Plot in Choreography


Choreography should be more than stringing together combat movements in a random order. Based on last week’s post Character in Choreography, you have some ideas how to customize your performance of a fight, but what about fight design?

The Videogame Fallacy

I love fighting games, and you can learn a lot about fighting styles from those games that simulate real combat. However, they’re not a good way to learn choreography.

The problem with fighting games (I won’t single out titles) is that both players should feel that they are evenly matched, so the outcome is fair. When choosing a character to play, it is mainly a matter of style since the game designers spend a lot of time balancing the characters’ abilities.

This also makes the contest arbitrary. Arbitrary is no fun to watch.

Unfortunately, many amateur and professional fight choreographers take the same approach to choreography, asking 3 simple questions:

  1. What is this actor capable of?
  2. What next move flows from this position or posture?
  3. What are historically or weapon-specific tactics that fit at this moment?

These are very important questions for selecting movements one at a time, but unlike a video game, the plot of a dramatic scene should be more than an assortment of possible motions.

Like following down-down-x with forward-o, it might make a good combo that is correct for that fighter’s style, there is still no storyline to the fight. There is no plot.

Plot, Events and Phrases

The plot of the fight is composed of the events that happen within the fight scene.

When designing choreography, we need to be aware of the director’s vision:

  • Overall length of the scene
  • Level of realism: fantasy or gritty? Will they get tired or carry pain?
  • By what crisis does the violence begin? How does it end?

With these simple decisions, already you should have some choreography in mind.

Length: If the fight is long, you’ll need a variety and some changes of tactics. If the fight is short, make sure that you use economy of motion but don’t sacrifice clarity.

Realism: If the fight is fantastic, how will you show the fighter’s superhuman abilities? If the fight is gritty, you’ll need some injuries to show their weaknesses.

Crisis: “War is diplomacy by other means”… or is it “Diplomacy is war by other means”? One maxim that I learned from FDC is “Fights begin when words fail.” The reason for the fight is that someone cannot achieve their ends by talking any more. Why is that? The reason should also point to how the fight will end.

If your director does not have these answers, a good fight designer should have some suggestions handy based on script analysis.

Consider the whole piece:

  • What other fights are there? How long/complicated are they?
  • Do you have to set up a character for later? We call this a “hook”: if a fighter needs to lose (like Inigo in the Princess Bride), what fighting characteristics does the first encounter set up for subsequent encounters?
  • Which is the most important fight? Can the other fights support or echo that fight?

We divide choreography into phrases with short breaks in between. Different choreographers use different phrase lengths, but you should vary your phrase length to keep the audience engaged. The most important part of phrasing is that each phrase should demonstrate some plot element, not just a random series of moves.

The Fight Plot

How do you construct a story that is told entirely with combat movement? It’s not the same as dance, it is arguably easier.

Work on simple storylines:

  1. Set up
  2. Complication/change
  3. Resolution

Because we don’t have the nuance of language to articulate arguments and explain character feelings, we need to keep the plot fairly simple. A three step process is easy to follow yet yields satisfying results.

Please don’t misread this advice. I am not saying “Set up the fighters by showing them in a guard pose and do a few simple passes to show their style, then transition into complicated choreography, then figure out how to end it.” You’d be back to pretty much arbitrary moves again.

The set-up/complication/resolution must happen for the emotional beats of the fight.

What’s the Emotional Crisis?

The question “who will win?” or “will our hero survive?” do not give you any interesting events to put into your fight. Ask better questions that are emotionally relevant:

  • Will he maintain his honour?
  • Will he show mercy?
  • Will he beg for mercy?
  • Will she find the courage to continue?
  • Will they waste their one magic ring to win?
  • Will they be tempted to call for help, leading their friends into a trap?

Whatever the crucial question of the fight is, you must set-up the challenge, then make it complicated or difficult, then show us the outcome. Sometimes you win the fight but lose the emotional challenge (or vice versa).

Here’s an example:

  1. Set-up: Luke wants to face Vader, and believes he is ready to beat him. He is wrong, and knowledge is what’s at stake here. Vader is on the side of knowledge, and calmly raises his weapon in one hand.
  2. Complicaton: Vader uses the force to throw Luke into the freezer, which Luke was unaware of. Luke escapes (impressive, most impressive), but then loses track of where Vader is. We hear Vader’s breathing. Vader can see him, but Luke is still in the dark. Vader throws heavy containers and furniture at him, exhausting him. Vader beats him back along the plank until he is hanging off the antenna.
  3. Resolution: Luke, hearing the revelation and having listened to Vader’s offer, decides to fall off the tower, having faith that he will survive and fight again, or else die before agreeing to partner with Vader. He loses the fight, because although strong and creative, he is no match for what Vader knows.

Building Tension and Suspense

Make them wait for it!

Put a phrase break, but not for the actors to catch their breath and circle each other meaninglessly. Make them pause as one of them slowly moves to the position of greatest tension.

  • The hero is injured, and the villain slowly raises their weapon for a coup de grace
  • The monster is temporarily trapped, so the hero reaches over the ledge and stretches to try to save the lover.
  • The trickster slowly backs away, leading the hero towards the trap
  • The brute hefts a gigantic weapon, enjoying the weight of it.
  • One of the fighters disappears, perhaps magically, perhaps around a corner.

Protagonsist, Main Character, Hero

It doesn’t matter what you call them, who is the audience rooting for? It is very seldom that a play or movie has two equivalent people fighting. Do you really believe that half the audience is cheering for one side, and half for the other?

  • Good vs. Evil
  • Truth vs. Lies
  • Order vs. Chaos
  • Underdog vs. Champion
  • Brothers vs. Mercenaries

Make the sides of your fight as different as possible, and make a strong choice about which side the audience should be cheering for. Remember that they don’t know the outcome yet. Make them worry that it won’t turn out the way they hope.

The good guys must almost lose.

The Big Message

Talk to the director about the major messages and themes of the performance. The fights should reflect the theme, or complicate it. If the message is about hope, then the fight should be won or lost on hope. If the message is about ingenuity, then the fight should hinge on creative solutions.

The most respected artists are those with their own vision. If you’re a fight director, look at your own life and attitudes and infuse your work with your beliefs. If you cry at stories of triumph against all odds, then make your characters suffer incredibly before winning. If you get most upset by injustice, then put moments of unfairness in your designs.

The emotional journey will be all the more genuine because you will communicate passionately with your performers, and the end result will be satisfying for you as well.

David McCormick Head of Stage Combat at Academie Duello and certified Instructor with Fight Directors Canada. Head of Bartitsu at Academie Duello, the longest continuously running Bartitsu program in the world.
Read more from David McCormick.