nowhere on your body a knife can hit that won’t draw blood. Your veins
are everywhere. One single hit can lead to a chain of from bad to worse.

Knife
fights happen within very close proximity, even if your character is
armed that won’t protect them from getting cut. A character is going to
want to stay out of range of the knife until they are ready to commit.
Instead of grasping and grappling, you’re going to be looking at a fair
amount of ducking, dodging, and deflecting. It’s not like with basic
hand to hand where you’re characters can simply trade blows. The
fighters want to keep the knives as far from them as humanly possible.
Catch the blade either early in the swing (as the arm draws back) or
late in the swing (after they’ve fully extended) to initiate a counter
attack, or cut under as they swing. Whatever your character does, their
priority is going to be on keeping that knife away from them so the
other person cannot reverse and stab.

Use your characters
“free” (non-weapon carrying) hand for blocking, deflecting, and
controlling. Characters who use the Phillipino martial art escrima may
supplement their free hand with a short stick or a baton. Characters
wielding two knives give up their ability to deflect and control their
opponent. They are trading their defensive options for more stabbing
power.

Do Keep Track of the Blade

This is
more for when you the author are writing, but also a good plan for your
characters. When writing fight scenes, especially when both characters
are armed, there’s a bad habit of writers imagining the sequence like a
video game. The knife is important only so long as it’s there to
establish a threat, once one character gets the upper hand then it’s
immediately forgotten.

Don’t forget it’s there. Even if it
gets knocked free or knocked away in the fight. As the writer, always
know where the weapons are even if the other characters forget about
them. Anything can happen with a free weapon. Any other character can
pick it up, any other character can make off with it, and be waiting
when your victorious protagonist walks around the corner. If the
character still has the knife, then they can still stab your protagonist
even when they are winning. Sometimes, even when they are dying.
Keep track of all weapons in the scene.

Don’t Grab the Blade

Your
hand is full of nerves and important tendons necessary for maintaining a
grip. A blade will slice through all of them and cripple your
character, leaving them bleeding and unable to defend themselves. Your
hand is a mechanical marvel, it is incredibly delicate. When damaged, it
can take a long while to recover, assuming it ever does.

This is
why deflection is so important in knife fights, as well as more risky
blocks that expose lesser parts of the body to injury in exchange for
more important ones. These blocks include using the edge of the forearm,
where the bone is closest to the surface and there are few important
muscles, to attempt to catch or lockup the blade in the bone. This is,
however, incredibly risky. Alternate knife grips, such as a reverse
grip, can avoid this block by slashing under instead of the expected
over and sever the veins and tendons before following up with a stab to
the ribs or gut. If you really, really, really must have your character
do something with their hand then instead of grabbing the blade, ram
their hand through it. It is terrible advice and will do long term
damage to the hand, but if there’s no other way out go that route. Your
character will appear slightly smarter because they attempted to lock
the blade up in the bones inside the hand. Locking up the knife creates
an opening for them to attack. It’s definitely a sacrificial gesture,
but if it’s your hand or your life then go with the hand.

Deflect
at the hand, the wrist, the elbow, and upper arm. Make contact with the
opponent and not the blade itself. If your character must attempt a
disarm (very dangerous), catch the wrist or the hand. Take the hilt,
torque the blade against the thumb (not the fingers) to pop it free. The
other character won’t be able to hold onto the blade. Like with most
martial actions, taking the knife isn’t about strength. It’s about
attacking the weak link (the thumb), forcing the hilt into a position
where the attacker can no longer maintain a grip.

Disarms are
exceedingly dangerous to perform. So, when writing, always try ensure
that the necessary body parts are protected and the blade is redirected
somewhere else. Best if it’s in a position where it can no longer come
at you again.

Don’t Fuck Around

One general
problem many authors have is they assume when someone becomes “good”
then basic threats no longer apply. In game terms, they level past
certain dangers and when they do those dangers no longer apply. Now,
this is a common cliche in many martial arts movies. The trick is
understanding that it’s a failing on the part of the student and their
overconfidence inevitably brings them back down to earth.

It
doesn’t matter how good your character is, combat is always dangerous. A
character’s professionalism is defined by how seriously they take the
threats made on their life and the part where they recognize the
inherent danger present in any situation. What they know will not keep
them safe from danger. It gives them a better chance and that’s all.

You
never level past danger. Whether they’ve seen one battle or a hundred,
treat every threat seriously and end it quickly. The longer a fight goes
on, the greater the chance that something will go wrong.

Don’t Prolong Suffering

It’s
cruel. If your character is in a situation where they must kill, then
killing quickly is kindness. While this should probably go under “Don’t
Fuck Around”, this is deserving of its own topic.

In Dune,
when young Paul Atreides must duel Jamis to secure his position within
Stilgar’s Fremen tribe, he is initially condemned by the other members
of the tribe when he prolongs the fight. The issue for him is that while
he is an exceptionally skilled combatant, he’s never killed before and
is hesitant to take a life. However, his lifetime of training has left
him so skilled that the Fremen see his behavior as cruel. It’s obvious
to anyone with eyes that he is going to win. All his hesitance does is
tease his opponent with false hope and prolong his suffering. There is
no out for Paul, he must kill.

This was an important scene in
the novel because of the way it highlighted the difficulty in the act of
killing another human being even when one has been brought up their
life to do so. It also humanized the Fremen. While their laws are strict
and their culture brutal due to their harsh environment, they won’t
thank any protagonist for prolonging the suffering of someone they care
about.

Holding off doesn’t make your character look like a
decent human being. There is more to the conversation than killing bad,
living good. What Paul does to Jamis is a form of torture. It is
unintentional, but that doesn’t change the end result. When your
characters are in a situation where they are more skilled than their
opponent and you have placed them in a situation where they must kill
then mucking around, prolonging the scene, is cruel.

This
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The scene I put forward from Dune is
powerful and informative, it serves a purpose. What you should do is
recognize the act for what it is, allow other characters to notice the
same, and condemn the character for it.

Don’t Give the Knife Back

If
someone tries to kill you, don’t give them their weapon back once the
fight is over. In novels, this is treated as “sportsmanlike” behavior. A
sign the character has defeated their enemy and are now proving they
are the bigger person. It’s stupid. There’s nothing stopping them from
burying that knife in your character’s back or their ribs the minute
they turn around. Just defeating someone doesn’t stop them from wanting
to kill you. It also won’t stop them from stabbing someone else.

Lots
of characters do this. If you have a character engaging in this
behavior, and they just might, think about it when you write the
consequences of the decision.

Do Lock Up the Hand (and other body parts)

Attack
the portions of the body they use to fight. Carve up the hand/arm first
to get it out of the way, then go for the main body. Author’s often get
too invested in “kill shots”, they sometimes forget that getting from
Point A to the killing blow has intervening steps, like getting through
their defenses. If the character has the option to go straight in to
take them out of the fight and the situation allows it, then all the
better.

However, sometimes a character is going to have to do a
little extra work than just rushing forward and stabbing the other
character. If the other character has a knife, then 9/10 they’ll just be
running into the other person’s knife. This advice goes hand in hand
with “Avoiding the Blade” and keeping track of the weapon. While the
knife can easily be switched between hands, it’s a good idea to create
openings in their defenses. This can be done using either the
“free”/defensive hand or the knife itself. Where the enemy knife is will
be important to targeting and response. Attacking the arm or wrist
holding the blade can be helpful to ending the knife’s threat.

After
all, if they can’t use the arm then they can’t use the knife. These
kinds of blows are, however, just openers to attack the other more
sensitive parts of the body.

You’re not just attacking veins.
Good slashes will also cut through or damage the muscles and ligaments
necessary for a person to keep fighting. In this respect, it’s best to
think of knife combat as surgical. While on the one hand, it can be
blunt. It can also be incredibly precise and ridiculously fast. This
kind of speed and precision you won’t get from a longer weapon.

Do Study Police Blotters and Medical Files

Knife
injuries will teach you more about knife combat than all the techniques
in the world. Learning what a weapon can do to somebody is part and
parcel to developing a healthy respect for the weapon. When we get right
down to it, knife combat is pretty gruesome.

Do Remember There Are Different Kinds of Knives

There’s the dagger.
Daggers typically possess two edges or are double-sided blades. They
are the traditional variant of the combat knife. Daggers, such as the
parrying dagger from fencing, can also be used as tools or secondary
defensive weapons instead of offensive.

And the knife.
Typically possess a single edge, primarily used for cutting, and are
tools. However, the term also applies to most modern combat knives.

The terms can be used interchangeably.

What
is your character carrying? A tactical knife? A switchblade? A kitchen
knife? These are different and one isn’t a weapon. I mean just look and those are just the modern ones. Also keep in mind that throwing knives are not the same as throwing a knife.
Throwing knives are made for throwing, if your character is throwing a
regular knife then they need to make some adjustments for weight and
balance.

Worth remembering: throwing a regular knife just means
your character has lost theirs. Knife throwing has become a narrative
fast hand for saying that “my character has impressive accuracy” and
often used in cases where it makes very little sense. Knife throwing is a
skill, as throwing anything is a skill. It’s a very nice party trick,
but means almost nothing in regards to combat viability. It’s a lot like
tossing around a baseball or a paper airplane. Anything you throw and
don’t want to lose, you still have to go out and retrieve.

Because
knives are also tools, be prepared to distinguish between the
improvised weapon (such as cutlery or any utility knife) and the actual
weapon such as a combat knife (a weapon designed around the idea of
stabbing another living person). For characters who use knives for
combat will not mix the two unless it’s absolutely necessary as it
damages the knife’s functionality both as a weapon and also as a tool.

Do Use Sensation Appropriate Verbs

Depicting combat in your writing is often about finding the right words that generate the appropriate feel of the motion you’re aiming for. In this case, hard sharp words like cut, thrust, slice, slash, stab, drove, instead of hard but round words implying crushing force like “hit”. “He hit him with the knife.” Does that sound right? When we use the word “hit“ we conjure images of kinetic force, a knockback, and a slight bounce. Words that imply blunt force trauma are out, unless it involves hitting someone with the butt of the knife hilt (though why would you do that? It’s not a sword pommel). Knives and bladed weapons go “in”, they impale. There is driving force behind the edged weapon, but also a sense of smoothness in the action.

Soft words also can work in certain situtations like : slip or slid, like “he slid the blade between his ribs”.

You can also use words like “caught” to convey what happens to the blade when it penetrates the body. “She tried to yank it back, but the blade had caught in Adam’s ribcage.”

I hope these have been helpful to you.

-Michi

Resources:

Stay Safe Media
– This self defense vlog run by edged weapon’s expert Michael Janich is
very helpful for those looking to get quick information about knives
and knife combat. Janich’s predominate focus is on self-defense, but he
puts a primary focus on framing the training through real life
situations. His videos have been very helpful to me and hopefully will
be to some of you as well.

Contemporary Knife TargetingContemporary Knife Targeting
by Michael Janich isn’t really about targeting per say, it’s mainly
about William Fairburn’s Timetable of Death, which is used by Police and
Military to determine how long someone has from resulting knife
injuries and why it’s flawed. This is pretty much why I recommend the
book because it spends a vast majority of it’s time going in depth into a
discussion of how quickly someone will die from which injury. If you
want to write about knife fights, this one is worth a look.

Dune – Frank Herbert’s Dune
has some very well written knife sequences, but also good world
building explanations for certain kinds of behavior. The Fremen culture
is very reactive to what Paul and Jessica do when they join. Paul
must convince them he is what he says. While stories in which the hero
isn’t given carte blanche to do what they like aren’t uncommon,
characters dealing with consequences other than the basic “death is bad”
or “I can’t believe you did that” are slightly more unusual. There are
more kinds of horror and emotional rollercoasters than just easily
grasped indignation.

Spartan
– I linked the above quote at the beginning and while Spartan doesn’t
talk about “knife fighting”, you do see another colder perspective in
the main character. It’s more about attitude than knives, but worth
considering.

U.S. Military, Systema, Israeli Military, Kali and
Escrima from the Philippines, and many other martial systems have a
knife component to their training. It’s up to you to decide what level
of knife combat your character is trained in and find a style which
corresponds accordingly.

As always, keep in mind that combat
constantly changes, evolves, and grows over time. All martial systems
are not created equal, they were developed to deal with specific
challenges faced by the culture in question. While they might not lose
cultural relevance, combat effectiveness changes with the times. A
character who spends his weekends practicing Kendo or Iaido is not the
same as a samurai from 1185. The modern special forces, or even just the
basic soldier, are a better comparison.

Writing Archetypes: The Chessmaster

The Chessmaster is very simple in concept, but ends up being one of the most difficult characters to do right. This is because they are heavily reliant on the author having the firmest grasp they can on the inner workings of the societies in their setting both social, military, and political. They need a firm grasp on the actual landscape of the setting such as where the mountains are, what towns are situated where, maps, and such. They need an understanding of scope. Most importantly, they have to be able to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

You need this because strategizing relies on being able to look at your setting from the perspective of the Chessmaster and make plans regarding it. Keep in mind, those plans are not your plans as in the author’s plans. The Chessmaster only has access to the information made available to them during the course of the story. It is all too easy to try to write this character and end up with one that’s cheating by peeking over the author’s shoulder to find out everything they can’t possibly know.

A chessmaster is a character with a plan, possibly with multiple contingencies. They have a goal. They are proactive in the narrative.

A chessmaster’s presence should always be felt, even when they aren’t seen, even when it feels like they are doing nothing.

A chessmaster is there to outthink the other characters in the narrative, they are not there to outthink the reader.

Don’t let your character outwit with your own cleverness.

With the Chessmaster, it is very easy to end up in a situation where the author is trying to trip up the reader, but strategy is not built off plot twists. If your reader figures out where you’re going give them the credit, they had the time they needed and the overview to get a grasp on the villain’s plan. A well laid out strategy is a beauty to behold even after you know where it’s going. The Chessmaster must always remain a character within the narrative, they are not the omnipotent guiding hand of God. Their strategy must always be based around information they either reveal to the reader or can be supposed off what other character’s come across. Foreshadowing is often key with many pieces carefully placed so that when the reader looks back all the pieces of the plan click into place.

Too often, a would be Chessmaster is a character who just sits on the sidelines and does nothing while they cackle maliciously. You can’t just talk about a grand strategy within the story or have other characters talk them up. They need a plan of action and that requires the author taking chances. You must be willing to learn how to strategize and create your own strategies from the perspective of this character.

They aren’t always going to all be brilliant, but that’s the risk every strategist takes. In the end, the best advice is this:

K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple, stupid.

Common Misconceptions:

The biggest mistake when working with a Chessmaster is assuming it’s all about intelligence. The character does what they do because they are smart. While this may be true, it’s not intelligence which makes a Chessmaster successful. It’s all in the observational skills. The ability to both accumulate massive amounts of information and then operationalize that information effectively within their overarching strategies in order to achieve their goal.

A chessmaster is a social animal.

A chessmaster is devious.

A chessmaster is good at making observations about people and using them.

A chessmaster is a manipulator.

A chessmaster is not omnipotent.

A chessmaster can be but is not always a sociopath. They are able to compartmentalize their emotions out of the way and do what they believe is necessary in spite of them (or because of them). True manipulation requires empathy or, at least, the ability to convincingly fake it.

As Villains:

The Chessmaster villain requires a different sort of protagonist i.e. a character who does more than bludgeon their way through problems. You need a protagonist who is capable (though they may not be as good or as smart) at rising to the occasion and able to meet them on the intellectual field of battle.

They may not be agree with their Chessmaster foe but they do need to be able to understand them and comprehend what they are capable of. After all, understanding how an opponent thinks is the first key to defeating them.

Plans within plans, as it were.

This is why the character of Paul Atreidies in Dune is so compelling. He is more than able to match the Baron Harkonnen in a test of wits, in moving his pieces on the board in order to disrupt the spice flow the rest of the galaxy needs and lure in the Emperor. Trapping them all, so that the only way out is his way.

Your protagonist needs to be more than a hammer.

What You Need:

Writing a Chessmaster is like playing chess against three people: the antagonist, the protagonist, and the writer. The writer must make their moves to advance the overarching narrative and throw down impediments for both parties as the story progresses while the characters within the narrative play the long game against each other.

Strategy is all about figuring out what you need and implementing a plan to get it. Being clever is a nice side benefit, but it’s not the point. You can build more and more on top into a complex web, but at it’s heart it is all about what your character either needs or wants.

When we write the Chessmaster, we risk getting caught up in the idea of being clever. The nimble mind which evades all the traps might pop up here and there. It’s very easy to outwit ourselves while trying to work through this character because, again, we risk getting caught up in the short term gains while missing the long term goals.

Your eye must always be on the prize.

Simple plans are easier to carry out.

Never lose sight of the end goal.

Plans always revolve around an understanding and expectation of how other people in the narrative are going to behave.

Remember, the Chessmaster can be wrong. They can miscalculate. They can make mistakes.

Some Chessmasters are not good at playing speed chess. Some are. You might want to figure out which one you have.

-Michi

Strength in Adversity

On the Knight post last week, Brainstormideas made a pretty good point. It was something I glossed over, because I was “doing the math in my head”, and forgot to really explain the reasoning.

@brainstormideas said: If you’re writing a novel, I think this would be an interesting conflict for the story. What with her challenges with training and fitting in. I would certainly read it. If it was too easy it wouldn’t be an interesting read.

This is absolutely true. Your stories need adversity. Without it, you don’t have a story. At the most basic level, creating adversity is trivial; all you need are elements that make your character’s life harder. That’s easy, hard part is balancing that against what your character can handle, to create a compelling narrative.

When you’re creating the adversity it doesn’t need to actually be a physical opponent. It can be an internal failing; hubris and addiction are both classic examples that can create compelling stories without requiring an external foe.

You, as the writer, control your story’s universe. When someone says, “you can’t do this in your world,” that isn’t strictly true. The hard and fast rules that govern the real world don’t apply. They survive as guidelines. “Paint within these boundaries unless you really know what you’re doing when you cross the line.” But, no one’s going to stop you.

You can throw overwhelming force at your character, and have them come through smiling and spouting witty one-liners. No one (outside of an editor) will stop you. But, that also doesn’t make your hero more awesome, or stronger.

Characters don’t suffer adversity the way real people do. Oh, most writers want them to be as close to authentic as they can get, but that’s not the same.

When a real person gets put through hell and comes out the other side, it’s on them. They suffered, endured, and moved beyond it to survive. When a character gets put through hell, they present the illusion of suffering and endurance, but it’s the author who has to move them beyond it. Push too far, and your audience’s suspension of disbelief will break, killing the credibility of everyone below.

Setting the stakes too high, and then wining through authorial fiat is really a loss. Your characters didn’t overcome the challenges you put in front of them; you cheated for them. And, in the process you created another Mary Sue.

Set those stakes to low and you’ll be left with a character that feels overpowered, even if they’re not. They become “giants in the playground,” and even under the best circumstances, your story won’t work unless your characters are picking on someone their own size.

Properly balancing adversity is not easy. You need to present obstacles that look insurmountable, that you can chip away a piece at a time. You need to make sure your characters are prepared for their opposition, without making it look like you tailored them to overcome this specific issue. You need to make it look like it’s still a continual threat even as you close in on your story’s climax.

If your protagonists aren’t supposed to overcome their adversity, just to survive, then you can actually push much stronger adversity at your character. Let me offer an example of how this works, using the Knight question:

If the goal is to present a character who staggers through her training, battered but defiant, then pushing her into training nine years after all of her peers started is actually fine. She’d be somewhere between a pariah and a tourist for her fellow knights. She’d never be fully accepted, but if that’s not the endgame, it doesn’t matter.

You can even do compelling things with her further down the line, where she has the formal recognition, but not the social connections that come with her position.

If your goal is for your hero to overcome, find acceptance among her peers, become a full member of her knightly order in good standing, then starting her nine years late is a bit too far. Just by being put into consideration by a patron, she’s already going to be marked out by anyone who got their “on their own merits,” even if they were really there because of their own backers.

Just being a teenager provides enough internal adversity to hang a story on it in any setting. You can look at the YA section of nearly any bookstore if you want an example of that.

Having her enter training late will add more tension, even if it’s just a couple years. But, asking her to play catch up for a decade of work is overkill, even if the purpose is just for her to never be fully accepted.

We’ve both see this a lot, even in published work, where the adversity is ramped into the stratosphere on the idea that it will make the characters more badass. When you’re setting up adversity, it is really easy to go too far. Creating a villain that is too competent, stacking the deck too hard against your character, and getting a situation where there is no way your hero can win. If you don’t want your hero to actually win, that’s great.

I don’t think The Empire Strikes Back would work nearly as well, if Luke and Leia cheated a win out of the end. The point isn’t victory, it’s surviving, and in the process, it’s compelling as hell.

But, by the same measure, if you do want your heroes to win, you need to balance your antagonists to allow it without just throwing the whole game.

-Starke

So I’m writing a book with a lot of fight scenes, and my main character starts out untrained. I don’t want to make her try to fight when she doesn’t know how, but I don’t want to make her a “damsel in distress”. Got any tips for that?

The only thing a character has to do to avoid becoming a damsel in distress is not sit and wait for rescue. Seriously, that’s it. They don’t have to succeed, they just have to try and keep trying. (Though… preferably not against characters who are willing to kill them for trying.)

The biggest issue with writing inexperienced female action characters (or any female action characters) is that there’s a tendency to overcompensate. From what I’ve actually seen in literature and media, this can be a bigger issue for female writers than male writers (though both suffer from it) because of the way the societal gender norms inform their perspective on what they can be. When you’ve been told your whole life that “you’ll never be as good” at X, or “you can’t beat a guy”, or all the other little stories and common wisdom littered across a thousand different television shows, books, media, and forum discussions then the specter of the Damsel in Distress can feel like an omnipresent and even unbeatable threat.

I’m going to launch into a deeper discussion about how losing and getting knocked down doesn’t make a character weak, but I’m going to leave the most important piece of advice here:

The Damsel in Distress is an object within the narrative. Defeat it by making your character a person.

Okay? Okay.

The trouble with the “Strong Female Character” is that it’s a response to the regular female character and the regular female character is regarded as weak. By accepting the term, it means we accept that the vast majority of women out there are weak and by creating a female character who doesn’t begin with StrongTM stamped on their ass that they are inherently weak before they can become strong.This locks us in because in order for this female character to be “Strong” she must be everything the average woman is not. To even be on the same playing field as her fellow men, she must be unbeatable. By starting with a “Strong Female CharacterTM”, we begin with the mission statement that just being a girl is not good enough.

According to the media and the general perceptions presented by society, all boys are heroes while all girls are damsels in distress. If you’re worried about your character becoming a damsel then it’s because for you, the damsel is still the default.

So, below the cut, I’ll try to make some suggestions for how to beat this.

Do you define your hero as being a hero based on who they are or what they can do?

The average male hero is defined as a hero based on who he is. The average “Strong Female CharacterTM” is defined as hero based on what she can do. When working with female characters, we begin to revolve around not who a character is but what they can do as being important to their success.

We start to feel like any loss is a sign that they’re unworthy. They always have to win and the win must be effortless.

Say it with me:

“My character doesn’t need to be anything more than who they are to be the hero of my story.”

I know I battle with the omnipresent feeling of “not deserving the spotlight” or “not being good enough”. It’s okay to step back and say “yes, it’s all about me”. Your character isn’t going to win every battle. They are going to encounter enemies that they cannot defeat by force alone. Enemies they cannot fight head to head. It’s not a sign of them being weak or incapable, it’s just a matter of them having to solve their problem a different way.

I have a character who spends the vast majority of my novel running away. Well, really, running toward her enemy. She is more than capable of fighting head to head with most of what the setting can throw at her, but is also capable of assessing which fights are worth her time and risk. She’s working within a very short time frame. At the end of the novel, before fighting the main villain, she fights six guys. Instead of fighting them straight up, she runs from them.

Someone out there may be going: but running away is cowardly!

No, it’s smart. By running, she breaks them up and has a better chance one on one than fighting them all together. By running, she can lose them. When they lose her, they have to start searching for her, and so she can begin hunting them. The tables turn and the prey becomes the predator.

Take a situation that places the character at a disadvantage and have them turn it to their advantage. Take an action that may lead to the character being perceived as weak and turn it into an action that is strong. Strength can come from cunning and resourcefulness as much as it can from physical action. It can come from compassion, kindness, and the willingness to forgive.

Your character can be weak and strong at the same time.

Stop being afraid of how other people will perceive your character.

The damsel in distress is a fear of what other people will think. It’s a worry that you’re not doing it “right”. There is no right. People will think what they think. So, fuck ‘em. Write your story. Write it the way it wants to be written. Then, revise it to be what you want.

Just do it.

You’re not failing the Feminist movement. You’re not failing anyone by telling the story the way you want.

Trust yourself. You can do it.

-Michi

Okay, so this probably sounds like a really silly question, but I have to ask. Why do assassins get close to their target before killing them? Isn’t it more efficient to kill their target immediately?

Depends. Okay, so there’s actually 3 different possible meanings of “getting close to their target,” and I’ll hit them in turn.

If you just mean physical proximity, then, they usually don’t. A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary.

If the target can be dropped with a high-powered rifle six blocks away, that’s a much safer option than going in with a garotte. No matter what popular fiction, like The Professional or the Hitman games will tell you. (To be fair, The Professional is a fantastic film, but as with most of Luc Besson’s work it’s not terribly realistic.)

Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”

It’s not a silly question. A great deal of modern spy fiction and most of the action adventure genre dealing with professional assassins prime the audience to view them in a way that is inherently unrealistic. This also involves burdening them with approaches to their kills that are unsustainable without the aid of authorial fiat. The general emphasis ends up being on the assassin killing, not on all the other aspects of the job needed in order for them to be successful. This approach generally relies on negating or outright ignoring the police and the protectee’s security service in order to present the idea of “badass superkiller1!1!!!!!!1”. If your primary view of assassins is as the Anime Ninja, or the action adventure heroes from R.E.D., or even the Hitman games where an assassin is just the new code word for “human killing machine” then I can see where it might be confusing.

If the kind of assassin you’re planning on writing fits into the categories above then you can feel free to ignore this post.

In a world that takes into account all the people out there (including law enforcement) willing and able to get between an assassin and their target, the game of cat and mouse an assassin has to play in avoiding the local authorities, and finding an opening to take a shot at an important person who may have upwards of twenty bodyguards watching their every move then the prospect of actually murdering them (much less getting away afterwards) becomes much tougher.

Besides what some video games and books might tell you, walking into a house and murdering everyone inside is the sort of action which makes everything worse. It doesn’t make it better and it’s not even viable in the short run. Bodyguards don’t line up in a shooting gallery, instead they’ll do their job. Taking the time to deal with them (and it does take time) will end with the assassin missing their window of opportunity as the rest of the security detail gets their boss to safety. Once the window of opportunity is gone, the mission is over. Your assassin has one chance to dance, if they blow it then it’s over. The more people the assassin fights on the way to their target, the higher the likelihood the assassin will get made. If the assassin gets made then there’s a good chance they’ll either end up on the law enforcement radar (lucky) or a criminal organization’s (incredibly unlucky). Either way even if they do escape, they’ll spend the rest of their life running.

This is why you get “close” to your target.

Getting Physically Close: Hallmark of the Political Assassin

The guy who walks up to the President and puts three bullets in his/her chest only to get tackled by some very angry members of the Secret Service is a person who wants to get caught. This is the standard conventional assassin and the one we understand best because there have been so many of them. They do it because they want to make a political statement, their imprisonment or death will lead to them becoming a martyr. In the grand scheme, there’s no difference between John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln and an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Both acts are politically motivated and both are types of assassinations meant to draw attention to their cause (whatever cause that is). Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”

It’s worth remembering that President Obama gets 30 death threats a day, that’s 210 a week, and somewhere around 900 a month. All those threats must be investigated by the Secret Service. The more powerful a person is, the more enemies they accumulate, and the more people there are who want them dead. This counters all the people surrounding them whose job it is to keep them alive. The act of killing is the simple and easy part, it’s everything leading up to it that’s difficult.

Preparation is Key

A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary. If they can manage it with a high powered rifle on a rooftop six blocks away then they will. It’s cleaner, easier, and safer that way. Still, being in the right place at the right time involves knowing their target, their habits, their security plan, and where the holes are to find the opportunity necessary to take the shot. They also have to scout the environment ahead of time, locate a place to prepare their setup with an understanding that their target’s security will be looking for exactly that. You might think sitting up on rooftop with a rifle waiting to take a shot would be easy, but it’s not and, unlike in most movies, there’s no one who will do the work for them.

Your character will not automatically know where to go or what to do. The more they know about their target the better they can predict their movements, the better they can predict their movements, the more options they have if or, really, when things go wrong. An assassin must always be one step ahead of their target and they can’t stay ahead of them if they don’t know them.

Preparation is the key to success.

Is it really more efficient?

There’s a choice every character must make for themselves: do I want to kill the once or do I want to kill multiple times? If you decided to become an assassin tomorrow then you’d probably follow the protocols that media has prepared for you as do most would be assassins. It’s what gets them caught. “What would I do if I were an assassin?” is a great opener for crafting a newbie.

Ignoring law enforcement agencies and desire for retribution on the part of the surrounding individuals who might not be too happy that their friend, loved one, hero, or source of paycheck just got offed is a mistake and it’s an easy one to make.

Take some time and investigate the other side of the equation. Watch some Law and Order. Then think about it from the perspective of all the people who are going to investigate and hunt your assassin down. Collateral and Lucky Number Slevin are great movies to watch on this account because they’re all about the shell game involved in an assassin covering their tracks or getting close to their target. In Collateral, the assassin (Tom Cruise) pays cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around the city as he performs his hits. While the assassin’s behavior toward the cab driver is friendly and amiable, we learn from the cops investigating the initial murders about a cab driver who went nuts and killed a whole bunch of random people in one night before committing suicide. I’ll give you three guesses for who really killed those people.

The goal is going to be get in, get out, without anyone the wiser. Often leaving a fall guy to take the blame (like the cab driver) or covering the killings by using another rational explanation. The first season of Elementary for example involved two assassins who covered their tracks in different ways. The first one murdered people in the exact same way every single time in order to make it look like a serial killer doing the deed, some of the people he killed on his spree were his targets but others were just random innocents who fit the profile. He only popped up every few years and each time in different places. Because the cops were looking for a serial killer and not an assassin, they missed the key motivations necessary for uncovering his identity. Thus, the assassin was able to continue his business while the cops chased their tails looking for a pattern that wasn’t there.

The second assassin covered his kills by using conveniently timed accidents to do the deed. He pushed an air conditioner off a three story building onto a passing man below (freak accident), cultivated a colony of particularly nasty bees along the workout route of a woman who had a deadly allergy (natural death), and murdered a man by disrupting the signal to his pacemaker and giving him a heart attack (hardware failure). If you look at all these victims as individuals and not at their relationships to each other then each appears to be a random accident. In that case, there’s no need to investigate further. (It’s always worth remembering that most law enforcement agencies are buried in cases that cross their desk. Homicide is a great look into the life of a homicide detective and the world of unsolved cases.)

Of the three, Collateral is the most realistic which is why I recommend watching it once and then with the commentary turned on. It’s very helpful.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

For Your Assassins:

Ronin, I know we’ve plugged this one a bunch lately. It’s not a fantastic film, but it is a fantastic thing to watch to get a look at operational preparation. That is to say, the things your assassin needs to do in order to get access to and kill their target.

Collateral is a pretty good look at both assassin and general criminal psychology. Again, we’ve plugged enough lately you should be familiar with it.

Lucky Number Slevin is a bit off-beat, but the entire film sets up a shell game to hide what’s actually going on. It’s a decent example of someone getting close to the target without blowing their cover.

Hitman: Blood Money is a murder playground. This is one of the very rare times I’ll actually recommend a video game for anything. There’s some seriously puerile elements, but it does basically leave the player with free reign to deal with the environment as they see fit. If you’re wanting to see why someone might try to pass themselves off as a member of the cleaning staff to get into a facility instead of camping outside with a rifle, this might be a good thing to look at.

For Your Investigators:

Elementary,Technically almost any faithful representation of Sherlock Holmes will work, but if it’s not Elementary then your best bet will probably be the Jeremy Brett series from the 80s and 90s. Also, if all else fails, and you’ve never read them, you should probably look at the original stories.

Law & Order is an absolute must view, probably in binges, for getting a feel for your cops. The show is slathered in it’s New York City identity, but a lot of it carries over elsewhere. In my opinion, the series really gets going in the third season, but feel free to look at some of the other seasons for a different mix of Police and members of the DA’s Office. Southland is a decent primer to update you to the current climate.

Homicide: Life on the Street is the unpleasant cousin of Law & Order. Again, you’re looking at street level detective work in the mid-90s. But the show is focused more on the psychological strain of the job, as opposed to the procedural techniques. These shows should really be watched together as two sides of the same coin. I’m told The Wire is the decent update to 20 years later, but I’ve never gotten around to it.

Not So Helpful, But Good Movies Anyway:

The Professional is like most most Luc Besson films, not terribly realistic, but it entertaining and quite good. Jean Reno’s character is, unfortunately, a major part of the modern myth of a professional assassin.

Red, this is actually an adaptation of a comic by Warren Ellis. Keep an eye on Helen Mirren and Karl Urban, they’re good references, and their characters don’t really exist in the comic. Especially the way Urban’s character preps and cleans crime scenes.

-Michi

I’ve been curious about this for a while: how do you train to not freeze up when you’re attacked? It seems like a lot of novels conveniently gloss over the “I got stuck between flight and fight mode” thing, but how do you really overcome that? Does preparing for “surprise attacks” in a dojo or something similar really work, or not really, since you’re already kind of expecting it?

Most recreational martial arts won’t teach you how to avoid freezing up because they’re not technically teaching you how to fight outside of a controlled environment. This is why coupling recreational martial arts with self-defense training is important because it’s not so much about training your body as it is training your brain. “Professional” martial training i.e. someone who performs a dangerous job for a living where they have to be watchful will receive training in what to look for and practice being ambushed as it’s a problem they’re much more likely to have to deal with.

Even a trained warrior can get stuck between flight or fight mode if they get caught off guard. So, the trick becomes not getting caught off guard. It’s a matter of mental preparation and practice while being out in the real world.

There’s really no way to beat the fight or flight response, or even really retrain it. There is a way to avoid it. We do this by being mentally ready or when faced with a dangerous situation that hasn’t erupted yet (say you’re being threatened by a very large guy, large guy already wants to hurt you but hasn’t acted yet) you have to leapfrog past their mental point on the attack ladder and be willing to go first, even take the initiative.

It’s hard to surprise someone who is expecting to be surprised.

However, you can’t just do this in a safe environment like on the training floor. It has to be out in the real world, learning to look at the world differently, learning to assess threats from people around you. So much so that it becomes habit to simply scan the room or check the dark alleys, to see the guy who is following you, to keep a heavy improvised weapon like a flashlight in the side door of your car just in case.

The most important aspect of training isn’t what it conditions your body to do. In my martial arts training for third degree, we’d circle up and perform “surprise attacks” on a member in the middle. It was only with a set of techniques but you never knew if it was going to come from the front, behind, anywhere. It was merely a test of our body’s ability to react and perform under pressure. (And the sort of test you only give to black belts because they have the physical control to do it.) Would I say it prepared me for “defending myself on the street”? Not really.

Again, it was a test of my ability to physically react to threats within a controlled environment. Did it build my confidence? Sure, but it was with people I knew and trusted. Learning the mindset and tactics used by people who want to hurt me in a self-defense seminar and strategies for dealing with that? Just as valuable, if not infinitely more so on a practical level.

TLDR: the goal is to get into the mental “ready” state before the fight even begins, this is how you beat out “fight or flight” because there’s no reason for it to trigger. If you expect trouble, you won’t be surprised when it happens.

Alternately, also read this post we did On Psychological Shock

-Michi

Love & Horror – Kindle edition by Kris Noel, Danny Hynes. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Love & Horror – Kindle edition by Kris Noel, Danny Hynes. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

On Unfortunate Implications

In fiction, we often use the supernatural and fantasy races as analogies to real world situations. We can say that it began with Buffy, but that does the genre a disservice. Linking vampires to sexual freedom and using them as an analogy for the dangerous sexuality of foreigners goes all the way back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Horror, mystery, speculative fiction have used monsters as stand ins for xenophobia, repressed sexual urges, and countless other social issues. Both horror and speculative fiction have always been venues for which we talk about real world issues and fear in different guises.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with writing a story about monsters where the monsters are analogies for the fears and worries we have about growing up. Werewolves, for example, make for an excellent parallel to going through puberty. The issues pop up when a writer decides, accidentally or intentionally, to make their monsters thematically representative of a real world issue. When you explicitly make your werewolves about sex, remember that you’ve also opened them up to a discussion about rape. If your story involves a violent act on an unwitting party and spurred on by traumatizing transformation then yes, you may indeed by dealing with a rape analogy. Making magic, particularly demonic possession, your stand in for a discussion about mental illness is more than a little awkward given the history of treating mental illness. The discussion cannot simply be waved off because you don’t want to have that conversation. If you choose to start it, you will end up telling a story that says and means something vastly different from the one you intended.

For example, in Paranormal Romance and some Urban Fantasy, there’s a disturbing trend of supernatural creatures who want to be “normal”. There’s nothing wrong with this concept or desire in isolation. In fact, it’s a perfectly natural to want what society tells you you’re supposed to. Nearly every person experiences this desire at some point in their lives. However, there’s a difference between a swinging single young woman with a history of abuse entering into a relationship with the average handsome romantic lead and a werewolf jumping into bed with someone who has no clue that they just ate the neighbor’s cat (or used to kill runaways in Atlantic City on long weekends before they decided they didn’t like it anymore). When we step back and realize that most supernatural communities are treated as the equivalent of criminal organizations, mobster families, or gangs in their worlds then the process of leaving becomes much more complicated.

How do you feel about characters who knowingly endanger the lives of their loved ones without their knowledge or consent? Who knew they would be endangering their lives by entering the relationship before it even began? Is it romantic to sign the person they claim to love up for a gruesome death because their desires are more important than their lover’s life?

It doesn’t matter if you’ve decided that your character is a good person. It doesn’t matter if they’re supposed to be a hero in the context of their novel. There is no out to a dangerous lifestyle, there’s only delay. They know this, or they should, because most stories will bend over backwards to tell us how intelligent their protagonist is. If your character is a supernatural monster engaging in turf wars or a monster hunter or merely existing trying to get by, they’ll have made enemies. Those enemies aren’t going to simply go on sabbatical and hang up their hat just because the character has decided they’re done. While this can be a good source of drama in a story, it’s also worth noting that any character who does this is a selfish asshole. They can be a hero and an asshole.

What I’m saying is that it’s slightly different when a character discovers their boyfriend/girlfriend is a telepath who has been reading their mind the whole time after they’re already emotionally invested. Telepathy represents the ultimate breach of privacy and a character should have a choice to decide whether they want to have their minds read at all, much less realize that their “perfect guy” is literally knows their every whim. When the thread of the novel revolves around the idea that the love interest must acquiesce to allowing this character inside their mind (whether or not it’s within their control) and the character making no move at all to even negate the effects says very little about how much they value their lover and their right to privacy. When the novel ignores these problems, it becomes an issue.

For a real world parallel, how would you feel if your boyfriend hacked your Tumblr without your permission? How would you feel if a guy you’ve been crushing on at school did because he wanted to know more about you? Not just Facebook stalk or Twitter stalk, but a full on investigation into every aspect of your life. Instead of talking to you, he reads your diary and decides you’re the perfect girl for him. You don’t even get a chance to tell him you like him, he already knows. He’s decided you’ll be together, you can’t say no, and everyone in your life agrees with him. They think he’s great for you even though he’s been in your bedroom rifling through your underwear drawer.

Connotations and implications do matter, there’s a disconnect when the author says one thing about a character that doesn’t match up with who the character is in text. What your characters do and say, how the novel approaches their problems, who you choose to say is your character’s True Love, all these things matter.

There’s an easy solution to the problem which is allowing other characters to react in a realistic manner and sort through their feelings without being pressured or introducing new information to make the previous transgressions okay within the narrative. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if there’s a good reason for their harmful behavior. Kant is bullshit.  Regardless of intentions, justification is just how we live with ourselves and the choices we’ve made. It doesn’t mean other people have to be okay with or accept the choices we’ve made.

“I’m sorry I was a dick, but I was only doing it protect you!”

This doesn’t change the fact that one character hurt another character and now these two characters have to sort out where they’re at in the context of their relationship. Own it, your story will be better if you hold your characters to the consequences of their actions. Don’t force your characters to stay, give them the choice to walk away. Maybe they stay, maybe they don’t, I personally never know until I’m working in the moment. I’m often surprised.

In the end, there’s no way of escaping Unfortunate Implications. We are all flawed human beings shaped by our experiences and cultural prejudices. Despite our best intentions, they’ll always be there. All we can do is attempt to mitigate and address the problems we find. The trick is to acknowledge that they’re there and work to circumvent them both with our world building, plot, and characters. Handwaving or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away nor does it mean you automatically have to dislike or hate those characters because of it.

-Michi

How do I improve my dialogue

Since you’re asking us, I’ll make the assumption that you’ve already checked elsewhere and gotten the basics. If you haven’t, then, there’s decent primers here and here. With thanks to The Writing Cafe for compiling this list of general writing resources.

Stephen King’s On Writing scatters dialog advice through the book. It’s more holistic, and interested in talking about how to be better as a writer, but, if you haven’t read it, grab a copy.

If you’ve already done all that, and wanting more advanced advice, then I can offer some random thoughts:

When it comes to fight scenes, remember that talking is not a free action. (With thanks or ire directed at D&D and TV tropes for that phrase.) Everything your character says in a fight is time they could better spend recovering and preparing for the next strike. I know it’s a genre staple in anime and manga, but outside of a deliberate homage, it’s just going to be bad writing. Cut your combat dialog down as hard as you can. It needs to be information that really cannot wait, or at least that the characters think can’t wait.

I have a minor preference for hearing dialog over reading it. Which means when it comes to dialog sampling, I put a slight priority on watching TV series with good writers over extensive reading, but, I also go read some of what they’ve written, and this isn’t a free pass to just binge watch whatever you want and say, “no really, I’m learning to write.”

Don’t try to copy another writer’s dialog style. You’re not Joss Whedon, and actually nailing the idiosyncrasies of his dialog takes a lot of work. It’s not that you’ll never be able to mimic another writer’s dialog patterns, but it’s a really bad way to start because he’s breaking rules you shouldn’t. Also, I’m singling out Whedon because I see so many writers (both amateur and professional) try to ape him, usually with disastrous results.

Whedon’s schtick is the way he mutilates the English language. It’s part, “in ways science never thought possible,” part teenager with an undefined attention deficit disorder (I’m not throwing this out there as a pejorative, his work reads like of someone trying to sound like they have an amalgamation of ADD and ADHD). Obviously, it works for him, but he’s walking a very fine line between sharp dialog and sounding like grammar is a thing that happens to other people.

Obviously, I’m not just talking about Whedon, though. Chances are, wherever you’re going to look at good dialog, you’re going to see a writer that habitually breaks the rules. Be that something like Aaron Sorkin’s obsession with context misalignment and high tempo conversations that run headlong into walls, or Straczynski’s habit of dumping entire pages of exposition into his dialog.

Look at them, study what they do, but don’t try to copy their styles.

Collect and study idioms. This is one of the things to do when you’re listing to other people talk, or reading other writer’s work. Just keep a mental list of idioms. Make sure you know what it means, and where it’s used. No, it wouldn’t make sense for your SoCal teen to say, “that dog don’t hunt no more.”

Also, remember that idioms are language specific, and are consistently one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to pick up. So, non-fluent character probably shouldn’t be breaking out complex idiomatic phrases.

The reason is fairly simple: while idioms might follow normal grammatical rules, the meaning is, completely, arbitrary. “That dog don’t hunt no more,” has nothing to do with hunting or dogs. “Butter them up” has… well, none of those words actually mean anything. And of course, your reflexes are too good for metaphors to go “over your head…” …or something.

The insidious thing about idioms is, you already have a huge library of them. They’re a byproduct of how we use language on a day to day basis. What you need to do is step back, filter them out, and make sure they’re appropriate for your character, especially when your character comes from a vastly different background. Then, listen for ones that you don’t know.

Also, please resist the urge to re-purpose an existing idiom into your non-modern setting. “Like a cop eating doughnuts” getting adapted into your high fantasy story is like what Garfield strips are to comedy. Just, don’t do it.

On a related note: keep track of dialect changes. America doesn’t have a completely unified dialect. Cambridge was doing studies and surveys on the subject a couple years ago, though most of the easily accessible information now is just raw data. This isn’t huge stuff, but just word choice between things like “soda” and “pop” will change depending on where in the country you, or your characters, were raised. This is easily one of the hardest things to get right because of how subtle it is.

Keep track of verbal crutches and tics. Using words like “like,” “literally,” or “actually,” as flavoring particles. It’s something a lot of real people do, but be careful to moderate your characters, so they don’t use them too much, and so their verbal tics don’t match your own.

Just because you know what your character is trying to say doesn’t mean your other characters will. I mentioned context misalignment with Sorkin, earlier, because it’s something he uses for laughs. But, your characters are separate individuals, while dialog is about them interacting, it doesn’t mean they’re approaching the world with the same perspective, even if they think they’re agreeing with one another.

Actually, while we’re on this subject, remember your characters are separate people, with different interests, motivations, and backgrounds. It may seem unrelated, but it is important to keep your individual characters in mind when writing their dialog.

Do not try to be “enigmatic” with your dialog. Dialog is there to convey information to the reader. Conveying information between characters is a happy accident that happens along the way. Having someone trying to be deliberately enigmatic without a very solid character justification is just asking for messy, obnoxious dialog.

Also, note that pissing characters off with enigmatic dialog can be conveying information to the reader, it’s just not what the person is saying that matters. Just, be very careful with it.

If your characters need to use some kind of verbal code, make sure you translate that for the reader.

Don’t break the fourth wall in dialog. It’s fragile enough, it doesn’t need you taking a sarcastic claw hammer to it.

That should give you some things to start with.

-Starke

thequeen117:

Some links I have found in various Tumblr Posts that I have saved on my computer. I do not take credit for collecting all these links. Unfortunately, I did not have the mind to save/note where these various links come from. Thank you to whoever compiled these links together.

General Writing Tips, Guides and Advice

How to be Confident in Your Writing
Start Your Novel Already!
Why First Chapters Matter
How to Outline a Novel
Incorporating Flashbacks
Word Building 101
Common Mistakes in Writing
Tips on Getting Started
What Not to Do
7 Tips to Become a Better Writer from Stephen King
How to Use Reading to Become a Better Writer
Why Writers Must Read
How to Finish What You Start: A Five-Step Plan for Writers
31 Ways to Find Inspiration for Your Writing
10 Tips to Write Fanfiction
Writing a Blurb
10 Writing Tips
Perfecting Description
Point of View
Speed Up Your Writing
Recieving Bad News
Useful Writing Apps
Avoiding Clichés
Writing Lessons
Finding Inspiration

Plot and Conflict

What is Conflict?
Where’s Your Conflict?
Adding Conflict to Your Scenes
Guides for Using Inner Conflict That Makes Sense
Plotting Your Novel
Internal and External Conflict
The Top Ten Plotting Problems
The Elements of Plot Development
Plot Help
Writing a Plot Your Own Way
Plot Development
Develop a Plot
Tension and Conflict
Your Plot, Step by Step
Plot vs. Exposition
Plot and Conflict

Character Development

How to Describe the Body Shape of Female Characters

Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

Placement of Speech Tags

All About Names

List of Names

Genre Based

20 Tips to Writing Love Scenes

Other

Word Count