Battles are a key feature of the fantasy genre. The battlefield is the place where ambitions clash, where Faiths collide, where heroes come of age, and where brothers fall. Battles must be thrilling and climactic; particularly, if they take place near the end of the novel. But bearing all of this in mind, why are some battles better (more pulsating) than others? The following eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle will put you in good stead, whether you are writing one-on-one combat, a pitched battle, a siege or an ambush.
Tip 1 – Decide Where The Battle Takes Place
The first of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle is as follows – when writers plan their stories, they must decide where the battles will physically take place.
For the battle to make logical sense in the narrative, it must take place at a (militarily) strategic location that advances the plot. The battle must occur at a certain location for a reason. Thus, before writers even reach the point of writing the battle, they must ask themselves why it is taking place there.
After Smaug the Dragon has been slain in The Hobbit, he leaves behind a trove of gold in the Lonely Mountain large enough to outdo Scrooge McDuck’s vault. The dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield) barricade the Lonely Mountain to keep the treasure for themselves.
The elves lining up before Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) to claim their share of the gold, as portrayed in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Only, Thorin had made promises to the elves of Mirkwood and the men of Laketown. He promised them a share of the gold once Smaug was defeated. So, it is no surprise that his former allies march to the Lonely Mountain to claim their share. (And then, it is equally no surprise that the orcs, who want to annihilate all life forms on Middle-Earth, attack them from behind). Therefore, the battle being positioned at the foot of the Lonely Mountain makes sense.
During Robert’s Rebellion, fifteen years before the story of A Song of Ice & Fire begins, Robert Baratheon famously beat Prince Rhaegar Targaeryan on the Trident. The battle took place there as:
The Trident is a river and provides a natural frontier;
The Northmen, led by Lord Eddard Stark, were riding south towards King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros;
Robert and his vassals had ridden north to join up with his northern allies; and
Prince Rhaegar Targaeryan had mustered royalist forces to the Trident to stop Robert and the northern armies from riding for the capital.
When Robert slew Rhaegar on the Trident and the royalist armies surrendered (or fled), it was logical that Robert, Lord Eddard and their combined armies made their way to King’s Landing. Thus, again, it made sense that the defining battle during Robert’s Rebellion took place at a strategically important location.
Tip 2 – A Battle Needs Sufficient Build Up By Creating Intolerable Pressures For The Characters
The second of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle surrounds the build up to the battle. Of course, the battle is where the action takes place. But the action will have maximum emotional heft if there is sufficient build up before the battle. (Indeed, without sufficient build up the battle is likely to be boring and devoid of emotion.)*
Therefore, before the battle, writers must create tension. Principally, writers can do this by making the major characters face intolerable pressures as they prepare for battle. The POV characters know (or at least fear) that they or their loved ones will die in the upcoming battle. That is bad enough. Writers can crank up the pressures further in two main ways:
The POV character has significantly fewer soldiers than his/her enemy forces; or
The POV character does not (cannot) trust his/her allies.
Example To Illustrate Way 1
In Season 6 Episode 9 of Game of Thrones (known more commonly as The Battle of the B*******) the Starks have less than half the number of men of the (reviled) Boltons. Jon Snow, leading the Stark forces to retake Winterfell, agonises with his key advisors in an attempt to come up with a battle strategy that will enable him to beat Ramsey on the field.
Jon, Ser Davos and Sansa (far left) discussing battle plans in the war pavilion the night before the battle the next day.
It seems like an impossible task. So, it is no surprise that when Sansa Stark suggests finding more men and to watch out for Ramsey’s psychological mind games, Jon reacts angrily. It’s not that Jon is an angry person by nature, it is just that the pressures are getting to him and that Sansa’s suggestions are neither helpful nor exact enough to be of use.
Example To Illustrate Way 2
In The Red Queen, Phillipa Gregory’s historical fiction novel on the Wars of the Roses, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, does not know if her husband, Lord Thomas Stanley, will fight for her son or for King Richard III at the upcoming Battle of Bosworth. Lord Thomas and his men hold the balance for who will win the battle. But he stations his war pavilion half-way between Henry’s and Richard’s armies; and is married to Margaret, yet his son is Richard’s hostage.
Thus, Margaret has no way of knowing which side Lord Thomas will choose, and he gives no hint either. Consequently, she repeatedly goes back and forth between her son’s and husband’s camps (and prays) in a frantic attempt to make sure that her son will be King Henry VII by the end of the battle.
*Disclaimer – When Build Up Is Not Required For Emotional Weight
The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan is a rare instance of how to write a phenomenal battle without any build up, whilst giving it great emotional impact. The key reasons for why this battle has such emotional impact is four-fold:
The battle happens right at the start of the film;
The film/narrative is about the D-Day Landings, so the audience is well versed with regards to the history of events leading up this moment;
The battle involves famous, well-liked actors;
The battle is shot and choreographed so magnificently well that viewers feel the raw terror that actual soldiers may have felt as they reclaimed the Normandy beaches in June 1944.
A still from the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. It may be fiction, but it captures the terror and the horror that Allied soldiers went through when they retook the Normandy beaches in June 1944.
If you, as a writer, can re-create a battle like this one, please write it. The opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece, and more battle scenes like it are always welcome. But you may need at least 3 of the 4 reasons as stated above for battle to have the required emotional weight.
Tip 3 – Have The Characters Reveal Something Unexpected About Themselves During The Build Up
As said in the previous point, the pressures that the major characters face in the run up to the battle must be intolerable. This is to generate anticipation and excitement.
Writers must show how their characters handle these pressures. Plus, writers can add another layer to the emotions running high before the battle by having their characters reveal something unexpected about themselves that adds value to the plot. After-all, they have the fear of knowing that they, or that those close to them, may die in the forthcoming battle. As a result of these revelations, the action that follows will be infinitely more enjoyable, meaningful and/or tragic.
The film Jarhead (2005) is loosely based on the memoirs of Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) during his time as a soldier in Iraq during the First Gulf War. The movie highlights how soldiers handle the stresses of the tedium before battle.
Yet, the nearer the time comes for battle, the more the pressures of the situation take their toll on those who will soon be in the thick of the action. Swoff (who also suffers from mental health issues and paranoia) has a psychotic breakdown.
Before the Battle of Badon Hill in the historical-mythical film, King Arthur (2004), Guinevere of the Woad tribe (played by Keira Knightley) sneaks into King Arthur’s camp and has sex with him. This not only satisfies their carnal urges (which they may never have another chance at). It also seals an unlikely alliance between the Woads and the Roman legionaries (led by Arthur) against the hated Saxons.
Tyrion having a final heart-to-heart with his brother, before setting him free before Denaerys’ attack on King’s Landing.
In Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5, before Queen Daenerys unleashes her forces (and her dragon) on King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister betrays her by setting his brother, Jaime, free. But before Jaime leaves, the two brothers have a heart to heart.
Tyrion admits that he would not have survived his childhood if not for Jaime. Consequently, the two brothers embrace and cry, knowing that in all likelihood they will never see one another ever again. This makes it more upsetting/tragic for Tyrion (and the viewers) when he finds his brother (and sister) dead in the next episode.
Tip 4 – Make The Reader Feel Afraid For The Characters Involved
The fourth of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle is about making the reader feel afraid for the characters. The reader needs to care about the characters who are fighting in the battle (not to mention those on the periphery who will be affected by the battle should the worst-case scenario occur).
When readers care about the characters, they fear for them. And when they fear for them, the battle is exponentially more gripping, to the point of setting hearts racing. Chiefly, writers can make their readers fear for their characters by making their main character, secondary characters, and villains or antagonists empathetic.
Example Of When You Have Been Afraid For A Main Character
In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman squares up to Bane (the first time) in the sewers of Gotham. Bane is intimidatingly strong and he seems to be able to take whatever Batman throws at him. Before long, the cold hand of dread clutches at the audience’s innards as we realise that Batman has met his match; that if Batman is not careful, something very bad is going to happen to him…
Batman getting a battering from Bane in the sewers. We feel afraid for Batman in this scene. For the first time, Batman has come up against someone who is physically stronger than him, and with just as much determination to bring ‘justice’ to Gotham.
The reason we feel this dread is because we care about Bruce Wayne/Batman due to how well Christopher Nolan crafted the character up to this point.
Example Of When You Have Been Afraid For Secondary Characters
At the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, during the Battle of Amon Hen, Merry and Pippin successfully distract the onrushing Uruk-Hai. This enables Frodo, the main character, to escape.
But soon enough, Merry and Pippin become surrounded by their enemies. With no way out, Boromir (another secondary character) rushes into the fray to save them. He holds off the Uruk-Hai for as long as he can, blowing his horn repeatedly in a desperate call for aid. Then, he gets pierced by arrows and loses his strength. Boromir, along with the audience, watches helplessly as the Uruk-Hai take Merry and Pippin captive, fearing that they will be tormented and tortured.
Example Of When You Have Been Afraid For An Antagonist
He may have become an antagonist by this point, but viewers knew that the end was night for Stannis when the Bolton cavalry encircled him and his depleted army.
In Season 5 Episode 10 of Game of Thrones, Stannis Baratheon sets out to take Winterfell with his army. While he is against the hated Boltons in this battle, it can be argued that he is the antagonist at this point. In Season 2, Stannis cheated on his wife with Melisandre, a Red Priestess, to create a shadow-demon that murdered his brother, Renly; and in Season 5 Episode 9, Stannis burned his daughter alive in the hope of winning favour from Rhillor, the Red God. So, for all his honour and talk of duty, Stannis is as much an antagonist or a villain as his opponents in this battle.
Still, despite his crimes, viewers fear for Stannis when Lord Bolton’s larger force ride out from Winterfell with a cavalry charge to encircle him and his maligned army. Moreover, viewers feel something (pity?) when Brienne of Tarth arrives to avenge Renly and give Stannis the fatal blow.
End of Part I
I hope you have enjoyed Part I, comprising of the first four of the eight great tips on how to write a phenomenal battle. Furthermore, I hope these tips and examples help you on your writing journey. We shall discuss the remaining four tips on how to write a phenomenal battle in Part II, where we will concentrate on during and after the battle.
PS: For more writing tips, with practical examples from fiction and fantasy, as well as fanfiction and interviews with authors, please fill in the form below.
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