Today I saw a terrific post on writing swordfights over at Book Wars (“unadulterated fangirling of children’s books, authors, and bookstores”). It made me recall the two semesters I took fencing in college and the aching, burning thigh muscles that came with learning to duel for twenty minutes or more in classic form–which means legs bent in a semi-crouch, never standing up straight, even at rest. The pose gives the fencer tremendous speed and reach, along with agility, and flexibility. But sometimes it was hard to walk afterward.
I’m recommending this post for anyone who writes fantasy, historical adventure, gritty urban gang stories or even middle school playground battles. In short, for anyone who needs to write a powerful fight scene. Why?
Three dimensions and three levels of reader engagement
The blog from Janet was about three authors who learned how to fight with swords (and wooden spoons) so they could write realistic swordfight scenes. They discovered that visceral feel, all the way up the arm, of two blades impacting each other; how quickly a swordfight, and a life, can end; and how the intent of each antagonist can impact his or her ability to win. Good lessons all.
But for me, the most insightful lesson came from Sebastien de Castell, author of The Greatcoats fantasy series. His advice, to more fully involve the reader, is to use three different scales or levels of action in each fight:
- The very large view (“They fought like dragons…”)
- The middle view (“Chris threw a roundhouse punch at my face”)
- The micro view (“The first thing I saw were the hairs on his knuckles as…”)
De Castell recommends writing on all three scales. For instance, you might begin at micro (up close and personal), move to medium (pure mechanics), then to large (win/lose), and end with micro for an intensely personal effect on both the fight participant and the reader.
Don’t forget INTENT as a factor
One of the other sword students was Kris Sayer who is writing and posting a serial fantasy comic, Tatterhood. Since she is both describing and illustrating each scene, she also considers the intent of the people her protagonist faces, and how that affects the way they fight. (BTW, Kris is the one whose character fights with a wooden spoon.)
Example: A furious antagonist seeking ultimate vengeance confronts a confused pacifist who is only trying to avoid being killed. The intent of each can influence everything about their duel: its duration, intensity and outcome, as well as the individual moves each makes to achieve the two different goals.
And fatigue, too
Remember adrenaline can only take a body so far. Eventually, the stress of an extended fight scene will take its toll on muscles and mental sharpness.
One last piece of advice: Practice acting out a relatively unimportant scene as both participants, letting each character’s intent drive your decisions to act and react. Do it over and over until you’re too tired to hold that sword (or wooden spoon). Then, when you’re at your lowest, try for the final climactic scene, the one that takes everything your character’s got and demands even more.