Writing the Fight: Filling in the Structure

Let’s take another look at the final fight from Romeo and Juliet—Romeo versus Paris, which has no built-in story—and try to build it up from storytelling beats.

Here’s the context: Paris spies Romeo in the tomb and is convinced he’s come to “do some villainous shame to the dead bodies.” He attempts to arrest him. Romeo begs Paris to leave him alone, saying he’s literally insane with grief. Paris persists (“I do defy thy conjurations and apprehend thee for a felon here”). Romeo, enraged, attacks him (“Wilt thou provoke me? Then have at thee, boy”). They fight and Paris is killed.

Let’s use the same structure we’re already familiar with from last time, with Paris taking the place of Inigo and Romeo taking the place of the Man in Black: [1]

  • Paris has the advantage and the stakes are low
  • Reversal and escalation (Romeo’s advantage)
  • Reversal and escalation (Paris’s advantage)
  • Reversal and escalation (Romeo’s advantage)
  • Romeo kills Paris

Now all we have to do is fill in the structure with storytelling moments specific to this fight and these characters. Here’s a quick refresher on our storytelling beats from last time: wound; weapon draw, steal, transfer or disarm; revelation; mistake and over-commitment. And here are a few more we didn’t discuss: invite, surrender, phrase break, escape and surprise. [2]

We know that Romeo attacks first and that he wins. We also know that he’s suicidally desperate, which may inform the story. In fact, it suggests an exciting way to begin.

Suppose Romeo, armed with rapier and dagger, has laid his weapons down to attend to Juliet. Further suppose that Paris, also armed with rapier and dagger, draws his rapier to apprehend Romeo, leaving his dagger in his belt. At the top of the fight, then, Paris has the unarmed Romeo on point. That’s Beat One: Paris has the advantage, and the stakes are low (for him).

We have a number of options for Romeo at this point. Some of the more reasonable options (attempt to escape, or reveal that he is secretly married to Juliet) are precluded by the text. The obvious choice is to try to recover his  own weapons (weapon escalation) to match Paris. Instead, let’s have Romeo attack Paris empty handed (over-commitment). Nothing says desperation like a attacking a sword-wielding opponent with your bare hands. That’s Beat Two: reversal and escalation. Romeo may not, strictly speaking, have the advantage here, but he has nullified Paris’s advantage by getting inside his reach. Paris can’t bring his rapier to bear unless he can separate himself from Romeo. Meanwhile, Paris is now within range of Romeo’s hands, so he’s at risk himself. The stakes are higher.

Paris could shove Romeo back to gain distance (phrase break), but that’s merely a return to the status quo. From our structure, we know Paris has to regain the advantage and escalate. He could wound Romeo—that would fulfill the beat—but let’s take advantage of the fact that Paris has a dagger in his belt, a weapon short enough that he can stab Romeo at close range. Beat Three: Paris draws his dagger (weapon escalation), regaining his advantage and raising the stakes again. An attempt at a peaceable arrest will now almost certainly result in someone getting seriously wounded or killed.

On to Beat Four. Now it’s Romeo’s turn to reverse the momentum and escalate. We could have Paris over-commit while attempting to stab Romeo, or make a mistake that Romeo can capitalize on, but since Romeo is at such a severe weapons deficit (two to zero), let’s reverse that situation. While Paris is focused on drawing his dagger, Romeo wrests the rapier from his grip (weapon transfer). Now it’s Romeo armed with a rapier against Paris with only a dagger, and Romeo quickly kills Paris (Beat Five), and we’re done.

With the storytelling moments filled in, the resemblance to the fight from  The Princess Bride should be even more obvious. It’s the exact same fight with different building blocks (weapon escalation and exchange replacing revelation):

  • Paris draws his rapier on Romeo. He believes he’s in the superior position, fighting an unarmed man, and he’s got his dagger in reserve.
  • Paris is surprised that Romeo attacks him anyway, nullifying his advantage by getting inside his range.
  • Paris exploits his additional advantage by drawing his dagger.
  • Romeo wins the struggle over the rapier. Now Romeo has the advantage.
  • Romeo kills Paris.

Despite the similarity to Inigo versus The Man In Black, this is clearly a much shorter fight. It could be as brief as five moves, or it could be expanded to considerably more. Looking ahead to a finer level of granularity, each story beat could be expanded, fractal-like, into its own sub-story with its own structure and arc.

I’ve left out one of the most important storytelling tools, though I just used it in the fight above, because it deserves its own post. That tool is “breaking symmetry,” and I’ll talk about it next time.


1. There’s nothing magical about this particular fight structure, but it’s pretty effective—with a couple of reversals to keep the outcome in doubt until the final moments—and it’s familiar. It’s also valuable to see how different the exact same structure plays out with different storytelling moments.

2. In this series, I’m trying to work my way down the ladder of abstraction from the purpose of the fight, to the structure, to the storytelling moments, to the individual fight moves and finally to actual words on paper. But this is not how I work as a fight director. I tend to work from the bottom up (individual moves first), with a sense of the big-picture context, but also moving rapidly between levels as I work. I learned stage combat from the bottom up and picked up the higher-level concerns along the way, but I mostly operate intuitively. So, among other things, I’m deconstructing my own process to explain it to you, which means sometimes I get things wrong. In particular, the storytelling moments I presented are at different levels of abstraction, and I’m still figuring out how to address that. Bear with me.

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