How to Write Battle Scenes

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In my experience, writing battle scenes is a very dangerous endeavor. A writer has to walk a fine line between giving too much away and giving too little. While this is true of writing in general, it is especially true of combat.

Many writers have a tendency to over-describe battle scenes. I once did this, too, before my editors helped me cut down on things. The essence of a good fight scene is brevity. Show only what needs to be shown and infer everything else.

Again, these are maxims that apply to all writing. But, writing battle scenes presents its own special challenges.

Throughout my own writing exploits, I’ve found out that what happens outside the battle is just as important as what happens during it. Often times, it’s even more important.

There are plenty of articles out there explaining the technical aspects of writing fight scenes. But in this article I want to focus on the bigger picture.

The build-up, the pay-off, and aftermath give combat its context. They fit a battle into the greater whole of the narrative. Sometimes, you don’t even have to show battle at all. A mere mention of it having happened can work just as well. (“A report from the front, sir. The fifth legion was able to beat the rebels back to the river.”)

I tend to favor subtlety over brute force. It works just as well in writing battle scenes.

In this piece I’ll show you exactly how to accomplish this. How to assure you keep in mind the consequences of a battle sequence in the context of the larger story.

Make your battles quick, dirty, and above all else, meaningful.

 

Step 1: The Build Up
Combat is dangerous. Lives can be lost, or at least, severely ruined through bodily and psychological harm.

It is absolutely essential that a combat sequence be built up before it actually occurs. There should be some level of foreshadowing before the action finally breaks out.

For a small fight, not much needs to be done to build it up. For example, if two brutes duke it out at a tavern, a simple argument about money or booze is all that’s needed. Maybe throw in a few insults about a mother or wife, and you’ll provide all the justification you need for a brawl like this.

Larger battles need more of a build up.

A war between two neighboring states may require a number of scenes, chapters, or entire books to lead up to. Continued failed attempts at diplomacy, subversion, spying, and assassinations work well in these scenarios.

A reader should start to feel the conflict coming. They should see a glimpse of it on the horizon. While this may seem somewhat unattractive to some writers (“I want to keep my readers in suspense!”), it serves a very noble purpose.

Make them worried about the consequences of the conflict.

If a fight breaks out unannounced or unanticipated between characters, we have no context. We don’t know what to expect. If there’s a back drop to the conflict, a reason why it’s come to violence, we know enough (or can imagine enough) to foresee the results.

And they ain’t gonna be pretty!

To make battle scenes as vivid as possible, readers need a clear context in which they occur. They should be made to worry about conflict breaking out long before it actually does. If you can make a reader worry about a conflict for a longer period of time than the conflict itself actually lasts, you’ve done your job well!

It’s even better if there is a perpetual risk of battle breaking out that never comes. A violent tension that’s always there and is never fulfilled.

Talk about suspense.

 

Step 2: The Atmosphere
A battle needs a setting.

This goes far beyond the description of the background itself (which I’ll leave for another article), but extends into the feeling. The ambiance of the battle itself.

You should strive to make the descriptions as brief as possible here. If your battle involves 20,000 combatants, you sure as hell aren’t going to describe each and every warrior’s dress, weapons, and position.

So don’t even try. Stick to setting up a vivid atmosphere for your battle scene.

This includes the sound of battle cries, the din of steel on steel, the vibrations of thousands of marching feet.

You should also infuse bold emotions into the perspective of your characters. We, the readers, should feel their fear along with them. If they are wounded, we should wince. If they slay an enemy we should feel at once victorious and also remorseful.

When writing a battle scene focus on the feelings, the sensations of character through whose eyes the scene is laid out. This is a time to forget the forest for the trees. Give your readers only the character’s point of view and no one else’s.

If it’s too complex or too specific, leave it out. Paint only in broad strokes and get on with the damn thing!

 

Step 3: The Payoff
This is the part where you get to the battle itself, describing the action that actually takes place within it.

And this is where you can run into the most trouble.

While all the technical specifics of writing individual tactics are beyond the scope of any one article, I will again stress the importance of brevity.

Don’t make your battle scenes too long. While violent moments can indeed be very entertaining, like anything else, they can get very tiresome. Characters can trade blows and parry strikes only so many times before the action becomes stale. Hacking too many enemies is likewise boring and predictable.

Get to the point and no more.

And what is that point, exactly? While this varies from story to story, a battle scene should always work to show that combat is a dangerous game.

The characters involved are in mortal danger. They’re wearing their big kids clothes and playing for keeps.

In every battle scene a character should be killed, or at least, bodily harmed to a severe enough degree. A reader should be given a clear message: it’s come to violence and play time is over.

This may mean we finally see the villain’s true face. We get to find out exactly how evil he or she really is.

Maybe justice will be dispensed to a wrongdoer. Or a fool will meet his fate.

Whatever comes of a battle, we, the readers, should get a payoff. The battle has been built up, set-up to happen, and finally occurs.

Violence is a release. A dark ecstasy written in blood.

Make it that way.

 

Step 4: The Aftermath
As important to the build up and payoff is the aftermath.

These are the longer term consequences of the conflict. How the battle weighs on the rest of the story. What it means. How the characters react to its outcomes.

Above all else, the aftermath of a battle is of the most importance. The battle should help drive the plot forward. If it doesn’t, don’t include it.

Simple as that.

A battle should have lingering effects, even after it is won (or lost). The losing side may suffer further complications. Food and supply shortages. Wounded troops to care for. A loss of pride and morale. Likewise, the victors should enjoy, at the very least, a boost to their egos. Not to mention the spoils of war: loot and such.

But beyond these psychological and material rewards and losses are the broader, ephemeral ones.

How do both the victors and losers react to the outcome? Do they seek revenge? A follow-up fight? Are nations won or destroyed? What do outside observers think? What are they told and lead to believe (either rightly or falsely)?

As with the other parts of writing a battle scene, there are any number of permutations  here. But the rule remains: make it brief. Make it concise. Get the job done in the least intrusive way possible.

To really make your battles count, make their effects as far-reaching and long-lasting as feasible. Make the inhabitants of your story remember the tales. Sing songs and hold grudges.

The aftermath is your build-up to an even bigger fight.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

This is exactly how real life conflicts can continue for ages. Make a long cycle of build-up, atmosphere, payoff, and aftermath. Each leads into the next for as long as you need them to.

 

Final Advice
When writing battle scenes, always seek to be brief and concise. Show what needs to be shown to make the reader feel the danger. This starts before the first sword is drawn. And lasts long after the dead are buried.

More important than the battle itself is the build up and the consequences of the outcome. You don’t even actually have to show the battle to make it important. The impending sense of dread of an anticipated conflict or the lingering sense of devastation of battles past are more than enough.

A shadow of danger is often more powerful than the danger itself.

Never forget that.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Vic Salinas. Vic is author of the Grauwelt series and creator of Writers’ Realm, which hosts writing lessons, tutorials, articles, and feedback.

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19 thoughts on “How to Write Battle Scenes”

  1. To me, a battle can be a great mirror of character. I start my story with a battle scene, not to “start things with a bang”, but to tell the audience the most important things about the main character: he’s a good fighter, he’s depressed and he compulsively protects the weak.

    All of your presentation advice is right on the money, although I would arm wrestle you on the issue of detail in the fight. While you cannot and should not try to play out any kind of scale in detail, I do think you should get in close with a POV character and get into the nitty gritty of his personal fight. This doesn’t have to go on for very long. As you point out, the setup is crucial. The up close personal fight doesn’t mean much unless your character(s) are thinking about it and there are very real and personal stakes to somebody. But if you do the setup correctly, then the very personal struggle of a character in battle can be played out in great detail and be dramatically meaningful.

    It’s this personal aspect of battle, at the individual level, that makes it worth reading about. Whether or not red matter starts flowing in the streets of San Francisco isn’t nearly as compelling as a man blinded by mustard gas and tangled up in barbed wire gets gunned down by a machine gun crew. One of my favorite cinematic battle scenes is from The Legend of Bagger Vance. It’s all about the one guy as he transforms from man of duty to broken man. And it only takes about 30 seconds.

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  2. Great article. I always look for a real feeling of “threat” in battle scenes. It’s rare to genuinely feel like the hero could actually be in danger, as if the battle was something they just had to “get through” to continue the story.

    I remember reading the Dragon Lance stories and they had no fear in killing of the heroes in battle. It was bad (I liked those characters) but also good, as whenever they engaged in a battle you had that creeping feeling of dread about who might not survive this time.

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  3. This was a very helpful article for me. My book series is largely inspired by Raiders, so it has plenty of action set pieces. Writing those is always a challenge. A good read with solid advice.

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  4. The novel I am editing doesn’t have battle scenes per se, but there are scenes depicting episodes of violence and domestic abuse. Much of your battle scene advice can work for these kinds of scenes also.

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  5. Another tip: Read authors who do it well. My recommendation is Simon Scarrow, who has tackled Roman legions fighting barbarians and the rise of the two great generals of the late 18th & early 19th century: Napoleon & Wellington. Two very different styles of warfare but equally well presented.
    He’s also recently written a WW2 novel but I haven’t read that yet. Chances are he’s nailed that too.

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  6. If the character is in the battle, his memory of events will be similar to an athlete’s memory of a football game–very little. If he did something spectacular, his comrades may remember more about it than he does. He may well remember things that shocked him, and his memory of the battle may be a collage of those shocking things he saw. How much this bothers him will be based on how well he can compartmentalize. His actions in combat need not reflect his true personality, as a warrior is really two people–the warrior, and the real person. Remember, it’s hard to get people to kill, but once started, it’s often hard to get them to stop.

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