Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest Post: Writing Battle Scenes

Check out the introductory post for more information on this blog series.

This week, Heather Domin talks about how she approaches the writing of battle scenes.

Being about a Roman legion, The Soldier of Raetia naturally contains a few big battles, and a few small ones too. As a reader I adore a good battle scene (it's one of my favorite things, actually) but until that point I had never written one — fights, duels, and confrontations, yes, but not a full army-on-army clash. I was very intimidated by the prospect — was I up to the task? Would my scene make any sense? Would it be too long, too short, too gross, not gross enough, or just a hopeless mess? Would Bernard Cornwell reach through the internet to punch me in the face? All very serious concerns.

Being me, I over-planned every last detail: maps, diagrams, flow charts, you name it. I procrastinated as long as possible, making mountains out of a molehills, until one afternoon I just sat down and wrote the whole first battle in one long shaky stab. Here's how I approached it.

1. Think big by thinking small. Battles are made of large anonymous masses, but my protagonist (in this case, Dardanus) is an individual. He can't see the whole field; he has no idea what's going a few yards away. Forget formations and choreography, he's just trying not to get his ass killed. I shrank everything down to the inside of his helmet: what is he hearing, seeing, smelling, doing? Dardanus experiences the battle from the inside, and therefore so does the reader. By doing that, I actually got a pretty good picture of the battle as a whole.

2. Write what I know. I've read battles written by former soldiers, historical reenactors, weapons experts — obviously I am none of those. I've never been in a fistfight, much less a kill-or-be-killed situation. I get the shakes when I have to write deadline reminders at work. How could I possibly tap into the mind of a warrior? Easy. Battle is all prettied up with uniforms, fancy weapons, ordered rows, etc, but the reality is basic animal instinct: rage, aggression, panic, fear, lust, danger, madness. I've felt all those things; every human being has. We all have those dark places inside ourselves, things we pretend we've evolved past. I let mine out in the safe confines of paper and ink. It's easier than you think.

3. Let fly. (I almost wrote "unleash hell". Aren't you glad I didn't?) Yes, to be accurate, I had to understand how a Roman legion worked, how it moved, tactics, formations, weapons, historical fact, etc. But I don't need to use all that on the page. Knowledge will come through on its own. Writing a battle scene is like writing a sex scene: you can scale it back later if it's too messy, but it's really hard to add in more if you lack the initial spark. Don't hold back. Get it all out and clean it up later. Put on music that makes your heart pound (it worked for me) and then let 'er rip.

This is how I handle all types of confrontation scenes, not just big battles: one-on-one duels, punching matches, supernatural showdowns, or burned romance. Whether a clash of sword-wielding warriors, a mid-air vampire fight, or a cheating lover confronted, the raw emotions are all there. Getting them out on the page is not only therapeutic for me and hopefully entertaining for you, but it's also fun as hell.

Check out my take on battle scenes at Rima's blog, and Rima's take in Heather's blog!

Don't forget: comment on any of our posts during this blog tour (even the old ones!) for a chance to win our 3 novels on March 22!

Next week, we'll cover writing male vs. female protagonists. See you then!

1 comment:

  1. The 'let fly' observation -- reminds Caesar: Let the Dice Fly, in Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series!

    That's a compliment, as you probably guessed. :)

    Love, C.