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Writing Believable Sword Fights: J.R.Tomlin

In this article author J.R.Tomlin of A Kingdom’s Cost explains about particular aspects of writing historical fiction.

Writing believable sword fights

One of the things that annoys me is when writers assume that the bigger the sword the more effective it is. This simply isn’t true and a writer concerned about realistically portraying sword fights should realize this. Swords are for cutting (and less often for thrusting) not for crushing so weight is meaningless. A heavy claymore or bastard sword is more likely to merely tire the user and isn’t more necessarily more effective. In sword fighting, agility and maneuverability count.

Smaller, lighter swords are generally more maneuverable. However, a very light weapon (epee type) are so light that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to parry a heavy weapon with one. It would give way under the pressure.

Smart sword fighters don’t jump into the air. It may sound cool, but it would get the fighter killed. The fighter can’t change directions mid-air and doesn’t have any way to maintain their balance. A sword fighter’s feet belong on the ground in a sword fight.

All parts of the sword are a weapon, including the hilt; so are insults or a face full of sand. Especially with a larger opponent, legs are great targets. A fighter can win simply by letting an opponent bleed out after a leg slash. Eye-witness accounts indicate this was a frequently used technique.

sword fighter should be closely aware of their opponent. An opponent’s hands and shoulders often tense momentarily when they are about to strike, for instance. They may glance the direction their going to move. A fighter needs to also be aware of their surroundings. Sending an opponent backwards over an obstacle is always a good thing.

Last, but not least, a fight to the death takes tremendous energy. A good fighter doesn’t waste it on fancy maneuvers that may look cool but don’t damage their opponent.

On writing about sword fights a few well-known sword fighting terms are good to use, I think, but I’d suggest not going over-board. There are extensive terms for the Italian and German schools of fighting and somewhat fewer for English, but they would merely confuse the reader. However, block, dodge, parry, and riposte are terms that are familiar and give a picture of the action to the reader.

A fight to the death is serious business. While the Wesley vs. Inigo Montoya sword fight in the Princess Bride was hilarious, it was a great example of how to write one that surely no one believes or takes seriously. I could mention others that were meant to be taken seriously but don’t want to offend the fans of some good writers whose sword fights make me cringe.

You don’t have to be an expert to write good sword fights. I do think it helps, though, if you get an accurate reproduction and try it out at least, even if you don’t have the time or desire to be in a club. If you take some of this into consideration, your sword fight scenes will have a lot more believability.


 

5 replies »

  1. Phew – my first response to this was – blood lust, I don’t come across un-ashamed blood-lust very often these days – but, there again, that’s the life I choose to live.
    It is very strange, to me, to read this – a balanced, clear discussion of how best to ……damage people with a sword – or, how to describe doing so.
    I can see learning to sword-fight as a discipline, but reading of someone weighing up the pros and cons of different ways to ……cut someone, including cutting them on the leg, and letting them bleed to death, makes me wince a bit .
    A different world. It could be said, that this is another aspect to The Orkney News – I would simply have never come across a piece of writing like this, and yet it’s making me think about the fact that there are these genres of writing, that people do still want to read of these things, that people, being human, do still have blood-lust and maybe don’t have an outlet for it in these times, and so, maybe they take it out on those around them in stranger ways? Maybe. Maybe I think too much.

    I’m reminded of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when the man does all the fancy sword-play, then Indie ……shoots him. And I did think that was funny.
    I am small, and female, and was taught by a friend, to fight dirty, if needed – he told me not to try to kick them in the balls and run, as that would leave me off-balance, but to punch them in the balls instead – then run. As Mr Tomlin says – you need to keep your feet on the ground, if possible.
    Funny old world – just because I don’t take part in these other worlds going on around me, doesn’t mean I should not be prepared to see that they are there, and have I any right to be judgmental about them?

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  2. My novels make some people wince. I don’t pretty up the violence. But I hope that telling the truth of it instead of a sanitised version helps do away with the glamorisation it so often receives. There was nothing ‘glamorous’ about it. There is nothing glamorous about the modern versions. Nothing at all.

    Perhaps I should mention that I am a life-long ‘peacenik’. 😜

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  3. Actually my feeling about is rather the opposite of blood lust. To do away with the widespread glamorisation of war and violence, it has to be looked at in its brutality. There was nothing glamorous about war then. There isn’t now. But you are not the first to wince at my rather un-prettied description of battles and fighting. I certainly understand the reaction.

    Perhaps I should add that I am a lifelong peace advocate. 😋

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  4. Thank you for responding so reasonably and for explaining how you see things, more clearly.
    Yes, too many were and are fooled into thinking that war, and fighting in general, is a glamourous game. I just find it bit hard to imagine wanting to read about people chopping people up! That’s just me. Many a good documentary, has been spoiled and become un-watchable for me, because of a recent trend to repeatedly cut from the dialogue to scenes of …people chopping each other up. We know they did so – the presenter is telling us so – we don’t need graphic ‘reconstructions’ to show us what a bit of imagination can easily provide, if wanted. They could give the viewer some credit for an ability to provide their own interpretation of the information they are being presented with. I do believe that these graphic scenes, are prurient and appealing to the worst in people.
    I won’t even start on the mess the film makers made of the Lord of The Rings – the big battle went onandonandonandon. Battles did, go onandonandonandon – but………I have no interest in watching them do so!
    Anyway, thank you Mr Tomlin – it’s better to know your motives for writing of these things, and to know that those motives are positive.
    Peace!
    Dulce et Decorum Est
    By Wilfred Owen
    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
    Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    I If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    I If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

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    • As you say, we all have our own tastes in how things should be presented. It would be a boring old world if everyone’s taste was the same.

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