Why Knockouts May Be Knocking Your Story Out

“Damnit,” thought every writer somewhere, once. “I really wish there was an easy way to get my character from A to B without having to describe the boring journey stuff in between. By what means might this be done? How can my character’s faculties cease to function just long enough for the reader to be spared this boredom?” Image

“I know, I’ll knock him out!”

“Damnit,” thought every writer somewhere, once. “This fight is really uneven, and I need the underdogs to win. By what means can the odds be leveled?

“I know, I’ll knock someone out!”

Cheap tricks, ladies and gentlemen. Cheap writerly tricks. Lord knows, I’ve done it many times. I’m actually just redrafting a variant of the good old ‘knockout scene’ for Ironfang, wherein the protagonist is tasered, tied up and has a bag stuffed over her head. No car ride descriptions for you, Valerie!

But given the amount of times people are laid out cold in novels, films and TV shows you would imagine a brisk gust of wind is sufficient to send the homosapien cognitive system into shutdown. Unfortunately for us lazy writers, that isn’t the case,

Sure, it’s perfectly possible to knock someone out with a single blow to the cranium. But it has to be a pretty damn hard blow, with all the weight of arms, shoulders and good forward momentum behind it. It also has to be well placed – the jaw or the temple. Whacking someone on the cheek isn’t going to cut it.

The reality is that smashing your fist into someone’s skull in a fight is a pretty bad idea. The head, you see, got the lion’s share of our organic armour plating, namely a big hunk of bone called a skull. When it comes to a proper street scrap, most techniques involve going for an opponent’s softer parts, and not relying on an all-or-nothing crack to the head which has a 50-50 chance of simply breaking your own hand. In it’s most brutally simplistic terms, the best way to win a brawl is the tried and tested technique of getting your opponent on the ground and then kicking until he stops moving.

As stated, it is quite possible to knock a character for sixes with a single head-strike. However a secondary problem arises when your character, having now been dragged unconscious through the winding streets of boredom, wakes up in the villain’s lair ready to go at it once again. As many professional boxers can attest, the sad truth is that getting smacked repeatedly around the head leaves the human body with a plethora of both long-term and short-term difficulties. If you get hit on the jaw chances are you’ll damage the cranial nerve and send a shock to the brain that shuts off all non-automatic activity. A hit on the temple rattles the brain around the skull wall and will likely cause a concussion due to trauma to the brain stem. So having your character come to without so much as a headache minutes after going down is more than a few steps removed from reality.

The simple fact is that as a writer you have to come up with more interesting and unusual ways of doing stuff. If a section of the story has the potential to be boring, ask yourself two things – what can be done to make it interesting and, if nothing, how easily can it be dropped? Knocking a character out of the fight is too much of a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

That’s not to say it should never be used. I still allow myself a quota of one knockout (or semi-knockout, re the taser incident) per story, occasionally two if it’s a novel. But be aware that using it too frequently becomes predicable and gimmicky. And for goodness sake, remember to describe the bruising afterwards!



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6 responses to “Why Knockouts May Be Knocking Your Story Out

  1. Anneque G. Malchien

    I was always horrible with consistency of injuries, until I read an article along the lines of ‘Real Life Ramifications of Fictional Violence’. The title was nothing like that, but that was the gist of the article. If someone is unconscious for more than a few minutes, signs are something is very, very wrong with them. For a writer, information like that can be galling. Ideally, you want someone to be out cold for half an hour, and then, as you said, ready to go again.

    But it just doesn’t happen. Since reading the article, I’ve kept a notebook of injuries during my more active or complex stories, and try to research the injuries beforehand. Books like the Saint John Ambulance’s First Aid book and so forth are very helpful in describing things like shock, blood loss, breaks and poisoning.

    As for knocking someone out, chloroform and ether will always be your friends. Chloroform especially is a convenient way to knock someone out, although it isn’t perfectly safe, either.

    And concerning those unsightly transitions: hate em. I am just not good with citing sources tonight, but there is an infamous quote from a famous author, who spent too long trying to move a character into the kitchen to answer the phone: “Kevin went to the kitchen and picked up the fucking phone.”

    • Haha, that closing sentence sums it up so perfectly! Keeping an injury list is a good idea. I’m reminded of the author Bernard Cornwell, who consulted his doctor friend about an abdominal injury his main character suffers and the details of how to get it right.
      Whilst we sadly aren’t all besties with doctors (my flatmate is a vet so I’ve got the animal injuries covered) we do have that rare and most powerful of weapons – Google! I’ll be looking into the Saint John Ambulance’s First Aid book though, as a student I’m partial to a lot of research 🙂

      • Anneque G. Malchien

        Oh, good on you, Bernard Cornwell. It would be handy to know a vet as well, although perhaps you feel slightly pressured to include injured animals in your stories. 😀

        Those old medical books are particularly helpful for extra flavour. Try second hand stores and op shops to find them. The old family medical guides as well as first aid guides are really cool for a read through, and give you an idea of traditional treatments that aren’t /too/ outdated. If you write a lot of histfic, that will be right up your alley.

        PS, posted a review of Heavenbloom on Amazon US. Can’t buy Heavenfall because it’s only on Amazon UK. :_(

      • My my, I actually only just caught up with your Heavenbloom review! Being King of the Derps, I always forget that the Heavenbloom for Amazon US is different from the Heavenbloom for Amazon UK. A huge thankyou for such a positive review, I’ve said it elsewhere but I can’t overstate how much of a feelgood factor it creates 😀
        I’ve never actually established why Heavenfall isn’t on Amazon US. If you reeeally want I can send you the PDF for free 🙂
        And you’re right, actually, since moving in with Vet Flatmate there have been quite a few injured critters abounding in my stories. Hmm…

      • Anneque G. Malchien

        🙂 I’d love a copy of Heavenfall. You’re my go-to man for alternate history. Can I send you something in return, so it’s a mutual transaction?

        Sometimes you can get a direct link to the book, and that lets people who go through Amazon US buy it. Not sure how you do it, but I have seen it done.

        Poor animals! Fingers crossed you never move in with a pediatrician!

      • I shall send a PDF posthaste! I wouldn’t want to defraud you of any of your work but certainly, anything and everything you want to share would be happily devoured, I’d more than enjoy another taste of your prose.

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