My most recent stage fight – June 2013, in pantaloons!
There are many similarities between choreographing a fight for the stage and for the page. They are both, in a way, ‘conversation by other means’. They should be all about ‘character in action’: reveal something of those we are following. Give us some stake in their peril. My wife says that even she, who cares little for fights usually will not skip mine because she always learns something new about the characters, is frightened for them – or indeed, is keen to see the villain suffer!
There’s a balance to be struck between the technical and the drama. The first can get in the way of the second. I write for the general reader, one who perhaps has little or no experience with swords (or other pieces of bladed weaponry). You want to give the feel that the character, and so the author, knows what he is talking about. A little expertise to put you in safe hands, not too much to put you off.
It always comes back to character. I wouldn’t start a book in mid fight or battle – the reader would be overwhelmed. But if you get to know someone, then you have a stake in their experience. You care whether they fight well, or not. You want to see them triumph or fall.
As to the mechanics, its good to know your weapon yet also always remember that it is only as good as its wielder – and that the best laid plans oft go aglay! At drama school I had a wonderful stage combat teacher, John Waller, who said that you should be able to freeze a fight on stage at any moment and take a photo of it – and the picture would be clear, exciting. I try to do that in the writing too – allow the reader to pause and see clearly that missed parry, the danger it put the hero in, his reaction to compensate. Fights are never in isolation, they are always at the service of the story. The character usually has to get through one as swiftly as possible to get onto their next important objective: free the maiden, warn the general, kill the Sultan. A fight, however exciting mustn’t pause the action. It is a way through to the next piece of action – though obviously I try to make the way through as historically accurate, realistic and entertaining as possible!
In my novel, ‘The Blooding of Jack Absolute’, (Just re-released in the US) there is a fight on a grand scale: the Battle of Quebec. It is one of the more important battles in history, as it won North America for the Crown – and possibly lost the Colonies to the Crown by removing the enemy that the crown had protected the Americans from all those years – what need had you for us after the French were gone! I love battles, could spend books on them – but as I say, I write for a general reader. So it all comes down to character again: Jack’s, this young man in his first combat. I try to place him where he can see and describe the key points of the fight. But I don’t digress into the ‘authorial view’ and try and describe the whole thing. Jack’s involved, Jack’s in peril. I always say to film producers when they baulk at the idea of a battle and thousands of extras that you don’t need them – once that first volley is fired, gunsmoke obscures near the whole battlefield – so you only need to see the ten soldiers to Jack’s left, the ten to his right – and the ten fleeing Frenchmen right in front!
So I hope that everyone will enjoy the combat I create – and know that even if it is not your main sphere of interest, you will soon move onto something different – Character revealed in another way – perhaps in the battle of the boudoir! Talk about peril!