Constructing a Fight

This is an essay I’ve wanted to write for a while, but past efforts have always wound up feeling rambling and pointless — and then I was named fight director of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s upcoming Robin Hood Springtime Festival and found myself building fights from the ground up, which means I had a way to illustrate some of the techniques I use when crafting fight scenes in my books.

I’ve always prided myself on writing action sequences that were not just exciting and well-paced, but had substance to them, substance that’s often missing from other prose-based fight scenes because so many writers really don’t understand that a good fight is more than just a series of cool moves; it’s a story in and of itself — and that’s where I’ll start.

Getting Inspired

I often refer to certain movies to find inspiration for creating a fight scene, something that captures the nature of the fight, the style, the tone, etc. For example, when I was getting ready to work on the climactic third act of The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl (cheap plug), I watched a lot of siege movies, such as The Two Towers for the Helm’s Deep sequence, Dredd, The Raid: Redemption, and Assault on Precinct 13.

One of my all-time go-to fight scenes is the Paris/Menelaus duel from Troy. To me, that sequence, choreographed by Simon Crane, is the gold standard for incorporating the situation and the characters into the action.

I know, it isn’t the most dynamic fight or the flashiest, but it tells a story better than most such sequences.

For those unfamiliar with the movie or the original epic poem: Paris (Orlando Bloom) steals away Menelaus’s wife Helen, essentially cuckolding the man in front of two nations. Menelaus (Brendan Gleason), naturally, wants to kill Paris for this offense, and do so in a public and humiliating manner, which leads to this duel.

Notice how they each fight. Menelaus — who is bigger, stronger, more experienced, supremely pissed off, and not at all intimidated by his opponent — comes right at Paris and pummels him with big windmilling sledgehammer blows. He is mostly on the offensive. Paris, in contrast, is mostly on the defensive, and you get a sense of his inexperience, his desperation, and his fear in the way he hides behind his shield; by his wild, desperate attacks and defensive parries; and by his mistakes, such as getting too close to his opponent and by trying to match Menelaus’s raw strength.

To get in the right mood to choreograph a Robin Hood fight, I re-watched the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, which very much informs the rollicking, swashbuckling tone of the Robin Hood Faire.

Once I’m in the right headspace, it’s time to start thinking about the fight I want to write — not plotting it out, mind you; thinking about it. I have some groundwork to lay before I start choreographing anything.

The Situation

One of the things that drives a fight is the situation. You need the context of the setting and the reason behind a fight to help set the tone and determine what’s going on in the characters’ heads. Two adults engaged with each other in a duel to the death are going to fight with a greater degree of aggression and desperation than, say, two little kids scrapping in a playground after school. A man in a drunken barroom brawl is not going to approach a fight the same way a seasoned soldier facing an armed enemy combatant would.

In the Flynn Robin Hood, you see several examples of fights with different attitudes. Robin’s early scraps with Little John and Friar Tuck are lighter affairs. Robin is, to John and Tuck, some obnoxious rando, not a sworn enemy, and the only thing at stake for anyone is personal pride. No one is out for blood, as opposed to the Robin/Sir Guy duel, which has two longtime enemies fighting to the death — and even then, their motivations are slightly different. Guy wants Robin dead dead dead, whereas Robin is ready to kill Guy but out of self-defense rather than anger or hatred.

The script I’m working off calls for a training fight between Robin Hood and some of his Merry Men. I’m setting the intensity level at about a five, max; Robin and his men are training to keep their skills sharp for when they’re fighting for their lives against Prince John’s soldiers, so it’s serious business, but they’re not out to hurt each other – they’re close friends, after all — so they’re not going to go all-out.

The Characters

For this sequence, I’m using along with Robin Hood his three key Merry Men: Little John, Friar Tuck, and his cousin Will Scarlett (who, in the faire version of the story, is a woman). That gives me four very distinct characters to work with, which means I have to take into consideration four very different sets of characteristics. Let’s break them down:

Robin Hood is a very experienced swordfighter; he’s been portrayed in some iterations of the legend as a former soldier who fought in the Crusades alongside King Richard the Lionheart. He fights using a one-handed sword (sometimes called an arming sword), which is a lighter, faster weapon than a proper medieval longsword. His attitude toward everything is rather cavalier; he rarely takes anything too seriously.

Little John is a large, powerful man. His weapon of choice is a quarterstaff, which he yields effectively but in a rather basic manner; he is not a nuanced fighter. He tends to be gruff and blustery, and contrasts Robin’s attitude by taking everything a little too seriously.

Friar Tuck is a deceptively skilled swordsman, which is directly inspired by his portrayal in the Flynn Robin Hood. Physically he is no longer in his prime, and attitude-wise, he is similar to John in that he takes things more seriously than his leader.

Will Scarlett is a scrappy, rambunctious tomboy who models herself after Robin, to a fault; she takes things far less seriously and is more reckless than her cousin, and is consequently more likely to get into trouble because of it and less likely to know how to get herself out of it. She’s also quick-tempered and constantly out to prove herself. She fights with twin daggers.

A further note on Will, which warrants emphasis: her gender has NO bearing on her ability to fight whatsoever. None. Arguing that her gender makes her weaker or less capable is bullshit sexism, period, so basing any character’s capacity as a fighter solely on his or her gender is weak writing with no basis in reality.

Added note: in an ideal world I’d know exactly who the actors in these roles are so I could incorporate their physicality into the fights, but I only know for certain who will be playing Robin. The others are question marks, so I had to proceed under the assumption that the actors who will play these roles will be approximate matches for the characters’ physical natures. When writing a fight for fictional characters, this is of course a non-issue, but I wanted to mention it nevertheless.

The Weapons

Let’s take a closer look at the weapons being used in this fight.

Little John is using a quarterstaff, a six-foot length of hard wood that is a surprisingly versatile and effective weapon. It inflicts blunt force trauma, but as one of my instructors likes to say, it’s still trauma. A staff is unlikely to cause any cut-based wound but it can break bones and wreck joints easily. Its greatest advantage is its reach, and reach can make a huge difference in a fight, but of our four weapons, it’s the slowest — which, I’ll note, is not to say it’s a slow weapon in real life. An expert can generate a lot of speed with a staff, and thus a lot of power, but for dramatic purposes I’m treating this as a slower weapon than its real-life counterpart.

Tuck is using a proper longsword, a cutting and slashing weapon that has a blade ranging about 30 to 40 inches long. A standard longsword can be used one-handed but is designed to be held with two. It doesn’t have the reach of a quarterstaff but is better in that regard than the other weapons. At 2.5 to four pounds, it can be moved with considerable speed, but again, I’m slowing it down for dramatic and stylistic purposes.

Robin is using an arming sword, a one-handed cutting and slashing weapon with a blade in the neighborhood of 30 inches long. Such weapons weighed only two to three pounds, which make them pretty fast. Its reach is only slightly inferior to a proper longsword.

Will is using two daggers, which are primarily thrusting/stabbing weapons. These have the worst reach but the best speed, and give her the benefit of being able to attack two different targets at once, which is significant; it would be very difficult for John and Tuck to guard two targets at once considering they have two-handed weapons. Also, having researched knife fighting, I’ve learned that a trained knife fighter is absolutely terrifying. If they get within your range, you’re screwed. The best defense, aside from running away, is to keep them out of reach.

Putting It Together

Here’s what I came up with. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it.

The notations are based on the Society of American Fight Directors’ stage combat system, which assigns numbers to a performer’s limbs and head. It’ll make sense in a minute.

Robin is stage center, facing the audience. Will is off to his left, John to his right, Tuck to his right and slightly behind Robin. Robin invites his comrades to attack him as part of the training exercise. They waffle for a moment before John takes the initiative and comes in hard, winding up for a big strike to Robin’s left arm (phrase 1, line 2). Robin blocks the blow, as well as the next two attacks to his right leg and head (lines 3 and 4).

Because the head shot is coming in with a lot of force, Robin reinforces his block by gripping the blade of his sword with his free hand (which is a real thing) so the barrier he’s creating with his sword is nice and solid. His next move is to reverse the momentum of the fight by smacking the end of John’s staff away using his weapon’s crossguard (line 5) — again, a real-life move, as is driving the pommel of his sword into John’s face (line 6), because a trained swordfighter knows how to use all the parts of his sword.

Now, because this is a training exercise, Robin pulls the pommel strike at the last second and doesn’t actually make contact, but it throws a good scare into John, who flinches away instinctively.

Will, seeing an opening, charges in, expecting to tag Robin in the back (line 7). Robin hears her coming and whirls around, sword raised, which causes Will to freeze in a moment of panic (line 8). Robin, scamp that he is, then teases his cousin with a playful boop on the nose — which, of course, irks Will and goads her into attacking. She tries to stab Robin’s left arm (line 10), then his right (line 11), and locks blades with him — something that does not happen in real swordfights as often as Hollywood would have you believe, but I’m throwing it in for a reason.

While they’re locked up and Will’s in close, where she’s the most dangerous, Will goes for a sloppy slash to Robin’s left arm. Robin stops the attack with a forearm block (line 12) and sasses Will again (line 13) before pushing her away to get her out of distance and reclaim the reach advantage (line 14).

He then goes for a cut to her head, again pulling the blow before making contact, thus scoring a symbolic deathblow (line 15). Angry at getting caught like that, Will angrily slaps the sword away with her right dagger (line 16) and rears back for a big double slash to Robin’s midsection — which Robin aborts by bringing his sword up to her belly — another symbolic killing blow (line 17); in a real fight, he could easily drive it right through her. Robin gives his cousin a smug grin and she stalks off to fume.

Robin then glances over to Tuck (line 19, which has a stagecraft note instructing Robin to keep his face toward the audience) and prompts the friar to come at him, bro. Tuck adjusts his position (stagecraft reasons again) and demonstrates his prowess by striking a right ox guard, a real longsword guard in which the sword is brought up to head level — on the right side, in this case — and the blade is held parallel to the ground, with the point aimed at the opponent.

Tuck closes the distance (line 20) and thrusts at Robin’s right arm (line 21). Robin blocks the attack. Tuck brings the sword around in sweeping arc to get over to Robin’s now unguarded left arm (line 22). Robin executes a hanging block, in which the sword points down instead of up.

Robin carries the momentum through and goes for a head cut, which Tuck blocks with his sword (line 23). Robin’s sword skates off Tuck’s, again letting the momentum carry his blade past the friar, who counterattacks with a cut to Robin’s left leg. Robin blocks it (line 24) and goes for the head again. Tuck again deflects the blow (line 25) and once more goes for Robin’s left leg (line 26). That moment creates a brief back-and-forth exchange that changes up the fight’s tempo.

Robin again blocks the shot to his leg, and then reclaims the fight’s momentum by forcing Tuck’s blade up and over to the other side (line 27). Tuck winds up with the point of his sword on the ground — and his ass sticking out as an irresistible target. Robin gives Tuck a playful kick to the rump and sends him sprawling (line 28).

Fun side fact: it took me an hour at the very least to write the original choreography, which I worked out by myself, in my living room, playing the four different roles simultaneously. It took about a half an hour to write the description you just read. It probably took you five minutes or so to read it. In performance, this fight lasts two minutes, tops.

Writing the Fight

The process I just detailed for creating a stage fight is very similar to the process I use when crafting a fight for a story. I work through the situation, the characters, the weapons, and choreograph the action.

The next step is turning all that into prose that is well-paced, exciting, and conveys enough detail to describe the action without turning it into a play-by-play, which is generally neither exciting nor well-paced. I’ve encountered precious few writers who can detail every single step in a fight without compromising the excitement level or pace (Jim Butcher is the only name that immediately comes to mind, and I’m calling him the exception rather than the rule).

One thing I do is figure out which elements of the fight don’t need to be detailed. Take lines 2 through 4 of the training fight. I could easily describe that like this:

“Little John barreled toward Robin, his quarterstaff raised to strike. Robin took a quick flurry of heavy-handed blows on his sword.”

That gets the point across without telling the reader where each strike was going; that’s unnecessary detail. But what about that head strike and Robin’s counter? That’s a key moment in the fight and could benefit from a little more information, along with a little color.

“John brought his staff around in a high arc, as if to cave in Robin’s skull. Robin brought his blade up, bracing it with both hands in anticipation of the crushing impact. The staff fell, sending a shockwave down Robin’s arms all the way to his feet. Unwilling to defend a second such blow, Robin smacked the staff away with his crossguard. John stumbled. He caught himself and looked up in time to see Robin’s pommel coming straight at his face. He flailed away in a panic.”

There are highs and lows throughout the fight, and one of the keys to turning a literal by-the-numbers piece of choreography is finding those highs and lows and treating them accordingly. To use a phrase I’ve been using a lot lately, what you describe in a fight sequence has to add value — to the pace, to the clarity of the narrative, to the emotion of the scene.

If this all sounds too challenging, it might be wise to heed some advice I read recently: if you can’t write a fight in terms of its moves, focus on conveying the emotion and the psychology of the sequence and write more poetically than literally.

Final Advice

This is a lot to digest, and there is so much more to be learned if you want to write solid fight scenes. To wrap things up, here’s a quick-hit list of final bits of advice:

  • Use movies and TV for inspiration, not information. Visual media is generally terrible at accurately portraying how armor and weapons actually work, in which situations they work well (or poorly), or how people respond to injuries, so look for sources that have studied these and related topics. I highly recommend the How to Fight Write blog as a general source of info on all things fighty.
  • Avoid fights that happen for the sake of an action scene. Give them a reason to be there, a reason that supports the story you’re telling and, conversely, is supported by the story.
  • Don’t rely on tropes such as Natural Talent, when a character who has little to no training reveals him/herself as a martial arts prodigy, or Instinct Kicked In, when a stressful situation triggers an adrenaline surge that turns a regular person into an ass-kicking machine, to get a character through a fight scene. Untrained fighters lose fights, period.
  • On a related note, turning an untrained fighter into a skilled combatant takes a lot of time. The old theory that it takes someone 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill might not be true, but a person also can’t become a black belt in the space of a few weeks. Let the development be part of the story and don’t gloss over it.
  • Avoid group fights in which the hero stands in the middle of several bad guys, who all politely wait their turn to attack the hero one-on-one (e.g., Bruce Lee vs. Han’s minions in Enter the Dragon, The Bride vs. the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill Vol. 1).

If anyone has any questions or comments, let me hear them!

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