To give you some context, I wrote the first iteration of this piece back when I was preparing to take over as fight director of the spring 2017 Robin Hood Springtime Festival, so the topic of fight construction for storytelling purposes was very much on my mind at the time.
I’ve always prided myself on writing action sequences that are not just exciting and well-paced but have thought behind and 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.
I often refer to certain movies to find inspiration for creating a fight scene, something that captures the motivations behind the fight, the style, the tone, etc., that I want to convey. 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.
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 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 encounters 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.
You might be noticing that character attitudes are in part informed by the characters themselves. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.