5 Keys to Writing Epic Battle Scenes

5 Keys to Writing Epic Battle Scenes

If epic battle scenes make such exciting climaxes, then a whole book full of them would be like the most exciting story ever, right?! … Right?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve skimmed pages of pointless fighting in order to get back to the plot.

Writing a book about a war promises excitement, but like any aspect of writing, you need to be writing epic battle scenes carefully in order to see them at their full potential. Let’s look at five essential guidelines for writing epic battle scenes.

1. Define the Character’s Goals

For a battle to be interesting, you need more than fast-paced clobbering. Action sequences must advance the character’s journey. Do this by establishing clear long-term, short-term, and medium-term goals.

The long-term goal is your protagonist’s overall story goal. Why is he fighting in the first place? Motives make a story gripping. The overall war needs to be rooted in a primal cause: life, hunger, sex.

The medium-term goal is the goal of the battle. Escape imprisonment. Commandeer that ship. Kill the spiky mechanical-armed slug thing (seriously can someone explain Grievers to me? Like are they just goopy slugs with robot arms?) Take note: this goal must be unique. If your protagonist’s goal in this battle is the same as the last battle, there’s a good chance this battle is redundant.

Short-term goals mean every sentence offers clear intention. Crawl over to that dropped mace so she can club the enemy. Climb the tower so she can enter the castle. Escape the grip of the spiky slug’s deadly robot … arm … thing. (Seriously what?)

Griever Maze Runner Movie

2. Follow the Rules of a Scene

Every battle is a scene, so follow the rules of scene writing to ensure each battle achieves its purpose.

For instance, the battle must change something in the overall plot. In Save the Cat, Bkake Snyder advises that every scene needs a polarity. What state is the world in when the battle starts? When the battle ends? Something about that state needs to flip: freedom to imprisonment, vengeance to regret, doubt to certainty.

Further, the battle must depend on what events preceded it and what will follow. Can your battle be placed anywhere in the story? If it can, it doesn’t advance the plot properly.

Scenes must include a goal, conflict, and disaster, and must be followed by scene sequels. The breathe-and-reflect moment offered by a sequel, however brief, is vital when a book is stuffed to its papery gills with action.

3. Make the Battle Personal for Your Character

Readers must care about the characters who are walloping each other. This is why opening with a long-winded battle often doesn’t work: we don’t care enough about the characters yet to care how the battle ends.

Use battles to show character. Show how they act and respond, especially in comparison to others who are fighting the same war. Does your character act according to his intentions? Does he shoot the enemy in the heart, or does his Ghost make him hesitate to pull the trigger?

Every battle must advance the protagonist’s arc. How are his inner and outer conflicts affected by the events of this battle? In the midst of the slaughter, show the protagonist’s evolving thoughts and relationships. Interlace the blood and guts with other subplots. How great is the opening of Kill Bill, when the girls halt the violence to greet Vernita’s daughter? “Hey baby! How was school?”

Vernita Green's Daughter Kill Bill

4. Simplify Your Grammar

It’s a basic rule, but it’s important. Action scenes need shorter sentences and paragraphs. Write choppily to convey urgency.

Structure your words in the order of action.

Convoluted: “From the knight’s scabbard, he grabbed the sword after dashing through the opening.”

Smooth: “He dashed through the opening and grabbed the sword from the knight’s scabbard.”

 Keep your word choices simple so they’re quick to read. Don’t make readers pause for that fraction of a second to read “he circumvented the razor-sharp blade” when you could have said “he dodged the blade.” A battle scene is not the time to show off your talent for poetry.

5. Think Like a Screenwriter

Because of their visual nature, battle scenes tend to work better in movies than in books. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t write an awesome battle. Just borrow some techniques from screenwriters.

For instance, dialogue is as important here as anywhere else. Verbalize the conflict through interactions.

Get as visual as possible. You might want to act out what you’re describing or draw it on paper to ensure everything makes physical sense.

Use the setting to your full advantage. The writers of Pirates of the Caribbean understand this tip well. Give your characters cool things to stab with, jump on, swing from, throw at the enemy, or wrap around the enemy’s neck.

Pirates of the Caribbean Elizabeth Swann Captain Jack Sparrow Keira Knightley Johnny Depp

When writing epic battle scenes, you must be carefully craft them from the top down—from their overall place in the story to the decision to use the word “bleed” instead of “phlebotomize.” Do it right, and you’ll end up with a book readers can’t let go of.

Tell me your opinion: What other strategies do you use when writing epic battle scenes?

5 Keys to Writing Epic Battle Scenes

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About Tiana Warner | @tianawarner

Check out Tiana Warner’s novel Ice Massacre for the sort of fast-paced clobbering you won't be able to put down. Tiana was born and raised in British Columbia, Canada. She enjoys riding her horse Bailey and collecting tea cups. Find her on Twitter: @tianawarner.

Comments

  1. I would love to explain Grievers to you, but despite numerous attempts, I found the Maze Runner too painful to read. The writing was so bad and the whole idea so contrived that I could not suspend my disbelief long enough to get even half way through.

    An even worse crime against humanity is that the book was made into a movie. Why, when there are so much better stories available, would you adapt this book of all you could choose from? Has no one ever heard of Eoin Colfer who writes his prose as if he is writing screenplays? With only a minimum of editing, has Artemis Fowl books would make direct adaptations to movie without losing a single ounce of the book’s charm.

    • “Why, when there are so much better stories available, would you adapt this book of all you could choose from?” > Don’t even get me started! So many talented screenwriters out there, yet they choose to create movies like “From Justin to Kelly”.

      Life’s great mysteries…

      Thanks for your comment Rick 🙂

  2. Rick,
    Ahhh, the great mystery of YA is: if it’s on the bestsellers list, make it into a movie! I also had a hard time with this book, but the friend who recommended it loved it! He writes epic fantasy stories, but always fizzles out when it comes to the battle scenes. He just can’t get the words to correctly describe the images he sees in his head. This article would be excellent for him! I think he views these epic battles as ways to show off the cool weapons he created for his story, with no actual thought as to how the battles move the story forward.

    Great post, thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thanks, Janelle. I actually didn’t realize James Dashner had other books. I’ll have to check them out, because I did love the overall premise of the Maze Runner!

      You’re so right: battle scenes should NOT just be an excuse to show off the cool weapons the author created!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Tiana!

  4. That was very interesting and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing it. I don’t know if this counts but the closest I’ve come to writing a battle scene is in my last book where the protagonist carries out his objective of shooting up his school and inflicting massive casualties on those who made his life so miserable. At the end of his spree, the playground is strewn with bodies and the able are all cowering on their classroom floors. He then achieves his ultimate objective of self termination. Would you call this a battle?

    • Wow, heavy stuff! Yes it sounds like it does count as a battle, provided the protagonist is met with opposing forces during this scene. Having a character rush through and shoot a bunch of people has shock value, but a truly good story will come from ensuring the character is met with both inner and outer conflict along the way.

      • Thanks and I feel confident I do ensure the protagonist has lots for inner and outer conflict before the bloody climax. Unlike other books, I’ve read about school shootings (We Need to Talk About Kevin, 19 Minutes, Endgame) I don’t start with the shooting and I have been told that I do a great job building sympathy for the protagonist that by the time he does the deed, the reader is saying “I don’t blame this kid.”

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    The Representative isn’t about war, though much of how it’s been written is informed by the general narrative principle that you espoused Tiana:

    Reason. According to the overall narrative arc, when best it’ll fit in.

    This is why knowing the full narrative trajectory in general is an essential – you can’t otherwise know when it’s best to insert something in, as well as the best way to narrate it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Thomas. I agree, and that’s why an outline is so important (or the willingness to cut/move/modify scenes that don’t fit, if you’re a pantser).

      • thomas h cullen says:

        I wanted to contribute, whatever the adjustment to be relevant. (The post you wrote deserved something.)

  6. This is great advice. Every suggestion you provided would be useful for any writer, thanks for sharing.

  7. robert easterbrook says:

    That is what I’ve been told is becoming the ‘normal’, and if I don’t write this style I can forget about ever being published.

    I was told that by published authors in my genre. Well, they can eat their own books if they want.

  8. This is great! I’ve always wondered about writing battle scenes. I don’t remember ever reading any memorable battle scenes (probably, cuz like you said, they tend to be boring that I end up just skimming through them).

    “Simplify your Grammar” is an especially helpful bit of advice, since I sometimes feel that complicating the writing of these scenes makes for better reading. Apparently not. Thanks Tiana!

  9. I loved what you said in number two because it fits my philosophy of : if it’s not needed, throw it out.
    Like you said, the battle must somehow change the overall plot in some way. What would be the point if it didn’t?
    I also like the input on simplifying grammar. I am all about word economy 🙂

  10. This post really helps me for my self-quarrels over pacing as I attempt to distinguish, in my outline, which battles to show and which to tell.

    Thank you very much.

  11. I really like the concept of Long Term Goals, Medium Term Goals, and Short Term Goals. Though I will likely employ them in a different way.

    Long Term goals could measure the whole book itself, but could also be a reflection of the series itself. So with Long Term goals, we should divide them up to be Long-Term (Book) and Long-Term (Series).

    Medium Term goals would be trying to get to the next event (or the one after that) in the story. They are in the situation they are in now, but needing to get out of it so they can go to the next event, whether major or minor.

    Short Term goals is dealing with the event at hand. How do they resolve their current situation.

    • Thanks for your comment, Christopher. I like your take on the long term goals for a series. It’s worth thinking in a “fourth dimension” like that when planning more than one book.

  12. Great advice!

    One thing I’ve always loved about book battle scenes versus movie battle scenes is the ability to be in the character’s head, seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels. I think this is one really major advantage books have over movies, because while movies can make a really cool looking fight, we authors get to dig deep into what its like to actually be in that fight, and feel the emotions of the combatants, their pain, fear, triumph, whatever. This is especially true when the battle holds huge emotional stakes for the character.

    Some of my all time favorite battle scenes come from the naval fiction of C.S. Forester (the writer of the Horatio Hornblower novels); he is brilliant at this. You get to feel the tension of chasing down an enemy ship, of sending off a volley of cannon balls only to have your view obliterated by the smoke so that you are left in a fever of uncertainty till it clears and you can take stock of what is going on and what damage its done to the enemy. Best of all, you get to be right there with the captain as he tries to out-think and out-sail his opponent, and see all the inner turmoil that comes with such a job. Its marvelous.

    I also recently read a short story whose name and author escapes me, but was featured in “The Big Book of Hearts of Oak” anthology, that did a grand job at showing a battle from the perspective of a seaman assigned to a gun crew (yes, another example from naval fiction. What can I say, it thrives on battles ;p). I was really interested to see how the author would keep things interesting, since the protag was stuck behind a cannon on a lower gun deck, where he could see nothing. I was a little afraid it would get boring, with them just repeating the loading and firing of the gun. Boy was I wrong. The author thoroughly explored the realities of what it would have been to be working a cannon during a battle at sea: the smoke and soot, the noise, the shaking of the deck as the guns were discharged in unison, the skill it took to aim and fire the cannon so that it hit its target, the danger from enemy cannon balls (which are extremely good at shattering wooden hulls, as it turns out), and the fear and tension of it all. He was really good at getting us inside the protag’s head. He also showed how well sailors down there could guess at what was going on above decks by the sounds they caught, feel of the ship when the enemy’s fire hit home, etc. I was surprised at how well the author kept the reader informed on how the battle was going, even though we never actually saw any of it.

    That’s the biggest advantage books have over movies when it comes to fight scenes, I think. The ability to see and feel the fight right along with the main character; the ability to experience it, instead of just watch it.

  13. Yes, I love the way in which “Pirates of the Caribbean” use the settings, ahah!

  14. Tristan says:

    Hi there, my name’s Tristan and I’m currently 15 years old. I am a big fan of fantasy books (Tolkien, Lenahan, Martin,…) and I decided to become a writer. I created my own world, my own countries, species, towns, I made two languages (a new elvish language and a language that tribesmen use). I’m glad I read you post and wanted to know if yourself or anybody else is interested in what I’m doing. I have a facebook page where I post my chapters and maps. Tales of Mhirael, google it. Thanks for letting me know,
    Tristan

  15. Hi, my name’s Esther and am 18. I have always been interested in novels both writing and reading them but all have done is unfinished projects so this month i decided to pick one up and see if i can finish it up. So have been stuck on a battle scene and being sincere i had no idea how to start and the battle was meant to go in the 5th chapter but after reading this am thinking the scene is coming in too early. Anyway thanks for the tip

Trackbacks

  1. […] Continue reading my guest post at Helping Writers Become Authors […]

  2. […] Warner has an article on the same topic, writing Epic Battle Scenes; check it out. Keep at it—keep practicing writing all that intense action, and before you know it […]

  3. […] blog for starters from Standoutbooks. Robert Wood sums up the basics for writing a fight scene. 2. 5 Keys to Writing Epic Battle Scenes: Before you get to into writing, Tiana Warner shows you everything you need to set up before you […]

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