Huzzah, friends, we have a sword fight! Let us sally forth and survey this excerpt from author Gwen Dandridge’s work in progress.
Author: Gwen Dandridge
Book: The Dragons’ Chosen, work in progress (Update: Now available!)
Buy Link: Buy The Dragons’ Chosen on Amazon
Combatant 1: Genevieve, female, a traditional princess circa medieval times. Small build, with very minor weapons training.
Combatant 2: Chris, female, a 1970s Berkeley college student. Average build, some karate training but no weapons experience.
Combatants 3: A pack of wolves.
Combatant 4: A mysterious man defending the two women. Well-muscled, with lots of combat training.
Scenario: Chris has been transported into Genevieve’s world. Whenever Chris is startled, she disappears from that world. In this scene, they are ambushed by wolves in the middle of a mountainous forest.
One of the wolves darted toward the man. He parried the attack with his blade, and we heard the crunch of metal into bone over the yelp of pain. The man stepped backwards into the creek, balancing like a tumbler, one step, then another. The four remaining wolves, heads down, matched his every footfall, waiting for a misstep.
The flame before us grew as we cosseted and coddled it into a sullen but viable fire. Next to me I felt Chris shaking, though it could have been me. My brain focused only on building the fire; nothing else mattered, each twig, each branch that burned meant hope, and every flame that expired, despair.
The wolves separated. Two of them leapt the creek and were upon us before the man could react.
Chris grabbed the end of a burning stick and shoved it at one slavering muzzle. The wolf flinched, snarling as he snapped at it. He feinted away but then darted back to attack again. He lunged past Chris at me, his jaws closing on the folds of my velvet riding skirt. I held the blade with both hands as I stabbed, missing as he twisted away.
The fabric of my skirt ripped. The wolf shook his head, pawing at his mouth to remove the cloth. I stabbed at him again, a glancing blow, but blood covered my hand. He dove toward me, fangs bared as he snapped at my arm. I jerked back, then stabbed again and again, not caring what I struck, until at last he lay unmoving. I stood gasping, staring at the lifeless body. I looked up to see that the man had dispatched the other two wolves and was racing across the creek, water sloshing. Chris screamed and, as I turned, the last wolf leapt straight for her. She threw herself backward and there was a resounding thunk as she hit her head against the rock ledge. Without another sound, she was gone.
The wolf seemed momentarily confused, staring intently at the space where Chris had been one moment ago. The man slew it with a single swipe of his blade. He spun around, but no living wolf remained. We were alone.
My legs gave out beneath me. I’m sure that I didn’t faint. I would not have. But I was momentarily confused. Chris was gone, and there was gore covering me. I had killed a creature, I, who hurt nothing. And my riding skirt was ripped.
Sword fights can be difficult to write if you’re not used to handling weapons. While you can often get by simply through a lack of detail, it tends to remove the memorability of the fight scene. This is a perfect example, so let’s see how we can inject some specificity and liven things up!
“He parried the attack with his blade, and we heard the crunch of metal into bone over the yelp of pain.”
An adult wolf weighs about 100 pounds (45 kgs). A simple block with a blade would not be able to deflect that much oncoming weight. The man needs to either sidestep here as he parries, or hold his ground and stab the blade straight into the oncoming animal rather than slashing. The stab would kill it in seconds, while the sidestep-slash would fit better with the rest of the paragraph.
As a second point, bones are very dense and unlikely to be broken by a blade, so I’d switch “crunch” to “clash.” I also doubt that the sound of the stab would be audible over the yelp, but suspension of disbelief and people’s expectations as set by movies make it okay to ignore this particular bit of realism.
“The man stepped backwards into the creek …”
This is unwise. Combat requires sudden movements, and no fighter would willingly choose an environment where such sudden movements are likely to cause a twisted ankle. Since the creek doesn’t play a big role in the rest of the scene, I’d revise and have him go for some higher ground instead, like backing up a hill or hopping onto a rock. Also, an experienced woodsman would know that wild animals will try to divide a herd, so he shouldn’t be separating himself from the weaker members of his group.
“… his jaws closing on the folds of my velvet riding skirt. I held the blade with both hands as I stabbed, missing as he twisted away.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this description, but it’s a little basic. If Genevieve had some trouble keeping her balance, and perhaps fell and had to use the stab to keep the wolf away from her throat, it would add some more tension to this moment.
“The fabric of my skirt ripped.”
She should fall, or at least stumble. The wolf pulling on her skirt created a force on her body, which she would have had to be resisting. With no combat training, she wouldn’t know how to stand so that when that force suddenly disappeared, she could keep her balance. A fall or tumble here is another way to add more drama.
“I stabbed at him again, a glancing blow, but blood covered my hand.”
This is very general. Stabbed at what body part? Glanced off of what? How much blood? Did the wolf stumble or have any other reaction? Also, blood is slippery. She needs to switch sword hands, or else have trouble keeping her grip on the weapon through the rest of this.
“I jerked back, then stabbed again and again, not caring what I struck, until at last he lay unmoving.”
Again, very vague. This sort of violence takes up an awful lot of perceived time, even if it only takes a few seconds in real time. In combat, things slow down, so I’d like to see some of the heart racing, sweat pouring, breath holding anxiety this would produce, done with intense verbs that capture the energy in the moment. There’s a lack of bodily reaction throughout the scene, and it particularly shows here. Slowing this moment down and giving it more detail is the best thing that could be done to improve the scene and justify the character’s horror later.
“But I was momentarily confused.”
This phrase appears earlier in the scene. Again, I’d prefer to see bodily reactions to what happened. Collapsing in exhaustion, dropping the sword, feeling the blood starting to get sticky, rubbing salty sweat out of the eyes, etc. Smells and tastes would help as well.
In summary, this scene follows the “attacked over and over until the battle ended” pattern that is seen in a lot of fight scenes. It’s not wrong, but it’s not memorable, either. More sensory details and greater variation in actions (dodging, falling, slashing vs. stabbing, kicking, throwing things, etc.) would give it a much more unique feel.
I also think the fire is a lost opportunity for intense visuals; shoving a wolf into it, or having Genevieve back up to the rocks and then a wolf leap the blaze, coming at her through the smoke, would have provided an awesome moment.
What did you think of this fight? How would you add more detail to make it more intense? I’d love to chat, so scroll to the comments and say hey!