View Full Version : Sword fight and pirates

06-26-2012, 01:11 AM
Hey guys! I know I haven't been on here in quite some time, but I have something that I want to hear your opinions on.

I'm in the pre-writing stages of a 17th-18th century pirate novel, and before I start, I wanted to know if any of you had any good tips for writing sword fights or action in general? I have a couple of different sword fights in mind; there's captain vs captain, captain vs lady, lady vs pirates, and possibly more.

I didn't know if there was any different techniques used to describe the fights that correlated to the different fighting techniques used by the different parties.

Also, I wanted to know if there was any tips for writing old fashioned stuff like this. Like, is using old English okay, or too much, and stuff like that.

Any tips on any of this would be great, I want to get a variety of opinions. :)

Miss Plum
06-26-2012, 03:54 AM
My advice is that you know the shit out of your subject matter. If I'm going to be reading about 17th-18th century pirates having a sword fight, I want to be in good hands -- because I ain't got a clue.

06-26-2012, 06:38 PM
You might want to put this in the sandbox or even in the "research" forum. There are a lot of experts over there.

But yeah, knowing your shit is crucial.

One Monkey
06-26-2012, 07:00 PM
I ran into this question (in a more general sense) a ways back. Here is a link to the Q&A on Writers Stack Exchange

What's Essential In A Combat Scene? (http://writers.stackexchange.com/q/1182/231)

Drachen Jager
06-26-2012, 08:32 PM
I was an animator for ten years, and people tell me my fight scenes are excellent. I mention that because the experience in animation gave me a great sense of how to visualize things, how people should move when they're hit and such. I think that's key, if you have to use action figures to stage your fight, do it, especially if there's multiple participants it will keep things straight in your head.

For me, nothing kills an action sequence faster than an unbelievable moment. I think one of the greatest swordfights in modern film is in the movie Rob Roy, at the end. Also look to Seven Samurai and Yojimbo if you want some well staged fights in a different style. Japanese films depict swordfighting in a much more realistic manner than Western films, in reality parrying was not done on a regular basis with heavy military swords, only when lighter dueling swords were used. Of course you can still go with the traditional Eroll Flynn style fights, it's accepted by most people, but I find the speed and deadliness of the Japanese staged film-fights is a great change of pace from the clang clang Hollywood fights where everyone looks like they're aiming for the opponent's sword (and don't even get me started on the 3 prequel Star Wars films).

06-26-2012, 10:16 PM
Writing a period novel, takes tons of research. You'll need to be familiar with the classes you're portraying (Pirates, Merchants, Lords and Ladies) and what they wear, how they talk, how and where they are likely to have learned their fencing skills.

You're in the 17-18 century range. Focus on small swords for the gentlemen, cutlasses for the pirates. Yes, view the last fight from Rob Roy - it gives a good visual on how a 'heavier' blade and a 'lighter' blade would interact.

As a fencing master, I can appreciate it when a writer takes the time to understand the intricacies of the weapons and their fight systems. IF he's going to reference a specific system, he/she had damned well use it properly however. I also don't mind a more 'generic' description of the actions - in favor of the INTENT and EMOTION behind them. "Their duel ranged across the deck. The Captain's assaults, incessant, insistent and intrusive. The Lady could only find safety by retreat, yeilding through ceding parries..." - A line I used in a novel. Has a bit of both. You can imagine him pressing his assault, but her managing to fend him off. At the same time, IF you follow fencing, you know what a ceding parry is, the subtlety needed to use it correctly and safely, and how - ultimately, she is controlling the encounter. This then became a metaphor for the love scene that followed.

06-26-2012, 10:20 PM
Like, is using old English okay,

What exactly do you mean by Old English?

06-27-2012, 12:14 AM
"Old English" wouldn't be recognizable to most readers. It is, in fact, a different language. So, I assume you mean something akin to a more formal version of English.

Also, you don't get "sword fights" if you're wanting any sort of accuracy. Most films show pirates using rapiers or something similar, but on a ship, it would most likely be a short-bladed cutlass - more hacking than fencing.

06-27-2012, 12:54 AM
Thanks for the tips, all of it is appreciated.

As far as language goes, I was looking towards a more proper English that's similar to authentic old English, but easy to understand, if such a thing exists. I was also hoping to throw in a bit of French, and was wondering if I could make it work without having a constant interpreter character nearby.

With the action, are readers more interested in the fake sword fighting or the authentic fights that last only seconds? If I knew which one works better, I could better narrow what I need.

Again, thanks to all of you! :)

06-27-2012, 01:08 AM
I put this under YA, and it was suggested to post something here.

I'm in the pre-writing stage for a 17th-18th century pirate novel, and one of the big things with pirates is sword play and I intend on a few different fighting types in the story. There's a contrast between the pirates and the sophisticated first class,and in many cases, these two groups fight. There's a fight between a sophisticated passenger ship's captain vs an infamous pirate, there's first-class lady vs pirate and lady vs captain, and then the occasional bar fights.

I'm just getting the hang of writing basic action, but it seems as if an almost different writing style would fit each fight better, and if not, there still is the different fighting techniques used by each individual in each fight, and I'm not sure how to portray that.

Also, the setting changes from Britain to France and back and forth between the two a couple of times, and was wondering how well a little old English and some french would do with the low reading level of the general public. I don't plan on complete old English as in Shakespeare, but I intend on portraying the contrast between the sophisticated first class and the almost barbaric pirates in their language. So the question is, what level of old English is a good level to where it can still be understood? That, and can a little French be used without a constant translation?

All comments are appreciated, and any facts/opinions about the general time period would be helpful as well. :)

06-27-2012, 01:30 AM
"Old English" wouldn't be recognizable to most readers. It is, in fact, a different language.

As far as language goes, I was looking towards a more proper English that's similar to authentic old English.

You've slightly missed Cyia's point - you mean "old" as in "not modern", but the term "old english" refers to a precursor language from the 5th Century. Using the right terminology will greatly help you in your research - otherwise tons of irrelevant Google results will frustrate you quickly. :)

With reference to the fight scenes, I have a few intense fights in my current WIP. These are set pieces and so need to be given the space and description they deserve. So they have a few hundred words apiece, split roughly halfway between actions and reactions - describing what is happening, and what it means to the combatants. So what are they sensing, feeling, thinking, hoping... as well as what are they doing. Bear in mind that an experienced fighter will not consciously think of moves in the same way that an experienced golfer doesn't think "so first I swing back, then I swing forward." But they will be looking for openings, weaknesses in their opponent, and thinking ahead for how to exploit that.

The approach I've taken for my WIP seems to work because I don't have constant fighting. If I did, I would try to focus more on the outcome than the procedure of those fights so the set pieces still felt special.

Hope this helps!

06-27-2012, 01:59 AM
Readers are interested in a good story.

A story that is compelling, interesting, carries them away to a world they enjoy.

Concentrate on making your story like that.

It happens to be set in the late 17th, early 18th century. There are tons of films and novels you can watch and read for some guidence on language. Try watching any decent relevant era story. Sure, there will be some 'formal' language spoken by the upper class. More slang by the lower class. Manners and mores dictate language, after all. But it won't be 'foreign' to the reader. Sure, toss in French where appropriate. But ask yourself 'why'. Because it might be nice to toss in a phrase or two, spoken by a French person, to indicate there's another language being spoken, but responded to in english by your character for the benefit of the reader. "What, you want me to drop my sword? Don't be a fool!" But that's kind of silly, and works only once or twice. It's easier to indicate the switch

- They switched to french to carry out the negotiations. The Captain realized it would be easier for his opponent. It had the added advantage of leaving the young lady in the dark as to their terms. - Then write the dialog, while indicating that she is unhappy and doesn't understand what they are saying. Something like that.

Your combat should always appear to be 'real' to the reader. Unless the situation calls for it to be 'fake'. The length of the fight needs to be long enough to make your point. It's over in one thrust. OR it ranges across the deck, because the opponents are equally matched. Or neither wants to deliver a killing blow.


"Real fights" can be over in a heartbeat, or last a day. Research judicial duels for an example.

06-27-2012, 02:18 AM
Shakespeare was late 16th, early 17th. You're story is set a century later. Late 17th, early 18th, no?

No one expects to read the typeset of the era. No one expects to read the EXACT dialect of the characters. You can get by suggesting their difference in the use of phrases, and terms. Very few people will read an actual NOVEL from the era - they would rather read a novel SET in the era. Since you're writing YA - here's a place to start


Any real gentleman, will have trained in fencing. He will belong to a fencing salle, where he takes lessons from a master. You can READ the fencing manuals from the era - to learn about the philosophies of the different masters.

I suggest you read
Liancour's "Le Maitre D'Armes ou L'Exercice de L'Épée Seule" - written in 1686,

"The Fencing Masters Advice to his Schollar" by William Hope - written in 1692. This will give you a good insight.

Also Zachary Wylde's "The English Master of Defence" - 1711

You will see that there is some disagreement, even among masters of the era - in certain disciplines. They are no different than masters nowadays.

06-27-2012, 02:28 AM
Merged these two threads. Sorry for any discombobulation!

06-27-2012, 12:48 PM
Don't try to write in an archaic style unless you can really do it well. It is hard and often leads to stilted dialogue. Many writers try to emulate a British accent and end up assuming that everyone in the past speaks in what is known as Recieved Pronounciation because that is what was spoken on the BBC years ago. A neutral tone is better. And, yes, what most people think of as 'Old English' is the really old dialect which is almost incomprehensible to modern readers who have not studied it. Check out the recent animation of Beowulf (the one with Ray Winstone). In one scene there is a play being performed. The words being spoken are from the saga of Beowulf in the original language. That is Old English. Chaucer used what we refer to as 'Middle English' (and was, so I have been told, critically reviled for popularising by writing in the vulgar in a manner similar to someone daring to write a novel in text speak in the modern day) and even that is fairly difficult to read without proper training. By the 16th/17th century we were firmly in the realm of 'modern English' and as stated above this was what Shakespeare wrote in. The differences in style between Shakespeare and modern writers are purely that - style differences - rather than dialectal and remember that Shakespeare was writing specifically poetry and drama rather than necessarily the 'argot of the street' so you can't even really use him as a comparison for what was being spoken by the common man at the time.

As for fight scenes - keep them tight and focussed on what one character sees. There is a temptation in these cases to go for the epic overarching view that you get in the cinema and that is a mistake as it leads to flat and uninteresting prose devoid of emotional attachment. The visual media of the cinema is better suited to that viewpoint whereas narrative prose is better at internal emotional character buiding stuff. So, we don't want to see the cool things that the character does when fighting (well, ok, we do a bit but not so much as in a film) so much as their emotional journey while they are fighting - the pain, blood, loss, desperation, jubilation at victory and so on. So, pick a character in the fight (a participant or an observer or maybe switch between them) and think about what they see of that fight and how they feel about it.

06-27-2012, 02:14 PM
I was about to weigh in here with my fencing experiences, but it looks like WriteKnight's trumped me. Olympic fencing is obviously different to sword fighting in many ways, but they also of course share many similarities. A naval officer from the period would have been armed with a dirk: a long, thin dagger/short, thin thrusting sword. Why? Well, in honesty, I don't know. I would expect in a ship boarding battle that a short-ish thrusting weapon would be more practical than a heavy cutlass. Of course, it takes a higher quality of steel and workmanship to make and training to use, so there may be a snobbery element too.

The crew would have used large, heavy, poorly made cutlasses used to hack, slash and bash enemy crews. Unlike the elegant sabres and sabreurs of Eastern Europe, thrusting weapons like the rapier were used by Western European gentlemen, probably for the reasons I listed above, until after the Napoleonic Wars.

How did they use them? Like I say, I've fenced for three years with épée and sabre, so I have some ideas on how they would have been used. One of the best rapier duels I've on film is in the Mark of Zorro, a 1940s black and white movie, so if you can find it on youtube it may help you out. Most choreographed fight scenes however are shockingly poor when it comes to sword fighting - with a couple of weeks worth of training any one could beat the swordsmen of Hollywood, for instance :tongue

06-27-2012, 05:35 PM
A cutlass isn't heavy. Its weight and shorter blade make it maneuverable in close-quarters; that's it's draw. I'm female, under five feet tall, and can use one with one hand. (I used to work at a Ren Fest in high school. Swords everywhere.)

The dirk is more than a convenience in tight spaces. It's also got a utilitarian function for cutting tangled lines and cables. Men who lived at sea, especially on less equipt ships like those a pirate would favor, injuries due to faulty lines are common. Even and especially serious injuries like amputations due to the mangling of a limb, which is where you get the "peg-leg" on a pirate from cartoons and movies.

Also, the ships aren't going to be galleons like you see in the movies; they'd be smaller, faster ships - the high seas, sailing version of a cigar boat. Galleons are used in film because they're large enough to stage fights and hold extra people.

06-27-2012, 07:01 PM
Yep, curved weapons are generally curved to make them easier to use in close quarters. This is also why calvary sabres are curved. Long, straight blades are very cumbersome in most circumstances and take longer to draw.

The heavy, slahsing blade is also appropriate for cutting ropes and other functions (for example they could be used as a machete in jungles). Remember, you may not be using a weapon only for attacking someone else but for many other uses too... it is a working sailor's weapon.

An officer, however, is usually a gentleman and may therefore be armed with a rapier. In fact, for most of the life of the Royal Navy and army, enlisted men were issued with weapons whereas officers were expected to buy and maintain their own (and their own uniforms, horses and any other equipment). This means that what they carry is not necessarily going to be the same as anyone else - they buy what they can afford and while they will have a uniform of the right colour and cut and the weapons they are supposed to have the quality of those would vary from person to person.

06-28-2012, 12:43 AM
I'm in the pre-writing stages of a 17th-18th century pirate novel, and before I start, I wanted to know if any of you had any good tips for writing sword fights or action in general?
Do a search here, this gets discussed fairly often. And you're not alone, fight scenes are among the hardest to write.

I didn't know if there was any different techniques used to describe the fights that correlated to the different fighting techniques used by the different parties.
Pirates fought with no specific style. They can be from any society, training or race/religion so they bring whatever that style was with them. Then the adapt with styles that other pirates have. They used the weapons available, which might be stolen, captured, scrounged or home-made.

Ladies of the era didn't fight. If they were female and fought, they weren't ladies. :)

Also, I wanted to know if there was any tips for writing old fashioned stuff like this. Like, is using old English okay, or too much, and stuff like that.
Are you writing for a three hundred year old audience? If not, some colloquialisms in the dialogue may be okay but you do want your readers to understand it.

Pirates are cool. But none were like fiction portrays them.


06-28-2012, 07:51 AM
This is a great thread. Thanks for posting it. I'm writing a fencing scene and need help so this is very helpful.

06-28-2012, 03:14 PM
This is a great thread. Thanks for posting it. I'm writing a fencing scene and need help so this is very helpful.
Fencing, as a sport, is easy. Find any video of the Olympics and describe it.

Fencing, as fighting, was actually rarely practiced. The traditional swordsmen dueling was, in reality, more of an ambush killing along the lines of a high-school brawl.


06-28-2012, 10:19 PM
The traditional swordsmen dueling was, in reality, more of an ambush killing along the lines of a high-school brawl.

I'm going to take your advice and watch a video.

I'm trying to figure out how to have a good healthy duel without anyone ending up dead.

06-28-2012, 11:19 PM
Considering the entire point of a duel is for someone to end up dead, you're going to have to do some thinking. Maybe one of your guys is a quick talker, but he'd have to be *very* quick to talk himself out of a duel in progress.

Smiling Ted
06-30-2012, 11:31 PM
Considering the entire point of a duel is for someone to end up dead, you're going to have to do some thinking.

That wasn't necessarily the point of a duel.

By the 18th Century, dueling had involved an elaborate code that allowed backing down and apologizing at any one of dozens of points along the "escalation ladder," without a loss of honor by the participants.

That's how Alexander Hamilton survived being involved in more than twenty "affairs of honor" before Aaron Burr finally killed him.

06-30-2012, 11:42 PM
WriteKnight and others have given really good advice about the mechanics of your fight scene. As the writer you get to decide what the tone of the scene is and what purpose the fight serves. Is it to provide an element of action and danger for our heroes? Is it to remind the audience that sword fights were brutal, bloody affairs and people ended up dead and disfigured? Are you staging a melodrama and this is the natural First Fight between Our Hero and The Villain wherein the Hero loses so that his Lady Love can be taken away by the Villain thus prompting the training montage and big search in Act II?

Humans are meat. Big lumpy bags of meat and blood and sinew. When you whack them with a heavy mass of sharpened metal you're going to have a mess. Check out the Cold Steel videos on youtube for visuals of swords whacking into meat. Are you shooting for ultra-realism and gore in your story? Then keep in mind that a sword fight is a horrifying mess and no one is going to get a wee manful scar in a non-threatening location - they get messed up and lose fingers, ears and life.

Is this more about pirates and adventure on the high seas? Well now you have a scene full of flashing blades, big men getting driven back by the tenacity and spitfire energy of heroes brave and true. Ladies swoon, villains and heroes have to lock blades so they can growl at each other for a bit and then spring apart - a newfound respect in each other's eyes.

Maybe its somewhere between the poles of Errol Flynn in the Sea Hawk and some grim modern staging of "horrible things happening on the high seas because that's how it was so go take your ambien and shut your cryhole, everyone dies!". You know the sort - 'realistic' sea movies.

Finally, how to put this on paper - figure out what point the battle serves in your plot, stage it with little cutouts or notes on paper so you keep track of your major players, decide on how much horror you are putting in the scene (missing fingers, sprays of arterial blood) or ramp it back to a level appropriate to your intended audience and then whack together some words. Write up a brief intro to the scene and show them to some people you trust to give you good feedback and see if they see the scene playing out like you do.

Good luck.

By the way, for a really excellent melodramatic version of piratical adventures you should check out "The Pyrates" by George MacDonald Fraser. It's outstanding.

07-02-2012, 04:22 AM
Personally, I think most duels would have been quite boring to watch. I expect they will have lasted a long time, and most of that time would have been spent weighing up the opposition with footwork and some probing attacks. Here's why:

- In fencing, épée is the event most akin to duelling. The swords are around the same weight and length as a duelling sword, the entire body is a target and there are no "right-of-way" rules that you find in foil and sabre. Épée is also the most conservative weapon, by a long way.

- When you have two people who know what they're doing, hits that would be fatal in reality, i.e. to the chest or head, are rare. The most common areas hit by far are the wrist and the lower arm, followed probably by the foot or leg. The reason for this should be obvious: to reach an opponent's chest you have to get past both the length of their sword and their arm, without getting struck yourself. That could be as much as 2metres! It takes time to travel that distance, and time in which an experienced opponent could react and parry, or even just engineer it so you run onto their sword....

- To hit an opponents wrist however you only need to make it past their sword for moment, so you can get it, make the cut and retreat again. An aggressive but inexperienced duellist would be dead in seconds, because thrusting weapons like the duelling sword favour the defender.

- I've also seen a video of a real duel taking place in the 1900s, and it's pretty much as I described. Lots of footwork and disengages, little commitment, until one duellist eventually spots and opening, nicks the other on the wrist, they shake hands and off they go. If olympic épée is conservative and they're only fencing for a point, imagine how much more conservative it would be if a slip-up could mean a punctured lung - I know I'd be treating it seriously and being very careful!

This of course is a duel - I'd imagine two untrained pirates swinging at each other with cutlasses would be far more messy ;)

Also, watching olympic fencing videos may give you the wrong idea about true sword fighting. In sabre events particularly the lightest touch counts as a score, and so hits that wouldn't make it through a t-shirt in real life still count as a point for an olympic sabreur. Also, these bouts are lightning fast, often over in seconds, with the emphasis more on speed and aggression than swordplay. Sabre videos, or indeed a video of any weapon, from before the advent of electronic scoring may be more useful for you, as the hits had to be strong enough for a referee to notice and thus of a standard that could actually do some damage in reality.

Mark Jacobs
07-03-2012, 08:49 PM
Thought I'd chime in since this is my area of expertise (I'm a contributing editor at Black Belt Magazine). For general information on writing a fight scene, you might want to check out a couple of the posts on my blog at
The relevant posts were also reposted on
www.indiesunlimited.com (http://www.indiesunlimited.com)
Sorry I don't have the exact links at the moment.
For specific information on pirate sword fights, you might want to Google "Pirate Dojo". It's run by Matthew Green who is a fencer that's done a fair amount of research on pirate sword fighting methods. Also, you might want to Google "fencing, Ramon Martinez" and check out his website. He's probably the most knowledgeable source I know on classical and historical western fencing methods. Hope that's helpful.

Mark Jacobs
07-03-2012, 08:59 PM
Just to follow up on my last post, a couple of other things I might mention:
As was stated by others, there is a huge difference between sport fencing and any sort of real fighting with a sword. However, there is also a significant difference between dueling and using a sword for combat, whether that would be in self defense or on the battlefield. Dueling is generally a prearranged, one-on-one fight that often included some sort of agreed upon rules to settle a matter of honor (though this sort of idealization sometimes went out the window as duels occasionally turned into mass bloodbaths). As such, it might well have taken quite a while to be concluded as it's possible both participants may have been too nervous to close in on each other.
However combat, particularly on the battlefield, is often about closing on and killing an enemy as quickly as possible. Of course, if you're writing fiction, you don't have to stick too closely to full historical realism.