Axioms of Light

Writing Effective And Believable Battle Scenes

Excerpt from Circle of Reign, book 1 of The Dying Lands Chronicle:

GENERAL ANTIOUS ROAN TORE THROUGH the enemy camps like a vengeful ghost, a maelstrom of steel and speed, moving from one enemy to the next faster than their blood could fall to the earth. I am a sturdy bough rooted deep in fertile soil. His armor had been shed in the forest, searing hot from the flaming pitch with which he had been splashed. Mud and blood were his armor now. I am iron and steel, molded from the fires of adversity. I am life to those behind me, death to those in front. Flesh tore and blood stained his sword. I am Arlethia, and she is me. I am her silent shield, her impenetrable armor, her terrible sword. The ground quickly became soaked and stained crimson as men around him were returned to the earth. She is my strength and my all. Those who stand against her stand against me, and shall swiftly fall. The orange glow from the burning forest west of the enemy’s lines imitated the arrival of dawn, as if the sun were rising on the opposite side of the world.

As the reviews of Circle of Reign started coming in after its release in late July, 2014, the most common thread of praise was for the book’s fight scenes and large-scale battle sequences. Earlier this month during a radio interview, the host asked what comes most naturally when I’m writing. “Romance scenes, right?”

Not even close.

For whatever reason, fight and battle scenes come the easiest to me to write as an author. I’ve often thought that maybe a psychologist would have a field day with me on that note. The radio show host (a female and good friend) was flabbergasted.

“No!” she responded with shock on her face that only I could see, but I’m sure the listeners heard it in her voice.

I think the pervasive shock on her face grew to wonderment as I told her that romantic elements were, actually, the hardest thing for me to convincingly write. (Side note: I have a great group of clean romance author friends whose books I have recently bought in droves to study their writing a bit which will make my wife an even bigger fan of my books).

So why battle scenes? Just because I’m a guy? The action itself?

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it for me.

I love stories where a few face nearly insurmountable odds, where those few are standing together because of what they believe or for some noble cause greater than themselves. Stories of the American Revolutionary War and the bravery of the few (only 3%, history tells us) that took up arms for all, including for the benefit of those colonials who were against them, move me greatly. There are many other examples in different settings I could share.

But what about writing a convincing battle scene? Do you have to be former military or SWAT to get it right? Study fencing and Tae-Kwon-Do? Use technical jargon to describe the attacks and counters?

My experience is that you can write great fight/battle scenes with minimal knowledge and technical vocabulary. Some knowledge is helpful, of course, nothing you can’t find online or by speaking with one or two experts in your community. In fact, you might actually find that the more technical you get, the less effective you are. Some is important to be credible, but your fight scene shouldn’t read like an instruction manual on sword fighting or proper shooting techniques!

Individual fight scene (2-4 participants)

Important Elements (note: you will not always find it appropriate to use all of these in a single scene):

Describe the setting briefly. You may he have already done this leading up to the confrontation. Don’t spend too much on this, your readers are expecting action by this point. Give it to them.
When describing the attacks, you are going to use shorter, less complex sentences. This style will flow better, giving the feeling of fast paced action. Just as sword strikes, punches and kicks happen in split seconds, your descriptions need to be, for the most part, brief.
Describe how the characters move. Is it fluid? In control? Swift? Sluggish? Are they tripping over themselves and crashing into chairs or bystanders? Is the adrenaline too much, making their movements uncoordinated?
Describe how the characters feel. Did the uppercut to your hero’s jaw feel like a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil, or was it a glancing blow that he barely registered before retaliating with his own jab to the kidneys? Did the rage dull the pain or the fear make the sting sharper? Did the motive of protecting her child from the kidnapper make her fight through the pain that would have otherwise been debilitating?
Use different points of view. I might get a little pushback on this, but as long as the narrative has a clear break (using a fleuron is very helpful), this can be effective. The antagonist will feel things differently than the protagonist. Making your scene believable will take both POVs. You can do this through dialogue instead, which is also helpful, but there’s usually not a lot of dialogue in a full on fight. At the beginning and end, there definitely can be dialogue, and those are great points to advance a story through dialogue as a high dramatic moment is about to or has just occurred (the fight). (Note: if your fight is short, just a scuffle, multiple POVs are not advisable). I don’t always use more than one POV in a fight scene, but it can be an effective tool.
That’s right, humor. At the end of Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the big battle is in full swing, deciding the fate of the world, and one of the Alethi high princes is casually sitting under a canopy, nonchalantly eating provisions meant for the soldiers. His wife is reading a novel, occasionally glancing at the battle as if she were watching a movie with half interest. Really? Yes, and it works brilliantly. (Ok, that wasn’t an example of a small-scale fight scene, but you get it).
Use the environment. If your fight scene is in alley, what is around that could be brought into play? A dumpster that a head gets bashed into, or ducked behind for cover from incoming bullets? A broken broomstick? A hubcap (as a shield) and a broken coke bottle (as a knife of sorts)? If it takes place in a forest, you have rocks, dirt, branches, trees and occasional beams of sunlight that pierce the canopy of branches to get your vampire opponent to stumble into. For example, this excerpt, set on an island beach, is from Altar of Influence: The Orsarian War, released on October 28, 2014:

Obviously feeling they might not best him with the blade, several dark marauders rushed him at once. He stabbed and slashed, but they still came, pinning him to the ground and holding him down. Roan struggled mightily, but could not free himself. Another enemy stood over him with a blade. It started to fall toward his chest.

Desperate, only one thing crossed his mind. Roan turned his head left and sucked in a large mouthful of black sand. The man holding his left arm received a blast of black sand in his face and eyes as Roan exhaled with all his might. The flinch was enough and Roan freed his arm, grabbed the man’s jaw, and brought his head over his chest in time to meet the blade seeking to impale him.

With fight scenes that are smaller in number, you see that very few elements have to do with technical descriptions of the fight itself. Setting, mood, motivation, feeling, and environment are all important factors. Your readers need very little help in imagining a sword thrust or knee strike. They get it. Just as important as the action is the emotion behind the scene. So, don’t neglect this aspect even though the scene is supposed to be fast-paced.

Large Scale Battle Scenes

All of the elements above apply with one notable emphasis (POV) and one addition (observation of others in the battle).

Here, we are considering an epic battle scene with potentially multiple fronts. It might go on for chapters. In order to give scale and impress on the reader the epicness of the fray (thereby increasing the importance on the unknown outcome), using multiple POVs becomes key. It need not be, say, 8-10, but 2-3 is probably going to be necessary. n

In essence, if you break a large-scale battle down into a few POVs, integrating the elements for smaller-scale fight scenes above, you all of a sudden have a large-scale battle.

The additional important element for large battles is observation. You are going to describe the hordes that face your protagonist: their number, their appearance, their demeanor. What does the ground feel like as they charge? What does it sound like as the mercenary group cycles their assault rifles, preparing to fire? What does the sky look like as a whole battalion of archers release their arrows? Does the acrid smell of gunpowder remind you of how your mother constantly burned toast for breakfast? Giving a bit of this will set the stage from which your characters can now perform; and, it will be believable. All you have to do now is describe the action that follows. Sprinkle in some feeling (surprise, shock, the pain from the loss of your best friend as you see him cut down with a spear before you could get to him) amid the action and you’ve got a heart-thumping action scene that isn’t just brainless action.

An excerpt from a multiple-chapter battle in Circle of Reign (this battle has 5 different POVs):

They bounded down to the forest floor, thinking the danger among enemy soldiers to be less than the danger of ever-increasing fire above. Their goal was not to engage the Sentharian army, but to outrun it. They sprinted about half a league north, dodging any who stood in their way and refusing to fight unless it was absolutely necessary. A eucalyptus tree exploded from the flames just ahead of them and sent wooden shards into Alrikk’s face. He reacted and covered Prime Lord Therrium with his own body as they fell to the forest floor from the concussion. The debris landed all around them, not discriminating between Arlethian and Senthary. Cries of horror were cut short as soldiers were crushed. With ringing still sounding in his ears, Alrikk stood up and raised Banner to his feet.

“Are you hurt?” Though he yelled, he could not hear his own voice. Therrium looked bewildered.

Alrikk shook him. “Lord Therrium, are you okay?”

Therrium nodded. He said something but the ringing in his ears was still loud. Deafening. The sound of another explosion cut through the sound of the bell tower in Alrikk’s ears as another eucalyptus tree succumbed to the fires. Therrium reached up and gently touched Alrikk’s face where dozens of splinters were lodged. The tips of his fingers came away wet with blood.

“It’s nothing to be concerned with, my Lord, I’m fine!” His hearing was returning.

“The blue gum trees,” Banner said. “They are exploding.”

Despite the stress and tension of the moment, Alrikk couldn’t help himself. “I hadn’t noticed, my Lord.” Banner cracked a slight smile.

“Incoming!” Alrikk screamed as he felt the approach of Senthary to their position. He and Therrium spun around so they were back to back. More than a dozen soldiers approached them, screaming and hollering with swords and axes upraised. The wood-dwellers sprang into action, parrying attacks and countering. Alrikk cut through a man’s arm as it came down upon him. After dispatching the soldier, he quickly picked up the dead man’s sword and wielded it along with his own. The urgency of his oath fueled his lethality as he defended the Prime Lord with all his skills and abilities. After taking down nine men one by one, he found himself without an immediate opponent. He turned to Therrium and saw four dead soldiers at his feet and the Prime Lord breathing heavily. Alrikk didn’t try to mask his look of surprise.

“What?” Therrium asked. “I’m a little old but still a wood-dweller, aren’t I? It will take more than a few Senthary to bring me down.”

They resumed their flight northward, avoiding all conflicts where possible. The sounds of the battle were more distant now, but the smoke and flames were still easily visible in the night sky.

In conclusion, I find that the battle scenes are not as much about the fighting as they are about the characters and their emotional trappings that you, as an author, put around them. Technical vocabulary and inch-by-inch descriptions of the tomahawk sailing through the air take away from the pace of the battles. Trust your readers, they will get it!

Altar of Influence: The Orsarian war is a prelude to the Dying Lands Chronicle.

Circle of Reign is book 1 of the Dying Lands Chronicle.

Both titles are available on Kindle, Nook, iBooks and Audible (narrated by Michael Kramer).