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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Writing Fight Scenes with Rayne Hall: Kick Some Arse With Improvised Weapons

Rayne Hall writes dark fantasy and horror. She has published more than twenty books under different pen names in different genres, and her stories have earned Honorable Mentions in The Years' Best Fantasy and Horror. She holds a college degree in publishing management, a masters degree in creative writing, and teaches online classes on many writing topics.

I've had the pleasure of working with Rayne for many years on, Online Writer's Workshop, and on a much more personal level in the Professional Author's Group and the brand new Fantasy Fiction Forum where we review and discuss fantasy and dark fiction.

Her classes are well-researched, meticulously crafted, and her attention to students is impeccable. I have already put what what I've learned to use in my own stories.

Even if you've never wielded a weapon, you can write an exciting fight scene. Rayne will show you how, in her workshops on Writing Fight Scenes. Here's a sample, and I urge you take advantage of the generous offer to answer reader's questions.

Readers love heroines who are spunky and resourceful and who can kick male a***e (British spelling). You can combine all three in a creative fight scene in which your heroine defends herself with an improvised weapon.

This reflects psychological reality: When women feel threatened, they instinctively grab something to use as a weapon: a brick, milk bottle, toilet brush, flower pot, or frying pan. For the writer, this is a wondeful opportunity to create an unusual fight scene.

Improvised weapons can be highly effective. I've fought off one attacker with the oar from a rowing boat, and another with my garden spade. In both instances, I didn't need to do much fighting. The attackers were so surprised when their defenceless victim was suddenly armed, that they ran off. A friend's violent ex-husband repeatedly broke into her home, threatening her and the children. One day, she was cooking supper when he attacked her. She hit him on the head with the the cast iron frying pan: that was the last time he bothered her.

Admittedly, improvised weapons don't work as well against gun-armed thugs and professional assassins. However, your readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief as long as you create an illusion of reality.

The trick is to choose an object the heroine has used in other contexts. If the readers observe her ability wield the item skillfully in a non-combat situation, they will believe she can adapt this skill for self-defence.

What objects does your heroine handle in her everyday life? What are the tools of her trade, her professional instruments, her hobby equipment?

Here are some ideas to stimulate your imagination:

The passionate knitter stabs her attacker with her knitting needles. The amateur gardener trips her assailant with the hose pipe and hits him with the spade. The cook slams the cast iron frying pan on the attacker's head. The chambermaid fights back with the mop and the toilet brush. The archaeologist applies her sharp pointed trowel. The hair stylist uses the hairbrush, the scissors, the hairspray or the hot curling iron. The baker throws a handful of flour in his face to blind the thug for a moment, then whacks him with the rolling pin.

If she has martial arts training, she can supplement these actions with genuine punches, throws and kicks.

Readers will love your heroine for her spunk and her resourcefulness, and enjoy every moment of this original fight.

If you'd to discuss ideas for improvised weapons your heroine may use, or if you have questions about fight scene writing, leave a comment and I'll reply. I look forward to hearing from you.

Rayne's next workshops are being offered in March 2011 at: and June 2011at


  1. That's a very interesting read. I tend to use female heroines and you've made a couple of points on the psychology that I've never thought of.

    One point I'll make (which I expect you cover in the full workshop) is to try out the weapon - I remember the first time I held a replica Celtic sword and shield. They felt so different to how I'd assumed they'd feel (they were much lighter and the sword very well balanced) that it changed the way I write battle scenes.

  2. I agree absolutely, Andrew. Holding a replica weapon can be a real eye-opener. The weight especially can come as a surprise. Some authors describe fighters twirling their claymores - until they get the chance to hold one and realise how much strength it takes to simply lift one.

    What advice would you give to an author who wants to hold a replica of a period weapon? Where might they get the opportunity?

    Regarding female psychology, there are several interesting differences. In addition to the one I mentioned in this article - that a woman who feels threatened instinctively grabs an object to use as a weapon - there are other differences:

    Women are less easily provoked into fighting than men. Even if grossly insulted, they'll retaliate with words rather than with fists.

    Women will almost always seek a non-violent solution first. For example, in a major conflict, they try to negotiate, more than a man would. In a personal attack, they may even try to talk sense into their attacker before they use self-defence (which at which time, unfortunately, it may be too late for self-defence).

    In hand-to-hand combat and martial arts, the experienced male fighter starts fighting at once, aiming to be the one who lands the first strike. The female fighter typically waits until her opponent makes his first move, and then blocks the move or turns his move against him.

    The totally inexperienced female fighter usually defends herself by scratching - which is a not very effective method, though it serves to preserve her murderer's DNA under her nails.

    If a woman's children are threatened, she can become extremely aggressive and reckless. By comparison, a man's fighting style doesn't change when he fights to defend his children.

    Of course, these are broad differences, and they don't apply to every woman. Every woman and every situation is different. It's worth bearing the broad differences in mind, especially if you're a male author writing about a female fighter. (It applies the other way round, too: Female authors need to be aware that when it comes to fighting, men are wired differently).

    Have you ever written fiction involving female fighters?

  3. Hello Raine. Thank you for the further advice, which I'll take. Yes, I've had my heroines occasionally use weapons, from conventional swords to a broken/jagged key ring.

    A great way of being able to try out weapons is through historical battlwe enactment groups when they put on public displays. They often encourage children (young and old!) to try out their weapons and armour.

    I've 'used' military gear from several periods at displays and no matter what it is I've always been impressed by how light and flexible they feel. (Except 17th century 18 foot pike - I couldn't get to grips with the drill, although in my defence my lesson was only 30 seconds long!)

  4. An 18 foot pike? Wow. I've never had a chance to hold one. My experience with spears has been limited to the throwing kind (mostly stone age technology), never the thrusting.

    English Heritage used to have all those wonderful reenactment events in their properties - Romans at Richborough, Normans at Pevensey, and so on. I loved watching, and the reenactors were always enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. A few years ago, the EH reenactments stopped. Now all they do is occasional mini events for young children. :-(
    I wonder why they stopped. Do you happen to know? (I'm guessing budgets and profit margins and such).

    The last time I went to reenactment (not EH), it was a 'medieval' event. The publicity promised have-a-go archery. I was keen to practice with the longbow. But all they had was a couple of those little plastic bows for kids. :-(

    Fighting with a broken/jagged keyring? Now that's a cool improvised weapon. I like the sound of it. How did she use it? Combined with punches?

  5. Love the article. I going to sign up for your class.

  6. Hi Rayne,
    Great post. I love the idea of using a toilet brush as a weapon. Seems like this would be a great opportunity for humor. What does the writer need to consider when using a weapon likely to make readers laugh?

    re: the replica weapons, I am surprised to hear they feel light. Are they generally made from period material, and is the weighting supposed to be historically accurate? I had the idea that a modern-day man would find a medieval weapon incredibly heavy, although I don't remember where this notion came from.

  7. I'm not sure where the reenactors I;ve seen come from, but I think they were voluntary groups of enthusiasts, so I wouldn't have thought money would be the issue (but I'm happy to be told I'm wrong).

    I've never worn a full suit of armour medieval, but I was amazed at how light even helmets and big shields can be. Shields are often leather over a light frame, so I suppose I shoudn't have been surprised. And the swords are so well balanced that they felt comfortable and I didn't notice any heaviness. And reenactors pride themselves on realism, so I assume they're accurate.

    Khe key ring was a gauge to the neck that caught a jugular, so used a little like a dagger.

  8. Hi Carla,

    The question is: do you want your readers to laugh? Or do you want them to think 'you go, girl!'? Write the scene accordingly.
    A toilet brush (or other potentially funny weapon) can either be funny weapon in a slapstick-type scene, or it can be a desperate weapon in the hands of a resourceful heroine. Either works, but it has to fit in with the overall tone of your novel.

    If you're opting for desperate&resourceful, especially if the scene is scary, the hint of humour provided by the unusual weapon can work well. Horror and humour go well together.

    About the replica weapons: You're right. Medieval weapons are heavy. Especially the swords! Many modern people are shocked when they try to raise a medieval greatsword, and need all the strength of both hands and arms.

    A dainty heroine couldn't pick up a greatsword, and keep it raised while running across the battlefield. :-)

    I wonder what weapons from what periods Andrew found surprisingly light and flexible. 18th century perhaps? (I'm just guessing). Andrew, if you're reading this, maybe you could tell us about it?


  9. Hi again, Andrew.

    It looks like our posts have crossed.

    The thing about the reenactors and the money. There's a lot of cost involved in putting on an event (insurance, safety measures and such), so even if the enthusiasts themselves don't get paid, it's expensive to put one on. Many reenactment groups in the UK considered English Heritage their best customer. I believe they were paid a moderate fee (enough to pay their immediate expenses, and something towards their equipment). With the EH events gone, there aren't many opportunities left for reenactment groups to display their skills and equipment to audiences, let alone earning a contribution to their expenses. And alas, for us writer it means fewer opportunities to watch demonstrations and handle replicas.
    I keep watching out for historical reenactments in this area (I'm based in East Sussex) and there's almost nothing going on these days. Occasionally a 'medieval fayre' which involves a couple of guys dressed up in costume, a falconer, and someone keeping the kids entertained; the rest is stalls selling hamburgers and aromatherapy oils.

    That's interesting that you found the helmet and shield light in weight. It makes sense that they would be as light as the technology of the period allowed. Imagine keeping a heavy helmet on your head, and a heavy shield on your arm, for the duration of a long fight! I've held a leather shield and found it lightweight at first, but after a quarter of an hour, holding it because a struggle.
    Once I held medieval replica armour. (Just held, not put on). It was incredibly heavy. It must have taken enormous strength to walk in it, let alone fight in it, for a prolonged time.

  10. I guess for the medieval period weight armour and the like must have been heavy. The period that interests me is earlier, where warriors had to carry everything themselves, so I suppose there will have been more of a trade-off between practicality and battle-effectiveness.

    I'm really lucky that my son is a member of the local Young Archaeologists Society, and they do get enthusiasts coming along to demonstrate things and give the kids a go. I think Junior gets embarassed by his dad's enthusiasm to try everything out (for research purposes, of course). I can't knapp flints, but I'd have been a prolific weaver!

  11. Hi Rayne,
    I was thinking of starting with a humorous tone, and then moving to the sort of adventurous, exciting and dangerous fight tone found in many UF books(but not really horror). The kind of thing you read and laugh, and then in a moment go oh wait this is serious.

  12. Well, a rolicking discussion going here I'm happy to see. I told you Rayne is a terrific teacher.

    Rayne, I'll be having a go at an urban fantasy very soon, set in a gritty, dangerous neighborhood. I actually work there, which makes for some very good material.

    My heroine will have the advantage of magic and magical creatures to help her along, but I've this tremendous scene where her dog (familiar) attacks a dhampir trying to rape her by biting him you can only imagine where.

    Boulevard of Bad Spells and Broken Dreams has an edgy, ironic humor to it, so a toilet brush might not be a bad idea.

    Now I'm inspired to go back to the rest of your lessons. I will be having some knife fights, and since the magical creatures are immortal, it's conceivable they could have some very ancient weapons.

    Do you have any thoughts for those of us writing in more modern settings?

  13. Hi Carole,

    A gritty neighbourhood you know well makes an exciting setting for an urban fantasy. You can do research every day, reading the graffiti on the walls, listening to background noises, sniffing what smells are in the air. Have you chosen a location for the heroine+dog vs dhampir scene yet?

    Immediately before the fight, mention several sounds: the clacking of her own heels on the asphalt. Car doors slamming. A siren howling in a distance. Rodent feet scurrying along the road. Aroken shutter clattering against a window frame. This will create atmosphere, and build suspense. By the time the attacker shows, the reader will alredy be worried for the heroine's safety.

    Using a magical creature as a self-defence weapon is an interesting idea. You may want to consider the psychological sitution. In the reader's mind, the animal probably counts as an ally rather than a weapon. This means that the heroine and her dog against the dhampir is a two-against-one fight.
    Readers instinctively root for outnumbered fighters. Since this is probably not what you're aiming for, think of additional ways how to stack the odds against the heroine (e.g. broken foot in a plaster cast), to make sure the reader roots fully for her.

    Knife fights are often personal (the attacker knows the victim) and passionate (the attacker hates the victim, or members of rival ganga hate one another). There's a lot of emotion involved in knife fights: hatred, fury, the need for vengeance. Typically, knives are the weapon of choice for young men (though not exclusive to them). Knife fights tend to be bloody and violent, with nasty injuries on both sides, often both people end up dead. Knife fights also involve wrestling moves. If you want to keep the violence level down, it helps if the defender knows moves for getting the attacker to drop the knife.

    Very ancient weapons in a modern setting? Oh, I like that. May I suggest a khopesh? That's an ancient Sumerian/Canaanine/Egyptian sickle sword. I'd love to see a khopesh in a modern setting.

    I hope some of these thoughts trigger brilliant ideas.


  14. Carla,

    It sounds like a funny weapon used in a serious fight would be perfect for your book.
    Other than a toilet brush, what item might the heroine use? What objects are lying around for the heroine to grab? Are any of her hobby implements or tools of her trade potentially funny?

    Personally, I'd love to read about a heroine who uses the eggwhisk to whisk a male attacker's eggs, though I have no idea how this would work. :-D


  15. Hi Andrew,
    I see what you mean: the weight of arms and armour mattered not just during the battle, but for getting there. Medieval knights presumably had their packhorses, but Roman legionnaries had to carry their stuff on long marches, and the Saxons under King Harold marched all the way from Stamford Bridge to Hastings. Naturally, they would seek to keep their armour as lightweight as possible.
    (though it would probably still have been too heavy for me. 30 miles march per day, carrying metal armour and helmet and sword and spears and palisade posts and food supplies and... Ugh! I wouldn't have made it in the Roman legion).

    You're indeed fortunate that you can observe archaeologist's demonstrations through your son, and try things out. Here in Britain, archaeology tends to be very much hands-on experiential stuff. I did some training in ancient crafts and technologies, and related subjects. Fascinating!
    Most if it was far too time-consuming for me. Weaving? Tanning? Felt-making? I lack the patience. Flint-knapping suited me well, because I could produce a lot of arrowheads in one afternoon.
    If I ever find myself time-travelled into the neolethic, I'll specialise in flint-knapping, and trade my arrowheads and hand axes for woven goods.