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Fighting as narrative (or vice-versa)

I have just watched Seven Strike as One, the final episode of the third and last season of Into the Badlands, to me still the best fantasy series on the telly these last few years, and one I will miss a lot now that’s gone. The finale was fast but highly satisfactory, and ended with two colossal hooks for a possible sequel that, alas, seems unlikely.

Sherman Augustus as Moon, Eugenia Yuan as Kannin, Nick Frost as Bajie, Daniel Wu as Sunny, Emily Beecham as The Widow, Lewis Tan as Gaius, Ally Ioannides as Tilda – Into the Badlands _ Season 3, Episode 16 – Photo Credit: Aidan Monaghan/AMC

I admit I am a fan of the series – I love the characters, the setting, the fighting choreography, the small scale of the story that makes this more sword & sorcery than epic fantasy, the retro-futuristic elements.
I will try and get the DVDs sooner or later.
And there’s another reason why I want to re-watch the whole series – Into the Badlands is absolutely great at making the fight scenes part of the narrative.

(spoiler alert: I’ll be using clips from the first season of the show, so they should be pretty safe, but if you’d rather watch the episodes first, just don’t start the videos)

The way in which the series is written, treats fighting as dialogue.
It is usually said that

good dialogue performs four functions – it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

Fighting scenes should do exactly the same – and in Into the Badlands they do just that. And look very cool.

The way in which the screenwriters and the martial arts choreographers of the series have achieved this is by providing each character with an individual style, one that is tailored to the character’s personality, so that an exchange of blows becomes the equivalent of an exchange of words. Each character has his or her own fighting voice.

The fight-as-dialogue is one of the reasons why no-life spoilsports tend to go “they do too many dancing moves/twirls/stuff, why don’t they just kill each other?”
This is a story, not real life, and in particular is a story in which combat has a narrative and not just utilitarian function. The “dance moves” are part of the dialog, they enhance the emotional element and reveal character. They also provide information and texture to the plot (the clips, taken out of the whole narrative, are not that good at illustrating this, sorry).

Each character comes therefore with their own signature weapons (or a penchant for improvised weapons), a certain fighting attitude or style (aggressive, defensive, elegant or brutal), and a set of motives for fighting (kill the adversary, humiliate the adversary, keep the adversary busy while something else happens, get out of it alive, etc.), and a given relation with the adversary (respect, hatred, spite, regret, etc.)
These elements inform the set of moves, the way in which the characters approach and engage each other, the rhythm of the fight.
And possibly the outcome.

One of the most unnerving elements of a lot of fiction is the RPG-derived combat scene, one in which the writer is extremely worried about giving us a blow-by-blow report of the confrontation. Conversely, a good fight scene is supposed to have a development arch (as opposed to a sequence of hits or misses), a scattering of details that convey emotion and texture (and not just hit points) and must be at the same time able to give us a taste of the confusion and mayhem of a combat situation while not losing us along the way.
Much of the latter point depends on direction – where the camera is placed in the show – and editing – the way in which each shot is composed and added to the next – that in a written story translates as the point of view and the structure of the scene.
It’s hard as hell.
Indeed, this is the part I find most difficult to write, because it requires an ability to distill and present information that is more complicated than, say, a dialog or a piece of description.

It’s going to take a lot of re-watching to finally get the method straight – but considering the fine writing and the stunning visuals, it will not be a sacrifice.

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