I recently participated in career day at my children’s school. The parents who were speaking all arrived at school around 9 am and got treated to coffee and bagels for a bit before we had to be in the classes (at 9:30), so I ended up talking to Casey, one of the other parents. Casey had a black canvas bag about five feet long and maybe 18 inches wide. I asked him what was in the bag and he told me “swords and medieval weaponry.” Perking up, I leaned in and started to find out more about Casey. He is a “fight director,” which means he choreographs fight scenes for local theaters.
His weapons are specially made and have no sharp edges, and his job is to teach actors to fight in a way that looks good on the stage. So, what does my encounter with Casey have to do with anything? Well, for one, it meant I disappointed one class greatly because I followed Casey and I had no swords.
But, I mentioned to Casey that I was having trouble figuring out how to write fight scenes, but that I bet he’d be good at it because his would real. To this, Casey responded, “Real fighting is boring. Nobody wants to see that. You have to make it look like what people expect.”
I found this infinitely interesting, because, as an author, you struggle to make things authentic. When I asked for an example, he mentioned a production where the actors were doing one more take even though they’d done the scene multiple times. People were tired, and one actor hit another actor in the head accidentally. The injured actor simply stopped. Just stopped where they were and touched their hand to the injured spot. It took a minute for everyone else to realize what happened.
“When you’re injured you close your body off,” Casey told me. You try to protect yourself. Yet, that looks horrible on stage. The audience can’t see. So, when you ACT injured, you throw your hands akimbo, sway your body exaggeratedly, stagger backwards and all sorts of drama that you would never do in a regular fight. In a real fight, your instincts tell your body to protect itself, so throwing your hands out and facing your opponent so they’ve got easy access to your entire body is not what you’re going to do. But on a stage, yeah, you kinda need to do that so the audience can see.
Also, when acting out a fight, moves must be telegraphed. On a stage, where there’s no rewind, the audience has to be looking in the right place or they’ll miss it. So, actors telegraph moves with looks or exaggerated motions. That way the audience gets a clue and pays attention at the right spot on the stage. In real life, you wouldn’t want to do that.
And of course, in real life, fights are fast and chaotic and you might not catch everything. On stage, it needs to feel fast and frenetic, but not actually be so fast and frenetic that the audience can’t follow.
Given our chat, I thought today I’d briefly touch on when to leave reality out and go with expectations. Casey made really important points. Something doesn’t have to be real, so much as it has to appear real (in terms of the audience expectations). I think that’s true for choreography as well as writing. We all know that in reality people have to poop and pee, brush and floss their teeth, and even clean their ears of wax. But, rarely do these events make it into our books. Why? Because it’s boring and generally not relevant to the story. No one would read a book about characters who experienced a real day. I mean, you barely want to check go through the hundreds of crapmail messages (I’m sorry, I meant to say “important email”) you have on Monday morning. Why on earth would you want to read about it?
The same can be said for dialogue. Realistic dialogue might be boring out of its mind. Many of the things said in the course of a conversation lack oomph. But, when there are conversations in books, we want them to sound realistic, but primarily include the juicy bits. The parts that make us more interested in the story.
Now, I think everyone needs to ground their book in its own reality (whether it be the contemporary world, historical world or the magical world of Hogwarts). But, we need to balance that with entertainment and helping our audience connect with the book.
So are there certain areas of writing where you find realism overrated?