Writer’s Craft #85 Writing A Great Duel Scene

Rayne Hall
Rayne Hall
Rayne Hall is professional writer and editor. She has had over 30 books published under several pen names, in several genres (mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction), in several languages (mostly English, German, Polish and Chinese), by several publishers, under several pen names. For books currently published under the pen name Rayne Hall, see http://www.amazon.com/Rayne-Hall/e/B006BSJ5BK
She is the author of writing craft books aimed at advanced-level and professional authors.
Writing Fight Scenes has become a popular resource for writers, teaching step-by-step how to create exciting, realistic fight scenes. http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Fight-Scenes-ebook/

Duels are often the most exciting and memorable scenes of a novel. Here are some tips how to make yours unforgettable:

* Readers love it when both fighters fight honourably – even the villain.

* Duels often have a ritual component, especially in cultures with duelling traditions. There may be witnesses and courteous formalities.

* For each fighter, a lot is at stake. Emphasise the stakes.

* To make the duel exciting, give both fighters equal skills.

* Readers root for the hero if he has a disadvantage: perhaps he is injured or does not wear armour, while his opponent does.

* Blow-by-blow accounts are dull. Describe the opening moves and the final strikes in correct technical detail, but for everything in between, just show the general gist.

* Most dialogue happens before the fight starts. The opponents taunt each other, agree on rules or promise to care for the loser’s orphans. During the fight, they have neither concentration nor breath to spare on witty banter. When the loser lies dead, the winner may say something profound.

* Create a sense of realism by describing what the ground underfoot is like (hard, uneven, muddy, sloping, slippery?) and how it affects the fight.

* Use sounds to make the fighting vivid. Let the reader hear zinging bullets or clanking swords.

* Vary the sentence length. As the fighting action speeds up, use shorter sentences. This creates a sense of breathlessness and speed.

For inspiration, watch these three superb film duel scenes:
Rob Roy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEtPluUi0_U
Troy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf4IoxEUmHM&feature=related
Sanjuro http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYbi7gKKvOo&NR=1


32 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #85 Writing A Great Duel Scene

  1. Liked the point about fighting honorably. Not that I wouldn’t advocate dealing with criminal behavior however one must, and even the honorable of the Okal Rel Unvierse must do that. But who’d watch the olympics if it was just about who can cheat best. ORU Quote: Cheaters get dead.

    1. Not only that, but duels are a public spectacle. Fighting honorably wins public respect in a way that cheating won’t. It might lead to increased rank or status. Even if it doesn’t, there’s an undeniable practical benefit: potential enemies in the audience may well be intimidated into leaving you alone.

      Even dirty fighters who disdain duelling may think: “If this fellow remains this cool and kicks this much butt even while fighting in the spotlight by the rules, I’d hate to face him in a dark alley. Maybe that’s a job for my expendable henchmen…”

  2. Yes. The focus of this article is on arranged, formal duels rather than spontaneous fights. Most of the points apply to other kinds of fights as well, but some don’t.

    For example, spontaneous fighting seldom has a ritual component, and the fighters are less concerned with their honour.

    1. Formalized duels are more than just a conflict between two individuals . . . these individuals are both performing for their entire society. The ones who “perform” best, according to their society’s expectations, may receive enhanced rank or status. The benefits may even spill over to their immediate family (“Best leave her alone. Her brother killed Lord Blackstain in a duel in the square just last month”).

      People of any stripe, looking for a leader to follow, are often more inclined to follow a duellist who puts something — anything — ahead of their own immediate personal safety (even if the duellist is obviously doing so for the sake of public image).

      1. In the “Clockwork King,” our hero,Charles, discovers that his skill in theatrical swordplay can’t hold a candle to the Sebastian’s (antogonist) years of formal practice. However, he has no choice-defend himself or be run through. On top of that Sebastian is using rapier and dagger while our hero is stuck with a sabre a weapon he’s unfamiliar with using. Charles attempts to escape and is injured. Ironically, his injury actually results in his escape. The scene has been written for a while, but now I’ll take another look.

      2. Hi April,
        There’s no Reply button under your other reply, so I’m replying to your first reply again. 🙂
        This scene sounds exciting. Someone with training in stage combat/theatrical swordplay defending himself with a real sword against a real sword is great. He’ll be able to use some stage combat skills, while others are useless in a real fight. I think the reader will really root for him. This sounds like a scene where the setting could play an important role. What’s the location?

      3. “This sounds like a scene where the setting could play an important role. What’s the location?”

        It begins in a ladies chamber at the top of a tower. Our hero runs to the stairwell leading up through the tower to the castle’s battlements. Part of the fight takes place on the parapet. Not sure at this point if there is any difference in the definition of a parapet or a battlement. But he’s up there, ready to fall off.

      4. Does part of the fight take place in the stairwell? Stairwells are fantastic locations for swordfights. The fighter standing higher up has the advantage, so each tries to get that position. Spiralling staircases are especially interesting. They’re designed so the defender coming down (if right handed) has room to swing his sword but the attacker coming up has not. Of course, this applies more to an attack/defence fight than to a formal duel; I’m just offering it as food for thought and possible inspiration.

      5. Another thought: If they’re fighting on the battlements and there’s danger of falling off, you can increase the suspense by giving the PoV has a phobia of heights (if this fits the character & plot)

      6. Thanks very much for the insights.
        Yes, my hero is on the defense heading up backwards on the spiral stairs. There’s a zeppolin tethered to the battlements and when it takes off he grabs the rope, hanging on for dear life. His opponent also grabs the rope;however, the hero having a hand injury and bleeding loses his grip and falls onto some boxes that were supposed to be loaded onto the zep. The antagonist who had also grabbed onto the rope can’t let go because at that point the rope is over the edge–the fall into the moat would kill him.

      1. There’s quite a story behind the story. I had sent a flash fiction sub to a British webzine. The editor contacted me and said he’d like me to expand and serialize it. I spent a summer working on it and wound up with 12,000 words in four parts. Then he disappeared, the webzine along with him.

        So this (temporary) ending was left open with Sebastian floating off into the sunrise; yep, the fight is in the pre-dawn. Charles Dante (claimed by the dowager queen to be her son and the true king) is left with a kingdom in shambles. I’ll probably serialize and self-pub, much as I’m doing with Quicksilver Moonlight, another Regency Gothic of mine.

    1. I hate it when publishers go out of business after I’ve done a lot of work for them and before publication and payment. I’ve lost count how often this happened to me. The worst is when it happens after a certain contractual stage when the rights have been transferred; then the rights are in limbo; the books will never be published or paid.

      Some of the small publishers even died as soon as I submitted and I had to talk to their grieving widows about giving me back the rights to my writing. For a while. I thought I might be jinxed.

      The real reason was, of course, the decline of the conventional publishing industry combined with a dose of bad luck.

      At least, in your case it happened at an early stage; you own the rights and are free to do with it what you want. Indie publishing it as an ebook sounds like a good plan.

      How many words is the opus overall?

      1. At the moment, 11,000 words are written and I have sketched out enough for a potential novella (50,000). I could self-publish as part 1 of a series and just put up what I currently have with a promise of more if there is interest. It’s a similar situation to Quicksilver Moonlight, of which I have just posted the first 10,000 words as part 1. They are both Gothics set in the Regency period (though Clockwork King is set in Eastern Europe not England). They are part of my Penny Dreadfuls as opposed to my novel length urban fantasies.

        Thanks for asking!

  3. Your attention to detail always makes me wonder if you have endured the scenes you describe, ie: “* Create a sense of realism by describing what the ground underfoot is like (hard, uneven, muddy, sloping, slippery?) and how it affects the fight.”

  4. Interesting points. I’ve never written a duel scene and never thought about the formalities that go with them. I suppose the formalities might be polite to begin with and then turn more and more insulting so that the opponents work themselves up and have to fight. Maybe more sarcastic insults than angry.

    1. Perhaps duels are more suitable for novels than for short stories, so the reader gets the context of character development.

      I think the nature of the dialogue before the duel depends on the fighters’ personality. Using insulting dialogue to psyche themselves up is a possibility because it’s difficult to kill someone who’s kind and courteous to you. Some of the dialogue may also aim to unnerve the opponent, e.g. by instilling fear by not demonstrating superior cool and confidence.

  5. So enjoyed your article, Rayne! I’ve written both fantasy battle scenes and once, a modern gunfight (gads! the research required to do that one…I knew nothing about guns :p ) I’d rather a good old medieval close encounter anytime. I’ll look for your book – and thank you in advance for sharing all your hard-earned research with us.

  6. Hi Sandy,

    One of the problems with gun fights is that they’re over so fast. Band – dead. There’s only so much prolonging we can do with aim-taking, cover-taking and target-missing.

    And the research…. I confess I don’t know much about guns either! Whenever I write contemporary stories involving guns, have to ask someone who knows about them.

    Fortunately, my fantasy worlds are based on bronze age cultures (ancient Egypt/Rome/Greece/Persia, Hittites, Medes, Minoans and Mitanni) so the fighting is with spears, arrows, swords and daggers. I know a bit about swords than about guns – that is, I can tell a spatha from a schiavona and a khopesh from a katana, but I still ask experts to help me get it right.

    Would a one-on-one formal duel fit into one of your books?

    When writing battle scenes, what do you find most challenging?


  7. Duels are specifically set up by some societies to allow enemies to kill each other “honorably” without causing the messy legal necessities of a formal murder charge. The idea is to have the fight happen with witnesses (“seconds”) to verify that both combatants were acting in (simultaneous) self-defense.

    Since this means the duel must be prearranged, or at least public, it encourages flamboyant speech and gestures, replete with courteous formality, right up to when the fur starts flying.

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