The Dying is in the Details, Combat Diatribes #2: The Death-Dealing Duelist Dialogue

Ha! Look at me, being all terrible and not posting anything in forever! Isn’t it funny how I call attention to it? Am I not the cleverest entity you’ve ever borne witness to? Ha! I say ha again, because you were too stupid to laugh the first time! HA! Why don’t you fight me over it? I see you there, glaring at my would-be humor. Come on then, let’s have ourselves a nice little fight, just like the scenes in books. What kind of fight scenes? Why, all of them, of course! Starting with the one I like best, naturally. There are so many random action vignettes in so many books- but a good old duel, those are hard to come by.

So- the author’s vaunted duel. I said ‘the,’ singular, because there is only the one. They can’t all be different if no actual differences are shown; having different characters doesn’t change the fact that it’s all really the same.  In pretty much any book where the main character (or one of them) uses any kind of hand-to-hand or close-combat style, there will be at least one scene where he/she duels some sort of opposite number, mano a mano, one on one, to the death (or perhaps to the Pain?) Given how often this happens, I’m surprised my authorial compatriots haven’t put some time into sharpening their own skills in writing this dance of flashing blades/burning magic/FISTS OF STEEL, so as not to blunt those of the fighters. This isn’t that hard, relative to the three weeks everyone seems to willingly spend in some gods-forsaken backwater researching the exact history of a town for NO FLIPPIN’ REASON. You can make up towns easily. It’s hard to go wrong there. Fighting? Fighting’s easy to get wrong, hence so many of us are terrible at it, and people aren’t supposed to study Iaido in an amateur capacity because they might take their own legs off.

Because what I see, time after time, is: Opponents meet. Opponents draw swords. Mention of metal ringing on metal because that’s the only sound swords make, apparently, other than that weird audible shine that all of them have in movies. Multiple meaningless throwaway lines that give the reader no clear image for the entire fight that they didn’t dream up themselves; drag fight out because it’s the only way to show these two are ‘equals,’ whatever that means. One person finally gains advantage due to combination of words that effectively mean, He/she was a better swordsman and therefore he/she  took the advantage. Loser killed in poorly defined manner. Deathblow implied but not confirmed because what’s terminology again?

If the opponents have magic, it’s: Opponents meet. Opponents yammer. Text mentions of pretty lights and weird effects. Implication of serious power, but not actual showing. Telling easier. If spells, only fireballs, maybe some lightning if feeling ambitious. No implication of movement, tactical thought- thus making ‘magic is smarter than swords’ even more irrelevant and demonstrably wrong- none of this power leaves any real mark on the environment, even author’s imagination doesn’t have large enough budget for it. Mention of  three or four specific spells which are maybe sort of interesting if author is JK Rowling; otherwise, bugger off. Suddenly, someone wins, someone loses.

You may know of some or even many examples to the contrary, in which case it follows that I’m not addressing those authors, and the foundation of my argument may be flawed. Both of these are givens, because both the other authors and I are humans- we’re all crazy and hard to sort. Yet I hope you understand, I don’t expect everyone to grow amazingly talented at writing fight scenes that are engaging, yet not painfully long or too descriptive. I just want the ones who are really bad at it to stop. Death should be a jarring thing, hm? Especially where swords are concerned. Watch videos on Youtube of people sparring- the type of sword doesn’t matter all that much, there are tons of every type. I’d bet an entire penny that the majority of bouts will end with the loser getting poked/thwacked very suddenly, so much so that neither they nor the victor seem sure how it happened. In most swordfights, you try to anticipate the strike of your opponent before it’s made, then counter it before it can really get going. When someone anticipates wrong, their bowels are out on the ground before they realize, “Oh, wait, that was a low sideways cut!’ It’s alright to implicate an exchange of blows, but far more fights end with a straight kill- an opening exploited on instinct- than the whole disarm-stab-gloat routine you see in movies.  And the sheer trauma of a heavy cut will not give most characters a ton of time to monologue.

Swords are also not as clean or surgical as people like to think- how the heck could they be? Everyone seems to think only of the edge- but even supposing I had a saber (side note, katana, such as the sword I actually do own, are actually very thick blades, hence their cutting power) honed to a mono-molecular edge, the cut would still be at least as wide as the widest part of the blade. That’s just physics for you. And if you sever a bunch of arteries and leave them open to the air, they tend to, er… bleed. Everywhere. Arteries do that when cut. A sword-stroke may be a quick kill (done right), but by Yagyu Jubei’s stereotype eyepatch, clean it sure ain’t (tweren’t? But I think some people still use swords for self-defense, in a pinch). On the most basic level, swords are extremely disturbing because, more than any other weapon (excluding explosives, of course), they offer you an excellent chance of hurting yourself even when you think you’re being careful. People have underestimated the cutting power or weight of their swords enough to send them through targets and straight into the backs of their own legs. One particularly nice example involved someone doing this with a Hollywood-style Roman gladius, yielding a cut several inches deep across the back of the calf and needing seventeen stitches. Lovely stuff. A gladius is short, by the way; it’s fairly well balanced, being a stabbing sword primarily- it’s one of the less brutal swords to swing, is my point.

We also tend to forget, doubtless thanks to Hollywood again, that swords as a whole are actually some of the heavier medieval weapons- all-metal construction, geddit? They’re not the light, graceful cats of the battlefield- they’re the freaking Great Whites, ripping flesh apart by a combination of actual (often surprisingly moderate) sharpness and pure, brutal kinetic energy. They’re also surprisingly flexible (I.E., so they don’t snap or deform immediately on impact), and that means they can actually wobble a good bit when bashing against other swords. The reason swords have such a reputation is that they were so damn expensive- because again, it’s much harder to make a consistently tough blade three feet long than a consistently tough axehead ten inches long. But because of its weight and construction, a sword can be much sharper than you think it is. You might test it with your finger (you idiot) and find it barely breaks the skin- but slam the same blade edge-on into that sturdy young sapling, and suddenly you’re a tree-killer. Why do you hate the environment? WHHHHYYYYY?!?!

How many misconceptions have I made you aware of so far? I haven’t even scratched the surface. Go out there. Do your research. This is running a bit long, so with the structure complete, I’ll finish this out in another post. ETA: Soonish.

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