Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes: Piercing Hearts and Taking Heads

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back to the Tough Guide to Fight Scenes! It’s been a gut-slinger of a battle so far–outside the field the stubborn Americans, inside the stolid Germans. The first waves have broken, the trenches have been deepened, the 88s are reloading and it’s time we get into the nitty-gritty of breaching these bastard hedgerows!

Since my animated lead-in obscured my point a little bit–almost like a textual smoke barrage STOP IT–this is where I start volleying specifics about writing fight scenes for a given type of world. I’ll be straight with you: there is no way I’ll cover more than one or two examples from a given setting for free. I might not even do it for money. This is already a huge amount of work!

Example One, the queen mother of undertreated fight scenes: the conventional high fantasy sword fight! I won’t try telling you all the things you should be taking into account. There are three previous parts of this series for that purpose. Nope, now we reach the point where I give you a fight scene according to my own methods and you can decide if this works better or I’m just full of shit.

However! Before I can do that, we need to lay down the rules I’ve formulated based on all that previous advice! For example, every martial arts tradition has a wide array of terms. IF you know the term, you know the exact move it’s describing. There’s a wealth of information delivered in a single word. Unfortunately, we don’t have a common vocabulary right now, so I’m going to have to start introducing one. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we’re looking at a good old-fashioned mirror match: it’s longsword versus longsword, and–oh, right. Nertz. A lot of you may think by “longsword” I mean “one handed, double-edged European sword with a crossguard.”

(Damn it, D&D early editions!)

Technically, longsword is a modern term we invented to refer to things that, in-period, were mainly just called swords. “Greatsword” is a more valid term in that it refers to swords that DID have their own specific class. Like the term “greatsword” itself, this usually just meant “big sword” in a given country’s language. Anyway, enough of that–scroll down for a picture of a longsword!

Some parts of my 2016 design for Slight Fairborn’s sword have aged pretty well. Others… look, the grip was at the end of a long day. Still a longsword though!

As you can see, I mean “two-handed, double edged European sword with a crossguard!” Most were not this fancy, but the proportions are right and that’s what we currently care about. So: like the specimen above, our two combatants wield longswords with three-foot blades optimized for cutting and one-foot grips. Longswords encompassed a wide range of lengths and blade geometries, and it’s probably the same in this world–ah, fuck it, it’s Canno. We’re talking about my high fantasy world, Canno, because Canno is mine and I’ll use it for examples if I damn well please.

…I love you all, I’m seriously not trying to pick a fight. I mean, not with you.

Anyway! Our two warriors are longsword-duelists from the 100%-a-Prussia-Ripoff nation of Stoßdär. For this duel, they’ve agreed on “violent twins”–longswords which are exactly the same in fittings, handling, and even (roughly) sharpness. Both of them use their own school’s interpretations of Stoßdär’s Zornvater (literally, “wrath father” or possibly “wrathful father”) longsword fighting tradition. This is literally just Earth German longsword-fighting, but with a caveat. Zornvater, unlike the non-lethal tournament Kreuzhau (“cross-hew”) fencing, is what Stoßdär’s people call Mordfechten: “murder fencing.”

As any Helenenburg boy will excitedly tell you, Mordfechten must be used only in fighting to the death. Strikes are fewer, faster and more forceful than in Kreuzhau, but most of the stances, movements and terms for them are the same. It’s in applying them and adjusting them for maximum lethality that Zornvater separates itself.  Obviously in a book you’ll want to use that whole “protagonist gets trained to fight” convention to lay these out and reinforce the terms over multiple scenes, not babble it all just before the first fight, but we’re on a condensed timetable here.

Ah, by the way, it’s already a fantasy convention that our protagonists get trained to fight. These interludes are the perfect time to set out your system, and it gets wasted every time because none of us have systems to set out. (Shouting angrily in German) Alright, I’m calm. Back to work–some basic body mechanics rules, then what are those moves and what do they do?

This will seem a little overwhelming right now because I have to overturn a plethora of really bad fighting ideas all at once. As soon as more of us are writing with these things in mind, we can start streamlining. Soon everyone will have the right basic idea, and eventually we’ll get a genre-wide terminology going so we only have to explain the handful of special techniques in any system. Won’t that be great? Ha, we’re not even close to there yet. Anyhow:

Mechanical Rules: Spine straight; hunching weakens you and looks stupid to boot. Knees braced but not bent super low, lead foot points forward, rear foot canted side ways. The exact bracing, foot spacing, and foot angles are partly down to individual taste–as long as you’re balanced to move where you need to and resist being pushed or pulled over, do what you want!

All movement starts from the hips, even steps and lunges, but engages all the relevant muscle groups for maximum speed and power. Step with your movements when possible, but sometimes there’s just no room. The ideal movement is always a crossover step where the rear foot passes forward to become the lead foot, putting the power of the whole body into every move. When retreating, the lead foot passes back to become the rear foot. Simple enough, na?

Cuts are always made so the arms are fully extended before the sword meets resistance–be that the enemy’s sword or his tender flesh. Want to know why? Lean against a wall with your arms held out. You’re going to find it’s way easier with them fully extended than with them already bending inwards. This is a common principle of just about every weapon-handling art from Europe to Japan, China to India, and beyond. In fact, so is everything I stated above.

(All human bodies function roughly the same, so all martial arts have roughly the same core principals. It’s the advanced stuff that separates them.)

The rest of your body should always push your sword forward; if your shoulder or head are ever further forward than your weapon, you fucked up. This is both for power and to keep you safe from attack. Thrusts are great when you can make them but get you killed if you don’t get the enemy’s sword out of the way first; use cuts to take the center, then thrust once you’ve forced your opponent’s sword somewhere that it can’t hurt you.

Block with the arms fully extended (stronger, remember?) and the point aimed roughly at the other person’s face or body–you wanna be able to stab them sharpish if they disengage to try something else. Cut near the tip, block, parry and bind near the guard. Cuts from your main hand side (righties from right, lefties from left) are stronger. Try to mirror your opponent’s side–if they cut from their right, you cut from your right. Otherwise, the swords tend to miss each other and it becomes a crapshoot as to who hits who. This leads to double-kills, which are the dumbest and worst end to a fight.

Last rule: no technique is inherently honorable or dishonorable. Honor is satisfied by the duel’s conditions–unless they explicitly forbid a technique, it’s no-holds-barred. And yes, this includes testicular mangling.

So, about those stances and moves: there are a bunch of them within the German system, and Zornvater includes all of those. I’m only going to describe things here which I use in the fight, and only in depth where they’re not either obvious or easily understood from considering the mechanics I listed while reading the scene–your readers can figure out the rest just from watching the way your characters apply the moves. If, that is, you yourself understand how to apply them!

Day’s Guard (Vom Tag): has several forms which all do roughly the same thing, but the basic form is with the sword held directly overhead (not behind, overhead) pointing backwards. This allows murderous cuts downward. Blocks nothing, so offense is actually your best defense. Despite what people with zero serious martial arts experience will tell you, is actually excellent against thrusts; just cut down onto the enemy’s thrust as it comes in and suddenly their point is knocked safely away while yours is jabbing at their stupid, stupid face!
Longpoint (Langort): the sword is held straight out with the arms fully extended, as if a thrust had just been made. Longsword duelists usually cut into this position for a bind and withdraw if they don’t have the advantage. Waiting in Longpoint is a bad idea–your opponent can just drop a cut onto your sword and get control of it, then walk their point into your neck once you’re bound up (see above).
Near Guard (Nebenhut): the sword is held with the point back and aimed at the ground, close to the hip. Starting point for upperstrokes, and good for crooked strikes.

A decent if admittedly fuzzy example of Longpoint. Poised!

Downstrokes are any cuts that travel down, and can be perfectly vertical or diagonal from either side. Upperstrokes obviously travel up. You can make them vertically too, but it takes a really particular hip motion. Middlestrokes go horizontally from one side to the other. Thrusts are just thrusts. They all follow the same rules: fully extend your arms, and make sure you move so you close the space your enemy’s sword has to move through to threaten you. Do that consistently, and you could win every fight with these basic moves.

Wrathhew (Zornhau, and yes, it’s seriously called the WRATH HEW. And you guys thought historical martial arts was boring!): despite its name, is really just a strong-side downstroke. Remember, righties cut best from their right, lefties cut best from their left. You may tweak this to change exactly where your sword winds up, but usually you’re either cutting your opponent and driving his sword aside (thus keeping you safe!) at the same time, or getting a good bind you can stab him in the face from. Did I mention it’s one of the Five Hidden Strikes?! And YES, that is the historical German name for these techniques, also called the Five Master Strikes.

Crooked Strike (Krumphau): a strike which requires you to put your thumbs on the near side of the grip, changing the shape of your hand so your wrists can turn further without joint injury. In the “classic” version (every Master Strike has multiple forms for different purposes, but it’s mostly a matter of where you aim it), instead of cutting at the enemy, you cut parallel to your front–imagine the sword is a big, shiny, sharp windshield wiper. Remember, put your hips into this, and step off to the side if you need to make extra space. Timed carefully, this knocks attacks to the side so you can follow up immediately with a cut or thrust before they recover.

That’ll do for now, and here’s my curveball. Out of everything I just threw at you from the start of the post to the description of the krumphau, the only things your readers need to know are:
-arms fully extended, moves start at the hips, arms should never lag behind the body, spine straight, basic footing
-The names of moves and stances in each combat system
-Names of the school-specific techniques and a rough idea of why they’re special.

Everything else is just for you, and I haven’t even provided a complete list. You as the author are the one who needs to understand exactly how the system works and why. There’s a fine balance between focusing on technique for impact, and getting bogged down trying to explain everything. I would know; I’ve run afoul of this in my own writing.

You still need to grasp it all so you can plot out the fight in a way that makes sense, and so you can easily understand how each new movement demands certain responses–or how choosing the wrong response might lead the fight somewhere different. So! Our two duelists arrive at the arena, and let’s cut to a proper prose narrative beneath the asterisks!

***

A light morning mist sparkled in bronze dawn-light, coiling around the dark-iron statues and playing among the thick tropical fronds hanging from the ceiling. The cushioned benches along each wall were empty: neither school would allow the other to glimpse its intricacies. Dieter found that laughable–as if they weren’t all practicing the same martial art! His fingers coiled around the loan-sword, easing it against his shoulder while he approached the center floor. The weight and feel maddened him: so close to his own sword, yet not quite right. He adjusted his crimson doublet, loosened his shoulders, and stepped onto the white tiles. The rust-color grooves between them had been white too, centuries past.

Katrina smirked at him and took her own place, carrying the other loan sword and wearing a midnight blue doublet. She raised her blade to Day’s Guard at the shoulder. Both lean-muscled, pale and dark-haired, the duelists might have been twins themselves–down to stark aquiline noses and gaunt faces.
“Fighters ready?” Meister Zeller barked. Her presence was mostly pageantry; from the moment she swung her staff down, there would be no quarter and no need for her to speak nor intervene until the final blood splattered.
“Ready!”
“Ready!”
“Kill!” Zeller yelled, knocking her staff once against the floor and retreating.

Dieter advanced first, slipping one foot before the other and coming to Day’s Guard above his head.
Katrina lunged the moment he entered range with a Wrathhew hissing at his head. Dieter clashed his own Wrathhew against it. Sparks scraped loose on the floor, his sword’s point aiming past Katrina’s right shoulder. Dieter angled in and lunged, but she threw her right foot back and twisted aside. Steel shrieked when she crossed her hands inward, driving his sword away, then twisted and hurled a chop at his skull.
Deflect or die! Dieter screamed at himself.

Dieter lashed out a Crooked Strike that pivoted him away. The clash hurt his ears; for his pains, the chop slashed through his doublet and took strips from left shoulder. He and Katrina snapped their blades to Longpoint at the same time, backing away to take stock. Dieter flexed his left shoulder, wincing at the tearing but moving it easily. Still works, and better than a split cranium. Katrina glared at him over her sword’s back edge, breathing hard through the nostrils. Dieter twitched his lips and brow at her–he’d have preferred to kill her in the first exchange too.

For three fevered breaths they circled, then Katrina stepped in with another Wrathhew. Dieter threw one of his own and met nothing–Katrina halted her cut just out of range! The moment his sword passed she was on him with a lunge for his eye. He twisted aside with a left downstroke. Katrina let him smash her sword away and stepped toward Dieter’s right for another strike at his skull. Not this time! he seethed, and drove in with his sword sideways above his brow.

He drove the blade’s base into Katrina’s wrists and shoved her arms back behind her head. Razor-steel rasped on cloth and flesh while Katrina snarled at him.
In the same instant that she kicked frantically at his lead knee, Dieter dropped low and pressed forward. She went over but kicked his leg out, and they both tumbled away. He hissed in frustration. Just let me kill you, damn it! Dieter rose first, jabbing into Longpoint while he advanced. Katrina gained her feet, took the left Near-Guard at the last second and soared into an upperstroke that opened his right forearm. Those fingers slackened and his grip became weak…
…but the cut completely missed his sword.

Dieter lunged the instant her point flickered past his eyes. Katrina twisted down to deflect him–and the sword-point entered her pale throat above the blue doublet. Katrina slammed her arms frantically against the blade, but though it bent it didn’t break. She couldn’t cut or bring them in line for a thrust, only stare wide-eyed while Dieter threw himself forward. The edge of Katrina’s sword bit deep into his scalp when he moved past it, and he snarled. Then its point was well behind him, and Katrina’s last chance to kill him with it.

Dieter grinned bitterly. Got you.
For a sickening instant he felt his sword’s edge grate against Katrina’s vertebrae while blood gouted from the widening puncture. Then the handguard thudded against Katrina’s neck, and something crunched in her throat.  He coiled his right arm underneath his left, palm against Katrina’s left elbow to hold her in place. Katrina gurgled, struggling to throw him away, to strike, to do something.

Dieter felt her blood splattering his hands, and her last breaths hot and ragged on his face. He felt remorse while her expression of helpless anger turned to fear–not for killing her, but for the inelegant death he’d given. They staggered back and forth for a few seconds, then a few more. The grotesque dance of half-turns and shambling–Katrina whimpered now–continued until her eyes dilated and her limbs went slack. Her longsword clattered to the tiles. Only then did Dieter put his right hand against her chest, shoving with it and pulling with his left as the long sword slid free in a metallic hiss of fabric and steel and flesh. Katrina’s corpse thudded down; a healer approached Dieter.
“An excellent scar in the making,” she said. “Some fight, eh?” Dieter eyed the still corpse, drew a deep breath, and felt only satisfaction. Blood from the cut on his scalp entered his left eye just before the healing’s warmth settled in.
“I cannot complain,” he answered.

***

Writing that made me uncomfortable in a good way. So, I’m not going to go into too much depth about technique, but there’s actually a lot of subtext here and I want to explain some of it. Key points:

-Both fighters are skilled but neither fights perfectly. Each picks more-or-less appropriate responses to the needs of the moment, but these aren’t always the optimal responses. Dieter thinks too much about going for a thrust, which causes him to miss Katrina’s evasion during the first exchange. If he just followed her, he’d sooner or later have run the point into her skull as she backed away. On the flip side, Katrina misses an opportunity to win the fight immediately after.

If she reversed her hands into a thrust instead of trying for a vertical cut, Dieter’s Crooked Strike would only have driven the thrust into his center mass. Better yet, she could have stepped into a downstroke from the left with the smallest hand rotation of all. Best case scenario for Dieter, his deflection only drives her cut harder into his own face. Worst case, she cuts into his brain-case and steps past him in the same motion before he can execute the Crooked Strike at all.

-Katrina has faster reflexes and acts more quickly, but Dieter is more technically skilled. Despite the fact that she attacks first, he achieves the better bind, indicating that he has a superior grasp of distance and timing. In the final exchange, once again, Katrina misses her chance to win by cutting up into Dieter’s head because she misjudges the distance. Her “soaring upperstroke” actually takes her too far, so she’s not able to hook backward and deflect Dieter’s thrust in time.

A more reserved (due to ceiling) upperstroke. Note that I’m already dangerously open to a sword aimed at me, even without exaggerating this further.

Dieter, meanwhile, realizes that without the grip strength of his right hand he’ll lose if the fight returns to its normal rhythms, and makes a correct though risky decision to commit to a kill-thrust. He then follows through far enough to ensure Katrina can’t cut at him before she dies, having noted that his thrust to her neck hasn’t severed her vertebrae and thus totally neutralized her. Dieter doesn’t move his left arm up so that he stabs Katrina in the brain and totally blocks any last-breath cuts because he doesn’t feel he has time. This isn’t absolutely certain, but reasonable considering that Katrina has demonstrated faster reactions overall.

Accepting the slice to his head-top is risky, but understandable; in Renaissance German fencing, “high bleeding wounds” to the top of the head meant victory–in non-lethal tournament fencing with blunt swords! Since Stoßdär has this same style of combat in Kreuzhau, which he is aware of though he’s a Mordfechten man himself, Dieter would understandably be willing to gamble that this is one of those rare head wounds he can safely take. Moreover, though, he’s clearly getting hot-headed and focused more on killing Katrina then defending himself.

In the final sequence, Dieter is still using the advantage he gained by driving his sword into Katrina’s forearms. Because she fell over backward, she’s not able to line up a strong enough kick to damage Dieter’s leg, and only knocks it away because it’s already shifting backward as his other foot moves forward. When he falls he falls forward, so when he comes up his sword is still ahead of his body as it should be and he easily regains a stance.

Katrina’s backward fall means she has to get up using only her legs and core, and she moves her sword down into the Near Guard because this downward flail of the arms is the instinctive way to help yourself sit up faster. From here the most natural thing is an upperstroke even though a downstroke would be the best way to clear Dieter’s Longpoint. Still standing up and recovering her balance, Katrina naturally puts too much force into it and the rest is history.

-Katrina takes an uncomfortably long time dying, and Dieter is not surprised by this. Real humans don’t just conveniently keel over the instant you wound them mortally. It’s entirely possible to fight better, wound your opponent unto death without any hits, and then get killed in their final frantic moments because you cockily forgot to keep yourself protected.

-Katrina’s first-blood chop, though intimidating, achieves little. With a well-structured cut and perfect edge alignment, a longsword does horrible damage for what feels like no effort. With a cut that’s skidding rapidly sideways and probably misaligned because of a deflection, as Katrina’s is, you can’t expect to do all that much. Dieter’s doublet, which wouldn’t otherwise offer much protection, is a godsend here.

-Every single movement in the fight has technical terms associated with it, but I decided not to throw these at you because there was no point. You know already that these two are highly trained duelists, so I’d just be obscuring the action instead of driving home that they’re martial artists.

So, look: I don’t expect most of you to be able to write a small essay dissecting the fight scenes you write. Again, yours truly is a martial artist; I practice this stuff more than some of you have time to practice your actual writing. But, you don’t need to. You just need to read enough fight scenes written like the one above to start replicating the style. Eventually, even though you don’t have the in-depth mechanical understanding of a practitioner, you’ll be able to replicate the parts that matter for storytelling.

So, a charmingly brutal little mirror match as promised! But… most historical fights weren’t even, and most fantasy fights aren’t either. What about a totally asymmetrical fight scene? What about a duel between an arcane powerhouse and a strange battle-entity known as an Adherent?

Find out next time!

(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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