How do I choreograph a fight scene?
To me, the question is the same as “How do I put on a magic show?” We’re going to ignore issues of your venue, your lighting and backstage capabilities, the number of people to help you, and the critical props (in our case, weapons). We’ll assume:
- You have trained performers and you are trained in stage combat yourself. You have to know what the movements are, how they are safely performed for stage, and how to communicate with your other performers.
- You have a story: a reason to fight and a satisfying ending to work towards
It must start with safety because good choreography must have trust between the actors that they will not be hurt. All performers must be trained in safe stage combat, and must practice slowly with new partners to develop the trust that will allow them to eventually move with incredible speed and believable intensity.
The question in the back of your mind “Is he acting, or out of control?” should never occur to you.
A phrase is a sequence of choreography with continuous action. Therefore, the beginning of a fight is the start of the first phrase, and the fight ends at the end of the last phrase, but most fights have at least three phrases. Read my previous post on beginning, middles and endings.
Western martial arts refer to “measure” as the distance between two fighters. Here’s how most martial arts break it down:
- Out of Distance: Too far to fight, except with an extraordinary leap forward. It’s a good character choice to lower your guard, unless you want to show an extreme nervousness.
- Long Distance: Able to attack the extended weapon, or to attack the body with an advance and lunge or other combination footwork. Only a fool would not be in guard.
- Medium Distance: Able to use primary weapon most efficiently. When unarmed, you could touch your adversary’s shoulder if you leaned forward a bit
- Close/short Distance: Too close to use the primary weapon effectively. Dagger distance. Boxers resort to hooks and elbows, wrestlers always try to get to this distance for throws.
Most phrases in a sword fight begin out of measure, because if you’re able to attack, you probably will. However, some interesting fights, armed or not, happen when the two characters are face to face and begin a shoving match that culminates in a fight.
But don’t let those exceptions trick you: the start of a phrase is like a new paragraph, regardless of the distance. It’s just natural to put a phrase break when the fighters move out of distance.
Ending a Phrase
It may seem natural to proceed through a fight from start to finish, but I almost always start at the end.
What is the last move of the fight? Is the villain thrown from the tower? Is the hero stabbed and left for dead, setting up his unexpected return? Is the coward injured and runs away?
Think about the exciting conclusion to your fight, and the moves that lead up to it. It’s the biggest moment that deserves your focus and extra rehearsal time.
Each phrase can also end in a change of distance. That distance should be a problem for continuing the fight. Jumping over an obstacle, avoiding the wild slash by rolling away, or moving behind set furniture can end a phrase. Don’t neglect emotional reasons for stopping. If a knight is called by the maiden, he may become distracted and end his attacks. If an injury causes one fighter to fall, the honorable duellist may step back and give him room to recover.
The Juicy Middle
The part of the fight that every beginner stresses about is relatively easy once you start. The bulk of a sword fight happens with cuts, thrusts and slashes, some prizes-de-fer and an assortment of footwork. Try to avoid repetition by varying your angles (don’t limit your movement to lateral across the stage), and keep your eyes open for opportunities to react in creative ways.
Most importantly, remember that your character is in a potentially life-ending situation, and does not know what will happen next. When something unexpected happens, allow your character to reevaluate. When things start going badly for your side, you will want to end the phrase to regain your composure. Your fight is dictated by your character’s mind.
The Horrible Start
Starting a fight or even a phrase within a fight is often the worst part for the performers, the choreographer and everyone involved. So let’s get a few fundamentals out of the way:
- If one side wants desperately to fight/kill, then they should start the first approach and attack. Even beter if they can do it with vigour.
- Even if both combatants are wary, starting a fight by slowly advancing in guard is boring
- If you need to find the correct mark or angle on stage, get there fast
You can only attack into an opening. If your opponent is en garde in a closed defensive stance, you cannot proceed to attack them directly. If they do not give you an opening, you must make one.
- The accidental invitation: by moving feet, changing guards, or general nervousness, the victim opens their guard without intending to (obviously the actor intends to, and is showing they are ready to begin)
- The strategic invitation: the victim opens their guard deliberately, so that they know where they will be attacked, and ready to defend that line
- The attack on the blade: the attacker performs a beat or pressure against the victim’s blade to move it. Unarmed, this may include grabbing the forearms, for example.
- The feint or appel: various intimidating motions to draw a response and create an accidental opening by startling the victim
Remember that your opponent may not have adopted a ready stance. If you are well out of distance, you might start a phrase with a balestra (leap forward), a running attack, or other distraction appropriate to the scene to gain surprise.
Continuous fighting can get boring to an audience because the untrained eye gets fatigued. A fight can blur into noise unless you take opportunities to pause within the conflict. Choosing shorter or longer phrases and the reasons why those phrases start and stop are critical to designing an entertaining fight.
Use stage diagrams to make sure you’re encompassing the maximum space available to you. Use flowcharts to map out the fight dynamics and more easily catch repeated patterns that can either be boring, or “signature moves” of one fighter or the other. And listen to feedback from performers and observers, because it is the relationship between them that you’re interested in.