How to Write The Perfect Sword Fight

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

I think it’s safe to say that, these days, real-life sword fights are at an all-time low. And that’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong.

But it means that writing a fight scene with swords isn’t an activity where we can draw on rea- life experience (save for people into fencing or medieval combat). Again, this is a good thing.

Even so, in some genres like fantasy, sword fights are essential. Readers love to read them, writers love to write them, and they are a staple of the genre. So it’s important to write a fight scene with swords like a pro.

That’s what we’re here for. In this article, we’re going to cover the seven elements of writing a sword fight, including a few you might never have thought about.

For the record, as you’re reading this, understand that you can substitute almost any melee weapon in for “swords.” We’ll cover some specifics as we go, but the majority of information in this article will be universal for writing melee weapon fight scenes.

Now there’s only one thing to say before we get started, and I will not apologize for it:

En garde!

1. The stakes of the fight

Here’s one of the most important things you need to know about writing a fight scene with swords: the fight needs to serve a purpose.

A fight scene shouldn’t exist just for the sake of writing a fun fight scene. Everything in your book should be there for a reason, serving either the plot or a character’s development.

So the first step of any fight scene is to establish the stakes and figure out why the fight is happening in the first place. Make sure these stakes are clear to the reader so there’s gravity to the situation. Without the reader knowing the stakes, there’s no tension.

Of course, you don’t want to explicitly state the stakes. Nothing is cringier than the hero or villain saying “If you don’t win, your loved one will die!” Instead, show the consequences of failure in the events leading up to your scene. Alternatively, reveal a twist in the midst of your sword fight to up the ante even more.

Here are some examples of stakes that make sword fights matter. As always, this list isn’t exhaustive but should hopefully spark your imagination.

  • The characters’ lives are at stake (the easiest and most common)
  • Failure means someone else will die
  • Success will accomplish the protagonist’s larger goal
  • Success will end the larger external conflict
  • Failure will permanently maim a character
  • Failure will reinforce a character’s “Lie”
  • Failure will trigger the end of the world (no biggie)

2. The characters involved in the fight

The characters participating in the sword fight are just as important as the fight itself. They’ll directly tie into the stakes (because they’ll be the ones giving the why to your scene) while also influencing the scene itself.

Characters will have their own stakes

It takes (at least) two to tango in a sword fight. That’s two competing goals and motivations clashing against each other with steel, each just trying to survive to accomplish those objectives.

In most cases, that means you should have all the characters involved as fleshed out and three-dimensional as possible. It’s not just their thirst for violence or desperation to survive behind each swing of their sword; their larger purpose is driving their actions, too.

This, of course, doesn’t apply if your character is fighting hordes of some lowly monster, zombie, etc. that have no names. These minions should have a broader sense of purpose (serving the big bad, eating brains, and so on), but don’t need to be as deep as an individual adversary.

But in scenes where your protagonist(s) are fighting your antagonist(s) or some other baddie, it’s important for your reader to believe these characters are real.

If you want some backup in your fight to make believable characters, check out some of these handy resources:

How characters influence a sword fight

No two sword fights you write will ever be the same because of the way your characters influence that scene. Even if you have your hero and their rival clash swords twice in the same book, those characters will have grown or changed somehow in the scenes and chapters in between. 

If you spend the time making your characters unique and believable, they will all influence their fights in different ways. Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing a sword fight with your characters.

  1. What’s the character’s skill with their weapon? This includes their background and training, but also the ease of use with their weapon (i.e., wielding a cumbersome weapon is more difficult than a knife).
  2. What’s the character’s mindset? Are they desperate? Focused? Confident? Scared? Do they even want to be in this fight in the first place? A character’s current emotions will always have an impact on their actions.
  3. What’s at stake? We established this in the previous section. Now connect the stakes to your character’s actions. The way you write a practice duel is much different from a fight to save the entire world, and a flirtatious play fight between two highly skilled warriors is even more different.
  4. What have they learned? Stories are all about characters overcoming their obstacles—normally in a positive way to become a better version of themselves, though not always. Make sure to weave what they’ve learned into later sword fights to demonstrate those changes.

If you can answer these questions, you’re already writing a more effective sword fight. These are also the first melee fight-specific elements to our equation, but we have some more coming up.

3. The weapons used in the fight

Fights with melee weapons are visceral, brutal, and intimate. Unlike firefights with guns or two wizards hurling magic at one another, you’re up close and personal in a sword fight. 

On top of that, the weapons your characters use will—like the characters themselves—influence your fight scene.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways different weapons are wielded, how they do damage, and the ways they influence your fight scene. Again, not an exhaustive list (because there are a lot of weapons out there).

  • Swords: Used for hacking, slashing, and stabbing, swords are one- or two-handed weapons that can be quick or heavy.
  • Knives and daggers: Small, one-handed blades that are easy to conceal and are used to stab or slash.
  • Axes: Generally heavier than similarly sized swords, axes are used for chopping and can be one- or two-handed.
  • Blunt weapons: This category includes maces, hammers, and anything else that doesn’t have a point or edge. Instead, the weight and force of these weapons breaks, crushes, and shatters the enemy.
  • Polearms: Larger weapons wielded with two hands, these weapons are shafts with a weaponized head, ranging from axes (like a halberd), warhammers, spears, and more.
  • Ranged weapons: Think about ways ranged weapons can influence a sword fight, whether those be bows, throwing weapons, or firearms.

While my high school teachers have forbidden me from ever using Wikipedia as a reference, there is a great list of medieval weapons over there you can use to inspire your weapon choices. Click here to check it out.

4. The moves used in the fight

Remember how I mentioned that the general populous doesn’t engage in sword combat much these days? Yes, it’s still a good thing. But it means our concept of how sword fights actually happen is influenced almost entirely by media: books, movies, video games, and more. 

So, without that real-life experience, we need to really focus on the physical moves of our fight scenes with swords or other weapons.

How realistic do you want to be?

First things first, you must decide how realistic you want your combat to be. In a lot of fantasy novels, swordplay is made out to be graceful, choreographed, and almost poetic. In fact, it was R.A. Salvatore’s descriptions of dance-like sword fights that got me into writing in the first place.

Real melee combat isn’t like that at all. Real sword fights are quick, bloody, and graceless. This is especially true for armored combatants. Just skim through this video from the International Medieval Combat Federation to see how clunky and in-your-face sword fights actually are.

When it comes to writing, neither option is “right,” only right for you.

So figure out which end of the sword fight spectrum you want to write: the more fluid, fantasy style or the grittier, more realistic style.

Do some research

Before you start writing a fight scene with swords or any other kind of weapon, do some research to figure out what you’re working with. Again, the average person doesn’t know how to swing a sword properly, much less what it will do to another human being.

I’m not suggesting you go and watch some gross snuff film or anything scarring like that. No thank you. Instead, consider the following:

Piecing all these different ideas together can get you a great repertoire of fighting styles and movements to use in your fights.

Act it out

Okay, a lot of people laugh at me when I tell them this, but hear me out: I stand up and go through the actions of nearly every fight scene I write.

No, I’m not a professional (or amateur) swordsman. But acting out your fight scene choreography ensures that your action not only flows well but actually possible. Some people read genres like fantasy for the fights more than anything else and will (loudly) call you out for fight scenes that don’t work the way they think they should.

So don’t be afraid to stand up, grab a foam sword or roll of wrapping paper, and go reenact your sword fight.

Some Moves for Writing Your Sword Fights

Before moving on, here are some moves that will be staples in any fight scene with swords or other melee weapons:

  • Slash: Cutting in a sweeping motion
  • Stab: Thrusting with a pointed weapon
  • Chop: A downward cut
  • Deflect: Knock something off its intended trajectory
  • Block: Prevent an attack from finding its mark
  • Parry: Defend from an attack with a countermove
  • Riposte: A quick counterattack after a parry
  • Feint: A fake, deceptive, or distracting strike to bait your opponent

There are a lot more moves to incorporate into your sword fights, but these terms will get you started. Fencing is a great sport to research if you want to learn more moves and their names.

5. The emotions felt by the characters during the fight

We touched on this a bit when we asked questions about the characters in the fight, but I can’t overstate enough how emotions impact a good fight scene. A sword fight isn’t just about skill and weapons. What’s going on inside a combatant’s mind is just as important.

But establishing the emotions your characters are feeling starts well before a duel begins. Weave their mindset and how they handle their emotions into their larger arc and actions.

Then, when they’re thrown into combat, you need to make sure the reader understands a few things:

  1. How have their emotions influenced their approach to the fight? Are they well prepared? Is their mind racing with fear? Are they excited for the bloodshed?
  2. Is there a disparity between the emotions the combatants feel? When answering the previous question, look at it from the perspective of both sides of the fight. Is one side ravenous for a fight to get vengeance while the other is shaking in their boots? Think about the impact these different mindsets bring to the encounter.
  3. Do emotions change throughout the fight? What’s the impact of a confident fighter who finds themselves suddenly losing? What about a terrified duelist who finds their confidence? Consider how these shifting emotions influence the moves and outcome of a fight.
  4. How does a specific character handle an emotion or situation? Remember that not everyone handles their emotions the same way. One person might cower in the face of a daunting enemy, but another character might rise to the occasion and stand up for their friends. Think about how your character’s journey and personality meshes with their emotions during the sword fight.

Some Emotions That Might Be Felt in a Sword Fight

I’m going to assume you know what most emotions are (and won’t belittle you by defining scared and happy). But let’s look at a handful of common emotions and their potential impact you can write into your sword fight.

  • Excited: Eager to fight, romanticized ideas of the world or combat, potentially unaware of their own (lack of) skills
  • Scared: Reluctant to start the fight, worried about the consequences, sloppy skills, fueled by adrenaline
  • Motivated: Has more riding on the fight than normal, willing to see it through to the end despite the costs, less phased by threats and enemies because of their bigger purpose
  • Sad: Could be reluctant to fight or more motivated to seek revenge, distracted by what’s making them sad
  • Surprised: Not mentally or physically prepared for the fight, at a disadvantage compared to their attacker
  • Disgusted: Driven by a sense of purpose or horrified to the point it throws off their game, depending on how your character would react to being disgusted. 
  • Angered: Fueled by a sense of revenge or righting a wrong, blind to most reason, the fight tends to be more personal

6. The setting of the fight

One of my fondest memories of the classic Playstation 2 was a Mortal Kombat game that introduced environmental fatalities. The graphic fighting video game offered gruesome ways to finish off your foe using the setting. It was a unique way to add more than just the combatants into a fight.

Use that same mentality when writing your sword fight. Think about the ways the setting impacts the fight and its combatants. First things first, you need to come up with a great setting to house this fight—and you can learn all about that here.

Then, ask yourself some questions about the relationship between setting and sword fight:

  1. What hazards exist in the setting that you can work into the fight?
  2. How does the fight influence or change the setting?
  3. Are there other characters in the setting who are impacted by the fight?
  4. Does the setting give one side of the fight an inherent advantage or disadvantage?
  5. Are there consequences after the fight specifically because of the setting (i.e., unexpected casualties)?

Throughout it all, remember that settings serve the overall story. So make sure your fight scene’s setting makes sense beyond being a really cool stage for swordplay.

7. The pacing of the fight

Finally—but potentially most importantly—we arrive at the pacing of your sword fight. Here’s the issue, though: you need to vary the pacing of your sword fights. There is no single “correct” pace.

I mentioned R.A. Salvatore before, and he’s famous for intricate, highly detailed sword fights that take pages to describe mere seconds of combat. He describes stances, foot positions, muscle movements, tactics, mindset, and more.

But then some encounters are described in a single sentence.

Depending on your author voice and your genre, readers will be looking for a particular mix of both styles. For important fights between relevant characters—those fight scenes that have a big why—you’ll want to go into more detail.

For your sword-wielding warrior cutting down scores of weak goblins or a clearly weaker opponent, a simple “Doug made short work of the small, green monsters” is sufficient.

This is all, of course, tied into your own style. I like to write longer fight scenes, so my readers are people who like to read longer fight scenes. If you don’t like to include sword fights for more than a paragraph or two, that’s your call. Heck, yours can just be a single line. Make sure your style lines up with your genre, though.

And vary the pacing based on the current scene and the importance of the fight.

Write Your Best Sword Fight Scene

Some people—we’ll call them unbelievers—think sword fights are basic or just something to skip through while reading. After reading this article, I hope you realize how wrong these folks are.

Writing a fight scene with or without swords is a complex process that has a lot more going on under the surface than you might have thought. Just like any other scene, these are vital pieces to your story. 

Dabble gives you all the tools you need to manage each scene, character, and plot line in your future bestseller. You can even make notes for your sword fights that cover all seven of the elements we covered in this article.

On top of all that, you get automatic cloud syncing, comprehensive goal setting, some of the best customer support on the planet, and regular updates adding features suggested and voted on by Dabblers.

All that’s left to write your fight scene is clicking here to start your free, 14-day free trial for Dabble, no credit card required. 

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.