Conflict drives story.
Without conflict, stories are flat and boring and they have zero drive. Therefore, we need conflict in our stories. When we add conflict, we add strife between people. Sometimes those conflicts are internal, others are against elements of nature or situation, but the most common source of conflict is external: other people.
These external conflict can manifest itself in many ways: words spoken, glares exchanged, frustrations vented, fists shaken, and sometimes… fists swung.
Authors like fighting. We like the conflict that battles bring, and we can’t wait for them to come in our writing. Well, most of us.
For the next few weeks [five, to be exact, plus one short break in the middle to talk about something else], I’m going to be diving into the realm of battles, examining their strengths in stories and the weaknesses, clichés, and poor writing that can accompany them.
First, however, I’d like to address those of you who didn’t get super excited when you read the title of this post: those of you who never have large-scale conflicts.
Why should you care about the intricacies of writing a battle?
The Power of External Conflict
Of late, external conflict has gotten a bad rap. The emotional surge of the last few decades has resulted in a swing away from the old standard of external conflict with supporting internal conflict toward the other end of the spectrum. Now, if you character has to deal with more disastrous external conflict than internal dilemmas, then you’re doing it wrong.
People started looking for emotion in books. Not just good characters or plot or theme, they started looking for more than the shallow emotions on the surface, but the deep and painfully real emotions that can come only from internal conflict.
Is this a bad thing?
I mean, no. It’s great that people have chosen story as the medium through which they empathize with others and experience the range of emotions beyond the mundane choices we’re presented with every single day.
However, I think we’ve started to slide too far. We’ve ended up on the end of the spectrum, which is rarely a good place to be (either end of any spectrum besides the electromagnetic one, because the ends of that are pretty cool… anyway).
There is a balance between external and internal conflict where compelling plot and theme are merged with compelling characters and emotions.
Therefore, just because you don’t write battles doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Just because battles are an external conflict that has relatively little emotional range doesn’t mean they’re poor writing or bad uses of your words.
Wisdom is Power
Do you know how to write a battle well? Can you paint a vivid, moving image of people struggling together while weaving in the emotion and conflict that are required to hold up the scene? Can you describe the movements of people surrounding your point-of-view character while maintaining a close-knit state of mind and concise prose?
It’s freaking hard.
In fact, writing quality battle scenes is one of the hardest things to do in writing. Anyone can create a state of mind, with enough practice. Anyone can use active voice to create emotion. Anyone can develop a character with complexity. Anyone can build a world.
Those things, in essence, require only practice and time.
Battles require concentration, practice, knowledge, and even experience. No one (and I mean no one) will write a realistic and good battle scene their first try. Or their second, or third, fourth, fifth time.
If you think you have… I’m sorry, but you probably haven’t.
Before you start getting your feathers ruffled (I’m fine with them being ruffled, so long as you don’t go and ruffle them at me for no reason), I’d like to also admit that I probably haven’t written a good battle scene yet.
What the frick fracking snick snacks, then, am I doing writing about battle scenes?
If I’ve not yet written a good one yet, what authority do I have?
Here’s the deal: I’ve written the foundation for good battle scenes dozens of times now. I’ve written dozens of battle scenes. And we’re not going to talk about the first thirty-some, unless one of these posts becomes a “ways to not write battle scenes”. The rest, however, are good foundations. I’ve not yet finished a draft of a battle scene where I feel it’s complete. I’ve just been too busy with first drafts and emotion/character drafts to worry about those scenes just yet. At the same time, however, I’ve done a lot of research and had a lot of practice writing both bad battle scenes and writing the basis of good ones.
I know where I’m going from here, to make them better.
(You may now commence to ruffle your feathers at me if you wish to.)
For those of you who aren’t battle writers, what’s in this for you? You don’t need to know how to write them, because you’ll never write them, right?
You may not write them now, but there’s a chance (in some cases quite high) that someday you will. And it’s always good to know about things you might do some day.
In addition, the power that goes into writing battle scenes can be a useful tool to have in your inventory. That power can be translated from the struggle between hundreds to the struggle between oneself. That raw power and struggle can be great practice for the little battles.
The Battle Plans
Before I end this post, I’d like to look ahead at our battle plan for attacking the subject of writing strong battle scenes.
Next week, I’ll be discussing what battles are really like. I’ll be drawing on my knowledge of real battles in places like 1800s America, the World Wars, and Late-Roman/Early-Medieval Europe. In addition, I’ll be pulling from strong examples such as Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge, The Bourne Trilogy, and The Raven Boys Cycle.
The week after, I’ll be taking a short break from battles to talk about something else. That’s fun.
After that, I’ll return to talk about the time period of the battle and how that can change what the battle looks and feels like, as well as taking a chance to explore the different types of battles in different genres.
Then I want to step back from the big battles and look at the small battles: the duels, the street brawls, the brutal pictures of small battles and how they can then reflect onto the big ones.
Finally, I’ll taking a week to discuss the basics of strategy, the long-run (AKA wars), and the emotional range of individuals.
It’s going to be an exciting few weeks, and hopefully everyone (those who want to write battles and those who don’t) can come out with new tools, new weapons with which they can conquer the daunting task of external conflict.