Writing a Battle Scene: Important Details to Know

There are a few things you need to know before you begin writing a battle scene. They are the follow:

  1. The character you will follow into battle.
  2. The location of the battle.
  3. The purpose of the battle.
  4. Step-by-step how the battle should unfold.

First, you need to know which character the reader will follow into the battle. This is important because it will determine the feel of the scene. For instance, if your character is a mere foot soldier, he’s not going to have the overarching view as someone like a general or the king. If you’re writing from a king’s POV (point of view), the king may not enter the battle immediately but survey the situation. He’ll send in skirmishes but hold back the rest of the army to see what his enemy will do. One little tactical mistake may be all he needs to defeat his enemy without too much loss of life. You can stick with one character throughout the entire scene or have a select few whom you bounce around to show the bigger picture. It depends on your writing style.

Another cruical fact you must know is the location of the battle. Once I read a story, and it opened with a battle, but it never showed the landscape. I had no idea where we were! Fighting on a plain is different than fighting in a forest or on a beach or just outside a city. If all those elements are there, and the fight is going to pass through those areas, it is important to have a character survey the battlefield before the actual battle. Do it before the fighting begins because when the fighting breaks out, everything will be too chaotic to pause for a moment and take in the surroundings.

So you know the characters and the location. Now, as always, you must know the purpose of this battle. It isn’t simply ‘who’s going to win and who’s going to lose,’ but rather who will die? Who will be injured (and how)? Will someone save a rival and thus cause them to come to an understanding? Will someone see something that will completely change their life? So you see, it’s not merely the fighting that is important, but little things throughout the battle that can have a major impact.

Now you have all the basics, and the task of this battle scene looks daunting, but take your time. Plot out step-by-step how it will unfold. It may be chaotic, but keep the rhythm going. When armies collide, keep this in mind: an army is not simply a mass of people. It is organized, and each part serves a function. Most people are tempted to write both armies charging at each other and hope for the best, but that is an novice way of handling the situation. Take your time. Some of the characters might not be in their intended position at the start of the fight, and you need to find a way to put them into proper position for whatever momentous encounter they will face on the battlefield.

Once everything is in position, no need to rush headlong into battle. That is the temptation yes, but you need to keep a clear head because the characters are about to be thrown into a whirlwind of chaos. You need to know what you’re doing—always keeping in mind the snapshots you’ve envisioned for this scene and the major points of the battle. Also, bear in mind that in the midst of this battle, some characters may die or live against your wishes, and you need accept that. You need to go with the flow.

Armies collide—full force. All the order—for the characters—is now nonexistent. Everyone is fighting for their lives. Throughout the battle, focus on those specific individuals you chose to follow into the fight to give the reader a wider view of what is happening. Make sure everything progresses. If all your character jump is doing is fighting left and right, that’s not very important; this is a battle. That kind of fighting is expected. If your character is fighting and gets injured, okay, that’s pivotal because it hinders his ability to defend himself. If your character is fighting and injures or kills an vital opponent, that’s something of significance for the story. If your character does something (by accident or on purpose) that unleashes a chain reaction that ultimately ends the battle, you will want to record that.

This is where it is important to know the points of the battle. What is the reason for it? As the author, you have the ability to be in the heat of the battle in one moment, but then in the next moment you’re above it from an omniscient point of view. This allows you to keep track of what is happening where on the battlefield, and if you see something is getting out of hand, you can send a character to intercept it.

There are many ways to write a battle. Imagine you’re playing a video game—how does the battle unfold? However, one paramount aspect to remember is that each soldier in battle is a person. They have their fears, issues, hopes, and dreams. In the chaos of battle, adrenaline kicks in, and it’s just about survival. But then something unexpected might happen to a character and stops him in his tracks. Suddenly, he’s not just part of the senseless chaos. In the midst of everything going on—canons blowing up on his left, arrows whizzing by his head, his best friend cut down right in front of him, his commanding officer shouting at him—despite all of this, he is completely and utterly alone with a decision in front of him. Depending on the person he is or the development of character he undertakes, he will respond one way or another, and that is an crucial moment to record in the battle.

Can you just write a battle of two armies colliding and be done with it? Sure—if that’s what you want. However, if you want the battle to mean something, and if you want your reader to walk away satisfied with how the battle unfolded, then don’t rush it. Plot out the battle, be patient, and take it one step at a time. You’ll be rewarded with moments when you can speed things up for brief spectacular moments, but then you need to slow down for those more quiet but epic moments.

This takes patience and a lot of practice. One crucial thing to keep in mind when you are writing anything (or really doing anything in life): never say you can’t do it. You might not know how to do it, but reading up on things like this and simply trying will get you further than you might expect. Your imagination is more powerful than you realize. Don’t rush it. You will make mistakes. Your work won’t be perfect the first numerous times you try, but practice makes perfect, and practice takes patience.

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The Author’s Obligation to the Reader

I texted a friend once asking her if she had ever read a book where there was a good scene but it could have been written so much better. Within a minute she texted back, “Chariot scene in Ben Hur.” I was surprised by her response on two levels: 1) she responded so quickly and didn’t need time to think, and 2) she had a scene in mind and didn’t require any clarification. No hesitation. No uncertainty. She had been looking forward to that scene since she began reading the book, and she had high hopes for its potential, but it disappointed her. 

I realized writers have an unwritten contract with the readers. As soon as the first word is put on the page you are promising two things: to complete the story and to use all the elements you bring into the story to make the tale memorable.

Having the story completed is always a given. If it’s published and in your hands, it has to be finished, but how many unfinished documents do you have in your computer? I know in my computer I have two main files—Finished and Unfinished, and the Unfinished is a lot larger than the Finished file. You may come up with a new story idea and write it until you get stick. As long as no one else sees it, that’s all right. You have no obligation to the reader. Your obligation to the characters and the story itself depends on your belief in them.

Now the second point was my surprise that my friend had a scene in mind and knew exactly what I was talking about. Imagine you’re baking in the kitchen. You have the following ingredients:

flour (a solid character)

eggs (the plot)

butter (great scenes)

sugar (witty, good-humored dialogue)

cocoa (dark twist)

baking soda (climax builder)

salt (truths come out)

water (everything’s resolved)

and as well as your mixing bowls and spoons. Separately they stand alone and have different purposes, but to make a chocolate cake, you have to measure each one specifically and stir the mixture. You can’t just say, “Let’s do a cup of salt!” and you also can’t just throw all the right measured ingredients into the bowl without stirring it and say it’s a cake.

When you write the first word on the page, you’re promising the reader, “I swear to deliver this story as clearly and accurately as humanly possible. Every element I include will be mastered. The climax will not disappoint. The results will be satisfactory, and the story will be memorable.”

Writing without studying and practicing different kinds of scenes and mastering different elements is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never trained a single day in your life. You might survive, but it won’t be pretty, and you’ll probably never do that again.

So, when you sit down to write a story but especially a novel, be ready to deliver. “What if the scene I’m writing is boring or difficult? Can I skip it?” Some people do, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason why it’s boring or difficult. As the author of the story, it is your duty to look at the chapter and determine why it’s dull and unexciting. If you’re bored by it, your readers will be bored by it as well, and when they’re unamused, they put down the book and never finish it. You don’t want that to happen.

Why is the scene boring? How can you make it more interesting? It might be a scene where two characters are discussing a detrimental consequence of an action, and there’s nothing you can do to make the scene more exciting—except maybe add a flare of personality in the characters, or add a third character who doesn’t get along with one or both of those other two and has a wicked sense of humor or doesn’t understand the seriousness of the talk. Little things like that can make a boring scene pass quicker and be more entertaining.

Now, if a chapter is difficult to write, it could be because it is emotionally trying, or it could be because you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You know what needs to happen, but you’re not sure how it’s supposed to happen, or you might lack confidence in writing that specific type of scene. If it’s emotionally trying, that is good. All that emotion you’re struggling with is rich, so channel it into your writing. Don’t be afraid of feeling, don’t be afraid of your struggle. People relate to emotions, and when they sense the emotions are authentic, it will touch them, and you want that. Take it one step at a time though. Don’t push yourself, but simply allow yourself to feel, and write it.

However, if you’re struggling because you have no idea what you’re doing (with a fight scene, for instance), then you need to pause and reconsider what exactly you are doing and how it’s important to the story. With the first draft, you may wing it for the sake of writing it and moving on with the story, but don’t be satisfied with this when you come back to it during the revision process. Take time to study your problem. Come to understand where exactly the problem lies. If it’s a fight scene, it could be because you don’t know how fights really work. If it’s a battle scene, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the chaos that you don’t know how to cover it. Come to acknowledge the root of the problem. There is no shame in that. Next step, do research, ask fellow writers for help, read books with similar scenes and study how those authors handled the scenes.

Remember, you have an obligation to deliver the story to the fullness of your ability. Don’t think, “Oh, they won’t care,” or “They won’t notice,” because you will be wrong, and your story will be a disappointment. Writing is a craft. You must master it if you truly wish for your story to be memorable or an epic escape.