Writing the Fight: The Story of the Fight

This is part two in a series on writing fight scenes, from the perspective of a stage fight director.

So you’ve got great characters squaring off against each other in a confrontation that will have epic consequences (see part one). Next, you’ll want to ensure that your fight has a story—a beginning, middle and end; rising action, climax and denouement; obstacles and reversals; twists and reveals.

One of the greatest fight stories of all time is Inigo Montoya versus The Man in Black from The Princess Bride. Here are the bare bones of it (which you probably already know):

Inigo, who has already been established as the greatest sword fighter of his generation, chooses to fight left-handed for sport. After an initial flurry, The Man in Black seizes the offensive, and turns out to be surprisingly good. He drives Inigo nearly to the edge of the Cliffs of Insanity, and Inigo is forced to switch to his right hand to regain the advantage. Now Inigo presses The Man in Black to the edge of the Cliffs, only to be surprised again when The Man in Black switches to his right hand.

Here it is again in bullet points:

  • Inigo believes he’s the superior fighter, and he’s got a secret advantage—he’s not left-handed.
  • Inigo is surprised by The Man in Black’s skill.
  • Inigo exploits his secret advantage—he switches to his right hand.
  • The Man in Black nullifies Inigo’s advantage by switching to his right hand.
  • The Man in Black defeats Inigo.

What makes this a great story is: 1) we’ve got a character we care about, Inigo, and terrible things happen to him; 2) the story is clear and easy to follow—we know, or think we know, who’s got the advantage at all times; 3) the stakes increase as the fight progresses and Inigo realizes, repeatedly, that he has underestimated his opponent.

One of the reasons the story beats are so easy to follow is that they’re called out in the dialog. In the novel, Goldman tells the fight from Inigo’s perspective, and does a fantastic job of setting up Inigo’s decision to fight left-handed, his subsequent decision to switch hands, and his shock at learning that the Man in Black is right-handed as well. The dialog adds an extra layer of clarity and fun, but also ensures that both characters know, and know that they know, without any head-hopping. In the film, the dialog is even more important as weapon switches can be subtle and amount to a technical detail that the viewer might overlook. I’ll revisit this later in the series when I discuss sophistication of fighters, audience and POV characters.

If you have access to both, it’s worth comparing the novel with the screenplay. William Goldman wrote both, so there’s only one author at work here, and the fights are about as close as they can be, allowing for their different media. The film version is necessarily more condensed, and this is where the story of the fight shines—it translates beautifully to film with all its essential beats intact.

By contrast, the story of Mercutio’s fight with Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet is much simpler—they fight, Romeo interferes, and Mercutio is wounded by Tybalt under Romeo’s arm. If you’re familiar with the famous Zeffirelli film you might have the impression there’s more to it than that, that the fight begins as an almost playful duel before turning serious, that both are egged on by the crowd, and that Tybalt kills Mercutio by accident. Now that’s a great story, with rising stakes and tension and a great twist at the end, but it’s all Zeffirelli’s invention. The fight has been interpreted many ways by various actors, directors and fight directors.

Or look at Romeo’s fight with Tybalt, which has almost no story. They fight and Romeo kills Tybalt. That’s it; one beat. [1]

I like to think Goldman drew inspiration for Inigo’s fight with The Man in Black from Hamlet’s fight with Laertes at the end of Hamlet. (If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.) The structure is very similar:

  • Laertes believes he’s the superior fight, and he’s got a secret advantage—a sharpened, poisoned blade.
  • Laertes is surprised by Hamlet’s skill.
  • Laertes exploits his secret advantage—wounding Hamlet with the poisoned blade.
  • They scuffle and exchange blades. Now Hamlet has the advantage.
  • Hamlet kills Laertes.

Again, the structure is very clear and the storytelling beats are obvious.

Despite the fact that these two fights are structurally identical, they function completely differently and present as almost mirror images of each other. Inigo’s fight is near the beginning of the story, Hamlet’s near the end. The Princess Bride is a frothy romantic comedy but the combatants are dueling to the death. Neither one dies. Hamlet is a serious drama but the combatants are engaged in a friendly sporting match. Both die.

What’s the takeaway? The story of the fight can function almost independently of its context, and you can ring the changes again and again. This is simply another level at which you can write your fight scene. Remember, we haven’t even gotten down to the level of fight moves, let alone words.

Next time: a storytelling toolkit for fight scenes.

____________________

1. Of course it’s still the responsibility of the fight director, in conjunction with the director, to create a story for this fight, as Zeffirelli does for his film version of Romeo and Juliet.

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