Writing a Battle Scene: The Basics

Battles and war have existed throughout all the age—from Biblical times, to Greek and Roman times, to medieval times, through the Renaissance, to the Revolutionary War and Civil War in America, both World Wars, and so on and so forth to the present day. Wars have been fought with stones and strikes, swords and bows, and guns, jets, and tanks. Most of my stories and the battles I write are set in medieval times, so that will be the example I will use.

Before we get too far into this topic, let me set one thing straight that I’ve noticed time and time again in books and movies. The protagonist announces, “We’re going to war!” and then all the characters get geared up and head out. You have one battle, and then the war is over. That’s unrealistic. That wasn’t a ‘war’—it was a ‘battle’. The difference between war and battles is that a war contains multiple battles, and a battle is merely a huge fight.

I know it’s more awesome for the antagonist to announce, “This means war!” than to say “This means battle!”, and there is little you can do to get around it. I’m not saying your character shouldn’t make that declaration. Just recognize the difference between a war and a battle. Someone can declare war and utterly fail in the first battle, but that wasn’t a war—it was just a battle; they simply overestimated their strength.

A war can span an entire book series. In my books ‘The Last King of Legends’, the events take place during one huge war, and the war doesn’t even end with the end of the series because it spans generations.

However, say you don’t want to write too many battle scenes because each one requires so much thought, time, and energy, so what do you do? Summarize. Yes, I’m giving you permission to ‘tell’, but do your very best to show the passage of time and the progression of the war as each battle nears the final decisive one, and then you can put all your energy into that scene.

Now, let’s get to the basics facts of medieval warfare. For the most part there is no military ranking as we know it with generals, privates, lieutenants, etc. Each lord and baron has a number of knights. When the call to war comes, he will gather his knights and meet the rest of the army. This baron is captain of his own knights but must carry out the king’s commands.

Above all the captains but below the king is the constable. During non-war times, this man sees to the training of the men of the kingdom, checks the borders of the kingdom, and he is the representative of the army in the king’s court. If the king is killed, the army will automatically look to the constable for command until the next king has been chosen.

An army is made up of several sorts of warriors. It may differ according to the landscape of the battle and the decree of the king, but this is one example. In the front line are the foot soldiers carrying tall shields. They carry short swords with them. Immediately behind them are soldiers with huge lances. When the shieldbearers halt and take up position, these soldiers then stand between each shield and stab their lances into the ground pointing over the shield, so if the enemy’s cavalry came charging through, the lances with stab the horses or the riders. But this is the first line of defense which may or may not be used depending on the command of the king and his strategy for the battle.

Behind these lance carriers would be the cavalry. These mounted warriors are trained in various weapons—sword, ax, hammer, or any choice of weapon. They are a powerful force and can easily take the front line, but usually a king will wait to see how the front line holds and the strength of their enemy before using his specialized soldiers.

Now behind the cavalry is a mass of soldiers. They may be knights organized under their captain, but most of the time they are commoners with farming tools as their weapons (don’t underestimate the ability of a sickle swung by a warrior in the midst of a battle). These commoners would have gathered under a baron (perhaps a poorer baron who has few or no knights at all) to answer the king’s call to war. Some may be there for the glory of war while others are just trying to defend their homes.

Behind all of them, often at a strategically placed position, will be the archers. Usually they’re someplace with good vantage point and can attack from afar. They don’t have engage in actual battle unless the fight turns against them. If that happens, and the fighting gets too close for them to have time to shoot, they won’t bother shooting, but instead they will use their arrows as small spears and stab the opponents. You can also have archers on horseback, and those are expert horsemen and marksmen.

So this is the basic structure of a medieval army. It is not always set up like this, but recognize an army is actually made up of smaller part. When you realize this, it easier to manipulate outcome of the battle.

Of course, a battle is more involved than what I just described. You have characters you love and hate and a whirlwind of emotions to take into consideration. Also, the battle will have major effects on the rest of the story. An important character or three may die or become seriously injured. The enemy (or even the hero) is defeated—or at least pushed back. Some things may have happened that you hadn’t planned, but for the most part, everything should have gone according to plan.

Now two things to keep in mind when approaching a battle:

  1. Communication is almost always lacking or at least delayed. Use this to your advantage.
  2. The initial attacks may be skirmishes rather than full engagement of both armies. This is a way for the commanders of both armies may determine the strength of their opponent. Also, a small mistake in a skirmish can lead to the defeat of the enemy. This isn’t always the case, but things do happen.

In next week’s post, I will go into more detail explaining the two points above and much more. This post merely covers the basic elements of a battle you should keep in mind when writing such scenes. 

One comment on “Writing a Battle Scene: The Basics

  1. clloydbrill says:

    Reblogged this on C. Lloyd Brill – Author and commented:
    Great article about writing fight scenes!

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