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When I describe hand-to-hand combat, I include EVERYTHING that's going on, EVERY action and motion the characters make. I know this is exhausting for readers. However, if I'm not descriptive, the result is too brief and lifeless. How can I solve this dilemma?

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The way I've heard it said is as follows...

  • Only show blows that are important. Gloss over unimportant parts of the fight with generalized dialogue because it doesn't provide any useful information to the reader.
  • Focus on events which show reversal of the situation. One party or another gets the upper hand, the fight escalates, there is a significant change in the nature of the fight (think Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar going from the relatively safe starport to the more dangerous lava).
  • Focus on a three-act structure. Don't overstay your fight's welcome, keep it short. Most straight-up fights in fiction are only a couple of pages long. If you're playing a cat-and-mouse game beforehand or have a chase scene or strategy you can space it out longer, but the actual physical confrontation is typically a few pages long. Individual motions are rarely described unless they have character meaning (e.g., a martial arts movie where a character has learned a technique and is demonstrating that they know what they are doing now).
  • Focus on your character's reactions to what is going on in the fight scene. What are they thinking?
  • Dialogue. Dialogue can break up a clunky fight scene and make it a little more interesting. Be warned, though, this can help resolve the problem but it can't outright fix everything, it more just helps cover up rough patches.
  • Treat the fight like a conversation, not a fight. The appeal of fights in live-action and animation is spectacle, with character development as the topping. The appeal of written fiction is dialogue, psychology, and the ability to see internalized thought processes. Fights in prose are primarily designed to drive character growth and character development. Fights in written fiction are basically a conversation played out with fists and feet. You can see into the head of a written character but you can't see the spectacle, be sure to play to strenghts and weaknesses of the medium.
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Description is always a game of point of view. Even if you are doing 3rd person narration, you want to pick a point of view character for this action. Then, don't describe this like a sports announcer sitting on the sidelines. Instead, try to see it as your character would. They wouldn't take in everything, so give us what they would actually notice, and make sure it's colored by their emotions.

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  • Even a sports commentator doesn't describe everything: when the pace picks up, sometimes they only have time to call out the players' names, and not any of the other stuff that's going on. – Chronocidal Jun 23 at 12:50
  • @Chronocidal I knew that comparison was going to get me in trouble :D – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jun 23 at 13:57
  • It's actually a good example for why you don't/can't always give a blow-by-blow account (and why/when you can too) – Chronocidal Jun 23 at 14:01
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Consider the pace of the fight, and compare with the pace of the reading. In a slow, lumbering slug-fest, you might have time to describe every blow. By contrast, I can punch you 3 times and kick you twice, all in less than 2 seconds. And, by the standards of international Martial Arts tournaments, that's slow (hence why I've never taken better than bronze).

There is literally no way to write out the action at that pace - especially if you're trying to include my opponent's actions too - unless you're using some form of pictographic illustration where each image represents the type of attack and the target. For example, a film.

So, take a moment to understand something: writing a book is very different to writing a screenplay, a radio script, or choreography. Currently, it sounds like you are trying to do the second and fourth; you are 'seeing' the scene in your head, and attempting to get it down on paper exactly. That is, unfortunately, not how books work.

The main things to convey are the Shape and Highlights of the fight. If you were trying to describe a car, you wouldn't detail every bolt and weld, each individual panel and scuff-mark. You'd give us the colour; perhaps the make or age; whether it looked smooth/streamlined or square & boxy; and if it was sparkling clean, dirty and worn, or slightly smudged with mud from the recent rain.

So, perhaps describe the opening move in more detail, then 'zoom out'. Who is pushing back whom, where does the fight take you, what obstacles have to be avoided, what tactics are employed (are the fighters using mostly arms? Lots of kicks? Is one of them keeping the other at a distance?), with snapshots to show important or outstanding moves. As the fight winds to a close, consider adding detail in for that final gambit, the finishing move.

In short, you need to turn the whole fight into an Elliptical Paragraph - lots of detail stripped out, but still implied, and treated by the reader as though they were there. The most powerful tool you have as a writer is the reader's imagination: all you need to do is prime it. Point it in the right direction, provide a couple of course-corrections or sudden twists in the path, and let it go wild.

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