Seventh in a series on writing fight scenes from the perspective of a fight director. In which I dissect one of my old fight scenes, and it does not fare well.
Here’s a version of the Young Siward fight from Macbeth (Act V, Scene 7) that I wrote a few years ago as an exercise:
Siward realized his error immediately.
He stood atop the inner wall, looking across the castle courtyard at the main host who moved swiftly along the battlements seeking prisoners though there were few to be found. He turned toward the stairwell to cross over and join them—then heard the scrape of steel on stone. A shadow separated itself from the tower wall and stepped toward him.
Siward challenged him. “What is thy name?”
“Thoul’t be afraid to hear it.”
None of the true king’s forces then. He settled into his stance.
“No, though thou call’st thyself a hotter name than any is in hell.”
The shadow stepped forward into the pale light of the moon. He wore a king’s armor—once glorious, now battered, broken and stained. He had no helmet. His black hair was matted with sweat and blood. An enormous broadsword swung easily in his right hand. On his left arm he wore a kite shield.
Siward knew the man before he spoke.
“My name’s Macbeth.”
And though he’d known, though he’d steeled himself, young Siward took an involuntary step back at the sound of his name. Macbeth. The tyrant. The usurper. He tightened his grip on his sword, two hands squeezing the hilt hard. His own armor was leather, padded beneath with cotton. He had no shield.
He had never killed a man in battle. And now he knew he never would.
He strove to quell his rising fear, and when he found he could not, to channel it into anger. “The devil himself could not pronounce a title more hateful to my ear.”
“No. Nor more fearful.”
“Thou liest, abhorred tyrant! With my sword I’ll prove the lie thou speakest.”
Siward charged, bringing his sword around in a wild overhead arc aimed at the false king’s head. Macbeth stepped back and swept his own sword up between them, parrying the blow easily. He bound Siward’s sword down with his own and stepped in, driving the sharp edge of his shield into young Siward’s neck.
Siward fell to his knees. He clasped the wound on his neck with his right hand, and struggled to hold his sword level with his off hand. He felt his pulse pounding, felt his hot blood pumping out between his fingers.
“Thou wast born of woman,” Macbeth said. He kicked the sword out of Siward’s hand. It clattered to the stones out of sight. “But swords I smile at—”
Siward fumbled for his belt knife with his left hand. Macbeth dropped his sword and shield and seized Siward’s left wrist with an unbreakable grip.
“—weapons laugh to scorn—”
He grabbed Siward’s right wrist and pulled his hand away from his wound.
“—brandished by man—”
He hauled Siward to his feet. Siward could feel Macbeth’s hot breath, smell the stink of his last meal.
“—that’s of a woman born.”
Macbeth pivoted, dragging young Siward around in his orbit and flinging him off the battlement. Siward felt his feet leave the ground, heard the shouts of the men below. His hands pawed helplessly at the air as he fell fifty feet, and smashed into the unyielding stones in the courtyard. He did not cry out. He took pride in that, his last thought.
Okay, let’s look at this in terms of the framework I’ve been building. Is the fight “violent” in the sense that there are consequences for characters we care about? Is there an interesting fight story with memorable storytelling moments? Is there an interesting broken symmetry? Are the characters’ intentions clear? Do their characterizations extend into the fight?
Consequences for Characters We Care About
This scene is from Young Siward’s point of view, and as a standalone scene, that makes sense. An inexperienced soldier who has to go up against the Big Bad single-handed is a sympathetic character. And Young Siward gets some nice moments: his realization, before the fight even begins, that he’s going to die, his decision to channel his fear into anger, and the fact that he fights to the very end. But in terms of the play overall, Young Siward is not the character we care about, and his death is of very little consequence. He serves to put a personal face on the losses experienced by the English army, and gives his father a nice moment of mourning in the final scene, but that’s it.
Macbeth is the main character, so this fight would be better served if it were told from his POV. Sure, he’s a villain, but we can still empathize with him. Siward is sympathetic, but Macbeth is the character we’re invested in.
I haven’t talked much about POV in this series. That’s something I have to address.
Story of the Fight
Here’s the story of the fight as presented:
- Siward has a disadvantage, and the stakes are high
- Siward’s disadvantage increases
- Siward is killed
That’s not much of a story, and again, that’s because Siward is the wrong viewpoint character. There’s no reversal because Siward’s story doesn’t need one. Macbeth’s story almost demands a reversal, as a physical expression of his doubt.
The scene succeeds here, I think. The shield attack is surprising and memorable. The disarm, while not distinctive, is significant. And Siward’s death, being flung off the battlements, stands out as well. Although, again, this only works in the context of a standalone scene. At the end of the play, Siward’s father takes pride in the fact that, though his son is dead, at least he had “his hurts before,” i.e. in front. I’m not sure that falling face-first into a courtyard counts.
Macbeth is bigger, stronger, more experienced and more brutal than Young Siward. The two fighters are equipped with different weapons—sword and shield vs. sword—and different armor—plate mail vs. leather. The most interesting asymmetry, however, is barely touched on—Macbeth and Siward have different objectives.
Siward wants to kill Macbeth, or perhaps just survive the encounter. Macbeth either believes, or is trying to convince himself, that he’s invulnerable, and that the supernatural forces he’s in league with are still in his corner. He needs to reaffirm his destiny to make sense of the death of his wife and all the bloodshed he’s responsible for.
Siward’s intention and characterization are pretty clear. Macbeth’s intentions, beyond killing Siward, are murkier. I trimmed Macbeth’s lines from the beginning of the scene to throw the focus on Siward, and to allow him to be the character that’s intruded on. These missing lines go a long way to clarifying Macbeth’s intention: “They have tied me to the stake; I cannot fly, but bearlike I must fight the course. What’s he that was not born of woman? Such a one am I to fear, or none.”
Siward’s physical characterization is a natural extension of his dialog. He’s scared and inexperienced, thus easily goaded into a rushed attack, yet he’s not a coward, and he continues the fight till the last moment. And Macbeth, by parrying with his sword and attacking with his shield (!), displays an overconfidence born of arrogance. His taunting of Young Siward is consistent with his cruel manner of dispatch.
The specificity of the fight moves here are a plus and a minus. On the plus side, this is clearly an actual fight that can be visualized or even staged. No hand-waving over implausibilities. On the minus side, it gets awfully fussy toward the end, and visualization is almost imposed on the reader with the clarification of what Siward’s doing with his right hand versus his left. It slows the reader down.
The point of this post wasn’t to beat up on an old fight scene, but to exercise the framework in reverse, as a tool for analysis, rather than construction. I wrote this scene years before I started on this series. Indeed, I went into the analysis pretty confident in the fight (less so on the prose), and was surprised to discover that I’d completely missed the boat. I’ve staged this fight maybe 20 or 30 times, and only now realized that I’ve had an unconscious bias towards Siward’s POV. So, success, I guess?
Next time, more on point of view and the sophistication of the POV character and the reader. And at some point down the road, a rewrite of this scene addressing the missed opportunities discussed here.