Pen and Sword: The Author's Journey in Writing Swordfights

Your Roving Reporter once again reports in. This past Monday, VPL (Central branch) hosted “Pen and Sword: The Author’s Journey in Writing Swordfights,” an event put on by Academie Duello and VISS (Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium). For this event, four authors who took up swordplay, however briefly, spoke about pursuing an art in order to benefit their writing. One fight scene from a story by each author was enacted by members of the Academie Duello Performance Team, slowly to match the author reading the passage, and afterward at full speed.

So! For those of you who couldn’t be there, never fear! Quotes and descriptions selected from several pages of notes I took follow below.

The moderator of the evening was Devon Boorman, co-founder of Academie Duello. He started by introducing the authors: Jennifer Landels (author and co-editor of Pulp Literature), C. C. Humphreys (author of, among other works, the Jack Absolute series), Kris Sayer (author of a graphic novel re-envisioning of the  fairy tale “Tatterhood”), and Sebastien de Castell (author of Traitor’s Blade and forthcoming sequels).

(image source)

“Writers have the exceptional opportunity to be compelled by their characters to explore new worlds,” Devon said. Foreshadowing a common thread from the evening, Devon pointed out that learning new skills deepens one’s writing.

The readings were kicked off by C. C. Humphreys, who read the passage from the end of Absolute Honor (the third Jack Absolute book) wherein Jack confronts Red Hugh and they duel to the death inside a canvas tent. The duel was enacted by David McCormick and Callen Poulin. I was impressed: even when David’s face was immobile, the stillness in his face was not stasis but expressed the inward experience of Red Hugh at that moment. (I should also mention that the swordfighting was great and impressive; I almost forgot to say so because I knew it would be.) When David and Callen repeated the fight at full speed after the reading, the duel took less than ten seconds. Which gives you an idea of how quick actual swordfights are, and how quickly, how extremely quickly, it is possible to die in one.

Devon asked: why study something (swordplay or another pursuit) to develop writing?

Writing is, essentially, creating drama, said Sebastien de Castell. Drama seeks an emotional response. When you delve into a field, you experience the emotions within that field. There are different kinds of anger, happiness, sorrow. In swordplay, different oppnents elicit different emotional reactions. Swordplay, or sailing for that matter, helps you the writer explore the nuances of these emotions viscerally.

Chris Humphreys said he wanted to be accurate. As a writer, you are always aware of the panel of critics who might pick up your every error. “Part of my duty is to make the history as right as it can possibly be, but really I’m a storyteller.” The thing to remember is not to cram in as much history as possible, but to convey the sense of what life was like in that setting. Learning as thoroughly as possible what an era or an activity such as swordfighting is like allows you to write succinctly and with depth, without showing off. That said, research is the springboard for a story, not the point of the story; inspiration, not pointless detail for its own sake. “If it’s not about character, it shouldn’t be on your page.”

Jen Landels agreed: “There’s something about immersing yourself in the world you’re about to write about that lets you write more easily.” Her preferred technique? “Familiarizing myself as much as I [can] so when I sit down to write I don’t have to think.” The point isn’t to capture every single detail, but for the story to be saturated with the feel of what it is like to live in those circumstances.

The reason Kris Sayer took up studying spoonplay (yes, Kris studies combat with the giant wooden spoon that her character wields) was that comic book and graphic novel depictions of fights frustrated her with their inaccuracy. Inaccurate portrayals are entertaining, not fulfilling, she added. She wanted to learn how to fight using the weapon her character does so that she would be able to draw fight scenes without devolving into mere comic relief; she wanted to take her weapon seriously. As she studied spoonplay and swordplay, Kris found herself looking beyond the mechanics to considering the intent of the people her protagonist faces, and how that affects the way they fight.

How has studying swordplay affected how you write fights?

Most of the thus-far-published scenes from Jen Landels’ serialized Allaigna’s Song were written before she took up the sword. What has changed, she said, was the feel of it: the reverberation down your sword and up your arm when your opponent parries hard; the weight of the weapon in your hand; “the sense of measure and peril of facing somebody holding a sword.”

“What I write, really, boiled down, is character in action,” Chris Humphreys said. Every swordfight is “a chance to reveal something about the character… Every character would fight in a different way, just as every character makes love in a different way.” Therefore the question as a writer is “how you use the sword as a tool of character” – what does this fight scene add to or reveal about a character?

Sebastien de Castell pointed out that every swordfight has a puzzle or riddle aspect to it. Every fighter has strengths and weaknesses. Writing is not interesting if “swordfighting ability” is just a measure of how good or how tough a character is. A swordfight is “actually one character trying to solve the puzzle of the other character’s weakness.” The other opportunity for the writer is to explore the different kinds of culture. There are all kinds of micro-cultures, and people may react entirely differently according to the culture they’re in at any given time, whether that culture is the office at work, a swordfighting school, a different swordfighting school, or elsewhere.

“The more you immerse yourself in different things, the more you see similarities… the more things you explore, the more commonalities you find” and the richer the experience is, Jen Landels added. As a swordfighter and a riding instructor, Jen uses analogies from swordplay to teach riding horseback to other swordfighters. Her experience allows her to teach people who know the one sport by using language and concepts they are already familiar with when they struggle with what is unfamiliar.

Kris Sayer found that studying with the weapon she was drawing opened her eyes to the possibilities* of her weapon. Instead of imagining her protagonist whacking people with a giant wooden spoon, Kris began to consider what part of the spoon, and why.

Advice to other writers on writing scenes involving swords?

Jen Landels: “It’s a story. Never forget that it’s a story. As a swordfighter, I’m interested in the blow-by-blow mechanics of the fight… [but] the vast majority of your public will get lost.” But if you can describe the feeling, Jen added, the shiver that goes up your arm when your opponent’s blade slides up your own, you’re onto something.

Chris Humphreys: “You build up your characters, and then take them into peril.” Not all readers will like the violence, or care about swordfights at all. So you need to have the readers invested in the character first. Make them care before you put your characters in danger of losing life and limb. And a good swordfight “should be fun, fast, and furious, in my opinion.”

Sebastien de Castell pointed out that he writes fantasy, and he doesn’t see why everyone in a fantasy world should fight like a 16th century Italian noble. So his swordplay is deliberately not based on actual swordplay at any one historical period. From his perspective there are three different scales, three levels, for describing an action.

  • There’s the very large view (“They fought like dragons…”)
  • There’s the middle view (“Chris threw a roundhouse punch at my face”)
  • There’s the micro view (“The first thing I saw were the hairs on his knuckles as…”)

He recommends writing pieces of the fight on all three scales – begin with the micro view, say, then move to the medium, then to the large, and end on the micro level again. “Often what’s missing is that absolutely visceral detail.”

Kris Sayer’s technique is to “keep it simple and know your audience.” Each move should make sense to someone who has no interest in swordplay.

A scene from Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade was read by the author and performed by Sylvie, Adrian, John, and Nick from Academie Duello’s Performance Team. Kudos to the team for combining deft swordplay with the appropriate (and very amusing) facial expressions!

Kris Sayer read the text from her graphic novel while the images were projected onto a screen and Kimberleigh, John, and Adrian performed the scene. In contrast to the almost merry action of the duel in Sebastien de Castell’s novel, in which the protagonist’s narrative voice filters the audience’s perspective on events, the violence in Tatterhood was graphic and disturbing, even sickening – as violence is in real life. (Another thing for writers to consider: the repercussions of living with the threat of violence, of enduring violence oneself, and of enacting violence upon others.)

It was a most fascinating and illuminating evening.

italian-rapier

And, fittingly, a post from a Duello member on Sir Terry Pratchett and swordplay.

*I cannot even think that phrase without hearing it in Bumi’s voice. Avatar: The Last Airbender has marked me for life.