Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Whether it’s a muddy siege on a Medieval castle, rugged cowboys firing pistols from horseback, or a laser-beam shoot-’em-up in another galaxy, a great battle scene is a staple of action stories. High stakes, high body count, and – if it is in space – really, really high up.
We’ve covered the fundamentals of writing a good fight scene before, so let’s expand those ideas into the ingredients of an epic battle scene.
One battle scene is great, twelve is too many
Less isn’t always more. I, for one, prefer ‘more’ cake, for instance. But when it comes to battle scenes, this age-old phrase rings true. Why? Because they’ll start to seem like the worst thing an action scene can be: pointless and, by extension, dull. It may be tempting to fill your story with wall-to-wall, adrenaline-pumping battles in the spirit of ‘giving the people what they want’, but this level of drama is hard to maintain.
You also shouldn’t underestimate the power of breathing room in between periods of action. The best romance novels harness this power to its fullest – tantalizing readers with a slow build up of tension punctuated by short flurries of excitement, leading eventually to one or two big, um, ‘pay-offs’. This technique is applicable to novels with all kinds of action; it’s just that in a battle scene, the pay-off is more along the lines of slicing off someone’s head.War stories have more in common with erotica than you’d think.Click To Tweet
Define the goals and consequences
We’ve established that you should have plenty of breathing room between big battles, but what should you use that breathing room for? It may seem obvious, but a battle scene needs to have a point. Establishing your character’s goals will help you define why your battle scene is happening in the first place. What is your character’s motivation to fight? What is the end result they need from the battle? Are they going to win or lose? What does the outcome of the battle mean to them? What does the outcome mean for the story?The key to an epic battle scene is remembering the goal each side is fighting for.Click To Tweet
Determine short, medium and long-term goals for your character. If we use The Hobbit as an example, a short-term goal for Bilbo is answering Gollum’s riddles correctly or distracting Smaug long enough to steal the Arkenstone. A medium-term goal is for men, dwarves and elves to unite and defeat the orcs and wargs in the Battle of Five Armies on the Lonely Mountain. The long-term goal for Bilbo is… Well, just to get back home ASAP and put his hairy feet up. Each of these goals are character-building for Bilbo, as he truly – though begrudgingly – goes above and beyond his role as ‘thief’ in Thorin’s company, and as a result, changes the course of history in Middle Earth. Each of these conflicts also advances the narrative. They serve a purpose beyond mere spectacle.
Make the battle a personal struggle
As always, establishing empathy for your character will prompt your reader to invest in whatever perils you put them through. This is why – with the exception of sequels – starting your book in the middle of a battle is seriously risky. Without your reader knowing who any of the characters are or what the stakes are, there’s no way to make them really care about what’s happening.The impact of a battle scene depends on how much the reader cares about the individuals in it.Click To Tweet
The easiest way to heighten the stakes of a battle is to make them personal to both the protagonist and antagonist. Combining internal and external conflict grounds the fighting in something relatable. Huge explosions and thousand-strong armies are exciting, but they aren’t enough to fully engage us. Warring families, grudge matches, vengeance missions, and separated lovers, on the other hand, imbue a battle scene with emotional resonance.
The Battle of Hogwarts in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a fittingly epic climax to the saga. Even though the reader knows this is a classic clash of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, the emotional center of the drama rests on a long-awaited grudge match between two established enemies.
“Protego!” roared Harry, and the Shield Charm expanded in the middle of the hall, and Voldemort stared around for the source as Harry pulled off the Invisibility Cloak at last.
The yell of shock, the cheers, the screams on every side of “Harry!” “HE’S ALIVE!” were stifled at once.
The crowd was afraid, and silence fell abruptly and completely as Voldemort and Harry looked at each other, and began, at the same moment, to circle each other.
“I don’t want anyone else to try to help,” Harry said loudly, and in the total silence his voice carried like a trumpet call. “It’s got to be like this. It’s got to be me.”
– J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Use perspective to your advantage
Writing an epic battle scene can be a tricky task for one simple reason: it’s a chiefly visual event. Of course, as an author, this doesn’t need to hinder you. Rather, it should make you even more creative when you sit down to write your battle. Sure, the sight of blood splattering across a camera lens and the clashing sound of steel blades is a potent experience, but narrator-less battles can also be repetitive, confusing, and exhausting to watch. The ‘Bayhem’ of the Transformers movies is a good (or should I say ‘bad’) example of this.
Shifting perspective is a key tool, here. In the following action scene from John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré uses the third-person point of view to show us not only what’s happening around Leamus, but his own viewpoint on it.
Leamus was blinded, he turned his head away, wrenching wildly at Liz’s arm. Now she was swinging free; he thought she had slipped and he called frantically, still drawing her upwards. He could see nothing – only a mad confusion of color dancing in his eyes. Then came the hysterical wail of sirens, orders frantically shouted. Half kneeling astride the wall he grasped both her arms in his, and began dragging her to him inch by inch, himself on the verge of falling.
– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
We are able to clearly visualize each action as it happens through Le Carré’s economical sentences, and understand the emotional weight of them through Leamus’ reactions – aided by Le Carré’s focus on sensory description. Totally immersive, even without a single robot vs. alien smash-fest.
Keep track of your characters
If your character has to get from A to B via a war zone, you need to know how. After all, it’s probably not going to be a straightforward journey for them, and if it is, you probably haven’t thrown enough hurdles at them. Tracking your character’s path through the battle will stop you (and them) from getting lost or missing out key details, which is especially essential if you’re going to be jumping between different characters’ perspectives. How should you track them? Draw an actual map of the battle. It doesn’t have to look pretty, just functional.Real battles are all about terrain; drawing a basic map could improve your plotting.Click To Tweet
This should also help you keep track of where landmarks are in relation to your characters at every point in the battle. Landmarks can be used as anchors for your reader as you move your character around the scene. If there’s, say, a castle to the north-west of where your character starts, where will that castle be when they’re at the half-way point, or at the end? How many yards or miles away is it? You may not end up including all of these details, but clear planning will help with clear description. You might want to convey a sense of chaos to your reader, but you don’t want to lose them in it.
The perfect battle scene
The major mistake that most authors make when writing a battle scene is to treat the battle itself as the focus. In written works, battles are about results, and these are far easier to communicate through individual characters.
Don’t try to communicate the chaos of warfare head on, but have it happen to your characters. Blow up their escape route, drop a building on them, and bombard them with trouble. If you want to show the battle on a wider scale, split them up, or spread them throughout the battle scene before it starts.
Spectacle is drawn from consequence – if a city the reader has never visited is overrun, they’ll struggle to care, but if they’ve been there in peacetime and know what’s being destroyed, or understand the city’s tactical value to the protagonists, then they know exactly what its loss means. The key to a great battle is in quantifying the events within it; the reader needs to know what’s at stake, what’s being lost, and what each specific event means for the overall outcome.
Why is the arrival of the cavalry always such a great moment? Because it completely alters the stakes and outcome in a way the reader understands (usually bringing the ‘good guys’ back from the brink). If you want to guarantee an epic battle scene, start with the goals of the protagonists and extrapolate moments that put those goals under threat. You’ll have a tense, exhilarating battle scene before you know it.
Do you have a favorite battle scene that’s inspired your writing? Let me know in the comments! Or, for more advice about writing combat in your story, check out Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene, The 5 Immutable Laws Of Writing A Good Action Scene, and How (And When) To Kill A Character.