Weapons are an integral part of many spec-fic stories, from ancient swords forged in the fires of creation to high-tech space weapons that can dematerialize a good-sized asteroid from half a parsec away. But most writers aren’t experts on weapons, so mistakes tend to creep in. The good news is that we don’t need to be experts to fix most of these issues; we just need to be aware of them. After exhaustive research (complaining about the weapons in my favorite books and TV shows), I have compiled a list of the most common errors.
1. Forgetting Physical Space
Fight scenes require authors to keep track of much more information than usual, so it’s no surprise that weapons are often treated like incorporeal ephemera that only solidify when they finally land a hit on the enemy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read about a greatsword-wielding hero effortlessly swinging their four-foot blade in the cramped confines of a witch’s cottage or a dagger-wielding enemy that seems to teleport past the hero’s spear.
This gives the impression that the hero’s world isn’t solid, as though they’re fighting in an environment made of foam and cotton candy. Weapons should feel like solid objects that take up space, and that means thinking about how much space they need to swing and how long their reach is. Movies and TV have a leg up here, since the problem is more obvious when a physical actor is holding a prop weapon, but prose writers need to up their game.
The good news is that I’m not just adding another chore to your list of things to remember in fight scenes – being consistent about physical space can actually make your fight scenes much better. A common problem with fight scenes is that they feel like little more than static exchanges of blows until one combatant falls over.* Using physical space is a great way to spice things up and make the action feel alive.
If your hero wields a two-handed sword, but now they’re trapped in a narrow corridor, that limits how they can move. Instead of the big swings they’re used to, they’re limited to stabbing attacks. If your scene is about a knife fighter attacking a spearman, you can add extra excitement by illustrating the difficulties of getting past a much longer weapon. Or you can reverse the situation and have your spear hero try to keep a vicious knife enemy at bay.
Physical space is also an excuse for one of my favorite underused tropes: a character who carries more than one type of weapon. They might have a bow to use at range, a war hammer for big open spaces, a long sword for urban streets, and a dagger for cramped alleys. Not only does this stand out from all the heroes who focus on a single weapon, but it also makes your protagonist seem resourceful!
2. Overly Elaborate Tech
Storytellers face a conundrum when designing fantasy or scifi weapons: there are only so many ways to efficiently kill someone, and most of those have been explored pretty thoroughly in the real world. We want our advanced aliens and mysterious elves to have cool and unique weapons, but it’s often difficult to make a weapon novel without also making it silly.
In hand-to-hand, this usually manifests as weapons with so many edges and spikes that you’re not sure how to even hold them. Also whips. Spec-fic writers really love creating super deadly whips, for some reason. These can fit okay in pulpy settings like the MCU or surreal stories like Madoka Magica, but it quickly detracts from any tale that’s supposed to feel grounded.
With ranged weapons, the problem is usually what they do rather than how they look. Modern firearms are already incredibly efficient when it comes to killing people, so making scifi weapons even more deadly creates plot problems. It’s difficult to have recurring characters if every fight scene results in 100% casualties. At the same time, making scifi weapons that are too similar to real-life guns can be really boring, so what’s an author to do?
Sometimes they add a bunch of features that sound impressive at first but, in reality, don’t help. Designing weapons to be especially painful is a common one. While that’s scary, it rarely holds up to scrutiny. Horrifying deaths are a common feature in weapons across history, but this is almost always a side effect of trying to incapacitate the enemy as efficiently as possible.* Some writers have even weirder ideas, like weapons that infect their targets with slow-acting nanites rather than fast-acting bullets. I can imagine some niche uses for that tech, but it’s hardly a battlefield weapon.
Alternatively, some scifi weapons rely on flashy aesthetics to disguise how ineffective they are. Star Trek’s phasers and Stargate’s staff weapons* fall into this category. Staff weapons lose out to modern MP5s. Meanwhile, I’ve lost track of the number of circumstances that phasers do not work in, whether it’s due to some techno-interference or the local wildlife being energy-proof.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution to this problem. Designing new weapons is difficult, even if prose authors have a slightly easier time than screenwriters because we don’t have to worry about a special-effects budget. The best advice I can offer is to fully consider the implications of what you’re designing. While a 15-bladed crystal sword is unquestionably novel, it’ll also have readers scratching their heads over how the hero can possibly swing it, which is probably not a worthwhile trade.
3. Ignoring Stun Settings
Storytellers love adding highly efficient stun weapons to their worlds. In scifi, this is usually a literal stun setting on phasers or blasters. In more modern settings, these take the form of tasers and tranquilizer darts.* Fantasy stories can also get in on the action; everyone in the Avatar setting is armed with bolas, even the airplanes.
No matter what form they take, these stun weapons can easily render a person unconscious with zero risk of serious harm. Suffice to say, that’s a bit far-fetched. In terms of modern tech, even supposedly “nonlethal” weapons often cause serious injury or death. Tasers can cause heart attacks, and tranquilizers need to be carefully calibrated so they don’t kill the target.* And needless to say, they’re much less efficient as weapons than firearms are, which is why soldiers still go into battle with assault rifles rather than stun guns. We can’t say for sure that this dynamic will continue with future weapons, but it seems likely.
Narratively, the main benefit of these weapons is that the characters can easily capture their enemies alive and the author doesn’t have to put much thought into it. The downside is subtle but critical: a lot of dramatic situations depend on the characters not wanting to escalate to violence, since violence usually hurts people. If your characters have perfect stun weapons, that tension goes away.
Think of every scene you’ve watched or read where two or more characters are pointing guns at each other in a standoff. The premise of that standoff is that no one wants to be the one who escalates to violence, either because they don’t want to hurt whoever they’re facing off against or because the risk of being hurt in return is too high. With a perfect stun weapon, there’s little reason not to pull the trigger first. Similarly, the main reason not to open fire on unknown intruders is that you don’t want to kill someone for the crime of trespassing, but now your character can stun them all and let the captain sort it out.
Storytellers generally deal with this by pretending stun weapons don’t exist or by finding contrived excuses why they can’t be used. Both solutions will hurt the story, so in most cases, the better option is simply to avoid perfect stun weapons in the first place. If your action heroes need to capture someone alive, let them do it the old-fashioned way. It’s harder than using lethal force, but solving difficult problems is what protagonists do.
4. Selective Melee Combat
If years of analyzing stories have taught me anything, it’s that some stories simply require that we pretend guns don’t exist. Or at least that we pretend they’re way less effective than they are in reality. Urban fantasy is the most prominent example, in which sword duels against vampires are commonplace, but there are plenty of other cases. Superhero stories don’t generally ignore guns, but they do pretend that guns are less effective than Thor’s hammer and Iron Man’s latest gadget. Star Wars does the same thing, pretending as hard as it can that no one would think of shooting at a Jedi from more than one direction at the same time.
This game of pretend is standard for spec-fic fans, but it gets a lot harder to accept when a story includes guns or gun-like scifi weapons but only some factions use them. This is usually done to create a sense of “fair play.” In urban fantasy, human hunters can compete on the same level as supernatural beings because the humans have guns. In space opera, the various “warrior races” are super strong and resilient, but they politely nerf themselves by eschewing energy weapons. In superhero stories, the scrappy street hero competes with the flying titans by throwing grenades.
Sometimes this is directly stated in the story. An alien or vampire will proudly proclaim that they don’t need guns because they already have superstrength. In other cases, it’s simply an implicit assumption of the story. I don’t think Thor ever says out loud why he doesn’t use a rapid fire projectile weapon; we’re just supposed to assume he doesn’t need one.
Either way, the premise breaks down once we actually see guns and other high-tech weapons in action. In Teen Wolf, hunters open fire on hostile werewolves, driving them back. The werewolves retreat to heal from the bullet wounds, but if they’d also had guns, the hunters would all be dead. In Star Trek, Klingons routinely throw away the advantage of superior numbers and surprise by charging into phaser fire, bat’leths held high. In Infinity War, we’re supposed to believe that Wakanda has the strongest army in the world, but we can see that War Machine is doing way more damage to Thanos’s forces with bullets and bombs than the Dora Milaje can with their vibranium spears.
All speculative fiction requires some suspension of disbelief, but the requirements increase every time a story points out its own contradictions. If your story can only function when characters ignore some obviously exploitable advantage, the best path is for everyone to ignore it equally. That way, you’re not constantly reminding the audience that what they’re seeing or reading makes no sense.
This does require reexamining certain genre tropes. If you want something that makes the human hunters special in a world of supernatural creatures, consider introducing a special type of magic that only humans can use. If you need an alien species that’s physically more powerful than humans, balance them out with weaknesses that humans don’t have, like less-developed immune systems or lower stamina. Both options are a lot easier to explain than one faction giving up the obvious advantage of high-tech weapons.
5. Unsafe Sparring
Everyone loves a good sparring session. It’s a great way to show your characters improving with their chosen weapon and also a chance for you, the author, to practice your fight-scene description. What’s more, these scenes are a great excuse for characters to reveal glimpses of their inner drama. It can feel a bit forced if the hero discusses their deepest insecurities unprompted, but sparring gets everyone tired and sweaty enough to lower their inhibitions a bit. And since these scenes aren’t real fights, you don’t have to worry about the love interest getting stabbed in the middle of their confession.
At least, you shouldn’t have to worry about that. But then authors go and make their training scenes absurdly unsafe. The most common iteration of this is having the characters spar with fully sharpened blades while not wearing any protective gear, but it manifests in other ways. Blunt and crushing weapons are also extremely dangerous without proper padding, and in scifi settings, we often see characters practicing with energized laser swords. In most of those stories, no amount of protection would make that safe.
From an in-universe perspective, there’s no justification for this. If the characters are fighting like normal, there’s a very good chance that one or both combatants will take serious injuries. It would be pretty awkward if the hero missed their final battle because of an easily avoidable training accident. If the characters hold back to avoid hitting their sparring partner, that is placing a lot of faith in their precision. Perhaps worse, it means they’re training not to hit their opponent, which is presumably the opposite of what they want. Inexperienced novices might imagine training works this way, but not anyone with the level of experience most protagonists and mentors possess.
From an audience perspective, the story is telling us that violence isn’t serious. Weapons aren’t deadly tools of destruction; they’re fun toys to play with. Even stories that aren’t particularly grounded or realistic don’t generally want this dynamic, as it reduces the chance of audiences taking the real action scenes seriously.
I can give visual media a tiny bit of slack for employing this trope, as a proper sparring session would require different costumes and props, but there’s no excuse for it in a prose story. Just narrate that your characters got out some practice weapons and donned training armor; it’s a single line of description! I promise that your characters can still reveal their inner truths while not maiming each other. Plus, it gives you the option for a character to dramatically remove their mask while making an important point. Who doesn’t want their characters to do that?
If you’re intentionally setting out to create a dangerous training sequence, there are ways to do that, but it requires more thought than the characters being reckless for no reason. You’ll need to set up a situation where a safer training routine isn’t viable and where the rewards outweigh the risks. Since most authors are just looking for an excuse for their characters to cross blades without the risk of death, such measures aren’t necessary all that often.
So long as your story has fight scenes in it, it’s important to understand how your weapons work and what implications they have. Even if you don’t have any fight scenes at all, chances are that weapons still have some effect on your setting through the possibility of their use. If your story has no weapons in it, then I hope you enjoyed nerding out about them anyway!
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?