How to write a sword-fight, part 2

Judging by the number of hits on this website, there is an appetite among writers to write sword-fights. The last article was about the best sword-fights in books that already exist. But what people are (I think) looking for is how to write the next great sword fight.

So here are some thoughts. 1

Describing the cut and thrust

The actual vocabulary of sword fights is kind of tricky. Not tricky for the writer, as you can mug up on the words in an afternoon. It’s tricky for the readers, unless they are fencers or medieval-re-enactors. Just by way of illustration, here are the basics of modern fencing — not that you should be looking to use any of this stuff.

  • The fencers come en garde — most people know this term from films. Actually, before they come en garde they salute each other. Watch carefully in the film The Fellowship of the Ring and you’ll see Aragorn salute before he fights.
  • One fencer attacks. The other fencer parries — this is a word most people know, but it doesn’t have the staccato impact on most readers that it does on fencers. If the parry is successful, they will try to riposte — again, riposte is a word that most people know, but it doesn’t have immediacy for most people.
  • As an alternative to the parry, the other fencer may try for a stop-hit, where they extend the arm and hope to hit the attacker without being hit. This is risky — in fencing if both fencers hit, only the original attacker scores a point 2. In a real sword fight, they would be dead.
  • There are nine guards the fencer can take: prime, seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte, septime, octave and neuvieme. Neuvieme isn’t a traditional guard. All the parries end in a guard. Most fencers come en garde in sixte. When you’re in a guard, the blade can’t hit you on that side.
  • The basic parry which you always see in films is the lateral parry, where you block the blade by going from sixte (for example) on the right to quarte on the left (unless you’re a left hander, in which case it’s reversed).
  • A disengage attack twists around a lateral parry, scoring a hit. Or a kill, in a fight to the death.
  • You can also do a semi-circular parry, going from sixte to octave (high to low) or quarte to septime (high to low on the other side), or a circular parry, where you go round the blade and end up where you started, but with the attacker’s blade outside the guard. A circular parry defeats a disengage attack, but if the attacker goes round the other way, creating a counter-disengage, that will clear the circular parry, enabling the hit.
  • Although the blade work (above) is important, it’s the footwork which really counts in modern fencing. The basics are step forward, step back, and lunge. A lunge doesn’t sound like much on paper, but it’s an incredibly athletic attack, where a fencer goes from the compact en garde position to the fullest possible extension of their body in a fraction of a second. Most attacks end in a lunge.
  • As well as steps and lunges, you can balestra (between a step and a jump), jump, appel (tap your foot — not done very often these days), half-step, or flêche. Flêche is French for arrow. The fencer flies through the air in the form of an arrow. The flêche is now forbidden in sabre fencing.
  • When I said it’s all about footwork, it’s really all about timing. If you hurtle down the piste at maximum speed, your opponent will pick you off very easily. An accelerating attack is more likely to succeed. Great fencers constantly mix up the timing, at times seeming almost to hover (but not like in Chinese films).
  • Of course, when I said it was all about timing, beyond that there is tactics. Breaking up the timing is a key tactic, but there are others. Varying the parries, varying the attacks, creating a characteristic action which fools the other fencer into thinking you’re doing something, and then doing something else.
  • Finally, although this doesn’t get taught as much, the fourth T (after Technique, Timing and Tactics) is Temperament. The emotional stress of fencing is enormous, especially on younger fencers. I’ve seen fencers in tears at the end of a fight, I’ve seen (and exploited) fencers becoming increasingly clumsy as they become angrier. I recently won a competition semi-final by reversing the psychological games of another fencer — to the applause of onlookers, most of whom had found themselves on the wrong end of those tactics at one time or another.

Are you still with me? Your readers probably won’t be. The staccato, sudden, surprising world of fencing is not captured in those terms. The first time someone does a disengage attack through your parry, and their blade seems to melt into thin air and then reappear… the thrill of finding the opponent’s blade at the end of a blistering attack and making the riposte so fast that neither you, nor the other fencer, nor the referee sees it happen until the scoring light comes on… the utter exhaustion of losing 15-14 in the final.

If you want to capture this, then you need to use non-fencing terminology to somehow capture the fight.

Accidents and reversals

The essence of plotting, according to Aristotle, is accidents and reversals. This is more fruitful territory for the writer. First off, what can go wrong in a sword fight? If it’s a fight to the death, losing is certainly a pretty serious thing going wrong, but it’s also rather final. Think about the components for a moment. To have a sword fight, you need two fighters, two swords, and some ground for them to fight on. They may have shields and armour, though that tends to slow the action down. Think about the swords for a moment. What are they like? If you’ve seen swords in a museum, or at a re-enactment, your main impression may be of the hardness, strength and weight. Perhaps you’ve seen cavalry sabres. You may be surprised to know that they bend right round when pressed against a hard object. Even huge medieval swords flex during a fight. You may have seen the sword the Green Destiny in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. When the hero draws it, it seems to shake and shimmer.

Not only do swords flex, but the blades also break. More exactly, all blades break in the end, if they are kept in use for long enough. A truly great blade will bend many times before it finally does break. Poorer blades bend, and don’t go back to their original shape. One Icelandic saga turns on the story of a warrior whose blade keeps bending and staying bent, so he has to keep stopping fighting to straighten it. Eventually the blade does break, and he replaces it. The denouement is when he is surrounded by his enemies who attack him, believing that he will not be able to sustain the fight. But the new blade needs no straightening, and he defeats them easily.

When a blade does break, it flicks back with many times the speed of the blow. Also, a newly broken blade will be far sharper at the break point than any ordinary blade, no matter how well sharpened. Food for thought, there.

Now to the ground. Fencers rely heavily on their footwork, and if the ground is even, or soft, or causes the feet to slip, this can spell disaster. Give thought to what the fencer is wearing. Someone wearing modern fencing shoes in a gym with a rubberised floor will feel entirely different from someone caught on a muddy street with just one shoe on. Consider also the impact of uneven ground. Even on flat ground, fencers can go tumbling. With loose stones, rabbit holes, boulders and bits of furniture (as in the film, though not the book, The Prisoner of Zenda), every kind of accident is possible.

And now to the fencer. I’ve never had to fight, or run, for my life, but I know the exhaustion of fighting your way back up from 11-7 down to 14-14 in a final after a long day of fencing. Having put everything you possibly can in to get there, you can be left with no energy to make the winning hit. Existing injury can play a huge part. I once damaged my sword-arm in practice, and wasn’t able to fence properly for months. But there was a competition which I needed to take part in, or start to lose my UK ranking. I was alright as long as I didn’t parry, but parrying sent shivers of pain running from my elbow to my shoulder. In seven fights I was able to conceal this, doing everything I had to do with footwork alone. Finally I came up against someone who made me parry — and I lost 15-14. I was a BBC extra for Viva Las Blackpoool, when male lead Clive Mantle decided he was going to do his own fencing scene, rather than let the stunt double do it. He was ok for two attacks, and then he popped some cartilage  in his leg, sending him rolling around the floor in agony.

Cheating

Nothing ups the tension like cheating on the part of the opponent or their followers. What kind of cheating can occur? A blade could be poisoned (Hamlet), one of the combatants could be poisoned (The Court Jester) or hypnotised (The Court Jester, again). One fencer could be disguised, so that the other doesn’t recognise him (the Arthurian tale of Balin and Balan). Someone could shoot an arrow, or a dart, or a gun. The crowd could hold one fencer back (I’ve seen the death of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet done this way). One fighter could be wounded or disabled before the fight begins (the climax of Gladiator). Blades can be sabotaged so that they break, or the grip can be damaged so that the balance is wrong. A magical blade could be swapped out for an ordinary blade (as happened to King Arthur with Excalibur). The gods may decree that a blade breaks (as happened to the father of Sigurd the Volsung, when Odin broke the sword Gram).

Crowd interactions

One of the most distressing things for an inexperienced fencer is to know that the whole crowd is against you. They jeer whenever you score a hit, calling to the referee to disallow it. They cheer whenever your opponent scores a hit. So much worse if you were fighting for your life, and the crowd really did hate you, as opposed to merely wanting their man to win. Even in a duel to the death there are judges, umpires, referees or a president. A biased judge ups the ante.

What makes the fencer in danger of losing?

Ian Fleming pointed out that in a thriller, there must always be the possibility that the hero will die. Fencing is not one of those things where you can pit a substantially inferior opponent against a superior opponent and have them win, unless there are other factors at play. No matter how hard an inexperienced fencer wants to win, the better swordsman still wins. I once saw a fight to five hits last just five seconds (I know it was five, because I was the timekeeper). The better fencer step-lunged and delivered a hit for which the other had no answer. Five times in a row. Therefore, you can’t pit your hero against a superior opponent unless there is some ruse, stratagem, or extenuating circumstance. More importantly, if your hero is fighting a weaker opponent, there have to be ways of depriving them of the advantage, if the fight is to be exciting. In my experience, there are five intellectual or emotional states which render even the best fencers weak:

  • Exhaustion
  • Rage
  • Fear
  • Obstinacy
  • Distraction

Exhaustion is not just a physical state, though, as a physical state, like injury or failing equipment, it can explain an unexpected defeat or an unexpectedly close fight. Exhaustion is also a mental and emotional state, where, even though the fencer still has the physical energy, they lose the will to push through and win the fight.

Rage is all too common among inexperienced fencers. Some perceived misjudgement by the referee, banter from the other fencer or the crowd, or simply the knowledge that they are not winning as quickly as they might. On three occasions in competitions I’ve managed to use a fencer’s rage against them (interestingly, twice it was the same person, and the other time it was someone well known for their piste-rage). In each case, I kept them attacking me. The more times I found the blade and hit with the riposte, the angrier they got. The angrier they got, the more violently they attacked me, and the clumsier they were about it. On all three occasions they complained to the referee that I was ‘just standing there’. The referee pointed out (a different person each time) that I was entitled to fence any way I wanted.

I’ve seen top fencers crumble to weak opponents because they lost their nerve. A couple of fluke hits, and someone who is quite innocuous looks very dangerous. I’ve lost my nerve myself in competitions, where I couldn’t seem to find any way of getting hits off the other fencer. Sometimes I’ve actually lost from being ahead because I lost my nerve, when all I needed to do was to hold it until time was called.

Obstinacy is something non-fencers might not reckon with. The natural tendency of every fencer when they do some prized move and it doesn’t work is to try to do the same thing again, but harder and faster. This almost never works: a fencer who has successfully dealt with your attack when they weren’t ready for it will have little difficulty even if you go a bit faster with the second and third times. In the final of one competition, the other fencer flêched at me more than thirty times in a row. Out of that, I took 14 hits (I already had one), he won six hits, and the other ten or so produced no hit.

Finally, emotional or intellectual distraction — other things on their mind — is enough to put any athlete off their game. Many competition fights have been lost because of off-piste quarrels, romance, doubts or fears.

What qualities make the fencer win?

It seems to me that there are five qualities which determine the outcome of most fights:

  1. Skill
  2. Luck
  3. Good judgement
  4. Courage
  5. Determination

A fencer’s skill is achieved by practice and natural talent. No matter what you may have read in fiction, practice has much more to say than natural talent. Skill is in the first three of the four Ts at the beginning (Technique, Timing, Tactics).

Although it does little for the inferior fencer against the superior in a competition, between relatively equal fencers luck has a huge role to play. Glancing hits, a chance stumble, a blade breaking at the crucial moment, the effect of a single bad decision by a judge.

Good judgement is about the fencer’s ability to see the chances and to know whether to take them or not. It’s more than just having fast reactions, and it’s more than learning a set of responses. The split-second judgement to parry, stop-hit, step away, duck or dodge is what distinguishes the able from the successful.

At 9-3 down, with 15 as the match-winner, it takes a lot of courage to fight your way back into the game. Fighting for your life requires even more courage, of a very different sort. In the words of Sting “Those who fear are lost”.

Determination is the flip-side of courage. It’s determination which keeps one fencer practising all night, while others are content to have a couple of fights, chat a bit and go home. It’s determination which sees fencers set off at 5am for long journeys through snow and ice to competitions on the other side of the country. In the fight, it’s determination which sees the determined fencer through to the very last hit, no matter how much the energy has drained from their body.

Making the fight the climax of the story

To make the fight the climax, you have to leave the hero with something to win and something to lose, even beyond their own life. Even duels to the death do not necessarily end in death. What do they get if they win? What does their side lose if they lose? Is it possible to construct an ironic situation in which they believe they must win, but we (the reader) know that they must lose?

You also have to create the sense that the fight can go in either direction. If the hero wins because a boulder comes crashing down from the mountainside and kills their opponent, then you may have a compelling and convincing climax, but the sword-fight is not really the heart of it. On the other hand, if you have two very closely matched opponents, unless you’ve figured out lots of ways of making the fight exciting, it may well go on for a very long time. Probably the best solution is to have two opponents who are superior to each other in different ways. In David versus Goliath, Goliath was a giant of a man, with armour and weapons to match. If David had come within striking distance of him, he would simply have been dead. But David had his own strategy, which was something Goliath had no chance of countering. A slingshot from a distance. This is a classic instance of ‘brain versus brawn’. Making the enemy huge and physically powerful usually works pretty well — anyone who turns up on the fencing piste who is huge and also obviously physically enormously fit is scary. Despite this, it’s often the thin, lithe teenagers who give the most problems.

If your hero is going to face a more skilled opponent, then there has to be some reasons for them to win. As we’re not usually privy to the psychology of the opponent, this may be more difficult to pull off. Equally, there is no particular shame in losing to a superior opponent. A better way, therefore, is often to have your more skilled hero facing an inferior (but nonetheless formidable) opponent when they themselves are struggling. This could be because of equipment failure (King Arthur, when he believes he is fighting with Excalibur but has been tricked), because of physical injury (climaxes to the films A Knight’s Tale and Gladiator), because of exhaustion (The Princess Bride), rage (also The Princess Bride, but a little earlier), fear or obstinacy. Where the issue is psychological, most readers will be able to associate with it, and it’s also much easier to have the fight turn and turn about, and for the hero to call on reserves of courage and determination, as well as having their share of luck (as long as it isn’t too much).

Show 2 footnotes

  1. What are my qualifications to write on this? Two. First, I’ve been a professional writer for more than twenty years, so I know a bit about putting pen to paper. Second, I’ve spent between two and eight hours a week in sword fights for the last ten years.
  2. except in Epée, where a double hit is scored
  • Gem_Blades

    Thank you for writing this. I’m trying to write a book and i planned of fights being a big part of it. I believe this will help alot

  • Jen Downey

    SO interesting! Thank you very much for this post. Being in the middle of writing a novel with a sword-fighting protagonist, I glugged down your generous lesson with lemonade on a hot day gusto. I wish you luck (to go along with your determination) in all your fencing and writing endeavors.

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