Fight Fiercely, If You Please

For about five years I studied and practiced stage combat.  Not fencing, where the point is to hit your opponent while remaining unhit yourself: stage combat, where the point is to work cooperatively with your partner to create the illusion of great hazard.

When I first started studying, I told myself it was for research, but with the Sarah Tolerance books not even a twinkle in my auctorial eye, I have to admit that I was really doing it for fun.  And anything you learn as a writer is research, right?  As it turns out: right.  Studying stage combat taught me to break down physical events into beats, to choreograph them in my head or on paper, the better to write about them.  Which means that, even before Miss Tolerance took up her small sword, I was able to write fight scenes in The Stone War and Daredevil: The Cutting Edge with a good sense, both of the physical movements and the subjective experience.

Which means what?  When people talk about car accidents or other mayhem, a phrase you hear over and over is “It all happened so fast!”  When you’re choreographing a fight, or performing a choreographed fight, you want to make it look spontaneous, quick, desperate, when in fact it is pre-planned, slow enough to be safe, and deliberate.  You want to give the impression that it all happens “so fast.”  When I write a fight scene, with or without edged weapons, I want to convey, not only the subjective speed of the event, but the simultaneous subjective slowness as the fighters try to think tactically.  I want to make sure the opponents are not stepping in the same space at the same time (unless that’s what I want them to do).  And fight choreography helps.

The way I learned it, at least, fight choreography breaks fights into offensive and defensive moves by two (or more!) parties, and identifies certain target areas with numbers–much like in standard fencing, but sometimes the numbering system is difficult.  The cuts/parries are roughly as follow:

1) Left leg (the cut is assumed to be the hip or thigh, and is parried accordingly)

2) Right leg (ditto)

3) Right shoulder/upper arm

4) Left shoulder/upper arm

5) Head (the cut is downward from the right, parried with hilt to the right side)

6) Head (the cut is downward from the left, parried with the hilt to the left side)

There are more: you can cut–or defend against–cuts to the shoulder, neck, groin.  And there are moves in service of the fight that aren’t a cut, thrust, or parry (rapiers are generally cutting weapons, as are sabers; small swords are thrusting weapons; broadswords are for whacking…).  A moulinet, for example, is a neat preparatory swing of the blade from the wrist; it looks cool, but it has a purpose–you get more momentum to your cut.  There’s the corps a corps, that splendid manuever beloved of the movies, where the fighters slide inward on each other’s blade until they’re nose-to-nose.  Binding down is parrying with the forte (the strong part) of  your blade and continuing the away-and-down motion so that your opponent’s point is in the dirt and they’re temporarily unable to fight.  From there you can do lots of fun things.

When I was fighting, I might have been given the following choreography to work with my partner.  (Let us call the combatants Romeo and Marigold, because I’m feeling like that.)

Both: on guard.

Romeo: moulinet, cut 5

Marigold: parry 5, cut 2,

Romeo: parry 2, thrust 4

Marigold: parry 4, bind down, bring hilt up to R’s chin

Romeo: fall down

I love this stuff–I particularly loved rapier and rapier-dagger as weapons forms (although they’re way too early for Miss Tolerance’s fighting) but what I love almost as well is the, um, illicit, dirty fighting, what-do-you-mean-you’re-picking-up-that-barstool moves.  Because if you’re in trouble you’re going to use whatever is there to get yourself out of trouble.  William Hobbs, arguably the best fight choreographer ever (he did the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, The Three and Four Musketeers, The Duellists) had a brilliance for fights with an edge of desperation–fencers struggling through mud, in the rain, on ice, fighting with whatever comes to hand, trying not to die. That’s the bottom line: if the fight doesn’t feel dangerous no one’s going to care.

It’s been years since I studied or worked as a stage combatant.  My terminology and technique are rusty to the point of hilarity.  But the basic skill–breaking a series of really fast moves into manageable chunks, describing them, and reassembling them so they sound very fast indeed–is a terrifically useful to a writer.  And so far it’s meant the difference between life and death for Miss Tolerance.  I’m sure she would approve.

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6 responses to “Fight Fiercely, If You Please

  • Bookmobiler

    “And so far it’s meant the difference between life and death for Miss Tolerance. I’m sure she would approve.”

    And so do we.

    Granted that you would probably have to plan and re-plan your choreography a few times, what’s the typical ratio of choreography to words on a page?

    I belong to a community theatre group that specializes in musicals. I’ve watched choreographers take an hour to set out the moves to a five minutes dance.

  • madeleinerobins

    I’ve never thought of it as a choreography-to-words ratio. Lemme consider.

    Every fight choreographer I’ve ever worked with does a little finger dance when they’re choreographing, miming the hits and parries (sometimes it’s with the whole hand rather than the forefingers, but you can whap the person sitting next to you on the train that way). After she gets a phrase (usually no more than five or six cuts and responses) the way she wants it she puts it down in notation. It’s easier for the choreographer that way, and easier for the actors to learn. It can take five minutes to work out a phrase (subject to emendation). And stage choreographers have a challenge that writers don’t: they have to consider sight lines. If you’re throwing a fake punch, you want the audience behind you or behind your partner, so they don’t see the six inches of air between your fist and the partner’s chin. Taking that into account adds some time to their work.

    The choreography of a fight can be a page or two; the working it out part can take half an hour or more. The writing may take longer, because I’m trying to convey the fight clearly, maintain a sense of urgency, and get to the next part of the story (which is, I hope, what the reader is there for). In that sense, fight choreography is just another bit of scene setting.

  • A. Marina Fournier

    I seem to recall that Peter Woodward, son of Edward, is a member of the British Academy of Dramatic Combat, Woodward is known in the film industry for his work as a fight arranger. I rather like just watching him talk. Loved him as Galen in Crusade, a Babylon 5 spinoff/sequel.

    Woodward’s dramatic combat training inspired him to study historical weaponry and combat techniques, an area in which he is now considered quite knowledgeable. His expertise in this field ultimately led him to create, co-write, and host The History Channel’s documentary series Conquest, a hands-on showcase of weapons, training, and combat techniques throughout history. The series ran from 2002–2005 and, as of February 2007, it is occasionally still shown in reruns.

    Branching out in the late 1990s, Woodward and his father formed Tripal Productions, for which he wrote and produced his first feature film The House of Angelo, with his father in the starring role as “Angelo”.

    Don’t know if he’ll be at the same level of skill as William Hobbs, but he’s rather good.

  • Andrew Kenneth Moss

    I have to say, I stumbled upon your site and was quite pleased to read of your research into stage combat. I agree that research is in everything and anything. I look forward to picking up a copy of the book and taking a look at the fights.

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