This post is going to be rather short, as well as rather straightforward.
I’m returning to the idea of battles in writing once more, but this time I’m zooming in quite close. Beyond the overall feel of the battle, beyond the overall scope to the small things: two people.
Today, I’m going to talk about the close part of the battle. It’s going to be about the part that maybe we care about the most: writing battle from the point of view of one character.
Definition: A Duel
First, let me define what I mean by when I say “duel”. I do not mean a long, drawn-out showdown between two people. That can be a thing, and it’s what duels are in the strictest sense, but I’m repurposing the word here.
A duel is a fight between your main character and the opposing side. That side can be one person, or two, or two thousand. It’s less about how many and more about how close the point of view is.
Lesson One: Sensory Details
Here’s the deal: I’ve never been in a war. I don’t actually know what it’s like to personally be there. I haven’t experienced it first person. Instead, I’m drawing on the experiences of others: my great-grandfathers who fought in world war two (both in the pacific), autobiographies of men who survived Vietnam or the world wars and several others. In addition, I’m drawing from books and movies (AKA All Quiet on the Wester Front, and Saving Private Ryan) which presented battle as so immensely real that even those who have been in war have said “yeah, that was a taste of what it was like to be there”.
And I’m also drawing on my own experience with writing battles scenes and what went over well and what did go over well with my beta readers.
The first thing, the most important thing to portraying a battle well is this: you cannot rely on visuals alone. You cannot.
You cannot simply rely on telling the reader who is moving where and when, and what the other characters do in response.
I know it’s tempting to do that, because it’s the easier way to write the scene. It’s the easier way to show what’s happening and what actually goes down. However, it’s going to take more than that to write a good battle scene. Instead, you have to maintain a close sense of reality. You have to pummel your reader with sensory information: sight is only one of these senses. I need to be able to hear and smell and feel and taste as well as see.
This is the hardest part of writing a battle well. It’s hard to maintain constant vigilance with your sensory information. It’s easy to forget what’s happening in the sensory world and focus on the actions and reactions of individuals.
Don’t be caught up by the action as the writer. It’s your job to make the description of the action AND its surroundings as clear and vivid as possible so that your READER will be caught up in it.
Lesson Two: State of Mind
A while back I talked about State of Mind, and how it’s vital to the emotional power of your story. That holds true to battles, but even more so. If your reader doesn’t know exactly what your character’s reaction to the battle is, they won’t know what to feel either.
This doesn’t mean that you have to have super emotional characters in battles, nor do you have to fill up the prose with a constant stream of thoughts. In fact, I argue AGAINST excessive thoughts during battle scenes. They drag the pacing. Instead, use word choice and carefully placed thoughts to convey the exact emotion of your character. This is a time for strong verbs and emphatic phrasing to shine. You can create punches to the gut of your reader with your words, if you’re careful.
It’s hard to describe exactly how to do this, so I suggest this: read Fallen Angels (by Walter Myers, disclaimer for language and intensely real violence) and All Quiet on the Wester Front (by Erich Remarque). These two war books do an excellent job of using prose to convey SoM without burdening the narrative with thoughts or telling phrases. This is best learned by observation of those who have mastered the skill, and then practice and careful editing.
Always keep SoM at the forefront, but especially in battle scenes. It causes the reader to be pulled into the front lines, where they can experience every emotion your scene has to offer from the closest they can be.
Lesson Three: Cut the Dialogue
Here’s the deal: unless your characters are far from the actual battle, they can’t talk.
They just can’t.
Okay fine, that’s not quite true. But their conversations are not dialogue. These aren’t conversations, these are life-and-death messages which must be conveyed in curt and urgent tones. Your characters can’t stop mid-battle (especially in fantasy or pre-Victorian-era wars) to talk about anything other than “you cut around the hill left, I’ll cut around right” or “fall back” or “forward”.
In other words, all those dialogues mid-battle between hero and ally, where the ally gives the hero hope?
All those conversations between the hero and the villain, where the hero swears to kill the villain or persuades him to surrender or the villain taunts the hero?
There’s no time for any words in battles, aside from commanders giving orders or wounded men screaming for their mothers and medics calling for help as they drag mutilated bodies from the battlefield in a desperate attempt to save the pitiful life still clinging to existence.
Writing Close Battles
It’s easy to give sweeping overviews of battles. It’s easy to escape into the omniscient narrator and try to convey all the happenings of the battle to the reader in a factual way. It’s easy to ignore all sensory information outside of visual.
However, we’re not meant to take the easy route.
No, we’re meant to take the route which yanks our readers into the story and plunges them into the thick of a sensory-driven, illustrious story that compels them.
That’s what a battle can do, written correctly.