Illusion versus Reality: Some Thoughts on Media Fight Sequences

It’s important to remember that most of the conventional wisdom about force application we have in popular culture comes from observations made about various sport styles and exhibition fighting, such as in movies and staged fights at martial arts tournaments. The assumption becomes that those moves were chosen to be allowed because they are more effective, not less. The problem though with that assumption is that while goal of fighting is to win, it’s also to do so with relative safety and not kill the opponent. Injure, wound, and maim perhaps, but again not kill.

The same is true for both tournament demonstration and media in general. When it comes to evaluating whether a television show, a video on the internet, or what they see at a tournament demonstration will be useful for imagining and creating fight scenes, a creator is required to keep three things in mind:

1) The decision on what techniques to use is primarily governed by what will look good on screen or on the floor and not practicality.

2) The action is safe for the performer to demonstrate without injury to themselves under extremely controlled circumstances. In media, this works double for the actor, the stunt double, and their work with the stunt coordinator.

3) The goal is to create something convincing for the audience, not something that is actually reflective of reality.

It’s important to remember that in demonstration performances and movies that there’s a lot of work, sometimes days, weeks, and even months that goes into crafting those scenes, preparing the actors, and putting together the performance. The other important thing to remember is that because movies and demonstrations are primarily an illusion, they can get away with a great deal more than the human body actually can in their action sequences. These fights are designed around the audience being able to follow the action, but even the best of them are often horribly impractical by design. Many authors when they try to write fight scenes look to movies, comics, and video games for easily accessible action that they can translate into their stories and that’s fine. The only problem is that often, because they are unfamiliar with physical action they end up including the same flaws from the movies into their books.

In a movie, the fight scenes are actually long exhibition fights that have been cut together into a single sequence. This means that on film, even after the editing of the fight, you get unnatural pauses where the stuntmen/women are resetting their positions and essentially taking a breather before they move on to the next action sequence. The reason for this, of course, is that if you just forced the stuntmen to continuously run, they’d keel over from exhaustion about half-way through. If an author does not step back and examine the action from an external perspective, they run a real risk of including these same flaws into their novel. There are plenty of examples in already published works where this happens and they are easy to find, once you know what to look for.

Divergent for example, is a major offender. So is City of Bones, for obvious reasons. The combat in Marie Brennan’s Warrior is essentially a Turn Based RPG. YA in general has a great many authors chasing after Joss Whedon and thus invoking the Whedon/Comic Book problem where they stand around talking and then they fight, then they stop and talk, and then they fight, and then they circle, and then again, they fight. Tamora Pierce is one of the few authors in the YA genre I can point to that escapes this trap, but then she knows what she’s talking about and it shows.

I (Michi) will also cop to having the Whedon problem, I watched (and loved) a great many Whedon shows when I was younger and the internalization of a lot of his flaws as well as his successes is something I struggle regularly against even when I should know better.

Remember, all media feeds into each other and into the culture at large. When looking at media for reference, it’s important to not only look at the internal consistencies, plot, and characters but also the outside motivations of what, why, and reality’s constrictions. Written work reflects, not just into other novels, but also into movies, television, video games, and comic books. So, it’s important to evaluate the constraints of the media you’re working with and its flaws while transferring some of the actions and ideas into your work.

What will work well in a visually medium for action doesn’t weather well on the page, nor will it pass the scratch and sniff test when it passes before someone who knows what to look for when dealing with fighters and fighting. So, the goal is to work toward generating the emotions in your audience that we experience when watching a well put together action sequence through a different avenue than what the director and stunt choreographer created for the movie itself.

As always, there are exceptions to every rule and there are a great many movies and television shows that work excellently as reference material. These are just some basic things to think about when looking at media for reference and some of the dangers that are associated with taking stuff wholesale without examining it from all aspects.

On the subject of RPGs and writing, Starke and I are putting together a reference article dealing with the merits and flaws of Pencil and Paper RPGs when working with characters and fight sequences. So heads up Brennan fans, we’ll be talking more about Warrior in that article.

This was supposed to be the Open Hand Primer but I ended up getting sidetracked with a tangent, it’s coming soon, I promise.

As always, happy writing!