Tag Archives: strategy

Guest Post: Swords and Board, not Swards of Bored

At the heart of any good swords and sorcery novel is the iconic swordfight. Like other fights, it’s easy to see the fight in your head, but hard to master. For today’s post, I’m going to share a little light on how a swordfight perhaps ought to be laid out, in three sections:

Energy, Strikes, and Superlative Moves.

My qualifications for this is that I used to fence (two weapon, epee and saber) as a hobby. I also used to help teach the foil class on weekends, assisting the instructor with form and refereeing matches.

In the past I’ve said ‘know your topic, and write what you know’, but this is one of those places where you can’t just watch someone else pick up a sword and go at it — in fact, fencing in particular has an additional layer of rules on it that can confuse the average person — right of way is important, and counters play a huge part in who officially gets the point, even though the other person might have been attacked first. So today is all about what it’s like to fence from the inside of a helmet, rather than on the sidelines.

Energy: You don’t have unlimited amounts.

Fencing weapons are very light — a competition epee’ typically weighs less than a pound, for example. But you still need muscles to use one, because the whole point (no pun intended) of fencing is to exercise lots of muscles in order to poke the other person hard enough to set off the trigger, or at least convincingly bend the blade. You’re constantly holding this thing out at arm’s length, and fending off someone trying to beat your blade aside so that they can rush in and stab you in the chest. Parries — deflecting the blade to the side – also require some strength to do.

Writing a fencing scene should therefore include some level of fatigue after doing it for awhile — no, your arms don’t ‘just feel like lead,’ that’s cliche’ — but rather, it gets harder and harder to not get your blade pushed aside, and your thrusts will be slower when your arm doesn’t respond with the same explosive quickness. Moreover, point control becomes harder as well; your hand and wrist start trying to compensate for your wavering arm and the point starts moving around. (Pinpoint control is used for something called a ‘disengage’, which is to wait for someone to try and parry your blade aside, and you dip it around their blade while it’s going in the wrong direction.)

Remember the rule of ‘show don’t tell’ — don’t just say you’re tired, show me how the character is tired.

Strikes – Location, Location, Dislocation

Hands up if you’ve ever had a character attack someone with ‘a flurry of blows’.

Yeah, I did that too. I have news for you. Unless you’re just going for first blood in a swordfight, merely flailing at someone isn’t likely to hit them — or hit it off with your reader. Just telling them they’re fighting ‘a veritable whirlwind of blades’ doesn’t really describe it unless you’re documenting ‘Swordnado’ or something. Make the reader, if they’re in the hero’s pants, and on the defensive, feel the stress and worry about incoming stab wounds in such a way that they won’t want to be hit.

The best fencers in the world can aim at a point on their opponent about the size of a quarter, and hit it, even though their opponent is moving. If you’re going for a high detail swordfight, name the locations where that next slash, stab, or cut is going. Whether it lands or not is often the beginning of a losing battle for the target. One of my favorite lines from a novel describing a swordfight, paraphrased from memory:

“He was the best I’d ever encountered. I tried every trick I knew; ripostes, feints, beats and sidesteps. But no matter what I did, his point almost never wavered, save to divert my own blade from its attack, and I couldn’t keep it from pointing at my eye. And he knew it; he was just trying to wear me down enough to where he could finish the fight with a simple lunge.”

In other words; any significant attack needs to have a target; if you’re truly blocking out a detailed swordfight, see the fight in the head. Do what the referees do; replay the attack that you saw in your head, right on the page.

“First attack is left to the chest; attack fails, absence of blade. Counter is parried in quarte; riposte misses. Lunge from the right connects, off target. Counter from the left strikes true, touch to the left.”

Hm. Well, that explains why fencing is not exactly the best average spectator sport. Let’s try again:

“Gary threw himself forward, blade stretching out before him with the intent to run his opponent through and end the fight quickly. But Ryan simply hopped back, and Gary ran out of momentum just short of his chest. He barely shifted his weight back to his back foot in time to flick his wrist to the right, knocking Ryan’s counterattack aside so his blade slid away at an angle along his sword. He rolled forward on the balls of his feet, throwing his weight at his opponent and extending his arm further this time, but there was nothing there to hit but air as Ryan lunged past him and down, scoring a line along Gary’s pants without drawing blood. Gary twisted as Ryan tried to recover, and this time he caught Ryan across the back of the shoulders with the flat of his blade, and Ryan stumbled back.

“Could have taken your head off with that.” Gary bluffed.

Superlative Moves

Swordfighting for real is not a video game, or a movie. Theatrical fencing looks bigger than it is, because it’s got to be telegraphed for the audience’s eye to follow. Most of it is carefully choreographed, with all of the moves and counters mapped out, telling a story in steel until its ending.

Your swordfighting scene does not have to ascribe to that. Take a look at your combatants; someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing will have very little control, burning energy and flailing wildly about and pretty much announcing their moves well before they become a risk of contact. Highly-trained fencers can usually get it done in one to three exchanges. Equally matched skill fencers will have a lot of what my instructor called ‘phrases’ each attack must have an answer, or hit or miss, and each counter is an attack that follows that answer. Sure, if one person goes full on the defensive, they can just block, counter, and dodge, but eventually you run out of words to describe such things.

Some folks fall into the trap that comes party from anime; lovingly describing a “supermove” that when it boils down to it, is a single attack.

“He focused his chi in his hands and arms, feeling the flow of power up them and building into an explosive strike that started in his hips with a step forward and swing and ended with the blade coming forward in a two handed chop that was intended to cleave his enemy in two.”

That’s overkill.

Sometimes you need that level of detail, for the last ‘finishing’ move that ends the fight. But that is also very tropeish. But for the middle of the fight, the part that lasts (normally) the longest, sometimes economy of style is what is called for. After all, there are only so many sword related words you can use, and thrusting over and over at your opponent can be rather boringly repetitive. So use the lessons I suggested above; think about energy, location, and have the former decay, and the latter change up. Where do you want to stick that sword this time?

A good rule of thumb is to take a look at the scene you’re writing and count the number of adverbs; if you only have a few, that’s not so bad. But if it contains a lot of ‘strongly,’ ‘fiercely’, ‘frantically’, ‘frenetically’, ‘quickly’, and the like? Mix it up a bit more. True swordfights are less about the ‘endless rain of attacks’ and more about the individual, significant parts of the fight, with each attack being worthy of a sentence to a paragraph describing why it is a _highlighted_ part of a fight.

Hope this helps!

PS. And oh, by the way? This lesson also works for martial arts fights.

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Guest Post: The Horror Show

October’s coming up, and as such the airwaves are full of Halloween themed ideas and the inevitable horror movie. And of course, with that sort of inspiration, some of us decide to try their hand at horror novels.

We all know what that means, really; naming our fears and writing about them in such a way that someone else can experience what someone would go through if they were afraid of such things.

But hang on a tick… most of our experience with horror is through movies, and novels don’t often relate well to this. A novel is something that has a different pacing, and is missing the visual element.

It is all too easy to make a horror novel about the same cliched tropes that we’ve seen before, in said movies, and then it’s less scary. It becomes expected. In theme. And it will lack the authenticity that a horror story needs to scare the reader.

I used to work in a haunted house; they no longer scare me. I’ve lost my suspenders of disbelief, so that I know that they’re just actors. I can be startled, but not scared. Not like when I was a child and the unknown darkness held menacing things.

Some horror authors use the terror that they felt in order to build up a story. But fear itself is often wordless; panic, fright, and the need to Get Away are things that defy easy description.

Impending Doom is a little easier to write; so is Pain, and Dread. Fear is an emotion, like anger; it just lends itself a little less easy to the mind.

Try this exercise. And it’s a tough one… write about a superstition, WITHOUT using the words ‘fear’, ‘afraid’, ‘terrified’, ‘avoid(ance)’, ‘scared’, and ‘phobia.’ Remember, a good author does a ‘show, don’t tell’, and using any of those words is telling.

Here’s my take:
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He couldn’t turn his back on the water, even though the sand sculpture demanded his focus. He could hear the sinister sound of the surf, rustling behind him like a beast in the bushes. The sculpture site he had been given was far too close to the sea for his liking, and he gritted his teeth as he had to lean down to add some detailing to the mermaid that he was creating out of damp sand.

Let others rely on doing runs to and from the surf to get more water for their works. He had a portable sand block press of his own design, and a wheeled dolly with plenty of purified water jugs on it, and an hour and a half to craft a winning entry. Plenty of time before the tide came in and erased it all.

The wind ruffled his hair; the sky was overcast, and it was a lousy day to be on the beach, but the event planners had set this up months in advance, and they couldn’t control the weather.

He tried not to think about the sign that he’d seen on the way to the beach: ‘Tsunami Warning.’ It had been there since the sixties; there had never been a tsunami off the Oregon coast in a hundred years.

But there always was a first time for everything. He’d seen the pictures of Indonesia and Japan; huge morasses of water, consuming everything in its wake. Cars and buses floating along in the water like some giant bathtub toys, houses collapsing under the unexpected deluge of water coming down the street.

He had been given one of the sites closest to the waterline. He hadn’t been given permission to change with someone else. The safety of the boardwalk was two hundred yards away, possibly closer to three.

He wanted to just quit the contest, because those clouds overhead and the sky had gotten darker. Wasn’t the first sign of a tsunami heavy clouds? He couldn’t remember.

Just the thought of being swept out to sea made him want to look over his shoulder instead of paying attention to the work in front of him.

Was the sea a little closer?

It was. It surely was.
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Balance the internal with the external. Fear is internal. Stimulus for fear is external. It’s something you see – or can’t see. It’s something heard which doesn’t match normalcy. It’s evidence of something Not Right. Or simply feelings of wrongness sometimes.

Think about something that makes you scared for a moment. You can feel your skin crawl, the tension, the want to hide somewhere where it’s safe, or at least lighted. Then try and put the character who is being scared in your own shoes. Can you make them feel that fear, in their own voice, in their own head, and in their own mind?

I think you can.

It’s uncertainty of their next moments. It’s worrying about what MIGHT happen before it does, and then what DOES happen is often unexpected anyway.

And it’s worse than they imagined.

Another element of horror is the fact that it’s drawn out. The inevitable chase scene. The character becomes the prey in a hunt. Trying to escape. Because as you well know, anyone who fights the beastie? Usually dies. Horribly.

In horror, the big bad nasty almost always has the upper hand. They make the protagonist feel mortal. Vulnerable. Weak. Because if they weren’t afraid of it, if they could outfight it, outrun it, or outthink it right off the bat? It’s not scary enough. Their confidence and skill will carry them through.

Of course, there’s always the reversal — the misplaced bravado route, where they think they’ve got it covered – and then they don’t.

Now that is the source of even bigger fear. Maybe they escaped with their life after being foolish enough to brace the proverbial tiger in its lair. And they are scarred by the near-death experience. (Possibly literally.)

That’s a key: any fear a character has is not something they can easily shrug off. Any horror that a character faces has to be something that they are already afraid of to begin with, or something that can apply that (un)healthy fear of that after that first encounter.

It doesn’t have to be blood and guts, or supernatural things thrashing people around, or demonic possession, or aliens, or zombies or vampires… I was rather surprised to see how many people are afraid of clowns.

But that doesn’t help you, does it?

What should be your horror vehicle? What should you make people afraid of?

Anything. You. Want.

A skilled enough writer can make anything menacing. Items can be cursed. Food can be poisoned – or worse. A normal person could turn out to have a hidden past. Or change right in front of their eyes. Sometimes the scariest things of all are things we take for granted to be harmless — until they aren’t.

The thing you want to keep in mind when writing horror is that the object of horror has to regularly keep pushing at the characters. It must continue to vex them, whether it starts eating them one by one or keeps them from leaving the proverbial island (or both), it’s got to be something that they can’t get around or away from that easily.

Just like things we’ve been afraid for for years.

You can be afraid of anything, really — heck, just check out the List of Phobias on Wikipedia, or phobialist.com. Pick something you’ve never heard of before as a challenge, and start from there… and don’t be afraid to write about it.