Next month I’ll be at Arisia in Boston for my second year selling books, but I’ll also participate in a panel entitled, Writing Swordfights, Knives, and Hand-to-Hand Combat (Saturday, 2:30 PM in Otis, FYI).
I’ve been getting into the mood a little through chatting with my writer friend Patrick Hodges as he works on a fantasy novel, offering advice on how to write fights that make sense — something a lot of writers can’t do because everything they know about violence they learned from movies and television.
Since I’m in that groove, I thought I’d offer some basic advice to writers who want to make their fictional violence more interesting and realistic — by which I mean adding some actual consequences to in-story violence. Hollywood Violence is as a rule arbitrary when it comes to the effects of violence on a character and portraying realistic consequences, so that’s what I’ll chat about today by listing five of my (least) favorite violence tropes.
This is probably the most commonly abused trope in fiction. Someone gets whacked in the head, they lose consciousness, wake up when it’s convenient to the plot, and maybe complain about a mild headache.
People lose consciousness from a blow to the head because their brain has impacted the brain pan, the part of the skull that houses said squishy gray mass. That isn’t a minor injury, folks. If you’re hit hard enough to completely lose consciousness, you’re waking up with a concussion at the very least (assuming you wake up at all).
Even a so-called knockout blow doesn’t necessarily knock a person out completely. Watch a boxing or MMA match when someone is “knocked out” and what you’ll see is a case of “the lights are on but no one’s home” — a moment of utter blankness in a person’s eyes rather than falling totally unconscious — and even then, chances are the recipient of the knockout punch has suffered a mild concussion.
A quick addendum: the “knockout punch” is also overdone in Hollywood. Joe Average can’t knock a person cold with a halfway solid right hook to the point of the chin.
Selectively lethal bullets
Fun fact: according to Dr. Vincent J.M. DiMaio, who wrote a book on the subject (Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques, SECOND EDITION (Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations)) 80 to 95 percent of gunshot victims survive.
However, if you’re a bad guy in an action movie, one bullet to the gut will kill you dead.
Conversely, if you’re a good guy, the same gut shot will hurt like hell and bleed a lot, but you’ll shrug it off in time. Good guys are also able to keep functioning quite well after being shot in the shoulder, in the meat of the thigh, or taking a graze to the skull. Movie and TV bullets somehow fail to shred muscles and tendons or fracture bones.
Oh, and the inevitable scene of someone digging a bullet out of a character whose been shot? In real life that’d kill the victim faster than the gunshot itself. Remember, Teddy Roosevelt got shot in the chest and gave a 90-minute speech before seeking medical attention and lived. His predecessor, William McKinley, was shot twice and died of sepsis in the hospital after doctors dug the bullets out but failed to properly clean the wounds.
Which isn’t to say that the trope of a bullet passing “clean through” is any better, as evidenced by this handy chart of bullet entrance and exit wounds. Imagine a bullet going “clean through” a character’s shoulder, especially if the shooter is wielding your typical ridiculously large bad-ass handgun. That joint would be reduced to hamburger, so forget about powering through the pain to keep on fighting.
Another common trope, most often used in a situation where a character with little to no practical fight training or experience needs to survive an encounter with someone who does have training and experience. The phrase “His instincts kicked in” usually leads into a moment when the character becomes suddenly proficient enough in martial arts to overcome his opponent.
Fight-or-flight instincts are real, but if you don’t have any fight training, following the fight instincts is more likely to get you killed than turn you into a fighting machine. If someone were to throw a punch at your face, your instinct would be to flinch away and maybe throw your hands up reflexively, not to execute a perfect block that sets you up for a counter attack. Those are an experienced fighter’s instincts, and he/she has cultivated those instincts through extensive training.
The Master Vs. The Prodigy
Another common scene: a character with some inherent, natural skill as a fighter mixes it up with a “master warrior” and prevails in the end — either through those convenient instincts kicking in, after landing a lucky game-changing blow, or after the master arrogantly lets his guard down.
Masters of a craft are masters because they’ve dedicated many long hours to perfecting their art. They are at the top of their game. For someone with far less training, skill, and experience to come in and win against them is not only unrealistic, it waters down the master character’s threat level. Imagine a talented high school basketball player taking on LeBron James or Michael Jordan in his prime in a game of one-on-one and winning. Would you buy it? Then don’t ask readers to buy it.
Snapping an opponent’s neck is great in fiction, especially when a character is going for a “silent kill.” It’s brutal yet bloodless and pretty much anyone can do it simply by grasping the victim’s head and giving it a sharp twist.
Except, well, no. No to all of it.
It takes 1,000 to 1,250 foot pounds of torque to snap a neck. That’s what a large diesel truck engine generates. You’re fighting muscle and tendons and the spine itself to wrench the spinal column in the neck out of alignment and you can’t do that by just suddenly whipping someone’s head to one side.
You’re also not likely to actually kill the victim. People survive broken necks regularly and though they might end up paralyzed, they live, so even if you did manage to break someone’s neck and they don’t pass out from shock, you end up with someone who can’t move but is still very capable of screaming. So much for a silent kill.
Bonus topic: swords and swordplay
I’ve learned about swords and theatrical and historical swordplay from a variety of sources over the past twenty-something years, and I’m still learning things. The art of sword fighting is a staggeringly complex subject, which is perhaps why it’s so easy to screw up in fiction. Here are a bunch of quick-hit factoids regarding swords and sword fighting:
- Swords are not heavy. Standard longswords weighed in the vicinity of two to three pounds because they needed to move quickly in order to be effective. So-called greatswords were more often ceremonial rather than practical battlefield weapons, Claymores ranged from five to six pounds but had very specific uses, and even then they were not the most practical of weapons because of their weight.
- “Blood grooves” — the indentation sometimes found running along the length of a blade near the hilt — has nothing to do with blood. This feature, called a fuller, was intended to reduce the weight of the blade without compromising its strength.
- Swords were sharp, but not sharp enough to cleave clean through plate armor. Penetrate it, perhaps, but taking a person’s arm off through steel plate isn’t plausible.
- Parrying with the flat of the blade is a heated topic among historical sword fighting scholars. One general school of thought says parrying on the flat is the right way to do it because it spares the sharp edge from getting dinged up. The other points out that a length of steel a quarter-inch thick (the thickness of a blade taking a blow on the flat) taking a straight hit from another length of steel two inches thick (the width of the blade striking with the edge) can break the sword, and it’s better to have an intact sword with a nicked blade than a stump of a blade.
- On a related note: a block is a move that stops an attack cold. A parry is a move that sets the defender up for a counterattack by redirecting or deflecting the attack.
- The blade isn’t the only dangerous part of the sword. The pommel can be used to inflict blunt force trauma (the word “pummel” is derived from “pommel”) and a properly-designed crossguard can punch through armor, sevre as an impromptu war hammer, and can be used to snap an opponent’s weapon.