Battle scenes

It seems many upcoming writers have trouble with describing action scenes. This is something I’ve been working on since forever and there’s still much and more to learn. But here are some things I’ve figured out.

First of all, a battlefield isn’t a playground. The Narnia books/movies have battles where the main fighters are children and hamsters. Excuse me? Grown men return from a battle broken and ruined and you want to see a 13-year-old charging a minotaur head on? Oh right, it’s fantasy.

With that mini-rant out of the way, I can finally concentrate on the important stuff.

Make your characters fight dirty. It gives you a whole new way of showing their true nature. Who thinks about fighting honorably when they are actually fighting? Most people think about surviving through a battle, not how they must remain pure and noble. A decent character can be ashamed of it later.

There are some authors who are good at action scenes and one should strive to learn from them. Steven Pressfield writes gripping battle scenes and in his books you can see that most of the battle isn’t fighting but the waiting, the emotional and physical stress. Concentrate on those if you want to make a battle scene realistic. For instance, Aragorn in Two Towers just went through the Warg fight scene, fell off a cliff, nearly drowned, rode all night to reach Helm’s Deep in time and then calmly put on a 20-kilo suit of chainmail and fought for another night without stopping. Not realistic one bit, even for fantasy.

If you’re writing from a single person’s perspective and your character isn’t sitting on top of the battlefield, forget about the zoom-out feature where a reader can see everything that’s happening.

Don’t forget to show physical fatigue of prolonged fighting. A round of canne de combat lasts 90 seconds. The fighting stick weighs 0.15 of a kilo, practically weightless. Before half of the round is done, your arm feels like a ton of lead and you’re clawing for breath in that plastic helmet. Now imagine fighting four hours non-stopping, in a 10-kilo suit of armor (if you’re lucky) with a 4-kilo sword or spear and a 5-kilo shield on top of that. In a closed metal helmet, weighing another kilo or two.

Show your character conserving his/her energy. Show the exhaustion. Show your character taking rest in the middle of a battle. It’s genuine.

3 thoughts on “Battle scenes

  1. Martin, these are excellent points. Many of us who’ve never wielded anything but a nerf sword have no idea how exhausting real combat would be. And I love the idea of showing a character’s inner self by how they fight, dirty or otherwise.

    • I’m glad you found it useful. I also posted a comment on the Prosers blog but it seems to have gotten lost again.

      Edit: Hm… Just posted another reply on Prosers and now I can see my previous post. Strange…

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