Q&A: Insert Witty Banter Here

Can two people really have a proper conversation while fighting? It’s my first time writing a fully engaged fighting and I keep remembering 1) all the action movies I’ve watched where they either fight as they talk or stop between moves to taunt each other 2) a tv channel that showed different martial arts completions and there were waiting between moves but no stops. So I’ve been wondering if it’s actually realistic or not.

To abuse a quote I can’t remember the source of, “No, but also yes.”

You’re not going to have a coherent conversation mid-fight. It’s a bad idea that will end poorly. Basically, when you’re in a serious fight you don’t want to split your attention between the person trying to end your life, and sounding witty at the same time.

In a firefight, you don’t want to announce your location to people armed with weapons that can blow through whatever you’re hiding behind, so belting out threats and taunts isn’t really going to work there at all.

However, in melee, there is value in distracting your opponent. While I’m hesitant to classify anything in the 1989 Batman film as “realistic,” the idea of asking someone, “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” has some merit. (Or, at least, would in a world where that film doesn’t exist.) It’s a very strange question that has the possibility of confusing your foe. It won’t work on a disciplined enemy, it won’t work on the same person twice, but having a weird question or two, that you can spout off without thinking has some value.

Similarly, taunts, screams, and weird noises, all have uses. At best, they’ll distract, confuse, or unnerve your foes. At worst, you’re going to be exhaling as you strike anyway, so you’re not giving up much.

If you’re not trying for a, “real world,” feel, there’s a lot of justification for including witty banter, or clever dialog in your fight scenes. Characters talking shop while trying to kill one another creates a comedically mundane feeling. For them, the act of fending off assassins has become so mundane they’re tuned out. It replicates the feeling anyone working a mundane job has felt but transposes it into a context that should be exciting. Except that novelty has worn thin for the characters, and now it’s just business as usual. This can be darkly comedic, and the is some reality here as well.

People who deal with violence, or the aftermath of violence, on a regular basis, can develop an unusually dark sense of humor. Police, soldiers, doctors, EMS, and anyone else who deals with violence or its aftermath on a regular basis will start to normalize this, and at that point, their unfiltered sense of humor can become truly disturbing to the uninitiated. That even extends to us. I remember once accidentally horrifying an Australian over Discord because I was joking about a Mafia assassination from the mid-1930s with Michi while on a hot mic.

This would never result in comparing notes with someone trying to kill you, but that mindset isn’t completely unrealistic, and the humor of it isn’t as out there as it first appears.

Characters bantering with one another can be valuable for you. It will help keep your fight interesting. It allows you to play with characterization you wouldn’t normally see. (If your characters would never sit down and snark at each other, having them do that over crossed swords can let you explore that material.) If the end result is entertaining, it has done it’s job. It’s not true to the real world, but that was never the point.

The high water mark here is, probably The Princess Bride. That has some the best combat banter you’ll ever encounter. It’s high tempo, so it never drags down the fight. It’s punchy when it needs to be. It explores character relations and motivations. It helps you get to know these characters. Finally, it is eminently entertaining. That cast had a beautiful chemistry going, and the end result is some of the finest banter you’ll ever see on film.

In the specific context of film, breaking for dialog is also very useful from a production standpoint. It gives the actors time to pause and recover between bouts of action. Somewhat obviously, this is not something you’d want as a real combatant, you want your opponent exhausted and then dead, but when you’re making a film, that would be a less desirable outcome.

As for martial arts competitions, it’s there the name, you’re competing with the other participants. Even if there’s no ill will, you’re going to maintain a degree of discipline between techniques / bouts / rounds / whatever. This is less true with competitive sports like boxing or MMA, where attempting to psych out your opponent is part of a legitimate strategy. So, the exact downtime interactions will depend on the sport’s culture and competitive rules.

Professional Wrestling is a good example of the boxing / MMA behavior amplified to the point of parody. Interactions between participants will have their own scripted theater events outside of the bout. Again, it’s not real, but it was never supposed to be.

Incidentally, the wrestling likes this for the same reasons it’s convenient in film. It gives the performers time to recover. There’s also a few other non-verbal variants there, including some of the holds, which are designed to give both performers a breather without looking the match is stalling out.

Now, there are a few real applications for trying to talk to your foes, instead of fighting them. However, note that last bit, “instead of fighting.” If you’re trying to defuse a situation, or stall for time, talking can do that more efficiently than fighting (and is generally much safer.) That said, this won’t be interspersed into a fight. When you’re writing a scene like this, the dialog is carrying the tension, because if your character miscalculates, the situation could turn violent.

So, you won’t see witty banter mid-fight in the real world. At least, not unless both participants think, “that’s how it’s supposed to work,” and are playing into the cliche. It won’t end well for a character who tries this against someone who knows better. Yelling at your opponent, trying to distract or confuse them, does work, and you may see that, but it would be more in the range of, “weird nonsense,” rather than true snark. You can use words to defuse a dangerous situation. That’s real, though there’s complex psychology involved.

However, you will see witty banter in fiction because it’s very useful for many reasons. This isn’t a mark against fiction for being “unrealistic,” when it is useful, and the work as a whole benefits.

So, as I misquoted at the beginning, “no, but also yes.”

-Starke

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