Battle scenes in fiction are a serious affair. They require a lot of research but also careful craftsmanship. The author needs to relay vivid sensory detail and paint a picture of the battle’s development, then filter all that through the perspective of the book’s key character(s) in an engrossing way. A good battle scene is like a beautifully choreographed dance–equally pleasing to military history acolytes and laymen.
Today we’re excited to welcome author Anthony Ryan, who’s written the much touted epic fantasy BLOOD SONG–he knows a thing or two about writing gripping battle sequences.
A battle scene is a depiction of armed conflict between multiple participants. Or, more simply, a bunch of people fighting, usually in a field if we’re talking about epic fantasy. But, of course, there is no one type of battle scene, as there is no one type of book. There are land battles, sea battles and space battles. There are sieges, ambushes and skirmishes. Then we have shoot-outs, sword-fights, dog-fights and an endless inter-mingling of just about every form of combat real or imagined. My point is that the battle scene is not limited to one genre or period of history. However, for a battle scene to work, a savvy writer would be wise to include, or at least address, certain key elements.
First of all, battles are an aspect of war, and war is a deadly business. Real battles kill a lot of people and the fictional battle is often at its most effective and dramatic in recognising this basic fact. The course of human history has provided a rich vein of material concerning all aspects of battle, from the important, if sometimes mundane details of logistics, to the chaos and terror of combat itself. The more the writer engages with these realities the more credible their battle scene will be. For instance, in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series we learn how the Duke of Wellington’s vaunted military genius relied largely on the simple fact that his redcoats could fire three rounds a minute from their Brown-bess muskets whilst the French rarely managed two.
To date, my own work has focused on the epic fantasy battle, a very common feature of the genre. Epic fantasy battles are typically medieval affairs rich in hack ‘n slash and thundering hooves. Most real battles in the medieval period were devoid of tactical sophistication and rarely lasted more than an hour, making them comparatively easy to depict in comparison to the protracted carnage of the modern battlefield.
With regards to the mechanics of writing battles I find there are two principal approaches: the ‘spectator battle’ and the ‘direct participant’. BLOOD SONG, my first book, employed a single point of view, which meant establishing the character’s vantage point became a key factor. At one point, by placing my main character on a hill and giving him a relatively small part in the battle itself, I made him a witness to the ensuing spectacle. When depicting the ‘spectator battle’ try to avoid overuse of jargon, too many references to ‘flanks’ and ‘pincers’ may well alienate readers who unfamiliar with military history. The keyword to remember is ‘clarity’; real battles are intensely confusing, but this doesn’t mean your reader should be left in a state of bafflement. The ebb and flow of conflict should always be made as clear as possible, even if it means sacrificing your well-researched description of the correct formation for advancing pikemen.
The ‘direct participant’ battle is more challenging but also vital in ensuring your battle scene has the maximum dramatic impact. Placing your character in the heart of the action requires a firm grasp of pace and description; lengthy paragraphs covering a single sword-fight are likely to have your reader skipping ahead. Also, combat is an exercise in heightened experience, so don’t overlook the sound and smell of battle, neither of which is likely to be pleasant.
These two approaches are not exclusive; a spectator can become a direct participant and vice versa. At one point in BLOOD SONG I have my main character witness the first half of the battle before pitching him headlong into the action via a cavalry charge, whereupon he confronts perhaps the most significant event in the book. Which brings us to the most important element in constructing a battle scene. Ultimately, a battle should perform the same role as any other scene in your story; i.e., reveal something about the characters or advance the plot, preferably both. Otherwise, all you have is a bunch of people fighting for no good reason, regardless of how much bloody spectacle you slather on the page.
About Anthony Ryan:
After a long career in the British Civil Service he took up writing full time after the success of his first novel BLOOD SONG, Book One of the Raven’s Shadow trilogy, which was published by Penguin in July 2013. He also self-publishes the Slab City Blues series of science fiction novellas. Find Anthony on Twitter @writer_anthony and on his website, http://anthonystuff.wordpress.com.
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