Q&A: Mediums & Realism

Well, this is embarrassing. If you’re looking at the clock, you know I’m running a bit late tonight. What I didn’t realize, until after writing the post was that Michi had already addressed it. So here we are, with a second take on a question.

Hi! You raise a good question on choreography. Actors can’t do realistic fight scenes and it has to look entertaining. Well, then why are we creating realistic fight scenes in writing instead of entertaining? Of course on screen it’s restrictive by the medium. Are realistic fight scenes in writing more entertaining than unrealistic movie fight scenes in writing? Or is it just because it’s writing we have free rein and not restrictive to what can be done for a movie.

One big reason is, you can’t write visual spectacle. You can describe absurd events playing out, but you can’t actually present the image. Visual mediums, including films and comics can show you what’s happening, and keep you engaged on the pure, “look at this,” spectacle.

When you’re watching a film and you see someone throw five punches in quick succession, it’s visually engaging. When you write that it just lands flat. At best you can inventory each hit, but that’s going to kill the momentum. You can abbreviate it as, “five punches,” but that becomes weightless, and has no real effect on the scene. But, when you look back at the video, each hit can be showcased without disrupting the scene. The director and cinematographer even have a lot of control over how you experience those moments. Longer cuts smooth the action out, while quick cuts result in a more disorienting experience. If your PoV character is the one dealing the blows, they benefit from the former, if they’re on the receiving end, jump cuts can help convey their disorientation. A wider shot can pull the audience out of the moment and put them in a more objective state of mind, watching what happens, while a closer camera pushes them to empathize with (at least one of) the characters.

Film benefits from longer fights. Yes, it fills time, but it also allows the director to orchestrate a full story within the sequence. It’s a strong opportunity for character building.

I know I’ve said it before, but film and prose are entirely different forms of media. The way you tell a story on 35mm includes a lot of tricks of framing, perspective, composition, and editing. Even things like color can become crucial touchstones to inform your audience what’s happening.

Ironically, a lot of those editing techniques are necessary to convey things to the audience that a writer can simply say. You don’t need to dramatically orbit your principle character and show them looking at the city below as they make their decision, you can simply tell us what they’re thinking. You can expose their entire internal discussion if you want. It’s two roads to the same destination, but options are vastly different.

When it comes to fights, film benefits from spectacle. It benefits from giving the audience time to process what they’re seeing. Because the speed is controlled by the editor a fight will have a tempo. Hell, it’s going to be scored to music before they’re done, and if something still doesn’t fit, there’s always ramping.

Your fight isn’t going to be scored to a soundtrack when it’s read. Even if you offer a suggestion, you have no control over how fast or slow someone else will read it. You can’t fully control the tempo; all you can do is keep your words short to speed the scene up.

If you want to maintain the impact of your fight, you want to keep it short. The longer it runs, the more time your audience has to tune out and lose interest.

So, here’s a very basic writing tip: If something doesn’t need to be there, cut it. At the most granular layer, this includes unneeded words in a sentence. In a fight, this means cutting the parts of the scene that don’t matter. When you step back and compare a fight on film to one in prose, there’s a lot of stuff that has little to no value at a narrative level. It’s important for the film because it’s contributing to the tempo, it’s relevant for the scene’s pacing, but it’s not like the story would make less sense if you cut a couple parried jabs from the fight. (The editor probably already did.)

As a writer, your best option is to keep your fights short and to the point. Films have to worry about production cost and logistics, but your budget is the word count, and keeping your audience engaged. (In fairness, run time is also a consideration for films, but the factors involved are weighed differently.)

Obviously, context is important; if your character is training in a martial art, you’re going to spend a lot more time discussing what they’re doing, and digging into their art’s philosophies. In a situation like that, having a little discussion about what’s going on in a fight is relevant, because it’s showing how much they’ve learned. But, this is a very singular example; if your character’s training wasn’t the focus of the narrative, this isn’t going to resonate as a part of their growth.

We regularly suggest a realistic approach, but that doesn’t mean what you think.

In fiction, “realism,” refers to internal consistency, not how well the work conforms to the real world. Are your characters following the rules of the world you created? This includes things like behavior that feels artificial. Plot points that feel forced. In fights, this happens when your characters suddenly burst out inexplicable superpowers. Like the ability to fight for ten minutes. Sure, the movies make it look easy, but that is damn near superhuman.

In the absence of altered rules, the ones from the real one are fine. Your fights should always be realistic, but that might not look the same in your world, so plan accordingly.

Because film and prose are completely different mediums, there’s a host of things that work for one and not the other. You may find ways to get a similar effect if you get creative, but simply lifting one from the other medium won’t do it.


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