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.
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.