Guest Post: Writing Sword Fight Scenes 101

Rayne Hall has published more than forty books under different pen names with different publishers in different genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), Six Historical Tales Vol 1, Six Scary Tales Vol 1, 2 and 3 (mild horror stories), Six Historical Tales (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), Writing Fight Scenes and Writing Scary Scenes (instructions for authors).

She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic and more. 

Her short onlineclasses for writers intense with plenty of personal feedback. Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing about Magic and Magicians, The Word Loss Diet and more. 

For more information about Rayne Hall go to her website

Readers love swords, especially in historical and fantasy fiction. Even if you've never wielded a sword, you can write a great sword fight scene. 

How much realism?

Real sword fights are short and violent, with blood and gore. Fictional fight scenes don't necessarily reflect this reality. They can be more entertaining: The fighters clank swords for a long time without spilling a drop of sweat, let alone blood. They perform acrobatic feats, swing from the rigging, slide down banisters, dangle from balconies, and leap across gorges - and all the time, they exchange taunts of sabre-sharp wit.

You may choose to reflect gory reality, or to entertain the reader with a sanitised skills display. You can also mix elements from both. This depends on the genre you write, as well as on your personal taste. Often, our task as writers is to create not reality, but an illusion of reality. If you inject enough realistic elements, the readers can suspend their disbelief about the rest.

Where does the fight take place?

To make your fight scene entertaining, choose the weirdest possible location: How about a duel in a wine cellar, in a cow shed, in a kitchen, in a lady's boudoir, in a steam bath, in a rowing boat, in a bakery? Let your fighters jump onto tables, duck under hurdles, leap across gorges, dangle from balconies, balance on standing stones, climb masts, and somersault across hedges. You can add a measure of realism by having them pant for breath.

Stairs are a popular location for sword fights. The fighter who stands higher up and fights downwards has the advantage, so your characters probably jostle for that position.

For inspiration, watch the famous sword fight scene from Scaramouche (highly unrealistic, but entertaining, and full of creative location use).

What are the spatial restrictions?

To keep your sword fight realistic, consider the space, especially for indoors scenes. Is there enough room to swing the sword? Is the ceiling high enough to raise the weapon overhead? If there isn't room, this can actually make the scene more interesting - but you have to write it accordingly.

Medieval castles were designed for defence, and the spiralling staircases wound in the direction which favoured the defenders. The right-handed fighter facing downwards had room to swing his sword - the right-handed fighter facing upwards had not.

Can they talk?

In a real fight, the fighters don't waste breath on conversation, and are too focused on the action to think out witty repartees. However, readers love dialogue, especially in entertaining scenes. Create the appearance of reality by using very short, fragmented sentences. This conveys the breathlessness of the action. Cut every superfluous word. Delete any utterance which isn't funny or profound.

This sword fight scene from The Princess Bride is famous for its entertaining dialogue. The fight is highly unrealistic, but this doesn't stop audiences from loving it.

Creating excitement

Here's a psychological trick for making a scene exciting: use sound effects. In a sword fight scene, this is easy. Insert sentences like >The bladed hissed through the air.<, >Steel clanked against steel.< or >Metal chimed.<

Speeding up the pace

The sword fight is probably the fastest-paced scene of your novel. Adapt your writing style to the pace of the action.

Use short paragraphs, short sentences, and short words.  Instead of >Immediately, he endeavoured to take measures to prevent the occurrance by executing a blocking motion<, write >At once, he tried to stop it with a block.<

Use adjectives sparingly, and try to avoid adverbs.

How technical?

Even if you're knowledgable, avoid getting bogged down in technical details. Blow-by-blow accounts are boring.

Describe the first few movements of the fight, and make sure they are feasible for this type of sword and the space.

After that, focus on the direction of the fight e.g. >He drove her closer and closer to the cliff.< >Simon's strength seeped away, and he struggled to block the blows.< >She moved fast, using her speed against his size.<

The moves which end the fight need to be specific again.

Do they carry shields?

Sword fighters often carry a shield in their other hand, to deflect their opponent's blows. This is especially important in battle scenes.

What kind of sword?

If you have experience of sword fighting, use it to make your fight scene ooze authenticity. Write about the type of sword you're familiar with. You can even create a fight in which the opponents wield different swords.

If you're not a sword expert, you can bluff your way. You need to avoid three gross blunders:

1. Inventing a fancy-shaped sword. Most swords invented by writers wouldn't work in reality.

2. Using a sword which didn't exist in that historical period.

3. Using a sword which can hack, slash, cleave, stab, slice, pierce, thrust, cut through armour, split bricks and whirl through the air. Different swords can different things. No single sword can do everything.

To make your sword plausible, simply base it on one of these three types:

The thrusting sword
This sword is straight, often thin, maybe lightweight, always with a very sharp point. It is a good choice for entertaining fight scenes, duels, non-lethal fights, non-gory deaths, and swashbuckling adventure, especially in Europe from the rennaissance onwards. The typical user is slim, with good aerobic fitness, and may be female or male. It's best for thrusting, piercing, stabbing. In a lethal fight, the aim is to pierce a vital organ. The typical injury involves seeping blood, and blood stains spreading across garments. It cannot hack through skulls or slice through or armour. Examples: the rapier, the gladius.

The cleaving sword
This sword is broad, straight, heavy, solid, big - sometimes it's so huge that it needs to be held in both hands. Both edges are sharpened. Choose a cleaving sword for historical novels set in medieval Europe, for brutal fights and for battles. Its main actions are cleaving, hacking, chopping, cutting and splitting, and it can cut through armour. The typical user is a tall brawny male with broad shoulders and bulging biceps. The main type of injury is an amputated limb, and the aim in a lethal fight is to hack off a leg or to decapitate the opponent. The disadvantages are its size and weight. It's too big to carry concealed, too heavy to carry in daily life, and too slow to draw for spontaneous action. Examples: the greatsword, the claymore.
Watch in action:

The slashing sword
This sword is curved, often slender, with an extremely sharp outer edge. It's a good choice for shipboard fights, cavalry charges, and Asian or Middle Eastern settings. The typical user is a pirate, a sailor, a mounted warrior, a cavalryman or an executioner. This type of sword excels at slashing, cutting, slicing. The typical injuries involve lots of spurting blood. In a lethal fight, the aim is to slash a vital artery (e.g. on the thigh). If you want a sword which serves the hero in non-combat situations - slashing rigging, zropes, fabric and leather fetters - this is the one to choose. However, it can't cut through armour and it won't split bricks.
Examples: sabre, cutlass, saif
Watch in action:

In reality, the lines are often blurred: Some slashing words can also stab, some slashing swords can cleave, and some cleaving swords can deliver a thrust. To avoid blunders, stick to one main function.


If you have questions about writing sword fight scenes, just leave a comment. I love answering questions and will respond. 


Good post. I just go to my hubby, who choreographs fight scenes. We also have an entire armory in our house. :)
dolorah said…
Awesome. I put this in my favorites to browse again later. I know I have a few sword fight scenes in my fantasy stories, and this is excellent advice and reference.