On Combat

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Serzen
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On Combat

Post by Serzen » February 22nd, 2010, 4:21 pm

A lot of people want to write about combat. Swords and axes and polearms are really exciting. Steel ringing on steel gets the blood pumping in a way that intellectual debates simply can’t. What hero worth his salt (at least in traditional fantasy literature) isn’t an expert swordsman by the end of the story? Would he really be a hero if he couldn’t run the Bad Guy through?

Unfortunately, entirely too many people have never picked up a hand-to-hand weapon before. They have no way of writing from experience. Worse, people will rush out and pick up the first book they can find about sword fighting and then try to quote it. Worst of all, they write fight scenes to look like they do in the movies.

As someone who has spent a third of his life studying armed (and, to a lesser degree, unarmed) combat, it really gets on my nerves when the flow of the story is destroyed by a terrible fight scene. Whether it’s because the author went the Hollywood route or because they thought buying a book by John Clements was a good idea, it’s often enough to make me put the book down. I may never return to it. It’s that important to me.

Thus, the birth of this post and, hopefully, thread. I’m going to take some time, be kind of long-winded, and lay out some things that anyone who wants to write a fight scene should know. I’ll also be happy to take on as many questions as I have time for.

Without further ado…

Lesson One: Keep the other guy as far away as possible. Most swords have points as well as edges. A thrust that penetrates 3 to 4 inches is deep enough to be lethal. The lunge is designed to make the thrust more effective—there’s a reason we’ve been doing it for 500 years. Even if you’re using a weapon designed primarily for cutting, remember that you do more damage with the end of the weapon (the foible) than with the sections nearer the grip (the forte).

Lesson Two: In a real fight, nothing is forbidden. It’s the reason that you want to memorize Lesson One. If you are close enough to come to grips with the other guy, he’s close enough to do the same to you. Don’t look so surprised if you get a dagger in the ribs, a fist in the nose or a boot in the kidney. When it’s Life or Death, there are no rules.

Lesson Three: Remain relaxed. The body is a spring and can be coiled and unleashed to great effect, but carrying constant tension tires you and deprives you of the ability to use fine motor skills. Create the tension just before you need it. Tense the muscles in your legs and lunge but immediately relax so that you are prepared to fight again. You’ll probably need to recover, which requires more energy and is a smart idea, and you need to be able to do it quickly; you can’t do anything quickly if your muscles are tensed up.

Lesson Four: Parry or avoid every incoming attack. Yes, you can counter-attack; it’s safer to parry and riposte. Use counter-attacks sparingly, and only when you’re sure you are able to avoid the incoming attack. We have a saying where I work out for a poorly thought out counter-attack: “Two dead idiots.” And while we’re talking about parries, they aren’t just for stopping an attack; they are very good for redirecting or setting aside an attack as well.

Lesson Five: Leverage is more important than strength. Forget about people wrestling with their blades, struggling to force the adversary into a bad position or out of guard. It’s useless, not to mention silly. Instead, make the parry (with the forte!) and use the fact that you now have your strong opposing your opponent’s weak to create the opening you need.

Lesson Six: To the one with initiative goes the victory. An attack executed in proper time and at proper distance cannot be stopped; all incoming attacks must be stopped or avoided. Only by taking advantage of mistakes the adversary makes can you succeed. One must always be on the lookout for ways to claim or maintain the initiative.

Lesson Seven: Cause the fight to be over as quickly as possible. The longer you fight, the more likely it is that you’ll make a mistake and wind up getting hurt or killed. Your goal should not be to kill the opponent; rather you want to make him stop fighting. It’s just as effective to sever the tendons in his sword hand as it is to stab him in the eye AND it’s less dangerous. Remember that you want to stay at the longest distance you can fight from.

Related to Lesson Seven: A fight can last for several minutes, but likely won’t last more than three. It’s exhausting work. During the fight, expect there to be several phrases, with each phrase built of 2 to 5 actions. A typical phrase might be attack ->parry, riposte ->parry, counter-riposte. Rarely, another counter-riposte. One might also see attack ->parry, riposte ->counter-offensive action (attack in time, arrest, etc). Phrases of 4 actions or more are rare. After the final action the combatants will usually break distance to evaluate what just happened and look for new opportunities. They might also simply hold their guards but take no new action for a moment as they evaluate the phrase that’s just passed.

Lesson Eight: If distance totally collapses, all bets are off. When combatants come to corps-a-corps, anything can happen. It’s exceedingly dangerous and no one in their right mind willing goes there. If you find yourself unexpectedly close to your opponent and are not caught up in a lock or grip, get out of there as quickly as you can. Strike him with whatever you can—if you can do so safely—and retreat to safe distance.

Okay, that’s a start. A 750 word crash course in armed combat. Feel free to ask any questions you have and I’ll do my best to answer as fully as I can. I want people to write better fight scenes so I don’t have to read so many lousy ones; you be doing both of us a favor. Hopefully you find some use in this post or from other posts that may follow.

~Serzen
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire

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dios4vida
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Re: On Combat

Post by dios4vida » February 22nd, 2010, 4:29 pm

Thank you, Serzen! In my WIP my protaganist uses a staff and I've been researching like mad to find the proper techniques for staff fighting (which, by the way, are really difficult to find). These quick lessons are so helpful!

Do you have any experience with or against a staff? Anything I should keep in mind, or even flat out avoid?
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

Serzen
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Re: On Combat

Post by Serzen » February 22nd, 2010, 6:32 pm

dios4vida wrote:Thank you, Serzen! In my WIP my protaganist uses a staff and I've been researching like mad to find the proper techniques for staff fighting (which, by the way, are really difficult to find). These quick lessons are so helpful!

Do you have any experience with or against a staff? Anything I should keep in mind, or even flat out avoid?
You're welcome. If you're writing in a European themed world, the use of the staff is very, very similar to the use of the two hand sword, save that you can do sliding and other kinds of hand adjustments. Joseph Swetnam proposed that it could be trained like the THS. I can provide a link to his treatise if you'd like. It's in English, and as such is accessible. He was a notorious misogynist, but one should hardly hold it against him after 400 years. If you'd prefer, Jakob Sutor wrote in German and covered the staff and staff weapons (pole axe, for example). Sutor has more pictures, but Swetnam does a good job explaining if you don't mind reading late Middle English.

http://martialhistory.com/wp-content/up ... -guard.png This is a picture of a simple guard in Swetnam. It ought to get you thinking in the right direction.

Remember that the staff has ends, not just sides, and can easily be used to thrust with; some very devastating thrusts can be developed easily.

If you've got specific questions, or want me to look at a block of text, I'll do my best.

~Serzen
Last edited by Serzen on February 22nd, 2010, 7:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire

Nick
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Re: On Combat

Post by Nick » February 22nd, 2010, 6:37 pm

One thing to tack onto point seven:

Another plus to keeping fights as short as possible is that most sword fights really are rather short, brutal affairs. Even modern sparring matches, which tend to last much longer than an actual battle would, are fairly short. I mean heck, watching a fencing match. Usually someone gets a touch very, very fast. Just because Hollywood likes to romanticize a sword fight for cinematic purposes doesn't mean you should do the same for your book. Longest bout I've ever been in went five minutes before I had the sword knocked out of my hand, and that was largely because I was being defensive (it also helped that I was using a broadsword and he was using a chokuto). Generally they end much sooner.

tameson
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Re: On Combat

Post by tameson » February 22nd, 2010, 10:33 pm

Ok- I have a fight with a guy who is massively outnumbered, but is super skilled- significantly better than they are. The outnumbered would be like 7 to one. I figure, they can't all just run and attack (they want to live) so they come one or two at a time. I give no specific details, or time references. At the end, he passes out from exhaustion and blood loss (from things that he dodged but not completely). He is bruised miserable and bloody (well, not so much bloody but not willing to go fighting) for over a month. Would this basic scenario trigger any alarms? I figured that being in batttle, his descriptions would not be all that detailed (just exhaustion, moving frantically, dodging- constantly dodging, a few what am I doing thoughts).

Serzen
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Re: On Combat

Post by Serzen » February 22nd, 2010, 11:13 pm

tameson wrote:Ok- I have a fight with a guy who is massively outnumbered, but is super skilled- significantly better than they are. The outnumbered would be like 7 to one. I figure, they can't all just run and attack (they want to live) so they come one or two at a time. I give no specific details, or time references. At the end, he passes out from exhaustion and blood loss (from things that he dodged but not completely). He is bruised miserable and bloody (well, not so much bloody but not willing to go fighting) for over a month. Would this basic scenario trigger any alarms? I figured that being in batttle, his descriptions would not be all that detailed (just exhaustion, moving frantically, dodging- constantly dodging, a few what am I doing thoughts).
It's not impossible to fight against odds that overwhelming. There were certain weapons designed with the idea that many people would be rushing a defensive line at once kept in mind. Generally, they were long weapons; in particular there were two hand swords that could be used in just this way. It would not be impossible to achieve the same with a basic single sword, either, particularly if the offhand were given a weapon or shield.

When facing seven opponents, the adversaries are at a certain disadvantage because only so many of them can effectively menace you at once. Four, probably, but three find it easier to not get in each others' way. If your hero uses footwork designed to take him off the straight line and PAST whichever opponent he's facing at a given moment he'll find things easier. For example:

"Dave wondered how he always wound up being the one stuck in this position. A tall blond with savage hair bore down on him from the front, a thin, short man to his left and a fierce woman to his right, moving behind him as she closed in; in the distance two more waited to see what would happen. Dave judged the distance to each of his adversaries, shifted his weight towards his lead leg. Any moment now...

Just as the woman behind him moved in to strike Dave prepared a large cut and stepped too his left. His blade struck home on the thin man's wrist, severing hand from arm. Pivoting rapidly, Dave swept past the woman, opening her flank with a well timed blow. No sooner were his feet stable than Dave turned to face the blond. The savage prepared his own attack but Dave met it with a carefully executed lunge.

Now for the other three."


In reality that would have taken up to, oh, thirty or forty-five seconds to transpire. Dave would be starting to feel the effort but would not yet be winded. After the last three he would be breathing heavily. If the last three were even more careful and forced him to work harder he'd be exhausted. He might have taken a few minor wounds, but not enough to cause massive blood loss.

There doesn't have to be a LOT of action for a LOT of things to happen. In this case, Dave was partly lucky because he got moving as fast as he did, but a lot of it was skill; he knew what to do. I also left out a half a hundred little details, but they wouldn't serve any purpose to a mainstream reader.

Hope this helps.

~Serzen
Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous. --Voltaire

tameson
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Re: On Combat

Post by tameson » February 23rd, 2010, 12:14 am

Thanks! that does help. I actually took fencing for a year, but it seems like that really doesn't relate much to an actual battle- esp since my characters fight with two handed swords, multiple opponents, uneven ground, lots of noise, and it actually hurts when you get stabbed. That and I have to make the battle fit the plot. :)

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