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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 the arm length of the fighter, which is anywhere between two and three feet at minimum. You have the sword, which probably adds about another three feet. And you have the fighter’s body accounting for another two feet.
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 of “wiggle-room” 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 contact with, say, the wall, the owner of the weapon is quite likely to let go, because the impact may hurt.
So, as an author, you want to choose your fighting environment carefully.
I know, I know. You want those big, 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 seven feet per fighter I mentioned is 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-three 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 gore in our vision of how this would go than there probably was in real life.
A lot of fights are won before the first swing.
There’s a psychological component to every fight. Both fighters go into the fight with some baggage.
I’ve won quite a few fights because my opponent, through sheer arrogance or blatant sexism, figured a skinny little girl could not possibly be any good at this, or at least, not better than them. At one tournament, filled with very elite fighters, I went a whole lot further than anyone, myself included, thought I had any hope of going, because I got three of those fighters – convinced I would be easy meat – in succession.
If someone is sure they don’t need to work very hard to win, they are frequently not giving the fight their full attention. And that would, were those fights for real, have been fatal.
On the other hand, I’ve also won fights I shouldn’t have, because the person I was fighting decided, for some reason, that I was much better than they were, and essentially expected to lose.
There are also fighters who decide, on no evidence at all, that they already know what is going to happen. They sort of plan it out in their mind, and then are very surprised when their opponent doesn’t do what they had decided they would do. This is a different kind of arrogance – it’s mainly something people who are “natural athletes” do, especially when they are new to the craft, because in training and practicing, they usually are right.
But when someone is teaching you a particular way to throw a shot, they keep their responses to your practicing that shot pretty predictable, because they want to train your muscle memory. They aren’t thinking about “winning” because that’s not what training is for.
Go into a fight with it planned out in your head, and you will die. Because someone who doesn’t know what they are supposed to do in order for your cunning plan to work will frequently do things you have no defense for.
The other thing – and this is because someone who has read a lot of (possibly bogus) “swordfighting manuals” will try to tell you to do this – is you don’t look at your opponent’s eyes to figure out what they will do next.
To be honest, most of the fighters I have worked with agree that they don’t really look at any one thing. They often say they don’t really look at anything at all, in the sense that they often cannot remember, even visually, what happened.
In my experience, you tend to look holistically, and respond and react on pure instinct to tiny amounts of movement and body cues. The way your opponent shifted their weight, the way they are tilting their head, the way their wrist is angled, or that tiny step to the right. If you are looking at one particular part of them you will miss something else, so you look at all of it, kind of glazed out (because actual, word-oriented “thinking” tends to shut down for this) and with experience, you learn what those things mean.
Mostly, fighters can’t articulate why or how they knew that over-the-head shot was a fake and that you were going to lean sideways and hit them in the ribs. They just knew somehow that that’s what you would do and they prevented that from working the way you intended.
How does all this work for writing? Why can’t you just make it up the way you want it to be? It’s fantasy, right?
I know it’s fantasy. And I like heroes to win, and for good to triumph, just as much as the next person does, maybe more.
But think about the points I’ve made.
In the right hands, all this can be an enormous advantage. It can open up new and exciting ways to make your writing stand out, have real resonance, and way more interesting outcomes.
Limitations are only limiting if you let them be.
So, supposing that you have grasped the physical and psychological aspects, and realized that writing about fighting with swords has some aspects that merely describing what it is you think you see in a Hollywood movie won’t translate into believable fight scenes on the printed page, how can a writer approach these scenes and make the reader believe in them?
I touched on one of the really crucial points in Part 2. Fighters aren’t really analyzing their footwork or thinking in actual words about what they are doing when the fight is happening. There’s a kind of viscerally instinctive and wholly non-verbal space that gets inhabited, where the fighter shuts down the language part of their brain* and moves into a space where only the body is really on stage.
That’s not helpful when all you have to work with is words, is it?
But knowing this does make it easier to determine ways to convey the essence of the fight, if you’re careful.
The mistake is when the writer tries to describe the fighting in technical terms. The writing will fall flat, if all you are doing is listing out a series of “moves” as if telling an actor what to do. The mistake is when the writer fails to convert that research into something more than factual shopping lists.
When writing a fight scene, your primary goal to put the reader into the body of the fighter. Writing about fighting is not about showing off how much you know about the different kinds of blocks, parries or blows.
It’s about making it feel real.
It’s about the twinge in your shoulders or your arm as you push the sword up and over your head and bring it down towards the opponent’s head. It’s about the shock of the impact as that sword meets a shield edge. It’s about missing a target and having to recover – fast.
Put a little time into this. You spent countless hours reading about the three-field system, just so that your minor-character peasant families sound authentic when they are discussing the harvest in the tavern. You spent five hours looking at pictures of medieval undergarments so that your sex scene will be plausible.
So: yes, you absolutely must do the reading. Before you can run, you have to walk.
But it’s even more crucial to do what I suggested in Part 1: find a group doing live-steel re-enactment or SCA** combat, and get into armour, hit stuff and be hit – even an hour or two of this will teach you so much more than a solid week of Google ever will.
Even something as simple as how it feels to wear period-accurate armour can enhance your ability to write convincingly about this. Armour feels different during the first five minutes you have it on than it does two hours later. You move differently when you are accustomed to wearing it than you do when you are not.
And throwing a blow against a real opponent, an opponent that moves – or blocking something as it speeds towards you? Utterly different than what it looks like from the outside. Utterly different than what a medieval fighting “manual” suggests is happening.
As a writer, you know that the fight has to have certain outcomes in order to move the plot or to illuminate a character’s thoughts or motives, or just to convey to the reader just what kind of person this is – and that’s another really good reason why the writer needs to absolutely not step into the schoolmaster’s shoes and suddenly start spouting off about some obscure martial arts style or quoting XXXX fencing manual.
You need to get the character(s) to where they need to be – sure. But get the reader there with you. Make the scene real, not by terminology or jargon, but by using language that puts the reader inside the skin of the fighter.
So you don’t discuss the actual moves; at least, not in technical ways. The name of the parry, or even the minutia of how that parry is constructed: that’s the language of distance – and the more distance you put between the reader and the action, the less involved the reader becomes in the outcome of the fight.
Fighting occurs FAST. A block takes a millisecond to perform – it should not take half of a paragraph to describe. That sword, speeding towards an opponent’s head? It happens in the blink of an eye.
You slide, you hop, you dance away from the weapon. You push, you shove, you swing. You move and keep moving. You duck, you roll.
You do not execute – you throw. You don’t use an approved technique, honed by approved and acknowledged masters – you get that shield in front of the sword whatever way you can, and if you can’t: you bleed.
Fighting is about feeling.
Make your readers feel it, too.
* Shutting down the language centres in the brain: men are much better than this than women are. On the other hand, if you are writing female characters, I should tell you that this is actually a slight advantage for female characters. Male fighters are often so focused on what’s in front of them that they sucker for the most incredibly obvious distractions. I once looked very pointedly over the left shoulder of a male fighter who was technically about a hundred times better than I was. Sure enough – he tracked my gaze peripherally… and failed to notice the sword heading directly for his midsection.
** SCA (Society for Creative Anachronsim) is a “medieval re-creation society” which uses real armour (sort of) and fake weapons made of rattan. The advantage of this system over live-steel is that fewer areas of the body are off-limits, and you don’t have to pull your shots. In some ways, this creates facsimile conditions much more authentically than live-steel, although the SCA’s claim that the rattan weapons are close to equivalent in weight and balance is questionable.