Q: When writing action scenes, do you focus on details or summarize?
A fellow in a writing group I’m part of recently asked the above question, relative to a section of his novel he’s currently working on. Fight scenes can be tricky, and few people get them right the first time around. A lot of that can depend on the language you use in the fight scene, but it can also come down to the above question. Details or summary?
This depends largely on the kind of action scene you’re writing–is this a battle or a brawl? How many people are involved? Generally, however, you want to include a mixture of both. Too much summary is a missed opportunity to include tension, and too much detail can be mind-numbing.
Justifying the Fight
The first thing you want to examine is why the action scene is taking place. While this isn’t always the case, some of the most ineffective fight/battle scenes I’ve read–and this is more often a problem in beginning writing–are ones that aren’t backed up by the story. In general, the fight scene itself is never as important to the story as the consequences of that fight. The personal consequences to the people involved, or the consequences of which army wins the battle, and at what cost.
This isn’t to say that the fight itself isn’t important, or that you can’t invoke the Rule of Cool (I, in fact, very much encourage that) but the fight must serve a purpose greater than it was fun to write, fight scenes are cool, I needed something exciting to happen, or I wanted to demonstrate my main character’s fighting style. These are all good reasons, but they won’t support a fight scene on their own. Make the fight matter.
Make it Personal
Some of the best advice I ever received on writing a fight scene was to make it personal. Bring the reader in close, and break up the blow-by-blow with how those blows FEEL. Again, this goes back to making the fight matter, and giving it that sense of consequence.
Obviously, for a battle (as opposed to a brawl) there needs to be some room for tactics. Too many details (how many paces was that? Did he swerve left or right… wait, his right or their right?) can slow down the narrative as your reader tries to piece everything together in their head. And in a fight scene, slow is no bueno.
When some tactical description is necessary, keep it to the macro level.
The line broke. Men scattered to either side as machine gun fire ripped up the center.
When it’s at an individual level–either a fight between two people, or the viewpoint of a single person in a larger battle–focus on sensation. The person in the heat of battle won’t necessarily see where the bad guy is coming from, he’ll just know that the tip of a sword just sliced through the air in front of his face, and suddenly there’s a huge guy in steel and blood-matted fur charging at him.
The soldier watching the enemy line charge while their commander screams at them to hold might feel a weird sense of time dilation as they wait, wait, wait, for what seems an eternity–then all at once, chaos. Or perhaps it seems to happen in a single breath, the enemy transforming in an instant from a distant, roaring line of steel and fury to an enemy soldier closing on them in a clash of blades.
When you get too tactical from a individual standpoint, you lose the intimacy that will reap you the greatest tension–the sound of the soldier’s heartbeat thundering in his ears, the grip of the sword slick with sweat, the line of fire trailing a dagger’s edge as it slices through skin, the high pitched whine that drowns out the sounds of battle after an explosion.
That kind of focus on sensation give the sense that the fight matters to your characters–and when the fight matters to your characters, you have a much better chance of making it matter to the reader.
Justify the fight. Make it personal, and make it matter.