Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing an Epic Battle Scene

By Jill Williamson

This is the third post in a three-part series on writing fight and/or action scenes. Click here to read the first post, Writing the Action/Fight Scene, and click here to read the second post, Editing the Action Scene: Seven Ways to Make it Stronger.

Need help writing a great war? An epic battle? This post is for you.

If you’re writing one point of view at a time, then a full-scale, epic war is no different from the one-on-one fight scene. You can only show one battle at a time is one battle. There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps you are writing from the point of view of an onlooker on a hill. In that case, try describing one aspect of the battle at a time. How you choreograph all the little fight scenes and move from one to the next will help you show your epic battle.

This took me a while to learn. And, as always, I learned it the hard way. As I was working through my edits with my super cool editor Jeff Gerke, he said, “Why are all these people traipsing through the woods when they don’t know what’s ahead? They should send out some scouts. And what about the rearguards? What are they doing?”

And I was like, “What’s a rearguard?”

This made me realize I knew nothing about war and full scale battles. Another example of how necessary research is to storytelling. Armies move slowly, and they don’t just wander around, hoping to stumble upon their enemy. Commanders send scouts out ahead to see where the enemy is and check the lay of the land. This helps the commander decide where to move his group of several hundred—or thousand—men.
Even now, I’m far from an expert, and to tell a fun story, you don’t have to learn everything. I did learn the basic layout of an army and what each part does. I made a little diagram to give you an idea of how an army might look.
Who your character is will determine where he is in such a processional march. Here are the vital areas:

Scouts- these fellows ride ahead to locate the enemy. As they do, they consider the terrain to determine the best route for the army to take whether on foot or if vehicles are involved. Engineers might help scouts decide how to bypass major obstacles.

Security Guard- These men operate 2 to 6 miles in front of the advance guard. Once they find the enemy, the security force keeps watch on them.

Advance Guard- These soldiers stay about 1 to 2 miles ahead of the main army to protect the main army from surprise and to cover the main body if it becomes engaged in battle.

Main Army- This is the main body of the army. Units in the main body should know the situation at all times.

Flank Guard- Flank guards operate between the rear of the advance guard and the front of the rear guard to protect the sides of the main body. The flank guard is responsible for reconnaissance along the main body to make sure the enemy doesn’t attack from the sides. Flank guards also help with communication between the advance guard and the main army.

Rear Guard- Rear guards operate along the back of the main army and the flank guards. The rear guard must make sure no one sneaks up on the army from the back.

Commander- The commander positions himself in the main body so he can receive information, see the ground, and plan ahead for the deployment of troops. After the enemy is located, the commander should be far enough forward to influence the battle but not so far forward that he loses control of his troops.

Jeff recommended a book, which I found intriguing. It’s out of print, but I was able to find a used copy. It’s called Battles of the Medieval World 1000 – 1500. It goes into detail about many historical battles and includes tactical illustrations of the battles. Those were invaluable for me, since I’m a visual learner. So I drew out tactical battle plans for my story and it really helped me see how things might work. Here is my battle plan for the battle of Reshon Gate from the third novel in my trilogy, From Darkness Won.

I confess, I’m addicted to Photoshop. So here is my first sketch of the battle. As you can see, it’s pretty much the same, just not so pretty.
Planning out the general layouts of the terrain and your two army sizes will help you. You also want to know how the battle is going to end. This should give you enough information to brainstorm different ways the battle could go.

But here’s the deal: You don’t have to tell the reader everything.

Hopefully, you are writing from one point of view at a time. If this is the case, you only need to show the reader what is happening with that character’s part of the battle. If you have multiple points of view, you can place your characters in a way that lets the reader know what’s going on where. Tolkien did this in the Return of the King. We were in the main battle with Eowyn and Merry when they slayed the Witch King. And Aragorn and his crew traveled over to the Black Gates.

So think through your plot and what needs to happen. Then deal with each part as you would a single scene. Your main character should fight one battle at a time, then find out when he gets a breather who else was injured and how they’re doing.

Any questions about the full scale battle?


  1. What about dealing with the aftermath of a battle and the emotional effect it's had on your characters?
    I am really loving these posts by the way! Thanks so much, Ms. Williamson.
    ~Sarah F.

    1. You're welcome, Sarah!

      Sure you'd want to deal with the aftermath if it's important to your plot. Also, depending on how much of your story takes place during a war, you will want to show that emotional effect whether that's horrible memories, nightmares, or grief from the loss of a loved one.

      Did that answer your question?

  2. These posts of different kinds of battles are invaluable, as are the books you recommened: They have books on medieval swordfighting and battles!!! LIFESAVER! Thank you so very, very much!!

    1. I heart my Medieval Swordsmanship book. It's totally highlighted inside. I'm glad you found the posts helpful!

  3. Um, Jill? One thing - THANK YOU!!! I know this post will be exceedingly helpful! I'm bookmarking it!

  4. Ditto, Ellyn! I stopped writing my first novel years ago because I didn't know how to handle such a full-scale battle. This will be so helpful in writing battle scenes down the road, so I'm definitely bookmarking it as well. Thank you so much!

    One question I have is, how do you handle the more overwhelming aspects of such a full-scale battle? I have a hard enough time writing one-on-one duels, so having a scene where your main character is attacked on all sides would be challenging. Specifically, how do you distinguish between attackers when they don't have a distinct identity? There are bound to be many nameless soldiers involved in the battle, but using the word "he" and even referring to them as "the man" gets repetitive and confusing. How do you write a scene like this without confusing both yourself and the reader?

    1. Well, I dealt with this in my Blood of Kings books. One way I started was by reading battles in other books. I read the battle scenes in Return of the King and in The Queen of Attolia and other medieval books I had. Even watching Pirates of the Caribbean. And Saving Private Ryan was invaluable. While my books didn't have guns, the chaos and insanity of the battles in that film helped me.

      And you don't have to describe it clearly because your character won't see it all clearly. You'll have things like "Someone shoved me from behind."

      My third fantasy novel (From Darkness Won) starts out with Achan practicing this type of battle. I think he was fighting three or five at a time. Something like that. So I said things like "the man on the left" "the man on the right" or "the man with the dented helm" "the man with the bloody nose." And I had times where someone kicked out his knees. Try to find one distinctive trait to tell a few of them apart, but you don't have to do that will all of them.

      You could even write, "The man hit him again. Wait. This wasn't the same guy. What had happened to the first one?" And he could see him elsewhere or not see him at all or see him on the ground.

      Crazy, confusing stuff like that is okay for a crazy confusing battle. As long as it's clear what your character is doing. And you can edit it so that it becomes clearer.

      Hope that helped.

  5. My story does not have a mega battle scene, but I will certainly keep it in mind for the future. Thanks for teaching us about it!

  6. Great post! I'm coming up on editing my major battle scene soon, so we'll see how I did... ;)

  7. You sound like the perfect person for me to talk to about any fantasy questions I have... ;) haha. I don't write a whole lot of battle scenes just yet, but I definitely need to pick up that book you mentioned in your post.

    1. I *heart* fantasy, Jazmine!
      And Medieval Swordsmanship is fabtabulous!

  8. This makes me want to go back and re-read some LOTR battles. Super awesome!! :)

    Abbie /// XOXOX

    1. That's a great thing to do. I did. It gets you in the right mindset for writing your scene.

  9. thank you! I'm about to write a major battle scene (climax of the book) and this was helpful. Do you have any ways that you would recommend for writing about fighting a losing battle? Like, the MC has to fight, but there's no way she can win. And she doesn't. Do you have any ideas for how to describe a loosing battle as the MC sees it during the midst of the fighting and action? Sorry if that's confusing.

  10. Hi Jill,

    I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this article! It's really helped me out as I'm about two thirds of the way through my novel and was really dreading the big battle scene I have coming up. In fact, I've been deliberately procrastinating just to avoid it. But no more!

    Also, I was wondering what your take on first person POV switching is. I've heard that it's a major turn off for publishers and agents, particularly if you're just starting out, but I quite like that it gives my novel a different structure to most books. Plus, if I did decide to properly publish it at some point, it would be really difficult to go back and change it so it's just from Azula's (my leading protagonist) POV, mainly because some important events happen when she's not around that are critical to the continuation of the narrative. I've been advised not to worry about such things until I've finished writing the first draft, but I can't help it! Do you have any advice you could give me?

    Thanks again!

  11. Are their any other resources you know of for medieval/late medieval army structure, battle tactics, weaponry, etc? Anything along those lines is helpful.