Monday, 31 January 2011

Medieval Fight Scenes

As a follow on from the last post, a little something about the relationship between fictional fighting and the real stuff, seen through the lens of that most heavily armoured of brawlers, the knight. You see, even in the Middle Ages, there was a big difference between the way fights probably were (according to various fight manuals, at least) and how they were written. Some key points:

  1. In the chansons de geste, knights exchange blows with no sign of any skill but lots of power. In fact, medieval fight manuals have as many technique things in as any book on asian martial arts, from different parrying positions to wrestling holds and other things.
  2. Knights in modern fiction fight with swords. Knights in medieval fiction fought with swords (always with names, and usually made by someone famous) after breaking their lances first. Medieval fight books come complete with techniques for everything from dagger to club, and Anglo-Saxon warriors were famous for their use of the axe.
  3. Aside from Robin Hood (who may or may not have been there to promote the Lincolnshire clothing industry if we are to believe the historians) you don't get many archers in medieval literature. Or foot soldiers. Or indeed anyone with weapons who didn't also have more noble blood than you could reasonably wash out of a tabard afterwards. In practice, archers played an increasingly important role on the battlefield, while some knights even brought companies of foot soldiers with them to tournaments (they were mostly horrible cheats).
  4. In the books, armour is there as the main defence, until the hero gets a bit wound up, in which case they slice through large portions of people (from the top of someone's head right down through the horse, in one chanson de geste). In practice, full plate was pretty good at keeping people safe, and chain did a reasonable job with slashes, but wasn't really up to much in the piercing department.
  5. Even in the books, knights didn't fight very fair, but they did occasionally get off their horse when an opponent fell off. In reality, most of them would have ridden down anyone who didn't surrender.
  6. You don't see much of knights wrestling or rolling about fighting like schoolboys in the books, but huge portions of the work of Fiore and Talhoffer are devoted to wrestling holds, even in armed combat. One I particularly like involves clashing in a diagonal cut, forcing the opposing blade upwards, and then getting into a horrible tangle with the opponent's limbs at close quarters. At least, that's how it always turned out for me in practise.
  7. One word of warning with the fight books. As with all books of this type, whether modern or historical, the authors probably wanted to do a number of things that count against them showing the full picture. They may have wanted to preserve some secrets, so that people would have to come to them to learn. They almost certainly wanted to show off the bredth of their knowledge, so they put in as many techniques as they could think of, without too many filters when it came to which were occasional techniques and which were for everyday use. They also wanted to show their view of the art, so you get one man's opinion, rather than a complete view. Still, they can be well worth reading.

Better Fight Scenes

If there's one thing that I am qualified to talk about (well, actually, that would be the history, but if there are two) it's fight scenes. From fencing (8th place, since you ask, in a slightly stronger field than last year) to formal training in an assortment of martial arts that has included various forms of karate and kung fu, jujitsu, aikido and Historical European Martial Arts Systems, not to mention all the bits and pieces I have picked up from friends, I have a bit of experience with this stuff. Here then, are some tips for better fight scenes that have almost nothing to do with what I have learned.

  1. The way a character fights should reflect that character's physique and personality. That three hundred pound ex-linebacker is not going to be using many aikido moves. Big people should fight in big ways. Little people should be subtle, or sneaky, or downright vicious. That ex special forces guy of yours will not fight fair, but that ex-boxer might.
  2. It's not a question of martial arts. Although many people do martial arts these days, if you say that your character did martial arts' technique X (or indeed X guard. I've flicked through a specialised BJJ tome on this one and I still don't get it) then you are assuming that your audience has the same knowledge base you do.
  3. The philosopher David Hume once argued (broadly) that if a cause is sufficient to produce an effect, then it will probably do so immediately. Aside from the flaws in this, and the fact that I have mangled the argument a bit, it applies to fight scenes too. If your character has the capacity to win, then why is it taking them a thousand words to do it? What changes?
  4. The last minute save can be overdone. Have you ever had someone else shoot someone who is about to kill your main character? If so, you have just repeated one of the oldest cliches going. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does tend to undercut the feeling of the struggle being in any way real, or of the potential for anything bad to happen.
  5. Pay attention to how things start and end. People have this clear cut idea of fights starting with everyone knowing what is going on and ending with someone incapacitated. In practice, many start with a conversation, and end with running away, vague embarrassment all round, or lots of other people breaking it up. Even Roman gladiators didn't fight to the death as much as people seem to think they did, while the European duel in the last few hundred years was primarily only to first blood.
  6. It is an interaction between two or more people, but that doesn't mean you spend half of it on dialogue. You'd be amazed at how little in the way of witty banter I manage when someone is throwing themselves through the air with a sabre aimed at me. Let the physical interaction do the work for you.
  7. Don't do it for the sake of it. There's a thing in thrillers, urban fantasy and so forth where you can end up feeling 'oh, I've had a lot of dialogue, it's time for someone to hit someone'. I'm as guilty of it as anyone, and obviously good structure demands a reasonable balance of different scene types, yet every fight scene should have a purpose beyond exciting the reader.

Friday, 28 January 2011

A quick plug

My short story 'the case of the dark lord in the library', which is a parody of all things classic detective fiction related, has just been accepted by the Hoggle Pig Press site, and will go up there from the 6th of Feb.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


  • I'm reading a couple of books on creative writing, just for a change. I generally don't, because although there is often useful advice to be found, I'm a little wary of the 'this is the right way to do it' thread that seems to run through them. If there were only one right way, there would be only one author (who would probably end up being someone I hate, most probably)
  • Curiously, a similar attitude tends to show up in the martial arts. At a jujitsu class last night, one of the teachers started insisting that I do the stand up elements the karate way, because that was the 'right' way to do it, although I have previously worked hard to get away from many of those habits (I should point out here that I am referring to a particular brand of the art that I tend to think of as mid-20th century Japanese karate, were you have neither the common sense approach of the modern stuff, nor the slightly more plausible bunkai of the Okinawan stuff). I did it, but probably won't go back.
  • I have finished my third of a collection of short stories dealing with funny versions of historical events, and look forward to that one coming out later. It was a lot of fun to work on, though trying to produce fifteen 1000-1500 word pieces quickly while maintaining quality was tougher than it looked.
  • I'm still plugging away with multiple personal projects, though I note that my efforts have mostly focussed on one of them. I suspect that this is natural, and at least the others are there waiting if I get bored.
  • The Yorkshire sabre is this weekend.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Some Random Thoughts on Knights

Knights, we've all written them at one time or another. They're the idiots in the tin cans who come in to rescue people from that dragon you've left lying around. Yet how much do we actually think about what we're doing with them? Some thoughts:

  • The word Knight probably comes from an Anglo Saxon word, the closest Latin being of course 'miles'
  • There's a lot of nonsense written about how this sort of heavy cavalry only became possible with the invention of the stirrup after the fall of Rome. However, experimental archeaology based on remains of Roman saddles have shown that these offered plenty of support for a charge, so the fact that you didn't get Roman 'knights' is probably more down to social considerations.
  • Knights are generally posh in stories. This is good if you want to give them that English public school edge (as Tom Holt does in Grailblazers) but you don't have to. Although the higher orders of society in the Middle Ages came to be quite proud of their martial prowess, just being a knight doesn't convey any particularly high social status.
  • The notion of chivalry is a bit hit and miss. For the first few centuries of their existance, the 'chevalerie' were just those blokes who went around fighting on horseback, and it didn't say much about the way they were supposed to behave.
  • Those full plate combinations that they always wear in pictures are generally quite late. This does not have to be a bad thing, because it allows for jokes about knitting chainmail.
  • Medieval writing that features knights tends not to care about them so much as their stuff. The writers were obsessed about naming every sword, telling the reader where they got their armour, and describing what sort of horse they rode. It's a bit like James Bond and assorted gadgets, where they end up taking over the story.
  • Medieval fight scenes. Bloke bashes other bloke repeatedly, while getting bashed in return. Although assorted fight books (notably the Fiore dei Liberi and Talhoffer ones) show that there was a lot of skill in medieval fighting techniques (although very few parries. They seemed to prefer counter cuts) the fiction invariably shows the combatants knocking lumps off one another with sheer strength. Literally. They didn't shy away from things like lost ears.
  • Talking of strength, the modern perception is that all these people from the past must have been tiny. Knights were generally the best fed and most exercised of society though, and some of them were big. William Marshall (the tournament knight, royal household member and occasional regent) was a notable example at 6"4".
  • For some non-Arthurian approaches to the medieval knight see Raoul de Cambrai or The Song of Roland.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


One of the side effects of my occasional "It's horrible, delete it all!" moments is that I sometimes find myself restarting things a couple of times. Court of Dreams took me three aborted attempts before I got a finished draft, for example.

One thing that means is that I'm often going over old ground. It's an odd feeling, because I am at the same time trying to remember where I was going with the story and trying to avoid the mistakes I made with it. It's a balancing act that takes a certain amount of work to achieve. The piece I'm currently doing it with wasn't actually that bad when I got rid of it, so I'm spending a lot of time trying to remember how it originally went, and not entirely succeeding. Still, so long as I get something finished eventually.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Dive In

The Yorkshire Sabre is rolling around again (and speaking of rolling around, I spent last night submission grappling, and found myself stuck in with the heavyweights. Time to lose that Christmas bulge). This will be my third (or possibly forth) year, and obviously it would be nice to progress to a podium spot this time, but the main thing I find myself thinking about is familiarity.

The first time I did it, I had no clue who anyone was. I just fenced. Yes, I got the better of a couple of people in the poules, but I didn't do that well. I've been getting steadily better since. Part of that is just the amount of competitive practise I've been getting (writing related comparison: put your stuff out there if you want to improve) and part of it is that I have fenced the best people three or four times now. It also helps that I have become used to the atmosphere.

So, there's probably a writing related lesson in all this, and it's the old one about letting yourself write poor things at the start. As you do more, you acquire more confidence and learn more, but that won't happen if you insist on keeping away from the rest of the world until your stuff is perfect. It's better just to dive in.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


I've spent the last few hours writing what is essentially a parody, so I'd like to share a few tips that I picked up along the way. Mostly by getting them wrong:

  1. Parodies and references must be to things people will recognise, otherwise they are just slightly stupid and out of place comments. For which see my Orville the Duck references in the middle of a piece about the Wright brothers ('I wish I could fly, up in the sky, but I can't'). Only brits of the right age range will get this one.
  2. They cannot replace the story. A series of references in a row do not make a narrative arc. There doesn't have to be much there, but there does have to be something.
  3. You need to identify the key elements. What are the main elements of sword and sorcery? Heroes in furry underwear, villainous sorcerors. Things. Magic weapons. Damsels in distress. Only once you know what the key features are can you make fun of them.
  4. Exagerate. Make things larger than life, until small elements in the normal version play huge roles in the parody.
  5. Be logical. Applying a sort of strict logic to things can be fun. What would really happen in a fairytale where the princess had to let down her hair for someone to climb up? It would break. So why doesn't it? Really good conditioner, maybe, giving Rapunzel a hair product endorsement somewhere towards the end?
  6. Feel free to be wildly inappropriate with setting or context. Noire with jokes in is one thing. Tudor stuff that just happens to echo Philip Marlowe is quite another.
  7. Don't settle for just being clever. I do this far too much, and must stop. Funny is better than clever.
  8. There need to be jokes from both sides of the fence. If you're slamming genres together in the parody, don't let all the jokes be from one of them. The above piece manages to play on the traditional noire stuff, certainly, but also does jokes about medieval consanguity laws. I know. It's funnier than it sounds.
  9. Expected and unexpected endings. Sometimes, you have to achieve the expected ending for the genre in an unexpected way. Sometimes, you have to undercut it while still producing something narratively satisfying. For the one above, history buffs who read the piece will know what is going to happen, except that the demands of the imposed genre mean that it doesn't happen in nearly the accepted way.

Friday, 7 January 2011

History is Funny Enough

At the moment I'm helping to write a sort of funny alternate history thing about how major historical events really happened. One of the curious things about it, however, is that often the real history is weird enough in its own right. For example:

  • Did you know that the battle of Stamford Bridge was lost by the Norse primarily because they had all taken their armour off, it being a bit of a warm day?
  • That the Golden Horde which nearly conquered as far as Vienna in 1241 turned back because Ogedei, mongol ruler and son of Ghegiz Khan had died in a drinking game?
  • That the Marquis de Sade managed to get himself transfered from the Bastille ten days before it was taken, and his papers weren't collected on the basis that they would be perfectly safe there?
  • That Phillip II of France skived off from the Third Crusade with a belly ache, mostly as an excuse to nip back and steal Normandy while Richard I was out?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

After the evil

Not every villain ends up beheaded by the heroes or reduced to an inky stain on the carpet by dabbling with things of which Man Was Not Meant to Know (like, in the case of most villains, DIY). Some are merely defeated, and have to go on to find alternative employment. Some things that they could do after the last battle, then:

  1. Start up as a fashion expert. After all, black goes with everything. Spikes slightly less so, but I'm sure they'd get the hang of it.
  2. Teach elocution from a small cottage on the edge of a village.
  3. Take up gardening (those giant carnivorous plants will come in very useful later on)
  4. Devote themselves to charitable works (they are generally quite good at getting money out of a frightened populance)
  5. Attempt to calculate the amount of custard in the universe to eight decimal places
  6. Start a correspondence course ('You Too Can Be An Evil Overlord In Your Spare Time')
  7. Learn conversational Gnomish, before discovering that they are mostly just saying "Oi, big person, watch where you're walking"
  8. Paint their robes grey, smoke a pipe, and give occasional fireworks displays at birthday parties
  9. Play with a train set (Apologies, I have just had it pointed out to me by a passing minion that this should read "carefully construct a scale model railway" and would like to make it clear that was what I meant all along. Now, if he could just take the axe away...)
  10. Breed Things for shows (like those retired ladies who always seem to show up with little wire haired terriers at Crufts. Only with more tentacles, obviously)
  11. Whinge about how the world is getting better every day.
  12. Spend years perfecting the sort of conjuring tricks that they could have achieved in two seconds through pacts with dark powers.
  13. Hold dinner parties for said dark powers, to which they arrive slightly embarrassed, holding a half-empty bottle of Chianti.
  14. Get out to see the world through means that don't involve conquering it.
  15. Move to the Vale of Niceness for tax reasons.
  16. Give up the quest for eternal life in favour of the quest for eternal Tuesday (on the basis that they always have cake on a tuesday)
  17. Studiously craft maps with large Xs on them and then leave them lying around in the pub
  18. Start a fund for distressed minions ("Poor Grag was left out in the cold by his overlord. Now though, he has a home with a warm bed in the slime pit and all the shoes he can eat)
  19. Write a tell all biography, where 'all' includes the true names of all your enemies.
  20. Plot your eventual revenge. Retire? What do you mean, retire?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Villainous Flaws

Have you noticed that villains' plans always share some fairly similar flaws? Particularly at the funnier end of the spectrum, there are some things that the average villain just has to do, apparently:

  1. Chasing after someone who should be as easy to squash as a bug (assuming that there are no giant ants involved) yet who somehow manages to keep one step ahead despite being only four feet tall and never wearing shoes. I'm looking at you J.R.R.
  2. Using giant robots/monsters/bunny rabbits for purposes which they really aren't suited. Surely, it would be easier to rob a bank with a ski mask and a gun than with the sort of high tech gear that costs more than the contents?
  3. Wearing black all the time. Fine if you're looking to blend in with a group of goths, but not otherwise.
  4. Always setting up shop somewhere with at least one secret way in. You'd think that the draught from that network of hidden tunnels would play havoc with the heating bills.
  5. Coming up with plans that rely on things that can only be obtained from one or two places. Instead of creating a spell using rare materials and a crystal stolen from the heart of Mt. Inaccessible, why not put something together using materials from your local Radio Shack?
  6. Failing to check who the people they kidnap are related to. Somehow, that wizard you need always turns out to be the long lost uncle of one or more heroes. Wouldn't it save a lot of time to work that out in advance, and pick someone else?
  7. Capturing people for nameless torments that never seem to happen (perhaps because they're still trying to think of a name) thus placing them in the perfect position to foil the villain's plan.
  8. Maintaining such a poor standard of employee relations that the favoured minion always betrays them towards the end. Honestly, is giving them a couple of days off here and there too much to ask?
  9. Turning people into things for hundreds of years. Don't they know by now that they always get turned back at just the wrong moment?
  10. Gloating, laughing, and generally revealing the plan.
Of course, there is no reason why your villains shouldn't do any or all of these things. It's just that you need to be aware of the cliches, and make sure that they only show up when you mean for it to happen.