Writing Battles: Some Specifics


Last time I talked about writing battle scenes in macro terms and wanted to use this post to look a little closer. In order to do this I’m going to use a brief extract from Act of Will, not because I’m offering it as a model but because it will give me some specifics to fasten onto. You can read it and then return to my commentary. What I’ll do is try to explain what I was going for and how I tried to achieve the desired effect. Whether I did so or not, I’ll leave up to you.

Let me set the extract up. Act of Will is a first person fantasy adventure written from the perspective of Will Hawthorne, the smart-mouthed 18 year old protagonist. Much of the book has a comic edge but the danger is real and you won’t see much to laugh at in this section. Will was an actor and would-be playwright before falling in with a group of principled adventurers. He begins the story with no real weapon skills and a deep distrust of anything beyond his own profit or self-interest. The portion depicted here is the initial stage of what is the first major battle in the book (occurring about half way through). Will and the party (Orgos, Lisha, Garnet, Renthrette and Mithos) have been hired to figure out who is behind a ruthless army of thus far untrackable horsemen: the so-called Crimson Raiders. They are also supposed to reduce the effectiveness of the Raiders’ attacks and, as this extract begins, have been charged with the defense of 10 wagons of coal en route to the capital. At their disposal they have a small army, both cavalry and infantry, though the soldiers are inexperienced and poorly equipped. The excerpted section begins as the raiders attack. Extract begins HERE

As I said, this section covers the first few beats of the battle—about half—and there are several distinct movements though the whole is colored by Will’s perspective. At the end of the extract you just read, Will is ready to run away (it doesn’t quite work out that way, but you’ll have to read the rest of the book to see why not!), so much of my agenda here was about plausibly building a sense of his increasing panic and despair. At the same time, I had to keep two other things uppermost:

1. A fairly clear sense of what was actually happening so that the reader can follow the overall arc of the battle.

2. A tonal register in keeping with the playfulness elsewhere. As I said, much of the book is driven by a flippant, cynically funny voice (you can see how the novel starts here) and this makes representing the stuff of sadness and terror tricky. I wanted the battle to have weight and seriousness, but it couldn’t feel too dark, too loaded with horror or morbidity because the effect would be to suggest we’d jumped out of genre.

The unified point of view tends to smooth everything out but there are a series of separate beats to the narrative. This is important to avoid repetition or tedium (you don’t want your readers skipping pages), so the whole is made up of separate sections like the elements of a symphony. They need not all have the same tone or purpose, though they should finally be unified. In my case the battle begins as follows:
1. Initial assault by the raiders.
2. Aftermath.
3. Establishment of the above as a repeating pattern.
Each of these gets only one paragraph, then several paragraphs are dedicated to the overall sense of confusion and the specifics of what the various participants are doing: the jumble of events furthering the sense of confusion. Let’s call that,
4. Reaction and organization
The paragraph beginning “The heavy crossbows jolted…” sets up a new and longer beat:
5. False impression of victory.
This exploits the larger tone of the book and pretends, for a moment, that all will be well, that our heroes will be more than a match for the enemy. It ends, of course, with the death of a minor character (the cavalry officer), the possible loss of a core character (Garnet) and the registering of the full impact of the raiders’ superior skill and numbers. Several paragraphs are then given over to:
6. Realization of the odds and re-organization.
This sets up the final beat of the extract, the raiders’ true assault which might be divided into two:
7. Will leads the missile weapons into battle
8. The Raiders rout them.
At which point, Will opts to get out of the firing line, abandon his new friends and save his skin.

Throughout, because of the closeness of the POV to Will, character is dominant and the movement of the combat is made to serve that end. Ultimately, for me in this story, the details of the fighting are only important in that they create a response in my protagonist. I can’t get too detailed in my account of what is happening because the whole is a movement towards Will’s decision to flee, and he can only see so much and—more importantly—can only process so much and in ways that make sense to him. What is happening is clear enough, I think, but Will’s unease and confusion has to be the dominant impression.

I say character is uppermost here, but in truth an encounter like this serves a larger purpose for the story as a whole because it establishes just how great is the hero’s ultimate obstacle. Will might be fighting the raiders, but he’s also fighting himself. I don’t think he’s a coward: he’s a pragmatist, a realist. But that’s not good enough if he’s to be a hero, and the larger story is about his journey towards that. I want the reader to sympathize with him, to connect with him, and the best way to do that is to make them understand what might otherwise be dismissed as cowardice. I try to do that by showing just how strong the raiders are and allowing the reader a glimpse—even in a light-hearted book like this one—of the grim reality of combat. I don’t go into a lot of bloody detail, but there’s enough that is dark or arbitrary, I think, to build a sense of dread and futility. The bonus of this is that it sets up a larger plot question: how can the heroes possibly win, even if they emerge from this encounter in one piece? As the story escalates in later chapters towards an even greater showdown, this extract will serve to remind the reader just what they are up against and thus keep the stakes high.


27 comments to Writing Battles: Some Specifics

  • Oh, AJ, you evil evil author!
    Now I have to buy this book! Do you *know* how big my TBR pile is???? (grins) I *do* love a well crafted battle scene.

    There were three section in your beautifully written scene that grabbed me by the throat and carried me on, because they gave so much character insight and pulled me toward the battle.

    >> I stopped running as all about me fell simultaneously still. There were horses coming from the north. A lot of them.
    The impact here is immense. The disbelief, the shock. And never had to say those words. No telling at all.

    >>The infantry watched them as if they were ghosts. Close by, somebody began to weep.
    I *felt* it, the nightmare becoming real. The crying man, and no one even looks around. No one has to, because he weeps for them all.

    >>Vaguely I smelt the sour smoke of two wagons blazing at the front of the convoy and, with a defiant cry, aimed and shot at the advancing line. The bolt struck one of them in the head, rang out sharply and glanced away. He paused for a second and came on. Terrified, I reached for my sword.

    The *he paused for a second* was perfect! It gave a *that was my best shot and it failed* intensity to the building horror. And then you gave the little authorial word, *terrified*… The perfect time to tell, followed by action.
    I think I’m in love!

  • Faith,
    you are too kind. It’s odd trying to articulate what you think/hope/pray your writing is doing without sounding ridiculous or arrogant, so thanks for helping out! No doubt other readers won’t feel what you felt, but I’m glad someone did! It’s been a quiet morning here at MW and I was getting anxious…

  • As you and I have discussed before, A.J., I tend to write battle scenes from multiple POV, simply because the books I’ve written that include battles tend to be written in that style. It may be that I’ve used that approach as a crutch, relying on the switching of POV to maintain momentum and convey the chaos. What impresses me about your scene is that you accomplish these things without leaving Will’s perspective. The chaos, the terror, the ebb and flow — it’s all there, captured in one character’s eyes, beautifully and elegantly. I know that you told us in a previous post that you sought to keep the scope of the battle small, in part to facilitate this, but it seems to me that you could have done much the same with a larger scale encounter. But I’d like to know how you think you might have had to change your approach had the scale of the fighting been greater.

  • David,
    that’s a good question. The largest battle which comes late in the book is a much more involved affair with several different forces fighting together. Will’s POV can thus only illuminate a limited part of the action. He can, from time to time, assess the larger movements of the other forces but he remains intellectually and emotionally engaged with his portion of the battlefield. he is instrumental in that battle, of course, but it’s ultimately a worm’s eye view, and it loses the grand sweep of a Tolkien battle, for instance, though that’s not a problem for this kind of book which is ultimately not just character-driven, but driven by a single character. Everyone else is secondary, as is usually the case with a first person narrative. If I was writing in a very limited 3rd person style, staying close to a single character but not experiencing the action solely through his voice, it would be different. I may be tempted to pull away a little to reveal more of what was going on in macro terms. As it is, it’s Will’s story so I’m locked into his experience of it.

  • Overall I liked the flow of the battle, and I think you make the most important points about pacing and point of view. In that, you do a great job, and I’m glad you posted it.

    I was (as usual) asking the question: would it work. There are a couple of issues here.

    One is that, if you’re following the classical cavalry models here, there were two general categories. Lightly mounted horse archers, and heavy lancers or chargers. Their great strength was that they were able to stand off from everything but the crossbows (as you noted–good job!) and fire arrows. If engaged, they would simply run, and if they were skilled, they would launch something like a parthian shot behind them as they ran. This, of course, requires lots of training. The other cavalry were the heavy chargers, who would ride down their opponents using lances or similar weapons. This is what tanks do today, and it works when you have heavy horses (often armored) who can simply overpower whatever’s in front of them. Over history, various groups have tried to field a mix of both, with varying success.

    Here, you’ve got the Crimson Raiders in that messy middle. They also choose to ride down an opposing cavalry, rather than just shooting them down. Why? If they’re raiders, they’re risking a lot with a cavalry charge, and they can cause as much or more damage by standing off and shooting with little risk to themselves.

    A bigger issue is vision. One question is the mist. I’m assuming it’s magical, because the raiders can shoot through it accurately while the heroes can’t see through it. To me, it’s not clear whether your POV character could actually see the cavalry charge through the mist as far as he saw it.

    Another aspect of vision are those faceless bronze helmets. Yes, I know that various heavy cavalry units have used things like that, but in general, they impede vision, and that’s a problem for archers, who need to see what they’re shooting at (there’s also some evidence that eyeholes tend to deflect arrows and spears into eyes, but that’s a different issue). Those helmets also cause problems because if they get knocked askew, they blind the wearer. I’m assuming there’s magic involved, and that those helmets with their limited vision actually let them see through the mist.

    Also, if you’ve got this enormous raiding force, I’m also assuming that they are using magic and/or rearguards to make sure that no one merely follows their trail to figure out where they are. They’re going to tear up the countryside wherever they go, and that would make them easy to track.

    Finally, spears go in front of crossbows. I thought that putting them in front of the spears (who would keep the cavalry off them while they reloaded, if the spears were long enough) was a great way of demonstrating that their leaders didn’t know what they were doing. Hopefully that’s what you intended.

  • Het,
    thanks for your comment. I think you are being overly literal in your enforcement of general military principles, abstracting absolute rules from typical conditions. There are particular reasons in the story dealing with the nature of military powers in the region that explain why the troops involved are equipped as they are and fight as they do. But that’s a side bar, as is the point that for crossbows to fire directly at an enemy they have to be able to see them, rather than firing indirectly, artillery style. The real point is that this is a story. It’s not a documentary about military practice. It’s not even set in conventional reality. Some degree of historical accuracy is useful, but only to a point. Whether or not this is precisely how such an encounter would play out in fact, doesn’t matter to me. Indeed, getting such technical stuff right all the time can often get in the way of the narrative, which is why I find myself abandoning books where the author feels they have to give a page detailing the precise workings of an M16 before someone can shoot it…

  • I’m with Faith, now I have to buy your book, and I too have a huge pile to get through!

    I learned a lot from reading the passage A.J. What I loved about it was the use of the senses. I knew what was going on elsewhere based on what he heard, or what he was smelling. He didn’t have to be there to know what was happening.

    The ebb and flow of the battle, the ups and downs all worked for me. Not once did I feel like it bogged down, or ripped me through the scene too fast.

    Thank you for providing such a detailed look and analysis of one of your battle scenes.

  • Alistair,
    thanks so much. I’m glad it worked for you. Your reference to smell reminds me that i should do more with this much-neglected sense in the future. Nothing evokes (or kindles memory) like scent, and I don’t write about it enough.

  • AJ — well done (both the prose and the post). Took me awhile to respond today because I couldn’t articulate my thoughts very well. Thankfully I have Faith and David to do it for me! 🙂 So, ditto to all they said.

  • Emily

    AJ> There were parts that nearly brought me to tears. (Hey, I’m one who tends to respond emotionally to suffering, both animal and human!) The despair was palpable, as was the inevitability of the protags’ failure. This was great writing! Moving, interesting, all of that. And I want to know who the guy in the extra heavy cloak is, too! (Which I’m sure was your point with that detail, unless it was explained in the first 7 chapters). The only thing I was lacking was some sense of what these folks (the heroes) looked like, but of course this is chapter 8, and so I’m sure that’s already been said. Really awesome work, and I, too, will pick this up to read. 🙂

  • Hi AJ,

    I was commenting on another author’s blog about the question of whether the details matter. The answer is, they matter when they advance the story.

    The other answer is that we live in the age of Wikipedia and many other online references. I’m pointing out Wikipedia, because they have a nice, compact discussion about the use and evolution of pikes. I happened to want to use pikes in my WIP, and so I read up on how they deployed mixed missles and pikes, which is what I described above (the spearmen are in the front, but not in closed formation until the knights get close). Variation on this mixed formation that went back to the crusades (pair a spearman with a big shield with a crossbowman, and they protect each other) and even earlier before the Dark Ages.

    The details are out there for anyone who wants to take a few minutes to check, and I’d suggest that “it’s a story, the details don’t matter” is not as good a response as it used to be a few years ago. As a writer, I’m more interested in how I can use the details to move the story with minimum exposition. Incorrectly deploying fighters in a formation doesn’t have to be a minor point. If you want to demonstrate that your commander doesn’t know what he’s doing, have him incorrectly deploy the men, then have them get slaughtered by the enemy. Conversely, if you want to demonstrate that your protagonist is a military genius, you don’t have to have a degree from West Point to write a good battle scene. Instead, rewrite a famous battle, or read up on the principles of how different forces were used and use them correctly in your world. Most of the famous fighting forces had weapons and tactics that worked during their heyday, and there’s no reason not to use this knowledge. It’s freely available to everyone.

  • Thanks Stuart and Emily. If you reqad the rest, I hope it meets expectations!

  • Megan Haskell

    Oh man…another book for my pile… 🙂

    I loved the battle scene. For me, a battle works when I get so lost in the visual of the scene that I don’t see the words I’m reading any more. This excerpt did that for me. Great job!

    However, I do have to agree with Het on one point – the spears. I don’t know anything about battles or military strategy, but I was wondering why the spears were behind the crossbows. Was there a reason for that choice? Was it to help get Will out of the way so that he could run (or attempt to run as the case may be)?

  • Megan, re the position of the bowmen. Historically, I *think* AJ has it right. David, our resident PhD in History might chose to back me up? Longbows and recurve bows go behind the pikes. But our guys were not using longbows. They were using crossbows or composite bows, (yes?) as gathered from the difficulty in loading.

    Crossbows / composite bows usually go in front and fall back, because they shoot more straight, directly (along line of sight) at an opposing force instead of up into the air and are used against cavalry because they have such straightforward punching power.

    Though there are is some historical disagreement, longbows were more often used — shooting angled up (in a raining down pattern) — against a large mounted or foot force on a wide field of battle, (falling like rain) or as ambuscade, through trees or other things they can hide behind. In the first instance they don’t have to aim, only get the angle of fire correct.

    Ancient compound and crossbows take so long to reload (as AJ’s chapter pointed out quite well, I might add) that the archers are in danger while reloading, and often have to sit on the ground to put their body behind the task. Such archers are expensive in terms of equipment, training, and maintaining of personnel. They often would fall back between volleys to reload out of the way.

    Then there are the shortdraw or highdraw bows designed to be fired from horseback (which are really lovely items of warfare), and I assume the enemy had those.

    While there are plenty of ancient-history-fantasy-warfare versions of the modern-day techno thriller, I think that AJ did a great job giving just enough war/weapon info to meet the expectations of the ancient-warfare-historians among us, and yet cling quite well the type of book he was fighting er, writing — a character driven fantasy.

    For those interested, here is neat site that is helpful. http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=148621
    BTW, most schools don’t allow wiki for *anything* involving research as there is so much crap on it. As in: crap on toast…

    As I said before – good work, AJ.

  • My Ph.D. is not exactly in the correct field (unless there were more crossbow battles during the New Deal than traditional history texts let on….), but I have done plenty of military research for my own books, and Faith’s take on things is pretty much right on track. The biggest two factors, both of which she mentions: 1) Reloading a crossbow is incredibly difficult and time consuming, not to mention dangerous. And 2) Archers, and bowmen were highly trained — they were an investment. You didn’t put them at risk if you didn’t have to. Pikemen were best used as defense against mounted riders. Actual spearmen were not used much once bow technology caught on because spears were limited in reach. I have written a lot of battles in my fantasy; I’ve read a ton more, and I’ve done a lot of research on this. A.J.’s battle scene didn’t set off any alarms for me at all from a technical perspective, and it was wonderfully written. The focus of his post was in using POV to convey the sense of panic and terror in a battle scene. He illustrated that admirably. Let’s keep the discussion where it belongs.

  • Megan Haskell

    Ah Ha! Chalk that up to learning military strategy from B-movies! 🙂

    But as I said I loved the excerpt and was completely wrapped up in the scene. I hope some day I’m able to do the same for my readers. It’s certainly something to strive for! Thank you for the post AJ!

  • Good point David, AJ’s para said it best:

    >>Throughout, because of the closeness of the POV to Will, character is dominant and the movement of the combat is made to serve that end. Ultimately, for me in this story, the details of the fighting are only important in that they create a response in my protagonist. I can’t get too detailed in my account of what is happening because the whole is a movement towards Will’s decision to flee, and he can only see so much and—more importantly—can only process so much and in ways that make sense to him. What is happening is clear enough, I think, but Will’s unease and confusion has to be the dominant impression.

    AJ did a great job keeping to the POV and voice of his work. Many writers get lost in the battle *armaments* and *details* (instead of hinting at them, as AJ did so well) that their characters get lost.

    AJ — did I tell you that I positively swoon at a good battle scene? When I was dating, guys who hunted and soldiers home on leave were the bad-boys I was most interested in. (I wasn’t slutty. I just stared into their eyes said, “Tell me more, honey.”) You got no idea how much I learned.

    About war/weapons/fighting/etc. Mind out of the gutter, y’all… (grins) And, when other girls were reading romance, I was reading battle scenes (and studying weapons) from techno thrillers to fantasy to history.

    And before someone fusses — I don’t glorify it. Not at all. I’ve seen too many injured and dead to glorify violence. I was the one they used to call to obtain samples for testing from corpses. However, that said, before the advent of forensic nurses, I was also the one who had to collect samples from the victims of violence, and those images don’t go away.

    So violence, when done well, like AJ’s chapter, with the character growing and developing because of it, are wonderful, vital to me. And when the bad guy gets it in the end, I often cheer.

  • Thanks guys. Megan, yes, Faith’s answer approximates what mine would be. The idea in the scene is that the bows and crossbows–esp. the latter–move forward to take a single shot at the enemy directly (in their line of sight rather than raining missiles down on them indirectly, something that takes a better judgment of distance than these guys would have). Then the spears move in front to protect them as they load. I’m glad it worked for you.

    Faith, this is a new side of you for me. Next time I see you I’ll show you pictures of me sitting in a tank 🙂

  • Oh…. AJ. I’ll swoon. I will!

  • From what research I’ve done for RPGs, a composite bow doesn’t take much more time to load than any other bow. All it does is add draw strength while keeping the size of the bow down. This is why composite bows work so well from a horse.

    A heavy pull crossbow (the kind required to fell a man in full plate armor) would take quite a bit of time to reload, with using either a belt hook or pull lever or even a crank style winch for the really heavy crossbows. I’ve read that a crossbow was a bit faster at reload than flintlocks, at which an experienced flintlock shooter can get off 3-4 shots per minute, for what that figure’s worth.

    The main advantage of crossbows was that they took very little training to use, compared to longbows, which took years to master. The crossbow was a terror against foot soldiers who couldn’t really defend against even light crossbows (chain mail was of little protection and leather or hides less so), but still had punch issues against plate armor.

    QUOTE: longbows were more often used — shooting angled up (in a raining down pattern)

    Which is why it was called (arch)ery. Yes, typically it was. However, crossbows could be treated the same way, though I don’t know how the shorter bolts would work in that regard. I know the crossbows were designed with more punch for a reason.

    I think a painful grouping would be crossbowmen for the main charge followed by archers and then pikemen with the crossbowmen and archers falling back behind the pikemen against a charge.

    I have a feeling I’d love a class that just focused on weapons through the ages.

    And speaking of crank style crossbows, check this guy out:

    I really want that book.

  • And AJ, I will definitely be reading these excerpts. I did want to see if I’d get into the Act of Will stuff. I wasn’t sure it would be up my alley, but it sounds cool so far. I have to clear my plate a bit though, as I’ve taken on more work recently. 😉

  • Thanks Daniel. Hope you like it.

  • QUOTE: longbows were more often used — shooting angled up (in a raining down pattern)

    Okay, can’t help myself – all this talk of arrows raining

  • Beatriz

    LOL @ Misty.


    I want enough accuracy in my story, regardless of whether it’s in a battle scene, a hospital, etc., to keep me, the average lay person, from asking “WFT?” and being yanked out of the story. I don’t expect or demand an instructional manual when I’d reading fiction. I want a story, one that draws me in and makes me forget everything but the world they’ve created. If the author gets too bogged down in technical details, I’m apt to fall asleep or toss the book aside.

    Please bring the tank photo to Con Carolinas! Faith’s not the only one who’ll appreciate it. 😉

  • Beatriz

    This is what happens when you post before the first Diet Coke of the day.

    I meant to add that I thought you battle scene worked very well. Enough details to make me feel like I’m there, in the thick of things.

    I can’t wait to dig into this book. It’s waiting for me in my TBR stack– and I think this taste has just moved it up to the top of the pile.

  • Thanks Beatriz, both for the comment and teh clarification. After the first one I wasn’t sure! Hope you like the book.


  • Sorry, I’m a bit late with this but our novel and Gerald’s grad school took over my non- work time.

    I really liked Act of Will. I liked the battle scenes particularly because they were from Will’s viewpoint which gave them more emotional connection for me than most epic stlye battles told from multiple POVs or omniscient POV. I’m not a big fan of drawn out epic battles which seem like someone’s minatures wargame written into the book, I prefer to see things from a more personal point of view. I have a black belt in karate, so I am more comfortable writing single combat than epic things also.

    AJ will probably remember selling me his book, because it was at a panel at a convention, I think ConCarolinas. I had read part of it in B&N a few days before, but had not returned to purchase it. I was so excited he had books with him (I hadn’t found one in the dealers room), that I bought one immediately and I think we delayed the start of the panel a bit. I think AJ was a bit astonished that someone was looking for it, particularly someone he recognized from another convention. Hopefully someone will be that interested in buying one of our books one day.