Writing Combat

Part I

The other day I taught a 3 hour workshop on writing combat scenes for fantasy. This is a meet-the-weapons deal where I bring in swords and knives and things so that my students can get some real idea of how these things look and feel. As part of this kind of workshop I always do a big Q&A component to tailor the content toward what the people who attend are actually writing.
I love doing these both because I did a variety of western and eastern martial arts when I was younger and because I invariably learn things. I’m a good generalist on muscle powered combat, rather than a tightly focused specialist, so at least one of my students always has a more in-depth take on some of the esoterica than I do. For example, at this session I had a couple who’d been doing research on traditional Native American missile weapons. They were able to to share that the Native Americans they’d been studying used a string grip style much more like the Asian thumb ring model than the European three finger grip, a fact which I did not know. Cool stuff.

But perhaps of more interest is what the questions tell me about what’s important to my students as writers and readers. I always get a lot of questions about what to emphasize in a fight scene, how much detail to go into, level of gore, things like that. My answer on all of those btw: is that it’s a mix of two things

1—giving the reader an accurate picture of what they’re looking at.
2—Showing the reader what’s important to the character.

My main point though is always this: Story is king. Accuracy and reality are important because some subset of people will know when you make mistakes and that costs you in the willing suspension of disbelief area that is so critical for keeping your readers in the story. But reality is less important than story. It’s important that you know the rules not because you must never break them, but because you need to know when you’re breaking them and decide whether doing so does something important enough for the story to make it worth the break.

Part II

Some questions from my workshop and thoughts on why they matter.

How can you tell someone is a sword fighter? This one was phrased in the Sherlockian sense. What would give away a swordsman to an informed observer. My answer involved looking for the muscles in the forearm and wrist that have to be developed to control the sword, physical stance and confidence, visible awareness of surroundings. There are lots of other good answers and other avocations that will share many of the same traits, dancers for example. My fencing improved significantly in the window when I was both unofficially TA-ing a stage combat course and taking modern dance because there was a lot of overlap in skill sets.

In the workshop description you mention the physics of swordplay and that a rapier is always going to beat a broadsword—why is that? So I talked about the time-to-target issues of a weapon that is already extended in front of you and very close to your strike point vs. one that need to have a good swing for full effectiveness and is thus several feet at least from the strike point. A thrusting weapon is simply faster than a swinging weapon. Then we discussed the history of weapons as a history of technological innovation and development and how advances in weapons drove advances in armor and vice-versa. And also how things like improved steel making technology and the introduction of gunpowder or the long bow changed things.

Updating to add: The rapier/broadsword thing assumes light or no armor and comparable skill. The armor assumption comes from the technological innovations that help to drive the invention of light swords like the rapier—i.e. that something like the longbow, crossbow, or gunpowder has driven people out of heavy armor. Can I construct an entirely plausible duel where the broadsword wins? Sure. Is it technologically likely? Hell no.

Who owns swords and other weapons? I was particularly pleased with this one. Weapons are often expensive and, depending on where you are in history, they can be very expensive. The socioeconomics of weapon ownership is something any fantasy or science fiction writer should take into account. If, for example, a sword costs a year’s earnings for a peasant, and the owner is not a rich noble, how did they get the sword? How does its cost affect the way they treat the blade?

At root these and other questions are all about making your writing believable, and I’ll talk a bit more about that in my next section.

Part III

In any work of fiction you must bring your reader with you. You must convince them to believe in the reality of the unreal parts of your story, the term most commonly used for this is “willing suspension of disbelief.” If your audience doesn’t believe in your story, you’ve lost them.

Speculative fiction has a double charge against willing suspension of disbelief in that it is both unreal in the particulars of your characters’ stories (i.e. fiction), and in the setting (the world of the fantastic). So the spec fic reader has to work doubly hard to suspend their disbelief, which means the spec fic writer has to work doubly hard to earn that suspension.

Because of this, the spec fic writer has to be even more careful with details than the general fiction writer and ground the non-fantastical and fictional details very firmly in reality. Understanding and writing believable combat is very much a part of that since combat is so often an important aspect of the literature of the fantastic. So is making sure that your fantastical details are internally consistent. And getting your science right.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in three parts in October of 2006 and comments can be found there—possibly worth a look as discussion was useful and lively. One. Two. Three. Reposted as part of the reblogging project, and edited for clarity)