Friday, May 18, 2012

Writing credible action scenes and characters

I was surprised to discover that I was a writer's resource. What? Who me? Why?

One of the authors summed it up this way "You've lived the life we write about."

Ummm... errrr.... well, maybe. The reason for my hesitation is that it was a romance writer who told me that. (Okay on the going head to head with dangerous people, but a guy named "Animal" and wooing? Not so much. But thanks for thinking of me.

I've written elsewhere about some of the problems with how writers handle 'alpha' characters and what traps not to fall into

Today I want to talk about not the standing around and looking heroic part, but more the mindset of those who aren't afraid to go hands on.

Three things about keeping your character from being a bully:
#1 The best don't want to do it
#2 The decision to act is a rational one based on an assessment of the situation; it's NOT an emotional or pride based one.
#3 If they are forced to do it, it's not going to be a long drawn out fight.

Here's an important safety tip about violence -- it's dangerous. You can get hurt. In fact, if you want to get all mathematical about it, technically speaking, half of the people involved in a two-person 'fight' lose. That means ANY time your character engages in violence he knows there's a 50/50 chance of it going wrong for him.

The good one's stack the deck. One of the best ways to stack the deck is NOT to engage in two-person, head to head, 'fight.'

Oh BTW, the bad guys also know this. This is why they show up with extra numbers, weapons and set you up. This gives you, the writer, a chance for some dramatic tension. A good way to explain it is it's like cheating at cards. It's easy to 'win' when you (or your side) is the only one cheating. It's a whole different game when EVERYONE is cheating. More than that, they all know they're cheating yet nobody is going to come out and admit that is what is going on.

That is until the situation explodes. Then it boils down to who's better at stacking the deck before hand.

An example is a group of three guys roll up on your character. Now, simple law of survival. NEVER allow yourself or your character to be surrounded by bad guys. Unlike in the movies when bad guys surround you they don't politely wait to attack you one at at time. Often two will attack simultaneously while the real bad ass hangs back (yeah, he's using them as cannon fodder). Still if they're young punks the 'stud' (who's trying to prove himself) will be leading the set up as they try to surround your character.

No matter what the dynamics of the group are, think of them trying to set up a triangle with your character in the middle. This is their set up. This is exactly what your character DOESN'T want to allow to happen. What's best is that he keeps them all in front of him and at a good distance. And yes, calmly telling them 'that's close enough' does wonders for telling 'cheaters' that you know how to cheat too. Because people who know how the game is played know they don't want to be surrounded. So y'all can stay on your side of the line.

At this time the bad guys have a choice. Did they stack the deck enough? Do they have what it takes to overwhelm your character? Or should they wisely decide to back off? Well, wise doesn't sell books. But
A) stupid, young dumb and full of cum (against an experienced fighter)
B) your character is young and/or female and the bad guys overrate themselves OR
C) this is a professional job
does give you reason for an action scene.

A solid tactic when dealing with multiple attackers is "Line Dancing." (This is primarily for empty handed fight scenes, but the same dynamics apply to weapons.) Obviously, don't let them triangulate on your character, but your character wants everyone in a line with him or her on the end. See if you got three guys lined up with your character on either end, that means they have to get around each other in order to attack him at once. This kind of neutralizes the advantage of superior numbers, dontcha know?

Remember how I mentioned the different group dynamics of the guys coming at your character. That's an important issue of target selection in what I fondly call "Bowling for Assholes."

My oldest living friend "Doc" has certain rules when it comes to weapons. His third one is "Anything longer than it is wide can be used as a weapon -- this includes the guy who is with the guy who's in your face." Thus is the essence of bowling for assholes.

If you assign danger levels to the players, you get he's the most dangerous. He's the second most dangerous. He's third. The two you want to remove from the running ASAP are #1 and #2. This doesn't matter if they're amateurs or pros. Your character wants them out of commission first.

You're character has already communicated, stay back there boys (Indicating he doesn't want to go there at all.) And yet they just keep on coming. *Sigh -- I hate it when that happens.* Worse, they're trying to triangulate on him. Now your character knows nothing good can come from this. This brings us to point two, what's about to happen is a rational decision based on immediate threat.

They're going for the set up. Not going to happen. That means before they can triangulate on him he steps forward, grabs one and throws him. Believe it or not, (unless your character is a moose) the easiest and fastest way to do this is with what's known in line dancing as the grapevine step. You (your character) grabs on, steps behind and across so you're all twisted up (the deeper you step the better) Except unlike the actual grapevine step, you then pirouette. Basically you untwist yourself and end up facing the other direction. This doesn't sound like much, but it is one of the fastest and most powerful throws you can do. Basically it uses your entire body weight to drag the guy off balance and whips him around like a sling. (Ladies, you didn't hear this from me, but it's great for handling grabby drunks at the office party) Because of the mechanics of this move you can aim the guy you're throwing into another person (Doc's third rule).

They both go down ass over tea kettle.

Here's where the group dynamics of the bad guys come into play. If they're punks, you're hero grabs dangerous guy #1 and throws him into dangerous guy #2. In situations like this #3 often decides to beat feet (would you want to tangle with someone who just ate the lunch of two guys you know you couldn't beat?). In more serious situations, your character throws #2 into #1 then drops #3. This allows him to deal with 1 and 2 one at a time as they get up. Oh yeah, both being thrown into someone and having someone thrown into you REALLY hurts. Add to that you get all tangled up when you hit the ground.. It's not unrealistic that one or both don't get up.

If it's just two of them and your character young and female, they don't get up before she beats feet out of there. Or if you'd rather she can kick them in the face as they're trying to get up, Such behavior sounds brutal, but in environments where reprisals are common, doing so tends to get the message across that this one is best left alone. (Although you could use her not kicking his teeth in and the bad guy losing 'face' as a reason for further action against your character.

Elapsed time of bowling for assholes move? About two seconds tops. Moving into position and then doing it. So how do you build suspense? Well, the dance of them trying to triangulate, your character preventing it... until suddenly oh my oh my! Your character, who had been doing so well until now, screws up and steps into a position in line where he/she is not at the end anymore (putting him/herself into a pincer move.) The glee, the chortling, the evil cackles of the bad guys as they think your character screwed up...



Notice how this move conforms to the third point I made about not wanting to 'fight.' The more experienced and competent your character is, the faster he or she wants violence over. More than that, the more he or she is going to stack the deck in a game of cheaters. Like accidentally- on- purpose stepping between bad guys before going bowling.

Now in case you missed it, your character is going to have to think. To know what the subtle danger signs are. To have certain attitudes and an understanding of what kinds of subtle danger signals occur in dangerous and violent situations. But to do that, you need to know it too. Understanding how violent people think is critical for writing believable action scenes.

Well it just so happens that I know about a book that will show you this kind of information (See, I told you we were sneaky bastards). The book is call "Campfire Tales From Hell: Musings on Martial Arts, Survival, Bouncing and Other Thug Stuff."

It's a collection of essays by people who lived (and in many cases still do live) the lives of your characters. It's all the kinds of information -- other than just busting heads -- that people, who survive in dangerous and extreme environments, know and use to stay safe. You want to write believable characters and tense action scenes? Get it from the people who live it -- many of whom are even sneakier than I am.

You can get it as an e-book for $7.99.

Amazon -

Smashwords/Nook -

Give it a shot. But, you better be careful, you might just learn something...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Are you getting screwed by your 'self-defense' training?

When it comes to self-defense, many people want one-stop-shopping. Man, if they know this one ultimate martial art style, it's is all they need.

I hear this a lot. Usually in the form of being asked, ‘which martial art style is best for self-defense?’ Or ‘what do you think about (fill in the blank) for self-defense?’ Even more I see statements like “MMA/combatives is the closest you can get to REAL fighting.”

Every time I hear this kind of thinking. I have a strong urge to throw up.

I ought to buy stock in Tums. Get some of the money back I’ve invested by needing to have a bottle of the stuff constantly on hand. Because I’ll tell you, I hear this nonsense a lot.

I don’t hold the people who are asking me these questions responsible for my indigestion. (The ones talking about ‘real’ violence are another story.) The questioners honestly don’t know any better. I’ve started explaining to them most of what they think they know about self-defense, violence and fighting is advertising.

To be more specific, it is information tailored to fit with what they think they know about violence -- based on Hollywood images, high school memories and their own fertile imaginations – package up and sold to them as ‘self-defense.’ While that statement is accurate, it a really complicated way of saying ‘They’re selling you fantasy solutions to fantasy problems.’

That’s where one-stop-shopping starts creeping in. Keep this in mind, we’ll come back to it. Right now I want to talk about tool development. In doing so I hope I’ll help you see things a little clearer about why ‘self-defense’ isn’t a one-stop-shopping kind of problem.

Someone recently sent me a couple of Youtube links to a ‘master’ of ‘combat tai chi.’ (Well, there’s some marketing right there.) He asked me what I thought. Here’s my reply…


From a tai chi movement standpoint, he moves like a pregnant yak.

For a Hollywood action flick, he moves perfectly. His movement is slow, gross, choppy and stopping mid-action. Which makes it so the camera can see what he's doing. The movement looks dramatic and cool for the camera. This so the viewer can track it (especially because of the pauses).

For an advertisement selling his videos to people who don't know what violence/ fighting actually is, his gross movement is awesome, cool, kick ass and "wowie kazowie let me run right out and put my money down for training and videos."

Knowing this is important because a good tai chi player can nail you so hard that even Google won't be able to find you. It will have power based on structure and VERY subtle movement. Movement that, not only the camera won't see (look across the room and squint, that's what the camera sees), but also not visible to the untrained naked eye.

Yeah you see tai chi guy stick his arm out, but the reason the other guy gets knocked on his butt is because of the subtle body movement the tai chi player does. The arm is more the delivery system.

And it ain't just 'hits' there's all kinds of weird angling and twisting that go into it so as to create serious ‘this sucks’ physics. Well, it sucks if you're on the receiving end of it. In all honesty, as much as boxers know how to hit hard, I'd rather take a punch from a boxer than a blow from someone who knows how to apply his/her tai chi on the proper angles. It's either get knocked on your butt or have things break -- and if the tai chi guy is good, you get both. A boxer can knock you across the room, a tai chi player can nail you into the ground. Lemme tell you, the human body is not designed to be used as a nail.

Now let me address another issue. Despite having awesome physics, Tai chi won't teach you how to fight or how to defend yourself.

I'm going to use a weird analogy here. Let's liken self-defense to fixing your car. Tai chi is like a tool box. It's filled with some damned fine quality tools. But, just having the tools won't teach you how to fix your car. You also have to know how to use them. Oh, while we're at it, when it comes to fixing your car, you have to read the manual on how to do that too.

Except there's a problem, you don't know how to read. Without that knowledge, that manual is pretty useless. Being able to read helps with determining if this the right manual in the first place. And oh yeah, just reading the manual won't get your car fixed either, you actually have to pick up your tools and do it yourself -- after you've correctly diagnosed the problem. Even if you have the tools, changing the tires isn't going to help you replace a broken fan belt. That’s why good diagnostic skills are also important.

Is having the tools critical for fixing your car? You betcha. But having tools is only one of the many critical elements you need to have in order to get the job done.

Now, I can't speak for 'Master' Who-Flung-Poo’s instructional videos. The things you talk about him mentioning are, are in fact, very important for proper tool development. But remember having good tools while very important, is not the same as knowing how to use them. Much less knowing how to fix your car.

Conversely, knowing how to fix your car is equally useless without tools or having tools that break on you as you're trying to use them (hence the need for good tools).

Tai chi can give you really good tools and teach you how to use them. However, the way that it's normally taught tends to be more oriented on different directions (e.g. building a house). Self-defense is a very specific set of needs and knowledge. While a lot of tools cross over, there are somethings that are very specialized and unique to that subject. Things you will not learn from the martial arts. (Like, oh say, the legal definition and boundaries of what self-defense is).


For the record, let me state that it’s been my experience that tai chi is awesome tool development. They are really good about structure and power transfer. We’re talking the Snap-On Tools of the martial arts. And doing tai chi can take whatever style you do already and turn your tools into Dewalt, Craftsman and Milwaukee. In the same way that boxing will improve your punching skills and muay Thai will improve your kicking skills. That’s because you take what you learn there and apply it to your own style. (Different styles emphasize different elements and concepts. Those elements are what make that style effective. It’s not the style itself.)

A big, big problem with a whole lot of what is being taught out there is their physics suck. (Many commercialized schools have even lost the elements and concepts that made the style effective.) The body mechanics of the techniques (tools) they’re teaching are aweful. I’m not talking about even Walmart quality tools. I’m talking the cheap crap you pick up at a swap meet or out of the back of a van. Tools that not only don’t effectively deliver force, but break and fall apart as you try to use them. This is a big reason why I like to tell folks to do tai chi for a spell. It’ll improve the quality of their tools (techniques).

But again, ALL of those are tools. Tools critical to getting the job done, but not the same as doing the job. Or even knowing what’s involved in the job or how to do it.

Now that you have an idea about the bigger picture (tools, manuals, diagnostics, reading etc.) let’s take an another look at one-stop-shopping.

My problem with the ‘one stop shopping’ approach is people believe that they can buy quality tools, lean how to use them, learn to read, get the right manual and fix their car --ALL in the same place. Then they start adding things, like exercise, a social network, meditation, spirituality, character development and psychology and the BS gets really, really deep.

In closing I’d like to leave you with something that I’ll let you figure out the implications for yourself. That is the correlation between one-stop-shopping and high prices.

Take a look at the quality of merchandise you get from SuperWalmart, Super Target or whatever cheap one-stop-shopping store that’s local to you. You pay less knowing it’s cheap, but the convenience of not having to run around town balances it out. The martial arts, combatives, ultimate fighting market is the polar opposite. The more they claim to be able to ‘give’ you everything you need, the higher the prices.

But what about the quality?

For all the money these places are charging, I am seriously underwhelmned. Never mind all the other stuff they say you are ‘learning.’ Way too often I look at the quality of their ‘tools’ and think ‘You need six months of tai chi. Because your structure and timing sucks. You’re leaking force like a spaghetti strainer.’

But man, will the instructors – and more importantly the people who are paying for it -- tell you how awesome and effective that training is.

Apparently, the more people pay, the more they believe (or maybe that’s ‘have to believe’) they’ve found the ultimate kick ass style that gives them everything they need to prepare them for ‘real’ violence.

You might want to think about this if you’ll ever have to ‘fix your car.’