You’ve probably read books or seen movies with a duel scene. Today, author Rayne Hall discusses the code of the duel and shares tips on how to incorporate this element into your story.
A duel adds excitement, action and drama to a novel. Could it fit with your plot?
Historical novels (including Westerns and Historical Romance) are often a natural fit, but other genres (like Fantasy and Science Fiction) can lend themselves too.
A duel is a fight between two people, with pre-agreed rules. Both parties agree to fight each other, and they agree to the rules, the location and the weapons. Sometimes, a duel is arranged on the spur of the moment, for example, when two cowboys in a saloon quarrel about cheating at cards and decide to step out into the street to shoot it out. Other duels may be arranged hours or days in advance, for instance, two gentlemen of the Regency period say they’ll settle the matter of a lady’s honour behind the church at dawn.
Duels are almost always about matters of honour. The person who feels offended in their honour – or who considers his woman’s or his family’s honour insulted – demands ‘satisfaction’, that is, he challenges the other to a duel.
Refusing a challenge would brand a person as a coward. However, the person who has been challenged usually gets the right to choose the place, the time and the weapon, which gives him some advantage.
Duellists are usually young men from the upper classes. In some societies and historical periods, duelling was so epidemic that it was the most frequent cause of death among young men. Only members of the same social class duelled; it was considered dishonourable to duel someone of lower status, and low-ranking people didn’t have the right to challenge their betters.
Duelling is usually armed combat, and any type of weapon is possible. The most frequently used weapons are fencing swords (such as rapiers) and handguns, but the duellists might also fight with cricket bats, pitchforks, poisonous snakes or any other usual or unusual arms.
Before the fight, the duellists agree on rules. In a society where duels are common, they may agree to follow the established rules. Otherwise, they create their own. Both combatants behave with utmost courtesy and consideration, even if they hate each other’s guts.
A fight may be ‘to the death’ (the survivor wins) or ‘first blood’ (the duel is over when one of them is wounded; the uninjured fighter wins). If the duel is to the death, each may promise to support the other’s widow and orphans.
If the duel is fought about matters of honour, the duel erases the dishonour. Whoever survives – whether one or both – is not supposed to bring the matter up again.
Readers like fair fighting in duel scenes, especially when the hero and the villain outdo each other with polite fairness.
Duelling – at least duelling to the death – is mostly a male thing, apparently wired into the male psychology. In some periods, the urge to prove one’s masculinity this way was so prevalent that duelling was the number one cause of death among young men. Women don’t seem to feel the need to prove their femininity this way. Bear this psychological difference in mind, although you can of course use female duellists if it suits your characters, society and plot.
Each duellist may invite an assistant, called a ‘second’. The two seconds act as referees and as witnesses. They also carry messages, measure out the distance for the shooting, and check that everything is fair. You can create interesting plot situations if the duellists are scrupulously fair, but one of the seconds is cheating.
There may also be a doctor or healer, a referee or a judge present.
In the case of ‘trial by combat’ – a legal dispute decided by fighting – there’ll also be an officer of the law, a priest, and a representative of the ruler.
If the law forbids duelling, the victor may face a charge of murder. To prevent this, the duellists and their seconds may create a situation so precisely timed that the witnesses can testify that both duellists acted in simultaneous self-defence.
TIPS FOR WRITING YOUR DUEL SCENE
– If writing historical fiction, research the following: Was duelling legal at the time? This determines whether the combatants fight publicly or in secret with only selected witnesses. What was society’s attitude to duels? Duelling might be forbidden by law, but admired by society. If a man’s reputation depends on having fought in duel, young males will be quick challenge one another. What weapons were used at the time?
– In the first half of the novel, your main character may wound or kill a minor character who is no longer needed for the plot. A duel in the middle of the novel often pitches the MC against another important good character (such as the heroine’s beloved brother) which creates drama and tragedy. The novel’s climax is a good place for a fight to the death between the MC and the villain.
– Stack the odds against the character for whom you want the reader to root. For example, if the fight is between the hero and the villain, make the hero a decent swordsman but the villain a famed fencing champion who has never been defeated.
– Choose the location carefully. Decide whether it is public or private. Duellists may decide to fight away from the eye of the law, or in a place where bullets won’t accidentally hurt bystanders. On the other hand, they may choose to fight where they have the biggest possible audience. Normally, they will select level, secure ground, but they may choose the added danger of fighting on a rope bridge over an abyss or a frozen lake surface.
– Consider how the setting affects the fight. How even and firm is the ground? Who has the sun in his eyes, the wind at his back?
– Use the weather to add atmosphere and complications. How does the persistent drizzle, sudden downpour, hazy mist, thick fog, extreme heat, blowing wind or frozen-over ground affect the visuals and the action?
– Let both combatants act with scrupulous fairness. This gives the duel a poignancy readers love. A cheating villain would devalue the duel scene in the reader’s eyes.
– Put dialogue before the beginning of the fight. The duellists and their seconds may formally agree to rules and make last-minute arrangements and promise to protect their dead rival’s orphans. They may trade insults, although it is more likely (and more effective) if they talk with utmost courtesy to the man they plan to kill. It is also possible that the seconds, a bystander or one of the duellists makes a final attempt to avert the fight.
– During the fight, there’ll be little or no dialogue. The fighters won’t have the breath to spare, and the spectators will be too focused on the action.
– Real life duels are short and over quickly, but readers enjoy a drawn-out fight in which the characters display their skills, especially with sword fights. Flesh out the fight scene and satisfy your readers. Find a way to establish earlier in the novel how skilled the fighters are, so the feats during the duel feel plausible.
– Once the fight is under way, use short paragraphs, short sentences and short words. This conveys a sense of fast, breathless pacing.
– Let the reader hear the sounds of the fight: zinging bullets, clanking swords, panting breaths. Sounds create excitement.
– After the fight, show the damage – the dead body, the wounds. This gives the scene realism, poignancy and emotion. Depending on the genre, you may want to describe the gory details in full, or give just a quick glimpse of red blood staining the fallen foe’s shirt.
DUEL SCENES WORTH STUDYING
If you can, watch the final duel in the movie Rob Roy – it’s a perfect example. You may find it on YouTube by searching ‘Rob Roy Duel’. Make sure you view the full excerpt starting where the combatants pick up the swords, and see how the suspense builds as they agree formally to the terms.
The movie Troy shows a duel that’s been famous for thousands of years. On YouTube, you can search for ‘Troy Duel Achilles Hector’.
The duel in Sanjuro is famous for its realism and speed. Search for ‘Sanjuro Duel’. Watch the scene from the start, to see one combatant tries to talk the other out of fighting. Once the fight begins, it’s over fast – so fast that it leaves the viewer stunned. For most fiction scenarios, this is too quick, but it’s nevertheless worth watching.
Do you have a favourite duel scene in a book or a movie? Have you written a duel scene? Are you planning one? Tell us about it.
How To Write Exciting, Realistic Action Scenes
Learn step-by-step how to create fictional fights that leave the reader breathless with excitement.
The book gives you:
* A six-part structure to use as blueprint for your scene.
* Tricks how to combine fighting with dialogue
* Information about swords, daggers and other weapons, and suggestions how to write about them
It helps you to decide:
* What’s the best weapon for your character
* Where the scene takes place
* Which senses to use, how and when
* How much violence your fight needs
It shows you, step by step:
* How to write battles, riots, brawls and duels
* How our character can get out of trouble with self-defence techniques
* How to make the reader root for your hero
* Techniques for creating a sense of realism
* How to adapt your writing style to the fast pace of the action
* How to stir the readers’ emotion
Are you writing a thriller, a murder mystery, an action-adventure tale, historical fiction, a fantasy novel or a paranormal romance? Whatever your genre, this guide has professional techniques you can use. For the specific requirements of your story, there are sections on
* How magicians fight with magical weapons
* Male and female warriors
* Costuming and armour
* Siege warfare
* Naval battles and how pirates capture ships
* How to build erotic tension in a fight scenes
and much more!
If you’re a veteran warrior, this book shows how to turn your experience and skills into compelling prose. If you’ve never held a weapon and are clueless about fights, this book guides you step-by-step to create a plausible fight scene and avoid embarrassing blunders.
Bio: Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series (Writing Fight Scenes, Writing Scary Scenes, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and more) and editor of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.
She is a trained publishing manager, holds a masters degree in Creative Writing, and has worked in the publishing industry for over thirty years.
Having lived in Germany, China, Mongolia and Nepal, she has now settled in a small dilapidated town of former Victorian on Sulu Dial 02theTwitterPic Sulu Scary 01 lookstowardsskull Sulu Fight Scenessouth coast of England where she enjoys reading, gardening and long walks along the seashore. She shares her home with a black cat adopted from the cat shelter. Sulu likes to lie on the desk and snuggle into Rayne’s arms when she’s writing.
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