Storytelling Through Combat

Last month I had the opportunity to teach a class for Changeling: Waking Dreams, a three day blockbuster Live Action Role Play experience where people came to a hotel in Atlantic City and portrayed characters in an Urban Fantasy setting where Faerie souls were reborn in mortal bodies. One of the more major aspects of Changeling culture is the art of dueling. There are many ways to have a duel, but the traditional one has been the blade.

And that’s where I come in. I was asked to teach basic dueling as my character, Connor. It was interesting because when teaching a normal stage combat class, even a lightsaber one, it’s always done out of character. So I had the challenge of teaching basic safety and technique to characters, not performers.

It was also interesting because I had to do it as Connor, whose vocabulary is a bit more purple than my own.

“Dueling is a conversation,” Connor said. “One where violence is the agreed language of discussion. Just because you’ve stopped talking with your mouths, doesn’t mean you aren’t done having the conversation.”

When we got down to the fighting the MC of the arena, a dangerous woman with satyr’s horns that would have given Maleficent a run for her money, gave us the directions. The last one was the most important: “Don’t bore me”. And, with that, a lot of good fights were had.

I get to have the best jobs really. With permission from the performers.

I get to have the best jobs really. With permission from the performers.

After that class, and that game, I began to think about the key points of what makes combat a tool for storyteling. I’d been teaching it for years, but I’d never listed them down. So, for you all here, are my rules for Combat as a tool of Storytelling.

As I said in Class, combat is a conversation with violence and conflict as the language. When telling a story, combat is effective in four key ways:

  • Instigating Plot: Batman doesn’t become Batman without his parents dying in a mugging. The Bride doesn’t swear revenge for the murder of her wedding party and her near death. Inigo Montoya would be a blacksmith’s apprentice if the Six-Fingered Man decided not to short change his father and duel him. John Wick doesn’t come out of retirement without Russian scumbags stealing his car and killing his dog. Acts of violence are what kick characters from static positions to active ones, to seek it out.

  • Escalating The Plot: The entire second half of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t happen if Mercutio' and Tybalt weren’t looking to get in to a fight that day. The Corleone’s go to the mattresses after Don Vito is shot. The fighting creates more tension, blocking resolution, closing certain avenues of resolution, creating avenues of resolution that didn’t exist before.

  • Resolving the Plot: Everything has Lead up to this. Luke confronts Vader, and then the Emperor. The Bride and Bill meet again. All Debts are Paid. Someone has to go, or something has to give. Of course, Resolutions sometimes instigate new problems.

  • Showing Character: The most important of all. How a person fights or handles violence tells you a lot about them. Captain America is a solid mid-range/close up fighter who prefers to go in head first. Iron Man comes up with tools for the job. Thor, who is bred to fight, is pretty versatile. Black Widow doesn’t fight straightforward or fair. How people fight shows their thinking.


When making your fights, ask yourself how the fight is doing any of these four things, especially the last one. Character shows throughout, and consistency is always key. Now, I’m going to leave off today with a few basic tips to help with telling a story. In the months to come, I’m going to focus on these. This is not a comprehensive list.

  • You’re partners, not enemies. The key thing to remember is that those of you in this scene are partners putting on a performance and telling a story. Stage combat is just another form of stage illusion where we make the audience think our characters hate each other while we as performers are working with each other to make the scene as fantastic looking as possible.

  • Fight like everyone is watching. One of the biggest critiques I give to beginning fighters is to make sure that the audience is able to see the fight. Most fighters tend to do the scene together while focusing on just themselves. The audience and their positioning should always be taken in to account, whether it’s off-stage, in the round, or on camera. However many people you have in the fight, make room for one more: The people watching it. If they don’t see what happens, then it may as not have happened at all.

  • As Partners, You’re Here to Make Each Other Look Good. Here’s the trick about being a badass: it only works if others believe it too, and only if they feel like you deserved it. When in a fight, you have to sell that you’re in a fight. You’re there to make the hits your opponent gives you look solid and real, and they’re there to help sell yours as well. So, scream your frustration, yell at your pain, put some bruise makeup on after the fight scene. Because you are responsible to each other to make the other look good.

  • It’s Okay to Lose: In a fight, characters lose. I see a lot of fights being made where it ends at a draw, or come to some inconclusive ending. This can only happen if there is the promise of a payoff. If there isn’t a pay off, if there is only this exhibition of a fight, then commit to it. Make sure that, somehow that is appropriate, that the fight itself comes to a conclusion. And, importantly, don’t be afraid to be the one to lose. You get to do one of the coolest things a performer can do: Epic Death Scene.

Again, this list is not extensive. But it should be the groundwork for effective storytelling. And that is what we do, we’re telling story. We’ve just decided that the best conversation is through more aggressive means.

I’ll be back with more sabering tips soon. MTFBWY