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?)
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?”
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.
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.
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.