No matter how high-minded we might be when setting out on the road to writing a fantasy novel, no matter how noble our aims and how just our purpose, oftentimes we end up mired in violence.
That’s because combat is to fantasy what the future is to science fiction; it’s rare to find a plot that doesn’t at some point require somebody to be skewered on a sword in order for the story to progress. And let’s be honest, most of us enjoy the bloodshed. It’s entertaining, cathartic and when done right it exposes hidden aspects of the characters. That’s because in times of stress, people’s strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears and motivation are laid bare.
(One at a time or altogether, you’re still gonna die. Because I’m in the sequel. Are you?)
Usually we begin with duels. A scrap in a village, a skirmish outside of town, a dangerous rescue mission in enemy territory… small-scale action scenes that are fairly easy to arrange. The participants are few, the combat brief. But eventually, we come to the big finale. Two armies square off on a field; maybe some dragons turn up or someone unleashes a giant demon. Then we find ourselves describing the movement of hundreds of warriors, dozens of graphic deaths, various tactical maneuvers with all their errors and ingenuity. And in the midst of this, our characters dice with death and glory.
Handling a large-scale battle sequence seems daunting. But with a little planning, such sequences become the most straightforward pieces of writing you’ll ever do.
Setting out the Stall
Action sequences are all about telling the reader what happens where, to whom, and in what order. They’re that simple. Flesh out the bones with some impressive rhetoric, a few lines of doom-laden poetic language, perhaps some well-placed zingers*. Make sure your heroes and villains stay within the delineations of their ability. Keep them vulnerable enough that their success is never assured, but strong enough that the reader doesn’t tire of their whining.
But most of all, keep mindful of where they are, where they’re going, and where they end up. This is much easier than it seems at first.
(In the end it all comes down to this. Four heroes. Two… uh, dogs with goggles.)
First of all, you need to know what’s going to happen in the battle. What are your characters going to do? Your list might end up looking like this:
Alvic Greensprint kills the evil Thox Skullsmasher in a duel
Sonia of the Vale saves the Knights of Berno using magic, proving her worth
The Blades of Kulkmar get their revenge against the Bodyguard of Skrom
Lug the Dragonling finally manages to breathe fire, defeating Venomwing the Mirthless
Evil Baron Zuff flees with his men after Thox falls, and the heroes cheer, etc.
Now you need to get your head around the armies. Try making a list of all the different forces on the field. ‘Thousands of fighting men’ isn’t good enough. You need to know the names of the detachments, what they’re armed with, who leads them. Do this for each side.
Then sketch out the battlefield. It might be a patch of grass, or it might be a ruined city. Or it might encompass both. If you’ve got fast flying units like dragons, be mindful that this might boost the size of the battlefield. Also remember that flying lizards that breathe fire can easily outflank regiments of heavily armoured knights. That’s right – you need to work out the abilities of your units too. Heavy infantry will not – repeat NOT – outwit dragonriders.
Now place the units on the battlefield. Arrange them where you think the generals would arrange them. Place your heroes and other characters of note. Refer to your list of events. Are the characters in the right place? How are they going to reach one another in order to achieve what you set out in your list?
Sketch out a second view of the field. Keep it simple. Show where the units have moved to. Make notes about what happened during this part of the battle. Do this as many times as necessary, until all of things on your list have come to pass.
Now all you need to do is describe this to the reader. With the sketches infront of you, this will be as easy as pie. Much easier than that scene you had to write about Bullian Stormfold discovering that Laris Palaron was really his mother, or the scene where Jeroth had a wet dream about a kobold. That one was an editing nightmare, right?
Sources of Inspiration
Throw a rock at the bookstore’s fantasy section and you’ll hit a novel with a battle scene in it. Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates is, for much of its 1000-page length, one masterfully-arranged running battle. Or, if time is short, watch Battle of the Five Armies (although I’m not super convinced this battle is that carefully laid out; it’s more a series of vignettes. That approach works better on screen than it does on paper). You should probably read the Iliad. In fact, do it. Read the Iliad.
(Jeez. The glossary is going to be massive…)
In what I thought was my miss-spent youth (but actually turned out to have been rather diligently spent – who knew?) I read a lot of fantasy and wargaming magazines. One, UK-based Games Workshop’s monthly publication White Dwarf, contained regular battle reports. Along with the photographs of hordes of beautifully painted models were turn-by-turn descriptions of a) what the players did, and how the dice rolls went, and b) how this manifested in the narrative. Alongside the words were wonderful diagrams of the battlefield with little banners representing the units and heroes. Here’s how it looked. It’s a good model for your battle scene sketches.
If you want to see how the internet has changed the reporting of wargame battles, Youtube is your friend. It’s full of ‘batreps’. For fantasy, Age of Sigmar or Warhammer Fantasy Battle are good things to look for if you’re working out a large-scale war. For Science Fiction, Warhammer 40k battle reports involve dozens of squads, tanks and flying machines. For skirmishes, where small groups move across the battlefield, bobbing and weaving through cover, you can’t beat Infinity (the Corvus Belli game, not the Disney thing) or Malifaux if Steampunk’s your thing. If this all seems a bit ‘boys and their toys’, then WarGamerGirl’s channel provides a less testosterone-driven view.
Of course, just reading lots of battle sequences in fantasy or science fiction may well do the trick. Absorb enough and you’ll develop good instincts for what works, and what doesn’t. But as with everything, a little planning and clarity in the early stages will make the execution that much faster, easier and more effective.
* One of my favourite action scene zingers is from the 90s sci-fi movie Dark Angel. The evil alien says, “I come in peace,” to which the hero replies, “and you go in pieces.” Boom. Shakespeare would have been proud of that.