Tag Archives: writing duels

Q&A: Duel Structure and Weapons

I had this idea about having a rule for certain duals in my world being use your opponent’s weapon/skill (with agreed time for practise). A recent post you had was talking about how no one can be experts at everything, which means unless all are impossible experts like that, one may be severely disadvantageous or both look like sloppy amateurs who can’t fully use the weapon/skill especially if it’s very different. So.. is my idea good or not?

No, not as stated. Let’s talk about why, because there is something adjacent that, the best of my recollection, was a practice.

In real history (and in your world) dueling was a highly ritualized activity. There was an entire process that was necessary to “legitimize,” a duel. The exact steps varied through history and between cultures. The goal was to provide a form of dispute resolution, but the rituals evolved to minimize the risk of bloodshed without taking the option entirely off the table. If the process was skipped, then you just had two people trying to murder each other.

Generally speaking, you do not want someone planning to kill you handling your weapon. There are far too many ways to covertly sabotage it when you have it in hand, and are appearing to, “practice.” If you’re not above poison, you could even booby trap your foe’s weapon if given the opportunity.

There’s a few things about dueling worth discussing.

First are the seconds. The second was a personal friend who served a critical role in dueling process. I’m unsure exactly when the process started, though it was well established by the 19th century.

Seconds had a number of responsibilities, including: Coordinating the duel’s schedule (usually the duelist who accepted the challenge could dictate this, within reason, and it fell to the seconds to lock down the details.) Making any necessary preparations. Procuring, inspecting, and providing the weapons. (Depending on the culture, this might include examining In the case of pistol duels, the seconds were responsible for loading their duelist’s weapon. Finally, they were tasked with talking their friends out of killing each other.

Dueling sometimes had very specific rules regarding the kind of weapons used. This changes based on when and where you are. In some cases, the duelists would have some freedom, (as with the location, if there was a choice, the responding duelist would usually be allowed to make this decision, within reason.)

The important takeaway is, while one of your duelists may have a significant skill advantage, their weapons should be evenly matched, if not outright identical. There’d be no benefit to, “practicing,” with your foe’s weapon, because you already, effectively, have a copy.

All of this is distinct from, “dueling,” in narrative. This has nothing to do with dueling rituals; dueling in fiction refers to a specific, small scale (usually one on one), combat cadence. The fight occurs with alternating flurries of violence, interspersed with quiet lulls. In some cases, those lulls will include dialog, where the characters verbally spar, though in others, it will feature downtime while the characters reposition, or while the focus cuts away to other characters. This structure works very well on film, and is extremely popular in screenwriting.

Because of their structure, duels can extend far beyond a single scene. While you can have a simple single fight duel, like Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope, you can also drag this out over an extended period of time, moving between different environments, such as Luke’s duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

Narrative duels can also extend beyond a single character. Many nautical novels include dueling ships. Each ship is (functionally) a single participant in the overall combat. Science Fiction often takes inspiration from nautical sources, alternately patterning starship combat off of sea combat, submarines, or, sometimes, modern aircraft support. For example of this, the majority of Wrath of Khan can be described as a protracted duel between the Enterprise and the Reliant (or between Kirk and Khan as the respective captains), while drawing heavy influence from both submarine combat and the Horatio Hornblower novels.

The identifying characteristic to identify a duel like this is if the combatants remain under threat of immediate violence from one another, even when they’re moving through different spaces. I realize this is a little subjective. If you want a more definitive set of thresholds, if either character is defeated or fully escapes, the duel is over.

If you’re working within the narrative structure, it’s entirely possible that one character will end up with the other’s weapon via some means. They may have simply disarmed their foe and are now pursuing with both weapons in hand. As far as tension goes, this is a good idea, as it forces your character to find a replacement under pressure.


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How long would you expect a fight to the death between sword wielders to last? i know you’d want to get it over with as soon as possible, but those one hit kills you see in tv shows aren’t real, are they?

Not always, but swords are quite fast and lethal; single strike kills are quite possible. Having forty inches of high quality steel run through your heart or throat can kill you on the spot.

Even a glancing blow has the potential to seriously impair a limb. So, a strike to the arm or leg followed with an immediate kill is quite plausible. Also, bleeding to death is a legitimate risk, even to an extremity hit (particularly in the thighs and upper arms). In which case they could still bleed out in under a minute, depending on where they’re hit.

Generally speaking, most forms of media seek to draw out combat. You want to play the scene as long as possible for the audiences’ entertainment. We’ve talked about this before in a lot of different contexts.

This applies to gunfights, sword duels, hand to hand… it’s everywhere. In the real world the most important thing is to make sure your enemy is dead before they can kill you. In entertainment the most important thing is to make sure your audience gets to see the fight.

If you want to get an idea of how fast real sword combat could get, I’d suggest looking at competitive fencing. It’s not what historical combat looked like, but it should give you an idea, especially when dealing with light blades like the rapier but more specifically the epee. European sword combat became progressively faster as time went on when it came to dueling and the epee is essentially it’s pinnacle. As a spectator sport, modern fencing requires both electronic scoring and instant replay just to tell what happened. Depending on how fast you want it to be in your narrative it could be quicker than the eye can follow.

When you’re setting up a duel for film there are a few things you can do to make your life much easier. The most important thing is to simply slow down your actors. This extends the fight, and it makes the fight watchable. At full speed it can be legitimately hard to follow most forms of combat, including sword dueling. This also makes it safer for your actors, because they’ll have more time to react and more control.

You can move the blades outside of the actors body lines. We’ve talked about the importance of this in combat before, but for choreography, it gives your audience a clear picture of what’s happening, and it helps your actors to time their actions off one another. This also leads to a lot of non-guard stances that make little to no sense from a practical standpoint, but look great on screen.

The second thing that can make your life a lot easier with staging duels is having the actors parrying constantly. This allows you to extend the duel theoretically indefinitely. This also provides the opportunity for cosmetic injuries, like a nick to the cheek or arm. It’s probably worth mentioning, a nick to the forehead isn’t cosmetic, because it will get blood in the victim’s eyes.

On screen, the threat of lethality can help maintain tension in long duel sequences. The reality that these characters would have been exhausted 10 minutes ago doesn’t matter. When the time comes to end the sequence it can happen on the spot.

When you’re writing a duel in prose, things are a little different. The visual padding that makes a movie sword fight memorable works against you. It doesn’t matter if your characters are on top of a crumbing tower in a northern tundra with snowy mountains in the distance. It’d look cool as hell, but your audience is interested in what your character is experiencing. In the duel, that’s their fatigue, pain, what they’re doing, and what their opponent is doing to them. Where your characters are, when it’s not immediately relevant, will kill your pacing.

Put another way, in a visual medium (comics, TV, film, even to an extent video games) the images are the substance. What the audience sees is important. In written text, what your character experiences is what’s important.

What this means is, when you’re writing you want to keep your duels short and punchy. Set the stage before the fight begins. You can still have your grand tableau. But, when the focus changes to killing, that is the most important thing for your character until after they’re no longer in danger.

When you’re writing fiction balancing your needs for to keep your audience entertained and your desire to hew close to reality is necessary. Many of the greatest duels in cinema history from Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling to the Princess Bride aren’t believable from a realistic standpoint. They are, however, extremely entertaining.

At the end of the day, if you are a writer then you are an entertainer. That’s what stories are. Even if you’re only entertaining yourself, the experience is what’s most important. Strike your own balance, learn how it’s supposed to work even if you don’t follow those rules, get a feel for what works well for you, and damn the rest.

But, yeah, you can flat out kill someone with a sword, that’s a thing.


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