Friday, February 25, 2011

Welcome Guest Blogger, Rayne Hall


The Writer's Most Useful Weapon

For historical fiction, a dagger is the ideal weapon: plausible in many scenarios, and loaded with emotional connotations. Yet, its under-used, because few writers grasp the dagger's fiction potential.


Many authors write sword fight scenes where a dagger fight would be more plausible. Swords are large and heavy, cumbersome to carry, slow to draw, and almost impossible to conceal. In many situations, it's unlikely that a protagonist happens to carry a sword with him. By contrast, daggers are small, lightweight, quick to draw, and easy to conceal - perfect for quick responses, spontaneous action, brawls, suicide bids, self-defence and assassination.

While only people of wealth and rank can afford a sword, owning a dagger is feasible for all but the poorest. Wielding a dagger requires only moderate strength, which makes it plausible weapon for a lady. Even an injured person may be able to summon the strength for a final defence with a dagger.

For almost every scene, the dagger is a better choice than the sword (the exceptions are horseback fights and battle scenes).

The concealment offers exciting fictional opportunities. Typically, a dagger is carried in a leather sheath on the belt, easily concealed under a cloak if required. For secrecy, it can also be hidden in a boot or in a bodice. Indeed, during the renaissance, it was quite common for women to carry a dagger between their breasts (the sheath was sewn into the bodice). A dagger can also be concealed in the back of the bodice or in a hair ornament. The heroine, preparing to fight off a lecherous advance or to assassinate an enemy, can pretend to twist her necklace anxiously, or to fidget with her hair, and quickly draw the blade. Bodice daggers hilts without cross guards.

Here's a picture of a bodice dagger:


Besides its many practical uses, the dagger carries a lot of emotional and erotic symbolism.

To stab someone with a dagger, the fighter has to get close, which makes it one of the most intimate weapons. When the dagger penetrates the flesh, the hand almost touches the victim. This is very different from a bullet or arrow, which can be shot from a great distance. The closeness creates an intensely personal connection between attacker and victim. Daggers (and knives of all kinds) are often used in fights where emotions are running high: gang warfare, hate crime, vengeance.

The shape of the weapon and the fact that it's typically worn on the belt make it a symbol of male virility. In many cultures and periods, men demonstrated their manhood by displaying ornate daggers at the front of their hips, the bigger, the better.

Sometimes the hilt rather than the blade was exaggerated: Many daggers from 1200 to 1800, especially in England and Scotland, had huge, stiff, upwards-pointing wooden hilts with balls on either side. They were unblushingly called a 'bollocks daggers' (or 'ballock daggers'). Here's a picture of a ballock dagger (be prepared to gasp):

In addition, the motion of sliding a dagger into or out of the sheath can be highly suggestive. Talk about daggers lends itself to suggestive dialogue, with comments like 'Nice weapon. Are you any good at wielding it?', 'Want to see my other dagger, babe?', 'Does your dagger need polishing?', 'So you like swordplay, Milady? How about daggerplay?'


Book cover designers love daggers, especially when depicting the hero. They adore the chance to imply male virility. The elongated weapon on the hero's belt - or in the heroine's hand - hints at other things.

A dagger on the cover may increase your book's sex appeal, so it's worth telling your cover designer about it. However, many cover artists get carried away by the concept, with cringe-worthy results. I've seen covers where the hero wore the naked blade in his belt without sheath: a prelude to self-mutilation!


All fight scenes are fast-paced, and dagger scenes are the fastest of them all. Use all the fast-pace techniques you know, e.g. short paragraphs, short sentences, short words. Focus especially on verbs: cut, stab, pierce, act, slash, thrust, target, push, drive, force, press, duck, poke, kill.

Words with 'k' sounds are especially effective for dagger fights: duck, poke, cry, hack, kill.

Daggers are stabbing weapons with sharp points, usually with long, thin blades. When describing a stab wound, show blood spreading or oozing. The aim in a fight is to stab a vital organ. Stabbing directly at the chest seldom works, because the blade may glance off the ribs. If the fighter has dagger experience or anatomical knowledge, she will position the dagger below the ribcage and drive it upwards (through the diaphragm into the lungs). This is lethal and works from the front or from behind. If she knows her anatomy well (e.g. if she's a professional assassin), and if the dagger is long enough, she can aim for piercing the heart, which leads to a quicker death. Trained assassins know additional spots where a stab is lethal, e.g. under the armpit or under the chin.

Some daggers are designed for slashing as well as stabbing. These have one or two sharp edges. When describing a slash wound, show a lot of blood, streaming or even spurting. The aim in a fight with this type of dagger is either to slash the opponent's throat, or to disable him by cutting tendons, muscles or ligaments (followed with a deadly stab). Fights with slashing daggers are very bloody. The point-of-view character's hand may grow slick with blood, and her grip on the weapon may become less firm.

If you're aiming for a sanitised, gore-free version of a dagger fight - e.g. for a romance novel -, you may want to stick to pure stabbing daggers.


For an assassination scene, give your assassin stealth and knowledge of human anatomy. An assassin will plan in advance how to kill the victim, and carry out the killing with calm efficiency. It will be with a single stroke, probably a determined thrust from below the ribs.


An attacker who is motivated by intense feelings, such as outrage or hatred, will stab the victim repeatedly, and keep stabbing, perhaps even after the victim is already dead. If the motive is long-held hatred, the attacker may stab or slash the victim's face, disfiguring it.


If both fighters are armed with daggers, the fight may include wrestling-type moves as each tries to restrict the other's weapon hand.

They will also try to disable each other's weapon arm, for example by slashing the inside of the elbow. Such fights are often fuelled by emotions, intense, irrational, very bloody, and fatal.

You can watch a demonstration of dagger fighting with wrestling moves here:


If a fighter expects a fight, e.g. in a battle, he may use both sword and dagger. He fights with the sword in his right hand and the dagger in his left. This was common during the renaissance.

You can watch a sword&dagger demonstration here:

The versatility of the dagger, combined with its symbolism and connotations, makes it a perfect weapon for historical fiction.


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 and a masters degree in creative writing, and teaches online classes.

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'.

The next workshops are:

March 2011:

June 2011:


  1. Thanks for the blog, Rayne. Love "the swordplay, my lady" dialogue!

  2. :-) Knowing how funny and sexy your stories are, Alice, I think you can come up with some wittily suggestive dialogue lines. How about posting some ideas, and maybe other people will follow suit?


  3. "Dagger? I hardly know her."

    I doubt that's what you had in mind.

  4. When I was choosing weapons for my fight scene I didn't even think about daggers. I will have to keep them in mind as I work on revisions. In the right scene they could be such a clever and sexy weapon, and who doesn't love a little innuendo. Great blog and fantastic ideas, as always, Rayne!

  5. Hi Kristin,
    Yes, during the revision you may find an opportunity for someone using a dagger. Which of your characters might carry a dagger?
    Or, if your current WiP doesn't lend itself to daggers, maybe there'll be an opportunity in a future project.

  6. Great blog piece, Rayne. When it comes to spicing up your writing, in a professional and creative manner, you are amazing. I would not have made a real distinction between a sword and dagger. Thanks.

    After using a dagger, it's going to be bloody. In contemporary settings (thanks to forensic technology), the stabber would be looking for a way to dispose of the weapon (ie: throwing the knife in the river). But this wouldn't be a feasible action in historical times, would it? You'd keep that dagger. Any tips on wiping blood from a used dagger, especially if it's a bodice dagger .. without having it be too gross? Or is that just a given in a dagger stabbing scene - you have to deal with the blood, wipe it on your skirt, etc.


  7. You're raising some interesting points here. Thanks for making me think. :-)

    I don't have definite answers, just some thoughts.

    Yes, a dagger could easily be disposed of because it's so small, and one might plausibly toss it in the river to get rid of the evidence, just as one might throw away a handgun after a murder.

    On the other hand, as you say, in historical times this might not be feasible (the dagger might be too valuable a possession) nor necessary (no fingerprinting or DNA analysis).

    About wiping off blood - I don't think they'd use their skirt. Blood stains show on clothes, and often don't wash out well. This might ruin a good garment (an important consideration in times when most people didn't possess many clothes). It might also raise questions if a woman walks around with fresh blood on her skirt (she might be able to explain it away with the time of the month, though I wouldn't rely on that).

    Perhaps a well-prepared assassin will carry a rag for wiping hands and weapon afterwards.

    Someone who uses a dagger in self-defense wouldn't be prepared. I imagine they'll wipe the blade on whatever's around - a tuft of grass, a cushion. Probably they wouldn't wipe it on their own clothes. Maybe on the dead person's clothes?

    A woman who stabs a rapist in self-defense probably wouldn't be concerned about protecting her dress from stains - but she wouldn't want that man's blood on her clothes.

    Do you have further thoughts on this?

  8. Rayne

    Thanks for the assassin ideas.

    What about throwing a dagger? (Other than not having a weapon) Is a dagger small enough to throw?

    Particularly for the Vengeance aspect, as a final kill, would someone throw their dagger? or is too long?

  9. Hi Rayne,

    Great insight, as usual. And the dagger as an erotic symbol? Well, I DO have a young girl protagonist who keeps daggers from the bad guys she kills hidden away with her knickers...

    A few observations. Forgive any repetition:

    - In medieval times and others used as the models for most heroic literature, most hand weapons favored the agile brute. A person of small stature was better off with a stand-off weapon for the offensive, complemented with a smaller weapon for close personal defense. Those who weren't overtly involved in fighting might still carry a weapon for personal defense. Knifes and daggers were ideal for the purpose for the reasons you've cited, and knives also served utilitarian uses. A knife or dagger, even a hat-pin, made for a woman's weapon of last resort, and if you needed to use it, it was usually under duress.

    - Knives inherently mean close-in work. A small person needs quickness and
    agility to offset an opponent's superior strength, and they need to conclude the
    affair quickly. They'll go for the kill and go for it in a hurry.

    - Often overlooked, killing with a knife carries with it some heavy psychological
    baggage. Cutting a throat is an ugly act. In stabbing an opponent, the
    knife-wielder feels the blade go all the way in and all the way out again, maybe
    punching through soft tissue, maybe scraping by a rib. And then there's the
    grappling and the blood--blood spurting from arterial wounds, blood running over
    the knife-wielder's hand from a killing stab, blood soaking their clothes, the
    smell of blood, the warm slippery feel of blood, sometimes the taste of blood.
    Swordsmen slash, stab, and kill at arm's length, then move on. With the knife,
    things are up close and personal.

    Hope this adds something to the discussion.


  10. Hi Lesley,

    >What about throwing a dagger? (Other than not having a weapon) Is a dagger small enough to throw?<

    Throwing a dagger is interesting. If it suits your story, it can be refreshingly different. Here are some thoughts to help you work out if it suits your story:

    It's possible to throw a dagger and kill someone with it. However, throwing daggers are different weapons from ordinary daggers, with completely different design. Dagger throwing requires enormous skill, and to hit and kill someone, the thrower needs have practiced dagger throwing for years.

    It's not an ideal weapon for killing someone, especially not spontaneously, because of the way it flies. It spins forward-back, i.e.g for parts of its flight, the tip points forward, for others, the hilt leads.

    An experienced dagger thrower knows exactly how his/her dagger travels, and will measure the distance to the target to make sure that the dagger is at a point where the dagger tip is forward.

    Since most people wouldn't stand still while the attacker measures and calculates ;-) this leaves only certain situations where the attacker knows in advance where the target will stand at a certain time, for example, a violinist will sit on the same spot in the orchestra, a professor will teach from the same lectern.

    >Particularly for the Vengeance aspect, as a final kill, would someone throw their dagger?<

    Possible, but unlikely. If the thrower is an experienced dagger thrower, if the target is known in advance to stand at a specific spot, if the thrower has the opportunity to calculate the ideal distance from which to throw, then yes, it's possible.

    But would they choose it? Vengeance killers seek emotional satisfaction, and killing someone from a distance isn't emotionally satisfying as stabbing them up close.

    Perhaps throwing is the only way to do kill this person. Or perhaps the thrower wants to perform the killing in public, with a huge audience watching, so s/he has to do it from a distance or someone will prvent her/him.

    I hope these thoughts help.


  11. Hi John,

    I agree, the use of a dagger or a knife is up close and personal - closer than a sword, and much closer than a bullet. This creates an emotional relationship between the fighters (or between killer and victim). This is intensified by the the blood which - especially with knives or slashing daggers - is bound to run over the dagger user's hands, which makes the relationship intimate.

    Although for me, personally, blood isn't erotic, for many readers it is (as evidenced by the many erotic vampire romances), and the dagger/knife is the weapon with the greatest potential for exploiting this.

    The dagger/knife certainly lends itself to personal and emotional fights. Hatred, vengeance, outrage, fury. Many fights between members of contemporary streetgangs are fought with knives over issues which are highly emotional to to those young men (vengeance, honour, loyalty, hierarchy, power).

    Knife fighting also increases the passions and eliminates any sanity.

    If two young men are in conflict and fight it out with fists, they may be fuelled by anger and cause real hurt, but still retain some sanity.

    If they're both armed with knives, they'll work themselves into a passionate frenzy. They won't stop until they're both mutilated in a lake of blood. Even the one who started out relatively sane gets becomes crazy.

    (That's what I've been told by law enforcement officers. I don't have personal experience).

    Regarding the erotic symbolism of the dagger - I think this is perfect for some books, some characters, some scenes, and not for others.

    Sometimes, there may be nothing overt, and only the reader's subconscious picks up the symbolism.

    Sometimes, the characters will be aware of the symbolism and use it for suggestive dialogue. At other times, they may not be aware of it, if there is any erotic symbolism at all. A victim having his throat slit won't consider it an erotically symbolic act. ;-)

    If your heroine hides her weapon among her knickers, there are certainly several layers of intimate connotations, and possibly erotic symbolism. I wonder if she's aware of them, and if this is why she chooses this hiding place, or whether the knicker drawer is simply the most practical place where nobody is likely to check.


  12. Hi Rayne,

    Re: My heroine hiding trophy daggers among her lingerie. She's unaware of the erotic connotations, but I'm trusting some readers will pick up on it at a subconscious level. She's conflicted about keeping them to begin with. She stores them with her intimates out of practicality, figuring that's the last place anyone's likely to discover them.

  13. Hello

    Daggers require you to get so close to your opponent that you have to expose yourself a lot more to the enemy's attack . . . yet they're not easy to parry with. They're short enough that even a shield might provide less protection than normal. So they're not a good choice to wield against a warrior-type, armed with a longer weapon, who sees you coming.

    Throwing the dagger's one obvious solution, subject to the limitations mentioned in earlier posts. What's good about throwing daggers, though, particularly in fight scenes designed as "entertaining" rather than "gritty", is the possibility of deliberately disabling an opponent rather than killing him. Leg wounds too minor to kill can still render your opponent unable to chase you, ride a horse, or complete that dazzling slide down the banister with quite the same precision.

    Another solution is a parrying dagger, or "main gauche". These went through a lot of designs, and were thicker and heavier than other daggers. Some were basically bladed gauntlets to be worn on a fighter's non-dominant hand.

    Another solution is to simply have a dagger in each hand. "Fighting daggers" are often shown with designs where the blade has a curve on it, to aid in turning the opponent's blade away (rather than relying on the dagger-wielder's strength to meet its force with force). I haven't researched the physics behind this, but judging from the shape of the kerambit and the Gurkha knife, it does at least appear feasible that wielding two of these blades up close might be safer than two straight blades.

    A dagger's concealability allows it to crop up in stories in unexpected ways. Their appearance often heralds a surprising reversal of fortune for a villain or hero.

  14. Great post, Rayne. Thanks to you and the commenters for all the info.


Leave your comments here, but be courteous.