Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing believable sword fights

One of the things that annoys me is when writers assume that the bigger the sword the more effective it is. This simply isn't true and a writer concerned about realistically portraying sword fights should realize this. Swords are for cutting (and less often for thrusting) not for crushing so weight is meaningless. A heavy claymore or bastard sword is more likely to merely tire the user and isn't more necessarily more effective. In sword fighting, agility and maneuverability count.

Smaller, lighter swords are generally more maneuverable. However, a very light weapon (epee type) are so light that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to parry a heavy weapon with one. It would give way under the pressure.

Smart sword fighters don't jump into the air. It may sound cool, but it would get the fighter killed. The fighter can't change directions mid-air and doesn't have any way to maintain their balance. A sword fighter's feet belong on the ground in a sword fight.

All parts of the sword are a weapon, including the hilt; so are insults or a face full of sand. Especially with a larger opponent, legs are great targets. A fighter can win simply by letting an opponent bleed out after a leg slash. Eye-witness accounts indicate this was a frequently used technique.

A sword fighter should be closely aware of their opponent. An opponent's hands and shoulders often tense momentarily when they are about to strike, for instance. They may glance the direction their going to move. A fighter needs to also be aware of their surroundings. Sending an opponent backwards over an obstacle is always a good thing.

Last, but not least, a fight to the death takes tremendous energy. A good fighter doesn't waste it on fancy maneuvers that may look cool but don't damage their opponent.

On writing about sword fights a few well-known sword fighting terms are good to use, I think, but I'd suggest not going over-board. There are extensive terms for the Italian and German schools of fighting and somewhat fewer for English, but they would merely confuse the reader. However, block, dodge, parry, and riposte are terms that are familiar and give a picture of the action to the reader.

A fight to the death is serious business. While the Wesley vs. Inigo Montoya sword fight in the Princess Bride was hilarious, it was a great example of how to write one that surely no one believes or takes seriously. I could mention others that were meant to be taken seriously but don't want to offend the fans of some good writers whose sword fights make me cringe.

You don't have to be an expert to write good sword fights. I do think it helps, though, if you get an accurate reproduction and try it out at least, even if you don't have the time or desire to be in a club. If you take some of this into consideration, your sword fight scenes will have a lot more believability.


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks, your artical helped a lot. :) It was simple but helped without going overboard with a bunch of details about techniques i know nothing about.

Anonymous said...

Thank you SOOO much! I'm currently writing a story for English class and wanted to add a sword fighting scene, but had absolutely no idea how to write it. I took your advice and it turned out really good.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I'm glad it helped. :)

Anonymous said...

Well, all of a sudden, I'm not afraid of sword fighting scenes anymore. Thank you!

J. R. Tomlin said...

Glad this little post is still helping people. I'm always amazed at how many hits it still gets. :)

Anonymous said...

im about to get workshopped and needed a sword fighting scene

Unknown said...

Am having a bit of trouble writing a good sword fighting scene for my book. In my case though it is two women, one has a sword and the other a staff. Do the rules still apply for female fighters? Do women tending to need differnt types of swords vs. a man. Do you have any pearls of wisom for staff fighting, or is it basically the same in manuverability? Thanks for any help you can give. Your blog is very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Hi LilG1023

In my opinion, light & flexible staff--when used properly--is superior to a sword.

I have seen genuine Shaolin monks do a demonstrations when then were promoting a tour they did in the USA many years ago.

The lightning speed and whip-like flexibility of their staffs was incredible. Their swords were fast and flexible as well, but I give the edge to the staff due to its reach advantage--the Shaolin monks didn't always hold their staffs in the middle and could adjust their grip and strike with almost the full length of their staff with awsome quickness and agility.

Also in my opinion, a light & flexible spear is the weapon of choice for a common soldier in any of the ancient historical armies.

Alexander The Great was unstopable and conquered many lands by equiping his troops with an unusually long spear.

Being able to safely poke a sword weilder from the back of your spear was probably a key factor in his success.

Anonymous said...

Hi J. R. Tomlin,

One of my favorite sword fighting movies is Troy starring Brad Pitt.

I am sad to see that jumping in the air is a big no no, as that was one of Brad Pitt's exciting moves in the movie.

In "mixed martial arts" (MMA, ring fighting) there is a punch called the "Superman punch" in which the attacker jumps in the air and delivers a straight punch to the face of his/her opponent--much like what Brad Pitt did in the movie with his sword.

All of the "Superman punches" I've seen have never been countered or avoided--all the defenders could do was cover their face and try to move back. I've never seen a defender duck/sidestep and deliver their own counter punch or kick to the "Superman puncher", but then again I haven't seen all the "Superman punches" ever thrown in the ring.

Sometimes the attacker would do a quick fake like a very short abbreviated left hand jab before delivering the very powerful "Superman punch".

J. R. Tomlin said...

It depends on what you mean by "light and flexible". If you mean an epee, I can't agree. They were never intended to be particularly effective weapons.

Certainly staves could be VERY effective, but they are really a different topic. Knights mainly--in spite of what you see in movies and read in most novels--mainly used lances. Pikes were extremely effective as you see in battles such as the Battle of Bannockburn as long as archers were not a factor. But at this point we're talking about battle strategy rather than writing one-on-one sword fights.

It would be interesting sometime to write some blog posts on medieval battle strategy. :)

J. R. Tomlin said...

I agree that jumps look good and I don't come down on movies too hard for using them for that reason. But it's easy to see why in an actual fight they put you at a huge disadvantage. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much! Very interesting, informative, and helpful tips!

Unknown said...

Thanks!! I am planning on publishing a book. . .and my duel to the death sounds like a dance. This will realllly help!!!

Anonymous said...

One thing that annoys me is writers who don't know the difference between "their" "they're" and "there."

J. R. Tomlin said...

That's ok. I get annoyed by people who get all self-righteous because a writer has typed a homophone. So I guess we're even.

Anonymous said...

What the f#@k is a homophone? I guess I'll have to go google the word or look it up using one of my dictionary apps. Thanks for all the advice on writing sword fighting scenes. Maybe I'll remember some of them when I reach my next fight/battle while I'm typing about the exploits of my characters.

J. R. Tomlin said...

A homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. 'There' and 'their' are homophones.

Writers need a large vocabulary, my child. ;)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I've never used the word homophone while writing, even though I have sifted through over 3,565 pages of text editing and correcting my mistakes. Howeve, I did search google the moment I finished writing my post in order to discover the meaning of the word. Unfortunately, I always joke and claim that if someone held a gun to my head and ordered me to diagram a sentence, I'd be a dead man (which is actually true). Once again, thanks for the wisdom you shared about writing a sword fighting/battle scene.

J. R. Tomlin said...

No worries. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, I just did a google search on J.R. Tomlin and discovered I was in contact with a real life author. Thank you for taking time out of your life to post useful information, as well as taking the time to reply. Once I'm copywrited and figure out my pen name I'd love to send you a four and a half page battle scene between a man and a dragon. One of my friends who's been a faithful reader and helping me edit my work claims the scene reads like poetry. Thanks again, I'll bookmark this page and order your first book on my next visit to my local bookstore. Good-bye and have a nice day.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Thanks. I'm glad if it helps. I got plenty of help along the way and try to do the same.

Autumn Gracy said...

Well hello there; I'm writing a series that partly takes place in 9th century England and has a lot of fight scenes. I find it hard to write terribly long sword fights because there's only so much understandable terminology I can use before I start repeating myself, though that's what a lot of sword fight really do--thrust, parry, dodge, thrust, parry...etc. Do you have any tips as to how to keep a sword fight gripping? Also, there are many scenes where I have sword-wielders up against other types of weapons like one or two sided axes, seaxs, claymores, or spears, and it's hard to know exactly how the weapons should fare against one another without some sort of "vs" any you know of?

J. R. Tomlin said...

I would suggest keeping in mind that sword fights didn't last long. Pretty soon someone was dead. You might try reading the works of Bernard Cornwell or, for that matter *smile*, my own novels. You might want to check your accuracy regarding types of weapons. I am not aware of any "two-sided battle axes" although they may have existed. I have seen many medieval battle axes and they all had either, most commonly, a pointed pick behind the blade or, occasionally, a blunt hammer. It is very important, in my opinion, to make every effort to be accurate about what weapons were used.

A claymore is nothing but a sword, by the way. It is is an anglicisation of the Scots Gaelic claidheamh mòr and was not a word or weapon you would have found in use in the 9th Century. Some propose that it was used in 13th century Scotland but the evidence for that is quite weak.

I don't know any good authentic source where you'll find a discussion of using a sword against other weapons although obviously at times it was necessary to do so.

J. R. Tomlin said...

To answer your first question further, Autumn, sword fights were short and dirty. I have more than one sword fight end with one of my main character's men burying a sword in the opponent's back.

You know, I tell people all kinds of theories about writing fights, but I'm not quite sure I follow my own advice when I do it. I just do it. I can tell you that I believe that if you describe every blow and parry and dodge, you'll bore your reader.

Ok, here is a sword fight from Countenance of War. I don't *think* it bores anyone (and no one dies--a rarity in my sword fights):

“Randolph. Yield.” James lunged after him. Their swords rang together. Again, testing. James backed off a step. Randolph followed, tried a slash. James jerked back and the wind from the blade brushed his cheek.

“Honorless scoundrel,” Randolph spat.

James gave way, a smile twitching his lips. “Fine words from a traitor.” He circled backwards, leading Randolph. The knight tried a hack at his legs; James leapt away, hopping lightly over a pile of blankets.

“Craven,” Randolph said through gritted teeth. He came at James hard. Steel clanged on steel.

James let Randolph drive him back, blocking each blow as he stepped over shields and blankets that littered the floor. He smiled blithely into Randolph's eyes. He almost laughed when the man growled under his breath. His blade swished by James's stomach, but James hacked a tear into the mail on Randolph's shoulder.

“Lost your skill at swordplay since you've kissed English arse?”

Randolph lunged, slamming the hilt of his sword toward James's face.
James dodged and caught Randolph across the stomach with the edge of his blade, scoring a gash into his mail. He sidestepped again and slid around the table where the two men had stood talking moment before.

“Or mayhap you grew overfond of the English King.” James drove out from the other side of the table hard and fast.

Randolph blocked. James jerked his sword upward toward the knight's head. Randolph took half a step back, braced himself, and slammed his sword down in a savage arc. James knocked it aside and slid away to the side.

He brought his sword down into Randolph's elbow. The mail ripped. Randolph grunted as he half-turned and slammed James's sword aside.

James bared his teeth in a grin as he stood his ground. A rivulet of red ran down Randolph's arm. James rained a flurry of blows. Randolph parried. Again and again. Each parry was slower. James could hear the knight panting for breath. The crimson from Randolph's elbow dripped down onto his fingers and then the ground. He staggered.
James slammed his sword at Randolph's head. Randolph lost his feet. He lurched back, tripped over a blanket, and went down on his back.

James knocked the sword from his hand with the flat of his blade. Beyond the rush of blood in his head, someone was shouting. He raised his sword, two handed, aiming a swing that would split the traitor from neck to groin.
Hard hands grabbed him from behind, gripping his arm. He spun.

“James. No!” Robbie Boyd back-pedaled, raising his empty hands. “Not the King's kin.”

Ian said...

Hi, I'm not a writer, but do have some experience of actual fighting with a variety of weapons.
Firstly, I'd agree with the point about sword fights were short and dirty, especially if they are in the middle of a larger melee. If someone isn't dead or incapacitated within a half dozen blows it's a long fight. The exception to this is when the fighters are evenly matched and no one else interferes.
Next, combinations of weapons used is fairly time specific. Training manuals change considerably over the centuries.
The earliest that I know of is the I33 document from the 1300s. Before that it's pretty much guesswork based on paintings and the physical attributes of the weapons.
With regard to different types of weapon used against each other. There are some examples of this in various manuals, again differing by time period.
There is also the problem of different schools, e.g. German, Italian, being fashionable at different times and teaching different variations on basic techniques.
If anyone is really interested in the detail, I can probably give you some links / extracts of fighting manuals.

J. R. Tomlin said...

Thanks for ringing in, Ian. My experience is limited largely to swords and certain pole weapons such as the pike, mainly in what was used in Scotland and England.

It is correct that there were distinctly regional schools of sword fighting. While it can be worthwhile to look into them, I don't suggest using the terminology much in writing.

Although you might want use just a touch to give a flavor, more than that actually serves more as the writer showing off since it doesn't tell the reader anything since they won't know the terms. I generally try more to give the FEEL of the fight rather than go into a huge number of details. The reader wants to know what the main character is experiencing, but detailing every move doesn't achieve that really.

I always suggest pretty strongly that you try out the weapons you're going to write about. There are sword fighting classes often associated with organizations such as the SCA. You can sometimes talk people who own authentic replicas (I emphasize authentic) into let you at least handle them. That makes it much easier to give a feel of authenticity to your writing.

Anonymous said...

How would you write a sword fight where there are two women and one of them is much stronger and powerful then the other but the weaker one ends up to be the one who wins?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post! I was writing something online that needed some swordfighting and this came me some encouragment to go into more deatail then 'So and so fought' and this person won. I personally love the fight scenes in the Percy Jackson's (they even complain about how heavy everything is). As unrealistic as it was when Percy fought Ares it seemed the most realistic even though you knew a God couldn't die...

Andy's Writery said...

I appreciate your advice. I am editing (ie. Completely rewriting) a manuscript where swordplay is significant. I did want to offer my thoughts when concerning science fiction.

Although the jumping factor is absolutely insane in a sword fight, the freedom of some fiction allows it in certain context. To give the most obvious example, Star Wars. I realize the light saber, along with the 'Force', are fictional things, but they are just good writing tools that make it possible to bend the rules of physics. Hence, the rebelliousl writer such as myself... :)

I think you are correct for the most part when it comes to writing, because movies just present without describing...a CRUCIAL difference. But for my scenes (the main characters are 'gifted' with extraordinary abilities of perception and agility), they duel against projectile weapons, like Jedi. Since all the gunfighter can hope to do is hit their opponent, they are left at quite a disadvantage against a leaping, dodging, extrasensory maniac with a deadly blade. That is why science fiction, and the 'Star Wars' model particularly, work so well...and give the sword the credibility it's ancient mystique deserves.
But thank you so much for this article. I love the term references and shall incorporate them immediately. Merci!

Robert Evert said...

Very nice discussion. Wish I read it BEFORE I wrote my manuscript! :)

Jeffrey Howe said...

There are extant combat manuals from per-modern Western Europe, and people who study them. Look up Bob Charron, who's done a lot of work out of 15th century ones in particular.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! This really helped me. I'm writing a book where a sixteen-year-old girl goes toe-to-toe with a much bigger opponent and I almost made about a million mistakes. It doesn't exactly help that I've only ever seen sword fights in movies and read about them in books that don't really go into a whole lot of detail about the fight itself.
Do you have any other tips about how to make it realistic?

J. R. Tomlin said...

So many people visit this page and several years later it still receives so many comments and questions, I feel that I need to write a post expanding on what I said. It will take a few days to gather my thoughts and do a post, but I will try to answer some of the questions I've received over the years and give some hints about how to write believable sword fights.

Fred Douglass said...

Jeanne, you are so right about the realities of sword-fighting. The Scots I read about and watched (in Tartan-day celebrations) all said that the "broadsword", with its basket-handle was by far preferred to the Claymore, althouth the two are often confuses. The Claymore was more for "unhorsing" people and/or discouraging many charging at few. It claimed its own space on the battlefield but its unwieldiness often exposed the user to counterthrusts by those using smaller weapons.

A friend of mine who (as a MacKay) has more Highland blood than I, claimed the Highlanders were the most feared fighters in all of Scotland. True or not, I told him the borderers were by far and away the most experienced and knicked up.

Thanks again for writing of the Doglas(s) clan. Wish my second post had gotten through, but I am not one to keep abreast of all the ludicrous minutia of the incessantly updated use of computers.

J. R. Tomlin said...

On older posts, Blogger requires that I approve posts. I haven't found any way to disable that. It isn't a requirement on newer posts. Sorry for the delay in your posts appearing. I approve them as soon as I receive an email notice.

J. R. Tomlin said...

The Highlanders were amazing fighters although the Lowlanders did their bit as well.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Stewarts and the Douglases. At their best, they performed amazing feats. At their worst--

When my next to novels are completed, one about King James I (of Scotland not the other one) and a mystery set in 18th century Edinburgh, I plan a novel about James Douglas's son, Archibald the Grim. I put it off because research during that period is particularly difficult.

Anonymous said...

Thank for your advice, through i'm writing a fiction, I want the sword fights to be as realist as possible. But the fact that sword fights are really short forces me to add a lot of discussions between the antagonist and the protagonist( and we. all know that when twoo guys or engaged into a death match, they don't really have time to discuss) as it is the ultimate battle between them. So should i keep it that way or should i make a longer, less realistic, fight with less discussion between.

Alice said...

Thanks for the article. I am still a little worried about writing a sword fighting scene though when it actually comes to the writing bit.. I am writing a one on one sword fighting scene set in Ancient Greece, and I don't really know whether I should be describing each blow or all the foot work or facial expressions or sound effects or such things! Any tips would be much appreciated!

J. R. Tomlin said...

Generally speaking, my believe is a no to describing each blow and the footwork at least in detail. Consider what an intense experience a sword fight would be and consider describing it from that perspective.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the advice, I'm writing a fighting scene for my book but have absolutely no idea how to sword fight or more accurately knife fight as is depicted in the scene.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the helpful advice. I started writing a book, and I needed help with writing a sword fight scene. Now I think I can finally write one! :)

Unknown said...

I am writing a book about a shape shifting Queen who has an army of mystical soldiers. I could really use help with medieval battle strategy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. Trying to write my debut book and this is one area I know nothing about. Certainly don't want to upset any readers who know better than I do. :)