Writing the Fight: Violence vs. Action

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be posting about writing an effective fight scene, based on my graduate presentation for the Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing. Though I’m aiming at folks writing prose, a lot of the examples will be drawn from stage and film.

I’ll be writing from the perspective of a theatrical fight choreographer, an area in which I have a fair amount of experience. [1] Fair warning: stage combat is it’s own particular thing. I’m not a martial artist or historian. I haven’t been in an actual fight since grade school.

A particular sin of action movies, though it creeps into novels and plays as well, is the filler fight, added simply for action. Fights should have consequences, and those consequences should be personal. If you can cut the fight without damaging your story then it’s just an elaborate stall and you should lose it or improve it.

I encourage you to think in terms of violence instead of action. And by violence, I mean—when terrible things happen to people you care about.

The second part of that definition is more important than the first. If we don’t care about the characters then nothing is at stake. Some writers will try to amplify the violence (in the traditional sense) by working on the first part of the definition, the terrible things. A lot of horror movies work this way. It’s much more effective, though harder, to work the other side of the equation—make the audience care about your characters. Then even the threat of violence can be devastating.

Let’s look at the fights in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as examples: the initial brawl, the three-way fight between Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo, and the final fight between Paris and Romeo.

If you haven’t read or seen the play in a while, you may have forgotten that Romeo and Juliet begins as a straight-up romantic comedy. Romeo is moping over a girl named Rosaline who won’t give him the time of day. Juliet has been promised to a boy named Paris that she hardly knows. Then Romeo and his crew are invited, by accident, by an illiterate servant, to a party thrown by their rivals, the Capulets. Romeo locks eyes with Juliet, sparks fly and Rosaline and Paris are forgotten. Hijinks, as they say, ensue. [2] You can almost see the trailer.

Then we get the greatest fight scene ever written.

Romeo is on his way home from his hasty, clandestine wedding to Juliet when Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, challenges him to a duel for crashing the party. Mercutio steps in to defend Romeo … and Tybalt kills him. [3]

The audience cares about Mercutio—he’s the funniest, most beloved character in the play and Romeo’s best friend. And he’s gone, slaughtered by Tybalt. And poor Romeo goes from the highest high, marrying the girl he loves, to the lowest low, seeing his friend killed on his behalf, dying in agony and cursing his name. It’s wrenching.

Terrible things happening to people we care about.

But wait—there’s more. While Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio may be open to interpretation, Romeo’s vengeance is hot-blooded murder.

This isn’t a rom-com anymore. It’s a bloodbath. And it’s not over. Three more people will die before we’re done. This fight not only changes the direction of the play, it changes the freaking genre. Two major characters dead, Romeo banished and Juliet forced into a desperate plan—this is a fight that has consequences.

Now contrast that with the final fight of the play, Romeo versus Paris in the tomb, which affects nothing. Do we care about Paris? Unless he’s played by a particularly charismatic actor, no. Romeo has another sin laid upon his head in taking Paris’s life, but all that accomplishes is to make him look unsympathetic at the worst possible time. This fight is often cut in production. [4]

Finally, let’s look at the initial brawl, which, again, is largely action. Not only are we too early in the play to care about any of the characters, nothing particularly terrible happens to them. The fight begins with comic banter and ends with minor injuries and a stern lecture by the Prince. However, it does serve as a wonderful introduction to most of the major players, and Tybalt gets a fantastic entrance that sets him up beautifully for the big fight later on. The brawl sets the scene and dramatizes the overarching conflict. It’s a good fight, but not a great one, and if you’re cutting for length, say for a one-hour touring production, it’s easy to let go.

Not every fight has to be earth-shattering. But if you want your fight scene to have impact, think in terms of violence, not action. Introduce characters we care about, then do terrible things to them. It’s no accident that the greatest fight scene ever written takes place in the middle of the play—after we’ve had time to get to know the characters, and know what’s at stake, but early enough that we can experiences the fallout.

____________________

1. I’ve been directing fights and teaching stage combat for more than 25 years. I’m a Master Instructor with Dueling Arts International, and I’ve directed something like 200 fights for theatre, opera, TV, short film and burlesque.

2. I believe this is why Shakespeare starts the play with the chorus, warning the audience that this is, in fact, a tragedy. Come on—“a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life”—spoiler much?

3. Mercutio’s death is open to interpretation here. Does Tybalt kill him deliberately, taking advantage of Romeo’s interference? Or is it, as the Zeffirelli film would have it, a tragic accident? And how much culpability does Romeo have? I’ve directed this fight more than a dozen times, and I always find new avenues to explore. This complexity is yet another reason this is the greatest fight ever.

4. The Paris vs. Romeo fight is actually one of my favorites to direct as a standalone scene—it’s self-contained, provides a great speech for each character, and has great atmosphere, by virtue of taking place in a tomb. It also lends itself well to starting with an uneven weapon distribution, as Romeo may have laid his weapons down to pay respect his respects to Juliet.

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