By : DarthIshtar
Duels for Dummies
Suggestions for the frustrated fanficcer.
Helpful hints on how to write your next lightsaber duel.
Truth be told, I can name very few writers who have not struggled with duels at one point or another. I can still remember being a 13-year-old desperate to write her first lightsaber battle, but not having any idea what to do other than chop the enemy's arm off. It seemed simple enough, though this was in the days before Darth Maul and his amazing Karate Moves of Doom.
In the twelve years since then, I have developed some basic guidelines that have helped me become a more effective writer. I will not presume to say that they are comprehensive, but they're a good primer for writers of all levels, whether they want to check the cohesiveness of their fight scenes or would like to get some ideas of where to start.
Step 1: Choose your end result
This seems like something so basic, yet I know so many people who have duel scenes fizzle out due to the fact that they can't figure out the ending. To borrow an example from The Empire Strikes Back, my favorite of all the movies, this does not need to be a matter of "Well, when he escapes, Luke's going to have his hand chopped off and will be hanging off the bottom of Cloud City so Leia can rescue him." The screenwriters and director of ESB didn't leave it at that, which is why it makes such an impact.
Sure, Luke was hanging, dismembered, from the bottom of Cloud City so we could get some nice Force-comm action with Leia, but remember the events leading up to that moment and following it. Lightsaber duels in any kind of Star Wars writing are, on the whole, about the psychology. In the Cloud City example, we see a heartbreakingly rapid transformation from the Luke who is desperately defiant to the one who lets himself fall off the gantry and then later can do little more than slump in a spare seat and whimper, "Ben, why didn't you tell me?"
The end result has to be comprised of the circumstance and the resolution or lack thereof. You can say "All right, in this scene, I have to have Jedi Knight ExWhyZee kill her Master Soandso. She needs to whack off his head just after he cuts off her leg." That's all well and good, but what makes her take up arms against her Master? Is it something that is the Jedi way or not? How much conflict is she experiencing while doing this? What's his conflict? Who are we supposed to think of as the bad guy? And when the deed is done, obviously, there will be physical aftereffects, but what will be going on in her mind? How much survivor's guilt will there be? It may seem superfluous to talk about the hereafter in planning the imminent scene, but for a credible fight to take place there has to be credible escalation.
Step 2: Define your parameters
This is an extension of Step 1, obviously, and deals with strengths and weaknesses. First, you have to decide what physical advantages the two opponents have over each other. One might be taller, the other more agile. They can have better reflexes or good concentration. Conversely, how does this affect their opponent? Some of them might mean that one will tire more quickly than the other. It might mean that because of their size, they have to move in closer, leaving themselves more vulnerable.
These vulnerabilities also have a strong influence on the psychological dimension of the scene. A younger opponent can have less confidence in his abilities or have a weakness bred from arrogance. An older opponent might be more wary of joining battle and this can be bred from experience or emotional attachment. Either way, I'm not telling you what to do, specifically, but I have found it extremely helpful to pay careful attention to what your characters feel.
Step 3: Map out your fight
Obviously, setting is important because you have to know where all the guardrails and staircases are going to be. You have to know if there will be shadows to hide in, like in the throne room scene or if there will be nowhere to take refuge, like on Jabba's Sail Barge. You have to decide how that's going to affect Step 1. Having somewhere to hide can provide time in the scene for the person to evaluate the situation and act accordingly, while being in an exposed arena lends for a more intense, frenzied pace. You can have your character forced to move so fast that thought becomes secondary to the need to survive and that can have major aftereffects.
Also necessary is knowing what moves will be made. Will ExWhyZee kick her master down the stairs? Will Soandso corner her against the window? If he gets driven back a few steps, does he have room to do that? Where will the final moments of the battle happen and how does that make an impact on the way they have to fight? I remember reading Timothy Zahn's The Last Command and being very impressed with the moment when Luke and Mara are fighting Luke's clone and someone swings a lightsaber into an electronic display to blind him and then kill him. That's the kind of detail that can make or break the credibility of a scene.
Step 4: Stand Up!
This may seem like a stupid thing to do, but you can ask my roommates and they'll tell you that sometimes, I'll look like I'm trying to dance or do sign language while sitting at the computer and at other times, I'll stand up and do it on a larger scale. Sometimes I do this while writing. Sometimes I do it as a personal proofread. I do this for two reasons: first, I can figure out the spatial needs of doing certain things; and second, I know how it will feel to do them. If I stand up and do the things, I'll know which muscles will be used, what parts of my body are exposed to the enemy, and what will get my heart rate going. Of course, since these are Jedi and not mere mortals, they'll be able to do some cool Force-whammy stuff and flip around like Mary Lou Retton, but sometimes, there's just no time while trying to kill your father to figure out how to give yourself a refreshing dose of the Living Force. As for the cool Jedi stuff, just don't try this at home, kids.
Also, finding a willing "guinea pig" can be an invaluable resource. If you know of someone who can look at what you are intending to do and give encouragement or a healthy dose of "are you kidding me?". Self-critique can be extremely short-sighted.
Step 5: Do your research!
How many of you have sat down to read a fanfic story and found that five seconds flat after having a lightsaber stuck through the character's gut, that character then puts the US Gymnastics Team to shame and doesn't feel a thing? Sure, there's usually a line along the lines of "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! YOU DORK, WHY'D YOU DO THAT?!" for the sake of emotional development, but sometimes, authors just don't think about what it feels like. That's the primary reason why I started doing the stand-up rule, but you can only go so far with that. There are great resources out there. I've had stories where I'll spend an hour on www.webmd.com or on search engines, reading effects of certain disabling wounds and personal accounts from people.
This is also where personal experience can be very valuable. Sure, you probably never had a lightsaber whack you in the stomach, but you've probably burned your hand on the stove or scorched your hand while ironing a shirt. You can probably remember pretty well something that hurt when it burned you and you can build off of that to describe what a character's going through.
Step 6: Make it less mechanical
I remember writing a lightsaber duel and having Ophelia from theforce.net look at it and comment, "That's good, but it's all movements." She then told me to put it more in the character's voice. This has proved to be very useful advice. Would the character think about the opponent coming at 3 mph, swinging the lightsaber forty-seven degrees towards the midline? Maybe, if that's the kind of character you're writing, but more likely you're going to have a character staring down an opponent that's coming after them like a stampeding bantha. Think about that.
Step 7: WRITE
Just start writing what seems logical and is based on all the work you've already done. Don't ask questions the first time around, just get your fingers moving on that keyboard or scratching out words on that piece of paper. There's always time for proofreading or fine-tuning later. Believe me, I sometimes go through a half-dozen drafts of the same scene or I'll rewrite the same line 10 times before finding the right words, but you should get your mind acting on your planning while it's still fresh.
One of the most important rules that I have adopted is the principle of hiatus. If the mechanics and the particulars of a fight are taking more out of you than they are for the character, step away from your computer for a time. Your writing will suffer just as much as you if you do not.
While all of these may be helpful to you as a writer or a reader, do not let them bog you down. Writing is supposed to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Make sure that you remember that your character's sanity is not the only one that you should worry about.
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Date posted: 1/3/2007 11:58:05 PM
An excellent article, there. Some very helpful tips concerning something that seems cut-and-dry, but is a lot more complex than it looks.
Author: Serra Tachi
Date posted: 1/6/2007 3:46:29 PM
Serra Tachi's Comments:
Hey! I just read your article. I'm not a fanfiction writer at theforce.net but I do write fanfiction and the one thing I hate writing is lightsaber duels or any type of fighting because I could never do it. Now that I read your article, I found many helpful tips and I thank you!
Date posted: 1/8/2007 2:24:50 PM
Jon--Glad this was helpful. It's definitely more complex than it looks, when done well.
Serra--I'm very glad that you got something positive out of this and I would like to know where to find your stuff. :)
Date posted: 1/9/2007 10:47:46 AM
Very informative article!
I am currently writing a fanfic and will soon be coming up to a lightsaber duel. Because of this article I have also made a 'map' of the area where my main sequences will be taking place. I will be incorporating ideas from this article to, hopefully, write a better dueling sequence.
Author: Laura Skywalker
Date posted: 1/10/2007 11:39:11 AM
Laura Skywalker's Comments:
Thanks for a lot of help on something I'm not very good at! I'm more of a romance/angst writer, but angst sometimes turns into duels, and mine are pitiful. Your article is exactly what I needed!
Date posted: 1/12/2007 9:14:40 PM
Thanks for writing this article. I got an advance peek at it in the archive and it really helped me with the, oh, maybe two whole fight scenes I had to do for MGGE.
Date posted: 1/15/2007 1:45:41 AM
I'm so glad to hear that this has been helpful and you guys are very kind.
Date posted: 1/20/2007 1:49:13 AM
Does this mean I'm your dummy? :( ;)
Very Informative article.
Date posted: 7/6/2007 9:16:24 AM
Gabri edit: Spam removed.
Date posted: 7/6/2007 9:22:19 AM
Gabri edit: Spam removed.
Date posted: 7/6/2007 9:31:50 AM
Gabri edit: Spam removed.
Author: Master Senya Analandi
Date posted: 9/10/2007 3:30:10 PM
Master Senya Analandi's Comments:
Thank you so much for this!! My lightsaber duels are okay, but usually they make my char look too good or too smart alecky for her own good. This will definately help me fix that, thanks!!!
Date posted: 12/14/2010 11:27:39 AM
I haven't yet written in the Star Wars universe but I may some day. This article was a help for me in my own WIP. I will definitely implement some of these tips for my sword fights. Thanks!
Date posted: 12/1/2015 9:33:36 PM
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