Writing Fight Scenes: What?

[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]

Enough with the touchy-feely stuff about character and purpose; you want to know about weapons.

I said at the start of this series that you mostly don’t need technical expertise to be able to write good fight scenes. Weapons are the one place where that’s less true. You don’t have to be trained in everything you put into your characters’ hands, but it does help to have a grasp of general principles, and to look up details once you’ve decided what to use. What I’ll aim to do here is give you a sense of those general principles, and a few examples of what I mean by detail.

I find it useful to group weapons into three broad categories, based on how they’re intended to hurt the other guy. Each of these has certain effects, and lends itself to certain tactics; what you want to do in writing is make sure you don’t go describing the wrong kind of thing for the weapon at hand.

(The focus here will be on melee weapons, because they’re what I know; bows, firearms, throwing weapons, and the like are beyond my knowledge. There’s an abundance of resources out there about guns, though, so if that’s what you need, you can certainly find it.)

The first category is piercing weapons. These are designed to poke holes in your opponent; as such, they tend to be slender, and often only sharp near the tip. Rapiers — my personal weapon of choice — are a familiar example; spears are another. The advantage of these weapons is that they tend to be quick and relatively easy to manipulate in small motions, and they’re good for either seeking out small gaps in armor or (if they’re stiff and strong enough) punching through it, so long as the armor isn’t plate. Also, piercing weapons need relatively little space in which to work, as their major motion is generally going to be forward. Defending a hallway or a narrow staircase? These are your friend. However, the damage done by piercing weapons is not often immediately lethal, unless you get a shot to the heart or perforate a lung. The death they bring comes later, from infection, unless the society has antibiotics or magical healing.

The second category is cutting weapons. These are designed to open big slashes in your opponent, or take pieces off him entirely: think sabres, scimitars, katana, etc. Cavalry weapons were frequently designed for slashing, so the horseman could threaten large areas around himself. The advantage of these weapons is that they can do a lot of damage; the downside is that they need more room to move. (The longer the weapon, the more room necessary. Cutlasses came into wide use on ships because of their shorter length.) Metal armor tends to stop them very effectively, though leather and the like can be cut through; I’m told, but don’t know for sure, that kevlar is also not so useful against slashing attacks. In the absence of armor, though, the injuries they can inflict are pretty dramatic: lots of gushing blood and subsequent shock, or even loss of limb. If you want to decapitate the bad guy at the end of the fight, you want one of these.

The third category is bashing weapons. These are designed to inflict blunt-force trauma, and are your hammers, clubs, quarterstaves, and so on. They tend to be more simple in design, and therefore are more easily available to non-elites; some of them are everyday items repurposed as weapons. (Swords, by contrast, are ‘spensive; they require specialized skills to make, and aren’t really useful for any purpose other than killing, so tend to be the province of the upper classes.) These require more strength to be effective than the other categories, or at least a better awareness of how to use one’s strength; they also need more room in which to work, because of how they depend on momentum. The damage they do is crushing: broken bones, cranial trauma, etc. Plate armor protects against that, but anything less is not so good; with enough force behind the blow, you end up picking broken chain-mail links out of the pulped flesh.

These, of course, are broad generalizations, designed to give the non-specialist a foothold for understanding weapons. Individual instances may blur the categories: axes, for example, both cut and crush, and morningstars had spikes designed to punch through armor and pierce whatever’s below. Your basic European longsword might, depending on period, be sharp along both edges and tip, so as to be suitable for both cutting and thrusting. But thinking about what the weapon does will give you a starting place for thinking about how it should be used, and therefore what its role will be in the scene.

Once you start digging into an individual weapon, knowing its history, shape, etc will give you more hints for use. The classic rapier, for example, was often used as a dueling and personal defense weapon, the kind of thing a gentleman could wear around town and pull out if the Capulets jumped him in the street. It’s suitable for use in close quarters; on horseback, though, or any situation where enemies can come at you from all sides, it’s much less effective. You’re unlikely to find these on the open battlefield. Rapiers favor precision and speed, not brute strength. Hilt design evolved over time to protect the hand, because a useful trick was to stab your opponent there; if he can’t hold the sword, he can’t fight you anymore, now can he? Armor, on the other hand, was almost never involved (beyond maybe a sturdy leather glove), because gentlemen didn’t wear that walking down the street, and it would slow them down during the fight anyway.

For contrast, take the katana. It’s a slashing weapon, like a sabre, but it has its own particular quirk: the cutting edge is quite a fat wedge. As a result, katana are not very good at chopping, i.e. a strike whose direction of motion is straight into the target. That wedge won’t penetrate as deep as a narrower one would. What you really want to do with a katana is slice: sometimes a push-cut (motion away from the swordsman), but most often a pull-cut, drawing the blade along the target’s body. Done right, this can cut (not chop) right through the body. Even if you don’t know much about kenjutsu, your choice of verb can make the scene seem more real, or undermine it for anybody who does know the subject.

For a final example, let’s look at polearms — weapons whose business end is attached to a long stick. Wikipedia puts it well: “The purpose of using pole weapons is either to extend reach or to increase angular momentum—and thus striking power—when the weapon is swung.” Going back to Japan for a moment, we see that samurai women in the Edo Period were often trained with naginata, for the very practical reason that the weapon helps negate a lot of the male-skewed advantages I listed in the last post. If you’re smaller and weaker than your opponent, keeping him at a distance is a very handy tactic. (This is also why pikes were used against cavalry in Europe: spit the horse before he can land on you.)

Along with the general type of weapon, you also want to consider its size, because that will again determine a lot of the tactics. Not just for environmental reasons — we’ll be covering the setting of the fight in the next post — but because of something fencers call measure or distance, which is the range within which a swordsman can strike. A rapier, being a long blade, can be (and frequently is) used to parry, so fencers may spend a fair bit of their time within measure. Knives? Not so much. Close enough to strike with a knife is also close enough to be grappled — or punched or kicked or foot-swept or whatever — which is a really bad idea if you’re weaker than the other guy. Knife-fighters, so far as I’m aware, are more likely to retreat outside measure in between passes.

I’m going to make something of a controversial recommendation here, which is: watch movies. There are definite flaws to this method, of course, the chiefest of which is that most movie fight scenes bear very little resemblance to actual fights. What they can do, though, that simply reading a book can’t, is give you a sense of how a fight with a given weapon moves. A favorite example of weapon geeks is the rapier-versus-claymore duel in Rob Roy, which very clearly illustrates the tactical scenario posed by that matchup: the rapier guy is much faster and can poke lots of little not-immediately-lethal holes in his opponent, but god help him if he gets hit once by that claymore. To pick a more arcane example, I know precisely nothing about spear-and-shield fighting, but I do know that the fight between Hector and Achilles in Troy doesn’t move like a sword fight would; if I had to write a similar scene for a book, I would watch that fight a few times and think about how the combatants position themselves, the angles from which they attack, how the shields play into the equation, to see if I can poach any of the principles for my own use. (I did this the one time I had to choreograph a quarterstaff fight for a play. You might be interested to know the first six moves of the fight between Little John and Robin of Locksley in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves are actually two moves, repeated three times from different camera angles.) It can even apply to unarmed combat: want to write a really brutal, hard-hitting fistfight? Watch Ong Bak and take notes on Muay Thai. What you really need is the ability to think about movement, on a level of basic concepts, so that when it comes time to imagining it for your characters, what you come up with makes sense. Having a visual resource can help with that, and we’re not all in a position to go to a Muay Thai class for observation.

Next post, we take the characters out of the empty white space and put them somewhere for their fight!

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: What?”

  1. greybar

    Great breakdown. You might be interested in this article from the Science and Technology section of the Economist: Nasty, brutish and not that short: Medieval warfare was just as terrifying as you might imagine. It’s available to non-subscribers now but will fade behind the sub-only window in a bit I believe.

    “The soldier now known as Towton 25 had survived battle before. A healed skull fracture points to previous engagements. He was old enough—somewhere between 36 and 45 when he died—to have gained plenty of experience of fighting. But on March 29th 1461, his luck ran out.

    Towton 25 suffered eight wounds to his head that day. The precise order can be worked out from the direction of fractures on his skull: when bone breaks, the cracks veer towards existing areas of weakness. The first five blows were delivered by a bladed weapon to the left-hand side of his head, presumably by a right-handed opponent standing in front of him. None is likely to have been lethal.

    The next one almost certainly was. From behind him someone swung a blade towards his skull, carving a down-to-up trajectory through the air. The blow opened a huge horizontal gash into the back of his head—picture a slit you could post an envelope through. Fractures raced down to the base of his skull and around the sides of his head. Fragments of bone were forced in to Towton 25’s brain, felling him.”

  2. unforth

    To watch movies, I’m going to add – troll the web for appropriate videos. I just had to write a segment where my characters, one who knows about machines and the other of whom knows about guns, disassemble a rifle – about which neither of them knew much. One of things I found while doing this was a straight-forward, accurate (I know enough to tell) 1 minute video of someone loading and firing a Civil War era rifle. Just from this I learned a lot of valuable things (like, hey, much less kickback than I thought and oh yeah, real people don’t always get everything in to perfect precision, they fumble at flaps and struggle to tear paper cartridges). This might be less helpful for older weapons just because there are fewer practioners and (I suspect) more likelihood that what you do mind will be highly inaccurate…but I bet there’s good stuff out there.

  3. rachelmanija

    I have a tip on knife fighting, which I learned from a karate workshop which happened to involve a Russian woman who had grown up in a really bad Russian neighborhood:

    If you formally train with it, a fight probably begins with both people having their weapons ready. What she did, which was how she’d seen people fight, was begin with hers held behind her back. That sounds very awkward, but what it meant was that she could get it out really fast and nail you before you could tell where the strike was coming from.

    Also, cops like to do a drill in which one person is armed with a paint gun and one with a Sharpie. The person with the Sharpie can typically close the distance and “cut” the cop with the paint gun before the latter can get off a shot, let alone a shot that can hit, over surprisingly large distances. This (in addition to racism, etc) explains a lot about some police shootings – they may not have the same beliefs about gun vs. knife that civilians do.

    Finally, the Rob Roy fight was Liam Neeson (tall, big guy) vs. Tim Roth (short, skinny guy), and so was also an excellent example of how that dynamic can work. It’s comparable to some man-woman situations too.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, the thing that makes knives so lethal is they are goddamned fast. They can hit you from three angles in the time it might take a swordsman to do one. And knife fights, unlike sword duels, are very rarely nice formal affairs with rules; they will pull in every dirty trick the participants can think of.

  4. swords_and_pens

    Nice overview. You cover a lot of ground without getting bogged down. I like the break-down into pierce vs. cut vs. bash, and especially your mention of leverage and polearms. That’s one of their big advantages. Also, it’s worth mentioning that a number of sword techniques (especially in long sword) translate very well to polearms and staffs, and vice versa. Could make for interesting cross-overs in some weapon traditions.

    And mow, a minor nit re. the hand guards developing to protect against thrusts: this is true to an extent, but they also protect against cuts just as well, or better. Truth be told, no period master of fence/rapier I am aware of advocated aiming at the opponent’s hand. I suspect this was due to the fact that counter-time attacks were so central, meaning that if I am spending time aiming at your hand (non-lethal target), that’s giving you a better opening to hit a more vital area on me at the same time. Most rapier techniques focused on lethal targets–head, neck, flank–and not the extremities. When limbs, etc. were targeted, even with a late rapier, it was with a cut. I’m not saying thrusts to the hand didn’t happen, of course, but I don’t think they were a central tactic, or the main reason for the development of more elaborate guards.

    • Marie Brennan

      True, the guard also increases the angle you can defend, and I should have mentioned that. I admit I haven’t delved far enough into rapier history to have read the actual manuals; but my fencing teacher had told me this was why you got the cup hilts and Pappenheimers, instead of just the open swept hilts (which could be penetrated by a tip).

  5. Anonymous

    Let’s not forget the body as a weapon, not just a target (and, for that matter, the shield as a potential weapon). Particularly for knife-fighting — but also for “gentlemen”‘s street-fighting, as implied by the development of la savaté — the fighter who is willing (and trained) to kick, to gouge, to use the off-hand offensively, has an immense advantage over an opponent who isn’t, even when that opponent has greater skill with the primary weapon.

    That’s my primary objection to using film as a model: For the safety of the actors and stuntpeople, that sort of thing simply “isn’t done,” even when supposedly doing “mixed martial arts”; almost everything gets depicted with the hands, not the feet or the elbow en passant or a hip-check or a head-butt.

    But then, I’m not a very “gentlemanly” type myself… I was trained that one fights to win, not for honor.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve seen films that get pretty down and dirty with the knife fights — but conversely, I’ve seen no real-life knife fights, so I’m entirely willing to believe they get even grittier than the gritty ones I’ve seen onscreen. Any way you slice it, yes, ruthlessness of tactics is a very relevant factor (as per the last post).

      • Anonymous

        The more “open” the fighting area in a knife fight — and especially if one or more of the participants are wearing resistive clothing (such as a heavy leather jacket and canvas workpants instead of a t-shirt and running shorts) — the more the knife becomes the magician’s assistant. One may end up delivering the visible, fatal/disabling attack with the knife, but it’s an eye-drawing distraction from the remainder of the attack (although much more deadly than the typical sequin-body-suited magician’s assistant, so you have to pay some attention to it).

  6. stakebait

    Added to memories with great gratitude… my current method, hand it off to cowriter, has the obvious problem of “what about when I don’t have a cowriter?”

  7. Anonymous

    What the others said. I definitely intend to write more short stories, but that is and always will be a sideline to the actual careet, which is novels.

  8. Anonymous

    This is seriously awesome and awesomely helpful!

    *runs off to add you to my flist*

  9. leatherdykeuk

    Excellent post. Remember also that broad swords very quickly became blunt weapons in battle.

  10. leatherdykeuk

    Good points. I studied kobudo for several years, and I’d rather have the sai in a sai vs jo fight.

  11. louisedennis

    Hi just friended you because I’m interested in this series!

  12. xahra99

    Can anybody recommend any good knife-fighting scenes from movies for some research? I’ve found loads of sword-fighting sequences but no knife ones. Online resources would also be helpful. Help greatly appreciated.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hmmm — I know I’ve seen some that look good, but I can’t remember off the top of my head what films they were in. I’ll put up a separate post asking, and see if anybody has some good recommendations.

  13. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, I’m doing kobudo now, and it’s fascinating. I presently suck with the bo (and also with the sai, really), but I am indeed getting a sense of how effective a staff can be. And nunchaku are fun, because you get immediate kinesthetic feedback on the difference between Doing It Right and Doing It Wrong.

    Mounted combat I know almost nothing about, but damn if the cavalry stuff in the LotR movies ain’t purty. ^_^

  14. Anonymous

    Excellent points, thank you. (I got here from Diana’s post on Magical Words.)

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