Saturday, May 16, 2015

Action Speaks Louder Than Action

I want you to watch this scene from my all time favourite film 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'. The important part is from 1:54 to 2:06, if you don't want to watch the whole thing. It is worth watching, but I'll fill you in on what happens before that important part.

You've just witnessed dialogue. You've just witnessed character development.

If you are familiar 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' then you know this as the scene in which Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun Fat) gets his sword, The Green Destiny, back from Jen Yu. But he does that 20 seconds into the video, long before this fight even begins. This resolves one of the major plotlines early in the film and, yet, the scene goes on for another two minutes and forty seconds after Li Mu Bai gets his sword back.


Is it because Li Mu Bai wants to find Jen Yu's teacher, The Jade Fox, and he wants to question her? Yes. Is it because he wants Jen Yu to leave her teacher and study under him, becoming the worthy disciple he longs for? Yeah, it's that too.

But in terms of scene questions (Will Li Mu Bai get the sword back? Will Jen Yu reveal where Jade Fox is hiding? Will Li Mu Bai convince Jen Yu to join him?) they're resolved pretty quickly and, in fact, they're answered with some pretty simple resolutions. He does get the sword, she doesn't join him and she doesn't tell him where Jade Fox is hiding. If you're keeping track, that's a Yes a No and a No for resolutions. "There's no Yes, but..." and zero "No, ands..." We can't even say it's "No, and Jen Yu gets away" because Li Mu Bai clearly lets her go willingly.

So this is bad, right? We've talked about this. Simple answers to scene questions lead to dead ends and pointless scenes and waste both space and opportunity, right? Right.

I'm glad you're paying attention.

But this scene is doing double time. There's another conversation going on here that has nothing to do with what the characters are saying. Did you see it? Do you want a chance to watch again? Remember, we're watching with the sound off.

For that minute that I got you to watch, Li Mu Bai picks up a sword and proceeds to smack Jen Yu around with it, then let's her go. Jen Yu is using a live blade, that's some real cutting steel she's swinging at him. Li Mu Bai hits her a couple of times, but mostly he blocks and deflects.

What Li Mu Bai is saying in this fight scene is "I can beat you. I am beating you. I'm so much better than you, I can use a stick to beat you. I'm barely even looking at you and I'm beating you. I am the superior fighter." But he's also saying something else. He says, "I don't want to kill you. I'm using this stick because I'm not here to kill you." Before this fight, earlier in the video, Li Mu Bai uses his sword to cut straight through the tip of Jen's weapon. Before that he blocks her attacks with his sword's scabbard, clearly making the statement that he is unafraid and that he can easily overcome her if he wishes. Li Mu Bai speaks to Jen Yu through combat.

And it's not a monologue. Jen Yu is speaking back and she is screaming. She strikes at Li Mu Bai with full force, with her sword drawn, putting everything into it. She says, "I will not be shown up. If I can, I will kill you, and I believe I can. I don't need you. Look at how great I am!" This is not a fight scene, this is a conversation. They are developing their relationship, learning about each other, setting up a lot for later in the movie. Li Mu Bai's frustration with Jen Yu and the doubts that she is worthy all begin here and they climax later on in the film in a similar but even more beautiful fight scene.

Did I say this scene is doing double time? Scratch that. This scene is doing triple time. Something else is happening here.

The characters are not only speaking to each other, they are revealing themselves to the audience. This is a big scene for character development and for showing who these characters are to us the film viewer. We learn a lot about both Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu in this scene all in how they move.

Jen Yu makes big attacks, throwing herself into every movement, adopting long stances and wide lunges, swinging the sword in big arcs over and around Li Mu Bai. On every retreat she flurries the sword again. She steps back and forward, switches and crosses her stances. She strikes mostly for Li Mu Bai's head, going for a killing strike in every movement. Her sword is always up, tip aimed at her opponent. In a matter of seconds, we learn that Jen Yu is aggressive and merciless, that she likes to look good when she fights and put on a show of her skill. Jen Yu is doing the martial arts we all think about when we think of martial arts movies.

Now look at Li Mu Bai. He barely moves at all. His stance is high, his guard is low, he follows Jen Yu's retreat with small steps. He holds The Green Destiny in his other hand, but keeps it pressed against his back at all times, essentially fighting one handed. He strikes at any target he's given - head, neck, hand, stomach. Li Mu Bai is a calculating and ruthless fighter, backing up an extraordinary confidence with an extraordinary skill that is tempered by his mercy. He doesn't show off, he fights. He makes direct movement, countering and striking in time with his opponent. He is completely at ease with what he is doing, not afraid or angry in his actions.

Well damn. It's no wonder Jen Yu didn't have a chance.

It's tempting to keep going and analyse this from a purely martial perspective, but let's focus on the writing.

Okay, so in three minutes, we've barely nudged out plot along. This is a long scene for a lot of quick resolutions. But this isn't about plot, this is about character. This is about developing the characters for the audience and developing the relationship two characters have in the story. We're doing three big things here all at the same time.

When I started writing 'Pilgrimage' and started developing Roland's character, one of the first questions I asked was "How does Roland fight?" If you're working on a story with lots of fighting, as 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' is and, indeed, as 'Pilgrimage' is, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

In 'Pilgrimage' Roland is big and heavy and he's strong and he likes to use all of that weight, throwing himself into and onto many of his enemies. But more importantly, Roland doesn't ever restrain himself. Roland hates himself and has the next best thing to a death wish for most of the book. He doesn't have a survival instinct to tell him that grabbing a sword with your hand is a bad idea, he just takes the opportunity to win, regardless of what it costs him. His self-loathing is reflected in his fighting. As is his desire to win. Roland will use whatever is on hand to give himself an edge, be it a magical artifact or a can of beans, and will gladly strike an opponent while they're down or severely injured.  The only sense of accomplishment Roland has is victory in a fight and he will do what it takes to feel that satisfaction. He has no sense of honour or poor form in combat, he's only there to win.

At various times through-out the book Roland's self-loathing, lack of restraint and need to win is the subject of discussion, criticism, discovery and introspection by Roland and by other character. But he shows all of those features in the way he fights as much as he does in how he drinks and how he interacts with others and how he sees himself in quiet moments of reflection. Roland doesn't stop being Roland just because it's time for an action beat.

If you're writing a story with any fighting, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

If you're writing a story with any fighting, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

That's what I want you to take away from this.

Writing a fight scene to be dialogue is a little harder and you may take some time to figure that out, but this one is easy.

If you're writing a story with any fighting, there is no reason for you not to think about how a character is revealed by the way they fight.

This extends beyond fight scenes, too. Action scenes of all kinds can reveal character in the way they move and overcome obstacles. Characters can talk to each other in how they work against each other.

Bad actions scenes exist to fill time with spectacle.

Good action scenes exist to move the plot forward with excitement and suspense.

The best scenes do double or triple time, moving the plot, developing characters and/or revealing characters, expanding on subplots.*

*Note I did not say "The best actions scenes" but "The best scenes." That's all scenes, people. All of them.

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