Writing Fight Scenes

So, I’ve been working my way rather slowly through Eric Lowe’s book The Use of Medieval Weaponry and also Marie Brennan’s book Writing Fight Scenes. These are both excellent, but I’ve found Lowe’s book more immediately useful. That is, I was reading The Use of Medieval Weaponry while doing final revisions for Suelen, which means I not only had a chance to reconsider various commas, I also switched out casual references to leather armor to “layered linen,” which is WAY MORE REALISTIC, it turns out, and did any of you know that?

Leather armor as a light armor for agile fighters is apparently almost entirely a fantasy invention, while in the real world, long jackets made of twenty or up to thirty layers of linen cloth were in common use by ordinary soldiers, and quite effective too. Particularly when combined with chain mail, because linen is highly resistant to cuts while mail is much more resistant to thrusts. This is really neat stuff to know about. I’ve never described armor in the Tuyo world because I didn’t want to encourage a European vibe, which is inevitable if you mention chain or (especially) plate armor, but I didn’t know what other kinds of armor I might want to use, so I kind of passed lightly over the whole topic. Linen totally lacks any particular connection to pop culture and can easily be defined as cheap, easily available light armor for ordinary soldiers. Now that I’ve read Lowe’s book, you can bet I will more readily mention and describe soldier’s ordinary gear in the future.

Eric Lowe also describes the actual use of all sorts of Medieval (and Medieval-adjacent) weapons – long sword, arming sword (I didn’t know there was a difference), greatsword, sword and shield, sword and dagger, sword and cloak, two swords, maces and axes, pole weapons. Much of the time, I’ve fortunately done plausible things. I based the Lau formation work with short sword and shield on the Romans, of course, so I knew that was fine, but it turns out that a sword alone, without a shield, especially without armor is a stupid way to fight … unless you consider honor and showing courage paramount, in which case it’s great! So that works fine for the Ugaro, especially since in real battle rather than duels they’d more likely fight with a sword-and-dagger or two-sword combination, both of which are good choices. The eagle warrior with the two swords? Great choice, very suitable! That’s a relief, especially since I did it that way just because the visual worked great in my mind’s eye.

But let me back up.

Lowe got into Medieval weaponry via gaming, then became an expert in historical European martial arts. He quotes extensively from surviving European fencing treatises, then explains those quotations again in modern language, which is not the part I followed particularly well since I have no personal experience in fencing. But then Lowe describes the sorts of situations where a weapon or weapon combination would have been particularly useful, as for example here: “Few other historical weapons combine the greatsword’s ability to threaten a large area with the ability to redirect its attacks as quickly as a sword. Both elements are critical to the greatsword’s role as a crowd control weapon. Unlike the cuts of two swords, which can surround a fencer with a rapid but short range flurry of blows, the greatsword’s cuts are relatively ponderous (I am speaking in relative terms: in absolute terms the cuts of a greatsword can still come eye-wateringly fast). However, the great reach of a greatsword means that it can keep opponents very far at bay. A single fencer armed with a greatsword can hold off a great many opponents armed with shorter weapons …” Lowe then goes on to describe exactly how this weapon could be useful for getting through an alley stuffed with opponents, defending yourself when totally surrounded in an open area, defending a ship against boarders, clearing a house, protecting a nonfighting companion from a hostile crowd of enemies … can’t you just see the fiction scenarios writing themselves at this point?

In contrast to Lowe, Marie Brennan comes to fight scenes via cinematography.

“So I had to figure out how to give the director what he really wanted – a big dramatic scene – within the constraints of the stage. … I sat down with the actor playing Troilus, and together he and I constructed an arc for the scene: how it would start, how it would end, what shifts would happen along the way. … Like a piece of music, it needed dynamics. And that meant digging into character, making use of the space, and lots of other things I now realize are integral to a good fight scene. … That’s what I came to understand about fight scenes. They’re part of the story, and not just on the level of plot [but also character].”

Lowe understands this too, as is clear in this Quora answer illustrated with a fight scene from one of Tamora Pierce’s novels. But using fight scenes to move the plot, build character, and support the story’s themes isn’t what Lowe’s book is about. It’s what Brennan’s book is about. Her books hardly touches on the mechanics of how weapons were used and how people actually fought. Brennan says up front, “… the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The crucial components are the same ones you’re already grappling with in the rest of your writing – description, pacing, characterization, and all that good stuff.” Which is true! But it’s still obviously useful to know how people actually did fight with a sword and a small shield, and why someone might choose that combination rather than two swords.

These two books are therefore highly complementary. But of the two … if you twisted my arm … I would kind of recommend Lowe’s book. This is because you, as a writer, can pick up the dramatic part of how to structure fight scenes by reading good fight scenes (such as the one in Tamora Pierce’s novel) that succeed in carrying forward the plot and building character, and watching cinematic fight scenes that are visually persuasive and compelling (such as the one in the Princess Bride). But nothing or almost nothing in fantasy novels or movies is going to tell you that leather armor wasn’t actually used and layered linen was; or how a whole bunch of types of fighting depended massively on grappling and wrestling to finish the job; or the specifics of how different weapons were used in a wide variety of circumstances. Not that an author has to accurately represent anything at all; in writing fiction, believability is a lot more important than accuracy and making things sound plausible is and should be the aim, not getting every single detail exactly right. But personally I do think it’s neat to also get things more or less right.

Overall assessment: these are both actually useful resources for writers. I’ve been highly, and I mean highly, disappointed in various other books that purport to be resources for writers. I’m thinking particularly of a book about poisons and figuring out causes of death that is all but useless for fantasy because it’s aimed so firmly at novels with contemporary settings, and one about injuries that deals with the subject exclusively from the modern point of view, where you basically stabilize the patient and head for a well-equipped hospital. Absolutely useless, both of them. In contrast with that sort of thing, if you’re writing in any kind of fantasy setting, both Lowe’s books and Brennan’s are great books to have read and to keep handy for reference.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Fight Scenes”

  1. I love this sort of thing. One of the few topics I’ll watch the occasional YouTube video on. One aspect that comes up occasionally is how fantasy world weapons might differ from historical weapons. That is, weapons are designed to deal with particular sets of circumstances, and unusual circumstances can lead to unusual weapons. For example, the boar spear. There are wings (a sort of cross guard) behind the spear head. One of the main purposes of those is to keep the boar from, after you’ve stabbed it, pushing all the way up the shaft and killing you before it finally dies. Where might that apply in a fantasy setting besides hunting boar? What about lesser undead? Having undead crawl their way up sword blades is a classic trope. Instead, maybe you can pin them in place with a couple of boar spears. The cross guards will keep them from just walking up the shaft. Then your compatriots can dismember them at leisure. The polished shield for dealing with Medusa is another interesting example. A mirror polish in historical combat is a pain to create and maintain and doesn’t really contribute much. It may even be detrimental on sunny days when it’s casting bright reflections all over. But if you’re dealing with gaze attacks, it might be just the ticket. So it’s useful to understand WHY weapons have the features they do, because you then understand more about why and how they are used, and how they might be used differently–and cleverly!–in a fantasy context.

  2. Michael Scott Rohan’s Winter of the World had the mage-smith protagonist make many mirror shields and used them to create a great burning lens – the Enemy manifested as winter & ice, but had mortal forces too. There’s a passing comment about how difficult it was to design such things to be useful as shields in battle, as well as for the focused mirror array formation. As I recall you had to flip them around for the lens. I appreciate the cleverness. (I’m also pretty sure the guy spontaneously made a hand-thrown nuke out of his biggest hammer. We kept getting comments about the odd metals in it…and then once it goes off the targeted place is not healthy.) Even if you’re not fighting elements, something blinding can be useful, if finicky. Like Rachel used in that duel where the one guy wasn’t blinded by the sun.

  3. I remember a Mythbusters episode where they tried to create a “death ray” to ignite enemy ships using mirrors. Did not work worth flip. Just too hard to get everything consistently focused on the same spot. Then they did a second episode with a team of MIT students taking another stab at it. Not practical at any scale. If the opposing ship was close by and stationary for an extended period, and if you yourself were stationary and not, say, being shot at, then yes, you could light it on fire. But you would be way, way better off just lobbing a Molotov cocktail at the other ship. Which is precisely why fire arrows are a classic weapon and mirror shields are not. For the winter battles, with that kind of materials science available, incendiary grenades or jellied oils might be good choices.

  4. Although I suppose it all depends on the fantasy details. Mirrored shields as a focusing array might work pretty well depending on the temperature sensitivity and mobility of the enemy. Just bringing a touch of spring to an area might be enough to give your troops a real edge.

  5. And there are definitely stories of focused mirror arrays as weapons, so it’s clear people have thought about it for millenia. I could see a mage-smith managing to pull it off. Seems like it wouldn’t take too much magic to make it pretty effective.

  6. Rohan’s mage smith had created a few master shields that controlled the others and there were several thousand of the regular sort. Seemed like a reasonably plausible way to make it work. There were also comments about lots of practice drills when explaining to the late-come allies why they couldn’t have any of those shields that seemed special.

  7. Nice! One of the joys of fantasy and sci-fi is trying to think through all the cool things you can do with the worldbuilding.

  8. And another nice thing about SFF is that if you can make it sound plausible, it’s all good, no matter what other little issues might have come up if you tried the same thing in the real world …

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