Swordplay for Fantasy Writers

crossed swordsThe clash of blades, sparks flying. The barbarian with his twenty-pound two-handed sword, swinging for your head. The epic showdown with acrobatics… now that’s fantasy.

No, like, seriously a fantasy.

And this article isn’t about any of those things. It’s about swordplay in a realistic situation, using familiar physics and historical inspiration.

We write fantasy, where the possibilities are endless. But for the purpose of this article, I’m going to talk about sword-fighting as it pertains to one-handed personal arms (like rapiers), though some of the techniques will apply to a broader spectrum of weapons (like a long sword), and hopefully to a range of characters (from those entering training, to seasoned warriors). I’m also going to try to use basic language because this article is meant to inspire fantasy writers, not train fencers.

Are you ready? Well pick up that sword, son. This is your first lesson!

The Basics

Okay, first thing, put down that sword, I was only messing with you. We’re going to talk about the principles. The real basics.

Remember those days when you used to sit cross-legged on the carpet and sing the alphabet with your teacher? Yeah, that was the beginning of you becoming a writer. Okay, that’s probably an extreme example, your journey as a writer likely began when you had an epic idea in your early adulthood, or you sold your first short story, or you retired and needed something to fill all that luxurious time.

Sword-fighting is sort of the same as how we learn to write. Before you ever need to touch a blade, it helps to have a grasp of certain critical elements. Some of them we learned way long ago, like balance. We’re not going to start with walking, but we are going to talk about those most basic principles of armed combat. They’re called by different names in different historical guides, but suffice to say, I learned them as the four governors (Timing, Distance, Perception, and Technique), and I didn’t really understand any of it until I was already two very frustrating years into sucking at attacking and defending.

Timing is the first I want to talk about, and it tells us simply that an action takes a certain amount of time. As writers, we’re already familiar with the concept of pacing, but I suppose our lives don’t depend on it.

Time may pass quickly or slowly in a fight scene, depending on the writer’s goals and how much information is conveyed, but it’s never slow when you’re actually sword-fighting. Sometimes you want a quick little movement to take control of a situation, and other times you want a bigger motion that will result in a kill. It’s choices, and when you understand timing, you can decide very quickly how much time you have in a window and how much time your movement buys you to put your next action into motion. Fights are often decided very quickly, even with evenly matched opponents.

Distance is one of my favorites. I’m grouping it with Perception here because while one is about maintaining a safe distance, the other is in correctly perceiving it. By perception, then, I’m talking about taking into account that your opponent is 6’4” and wielding a 45” blade, and you’ll want to keep more than an average distance between you and that guy, or you’ll be sorry.

I had a bad habit of walking onto blades because I didn’t have a great understanding of distance—what is my opponent’s range, how close must I be to cover the distance, and what sort of footwork do I employ to cover said distance? It directly relates to timing and technique. Remember the swordsman in Indiana Jones? He had tons of technique, but Indy’s gun had the greater distance.

Distance is maintained by footwork. Footwork is basically how you move. Forward and back, in a line, in a semi-circle, a pivot. The basic goal of footwork is to give you a balanced center from which you can lunge, advance, retreat, attack, parry, whatever you’re trying to do. And you use perception to select the right footwork, because you know your own abilities, and have assessed your opponent at least marginally, so you can identify how close you need to be to hit him, and how quickly you can retreat if he surprises you with a lunge.

The other goal of footwork is to not give your opponent an opportunity to react. As in, if you lift a foot fully off the floor for half a second, you’re dead because your opponent knows you’re moving and less able to defend against their attack, which takes less time than your big clumsy boot stomping. Footwork is such a huge subject, I can’t go into it as much as I’d like to, but it’s a super important thing to learn so you don’t trip yourself, get off balance, or lose your perception and distance. If every time your opponent advances and retreats, he sucks you in just a little closer to him, eventually you’ll be just within range and you never saw that cut coming.

Now, all these things are meant to be practiced over and over, until they’re instinctive. Thoughts are too slow for an actual fight. In fiction thoughts are great, especially if there’s a realistic pause, but in real life with steel in your hands, there are few thoughts. There are instinctive feelings for distance, perception, and timing, and then there is what you can actually do with your skill set. To talk about technique, I guess we’d better move on to the sword…

The Long or Short of the Sword

I found this really handy mind map syllabus for rapier that was created by the School of European Swordsmanship.

I wanted to share it with you because if you’re interested in writing swordplay, whether it’s duels and street brawls, or training and sparring, it helps to understand what kind of progression a fighter makes over the course of training. It isn’t much different than how a writer progresses. None of us learns everything about a subject without also learning more about others. We don’t only focus on dialogues for a whole year and get great at that, but keep all our other weak sentence structures and erroneous descriptions. We naturally work on all of them at the same time, implementing new skills that then boost others. Just like to get better at attack, you must get better at defense, because as you attack, you must defend.

Since your footwork is looking great and you understand how timing, perception, and distance play a huge part in this game, you can pick up that sword. We’re going to talk about it next. Whether you’re using a rapier or longsword, an open off hand or a dagger, every choice has benefits and drawbacks. I can’t tell you enough about weapon types to even make a dent, so I’ll leave that to you, but I’m looking at two main ideas: rapier-type swords, and longswords.

My basket hilt rapier is just over 1 1/2 pounds. One of the videos below shows a longsword similar to one my friend fights with, and his is about 3 pounds. I just want to give you an idea of what we’re actually holding in our hands, fully extended, sometimes on and off all afternoon in a huge field melee. It gets heavy fairly quickly. But movement is easier than static weight, just being held in front of you.

Most important for me is balance of the blade. I fought with a blade-heavy sword for two years (until I put the basket hilt on this blade), and it was rough to say the least. Now, my balance is so much better, I don’t fatigue as easily, and my blade moves so much faster. If you want to understand what it’s really like to hold a sword in your hand, lift a small dumbbell and hold it there, all the way out… for a minute. A balanced weapon should feel like that dumbbell. My old sword felt twice as heavy as it was, because the tip always wanted to drop and I had to grip it so tightly (because the hilt was lighter than the blade), it limited what kind of dexterity I could manage. Weapons are personal, and historical ones were durable and finely crafted. They were expensive. They still are, if you’re buying something to fight with, rather than a wall hanging.

A fair amount of the information I’m trying to convey should probably be prefaced with “In my opinion…” or “as I see it…” because it’s based on my personal experience. I certainly have some skills that are better than others, and you know, it might not be a bad thing for a character to have their own unique fighting style, too. Characters may have particular techniques that they prefer, or a certain way of perceiving things. But sometimes it can be challenging for a writer to invent it all without basic knowledge. And knowledge can be hard to find. Hopefully I can help a little.

Regulated martial arts certainly have more available information than I’m sure a Google search of “how to fend off an attacker with a sword” would turn up. I’m not an Olympic-style fencer, though. It’s why I say I’m a sword-fighter. We have rules to limit the amount and aggressiveness of grappling, but it’s legal to make body contact and grab blades, and a few other things that make our sport more like street-brawling than what people think of when you say fencing.

When reading Olympic-style fencing sites, what you’re reading is about this (and I really like this video):


And this is what I mean when I’m talking about brawling (long sword vs. rapier):


And this is what our rapier fighters work on, most of them with sword and dagger, or two swords:


I hope the videos help bring this into perspective as I begin talking about technique. I’m intentionally not mentioning offensive off-hand (dual wielding) and defensive off-hand (bucklers, cloaks, etc.), because I simply can’t cover everything in one article. I like sword and buckler personally.

Swordsmanship is a game of mathematics and physics. If you use the weaker tip of your blade against the thicker, stronger base of your opponent’s, you lose the battle of physics. Same as if you’re fully extended and you miss, your opponent can just nudge you over because you’re off balance. Physics wins again!

Going back to that mind map syllabus (because the more I look at it, the more I love it), you have a few choices for what to do once you pick up your blade. You can attack, defend, or take an action (not unlike those RPGs we love so well).

I’m going to talk about defense first, because I tend to begin there. A fighter assumes a guard/ ward/ stance and prepares to do battle. S/he is On Guard (please know why I’m using these terms, because no one’s going to better understand this if I start throwing Italian, French, and German around). If you want to know more about it, here’s a link to a fencing page that gives a good detailed explanation of the basics: Essentials of Fencing Technique.

Starting a Fight

When a fight erupts in your story, does it begin with someone punching someone else and then blades get drawn and steel rings immediately? Or do the opponents draw and then size each other up? Do they throw half-hearted shots to test reactions, or do they circle each other and take honest shots, looking for a sign of weakness—an awkwardness with certain motions, or a slowness in reaction to a certain action? It’s really up to you, so hopefully some of this is conjuring images for you to later draw upon.

Being defensive isn’t just about being non-aggressive. It’s about being cautious for the sake of learning about one’s opponent. A confident fighter can be defensive, even if he knows he’s got more skill than his opponent.

Attack is simple, there are cuts and thrusts. A cut can be from the wrist, the elbow, or the shoulder, each being more powerful than the last, but taking more time. And what do we remember about time? You leave yourself increasingly open to a swifter action the longer you take to complete your own. Now you’re getting it!

Thrusts are directed forward motion (okay, they can be sort of sideways too, but let’s just say, your arm is moving from far away, to near your opponent), and you’d want to take into consideration where you’re aiming because you’re simultaneously trying to defeat someone’s defense, while maintaining your own. A thrust thrown that misses or falls short of its target leaves you open to a counterattack, so sometimes you need more than one step (advance) to complete the attack, like if someone’s moving backwards (retreating), so a single committed lunge can lead to a quick kill, but it can also leave you vulnerable and off balance. A practiced lunge begins with the sword’s point and ends at the foot—one swift movement and I have a great video of why that’s so, right here:


I see that the syllabus grouped feints in with attacks, so let’s talk about that next. I think most folks probably understand a feint, it’s where you indicate you’re doing something, but then you do something else. Indicate you’re trying to hit the shoulder, but instead intend to hit the forearm when it comes up to block your thrust.

Actions on the blade are a little more complex because you have to understand what they look like and more importantly, what they feel like. A push is when you press your blade against your opponent’s blade, to take their point off line (not pointing at you anymore) while your point is still aimed at them. If the opponent doesn’t react, you’ll be able to hit him, and he can’t hit you. Actions on the blade can be used to test your opponent, as well as to begin an attack. Much of the blade work is intended to be chained together with another element, like a thrust.

Also a glide, and an expulsion. They’re the same kind of movement, but the amount of force is different and the result slightly different. In a glide, you’re trying to gently slide your blade along your opponent’s blade, toward him, and the point should hit your opponent when you close the distance. Because your sword’s guard is protecting you, the opponent’s point should be harmlessly off line. With an expulsion, a greater force is applied downward at an angle, and your opponent’s point is violently turned aside, leaving them open to attack. The longer you stay on their blade, the further out that point gets.

A beat is literally hitting the opponent’s blade to either move it off line, or to startle a reaction from your opponent which you can then capitalize upon. All of these actions are best when controlled. It doesn’t benefit you to beat someone’s blade with loads of energy, only to have both your points way off to the side. Then you both have to recover and he may be faster than you. It’s also important not to wind up your beat. It needs to be quick and as little movement as possible to warn it’s coming, because if your opponent anticipates it, he’ll disengage, and that leads to the next one…

A disengage is when you use a quick motion to move the point of your blade around your opponent’s blade, in order to gain a new target, like from his left shoulder guarded by his hilt, to his right shoulder which is open. This is really useful when an opponent parries. Or, when he tries to beat your blade, and then you just slip under him and pop him in the mask for moving slower than you can think. Good fun. I’m usually the one hit in the face, though. What’d I say about those basics? Timing isn’t any easier than distance or technique. You gotta learn them all.

The last action I’m going to mention is a bind. It comes in a few different variations (based I believe on where on the sword blade you begin the motion), and it’s when you slide your blade over your opponent’s blade in a semicircle and trap his sword under your guard. I didn’t want to go too deep into all this, because I know it can be rather dry, but I like this one so much, I just had to mention it. I hope this lets you visualize what I’m talking about, though it’s more complex:


Write That Fight

When writing sword-wielding characters, it’s important to think of who the person is. Their background, their training, how they feel about their chosen course of study or profession. Or maybe their lack of training? I hope my overview has given you a better understanding of basic swordplay, but now you should go make it your own.

Think about how you can lend a voice to a character who is seeing drills for the first time. Or to the veteran duelist who is feeling past his prime. Each unique character will experience a fight differently, and it’s up to a writer to know what the experience means to that character.

I’ve written a few sword fights, and while I’m lucky enough to have some practical experience, I’m not those characters. I haven’t lived a life like theirs. I haven’t dealt with their struggles. I don’t carry their scars. Basically, I had to make plenty up, and when I did, I tried to draw on what I knew, so I wouldn’t be stretching reality too far and upset readers who know more than I do. We strive to create depth in our fictional characters, and it’s my sincere hope that this article has in some way helped inspire your creativity.

Sword-fighters can be wonderfully colorful and complex people, and there are loads of videos to be found on the internet that show other swordsmanship techniques other than what I was able to cover in this article.

What do you find makes for a good fight?

Do you have a favorite sword-fighter character? Why so?

A. Howitt