There is an art to literary violence; it takes a poet’s eye to conjure the sights, sounds, and smells of the battlefield. Deftly must the writer weave action with detail, enough so that the reader is transported from his comfortable surroundings and thrust into the scrum of hand-to-hand combat. Without artistry, the hack-and-slash grows quickly repetitious – a litany of blows, feints, snarls, and howls followed by a catalogue of lopped limbs and pierced vitals.
Let us presuppose a few things, for a moment. Let us take for granted that you, Gentle Reader, are an author and that you have achieved a basic competence in the writing of singular combat. You know to keep your sentences short and punchy, to engage the senses, and to eschew the “strike and parry, strike and parry” sort of narrative (the sort of writing that reads like the transcription of a combat turn from last week’s session of Dungeons & Dragons). And, if you’re not familiar with the rules for writing action, let’s presuppose that you’re going to go over to The Night Bazaar and read Betsy Dornbusch’s article on action and fight scenes.
So, now that you’re back, the question becomes: what if my story takes my characters into a large-scale battle, replete with flights of arrows, shield walls, and a horde of screaming Orcs? How do I keep it from drifting into the land of boring repetition? Or do I simply gloss over it?
The answer, of course, depends upon the necessities of your plot, the characters you’re writing, and the genre. The preparation, execution, and aftermath of a single large-scale battle can fuel an entire book – witness Pressfield’s Gates of Fire or Cornwell’s Agincourt or David Gemmell’s Legend – or it can serve as a cornerstone event that either kicks off the narrative (Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage) or serves as its climax (Angus Donald’s Holy Warrior, or my own Men of Bronze). But, regardless of where they fall in your manuscript, set-piece battles are fraught with dramatic possibilities. Use an epic clash to highlight your characters’ gifts – or to emphasize their flaws. Put your characters on the losing side. Injure them. Break them. Let them shine.
Here are a few simple guidelines for writing battle scenes:
1. Do your research.
Whether you’re writing about the Battle of Marathon or the Battle of Fangtooth Hill, research is ever your best friend and most useful ally. On the historical side of things, the past will suggest troop complexion and deployment, equipment, the physical landscape, tactics, notable personalities, and the general flow of battle. Sometimes you’ll get conflicting information – things as basic as the day or time the battle occurred, who was there, or how it played out. That’s where creative license comes into play. What makes the most sense to you? What helps your narrative?
Fantasists, too, should pay close attention to historical research, since you can adapt and import every aspect of the past to your fantasy world to lend it a sense of verisimilitude. In fact, why not find a similar battle from history and use it as a basis for the epic clash at Fangtooth Hill? It worked for David Gemmell – the Battle of Dros Delnoch in Legend is but a fantasy retelling of the Greek defense of Thermopylae in 480 BC.
2. Remember to engage the senses.
Just like in smaller fights, the senses play a huge role in translating to the reader your character’s fear, excitement, wonder, resolve, what have you, about the coming battle. To the common catalog of our five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing – I would suggest adding a sixth: emotion. For most soldiers (and most characters), fear prior to going into battle is a common reaction. Even combat veterans experience it – that gnawing sense of the unknown; that moment where they wonder if these will be their last hours alive:
Tension knotted Memnon’s gut. He knew he should say something to the men around him — a word or two of encouragement, perhaps a fitting quote — but his eloquence deserted him, the first casualty of phobia. Instead, he contented himself with looking up and down the line. Each man developed his own ritual before battle, some small thing he could do to restore a measure of control over his emotions. For the veterans, something practical — a buckle readjusted, a sword loosened in its sheath, a handful of dirt abraded along the grip of a spear. Those less experienced preferred the spiritual observances — a talisman kissed and tucked away, a prayer chanted under breath, a dialogue with the gods responsible for winnowing spirits from the battlefield. As always, one or two of the soldiers possessed irrepressible humor; their jokes and the attendant laughter calmed even the most terrified among them.”
– Memnon, 2006.
Sight, sound, and smell are easy enough to imagine, but what is there to taste or to touch on a battlefield? Simple: you can taste sweat, blood, smoke, dust; you can touch sweat-soaked wrappings on a sword hilt, armor made hot by the sun, or the sticky slickness of your own entrails. Read widely and imagine. Weave these details together – but sparingly. Don’t overwhelm the reader.
3. Pacing is everything.
This bears repeating: PACING IS EVERYTHING. Just like a smaller fight scene, between two combatants, the pace of a set-piece battle should have an ebb and flow like music; it should have momentary lulls where your characters can think or speak, or where you can inject a bit of strategic overview, followed by moments of desperate action that rise throughout the piece until they reach their shuddering crescendo.
Sometimes, large-scale battles necessitate multiple points of view – multiple eyes to grasp the scope and scale of the destruction. This is one of the great strengths of Gemmell’s Legend: he makes the tactics of the battle crystal-clear by seeing it from multiple POV characters, both allied and enemy. As you plot out your battle, be mindful of places where you can insert other eyes to clarify what is happening on the ground. But, don’t merely create throw-away characters – do your best to integrate them into the whole narrative, so they won’t merely pop up like an embedded journalist, relate their tale, and fade away.
If possible, use dialogue to your advantage as you relate the tactical disposition of your forces. I prefer to insert some kind of scene where the command character is laying out the field – it adds personality and relays information in one package:
The sun was well past its zenith, and the heat of afternoon lay like a stifling blanket over the Nile valley. A mile distant, across a sandy plain where the cultivated lands touched the desert, Assad could discern the vanguard of the Nazarene army, their harness flashing like lightning through a haze of dust. Nigh-deafened by the roar of the Turkomans, Assad nevertheless gave ear to Shirkuh even as he watched the enemy fan out into a line of battle.
“—are tired from their march, thirsty, and unprepared to fight! Amalric thought to find a fretful city on the verge of capitulation, with an unseen ally plucking the strings of power in a song of submission! He did not expect to find an army facing him! He did not expect the lords of Damascus to join with the lords of Egypt!” The gathered officers bellowed their approval. Shirkuh calmed them with a raised hand. “Blessed Allah saw fit not to grant Amalric a surfeit of imagination where the waging of war is concerned. He is predictable. Even now, he arranges his lines as he always does: his cursed knights in the center with his infantry defending each flank. He will try and use his horsemen as a carpenter uses a wedge, to split our formation. I am of a mood to turn his conceit against him.”
Shirkuh drew a dagger and knelt in the sand. He sketched out a series of lines; then, gesturing to his nephew, he said: “Yusuf, take the left wing. Dismount four thousand of your men and have them dig their heels in against the Nazarene infantry. Load the remaining thousand with as many arrows as their horses can carry and send them against Amalric’s flank. I will do the same on the right. Harry them without mercy, Yusuf. Force them to wheel and we will crush them in on themselves. You, sons of Cairo, you will have the center. Nay, do not cheer so, for you will bear the brunt of Jerusalem’s cavalry charge.”
Turanshah stepped forth from the knot of Cairene officers, grim and deadly in the plain gray mail he had adopted since his fall from grace. “You honor us, Amir Shirkuh. Let Allah witness my oath: we will not falter.”
The Kurdish general grinned. “Ah, but I want you to falter. When Amalric’s cavalry presses you, fall back. Draw them off in pursuit. The Nazarene will break his own lines to keep up.”
A slow smile spread across Turanshah’s face. He salaamed and returned to his place. Shirkuh stood; he stropped his knife against his trouser leg to clean sand from the blade before sheathing it, and then swept his sobering gaze over the assembled officers. “It is a soldier’s duty to risk all in battle. If any among you fear death or slavery, then I say you are fit to serve neither Sultan nor Caliph! Go home, if fear threatens to unman you! Put down the sword and take up the plough! Raise goats! Stay with your wives for you have no place here among true men, if indeed true men you are! I go to fight! Will you come? What say ye?”
The officers responded with one voice, a roar that echoed across the plain: “Aye!”
“Take your marks, then!” Shirkuh bellowed, vaulting into the saddle. “And may God grant us a swift and easy victory! Allahu akbar!”
– The Lion of Cairo, 2010.
And then, when the time comes for the spears to shatter and blood to run, incorporate all the narrative devices you’ve picked up from your readings. Keep your sentences short and punchy. Engage the senses. Use lulls and surges. Keep your over-arching plot in mind as you write – remember: no character should be on the field solely to split enemy skulls. This leads nicely into our next point . . .
4. Give your characters a task to accomplish.
If you’re like me, then you’ve got the tactics covered via extra sets of POV characters’ eyes; you know the ground, the equipment, and the enemy disposition. But, you’re not writing history (even if it’s historical fiction); you’ve got a number of extraordinary individuals running around your battlefield. Give those fellows something to do besides carrying a spear, shouting orders, or splitting wigs. Alan Dale, in Donald’s Holy Warrior, was a messenger between Locksley and the King at the Battle of Arsuf. That got him out of the battle lines and gave him more to do – which meant optimizing his dramatic potential. Is your character’s mortal enemy in the field? Is he on the enemy side or on the allied side? Even something relatively “small”, like a break in the allied line that needs defending, is imminently better than keeping your characters stationary.
They’re the heroes, for pity’s sake . . .
And, if need be, give them a glorious death:
Against Nebmaatra, the Hyrkanians fought like madmen. The first few hours served to pare the fat from the Egyptian lines. Soldiers who were too slow, too afraid, or too reckless fell first. They were good men, all, but they lacked the killer instinct of the survivors. Those who remained were harder than granite. Again and again the Egyptians hurled the enemy down the slope, only to watch them reform and charge once more. They were relentless.
“Watch the flank! Don’t let them overlap us!” Nebmaatra shouted to his captains during one of the many lulls in the fighting. Below them, a wall of snarling faces surged up the hillside. “Here they come again!”
A scream pierced the din of combat, a sound unlike any Nebmaatra had heard this day. It wasn’t fury or pain that wrenched that yell from a soldier’s lips. It was defeat. Another scream, this one closer. Then another. Sensing something wrong, the Egyptians grew panicked. They rolled their eyes toward the center, toward Pharaoh’s banners, and saw the core of the army in retreat. Panic turned to fear, and despite their granite-hard exteriors, that fear sapped any vestige of honor they might have had. They threw down spear and shield and ran, following the example of the Son of Ra.
The Hyrkanians, sensing imminent victory, redoubled their efforts.
“Stand!” Nebmaatra roared as Pharaoh’s army crumbled. “Stand and fight, damn you!” A few heeded his cry, but not enough. The Hyrkanians crushed the right flank as if it were made of pottery.
Nebmaatra found himself alone. His guard lay dead about him, crowning the small hill in a ruin of flesh and bone. The Hyrkanians gave him little respite. Already they were streaming past him, a river split by a lone rock, to fall on the unprotected flank of the center. The Egyptian swayed. He was covered in blood, much of it his own, his corselet in tatters and his helm long since lost in the wrack. Gore clotted the blade of his sword.
For a moment he stood again in his family’s home, in Thebes. A breeze ruffled the linen sheers; sunlight striped the tiled floor. He saw a scribe delivering his chest to his sister, saw her open it. She was thin, like their mother, with large eyes the color of a moonlit pool. Her husband, a quiet man who served the temple of Amon, stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. “He lived the best way he knew how,” he said. His sister bowed her head . . . .
The noose of Hyrkanians tightened. They rushed forward. The foremost among them fell under Nebmaatra’s blade. The Egyptian bellowed in defiance and hurled himself at a barbarous Hyrkanian, splitting his helmet open. The injured man’s axe crushed his shoulder. Nebmaatra reeled. A slender lance darted past his failing guard to bury itself in his chest. The Egyptian fell to his knees; his sword dropped from his weakening grasp. He coughed blood.
Nebmaatra craned his neck and stared at the sky. Gray and white clouds drifted across the face of the sun god, Ra, sparing him from witnessing the shame wrought by his son, by Pharaoh. Many were his tears, and they spilled down from the heavens like rain . . . .”
– Men of Bronze, 2005.