RSS Feed Print
Summary vs. Blow-by-blow
Michael R Underwood
Posted: Monday, March 7, 2011 2:52 PM
Joined: 3/3/2011
Posts: 68

What level of description do you go for in your fight scenes?  Do you describe every transfer of weight, every feint and disengage, or pull the camera out for a broader summary, describing your hero mowing through a dozen enemies as she chews up the battlefield searching for the monster which kidnapped her dearest love?

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?  Is there a time when you should use summary and not intense description, and vice versa?

Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 4:37 AM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 55

I like to go blow-by-blow, but making sure I keep it in-the-moment of the POV of the character I'm doing it through. I've sometimes seen the blow-by-blow get too clinical, and it reads less like a fight a character is in the midst of, and more like a match being described by an ESPN commentator.
Ellie Isis
Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 9:47 PM
Joined: 3/4/2011
Posts: 58

I do both, alternating throughout a fight scene. I find too much of the blow-by-blow to be tedious and slow the pacing. However, I know some readers prefer that, so it might be a personal thing with me. As for getting the moves right, I'll confess, I hate writing fight scenes. I have a friend who is ex-military and another who teachers martial arts, and they check my choreography for me, at least.
Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2011 5:05 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 8

It really depends on the scope of the fight for me. Smaller scale fights generally get quick but specific details, while large fights have a broader summary. I usually sprinkle in a few major details even when describing the larger fight.

I made the mistake in my first novel of doing blow by blow for a major event. The scene bloated to some 25,000 words, and was not recoverable. It was a good exercise in what not to do.
Posted: Monday, March 14, 2011 6:29 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 244

I focus on the movements that are most illustrative. For example, in one book I had a character who was attacked in her room. She was untrained, but had grown up in the forest. Animal instincts sort of took over and so I focused on her reactions framed in the way an animal would react. Smells, instinctual movements, sort of a sixth sense of where the enemy is.

In my latest WiP, I focus a lot on the clinical aspect. My MC competed in fencing so his POV runs through the next move to make, etc.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, March 14, 2011 8:27 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

Both, depending. I am fond of the blow by blow, myself, but sometimes its unneccessary. I think the best thing to read for a good view of when to use which would be Glory Road, by heinlein. Some fight scenes are blow by blow, feint by feint, others are a paragraph for a 20 minute battle. and they all work the way they are done.
Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 10:49 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 2

Generally I write from the first person so while a blow by blow is overly clinical and robs the scene of impact a totally detached view is just improbable, in part because then supporting cast couldn't save my characters hide halfway through the fight. Instead my fight scenes tend to take on a stream of consciousness form. Closer to blow by blow than detached view but still I try to keep things moving and not go into to much detail (not ever shift of weight, but a few specific maneuvers early one and gradually transferred into describing the throngs of enemies and generally being cut/bludgeoned/stabbed as the protagonist fights back).
Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 12:11 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 376

I use a mix, and which I use in any given scene is actually based on what effect I'm going for. For instance, in one novel I was trying (in some cases) for a 'Matrix Bullet Time' effect in combat. Those scenes were moment by moment, with the POV character carefully considering each move. There are other scenes where one combatant or another is a blur to everyone else in the scene, so the only details are the effects of her actions.

Finally there are supporting scenes, big battles with thousands of combatants, where the only 'details' are after action discussions between key characters.
MB Mulhall
Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 9:01 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 80

Depends on the type of battle and how much I know about the fighting style. I've gone as far as to act out sword battles so I can better describe how the sword swings and what it would hit first and how they would stand to block, etc.

I don't know a lot about weapons so I do some research and if I'm not super comfortable writing it, I'll do a summary rather than blow by blow.
Ellie Isis
Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 11:54 AM
Joined: 3/4/2011
Posts: 58

I love weapons, though I'm not skilled with any of them. For my birthday a couple of years back, my husband got me shooting lessons. Just what I wanted! Seriously! No joke. Going to the range and actually firing a gun and learning about other types of guns made a big difference in writing those shooting scenes. I never realized just how freaking LOUD projectile weapons can be! And I never knew how little kickback a pistol actually could have. It's one thing to read about it, and another to feel and hear it in person.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 4:06 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

MB, take a fencing class at a local community college! I did fencing for a 3 semesters, if I had the time, I'd go back and fence some more!

Ellie, I have to do "dry fire" drills now and then, because my body expects more kick, and gives it itself if im not careful... sigh.
Cassandra Stryffe
Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011 7:14 PM
Joined: 3/30/2011
Posts: 9

I try to get in a few really graphic descriptions of the gore and violence, just a few sentences. Mostly to add emotional impact. But then I find myself glossing over the action, in favor of plot. Part of that is I really don't know how to write fight scenes! lol
Jason Myers
Posted: Friday, April 1, 2011 5:39 PM
Joined: 3/3/2011
Posts: 21

For me it depends. If I am writing a fight scene between just two normal people, then it's somewhat glossed. But if i am telling you a scene where one of my characters is an absolute bad ass fighter, I'm going into way more detail on just how bad ass he is.
Kerry Schafer
Posted: Monday, April 4, 2011 3:32 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 25

I would rather not write the fight scene at all, but I keep choosing genres and characters who are much scrappier than I. Since I've never been in a fight in my life, and very much doubt that TV and movies are realistic in this department, I've had a tendency to skim over fights. Must rectify this failing.
Posted: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 11:48 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 24

I'm more of a strongest-attacks-get-my-attention kinda writer. If it's a training session, I'll stick to keeping it more of a summary and concentrate more on the dialogue between the characters.

If it's a real, honest to god battle...I'll focus more on blows. But only to an extent, because then I'll move on to what's going on outside of my MC. And I like focusing on the pain rather than "His foot fidgeted to the right, and then with a fumbling hand, the dagger flew through the air to slice against my cheek." I'd go more for: "Metal slashed my skin. I moved, tripped, and lunged forward. My nails dug into his neck, his arms locked around my waist, and over his shoulder I saw the door that would be my escape." Something like that. haha!
Jason Myers
Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 3:12 PM
Joined: 3/3/2011
Posts: 21

I remember Don Maass said your fight scene should have three "beats" to it. Each beat should tell part of the fight and also describe something that is not part of the fight. I am ruining what he said, so check out his fire in fiction book. It gives most of the details on this.

Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 1:10 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 5

I think it depends on the point of the fight scene. Some fights need to have a lot of detail, based on the impact of the fight on the characters -- or of a detail from the fight on the plot. If the biggest impact of a battle is that it happened, and it was won, and so many lives were lost (or what have you), then broad sweeping terms might be best. But if the fight is intended to reveal something about how a character interacts with reality (someone mentioned the example of an untrained fighter who grew up in the woods using an animalistic approach to defending herself, and I think that's a good one), then details are important.

For some fight scenes, I actually choreograph a blow-by-blow with my husband (we're both karate students), then have to work on describing it after the fact. We both enjoy that aspect, so I won't cut my hand-to-hand fight scenes from my fiction any time soon!
Rebecca Kovar
Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 8:18 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 6

I write a fair amount of close-in violence. My rule of thumb is that it should not take much longer for a person to read it than it would take if it happened in real time, what's happening mentally is as important as describing the fight. So, if my MC is trained and the assailants are not, then the scene will be quick and some of the description will be the MCs derision about amateurs. Well-matched opponents focus more on strategy, so you get as many blocks and evasions as blows. People with almost no skill get beaten up, so they're thinking mostly about the pain. Most importantly, if I don't know how a thing is done, I will find someone who does and ask them to walk through the motions with me so I have a physical understanding of the fight. This frequently upsets the dog.
ME Chick
Posted: Friday, May 13, 2011 2:10 AM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 13

I like to save my blow-by-blow for the fight scene that needs the biggest punch (sorry about that). The fight that means something permanent to my character or someone close to him/her. Otherwise, make it happen and move on.
One problem I do find with detailed fight scenes is that the longer they go, the more problems with realism. Watch 'Ultimate Fighting' to get an idea of the punishment dished out in hard fight, and how much they take before going down. (Boxing is not street fighting, don't base on that)
My last thought is to pay attention to the choreography - play it out with pencils or your son's toy soldiers. To me, nothing ruins a good fight quicker than the writer to losing track of what's happening.
Trailer Bride
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 11:00 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 30

However you decide to describe a fight - or sex - it should be in keeping with the rest of your writing.
FJ Hansen
Posted: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 8:18 PM
Joined: 8/10/2011
Posts: 6

I tend to go for a blow-by-blow approach, what the POV character is doing/seeing/feeling.

In my last novel, I had two battles taking place during the climax and I cut between them--one in space, the other an aerial battle on a planet. Whenever I would cut back to the space battle, I would summarize what was happening for the first paragraph or two. Then, I would focus in on a character.
Zachary Cothren
Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 3:30 PM
Joined: 11/22/2011
Posts: 4

How your mind perceives fight is mostly quick and chaotic, which translated into writing would be quick undetailed sentences. You can perceive all the details inherent to the battle, so the details only pertain to what is directly happening to your character.

But, there is also a condition known as the superman effect. It is when adrenaline spikes cause your to perceive the world at up to three hundred frames per second instead of the normal thirty. It is when you take in enormous amounts of detail in very short amounts of time, it can make the seconds before a man pulls the trigger stretch into minutes of time in your mind.

Overall there should be long sections of short sentences with small amount of detail and mostly descriptive, and small spans of time when your character takes in a lot of detail and is able to reflect on what is occurring.

Bob Cravener
Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013 4:54 PM
Joined: 1/18/2012
Posts: 8

I myself go for full description, been told that gore-fest is my specialty. I want readers to feel what my characters feel so I tend to get very descriptive on every fight scene.
Slaton Smith
Posted: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 11:14 AM
Joined: 8/3/2013
Posts: 1

I would avoid a "text book" description of a fight.  It gets too cumbersome.  Leave some of the details to the reader's imagination.  I fall on the side of the summary.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 9:44 PM

If you're in the protagonist's POV you can't do a summary because that's not how a living person experiences the action. To do so is a POV break.


Nor are we conscious of every shift of weight and movement. In life we work in continuous cause and effect. Something catches our attention and we react to it. We never stop in the middle of the action to look around or notice the furniture unless we perceive it as being of more importance than what we're presently trying to accomplish. That doesn't change in a fight scene. We're noticing and reacting, often at an unconscious and instinctual level.


The thing to do is to think of what matters to the character, not to a dispassionate observer who's watching and reporting. POV comes from inside your character, not from what the author talks about. You might say:


 "As Nick parried Jackson's attack, slowly giving ground, it was obvious that he had to do something more than just defend, because sooner or later the man would get a single thrust through, to wound and weaken, and that would be the beginning of the end. Desperately, he studied the man's style, looking for a weakness to exploit. There was none."


You might go into more detail on the actual action, if the protagonist is focused on individual beats of the attack. But that quickly becomes boring. In real life, a fight doesn't usually last very long, so maintaining it is unrealistic, and provides an unchanging level of tension, which quickly becomes boring.  The thing you need to remember is that no matter how clearly you describe the action the reader won't be able to see it. So all they're getting is a list of actions—a report. How exciting is that?


You can, however, place the reader into the character's POV and follow their moment of "now" as they experience it. That's emotion based, and unlike events, easy to visualize.


A good article on how to get deeper into the character's POV, so as to have the reader experience the moment the character calls now, can be found here:


--edited by Jay Greenstein on 9/24/2013, 9:45 PM--

Aira Philipps
Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2013 9:14 PM
Joined: 8/18/2013
Posts: 31

Excellent post. It makes me feel better about my POV fight scene. I did it through the main characters eyes, and what she is feeling at that time. In my case, her POV doesn't catch every detail of going on, just what she is able to see. You explained it perfectly.
Rachel E. Wollaston
Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2016 8:25 AM
Joined: 4/1/2016
Posts: 2

i feel that by writing a summary, you are effectively avoiding a proper description. However, summaries are preferable when the details of the battle aren't really relevant. I think there's a balance between too much description and too little description.
My book opens with a battle scene, and it's taken me a ridiculously long time to get it right, and it still needs improvement!
I find battle scenes extremely hard to write, but that's the joy of the challenge!


Jump to different Forum...