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FAQ: How Do I Handle Swordfights? (Writing Fencing Scenes)
Julie Woodcock

There's something romantic about a sword fight. Two men, meeting at dawn to duel over the honor — or lack of same — of a beautiful woman. Conflict, violence, sex and romance, all wrapped up in a neat little package no writer can resist.

However, you should know that there's a lot more to fencing than two guys sticking each other with really big shish kabobs.

First, there's the question of the weapons. People in the middle ages were as endlessly inventive in designing swords and knives as the Pentagon is in coming up with things that fly. So here's a quick rundown. (However, you should probably check my facts. Most of the following came from Weapons Through the Ages, a neat illustrated hardback by William Reid from Crescent Books. Too, the following information is by NO means complete.)


The design of swords changed a great deal over the centuries depending on the fighting styles and technology of each period. During the Middle Ages, for example, swords were intended for use against people in armor, and the design of the blade depended on the armor it was supposed to penetrate. Cutting through boiled leather is a lot easier than getting through chain mail or plate. However, in the Renaissance, when armor was no longer being worn as often, swords were much lighter. That resulted in a change of fighting style; the emphasis shifted to speed and skill more than the kind of brute strength a knight needed.

Parts of a Sword

Blade — the length of steel that may have one or more sharp edges.

Hilt — "handle" of the sword, including everything that isn't the blade.

Grip — the part of the sword designed for the hand.

Quillions — the T-shaped crossbar just above the blade that protects the hand during a parry.

Knuckle Guard — A piece of metal that curves from the quillions to the end of the hilt.

Tang — The part of the blade that fits inside the hilt.

Pommel — round knob at the end of a sword hilt.

Basket Hilt — a kind of guard designed to encircle the entire hand.

Some swords include:

Bastard Sword — So called because the hilt wasn't quite long enough for two hands. Usually had a simple cross guard.

Broadsword — A long, heavy weapon designed for cutting rather than thrusting. The fighting style was very different than that used with rapiers.

Dagger — a long knife designed to be used as a parrying weapon in the left hand.

Falchion — a curved sword, with a broad blade and a single edge that came into use around 1200. Curved swords were designed for fighting from horseback, because you can pull them free and keep going more easily. Sabers, which are carried by officers in the US Navy even today, are another form of curved sword designed for use from horseback. However, sabers have a wide knuckle guard.

Great Sword — a sword with a blade about 50 inches in length, with an abnormally long grip designed for both hands. This weapon, again, was designed for use from horseback, which is part of the reason for the length.

Rapier — came into use after guns made heavy armor rather useless. A light weapon, with a narrow blade designed to be used in quick, skillful swordplay a la Errol Flynn. Primarily a thrusting rather than cutting weapon. Earlier swords tended to be used rather like crowbars; designed to break an opponent's bones as much as anything else. At one point during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rapiers were worn practically everywhere.

Smallsword — a very elegant sword similar to the rapier.

Fighting Styles

When civilians began to carry rapiers in the sixteenth century, a number of innovative fighting techniques were used that could be interesting as romance plot devices.

Rapiers were light weapons designed for one hand, which left the other free to use in a variety of ways. A swordsman could fight with a dagger in his left hand, or even a second sword. He could carry a small round shield called a buckler — that's where the expression "swashbuckler" comes from — or he could wrap his cloak around his forearm to block or entangle his opponent's blade. Swordsmen were even known to carry lanterns during night duels, opening the shutters at strategic points to blind their opponents. (A good example of that technique may be found in the '70s films, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. The fights in both movies are very impressive, and well worth watching for ideas.)

Fencing Terms

En Garde Position or Guard — The basic fighting stance of a swordsman. You stand sideways to your opponent — if you're right handed, you stand with your right side toward him, if left handed, with the left side leading. This makes it harder for him to get a blade into anything vital; he's blocked by your arm if nothing else. The knees are bent slightly, with the toe of the leading foot pointed toward your opponent. The rear foot is at a 45 degree angle to the leading foot. This is important, because that rear leg is the driving force behind the attack. (More on that later.) The weight is centered, and the torso is kept upright over the legs at all times, even during attack. The advantage of this stance is that it makes it difficult for your opponent to get you off balance. (I wish I could provide an illustration. If you're completely confused, there's a book called Modern Fencing by Michel Alaux that has a lot of photos.)

The sword is held with the palm upward and the thumb braced against one quillon. The arm is bent, with the elbow close to the ribs and the forearm parallel to the ground. During the attack, the arm extends and the wrist turns to get more strength behind the thrust.

The rear arm is held out and back, elbow bent. During a lunge, that arm snaps back, then curls again during the recovery to help the fighter regain his guard.

Advance and Retreat — the swordsman moves forward by leading with his front foot, picking it up and moving it a few inches, then picking up his rear foot and moving that. (In retreating, the fighter moves the rear leg first, then the front foot.) He maintains his guard at all times. He doesn't cover much ground with each step, but he can crab forward and back very quickly with a sort of scuttling motion. It sounds awkward, but it's actually pretty smart, because it allows the fighter to maintain his balance at all times. He's less vulnerable to being knocked off his feet and stabbed that way than he would be if he walked normally. He's always ready to attack or defend himself.

Lunge — In the lunge, the fighter stands en garde. He first lifts his leading foot even as he straightens the back leg to drive his body forward. He lands with his forward leg bent. At the same time, his sword arm straightens and drives toward his opponent as his rear arm pumps straight out and down, balancing his body. In this way, he can cover a long distance with great speed, surprising his opponent and driving through the man's guard. But if his attack misses, he is extremely vulnerable because his body is fully stretched out and off balance. He must quickly RECOVER. He does this by pulling the straightened rear leg back under himself while coiling his arms back into their old position. That way, he can parry and scuttle backwards if he needs to. In fact, you generally do retreat in a BIG hurry if an attack misses, because you're entirely too close to your opponent at that point.

Parry — Blocking your opponent's attack. You do this by knocking your blade against his to knock his "off line" so that it misses you. It's best to parry with the lower third or "forte" of the blade, because that's where you have the most control.

Riposte — To make an attack right after a parry, basically combining the two moves. You should always riposte after your opponent's attack, because it's good strategy.

Those are the basics of a sword fight. There's a lot more terminology and techniques, of course, which you can pick up from fencing books like the one I mentioned earlier. But in actuality, I wouldn't use a lot of technical terms, because your reader won't know what the heck you're talking about. Lunge, parry, riposte, advance and retreat, are really all you need to use.

Writing a Fight Scene

Now, as to how you actually write a fight: First, remember that every attack either hits, misses or is parried. If your villain lunges at the hero, the good guy has got to parry and retreat or he's dead. After he makes that parry, he's going to make his own attack. I tend to write a fight as though I'm fighting it, coming up with each attack as I go along and then countering it. (All on paper, of course.)

Also, try to think in terms of strategy. That is, your hero may want to try to maneuver your villain around so his back is to the wall and he can't retreat. Or the villain may want to work the hero around so that the sun is in his eyes and he's blinded. Think about the setting of the fight — is it outdoors at dawn? What kind of obstacles do the fighters have to worry about? Rocks, sand, uneven ground? If somebody stumbles, that could be it for him. Is it inside a house? Then they may bounce off the furniture or trip over chairs. That could make things hairy.

Another thing. Remember that in a life or death fight, people are not going to stick to the rules. Your villain may make an attack, then punch your hero in the jaw. Let them play dirty. Kick, scratch, whatever. Let your imagination run wild. Sword fights are a lot of fun to write, so go for it.

Come to think of it, you may want to approach writing a fight the same way you go about writing a love scene. In both cases, the action is physical and emotional. And in both cases, using creativity and doing the unexpected is vital to keep from being predictable.

Sample Fight Scene

The following pages are a fight scene from a short story I wrote recently [Cycops, 1987]. I'm including it to show you how I use technical terms and so forth in a narrative without, hopefully, boring heck out of everybody.

A word of explanation: the story is set on a space station in the future, and the two men are cycops — that is, government agents who have computers installed in their brains. During the scene, one of the computers gives a character information about an injury collected by its sensors.

Lethal Impulses

Radm pulled on his heavy synthleather gauntlets as he stepped out of the Rat Warren's main lift, his rapier and poinard — a long parrying dagger — tucked under one arm. Lifting his blond head as the lift doors slid shut behind him, he paused, his attention caught by the wash of stars beyond the space station's transparent dome. The Veil Nebula shone off to starboard, pastel violet gauze against the blackness. Radm stared for a moment, caught by its glory; even after twenty years of life on the Rat Warren, he still wasn't immune to the nebula's beauty.

"You're late." The voice rumbled out of the silence behind him.

Radm grinned and turned. "Think of it as a chance to practice patience."

At this hour of the station's artificial night, the Domedeck was still and dim, empty except for the lone figure standing in the shadows. "Patience has never been one of my problems," the cycop said dryly, stepping out into a pool of light. He was bare-chested, wearing, like Radm, loose white pants and a pair of soft boots. A ripple of reflection danced down the lengths of the blades he carried in either hand. "After twenty years of you, I could teach patience to Job."

"Your martyr complex is showing, Mik," Radm said. "But since you're in the mood to suffer..." He pulled his weapons from under his arm and settled into guard with a flourish.

"We'll see who suffers, boy." Mik fell into his own fighting stance, left leg leading, his rapier in one hand and the poniard in the other.

Radm let his grin go feral and began to circle around to his left. Mik pivoted after him, keeping the point of his sword aimed between Radm's eyes. He was a big man, a fraction taller than Radm, a fraction heavier — and 20 years older, his once-black hair streaked with white, gray in the thick hair pelting his chest and arms. But not an old man, no. The chest under that gray mat was thick with hard striated muscle, clean of fat, immune to age. A cycop's life may have grayed him, but his years did not mean weakness.

What those years did mean was skill and experience — experience Radm knew he couldn't match. Experience that could easily beat him, despite his young man's strength and speed, unless he could maximize whatever advantages he had.

I'll wait, Radm thought, as they circled each other warily, let him take the offensive, wear himself out with the first attacks. Knowing Mik, he'll feint with the sword and come in with the poinard, so I'll parry in sixth and ...

He barely saw the spinning kick coming in time to leap back. Watching Mik's boot slice a millimeter from his nose, Radm knew it would have taken his head off if he'd been a fraction slower.

He attacked, driving the rapier toward his opponent's ribs while Mik was still coming out of the kick, but the other recovered and spun away with a taunting laugh. "Wake up, boy, before I salt that sword and feed it to you."

"I'm waiting, old man," Radm said, faking a smile; luck had been all that had saved him just now. And you couldn't count on luck in a fight with Mik. It would eventually abandon you, and then he'd take you apart.

A flurry of movement as Mik lunged, coming in hard with the poinard. Radm caught it on his rapier's blade, felt it scrape down the length of steel as Mik kept coming, intent and lethal. Going on training and instinct, Radm thrust out his knife — and Mik's rapier was there, just where it should be, coming up under his guard in a drive toward his heart. With a twist of his knife wrist, Radm deflected it the few crucial centimeters that saved his life...

Only to feel a jarring impact in his side. There was no pain yet, but he knew he'd been hit. Radm disengaged his weapons from Mik's and scrambled back.

How bad, Hari? he thought to the internal computer that wound through his brain as a microfilament biocrystal network, as much life form as machine. An incredibly powerful artificial intelligence, Hari and her sensors gave him almost total control of his body and its chemistry.

Deep cut, eight centimeters long, between the third and fourth ribs on the left side, Hari replied, her voice ghostly and feminine in his mind. You can continue to fight for 15 minutes without significant blood loss.

"Do you want to beg quarter?" Mik asked, his polite tone contrasting with the bloodthirst shining in his eyes.

"Not likely," Radm growled, furious with himself for failing to take the parry far enough to keep from being hit. Drawing first blood always gave a fighter a measure of psychological advantage. He had to draw some of his own, or Mik would run with the edge he'd gained, straight to a win. And Radm had lost entirely too much blood as it was.

Drawing a deep breath that made his injured ribs howl, Radm attacked, driving hard in a flurry of strikes that kept Mik too busy parrying to make any counters of his own. He kept going until he was almost chest to chest with the older cycop, until Mik's arms were straining to hold off his simultaneous attacks with the two blades. His wound throbbing a kettle-drum beat of agony, Radm rammed a knee into Mik's hard muscled belly.

Leaping back as his opponent hissed in pain, Radm braced himself to fleche — a lunging run, quick and deadly and hard to stop. And risky, if Mik should recover and come up under Radm's guard, he could easily impale himself.

Radm bellowed a battle cry, and Mik looked up into his lunge. Sighting down the length of his sword, Radm saw gray eyes widen slightly as he charged.

He waited for Mik to retreat in the blurring instant of his rush. Then, as he came within sword's reach, for Mik's parry, the quick scoop of steel that would push his blade out of line and save Mik from what would otherwise be a death thrust.

And it didn't come.

His point was scant millimeters from Mik's face when Radm jerked his wrist to deflect it. The blade sliced past the cycop's ear....

I hope you found this article helpful. Let me know what you think of it. In any case, there are a lot of good books on fencing and medieval weaponry that you can use. Good luck!

Copyright © 1987 Julie Woodcock

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