How to Write Sword Fighting Scenes
How to Write Sword Fighting Scenes
1) When did you start to learn fencing, then teaching?
I started fencing in 1983 under Fencing Master Graham Jennings who taught within the Italian School of fencing. Fencing schools are like the variations within an oriental martial art. It is all fencing. It’s just that a different philosophy of fencing shapes the way the fencer fences. The Italian School is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, school of fencing. Its philosophy was once summarized by a master as “controlling your opponent’s weapon until you have killed him”. That philosophy goes back centuries and is the basis for the techniques that were taught.
In early 1985, I began assisting the fencing instructor at Bradley University in Illinois. During my senior year, ’87-’88, due to the instructor’s schedule conflicts I took over teaching that class. Following college, I continued to coach the Bradley Fencing Club and teaching a semester class through Bradley until 2007 when I had to take a break due to tendonitis.
2) Tell me about the times when you would work with the role players. What did you do and why?
I began role playing games in high school as a player. I really enjoyed creating characters with depth and complexity. In college, I continued to play unique character concepts but I also started game mastering in the fantasy, science fiction and super hero genres. This involved coming up with a plots and sub-plots as well as antagonists and supporting characters. The players came up with the main characters and they’d play through the story.
I was fortunate to have friends in theatre so the characters they played helped to make the storylines come alive as the interaction between the players added elements to the story that gave it depth. It was very rewarding and I wish I had the time now to do it.
Because my friends created and played characters with such depth, I worked with each to get an idea of what their character was all about so I could design plots that would allow the player to really showcase their creation.
3) How does a writer incorporate fencing/fighting into his novel?
Short answer: With a purpose. Just as with any other aspect of a story, fighting needs to be a natural element of the story. Including a fight for the sake of including a fight will be very unsatisfying to write and read. The fights must progress the storyline.
When you are outlining your story, determine if and when fights will be part of the story. If there is no reason the character should get into a fight, don’t write one in.
4) You had once said match the weapon to the fighter. How do you do this?
Short answer: Know your character and your weapons. In order to do this, you have to understand the personality of your character and understand how various weapons are used. In many cases, it can be a personal preference for either the writer or the character but what I find to be very engaging as a reader is when the character’s personality is reflected in the choice of or even design of a weapon.
Understanding weapons is a whole subject on its own and I will come up with an overview and some short essays on the various weapons to provide that information. However, before you can use that information you must picture your character’s personality and how he would handle a conflict. Then picture what the character sees as fashionable. Weapons can be made anywhere along that spectrum from very crudely to elegantly or ornate.
Very briefly, I’ll offer a few very general examples of matching personality with weapon. A character who prefers to accomplish his goals through affecting those around him as opposed to getting too involved himself might find the bow a very fitting weapon. It would allow him to remain on the fringe of a fight and still affect the outcome.
An aggressive, in-your-face, type character might favor the speed and aggression of the dagger. This weapon requires the wielder to get very close to the opponent in order to kill him and would be a logical extension of his personality.
A character who prefers to resolve conflict through brute force has several options. If he is aggressive, the axe or hammer would be ideal. If he is more defensive in nature, a sword and shield would compliment him well.
This is only a highly generalized set of examples. Still, I hope it helps illustrate the concept of matching personality with weapon.
5) How does the writer learn about weapons?
Look through the shelves of any bookstore and you’ll find books about the histories of weapons. These are great resources since you don’t have to know what you are looking for to find something interesting. Just look through the pages and you will see many varieties of weapons. Once you see them, it will be easier to picture what it would look like with your character.
Once you have found certain weapons you like, you can search the web for techniques. Pay close attention to who is writing what you read. There are many groups out there that think they know how to use the weapons but they rarely have any real knowledge.
I’ll come up with a list of resources and provide those later.
6) Does the writer need to take fencing lessons in order to write fight scenes?
Definitely not. In fact, taking any one martial art has the capacity to induce myopia. Basically, you learn the one way of doing something and now you can’t picture the other possibilities. Though I am an experienced fencer, I am also a military historian with a special interest in the battlefield tactics employed and the progression of weapon and armor design. You are better off reading about it than doing it if your goal is simply to write better fight scenes.
Having said that, the one thing you just cannot imagine is what it feels like to face an opponent at arms length knowing that any mistake will cost you. The emotions can be described but I would argue that they are harder to convey effectively unless you have experienced them yourself.
7) You had said to me that one doesn’t need to use Japanese fighting. What other martial arts are there?
First, you must understand what a ‘martial art’ is. Our Western mindset is molded by the fact that war and combat has never been widely written about as an art. The term became widely used as we learned more about the oriental fighting styles after World War II. What makes this worse is that the use of swords in combat in the west ended in the 1800’s whereas the Japanese were using swords during WW II. They weren’t decorative. Their officers were trained to use them. That knowledge remains whereas the art of the western swords has largely been lost.
Hollywood then became our teacher on how swords were used. Japanese films depicted their weapon use more accurately because the knowledge had not been lost. Unfortunately, Hollywood had no experts to call on until recently. They followed the more theatrical approach to swordplay. The result is that we rarely see how formidable a medieval swordsman was but can easily find oriental examples of sword use. Thus was born our misconceptions
The fact is that any form of combat, armed or unarmed, that is based on a philosophy or theory that governs how the individual should fight is a martial art. A martial art teaches you how to employ your chosen weapon against various opponents, styles and even other weapons. You learn the strengths and weaknesses of your weapon and style. Then you learn to cover those weaknesses and enhance the strengths. This is what makes it an art.
A simple answer to your second question is fencing, savate, boxing and wrestling. However, this is still too narrow a view of martial arts. The fact is every soldier in history that is part of an organized standing army learns a martial art. Learning how to employ your weapons to remain alive and defeat your opponent requires an understanding of a great deal more than just how to swing, punch or stab.
Jousting is a martial art requiring finesse as well as strength and horsemanship. Knife fighting is a particularly aggressive form of combat requiring a great deal of dexterity and speed. Using a bow effectively, on foot or horseback, is impossible without proper training. The use of a sword is much more complex because there are so many different sword designs and each is designed for a particular use. Using a rapier like you would a bastard sword renders you completely ineffective against almost any opponent. Learning to use any particular sword effectively is an art.
Once you understand this, a wealth of colorful possibilities open up to you when you decide to include a fight scene, especially in the fantasy genre.
8 ) What is the best way to write a fight scene?
Picture it in your mind. Start with picturing the characters’ personalities and then picture what you want to happen in the fight. Finally, picture where you want the fight to occur and then ‘choreograph’ it
One other aspect that is critical to writing a fight scene is clearly describing the action in enough detail that the reader can ‘feel’ the character’s experience. Consider writing the scene in a way that the reader can picture what it would be like to be in the character’s shoes.
9) Where does the writer get his fighting info from?
I love this question. This one has no simple answer. The information you seek is actually all around you. In order to write a good fight scene, you must both understand the nature of combat and you must expose yourself to all of the possibilities of combat so that you can picture a believable fight in your mind.
Let’s start with the obvious. Watch movies with dynamic fight scenes. Don’t worry about whether they are realistic or not, that will come with experience and learning. Notice all of the different weapons employed. Notice all of the different ways one can be injured or killed. Notice how moments of suspense are choreographed in. The more you notice, the more fertile your imagination will be.
Next, let’s move to reading other writers’ fight scenes. See if you can picture the scenes better now that you’ve watched so many in movies. Now you can start to see whether a writer is describing the scene with enough detail for you to understand what is happening. You can also determine if the writer has choreographed a dynamic or suspenseful fight or just ‘walked you through it’. Obviously, we want to paint the picture for the reader so you can learn form what other writers did or did not do.
OK. Now we have seen and read many fights. Now we have to learn a bit about what is believable in order that we don’t ask our readers to suspend their disbelief too far. To do this, find documentaries on how these weapons were used. One program in particular, I think by the History Channel, was “Conquest”. It was hosted by Peter Woodward and each episode showcased a particular weapon or set of weapons and how they were employed. You will find no better resource short of studying that art yourself. Examples include, the sword, the axe, the spear, bows, knives. Roman weapons, etc. and each was an hour episode covering that single subject
Watching these documentaries will help you learn what is realistic and what is pure Hollywood. This will help you write believable fights. To illustrate the difference between Hollywood and realistic, compare an Errol Flynn swashbuckling movie to something like The Princess Bride, where Errol used large arm and leg movements, the Wesley and Inigo characters kept the movements small and deliberate.
Let’s take it to the next level. Combat is, by definition, a fight for survival. Watch nature programs where animals fight. Notice how they try to psyche the opponent out, how they try to keep the high ground, how they discourage an attack. Notice how two different animals fight. A classic is the cobra and the mongoose. This fight is to the death and the mongoose, the predator, does not always win. Notice how he maneuvers around the cobra. Notice how the cobra always faces the threat.
All of these basic concepts apply to human combat with and without weapons. You just need to be able to notice it. Then start thinking of what they are teaching you.
10) What movies can I watch to get fighting ideas?
There are several movies I would highly recommend. “The Princess Bride” includes a very good fencing scene between Inigo Montoya and Wesley. It is so well executed that you cannot tell they are fencing with their off hand to begin with. During the fight, they are discussing the application of the theories of several of the great masters. Up to the point where Inigo begins using both hands on his rapier, it is a very good example of how you employ a rapier in combat.
A second movie is “The Three Musketeers” (1993), starring Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Oliver Platt. In this movie, all weapons are used properly but the fighting includes tactics that employ the character’s surroundings. This is a very important factor as a good fight scene is dynamic, adapting itself to the setting where it takes place. Also, each Musketeer has his own style of fighting that ties closely with his personality.
“Gladiator” (2000) provides a great deal of perspective on how soldiers fight, Roman or Gallic, and showcases many weapon possibilities in the gladiatorial games. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy also provides a wealth of fight scenes both in the context of a larger battle and in individual combat.
“First Knight” also provides a great deal of variety in its fight scenes. Though a bit on the theatrical side, it still has a very real feel through most of the fights.
11) I remember you had written out a summary of non-fighting men. How would you go about creating a fighting scene for say a scoundrel or a thief?
By non-fighting men, I was referring to those who are not trained for warfare. In general, a warrior’s style is influenced more by his training than by his personality. The personality basically influences how he uses his training. Non-warriors, such as thieves, pirates and swashbucklers, on the other hand, are much more influenced by their personality than their training. There can be exceptions, such as the members of an organized assassin’s guild specializing is certain methods. However, it is more important to understand your non-warrior very well in order to make the character’s fight scenes believable.
Therefore, in order to write a convincing fight scene, you really must understand how your character deals with conflict. Then, just as for any other character, picture it. How is he attacked? How would he handle the stress? In most cases, a fight scene would end with either the character escaping after tricking or hampering the attackers or use something in his environment to deal with them. The falling chandelier or thrown oil lamp can do wonders in taking down the attacker.
12) Some writers think it would only take a child 4 or 5 years of day-to-day training to get to a high level of swordsmanship. What is your opinion of this and how long does it take and what is the course of action they would take?
This is an important question. There are two facts that must be clearly understood if you are going to develop believable characters when it comes to fighting. I’ve read authors with these “wonder students” and their books proved very unsatisfying to me. The first fact is that unless you are using a dagger, every other weapon requires strength to wield effectively for any period of time. Remember that fights may last several minutes but battles last several hours and if you are going to survive, you must be strong. Historically, the only reason weapon use is learned is for battle. A child will not have the required strength until he reaches 17 or 18.
Couple this with the second fact, learning a weapon takes a very long time. Anyone can learn to swing a sword or axe in a couple of hours. However, using a weapon is not a matter of “swinging” as most weapons were designed to attack with a slash, chop and thrust. Add to that that there might be multiple parts of the weapon that could be used for attack. It is also a matter of the brain recognizing a threat, deciding from all of the possible counters, signaling the muscles to move the weapon, then actually moving the weapon while being ready to recognize the opponent’s evasion of your chosen move and repeating the whole process again. This takes many years to master. As Aldo Nadi said, “there are no ‘born fencers’. Olympic fencers, as a modern example start before the age of 10 and are in their 20’s or 30’s before they actually make it to the Olympics.
Let’s put this in perspective. A child studying the art of the sword spends 10 or more years learning it before having the opportunity to face an opponent that is not a fellow student. Then it is to the death. All of the lessons that can only be learned from constant real combat come slowly since you cannot completely simulate a real combat. That is why the Europeans held tournaments. This provided a facsimile of real combat with less chance of death.
If a modern fencer had to go through the same style of learning, most would be dead long before their mid 20’s because the older warriors are more skilled due to their greater experience. This is one fact “The Three Musketeers” got right when D’Artagnan is bested by Rochefort near the end of the movie. It was only the luck that Constance was there to hand him a sword. There is no expertise without experience and when it comes to a martial art, that experience is very expensive, often costing the student’s life.
Writing a believable fight outcome where an expert antagonist faces the less experienced protagonist requires this understanding. The protagonist would not succeed in a straight fight, some other source of victory must be found.
As for the training regimen followed, that would vary by culture but would not be simply practicing 12 hours a day 7 days a week. Learning a martial art is very intellectually intensive and lessons should not last more than an hour. There is a great deal to learn in a lesson and it takes a long time to become proficient in what the lesson taught both physically and mentally. The goal it to make the weapon’s use instinctive and that can only come with a great deal of time.
Learning would also encompass studying history to understand the reasons behind the success or failure of others. Physical conditioning builds both strength and endurance. Endurance is built by continuous activity of varying intensities. Therefore, building that endurance was built by manual labor, usually the heavier chores like chopping wood or pitching hay.
13) Any other stuff that I forgot? Feel free to add anything else you want.
I hesitate adding anything as it was hard enough sticking to the questions you posed. I kept trying to go much deeper and explain things more completely. You’ve convinced me that I should compile a book of sorts to make this information available.
Pretty cool, huh? This guy taught me how to write impressive sword scenes. Actually, this is just a sample of what he knows. Feel free to link this article to your blog, but please give Darrin the credit. If you have any questions for Darrin, then please post them and I’ll forward them to him. I will probably bring him back to give us more sword teachings. Thanks.