Posted On July 27, 2016 by Print This Post

Writing Duel Scenes by Rayne Hall

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 Rayne Hall Photowas 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.

***

WRITING FIGHT SCENES

How To Write Exciting, Realistic Action Scenes

Do you struggle with fight scenes? Has your editor told you the novel is brilliant – except for this part?WritingFightScenes RayneHall Cover 2014-01-07

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

* Fighting animals, including seres WritingFightScenes RayneHall SuluCat

* 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.

To learn more about Rayne, visit her website or follow her on Twitter where she posts advice for writers, funny cartoons and cute pictures of her cat.

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45 Responses to “Writing Duel Scenes by Rayne Hall”

  1. What a cool topic! I’ve visited some museums in England where they had suits of armor and swords, etc. on display. I was surprised how big and heavy everything looked. I can’t imagine anyone being able to fight in armor or wield a sword while riding a horse.

    I’ve been to a couple of Renaissance Faires and I’ve been to Medieval Times – probably the closest I’ll ever get to seeing a real duel. (And that’s probably a good thing!)

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | July 27, 2016, 9:12 pm
  2. Hi Rayne,

    I’ve read plenty of historicals that take place in the UK with duel scenes, but I can’t remember when duels were outlawed. Duels always make me think of High Noon and Gary Cooper. The fact that dueling is an honor-based ritual, says a lot about a characters integrity, i.e. from a hero who’s willing to die to protect his honor to one who cheats or doesn’t show up. I’ve never written a duel scene, however, I appreciate the bit of historical information provided in your post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | July 29, 2016, 2:02 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,
      Duelling became illegal in different countries at different times. Often it was outlawed as early as the 17th century, but remained common as late as the early 20th century.
      One day you may write a duel scene. Then you’ll know where to look for inspiration. 🙂
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | July 30, 2016, 2:02 am
  3. I’ve not had call to write a duel scene, Rayne, but your post alerts me to the fact that it can be a bit tricky. I’ll know where to look for info, if I do write one.

    Posted by Gary Harvey | July 30, 2016, 7:05 am
    • I suppose all kinds of scenes can be a bit tricky to write, each in a different way. With duels, there’s the historical accuracy, the psychology and the ritual to consider. They’re not more difficult to write than other scenes, and if you get them right, readers adore them.

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | July 30, 2016, 7:29 am
  4. A comedic look at duelling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcSWsdTdYGI

    Posted by Andrew Roberts | July 30, 2016, 8:08 am
    • Thanks for sharing. It’s funny how these guys are all serious about being insulted in their honour, about stuff that we would find annoying but not worth dying for.
      Lovely charactersation for all the duellists; I think this was great scriptwriting and great acting.
      The film’s ending was a bit of an anticlimax, but I enjoyed the rest.

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | July 30, 2016, 8:18 am
  5. I haven’t written a duel scene, with weapons, but I write quite a lot of fight scenes.
    One that I particularly like is where, when she has lost all hope, a lover turns up, out of the blue, to save the heroine from being won by another man in a contest of dirty fighting.
    I used a lot of the points that Rayne makes in this blog to help me write that quite exciting scene. It made me really think about the need to include details.

    Posted by Judith Rook | July 30, 2016, 10:30 am
  6. The duel scene that sticks out in my mind is Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook in the original JM Barrie book. Also C.S. Lewis’ “Prince Caspian.”

    I don’t seem to have written very many duel scenes myself. Not sure why. Fight scenes in my novels are usually between groups.

    Posted by DougK | July 30, 2016, 7:38 pm
    • Hi Doug,

      It’s so long ago that I read Prince Caspian, I’ll have to re-read it and see how C.S. Lewis handled the duel.

      You write historical fiction, don’t you? I’m sure you’ll find an opportunity for duel before long. Duels are actually easier to write than group fights. With only two people to focus on, it’s much easier to show everything that’s going on without leaving the PoV.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | July 31, 2016, 1:43 am
  7. On the whole this is an excellent post, and while I agree that evenly matched opponents add to the drama, I do believe a duel in which the opponent cheats can enhance the dramatic impact of the scene, and draw the reader in, especially if the author writes a scene in which the opponent plots to cheat during the duel. If handled well, this could raise the stakes against the hero and enhance the conflict.

    Posted by Phillip T. Stephens | July 30, 2016, 10:15 pm
  8. Hi Phillip,
    Whatever works best for that particular story and those particular characters is good. 🙂
    Rayne

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | July 31, 2016, 1:44 am
  9. Having read Writing Fight Scenes, I was surprised at how well a lot of these tips work for other forms of duel, the types that don’t involve weapons.

    A tennis match is effectively just another form of duel for example, and I found some useful tips in this book for writing a scene like that 🙂

    And on a duelling note, one of my favourites would have to be the fencing duel in Die Another Day. From ‘friendly’ match to a match with something on the line to a potentially deadly match with real weapons, the whole thing is hugely enjoyable.

    Posted by Yurika Grant | July 31, 2016, 8:53 am
  10. Fascinating to read, Rayne. I’ve watched many duels in movies but usually fade out while reading the details in a book. Now I will pay closer attention.

    Posted by Carole Ann Moleti | July 31, 2016, 11:21 am
  11. I haven’t described any dueling scene in my stories yet but it was nice to hear all the tips so neatly organized. Cause during the time you kind of accumulate this knowledge but it’s not systematized.
    One of my favorite duel scenes in in Three Musketeers, the third book, called Ten Years Later. It’s between Vicomte of Bragelonne, a real gentleman and this nasty guy, Varde, if I remember it correct.
    And the duel takes place in a time when they were not allowed by law.
    When the good guy tries to remind about that law, the villain calls him a coward. So Vicomte of Bragelonne is left with no choice but to win in a sword fight which takes him some 5 minutes. It’s described very professionally and humorously and sticks in mind for a long time 🙂

    Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 22, 2016, 4:27 pm
    • Hi Lilit,
      It’s interesting how this duel layers several conflicts. There’s the reason why they fought the duel, the question of honour (an inner conflict), the duel itself, and the legal conflict (duels are against the law).
      Maybe one day you’ll write a duelling scene, and then it could be worth creating a similar multi-layered conflict.
      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 23, 2016, 4:57 am
      • Yes, hidden layers are interesting.
        In the duel I mentioned there was another one going way back.
        The Vicomte’s father was Athos, one of the musketeers and Varde’s father used to hate him, because they had old unresolved issues.
        So this hatred survived a whole generation and ended up as this particular duel

        Posted by Lilit Galatea | August 23, 2016, 5:51 am
  12. This was a very interesting topic and as a romance novelist, I found it of much help. I have yet to write a scene involving a duel, though I have written historical English Regency novels before, but haven’t had a reason to add a duel in the novels I’ve written. But I’ll keep this in mind if the opportunity ever arises.

    Posted by Christine Antosca | August 22, 2016, 6:08 pm
  13. Hi Christine,
    I think duels are great in Regency Romances. Readers enjoy them.
    Rayne

    Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 23, 2016, 4:58 am
  14. Hi Rayne,

    I love the way you lay everything out in such a clear and organized fashion. 🙂

    Looking back on my reading, I guess I only like duels when the honor aspect is subverted. Characters like Stephen King’s Gunslinger or Dave Duncan’s Blades don’t care about honor so much as getting the job done. My favorite duel of all time, though, is Granny Weatherwax vs Diamanda in Sir Pterry’s Lords and Ladies. One of the few female duels in literature. (I love Granny Weatherwax. She’s a genuinely strong female character, not a kung-fu waif.)

    Posted by Aimee Mandala | August 23, 2016, 8:23 pm
  15. Great advice Rayne. I watched the Rob Roy duel and boy that’s a great scene. I really liked how drawing out the action creates tension. And when it looks like the hero is going to die, a quick and completely believable turnaround! That was amazing.

    The Sanjuro Duel was different but I liked it as well. If I’m not wrong that’s Akira Kurosawa and he truly is a master of cinema. That scene wouldn’t work that well in a book I guess as there’s so minimal action. And it’s over too quickly.

    I’ve never written any duel scenes but having read your post I feel I should try to include them in my stories as they truly are powerful.

    They can also be used with a twist where the hero wins but instead of killing the other guy, he forgives him and shows generosity. The other character can then become a good friend and ally for our hero and might even sacrifice his life later in the story to save the hero. I’ve seen this in some movies.

    Posted by aditya thakur | August 25, 2016, 12:16 am
    • Hi Aditya,

      Yes, Sanjuro is an Akira Kurosawa film. That scene contributed to his fame. A duel scene structured like this can work in *some* books but not in many.

      A completely different movie duel, almost the exact opposite of the Sanjuro one, is the duel between Inigo Montoya and The Man in Black in The Princess Bride. Have you seen that? If not, it’s worth watching, one of the most popular movie duels of all times. You can probably find it on youtube under ‘The Princess Bride – The polite duel’ or ‘The Princess Bride – The chatty duel’. It doesn’t have much realism, but is very entertaining.

      A situation where two duellists become friends is plausible and can indeed become the start of a good friendship. The duel shows character. Each comes to appreciate the other’s courage and honour. It’s all about honour – the cause of the duel, the behaviour in the run-up to the duel, the actions during the duel itself, the conclusion . I’m sure you can work with this in your fiction.

      Rayne

      Posted by Rayne Hall (@RayneHall) | August 25, 2016, 2:28 am
  16. Most of my fight scenes are more like battles with large groups on either side. However, this article was still useful and interesting. I never thought so much research would have to go into one fight scene but the more ya know, right?

    Great article.

    Posted by Natasha Lane | August 25, 2016, 9:29 pm
  17. This is not exactly an element I have given much thought to as I’ve never really been a big fan of duels. However, I must say that I appreciate the way you broke down what it takes to write a good duel scene. I remember going to the Medieval Times dinner show in Orlando, which was based on a duel. As I read this article, I could identify everything you spoke about; parts that I had not given much thought to, because I didn’t have this information at that time. Thank you for opening my eyes to the possibility of introducing a duel to my writing and for great tips on how to do it in a way that will entice my readers.

    Posted by Shenae Richards | September 1, 2016, 8:50 pm
  18. This post is written with passion and clarity. I am not the type of person who writes about this topic however you have inspired me to start

    Posted by ashlee | September 3, 2016, 6:17 am
  19. Great advice. I can see this adapted to a sci-fi/fantasy scene.

    Posted by M.C. Tuggle | June 21, 2017, 8:21 am
  20. 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.”
    Well … one might say it is part of the “psychology” but there is also another explanation. It is the society rules that bring men to a contest, including a life endangering one.
    When power, sex or wealth are distributed through “winner takes it all” rules – then a combat is inevitable. And the duel is just a more formalized ritual that defines the winner.
    Women also compete and fight when faced with similar situations.

    Posted by Nikola Yordanov | July 31, 2017, 12:47 am
    • Yes. It would would be interesting to know how much of this is psychological and how much is societal.
      In our fiction, we can make it either or both, or we can blend the two factors, whatever suits our characters and our story.

      Posted by Rayne hall | July 31, 2017, 2:01 am
  21. Yes. It would would be interesting to know how much of this is psychological and how much is societal.
    In our fiction, we can make it either or both, or we can blend the two factors, whatever suits our characters and our story.

    Posted by Rayne hall | July 31, 2017, 2:00 am
  22. Hi Rayne!

    I absolutely loved reading this piece. One of my favorite duels is in the end of The Count of Monte Cristo — when Edmond Dantes exacts his revenge on Count Fernon Mondego. It gets me every time. This has been a fantastic read, and I had so much fun learning about the ins and outs of a duel.

    I can’t wait to apply this when I eventually decide to write an epic tale of my own. Thank you so much for the great read. It was fun, simple, and highly informative. Cheers!

    Posted by Dylan Hunter | July 31, 2017, 7:12 pm
  23. I’ve never written a duel scene before but I totally agree that short sentences create tension.

    Posted by Ralitsa | August 1, 2017, 3:58 am
  24. Even though I do not write any duel scenes or battle scenes, I found this post quite interesting. I didn’t realize how much goes into writing these scenes, and how much background knowledge you must have before writing the scene. Very helpful and informative! Thanks, Rayne!

    Posted by Shelby Dowden | August 2, 2017, 10:07 am
  25. Hello Rayne
    Thanks for this post. It was both inspiring and educating. I know a bunch of writers that struggle with combat and dialogue, any quick tips?

    Posted by Victoria | August 7, 2017, 2:42 pm
  26. I’m always interested in reading or watching combat scenes where both sides demonstrate integrity and honor towards one another. It adds depth to the character and shows complexity, which is beyond just good and evil.
    In such extreme situations you can either reveal your character’s true colors, cementing the reader’s perception, or add a twist.

    In this regard, do you think that we can use a duel scene between the protagonist and antagonist to alter their roles? If the plot allows it of course…

    Posted by Vesso | August 8, 2017, 5:44 am
  27. Great topic. I have never thought of how many things writers should be aware of before writing a duel scene. What caught my eye was when writers have to check if duelling was legal. Many writers can choose a year and not think that maybe duelling was illegal back then. Great information, if I ever decide to write a duel scene I know where to come to learn!

    Posted by Mark Johnson | August 9, 2017, 12:04 pm

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