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.
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.”
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.