Breaking Through the Battle Scene Writing Barrier

Hi everyone, I have finally returned from a short hiatus, having battled with my health over the past few weeks. In light of my fight, I felt it appropriate to center this week’s blog around writing battle scenes.

Building up to a battle scene and keeping the momentum is something I have noticed many struggles with.
We all want to illustrate those epic Lord of the Rings-style battles that we see in the movies on the pages of our books, but in our attempts, we often lose our readers and our pacing amidst an avalanche of detail. You know those scenes I am talking about, where you skip a paragraph when you read it, or maybe even a page here and there because you do not need to know all of the information that is being thrown at you. These scenes can be very powerful and important to your narrative and are an excellent way to propel your story forward if done strategically. And they take a lot of practice to master.

Giving a blow- by- blow commentary on the action is boring. Your readers do not need to know every parry and every strike your character makes, it brings the fast pace you need for the tension of battle to a grinding halt. If you need to highlight certain character flaws or skills, then use a small piece of blow- by- blow, but just enough to enhance your portrayal of your character’s physical and mental state. For example, if you want to highlight the moment where your character notices a shadow appear behind them and turns just in time to stop a descending blade before a short piece of dialogue, then add a sentence or two, but avoid paragraphs or pages. Write in shorter sentences, keep it short and sweet, and don’t dwell on the inner musings of your character too much, this also contributes to slowing the pace. Make sure that the battle contributes to your overall story and does not detract from it. Ask yourself; is the scene really necessary for the growth of your characters and the progress of the story, or is it an addition for the sake of a nice little bit of action.

Don’t confuse your reader. Yes, battles are frenzied, they are confusing for those involved in them, but that does not mean that your reader should be too. Plan out your battles and pay attention to details such as the terrain, the location, and the strategies of your armies. Pretend that you are the general. Horses are great on flat plains but put them in the mountains or a swamp and they are more likely to break a leg or get stuck (here’s looking at you, Michael Ende). Large armies will have a difficult time maneuvering inside cities or towns, unless the streets are wide and there are many open spaces where clashes can occur, otherwise take the lack of space into account when deciding how the battle proceeds. You cannot swing a broad sword in a cramped street pressed up against your fellow soldiers. Be clear in your description, don’t over- embellish the language, your reader does not need to know how the blood dripped from the knight’s sword-like glistening ruby tears to mingle with the churned muddy snow. No. All they need to know is, did the knight’s blow land, did he survive or did he maim or kill his opponent?

You can use some descriptive language, please don’t think I mean staccato, non- descriptive sentences are the way to go in battle scenes, just don’t wax lyrical. Also, take note of how the environment will affect the battle, snow and ice will make solid footing very difficult and soldiers will slip at some point, gusts of wind will blow arrows off course, rain and snow will reduce visibility. These can all be used to enhance the battle, increase the stakes and the tension as well as highlight your protagonist’s character and how they react. Take advantage of this.Pay attention to the type of fight this will be. Is it hand-to-hand combat, or a magic-based duel? Take care not to make the scene an exhibition of all of the stunts or spells your character can pull. 

Real battles have lulls in the action, so don’t expect yours to be high action the entire time, if it is warranted, give moments where your character can catch their breath, but don’t drag them out, otherwise, any tension you have managed to build up to this point will collapse. Place them at key points to enhance the tension, the calm before the storm if you will. Once more, and I really cannot emphasize this enough, use them sparingly and do not sacrifice your pacing!

Showing vs telling is of great importance in a battle scene. Use all of the senses to truly immerse the reader into the fight. Sight is the most obvious and will give the reader an indication of what is most important to focus on, but the other senses will truly bring the scene to life. The taste and smell of dust kicked up by horses hooves as they charge into battle, the way the character’s sweat stings their eyes, the sound of an axe hitting bone, but keep it simple; the iron tang of blood flooded her mouth. Not; the sharp iron tang of blood flooded her mouth in a nauseating eddy like ink swirling through an artist’s glass. Not a great example, but you get the idea.Consider switching up the point of view. Battles are generally told in the third person, allowing for a more detailed narrative of the battle overall from multiple characters’ perspectives, but the first-person point of view can change it up, although narrowing the view of the overall battle to the perspective of only one character, you can drive home the emotion the character may be feeling. The sense of impending doom when they feel a sword pierce their armor has far more impact from the first person point of view than the third person point of view.

There is a lot to consider when writing a battle scene and the biggest piece of advice I can give you is edit. Write the scene and then edit it. Once you have, edit it again and then edit it a third time. I find it helpful to record myself reading it and play it back if I find a place where it starts to slow down, I edit that part again, rinse and repeat until I can listen to it and it maintains the appropriate level of intensity throughout. That is when I stop and move on.

Battle scenes are fun to write and let’s face it, we all have a little bit of a George R. R. Martin lurking inside us, so make the most of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: