Thursday, March 6, 2014

Fights, sex, and other action scenes

(Note: I'm really thinking out loud here, so I might be wrong about any of these ideas, and would welcome your thoughts.)

I was just listening to the most recent Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast and the first discussion about making fights meaningful got me to thinking about something:

Why are the fights in Buffy so often boring?

And this is true of a lot of action-adventure media... and true of sex scenes in romance/rom-coms.

Now, there are differences between action scenes in different genres: in romance (books), sex is often the reward. After the presumptive lovers beat the final obstacle at the climax, they, well, the pun is too obvious to be rewarding. This isn't universally true: some romance (books and movies) include sex or sexual scenes as both climax and often as act breaks/before other problems arise. "We've rushed through the rain to this abandoned manor house and I can't keep myself away. But now we've had sex and my mother who hates you shows up, so here's another obstacle." So how do writers/makers keep the action meaningful?

In action-adventure media, from Buffy to superhero comics, fights are often climactic (Buffy vs. Spike after she finds his base) and often run throughout (Buffy fighting Spike's minions, getting closer to the source). And while each fight brings Buffy closer to the climax, there's usually a rote-ness to the action. Kick, kick, punch, stake. Ta-da!

In roleplaying, Ken Hite and Robin Laws point out that some fights in D&D can be a little bit like "tolls" on the way to some meaningful end. So how do we make those fights narratively meaningful?

It seems to me that action--sex or violence--follows the same basic structural rules as most scenes. It's not enough to have conflict. To have readers/viewers care about that conflict, we need some sense of stakes, of consequences. The same old fear and hope that structure most scenes.

If Buffy loses this fight, she'll die--except, even in a Joss Whedon show we don't expect the titular character to die (with some notable exceptions in season finales). OK, so we don't fear that, so add some other fear. If she loses the fight--or wins in the wrong way--some other bad thing will happen: she'll fail to get the antidote to a poison, she'll lose a chance to get a clue to the bad guy's lair, someone else will die, etc. These are the things that happen at the best fights in Buffy, but not all of them.

For romance/sex, fear and hope are a little different, I think. In many cases, the reader may fear the lovers won't get together and hope that they do--but once they're actually having sex, those fears/hopes are answered. And since these moments are often the reward (and not always on screen), I'm not sure you'd want to introduce more fear. I mean, let's be honest: people are reading this to emotionally get off and introducing fear will get in the way. Maybe at the beginning you could have some worry, but that's probably going to go away.

So maybe some scenes are fine just as spectacle. You have some awesome wire-fu fights or wire-fu sex--and then you take that scene and think about how that affects the characters/plot. Some people just did something very intimate and now are feeling pretty vulnerable--how is that going to change them? Or not change them? Maybe for a brief moment, these characters could forget their hopes and fears--but they come back pretty quickly.

Let's also add that fights and sex are useful scenes for expressing character: is your character a risk-taker or risk-averse? Self-centered or other-centered? Serious or funny? All of these issues can come out in any sort of action scene.

(Other options added by Ken and Robin for creating structure/stakes in RPGs:

  • consequences: winning gains you favor/access to other adventure; loss cuts you off;
  • consequences: winning changes the world in some way (now that the dungeon is empty, someone else moves in; now that they've killed the monsters, townsfolk react differently to them, etc.);
  • give the fight emotional weight by giving the players a chance to avenge some previous loss/problem*;
  • associate the random fights into some larger structure (i.e., give all your enemies the same badge or heraldry, so the players get a sense of some coherence);
  • fights that answer questions/ask questions.
*As someone who used to roleplay--and misses it terribly--I can attest to the effectiveness of this. In college, my gaming group's most hated foes were characters who had previously messed up our plans. It didn't have to be a fight; even an evil lawyer springing someone can make for an effective villain you want to beat on next time he shows up.)

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