I’ve been having some conversations with writers about writing fight scenes, and I thought it might be a good idea to put some information out there. A lot of writers write fight scenes that are, to be honest, just plain ridiculous, if not impossible, and it really bugs me. There is a huge difference between massed-formation military tactics and single combat – but it is single combat that most fantasy writers tend to employ, so we’ll stick to that.
In fact, I can’t tell you how to write a fight scene. Every fight will be different, and it’s your book.
What I can do is make you aware of some of the variables and pitfalls you need to be conscious of when you write those scenes.
First off: this pertains mainly to medieval fantasy sword fighting. I have credentials for this: I spent the better part of four decades learning to actually, physically do this, and believe me, I was not a natural at it. But hard work and constant repetition teaches a whole lot that natural ability can never do.
Secondly: experience – even just a little bit of it – is crucial. If nothing else, get in touch with a local medieval re-enactor/re-creation group, and ask them to let you use borrowed armour and try it out. You’ll very quickly understand everything I’ve said so far and everything I am going to say.
A lot of fighting is about physics.
It’s really important to understand how much room a fighter with a standard sized sword takes up. Not counting the room your shield might use, you have at least part of the arm length of the fighter, which could be as much as two feet. You have the sword, which probably adds about another three feet. And you have the fighter’s body accounting for another foot or three.
Remember this: if there is more than one fighter to a side of the conflict, and they are not fighting in a shield-wall or phalanx, you want another 6 inches or so between them, at least. And that’s assuming they are well-trained at fighting together so that one of them doesn’t inadvertently lop off their buddy’s shield arm. It takes a certain amount of body-awareness and training not to do that just drawing your sword out of a scabbard.
Two-handed weapons like great swords and Dane axes need even more room, because their length and the arc of their blows require it.
So if it is a sword fight, you won’t be doing it in narrow or confined spaces, because if the weapon so much as grazes the wall, your shield-mate, or the chandelier, it will have been robbed of a lot of essential force.
If it is a one-on-one, then a somewhat smaller space than usual might work, although I do want to point out that if the sword comes into hard contact with, say, the wall, the owner of the weapon quite likely will let go of it, because the impact can, if severe enough, momentarily paralyze the sword arm.
So, as an author, you want to choose your fighting environment carefully.
I know, I know. You want those splashy, cinematic fights.
The thing is, those sort of work in the movies because they can have a huge space and still make it look small. Reality doesn’t work like that.
But this is fantasy, you say?
Well, yes. But fantasy in a book only works when the reader thinks the writer knows what they’re talking about.
And then there’s this:
In order to be an effective fighter, you are going to want to move around. Like, a whole lot. Moving around requires some room. So that five feet per fighter? That’s the least you need to allow for.
There are fighters who set themselves solidly, and use a strong defense to ward off all comers, but they tend to be big people who know they will tire quickly if they are forced to move too much.
That’s actually a pretty big disadvantage if they want to kill someone, because the smaller or more mobile fighter can remain out of range, or, conversely, make their opponent keep moving until they are tired enough that they cannot mount a serious attack. Or maintain a good defense, for that matter.
If one big fighter who sets themselves very firmly in place is attacked by two people, they are at an even bigger disadvantage, because while they fend off an attack from one opponent, the other one can get behind them and kill them.
All Hollywood movies to the contrary, your opponents are never so stupid that they will stand back and let you take them on one at a time. There is no honour in swordfights. The entire point is to neutralize, disable or kill your opponent. Mostly kill.
And I once won a fairly important fight by simply making a much better and more experienced fighter chase me all over hell and gone until they were almost fainting with exhaustion, and then making them suddenly have to defend themselves. They lacked the speed to throw a decent shot AND their shield arm was droopy. Conditioning is really important, too.
Having said that, I will point out that in any fight not involving firearms or missile weapons, mass is king.
Remember this: Mass is King.
If your normal-sized heroine has to fight against a big fighter who is also in the pink of condition, she will need some luck, or some serious moves, preferably both. I am a five-foot-two-and-a-bit woman who at the height of my fighting career weighed 120 pounds. There is not much about losing to six-foot tall, 300lb behemoths that I have not experienced.
Given equal abilities and training, the bigger person comes in with a huge advantage. Not only can they use their weight to push their opponent around (or down – in real fights, tackling, shoving, that’s going to be the norm) but they can also absorb more punishment and injury.
A smaller opponent will have to be extremely agile and practiced at evasion techniques, be well-trained enough to recognize and predict most of what other fighters like to do, and learn to use physics to make that bulk coming at them work against itself. And even then, it isn’t all that likely that they will be the victor.
Without a lot of luck in terms of anatomy and you being able to stick the pointy end into the right place very precisely, there’s a good chance that a big person can outlast a smaller one even with an eventually-going-to-kill-them injury.
People have been knifed in the guts and barely felt it – have walked the equivalent of two city blocks – before they keel over.
On the other hand, a group of fighters can mass-attack using their combined size/weight and roll right over a big person – if they have trained as a group, they can basically become one really big fighter, and the big guy is now in the position that he usually puts smaller opponents in.
Mass is king.
And here’s the real kicker to all of this:
A whole lot of fighting doesn’t actually have to do with slicing through armour, clothing and flesh.
It has to do with beating the crap out of people, causing broken bones or massive internal trauma, until their body just turns off.
Most fighters in the medieval era died well after the battle was done, either from internal bleeding or infections.
There’s a lot more spraying gore in our vision of how this would go than there probably was in real life.