Writing Research: Sword Fights

Posted: March 9, 2012 in How-To, Writing
Tags: , , , ,

I enjoy fight scenes in movies, whether it is some gun-fu or a long martial arts battle or an awesome sword fight, which got me to thinking about how well I can pull off writing one of these scenes for a story. I would love to write a really cool sword fight, for instance, but I a) have never held a sword much less fought with one, and b) am not really familiar with sword terminology. Of course, as writers, we make stuff up all the time, but it is nice to at least sound like we know what we are talking about. So I turned to my pal Google for some help on the subject, and here is a round-up of what I found.

Martin Turner of martinturner.org.uk had two interesting posts, the first about the difficulties of writing a sword fight and how other writers have handled them, and the second a more hands-on how-to. The difficulties of writing a sword fight, per Mr. Turner, are that fights take much less time to occur than they do to describe, most readers don’t know the vocabulary of sword-fighting (so at least they’re in the same boat as I am), the fights are repetitive, and there must be real danger for the characters involved for the fight to be believable. Mr. Turner is a fencer, and in his second post he explains a lot of fencing terminology, but I like that he does not recommend using it. Instead he focuses on what can make a fight interesting to read, such as accidents and reversals, cheating, and crowd interactions. He also discusses the conditions that can lead to a fighter winning and losing. All in all, this is a great article with many inspirational tips.

This interview with R.A. Salvatore also has some helpful tips. He says that fight scenes are about the dance between the characters and also having an interesting environment for them to fight in. Like many others, he references the Inigo Montoya/Man in Black sword fight from The Princess Bride as an inspiration. His final piece of advice in the interview is “And most of all, make sure that the first fatality in any fight scene is the verb ‘to be.’ If you’re using ‘was’ and ‘were’ and ‘had been,’ well, the first fatality will be your reader’s interest.” Duly noted!

Over on kimkouski.com, I found an interview with Darrin Zielinski titled “How to Write Sword Fighting Scenes.” I liked his ideas about how weapon types can be used to define a character. (Mr. Salvatore also discusses his different characters and matching their weapons and fighting styles to the characters. I liked his description of the dwarf with spiked armor who charges into battle head-first: “How can you not love a furious dwarf hopping around with a dead goblin flopping around dead on his helmet spike?”)

I found this list of the parts of a sword and types of swords at the My Literary Quest blog. While I might not go into detail on all this in a story, it is handy to know and a nice, quick reference.

Now I want to write a cool sword fight scene more than ever, and I got some great ideas from these sites. I hope this post points one or two other people toward some helpful advice as well, and if you want to recommend any other sites or books, feel free!

  1. Rika Ashton says:

    This is super helpful! I was doing some research for one of my scenes when I came across your blog. Thanks for the info! ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. Rika Ashton says:

    Reblogged this on Rika's Musings and commented:
    The internet does care! I was researching sword fighting techniques, and unashamedly watching Brad Pitt and Eric Bana duke it out in Troy, when I came across this article. It features some great tips for writers for what to do and what not to do when writing sword fight scenes – especially, if like me, you’ve never actually been in one.

  3. Cate Russell-Cole says:

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    This is one of the benefits of occasionally doing a WordPress tag search: you find posts like this that make you go “wow.” I never knew that sword fighting was this complex… ok, I have never tried it. This post is one my Fantasy Writing pals will love. Thanks very much Lithicbee for getting my thinking outside it’s narrow confines! Great post.

  4. alanaewoods says:

    Dorothy Dunnett’s historical Lymond series contains beautifully atmospheric sword fights. In fact, the books are beautifully atmospheric from go to whoa.

  5. A Bryant says:

    Just to point out (having already made a post about this) sword fighting is NOT the same as fencing!
    The skills and tactics are so different and the weapons serve a different purpose.
    A foil is a thin stabbing weapon and would never survive a beating from a Katana or broadsword how ever it is a far faster blade to use.
    For research that is still valid look into the DVD Reclaiming the blade (section on youtube on the channel of the same name)
    Old Swordplay techniques by Alfred Hutton and Swords and swordsman by Mike Lodes.
    Having written 16 in one go (a tournament of such) variation is the hardest this to add.

    BTW the princess bride fight is one of the greatest if abit of a joke towards the old masters (the moves they quote)

  6. hesthermay says:

    I enjoy reading fight scenes way more than I enjoy watching them. Well, actually, sword fights are pretty cool to watch… But generally, I love reading action so it’s especially cool when it is well-written. In my opinion, it is difficult to write a fight scene.
    Nice post!

  7. Interesting and helpful piece. I particularly like that point from Salvatore, and will be following some of the other links next time I write a fight scene. Thanks!

  8. Reblogged this on Andrew Knighton writes and commented:
    Sword fights are a big feature of fantasy stories, so I doubt I’ll be the only one to find this interesting post useful…

  9. paleololigo says:

    Author Christian Cameron writes sword fighting scenes that are enjoyed deeply by practitioners of the Historical European Martial Arts. He himself is really darn good with a longsword. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read any of his books. But I will… exentually.

    I do know, from my own studies of fencing and the longsword, is that (nearly) everything you’ve seen in movies is wrong, and yes, the fights are generally over decisively very quickly. I’ve tried to write sword fighting scenes myself and it’s really hard to convey how quickly things happen.

    I enjoyed this post. Thanks!

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