Note: I originally wrote this for ScienceNow.com back in 2014.
Human beings have a complicated relationship with the sword. On the one hand, it’s an instrument of violence with a long history written in blood. Yet it also has the capacity to mesmerize us with the beauty of its varied forms and the way a blade can dance in the air. To watch a sword being skillfully wielded is to see both the brutishness and the elegance in our natures. I’ve had the fairly rare opportunity to choreograph sword fights both for the theatre and in print as part of my fantasy novel, Traitor’s Blade, and so I’m sometimes asked about the difference in working with the two different mediums.
Every choreographer and every writer has their own process for developing a fight scene, but I always start from a basic premise:
Violence is boring.
There are so many fights, stabbings, murders, and assorted forms of torture in media these days that it’s easy to confuse violence with drama. But violence isn’t any more inherently dramatic than ordering coffee. Don’t believe me? Imagine two martial artists walking into a room. Neither one has any expression on their faces. They begin fighting – punching, kicking, jumping, spinning – with speed and precision. They whirl around each other for a few minutes and then one man successfully subdues the other and breaks his neck. Do you care whether it was character A who killed B or B who killed A? Is there anything dramatic in the outcome?
Now instead imagine an elderly woman walking into a coffee shop. She stumbles along with her walker, barely able to make it from the door to the counter. The ravages of the cancer in her bones make this simple trip – one she’s done a thousand times before – the last before she will move into the hospice that will house her for the paltry remaining days of her life. The little moments of this journey – saying hello to the young man behind the counter, choosing which coffee to buy, opening her purse, making the last purchase she’ll make for herself – are the memories she’ll take with her. It’s not much, but it’s everything that’s left. But the man behind her in line is annoyed. The old woman is taking too long and he’s sick of coming into this damned coffee shop on the way to work every day only to end up being late for a meeting because of some old codger holding up the line. He starts to rush her. He’s loud and he’s angry and all this old woman wants to do is shuffle away, with her walker, away from the counter and out of the shop. Sensing she’s about to leave, the man begins to push past her with a perfunctory “excuse me.” But the old woman turns. Just in that moment she turns to this man who threatens her with nothing more than his bluster and angry words and she says “no.” The fight begins.
That emotion you’re starting to feel is driven by the drama of the situation, and your anticipation to see what comes next emerges from the second premise:
The best fights are about character, not plot.
The mechanisms of violence aren’t what make a fight interesting. What’s interesting about a fight scene are the stakes for the character; the way that character fights first with their own fear and only then with their opponent, and the way that individual character’s approach to fighting tells us about them.
Take the following two films: The Princess Bride and The Duelists. You’d have trouble finding two movies whose tone and style are more different. The Princess Bride is a light-hearted swashbuckling fantasy, choreographed by the incredible Bob Anderson (who worked with folks like Errol Flynn back in the day.) The Duelists is a dark, gritty Napoleonic tale based on the short story by Joseph Conrad. The fights were choreographed by William Hobbs who was instructed by director Ridley Scott to make sure the fights looked dirty and ugly and nothing like the swashbuckling of earlier films. But despite the radical differences in the fights of those films, in both cases every action tells you about the character in the fight. The way the two opponents go at it are a reflection of their personality, their fears, and their backgrounds.
We care about Wesley’s fight with Inigo in the Princess Bride because we can sense that these two men admire each other. Their fight is as much an exploration of the other’s talents as it is a duel. In fact, our sense of jeopardy comes from the fact that these two men shouldn’t have to be enemies, and yet, their situation means that one may well die at the hands of the other. Contrast this with the messy, stuttered fights between Feraud and D’Hubert in The Duelists. One man, arrogant and lusting to use violence as his way of getting back at those he believes look down on him. The other, desperate and unsure of what to do – fearing that this fight will end in either death or dishonour. The moves matter; the weapons matter; but only because they allow the audience to see inside the characters and their conflict.
One of the reasons why I love writing Falcio (the main character in Traitor’s Blade) is because he sees each fight as a problem to be solved – he tries to intellectualize the battle and find some ingenious way to survive. But his own past sometimes comes to the fore and takes him over. In those moments, all of his skill and intellect disappear, replaced by rage and recklessness, and we realize he’s not the man he thinks he is.
Once we find the essence of the story—the character-driven tale that must be told, we move to the ways in which the stage, the screen, and the page all work very differently from one another.
Books come with an infinite budget.
Hiring and training actors and stunt professionals is an expensive business whether you’re making a movie or staging a play. Books, on the other hand, let you have as many characters fighting as you want, all for free! You also don’t have to worry about safety – kill your characters as many times as you want and then hit ‘undo’ on the keyboard and they all come back to life. That is, regrettably, not an option with actors in real life. So in movies and on stage there’s a constant push and pull between asking the question, “what action would best convey the drama of this moment in the fight?” versus, “what can we do within budget while ensuring the safety of the actors?” It’s worth pointing out that the first and most important step you need to take in protecting the actors is to ensure that the stunt choreographer or fight director is qualified and prepared. I’ve choreographer plenty of fights but I wouldn’t just jump into a project right now without serious preparation time because I’m out of practice and actors deserve to have someone with the right skills, experience, and current qualifications to take care of them.
Every medium has a different viewpoint.
One of the most pronounced differences between the three mediums is the way in which viewpoint operates. Theatre has a single camera. Wherever you’re sitting, that’s the camera. What that really means for a choreographer is that the fight has to look as good as possible from an incredibly wide range of angles. This is very different from movies where the camera can come in close or move far away; it can take on the point of view of the hero or of the villain or of any number of bystanders. You would think that books would have the most flexible camera of all—after all, you can write from any angle you like. However in practice, the opposite is true. Shifting viewpoints within a scene in a book undercuts the dramatic tension and diminishes the reader’s engagement. Therefore the emotion can really only be understood through one set of eyes—those of the scene’s viewpoint character.
Movie and stage fights can be less realistic than those in books.
This might sound odd at first but it’s absolutely true. Imagine our heroine jumps in the air, does three backflips, tosses four swords in four different directions, and lands elegantly on her feet as each blade strikes its intended target. If you show that action on the screen, the audience’s eyes will tell them its true even if they would otherwise think it preposterous. Similarly, watching a play means engaging in a heightened suspension of disbelief—after all, we know the actors aren’t really killing each other, but we accept it because that’s part of seeing a play. In a book, however, you’re literally asking the reader to create all the action in their heads based solely on the words you put on the page. Anything that doesn’t make sense to them will look like a foggy mess in their minds. For this reason, you have to work harder to create a sense of realism in the movements and actions that you put on the page than you would on the screen.
In books, the reader is the true choreographer and you are simply their teacher.
We experience fight scenes passively when watching them on the screen or on the stage because every part of the action is placed before us. This means you don’t need to explain a move or series of moves because the audience can see them in real time. However a book can’t describe every movement, every posture, every detail. An author who tries to do so will invariably make the experience of reading about the fight become tedious and slow precisely when the reader wants to feel caught up in the flow of the action. So fight scenes on the page require a constant search for economy, for finding things we can leave to the imagination of the reader.
The author shows us small moments of the fight—the sudden thrust of a sharp blade headed for the character’s belly or the worn wooden shield beginning to splinter under the crushing barrage of blows of a horseman’s axe. These details give us just enough grounding in the nature of the fight so that, in the very next sentence, we can be inside the character’s emotions—feeling their fear or anticipation, all the while imagining the continuation of the fight without requiring anyone telling us exactly what’s happening. That, for me, is the magic of a swordfight in a novel—when the reader ceases to be a mere bystander and, in fact, becomes the choreographer.
Let the emotional story reign supreme
The true joy of choreographing a swordfight, whether on the stage, the page, or the screen, is in turning the fight into a new language for the audience. Let the fight scene be a form of dialogue in which each character’s actions are as distinct, personal, and emotionally motivated as the words they use. Sometimes this requires considering accurate historical forms (rapiers and broadswords moved very differently from one another and throwing one at your opponent was almost never a good idea), and sometimes it means ignoring them (the hell with it – throw the broadsword if it works!) Remember that most of what we know about ‘true’ sword fighting comes from reconstructions—books and manuals that have been loosely interpreted. Furthermore, if you’ve ever watched a fencing match then you know that a true swordfight at speed is almost impossible to follow for anyone but an expert. Therefore our job when creating a fight scene isn’t to prove how smart we are but rather that we can bring the audience or reader into the story through the vehicle of the fight. Only when we have done that are we moving from being choreographers to true storytellers of the blade.