I’m so excited to feature a guest post from Brittany N. Williams, whose debut novel That Self-Same Metal is an intriguing and dazzling fantasy novel set in Shakesperean London and promises to delight readers of Holly Black and Dhonielle Clayton. Something of a Renaissance Woman, Brittany is an actress, trained vocalist and author who very graciously offered to share how her expertise with swordplay on the stage transformed into brilliant swordplay on the page. Thank you, Brittany for sharing with us!
Imagine, if you will, that you sit down to write a scene. An epic moment that features a three-way fight between William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage—both of whom are under a fae enchantment—and the 16-year-old swordswoman. What do you do? Where do you begin? If you’re me, you begin with a stage combat class.
A History of (Fake) Violence
I’ve been fascinated by the fights in movies and on stage since I was a teenage actor although I didn’t get my own training until I was in graduate school. What I learned then, from the incredible London-based team of RC-Annie, has been infinitely helpful not only with my acting career but also with my writing. I’ve faced down opponents with blades drawn. I’ve both won and lost those fights, “killed” and “died”. When it came time to write the master swordswoman who leads That Self-Same Metal, I was undaunted.
We all likely have a basic understanding of swords: there’s the end you hold and the end you cut with. But, as with all things, it’s more complicated than that. Broadswords, like in Braveheart or most King Arthur movies, are large with heavy pommels and blades sharpened on both edges. They’re meant to bang through armor and slice into the groves between where the protective metal meets. They take energy and effort to wield. A smallsword, on the other hand, is built for speed. Its thin blade can slice from side to side with the slightest shift of the wrist and has a sharpened tip for stabbing. Broadsword and smallsword, a weapon of war versus a dueling blade separated by several hundred years of history. Both are blades, and both tell a different story about the person who wields them. It’s our job as both actors and writers to know that difference and that is only the start.
Pen Captures Sword in Six Moves
When I sit down to write a swordfight, I consider three things: who’s fighting, what’s their skill level, and what story am I trying to tell with this moment. I think about these same things when I’m performing or directing a fight as well. Once that’s set, I can pick my moves. I like to combine flashy and practical, varying the rhythm of moves to create something dynamic. I see it in my head like a movie, shifting each character in space until I have a satisfying sequence. Sometimes I’ll even draw my practice rapier—or wield a pen in public—to test-run my movements. Then, once I’m satisfied, I hit the page.
When I’m capturing my imagined fight in words, I want my readers to feel the pulse of the movements, the breaths of the fight, the confidence or desperation. Here, it’s all about the rhythm and musicality of the language. Vary sentence lengths. Utilize the most active and visceral words. Tap into the senses: smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Pause to inject emotion or moments of introspection. Give the combatants time to just breathe. These all shape your reader’s experience and guide them through the story of your fight. “Suddenly” doesn’t serve you here beyond the start of your fight, and even there only sparingly. Begin and battle and end.
I’ll leave with these last three essential lessons:
- Beware of accidentally giving someone a third hand.
- Remember wounds hurt physically and mentally.
- When in doubt, get on your feet and try it out.
Brittany N. Williams is a classically-trained actress who studied Musical Theatre at Howard University and Shakespearean performance at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama in London. Previously she’s been a principal vocalist at Hong Kong Disneyland, a theatre professor at Coppin State University, and made appearances in Queen Sugar and Leverage: Redemption. Her short stories have been published in The Gambit Weekly, Fireside Magazine, and the Star Wars anthology From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back. That Self-Same Metal is her debut novel.
Featured Image Courtesy of Abrams, 2023