Writing Realistic Sword Fights

By Daeus Lamb

Sword fights are common elements in literature and drama. Everyone wants to include them because they rouse the audience to mountainous heights of tension. What if you have no idea how sword fighting works, though? Even worse, what if you deceive yourself into thinking that you do? Come on, you’ve seen The Princess Bride. Isn’t that what sword fighting looks like? Not even close.

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I am not a “master of defense” by any means, but I do know enough to speak with authority on this issue. I was a fencer for about 2 ½ years; I have read books on traditional swordsmanship focusing on medieval and renaissance eras, and have had some practice in them; I even did a thesis paper on what it would have been like to see a sword fight on an Elizabethan stage, including a live demonstration.

If you are considering including a sword fight in your novel but are worried about accuracy, have no fear. I have written this article to give you the basic foundation you need to write such scenes with confidence.

Coming to grasps with the basics

 

Sword types:

If we think of swords like we do animals, there are tens of thousands of species, numerous families, but only three kingdoms. To begin writing sword fights, it is only necessary to have a firm understanding of the three kingdoms and a basic idea of the sword family you will be writing about. The three kingdoms are: (to use my own terminology) hack and slash, thrust and slice, and transitional or multipurpose.

Hack and slash swords are the ones you normally think of, and include cavalry swords, two handed swords like the claymore or renaissance two hander, cutlasses, and numerous others. They are used according to their name. All or almost all strikes are made with the blade as opposed to the point. These swords are swung in an arc, rarely shot forward in a straight line.

Thrust and slice swords are comprised of a smaller group. To my knowledge, the only swords in this category are rapiers and small swords. These swords are thinner than hack and slash swords, but often just as long. These swords are held with one hand only, and are held out in front of the swordsman instead of to the side. Most attacks with thrust and slice swords are made with the point by stabbing the opponent. Often though, swordsmen would slice their opponent by drawing the blade across the opponent’s skin. Thrust and slice swords are the best swords for duels, self-defense, or even a small skirmish, but are not suitable for battles.

Transitional or multipurpose swords are basically a compromise between the other two types. They can be used to hack or stab but are not specialized for either. These swords were often just early attempts to create a thrust and slice sword.

Sword chronology:

Suppose you really like the rapier and you are writing a fight scene in ancient Israel. Could you fit the two together? No; rapiers did not exist until about the 16th century. Here is a brief timeline of sword development to help you pick era-appropriate sword types.

  • The fall: The first sword is mentioned.
  • Ancient times – middle ages: Slashing swords were the most common. Some swords were designed to deliver a deadly thrust, but none were fine tuned for thrusting.
  • 1500s: Thrusting weapons began to receive special attention and fine tuning, but were still in the early stages of development. Transitional swords were common.
  • 1600s – 1800s: The use of hack and slash swords declined as thrusting and multipurpose swords took their place.

 

Commons Myths

 

Secret moves and silver bullets:

To summarize it, they do not exist. You may have read in some book about a swordsman having a secret move which only him and a few other select men knew how to do. This is merely fictitious. There are certainly tricky moves which may be rarely used or assemblies of common moves which are especially cherished by certain swordsmen, but there is no such thing as a secret move that only a small group knows about.

If an author claims his character had a secret move, which cannot be defended against and is sure to kill the opponent every time it is used, it can sound convincing, but there are only a limited number of basic moves you can do with a sword, and they are well known. The reality is, there are no silver bullets to sword fighting. It is like a game of chess. You win through strategy, not simple 1-2-3-and-you-win processes.

Dramatic pauses:

In movies or plays, there is often a point in a sword fight where the two combatants have their swords crossed and are grabbing each other’s wrists while exchanging angry glares. This lasts about two seconds, and then the combatants withdraw and continue fighting. In real life, this never happens. When two swordsmen find themselves almost touching, they will either bring in a fist, or a dagger, or start wielding their sword differently to accommodate for the tight space. There are no pauses. Things keep up at the same lightning speed. Often, a combatant will have the opportunity to withdraw safely, but generally, the one who retreats first gets hit.

Spinning around in a circle before delivering your stroke lends extra strength to your blow and is a good idea:

While I have never conducted a scientific test on it, I personally believe that spinning around in a circle before delivering a blow actually reduces its power. Maximum power is obtained by stepping, lunging, or running forward while delivering the blow. Spinning around is also a bad idea since even a novice swordsman could easily stab you in the back before you had time to fully turn around.

Editor’s Note: Light-saber-wielding cats are also widely considered to be a myth, though the jury is still out.

Important facts

 

  • Sword fighting defies the standard learning curve. The untrained novice who picks up a sword actually has a better chance than someone who has been practicing for a couple of months, since his actions are almost always wild and unpredictable. When a student receives training, their chances will actually decline over the next few months, because they will be trying to operate by the rules, but will be very bad at it. You can never master the art of swordsmanship but it will only take about two years, maybe even less, for a natural to become dexterous at it if he has a good teacher. A complete novice could even become dangerously skilled in only a few months if he received some very condensed training, but even so, that is pushing it.
  • A warrior can sustain many wounds without dying. One knight in the battle of Crécy sustained about 100 wounds and still survived. Most fatal wounds are cuts or stabs to organs that contain large amounts of blood, such as the heart or spleen. Wounds to the lungs are fatal because the lungs can fill with blood, drowning the wounded man. Any wound can become fatal if it gets infected. Stabs are harder to heal than cuts.
  • A faint is a false attack intended to elicit a response from the opponent which will create an opening for the real attack.
  • A parry is where a swordsman uses his blade to deflect his opponent’s blade out of the way when he is being struck or thrust at.

 

Getting inside the mind of a swordsman

 

There are four factors that govern a sword fight: timing, distance, reaction time, and reaction ability. Reaction ability is what most people like to focus on. It is the “moves”: doing such and such with your sword. This is only one part of the fight though.

Timing is crucial. If you start your attack after your opponent has started his, you will probably get hit. You may also find an opening in your opponent’s defense, but wait long enough before attacking him that he can recover his defense. You also might try an attack on your opponent that would never work if anyone else did it, but will work for you because you can do it extra fast.

Distance is just as important. You may see your opponent’s blade coming and move to block it in record time, but still get hit just because you were too close. Keeping a safe distance allows you to test your opponent’s reactions without putting yourself in too much danger. For instance, I may stay at a distance from which I can just tap the end of my opponent’s sword with mine. If he reacts suddenly when I tap it, I may move in and try it again, only this time, when he swings his sword to deflect mine, I will drop it under his and attack from the other side. His blade will be too far away to respond in time.

Even if you have good timing and distance, your attack may fail if your opponent has quick reflexes. You may have to move faster, or confuse him, so he doesn’t react properly.

The final element is reaction ability. This is being able to respond to your opponents attacks or mistakes properly. This is where you do your “moves”.

Generally, a swordsman will spend the first half of a fight trying to learn his opponent’s style, and the second half trying to hit him. Some of what I have described here may be a little different if the scene is a large battle, since then you have to act in unison with everyone else in your division, and you probably have limited space.

 

Conclusion

 

I hope this will help anyone who is writing a sword fight scene to be able to proceed with confidence. If you find that you are still uncomfortable writing a sword fight, there are many guides to traditional sword fighting you may consult, though be warned: many contain gory sketches. I recommend Medieval Swordsmanship and Renaissance Swordsmanship, both by John Clements, as two excellent guides.

As you write your sword scene, remember to ask yourself what it’s purpose is for the overarching story. Is it for character development? Does it resolve a major dilemma in your character’s life? Is it to set the scene for a later event? If you find that your fight scene is just thrown in there and adds nothing to your story except excitement, you may want to consider throwing it out. You should also be cautious not to glorify violence or indulge in gore. If there is violence, it should lead to peace and victory. If there is death, it should lead to reflection. You should never write a fight scene just for the excitement of it.

So, what young swashbuckler will inhabit your story next?

Profile photo of Daeus
Daeus is the happy lunatic behind a novel and novella, with plans to expand that repository as infinitely as possible. Among his oddities are the inability to stick to any single genre, his uncompromising and fanatical insistence that The Count Of Monte Cristo is the best novel ever, and his difficulty in coming up with a third thing to say here.

Perhaps the most addicted person to the Kingdom Pen forum ever to exist, you can always catch him commenting over there. When not writing, Daeus enjoys thinking about writing, talking about writing, and reading.

If you would like to sample his work, you can get a free copy of his novella, Treachery Against The House Of Fairwin at the link below.

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Comments

  1. Wow, light saber wielding cats! I’d take one of those any day.

    If you have any questions on sword fighting or stuff of that sort, just give me a holler on the thread “sword fighting” on the KP forum.

  2. Can I frame this and put it on my wall…
    Thank you, Daeus. A lot of details, a lot of good technical advice, a lot of common sense stuff that I find isn’t as common as I always thought.
    One quick question— you mentioned dramatic pauses are unrealistic. Okay… but for drama and suspense? No one (at least not me) wants to read a scene of nonstop action and no tension or emotional drama. Taking a moment off for a glare or a cutting insult can really step up the quality of your stuff. Just like two characters talking to each other isn’t really realistic in a fight scene, but adds so much and really connects you with both characters instead of just the one whose POV is being followed in this particular scene. You can tell that way what both characters are going through. Like if one starts getting really cutting and personal and unreasonable on the insults, you can bet he’s getting really uncomfortable with how the fight is going. And if both characters spend a few moments before the fight or in between engagements telling each other why he is going to win and why the other one is going to lose the reader gets to see both sides and really gets worried about who is going to win, even though technically it’s not realistic. Just an observation…
    Hey… you like frozen raspberries too? I don’t often eat them frozen (unless someone forgot to get the jam out of the freezer in time for it to thaw) but raspberries are probably my favorite berry. 😀

  3. Oh, and all the GIF’s were great too… especially the cat one. Lovely.

  4. Frozen tastes better in my opinion. I’m also addicted to pace salsa.

    What I was talking about was the dramatic clutch. this is when the two combatants are close enough to each other to punch and their swords and whatever other weapons they have are crossed (usually above their heads). My point was not that the combatants should not be glaring at each other or speaking to each other. It was that they should not be in the dramatic clutch. The reason is that it is just too dangerous. If your opponent has any sense, he will attack you while you are paused and doing nothing but trying to psychologically intimidate him. Things are different though in different situations. I was just talking about the dramatic clutch. If you are at a safe distance you may stand there and practice psychologically intimidation. You can also yell back and forth while you are actively fighting. When I fenced, my opponent and I would generally exchange a word or two, but we never really carried on a conversation. Fencing of course though is different from a duel or battle. In those you are fighting for your life and you may be wounded or otherwise irritated. I have no doubt that cutting remarks were often a part of duels and such. I should also mention that yelling, hollering, screaming, etc is certainly comparable with fighting. It has even been proven that it helps you fight better (though I can’t remember how.)

  5. Okay. Gotcha. That makes perfect sense.

  6. Sarah Spradlin says:

    I’m book marking this. Awesome, awesome job, Daeus! For real. This is rockstar. 😀

  7. I’ve read (and own) that Medieval Swordmanship book…a great resource though I wish he’d write another book on a mix of weapons (spears, daggers, axes, etc.).

    Oh, and great article too. 🙂 That’s really interesting about a novice being more dangerous than someone who’s trained for a few months. I might have to use that sometime…

  8. Don’t have a sword fight in my present WIP, but I’m working on a fantasy epic so this is gonna be a great help. Thanks so much @Daeus! You da man!

  9. Amazingly wonderful article! You obviously are very knowledgeable when it comes to swords and the use of them. Oh, and I sat here chuckling to/at myself because The Princess Bride is exactly what I thought of when I saw this article. 🙂
    Like Hope said, I found it really interesting what you said about novices vs. mildly skilled learners. I’ll have to keep that one in mind…
    Also, I agree that the GIFs might be something that need to make a regular appearance.
    Bravo, Daeus! This makes me want to go write a sword-fight scene. And I have never seriously desired to do that before. 🙂
    ~Abby
    P.S. I found it berry amusing that eating frozen raspberries made it to your favorite things to do list. 🙂

  10. Thank you very much for this article! I have a hard time writing sword fighting scenes, and any fighting scenes actually. So this was very helpful! Some of those fantasy authors out there need to read this post…….
    I will definitely use the advice in the novel I am working on.

  11. I liked this a lot!
    I have researched sword fights and this helps me see that, yes, had good places.
    thanks!

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  1. […] can go a long way, and luckily, there are some good resources available online about weapons: Writing realistic sword fights A couple misconceptions about bladed weapons An interview with a sword fighter who is also a writer […]

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