John Robinson, moderator, led the cohort of fighting experts who advanced on the topic from several different perspectives in Friday night’s not-your-usual Writer’s Track “Fightin’ and Writin’” panel. Scouts out front included panelists Chris A. Jackson (fantasy and role-playing games), Allen Johnson (screenwriting and historic values), Nick Eftimiades (martial arts, defense, diplomacy, and counter-terrorism, all spliced into Hollywood consulting), and Matt Blaze (a new voice at Dragon Con extolling the potential martial use of computer science and security, essentially acting as the panel’s cyber-violence guru).
Robinson opening salvo aimed at the issue of Young Adult literature and violence. He recalled the aggression in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and pondered whether we should seek to protect kids, tweens, and teens or “let the bodies hit the floor?” Having raised six kids, Eftimiades opted for the latter, citing violence in video games. They’re already “getting it,” he said.
Blaze voted to include cyber-violence in YA lit, asserting that it’s not gratuitous, but a “message for the future.” He told an anecdote about former vice president Dick Cheney. Cheney feared cyber-assassination and cancelled access to his pacemaker. Blaze assured fans that Cheney’s fears are justified today. “Toning down” the violence is a “disservice to our future,” he said.
Scriptwriter Johnson said that film ratings cloud the question further. When you write a script aimed at younger filmgoers, it has to fit within an acceptable rating of PG-13 instead of R. Diverging from expectations affects marketing for the entire film. Jackson cited the “gore factor” that forces you to tone down violent content for kids’ age groups. Irritated, he cited “loads of violence” in films rated PG-13, but if you “show a nipple,” you get an R rating.
Eftimiades agreed, stating that if you hit someone with a baseball bat, the results aren’t shown in a video game. But in real life, he said, the same action has a visceral, emotional impact that you can capture in your writing. Jackson responded, recalling one of his fictional heroines. He gave her such a bad time that she ended up with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
In reality, a fight lasts about eight seconds, the panelists agreed. Eftimiades said he erred on the side of longer scenes, giving the impression of the sense of a fight that lasts longer than the average encounter. Blaze said that if you’ve been beaten up, it seems longer.
As a screenwriter, Johnson said, your fight scenes are subject to change at the whim of the director, photographer, or fight choreographer. Fight scenes in screenplays are extremely lean and are not bogged down unless the scene includes a vital decision, characterization, or a setup which will lead to a payoff later. What matters is how you move forward, making the fight part of, and affecting the outcome of, the story. Jackson said that his scenes are also subject to change, but by his editor. He, too, errs toward more and includes some magical persons who can catch arrows and shrug off pain.
Johnson and Jackson agreed on the unique qualities of some fight scenes, giving the scene its own pure flavor. Johnson recalled the scene in Die Hard where shooting out a row of windows created a different kind of challenge for the barefoot protagonist. He said that they shot 500 rounds in that scene but only one character died. Eftimiades agreed that the setup to a fight was important.
Johnson said a lot of different goals could cause violence to occur, including escape, protection, or moving. The combat in a story should be true to the goal sought.
Robinson asked about the relationship between characters and their weapons: Arthur has Excalibur; Wonder Woman her lasso and shield; Robin Hood his bow and arrows. In Game of Thrones, the weapons sometimes have more interesting names than the characters. He asked the panelists if writers should link a character to a specific weapon or should they just fight with whatever was handy?
Eftimiades said that the film character Whitt will fight with whatever is available but that it’s hard to envision the Jedis of Star Wars without light sabers. Blaze suggested that if one side tries to implement and control the body implants of its opponents, that process might be more interesting than the fight itself.
Johnson talked about our evolved method of storytelling and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. As part of the hero’s journey, it’s standard for a hero’s mentor to give a talisman to aid the hero’s quest. Johnson said that this resonates deeply within us. We recognize the significance when Luke receives his father’s light saber and Arthur is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake.
Jackson gave examples of more weapon iconography: Thor’s hammer, Odysseus’s bow. He said it wasn’t unusual for a weapon to stay in the hero’s hand, especially a cursed weapon of either the hero or a villain. He cited characters that became their own weapon, moving faster without the weight of a sword.
The moderator asked for one piece of advice from the panelists for the aspiring writer attempting to create fight scenes. With various iterations, the panelists agreed to the same answer, “Do your homework.”