Welcome back, readers (and by extension, writers). It’s time for another Being a Better Writer post. The topic for this week? It’s another request, and an interesting, if complex, one. Today, we’re going to discuss how to write a scene of warfare. Not a shoot-out, or a simple fight, but a full-on war.
Alright, let me clarify. This isn’t going to be a simple “here’s what you write.” At least, not the way most people (including the commentator who asked this question) think. Most people, upon reading the topic, likely promptly thought of one of their favorite battle scenes from a book, movie, game, or other form of entertainment. Scenes of fantasy armies clashing, magic flying around, spaceships shooting one another, muskets being primed …
Yeah, see, here’s the thing. All of those different things described up above? They’re all different battles … and they’re all going to be different types of warfare. Which means that each one could be written differently, or focus on different aspects of war. The magical warfare, for example, could be a type of war in which anyone not under a magic shield becomes a bloody mess of human remains, leading to armies only moving around under special shields, or possibly being reduced to just some elite cleaning crews and a bunch of magic users flinging destruction back and forth trying to catch a shield off-guard. Meanwhile, a scene of musket warfare would be bloody, gritty, and close, with clouds of smoke covering the viewpoint and obscuring the battlefield, cannons firing volleys, lines of men frantically reloading as balls whiz past them, and lines of cavalry sweeping in from the flanks.
All of these different kinds of war are going to lead to—you guessed it—different scenes of war, and therefore different things to write about. And that’s not even mentioning our viewpoint, be they front-line infantry, commander, narration, or some other perspective that could be bearing witness to the whole thing.
If you’re getting the idea that writing about a scene of warfare may be a complicated, messy business, then good. I’m doing my job. I’m not trying to discourage you, but rather point out that there are a lot of things you’re going to need to take into consideration before you start having two factions throw down.
What are those things? Well, now we’re getting somewhere.
Research – The History of Warfare
Okay, first and foremost here, let me make this absolutely clear. If you want to write about war of any kind, than you’re going to need to learn about war of every kind. That means research.
And I’m not talking about “I watched a few games of Starcraft II” here (which is a terrible representation of warfare anyway, near par for simplicity with something like chess) or “I watched this one war movie (war movies can either be on point, or completely off-base, so in doing research, research your research), now I’m ready to go write this.” I’m not talking that level of study.
No, I’m talking real, legitimate research. Get books on warfare of all kinds, from ancient to modern. Watch documentaries on different wars, especially those that focus more on what happened and what went into the war than just “This army fought this army.” Learn!
Now, some of you might be thinking “Why would I research all that stuff?” or perhaps even “Why would I research any of that at all? I’m writing a sci-fi/Fantasy novel, and none of that stuff exists!”
Well, you still should. And here’s why. If you go all they way back to the start and get a feel for the evolution of warfare, you’ll be able to see how war developed, from strategy, to tactics, to scope, to tools. Modern warfare, even today with our advanced technology and sky-shattering technology, still uses some of the basic tenants of war that Roman commanders used thousands of years ago. And if you don’t know about those basics or why they’re still around, your battle will end up full of holes where they should be—conspicuous holes to those who have more knowledge, or even simply see the gaps for what they are.
But you get more than just the basics (otherwise, I could just drop things in here like “flanking” and call it good rather than telling you to go study things). You’ll get a sense for why and what prompted changes on the battlefield. Several-hundred years ago, the preferred method to wage war, even with early muskets, was to march in straight rows and lines, array across the battlefield from one another, and start shooting in organized volleys. But we don’t do that anymore … so what changed to make that shift happen?
In learning what changed about war that led to the kind of battles we have today, you’ll be training yourself to think critically about what sort of changes in warfare your own universe might suffer. For example, are you writing a fantasy adventure wherein magic can make food grow in days rather than weeks? How will that change the logistics of supporting an army? What about teleportation? How would that change movements, feeding, and other aspects of war?
Writing sci-fi? How will that change your battle? Are you going with giant robot tanks? How would they supply themselves? What strategies would evolve around such creations?
This is why learning about war is so important. If you want to write a good war scene, and you want to make it really hit, you’re going to need to know what goes into a real war. You’re going to want to know about the strategies, the objectives, the tactics, the movements … all of that stuff on at least a basic level, so that when the time comes, your war isn’t picked apart by any number of readers who know better or spot the logical failings a lack of knowledge will produce.
And yes, some of you may be thinking “Well, I can just Hollywood it,” but that’s really not a good answer. Here’s the thing: That will only work for a select number of readers who either don’t know or don’t think about things. If you Hollywood things, you run the risk of putting easy-to-plug (and therefore identify) holes over your entire work … and trust me, they will shadow it. Many a book, game, and movie has been plagued by hilarious observations akin to “Man, if they’d just waited, the villain’s army would have starved” or the infamous “Frodo should have used the eagles to get to Mordor, not to leave.”
Do your research. Learn about the basics of warfare.
Research – The Viewpoints of Warfare
Now, once you’ve done that … you’re not done. Not even close.
See, all of the above will serve to give you a bird’s-eye view of warfare as well as the goals, objectives, and greater movements behind it. But unless you’re going to write about that, or your character is a commander (or maybe a front-line grunt with some out-of-place knowledge), while you’ll need to know that information, it’s not the entirety of what you’re going to present.
No, you’re also going to want an understanding of the front-line view of battles. So research it. Read front-line accounts: Diaries of soldiers, collected personal experiences of war. These are going to give you a close-in perspective of the results of the larger scope you’ve learned about in the research above. You’re going to learn what it feels like for different people to be in a charge, or a siege. In a foxhole, or in frantic, chaotic firefight. You’re going to read accounts of people panicking, of people staying cool .. the works.
Note that this doesn’t have to be reading, either. Check Youtube. Not only are there plenty of war documentaries on there (or Netflix) that will show a first-person perspective, but there are also front-line videos from soldier’s cameras that have been uploaded so that the curious can see what a real, live firefight looks like (hint, very little like Hollywood … and then sometimes very much so). You can see from the perspective of a gunner the sheer presence of something like close air support. The loudness, the order among chaos. Or even off-duty, between battles, what people do.
Heck, I watched one video from Iraq of a bunch of soldiers taunting an enemy sniper. They were behind heavy cover, waiting for air support to flush the sniper out … and they decided to see what kind of shot the sniper was. They constructed a scarecrow from a helmet and one shirt, and then walked the scarecrow around the wall. Turns out, the sniper sucked, and so these soldiers made a game out of poking the scarecrow out and then mocking how off the resulting shots were. They were sitting around laughing as someone tried to kill them, waiting for air support to arrive.
That’s combat. Reading about and learning the way people react in battles and what they are like will be key for helping you write your own. You’ll be able to pull inspiration from what real soldiers have gone through—smoke, confusion, pain, a melange of noise, blood, etc—and stitch together the different pieces your character will notice in order to bring the battle to life.
Research – Other Authors
Hey! Guess what! All this research isn’t going to be entirely fact-based!
Look, in addition to all of the above, there are plenty of authors who write books which treat warfare of all kinds very seriously, where the author does a ton of research. And these can be great primers for taking all the knowledge you’ve gained and then seeing how another author puts it together into a cohesive whole.
Go read these authors. Track down writers that are known for following real military principles and doctrine in their work, and then read their books to see what you can learn. At best, you may get an idea of how those things will shift when presented with unnatural scenarios (Aliens, magic, crazy tech levels, etc), at the worst you may realize you’re not that fond of actual combat.
For that matter, once you’ve got a little experience, you can also start to see where authors who haven’t done the research are getting things wrong, identifying their mistakes, why they made them, and then hopefully giving you insights into not making them in your own work.
Writing the Battle – Planning
Okay, so we’ve laid the groundwork. Now it’s time to take that and apply it to your story. And to talk about that, we’re going to need to discuss planning.
Now, I know that before we’ve talked about Planning Versus Pantsing your story, but today is the day that I say something a little out of the ordinary: You need to have a plan.
Or, more accurately, you commanders need to have a plan, even if they never arrive in the actual story. No real army or combat group of any size is going to go into battle without a plan (and this counts for an ambush, as if one side is being ambushed, the other side will have a plan). All sides involved are going to have some sort of plan that they’re going to follow as best they can, with objectives that they want to reach, and actions taken to reach that objective.
So, you need to figure out what that plan is going to be. For example, in Beyond the Borderlands, one of the battles saw the main cast taking part in a military offensive to take down a massive fortress. On their side, they had a joint force (which they had spent several chapters collecting) consisting of a no-longer-pirate fleet of ships and an airfleet of airships captained by griffons. Their objective was to seize a fortress known as The Pinnacle, a spire of rock that jutted out of the ocean high into the sky, also defended by airships (IIRC), a naval fleet, stationary defenses, and a titanic winter storm (magically generated) that made the fortress hard to approach.
What transpired in the story, the elements that the main characters then went through, followed the course of the battle, ie the strategy that the commanding forces came up with to gain the fortress with the least loss of life. The way the battle went, the navy drew the defensive navy as far away from the fortress as they could to do battle, and the airships gave them one run of cover and then engaged the air defenders. Meanwhile, the main characters literally sat this out, rocked back and forth on the airship they were on while waiting for their moment. That moment came when the airship dove close to the tower, risking the storm and lower defenses to let the main characters make their way onto a lower level of the fortress. From there, the main characters had to make their way upward, their objective being the airship landing docks higher up the spire. They took out the garrison, killed the defensive emplacement crews, and then deployed the docks, allowing groups of airships to come in and drop shock troops who could storm the rest of the fortress.
See? Plan. Even if parts of it changed (as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy), there was a chorus of objectives, goals, and a clear directive in mind for the battle.
So, when sitting down to write your own scene of war, consider what’s going on. What’s the plan that both sides have? What’s the goal? How will these change over the course of the engagement. If your hero is in the thick of things and is part of a move that severely weakens an enemy flank, will that enemy pull back? Or will they make a counteroffensive?
Plan out your battle plan. For both sides, if possible. You don’t need to go into elaborate detail, but use the knowledge you’ve gained from your research to plan out the battle and (if you want) how it will go. In this step, don’t forget to take tech/magic/what-have-you into account.
But don’t just have two armies clash into one another without reason (even if that reason is “two armies slam into one another by mistake, which is a recipe for a crazy charlie foxtrot). use your research and plan out an actual battle.
Now, you don’t need to write out every move that the character is going to make. Don’t take this wrong. What this is about is laying down a plan for the battle, not your character. An outline, if you will, that this battle you’re about to write will attempt to follow.
Writing the Battle – Perspective
Right, now we’ve got the battle planned. Now what?
Well, now we move to the next question. What perspective are you going to write this battle in? What elements are you going to focus on as a result?
For example, say that you want to write a battle from the perspective of … let’s say the head of whatever force is going to battle. This perspective means that they are going to need to keep the overall shape and status of the battle in mind. A commander may lead from the front (or near it, giving you a view at the front-line perspective) or the rear, but regardless of where they lead, they’re going to be thinking about the battle as a whole. What groups are where, what flanks are going to need to be adjusted, what terrain to hold, etc.
So for this type of perspective, the core theme that’s going to run through the account you give of the battle is one that is pulled back. More birds-eye. This character is going to see combat, most likely, but that combat will be either split in attention to with or less than the overall scope of the battle, which the commander will be in charge of seeing through to the end. They’ll want to follow the positioning of forces, the casualties taken, the play of tactics and strategy.
Now, compare that to a front-line soldier who is not privy to the plan for the battle, only his orders. There, the only perspective we get of the overall shape of the battle will be limited in scope to what they can determine. They may see an enemy force moving to another location, may think about it for a moment … but then they will likely shift their perspective back to the immediate and the at hand—such as the foe that is busily trying to kill them. Their perspective will be in the thick of things, see?
Then, there’s the halfway point, the leader that’s not over everyone, but certainly over a group. Their perspective is going to be different again, a sort of a mixture of the two. They’re going to be in the thick of things, of course, but they’re also going to be keeping an eye on a small patch of the larger battle, making sure that they’re in the correct position relative to everyone else, etc. They’re going to be getting both views, working with those under them, but under the guidance of someone else as well.
Writing Battles – Character
Of course, once you’ve got that figured out, now ask about your character. This may seem straightforward, maybe even obvious … but then again, experience has told me that this isn’t always quite so. I have read books before where an established character goes into a war situation … and suddenly everything about them changes, their whole attitude and persona changing as they experience combat.
Mistake? Yes, indeed. That’s an Out-of-Character shift, usually the result of the author wanting to pull in an awesome action sequence when it doesn’t work with that character.
Why is this worth noting? Because you need to think about how your character is going to see the battle. What will they notice the most? The screams of the fallen? The roar of blood pounding in their veins? The scent of smoke? Or gore? What will they focus on, what will stand out to them? There isn’t time to describe every single detail (not only that, but it would definitely hurt the pacing), so write what the character is going to see. Tell the battle in their words.
If everything written above is, in a way, building the “set,” so to speak, this is the moment where you bring out the “lens” or camera that will show the pieces of that set. Everything else is building the setting, and the character is how you’re going to explore that setting. And … every character is going to see that differently. Some characters will be howling for action, lunging forward with violent intent, perhaps to protect something or to gain something. Others will be cowering messes. Others still will just be along with the crowd, their mind on standby as battle goes on around them.
As with all writing, you’re going to need to know your character for this. You’re going to need to understand them and what makes them tick. Then, you’re going to throw them into a combat scenario, a full-fledged battle, and let them react. Let them stay themselves as the battle progresses.
Now, with all this being said, you’re still going to have to remember your purpose with having this battle. Not the goal of the battle, but your goal, as the writer. What are you hoping to show with this event? You need to remember to keep that in mind as you write, hopefully weaving your ultimate purpose into the battle as it is carried out.
Conclusion – Write It
And then, now that you’ve done all this? Well, sit down and write the darn thing. It’s time. Keep your scope in check, and be sure to also not forgo the usual rules of writing, such as balancing your show versus tell. Keep track of what your ultimate purpose is, keep an eye on the bigger picture, and let your character go at it.
In summary; you want to write a war scene? Research, research, research. Lay out your battle plan. Then pick your perspective. Then, at last, throw your character into that perspective and let the story go forward. Write it.
And above all else … have fun. Battle scenes are wonderfully fun to write and read. Have fun with it! Enjoy thinking of ways that your magic, your tech, or what have you might shift up the battlefield. Enjoy creating colorful metaphors for combat or reveling in a bit of spectacle! Have fun with what you create.
Good luck, and enjoy.