A Brief Primer on Writing a Fight Scene

Posted: December 10, 2016 in On Writing
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A quick note: I fenced for a number of years. Foil primarily, but I’ve also picked up some different rapier techniques as well as some “heavy” sword work (two-hander, sword and shield, single-handed broadsword along with some very limited small unit tactics). My lens is primarily through Western martial arts, and there are some great additional resources out there (The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts for instance) that I definitely recommend checking out.

There are three steps you are going to want to take first before you start writing the scene:

Step 1: Purpose of the Scene

Does it add anything to the piece you are writing? Will it reveal anything about the characters? Does it move the plot along, or is it the equivalent of a random encounter, thereby serving no real purpose? You also want to be sure to understand the nature of the fight. Is it going to be a duel or an ambush? Is it a skirmish or a small part of a larger battle?

Step 2: Identify the Combatants

This might seem like a given, all things considered, but it goes a bit beyond that. Think about why they are fighting. Is one party after something the other person has? Do both parties want the other one dead? At what point does the other party decide that it has had enough and decides to flee or surrender? If they do either, does the other side accept the surrender or do they pursue?

Part of this as well is identifying the weapons both sides are using (if any). Is it a bar brawl with stools and bottles being used as improvised weapons? Is it an unarmed man getting into a knife fight? Is it a hero with a spear against a dragon?

What is the skill level of the combatants? Does one side have a distinct advantage (speed, reach, armor, skill) over the other?

Step 3: Identify the Stage

Few things are as boring as a fight scene occurring on an empty stage. What is the ground like? Is it even or rough? Is there dirt that someone can pick up to fling into someone’s eyes? Are there trees or other obstacles that can be used as cover? Are there potential bystanders that might be drawn into the conflict? Are there environmental hazards such as a cliff, or water, or a fire that could come into play during the fight? Is it possible the scene could move, say from a saloon into the street?

Actually Writing the Scene

Got those three items down? Great. Now we can start actually writing the scene.

My suggestion is to zoom in on one of the combatants, tell the story through their perspective. Third person limited or first person point-of-view is very helpful for this. It will help build sympathy for your character and better help your readers identify with the character.

Personally, I tend toward the more realistic side of writing a fight. No crazy acrobatics, few elaborate sword tricks, and plenty of pain.  That said, few things will probably bog your writing down more than if you try to detail every feint, cut, parry, and riposte. Especially if you write in such a way that Character A attacks Character B, Character A blocks and counter attacks. So how to make it more exciting then?

It’s all about word choice. If you say Character A brought his falchion down in a vicious overhead chop that Character B only avoided by hopping backward before thrusting with his spear, well, we are getting somewhere.

Mechanics of a Fight

Let’s start with a cutting/cleaving/crushing weapon. Think about the different ways a character might attack. Think about the points of a compass, with North being the Head, East being to the Right, West to the Left, and South being between the legs. A cut would come from one of those directions, with NE, NW, SE, and SW also being options.

For a thrust, you are generally going to be thinking in terms of lines. Are you attacking in a high line (head, upper body) or a low line (lower body, legs).

Some weapons are going to be capable of both kinds of attacks. Others are primarily going to only able to carry out one or the other. Think about the kind(s) of weapon the opponents are using, and that will dictate the kinds of attacks there are. For example, with a standard long sword, a character can both thrust and cut. If armed with a rapier, you are going to be looking at primarily thrusts. Armed with an axe? Cuts all the way

For defense, the best kind is one where the defender places their body where the attack isn’t. Parrying is actually a secondary concern, since any attack is going to be carrying a good deal of inertia with it. A person could end up seriously hurt or worse if all they do is try to absorb the attack, even with a shield. Your combatants should be constantly moving. Even in a cramped space, there is going to be a good deal of movement as opponents try to position for advantage. On defense, the most effective way to avoid injury is to not being there. A parry will actually only get you so far given the factor that inertia plays. Think about the space your character is occupying, and where he could go. Is there a chance for him or her to gain higher ground? If the ground is slick or the ground made of loose gravel, might they slip and fall? Are there obstacles that the character can use to put some distance between themselves and an opponent?

You don’t want to focus on just the physical mechanics of a fight. What’s going through the combatants’ head, with their emotions? Are they scared? Blood thirsty? How do they react when they see a friend brought down? When they see the enemy starting to break and retreat? You might not get a lot of witty dialogue or deep philosophical questions answered, but highlighting the emotional state of the fighters is a great way to get your readers to connect to them.

Speaking of thinking, the best fighters aren’t mechanically attacking, dodging, parrying, and counterattacking. They are deliberately leaving openings for their opponent to fall for, knowing where the attack is coming from and counterattacking in time. They are attacking not where the opponent is at that moment, but where they believe the opponent is going to go. They know that their first or second attempt isn’t going to succeed, but that’s okay, because the third attack will. Swordplay, be it sport fencing, or something a bit more historic and deadly, is very much a physical version of chess. You aren’t just concerned with the possibilities immediately presented, but you are thinking three, four, or five moves ahead. For sport fencing, that meant it was all about scoring points. For more historic, especially battlefield situations, it was more taking out the opponent as quickly as possible so you could move on to the next one. That meant striking at arms, legs, even feet, was perfectly acceptable. Anything that would remove the combatant from the field and make them less of a threat (and if you think you could continue fighting after having your femur shattered by a two-handed sword, well, you are definitely tougher than anyone else I’ve ever heard of).

Finally, a brief word on the aftermath of a fight. Anyone who has ever managed to cut themselves with a knife will tell you how much it hurts. Here’s the thing, Renaissance and even Middle Ages medicine was pretty good with those kinds of injuries. A bit of needle and thread, and they could stitch you right up. Thrusting injuries? Not so much. They’d basically try to plug the hole and hope for the best. Needless to say, air and your insides don’t tend to mix well, resulting in a terrible infection, leading to death. So if you think rapiers are for the “non-lethal” fighters, I’ve some bad news for you. Sure, you might be able to finish off the fight and see your opponent dead. The bad news is that in a few days to a week, they’d be throwing a funeral for you too if you were unlucky enough to get stabbed.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to fight scenes, not by a long shot. I could write a whole book on the subject (and in fact several people have). I can’t teach you how to visualize a fight, and I probably can’t come over and help you block it out in space to help you figure out a troubling scene. However, I do hope this gives a starting point, and that you can build on the advice here.

  1. Tom says:

    Nice to get some perspectives on this from someone who’s actually held a sword. How cool is that? I’m adding this post to my writing craft archive. Thanks for the gen.

  2. moteridgerider says:

    Reblogged this on Writing In Starlight and commented:
    A great overview of how to write fantasy combat scenes from someone with a knowledge of fencing. Matthew Gomez has written a zarjaz post which I reblog here.

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