Eight Great Tips On How To Write A Phenomenal Battle (Part II – During & After The Battle)

In the first of the two blog pieces on the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle, we discussed the first four tips. These included:

  1. Deciding where the battle takes place;
  2. Cranking up the tension during the build up to the battle by giving the POV characters intolerable pressures;
  3. Making the characters reveal something unexpected about themselves in the build up to the battle; and
  4. Making the reader afraid for the characters for battle.

These mainly focused on what writers should do before the battle. In the second blog post on the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle, we shall assess what writers can do during the battle to make it exciting, and after it to make the battle relevant to the plot.

Tip 5 – The Battle Must Be Choreographed Like A Ballet

The fifth of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle begins the fighting itself. Suffice to say, there is so much more to writing a battle than merely typing ‘he slashed through his enemy’, ‘she blocked the strike with her shield’, ‘he charged with a roar’, etc…

While there are elements of the above in a battle, to just constantly write that would make the battle boring, utterly repetitive and devoid of thrill. Rather, to make the battle captivating, writers must choreograph the fighting as if it were a ballet, down to the finest detail.

Example – The Battle of Helm’s Deep

The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers is a fantastic case in point. It highlights the ups and downs of a battle brilliantly in three noteworthy stages.

First stage of the Battle – Hope And Control

Before the battle begins, we are given a sense of hope when several hundred elves, led by Haldir, arrive to fight alongside Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and the armies of Rohan. This hope increases when the Uruk-Hai try (and fail) to scale the fort’s walls. At this point, the audience feels that the situation is under control. King Theoden of Rohan even puts words to our thoughts when he says: ‘Is this it, Saruman?’

One of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle is include ebbs and flows in the battle, like at Helm's Deep.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep begins at night. The Uruk-Hai begin the battle by trying (and failing) to scale the fort’s walls.

Second Stage of The Battle – A Turn For The Worse

Then, though, the Uruk-Hai do something unexpected; something that changes the course of the battle in their favour. They place a medieval-style bomb in the drain under the fort’s wall, its one weak spot. A sense of alarm sends blood pulsing through veins as they blow up a section of the wall. Now, our heroes face an impossible task to hold back the Uruk-Hai.

The moment when the battle goes wrong for the heroes is one of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle.
The moment that turns the battle upside down for our heroes. After failing to scale the walls, the Uruk-Hai blow up a section of the wall. Now the humans and elves have to somehow stop their enemies swarming into Helm’s Deep when they are vastly outnumbered.

Subsequently, the Uruk-Hai swarm into Helm’s Deep. Haldir dies and we have a heightened sense of how terribly the battle is going from Aragorn’s perspective, before King Theoden calls everybody back to the keep. Soon, the White of Saruman flies over Helm’s Deep and King Theoden is in despair.

Stage Three – Hope Returns, Followed by Victory

Then, the sun rises and Aragorn urges King Theoden to ride out in a blaze of glory for the survival of Rohan’s soul. King Theoden does this, and sees Gandalf and Eomer at the top of a hill. This re-energises him (and the audience). As Gandalf leads the charge downhill, the audience smiles in the knowledge that victory will belong to the heroes.

With sunrise comes light. And with light comes hope in the form of Gandalf and hundreds of Rohirrim, ready to slaughter the Uruk-Hai and claim victory.

The Formula For The Battle of Helm’s Deep

The Battle of Helm’s Deep follows a traditional formula with a tense build-up and the initial first phase of the battle going quite well for the heroes. Then, a terrible turn of events occurs, and the situation worsens as the battle goes on. This is followed by a sense of no hope, before another game-changer (as the sun rises no less) that turns absolute defeat into a stunning victory against all the odds.

Writers, of course, do not need to copy the choreography of this battle. But they do need to give the reader a similar amount of drama, as well as twists and turns. This ensures that the battle is gripping; that the situation is constantly shifting; and that the dangers that the heroes face vary from distantly life-threatening to immediately life-threatening.

Tip 6 – There Must Be Clarity Amidst The Chaos

Battles in the past were chaotic. Therefore, writers must make battles chaotic for them to be realistic. Also, Chaos gives readers a sense of terror; the belief that that at any moment their heroes could be killed by a sword, an arrow or a bullet, or blown up by a bomb.

Yet, chaos in and of itself is not enough. Chaos causes confusion, which means that the reader will not know what is going on. This confusion probably existed in the thick of any number of medieval battles, or at Stalingrad during World War II, or in any of the skirmishes in the jungles of Vietnam.

But remember, a battle in a novel must be choreographed like a ballet, so that readers can feel the ebbs and flows of the battle for the heroes. The best way to make readers feel this is by making sure there is clarity amidst the chaos during the battle. This is the sixth of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle. It enables the reader to follow a particular protagonist (or several) and ensures that the terror is at knifepoint. (Indeed, the clearer the chaos is, the more terrifying the battle will be to read.)

Example – Jon Snow In The Battle of The B*******

clarity in the choas is another one of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle.
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the Battle of the B*******. The camera is right behind him, on his shoulder. We are so close to him, we see everything from his perspective intimately and with frightening clarity, despite the chaos.

During this battle in Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9, we follow Jon Snow close-up. We are right behind him and see only what he sees. Out of nowhere, men attack him, arrows rain down on him, horses run at him, the Bolton forces trap him, his men trample on him, and he struggles to breathe under the crush. Then, Jon climbs out of the crush and sees the Knights of the Vale riding to the rescue. Subsequently, he faces Ramsey Bolton with fury, prior to re-taking Winterfell for the Starks.

At all times during the battle, viewers know exactly how the battle is going for the hero. This is due to the clarity amidst the chaos. Jon’s heightened sense of the chaos around him only adds to the audience’s fear for him.

Tip 7 – Write In The Active Tense

The seventh of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle is to write in the active tense. This is so that the action will be close up, right in front of the reader. ‘He cut’, ‘he thrust’, ‘she blocked’, etc… is immediate. The action is happening to the protagonist there and then.

Equally, don’t write anything that is not happening there and then, such as ‘before his opponent attacked him’, ‘she saw the strike coming just in time’, etc… This is essentially narrating from a vantage point, as if the writer can see what is going to happen before it actually happens. This takes away tension and the thrill of the battle, as the reader already knows that the POV-character will be all right.

Avoid The Passive Tense

Similarly, avoid writing in the passive tense. ‘Sweat was going into his eyes and his eyes were stinging’, ‘his head was ringing after he was struck’, ‘she was roaring like a lioness as she was being surrounded’, etc…

In general, writers should avoid writing in the passive tense as it creates distance between the reader and what is happening in the story. ‘Sweat stung his eyes,’ ‘His head rang’ and ‘Her foes closed in on her and she roared’ are the active tense and the (better) way of writing the above. Plus, it ensures that the reader can almost visualise what is happening to the POV-character in real time.

Tip 8 – A Battle Must Have Consequence

Consequence entails that an event advances the plot. A battle is an event, and so the same applies. Thus, if the battle does not advance the plot, the writer should remove it. Battles (pitched, skirmishes, or one-on-one combat) should not be in the story to fill up space. They must serve a purpose and move the narrative forwards.

Example 1 – Complete Victory And The Protagonists No Longer Need Worry About The Previous Threat

A classic example of a battle having consequence is at the end of The Two Towers, in the aforementioned Battle of Helm’s Deep. The battle ends in a complete and total victory for our heroes and Rohan.

This means that in The Return of the King, when our heroes find out that Sauron is on the verge of attacking Gondor, Rohan can provide battle-hardened men to aid Gondor, without having to worry about Saruman and the threat of Isengard.

eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle is when the battle ends in total victory.
Having completely beaten (and annihilated) the Uruk-Hai at Helm’s Deep, the humans can now turn their attentions east to Mordor and the wrath that Sauron will shortly unleash in The Return of the King.

Example 2 – Victory That Causes Division

A battle can end in victory, but the consequences of that victory can be complex and divisive for our heroes. In the epic battle in Sokovia at the end of Avengers II: Age of Ultron, the Avengers cause so much damage to the city that it leads to the United Nations contemplating passing the Sokovia Accords.

The accords cause a split within the Avengers because Tony Stark/Iron Man is for them but Steve Rogers/Captain America is against them. This split forms the plot for the next major Avengers film, Captain America III: Civil War, where the rival factions fight each other.

Example 3 – When Battles Don’t End In Victory

The anti-hero, Glokta Dan Sand, who has to flee from Dagoska after losing the city to the Gurkish Empire. (Fan art by teaxerz.)

It is rare for heroes in novels to lose battles. But it does happen and any kind of defeat must also advance the plot. In Before They Are Hanged, the second instalment of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, the Gurkish Empire triumphs in Dagoska after a lengthy siege. Glokta Dan Sand, our anti-hero, flees the city and returns to Adua, the capital of the Union, where he fears that his masters at the head of the Inquisition will hang him.

Nevertheless, to his immense surprise, his superior welcomes him back with a toast! Practical Severard is proud to tell Glokta that, because he held the Gurkish at bay for so long, he increased the power of the Inquisition. Glokta is pleased that he will not be sent to the gallows (or some other grisly fate). But he is also fully aware that he has lost Dagoska. Thus, the Gurkish Empire are closer to the Union than before, and have the ability to invade the Union… (You will need to read the third book in the installment to find out if this happens, though😉.)

Additional Tip – Do Not Make Battles Too Long Or Occur Too Frequently

While reading a main character hack and slash his enemies is fun, it gets boring quickly. Writers should, therefore, be wary of writing long battle sequences. Similarly, if writers make battle sequences frequent in the story, they lose their suspense (as invariably the main character will keep surviving them, thereby dispelling the belief that he/she is in danger).

Of course, there is no set limitations on the amount of words or pages that a battle should last; or about how many battles there should be in a book. And, of course, the writer must write enough to show the different stages of the battle, so that the reader experiences the full-range of emotions that the POV-character goes through during the battle.

Yet, as a rule, writers should aim to write a short, tightly-woven battle to keep the reader engaged; and maybe have two or three per book (including skirmishes). This way, writers will ensure maximum excitement for their readers and will leave them wanting more.

Your Favourite Battle?

Thank you for reading this blog post about the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle. It really means a lot to me and I genuinely hope that these two posts help make the writing process more enjoyable.

Lastly, I would like to leave you with a couple of questions and please answer them in the comments:

  1. What are your favourite battles in books and films?
  2. Have you ever read or watched a battle that went on for too long?

Paul

PS: For exclusive writing tips for subscribers, fan fiction short stories and interviews with authors, please fill in the form below.

2 comments

  1. I’ve been told my battles and combat scenes are excellent, and to an extent, it’s what I’m best known for as a ghostwriter, but I never really analyzed what I do to make them solid. I can see each of the points you raise, alive and well in my writing.

    I came to a realization, recently, that battles are complete story arcs in and of themselves–complete with inciting incidents, darkest moments, and all the rest. When viewed that way, the ebb and flow of battle can be much easier to see, and to manage.

    One thing that’s important to note is that the purpose of a battle (which is an event, as this post’s author pointed out) doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It could be something as simple as a tool to show the character’s increasing prowess at leading troops, or to create a dialogue between villain and MC in the heat of battle where it is revealed that they are very similar people after all–only the villain’s failure at his personal character arc separates him from being the hero he thinks he is. Skirmishes are idea for these kinds of things, as they can be finished in as short or as long a period as needed to accomplish the goal, whereas the major battle of the novel needs to be drawn out and highly detailed.

    Another important observation I’ve had is that novels and series with many battles don’t give them all the same level of detail. For example, in the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny (my all-time favorite books since I first read tthem at 9 years old), some beats are handwaved, e.g., they killed and they killed and they made their way up the mountain one miserable, bloody step at a time (to paraphrase). Others are written slash by slash, dodge by dodge, and last a chapter or more. Just as it’s important to vary sentence length to avoid monotony in reading, it’s important to vary battle lengths for the same reason.

    So, to summarize, this is a fantastic couple of posts on tips for writing battles. I agree with everything I read, and in contemplating it all, I can see the rising and falling tension levels, the story elements that make each detailed battle like a mini plot arc, and the varied depth of prose in the best combat-focused books I’ve read, as well as the many I’ve written. I never consciously thought of it before, but now I can’t help but think about it 🙂 Any author wishing to improve their craft when it comes to battles would be well-advised to read and digest your 2-part series, Paul!

    1. J.S. Menefee thank you so much for your praise and endorsement. You do me such service. I am thrilled that even an experienced battle writer like yourself can see the value in these blog posts.

      I also did not truly think about giving the same amount of detail to each battle (as you have done in your comment). So, thank you for that as well. It has made me think again, realise how right you are, and that each battle, skirmish, etc… needs to be given a (very) different amount of detail and words. Maybe one day I will write a separate (sub) blog post on this.

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