That Self-Same Metal is Brittany N. Williams’ debut novel. And as a book following a swordswoman who choreographs fights, it has some amazing fight scenes. Today, we have the honour of having Brittany here to chat with us about writing the fight scenes in That Self-Same Metal.
The following is a guest post written by Brittany N. Williams.
That Self-Same Metal—the first book in my historical fantasy trilogy the Forge & Fracture Saga—follows Joan Sands, a master swordswoman with the magical ability to manipulate metal. If that already sounds like a handful for a teenage protagonist, she also choreographs the fights for the King’s Men, the famed acting company of William Shakespeare. Yes, she spends her days bossing around the Swan of Avon and having just as much fun as I did writing it.
One thing authors will say universally is that we bring ourselves to the page. Our lived experience, our research, our interests, books we’ve read, conversations we’ve overheard, all of it rolls together in the primordial soup of our imaginations before rushing through our veins to bleed out onto the page. It’s a process that’s both intuitive and intentional. It means that I was always going to write a novel with epic fight scenes. It’s in my creative blood.
Whenever I sit down to craft a scene, I focus on three things: choreography, character, and rhythm. Let’s break that all down.
A 5, 6, 7, 8!
Choreography, or the set of moves that make up the fight, has to meet three criteria for me. It has to be practical. It has to be conveyed clearly. It has to be cool. When thinking about practicality, one move has to flow into the other in a way that makes sense. This is something that I usually handle in revisions and edits. I’ll write out my fight, read it, and, if I need to, bust out my practice sword and do them myself. Reading your scene is essential if you want to avoid giving your character an extra hand—particularly insidious draft gremlins—or finding out later you have someone throwing a punch that miraculously connects from the opposite side of the room. For clarity, I always try to explain moves in a way that is easy to understand for someone who has never touched a sword in their life. That means avoiding niche terminology, no matter how fun saying “riposte” is. Most of my readers are likely neither fencers nor stage combat-trained and I’d rather not lose them in the weeds. Finally, it’s got to be cool. There has to be at least one gasp-inducing moment in every fight, it’s what we find most satisfying about all our favorite moments in media. I would be disappointed without it there, and I refuse to deprive my readers.
Can you take a punch?
This aspect is more straightforward. Character informs the choreography and delivers the emotions of the fight. I ask myself several questions as I write. What is this character’s experience level? How confident are they in this moment? What is their emotional state? How ready or willing are they to kill their opponent? Someone who’s never fought before who finds themselves up against the master swordsman who murdered their family has a specific throughline in that fight. Imagine if Buttercup had to face Count Rugen in The Princess Bride instead of Inigo Montoya going up against him. How different of a fight would that be? Answering these questions will give you the building blocks of a complex fight. One last thing to remember here, is that injuries have both mental and physical effects. Follow the changes in your characters throughout the arc of the story of the fight so you don’t end up with two people whacking at each other without consequence. That’s how you write a boring fight.
Make me lose my breath
One of the most difficult parts of capturing a fight on the page is retaining its visceral core. It’s an act of transmutation where you must take dynamic movement and confine it to the static life of letters arranged on a screen or piece of paper. The first tactic is to use your language. Utilize active verbs wherever possible. Tap into the other senses: the feel of a sword cleaving flesh, the sound of blades colliding, the smell or taste of blood. That will bring your reader into the story, drawing forth memories or inferences that place them in the middle of the action. The final layer is simple, but not always intuitive: vary your sentence structure. We all know how punctuation implies a breath. A comma is a pause, a momentary hold to shift focus even as thoughts continue on, flowing for as long as they need to reach their ultimate conclusion. A period is a stop. A full stop. Re-read those three sentences and notice how your breathed as they passed through your mind. Did the first leave you nearly breathless with its extended length? Did the second offer a brief reprieve before the third interrupted you with its abruptness? That rhythm is what you should bring to your fight scenes, the last tactic to pull the reader into the moment alongside the protagonist.
While I was in grad school, I had the absolute pleasure of learning stage combat—the skills required to present fights on stage or screen safely and dynamically—with the company RC-Annie. They put that first rapier into my hands and showed me how to wield it. But, beyond that and more importantly for my future novels, they taught me how to use a fight to convey a story. That is what cannot be lost in all the excitement of clashing blades and flying fists: it must serve the narrative just as much as it must serve drama. That is, after all, what we’re all reading for, a sensational story.