Last week, I introduced this five-part series on writing battles, wars, and fighting into your story. I also offered reasons why more than just fantasy writers would find this useful.
Today, I’d like to discuss what battles really are, why so many people write them wrong, and give a few examples of battles and war in stories that work well.
Reality: War isn’t Glorious
There’s this trope in books and movies (especially in fantasy books and action-adventure motion pictures) where the fighting is shown as “cool”. It’s accompanied by an epic soundtrack or an inspirational speech which are followed by long bouts of conflict in which the main character kills with ease and there’s always room for movement and one-on-one fighting.
What’s wrong with this trope?
Pretty much everything.
Let’s break it down:
1) Fighting is not cool. Violence and death and pain are not cool. It’s not okay that our society has chosen to make war and battle good things. We’re not supposed to be happy about the fighting, are we?
2) Why do we always need inspirational speeches? In real life, I’ve heard like… two inspirational speeches, and neither of them were that great. One was actually just a bunch of meaningless fluff that was meant to rile people up and get them excited, and the other fell a bit flat because the speaker wasn’t that great of a speaker. So. Where do these inspirational speeches come from? The writer. How can I tell? Because it sounds like the character (who’s probably had like two minutes to prepare) has actually taken weeks to make every word count. That’s not realistic. Battles aren’t preluded by the general standing at the front of a crowd of thousands and shouting words that everyone can somehow hear. No, they’re precluded by a bunch of men giving orders to other men, all of whom are close enough to hear them.
3) Not to pick on movies for a moment, but I’ve discovered that the best war/action movies have little to no music during the battles. For example, the Bourne Trilogy has a lot of violence and fighting in it, and during these scenes there’s very little music. Same goes for Saving Private Ryan. Other action movies, on the other hand, tend to have a lot of dramatic or epic music (examples including The Hobbit trilogy and “Pretty-Much-Every-Superhero-Movie-Ever”). The power of a battle is not in how epic you can make it sound, but how real you can make it sound. Being able to draw in your audience (whether it’s readers or watchers) by the sounds of battle means being real with your sensory information.
4) I’ll talk later about the way in which main characters always seem to be able to kill dozens without breaking a sweat, but I’d like to point out here that it makes very little sense and statistical odds are always stacked against this. Just… just saying.
5) I want to point out a realism of battles for a moment: battles take place in relatively small spaces when the number of people fighting is concerned. Books almost never show this. They never show (with few exceptions) the way that only those in the very front actually get a chance at hitting the enemy, that there’s no place for random duels to take place, for characters to have conversation. They don’t show the grappling and struggling for the upper hand in visceral ways. Instead, there’s giant bubbles where characters can fight one-on-one and duel and talk and they can hear each other perfectly well and can show emotion and use fancy maneuvers and footwork without having to worry that someone behind them will accidentally hit them with an axe or throw a grenade at their feet.
The reality of war is this: it’s not pretty, and it’s not glorious.
Reality: We Write War Wrong
I realize this is a serious topic, but can we stop and admire that heading? Say that twenty times fast.
Yeah, I heard you mess up, don’t pretend you didn’t.
The heading (alliterating at it is) is true: few people write war well. There are three basic things we get distracted by or hampered by:
First, we get stuck in the trope I describe above. It’s hard work, writing a battle, and it’s so easy to fall into that trope of “oh, I need an inspirational speech to tell my readers about my theme” and then “well I need my main character to survive, and to fight this person and this one and talk to that one and…” before we know it, we’re swept off into the trope and we can be writers of poor battles before we even realize it.
That’s not a good thing.
Second, we don’t do our research. We get lazy. Sure, we’re writing a battle in the civil war, or in medieval Europe or futuristic Canada, but who needs to research? I mean not you and I, right?
Without research, your battle will turn out awful. There’s no way around that. It will. I speak from experience: no one can write a well-written battle without research. I’ve tried, and I’ve seen others try time and time again. Every single time, it turns out poorly.
Third, we get squeamish. Here’s the truth about battle: it’s ugly. Not the ugliness I talked about a while back, but visceral, brutal violence. It’s deadly, deafening, painful. We don’t want to describe war in its reality because we don’t want to have to deal with that level of brutality and wrongness. Humans don’t like war. We don’t like violence.
However, here’s the deal: presenting war as anything other than the honest reality doesn’t make that reality go away. Instead, it makes war seem less wrong, less violent, less ugly. It pulls away from the truth and creates a naïve lie.
Reality: We Can Write Battles Well
This post seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? I mean, I keep pointing out all the ways we write battles wrong. I’m also speaking in such a way that I include myself, because I’m also guilty of all of these things.
How do we do this right?
Well, let’s look at a few examples of books and movies that did it right. One of the easiest ways to learn is to observe those who know what they’re doing.
I’d like to get two of my go-to examples out of the way right away: Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge are two of my favorite war movies. They’re both hard to watch, and one of them is known as one of the most brutal movies ever (well, it used to be… some are more violent, but not in the same way).
These two movies are set in World War Two, and do excellent jobs in showing war for what it is: violent, bloody, vile, brutal. It shows that war is not cool, it’s real and it’s hard. Both of these show war in all its violence, which can be hard to watch.
To get a few more movie examples out of the way, 3:10 to Yuma is one of my favorite examples of fighting where the main character suffers just as much as the rest. He’s not immune to bullets or knives, he’s the opposite of invincible. Not to mention the ending is so unexpected and realistic and… yeah, I won’t spoil it. Go watch it. Do it.
To turn to a couple books with fantastic battle scenes, Killer Angels (and its prequel, Gods and Generals) is a great book about the American civil war, specifically about Gettysburg. It shows that soldiers aren’t just masses of screaming entities hacking away at each other, but that both sides contain human beings with lives and families and dreams.
It’s a hard tale to read, because you want to cheer for both sides (regardless of your opinions on the Civil War) and neither at the same time because war isn’t about who wins, it’s about who lives.
There are many, many examples out there of books that do battle well. Not near as many as there are examples of poorly written battles, but there are examples if you know where to look. For more intimate, small “battles”, try The Raven Boys Cycle. For fantasy battles (and excellent commentary on war in general), try The Wheel of Time series.
Battles can be hard to write. They take time and effort and a willingness to put yourself at risk of writing something visceral. It’s saying “war isn’t pretty, and here’s why”, and letting yourself write that ugliness.
It can be a work of art, when done right.