Choreographing Fight Scenes

Tammy: I started by picking apart fight scenes in what were called “sword and sandal movies” and swashbuckler movies when I was a kid, when they had these things on afternoon television all of the time. I’d watch for how people moved and how they blocked. Then I saw the Richard Lester-directed Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers, which was the first time I felt I was watching real street fights, with the fighters using anything at hand. Not long after that I was introduced to martial arts movies, which I watched intently, over and over, again, picking the moves of both parties apart, and still more historical movies. And I discovered samurai movies, and both samurai battles and iaido, the art of the fast draw.

I took tae kwon do karate for a year before I tore my tendon, but I continued to visit classes. I also sat in on kendo and judo classes when my friends were shopping for a school, and a fencing class when a friend who’d been a coach got me in. I worked with a black belt before I took karate who taught me about balance, blocks, and punches, and I practiced those.

I also wrote and directed a martial arts movie for a friends’ student film, which is where I learned the joys of choreographing martial arts.

Take all of that, and add to it all of my hand weapons, including several kinds of sword and a real naginata. I know the strength and skill it takes simply to draw a samurai sword flawlessly and hold it outstretched without shaking. (I’m not good at it. That sucker is heavier than it looks, and I haven’t built my wrists and arms up!)

And then I start to write. I picture the fight in my head, each move by each fighter. I can’t just forget the other fighters while my hero is moving. Bad guys don’t wait for you to finish, contrary to the movies. They don’t come at you one at a time. You have to have eyes in the back of your head, and know what the guy on your side is doing as well as the one you’re actively engaged with. I’ll rewrite a fight scene, movement by movement, character by character, five or six times per draft just so I don’t get the letter that says, “You had this, and this, but this is in the way, and you forgot so-and-so was there, and that just can’t happen!” Sometimes I’ll use an actual piece from a fight I saw, like Alanna’s butterfly cut, but you also have to take in the characters. Alanna would never pick up a bench and charge a line of bad guys, but Tunstall would. Esmond and Owen would never think of getting into a corner so they can limit the ways in which the bad guys come at them, because they lose their heads a bit, but Kel and Beka would, and Kel would drag her friends with her.

SOURCE: [Tamora Pierce on influences, fight scenes, and more]