Writing the Fight: Storytelling Toolkit

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

Last time, I talked about the story of the fight. This time I’ll be introducing you to a number of tools you can use to create storytelling moments in your fight scenes, plus a framework for arranging them into a fight story.

When I direct a fight, one of the things I try to keep in mind is that the audience knows next to nothing about swords. [1] Fancy moves are fun to choreograph and perform—and they add a level of visual and aural excitement to the fight—but it’s a rare audience member that can distinguish, say, a deception from a disengage, let alone interpret their significance.

In every fight, I try to build in storytelling moments—beats so clear that even an unsophisticated audience member can track the shift in stakes or momentum. [2] I’m talking about things like a wound or a disarm. You don’t need to know much to appreciate that the fighter who just received a cut on their wrist or lost their weapon—or both—is going to have the worst of it going forward.

You can think of a fight story as a chart where the horizontal axis represents advantage and the vertical axis represents stakes. As the fight progresses, we trace a zig-zag line from the beginning to the end, with the storytelling beats on the inflection points.

For example, here again is Inigo Montoya versus the Man in Black from The Princess Bride:

  • 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.

And here it is in chart form. Note: this is from Inigo’s point of view, as in the novel, so “advantage” and “stakes” are from his perspective. 

We begin in the lower right quadrant at the double circle. This is low stakes for Inigo—he’s sure he’s going to win—and his advantage—he’s the better fighter (he believes) and he’s got his dominant hand in reserve. The rest of the story beats land on the inflection points, increasing the stakes as the Man in Black gains the advantage and Inigo realizes he’s actually fighting for his life.

So there’s your framework for constructing a fight story: choose a point to begin [3], chart a zig-zag path to the end and decorate the inflection points with storytelling moments.  (Later, at a finer level of detail, we’ll get into how to fill those gaps between the storytelling moments with specific fight moves and, you know, actual words on paper. We’re not there yet.)

And here are some storytelling moments you can deploy in your fight scene, each of which can shift the momentum or raise (or lower) the stakes:

Wound — Depending on the context and the specific injury, a wound can be provoking or crippling or end the fight all together. If two characters are sparring, and one injures the other, accidentally or deliberately, then a relatively friendly fight can turn deadly. The Mercutio versus Tybalt fight is often staged this way, in a nod to Zeffirelli. Note that this raises the stakes but doesn’t necessarily shift the momentum. [4] Or a wound can create an overwhelming advantage, typically for the villain, forcing the hero to get creative or desperate, shifting the momentum and raising the stakes. Or, in the context of a duel to first blood, an injury, however slight, brings the conflict to an end.

Weapon — A weapon is a massive advantage in a fight, so drawing a weapon is almost always a storytelling beat. Imagine two guys about to throw down in a bar and one pulls a knife. Instant advantage plus raising the stakes. In fact a lot of “fights” are just this beat—escalating tough talk from both sides, until one lifts his shirt to show a gun in his waistband. End of fight. The stakes are too high, and the disadvantage too great, to continue.

The possibilities here are endless. The fighters can struggle for control of the weapon, draw an additional weapon, discover a weapon (in a found object fight), “invent” a weapon (as Kirk does in the Star Trek episode “Arena” or every villain in a bar fight who smashes a bottle), disarm their opponent, exchange weapons (as in the Hamlet versus Laertes fight) and so on.

Revelation — One fighter can reveal information that radically changes the circumstances of the fight, raises the stakes, shifts the momentum or all three. We’ve already seen this with Inigo versus The Man in Black, but also consider Darth Vader versus Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back where Vader reveals he’s Lukes father, probably the most iconic fight in the entire series, underscoring the point: a great fight scene is first and foremost a great scene.

Mistake — One character slips or stumbles, drops their guard, forgets to take the safety off their semi-automatic pistol, or doesn’t realize they’ve run out of ammunition. Insert your own examples here.

Over-commitment — This can be due to a character flaw (impatience, arrogance) or desperate circumstances (disarmed or facing a superior opponent). My favorite example of this is from the opening fight of The Duellists. [5] Two men are dueling with rapiers, one clearly losing. He grabs his opponent’s blade—a desperation move that gives him a brief, unsustainable advantage. He fails to capitalize on it before his opponent pulls the sharp sword from his grasp and ends the fight. [6] Over-commitment can also manifest as a running attack, swinging to hard (in an attempt to end the fight with a single blow), getting to close, etc. Over-commitment can be a mistake, putting it in the previous category, but can also be a strategic move.

I’m well over my word limit, so I’m going to end this list here. There are more storytelling moments, but you get the idea. Next time: constructing a fight story from scratch with these tools.


1. I’m defaulting to a sword fight between two individuals, but these principles can be extended to any weapon and number.

 2. If I’m lucky, the playwright has already done the work of creating a fight story for me (like Shakespeare did with Hamlet and Laertes). More often the playwright leaves me hanging (like Shakespeare does with Romeo and Paris).

3. My friend Andy Utech points out that this choice of beginning point, more accurately the decisions the characters make leading up to the beginning of the fight, may be more interesting than anything that happens during the fight itself. The fight merely plays out the consequences of those initial decisions, like a game of tic-tac-toe, which, barring a disastrous mistake, is determined on the first move. More on this another time.

4. I’ve also staged this fight where Tybalt is clearly the superior fighter. He wounds Mercutio repeatedly and painfully in an attempt to draw Romeo into the fight.

5. Ridley Scott’s first film! With excellent choreography by the legendary William Hobbes. This is one of the finest fight films of all time.

6. Unfortunately for the man at a disadvantage, he’s played by no one you’ve ever heard of, while his opponent is Harvey Keitel, so this move is bound to fail.

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