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Epic Battle Scenes on the Page and in the Heart

They say war is hell and I say writing about it is a hell of an undertaking. I’m going to try in these next few paragraphs to capture some of the critical triumphs, challenges, and pitfalls of the endeavor. This is something of a thinking-out-loud exercise; a stream of consciousness if you will. And I hope it’s helpful.

See, I have great affinity for the war story. War, whether hot or cold, has been a principal character in the vast majority of my novels. It makes for an excellent centerpiece or backdrop for a story in just about any genre – from thriller to romance. The stakes are always high, and the emotions are electric and deep. Every important human experience, human emotion, and human value is expressed either on a battlefield or simply during wartime. So, it’s no wonder we writers love to utilize it.

War is both a great unifier and a dramatic theater for conflict, so it’s also a study in contradictions. It pulls everybody into its vortex regardless of age or sex. From the soldiers risking their lives to the women who have historically been relegated to keeping the home fires burning; caring for the children, taking on the farm chores or factory jobs while their brothers, husbands, and sons are away. Since the dawn of civilization, as chronicled in our most ancient war stories (think Penelope), women have been depicted as the spiritual heart of the battlefield; living with the omnipresent ache of not knowing if their men will ever come back to them; living in the memories and dreams of those very men.

Of course, in today’s world women aren’t spared from combat and have taken on a burden that has, until recently, been reserved almost exclusively for the XY chromosome set. And war is a burden – a social, psychological, moral and physical burden. Yet, it’s also an adventure and offers the potential for true distinction and heroism. “War makes good men great,” as the saying goes, and most people, especially at the start of their adult lives, fantasize about opportunities to shine, be the best version of themselves – even or maybe because there are significant risks baked into that process of “becoming.”

Beyond the practicable adventure implicit in any war-related endeavor, there are also the matters of principal and virtue. War strips us down to our essence, wiping away our smugness. It both subjects us to and brings out our own blatant, unapologetic expressions of honor, faith, character, love, loyalty, patriotism and family – the very things that define us.

Yet, it also terrifies and destabilizes, enables psychopathology in the worst of us. It takes competent leadership, a strong moral compass, and discipline to remain civilized and resist rationalizing brutality for brutality’s sake in a time of war. That, in and of itself, can be a heroic feat, as we are often fighting not only for our very existence, but for everything we value as a people. For the type of world we want our children to inherit from us.

As writers, these are incredibly powerful things to bring into a fiction. And they are a tremendous responsibility. It behooves us to get it right, bringing both meaning and nuance to something so fundamental to our humanity.

While the moral and emotional aspects of war are a challenge to write about, the actual logistics, the physical acts of war are just as hard and often incredibly confusing. Writing a battle scene can be one part ballet and another part riot. Clarity of action, of focus, experiencing the action through a specific character or characters, must be met with extreme care, concentration and continuity. Otherwise, readers will get lost. Especially if a battle scene goes on for a couple of pages, which is a long time when you’re writing about people trying to kill each other.

That’s why when we actually sit down to write a battle scene for the first time, it’s important to get it out and force all the juice onto the page. There’s so much crude energy in a battle, and that’s going to be difficult to capture with a dithering mind and a hesitant pen. Think of what a feast for the senses you’re chronicling! There are fecal smells, as men and women lose their bowels on a battlefield, and there is also a raw sexuality there. Men can spontaneously ejaculate during battle and not even realize it. There’s sweat, the very pungent smell of fear. It is dirty and bloody, there’s the taste of iron in your mouth. All of this is going on while there’s also shooting coming from everywhere, grenades are going off, planes are overhead, dropping bombs or spraying the battlefield with bullets. If it’s a historical battle from hundreds of years ago, there could be hand to hand combat with daggers, swords, maces, and bludgeons. Your characters are doing whatever they can just to stay alive! It’s very important to get that energy on the page, even if it’s disjointed and frazzled on your first try.

And once you’ve done that, I recommend putting it away.

After I’ve actually sat down and written a battle scene, I take at least a day, ideally two, before I work on it again. Establishing distance after that first bloodletting is crucial to being able to identify where mistakes have been made, key actions dropped. A character might be punching, shooting, or running, and then suddenly they’re on the ground and it hasn’t been made clear how they got there. Or a character has stabbed someone in the neck, and the knife seemed to come from nowhere. It’s very easy, in the fervor of writing, to miss connecting those dots for the reader. We might see the action so clearly in our heads, but simply not transcribe it adequately enough.

It helps to think of writing a battle scene as a process of choreography. The order is simple: get the energy and movement down, then put it away. Pick it back up and add clarity, focus. Later, give it splashes of color and make the senses come alive for the reader. Energy, clarity, sensuality: layering it on like the steps of an elaborate dance. This process is incredibly important in writing something as wild and potentially devastating as a battle sequence. If your readers lose track of what’s happening, it takes them out of the fight no matter how exciting the action is.

Of course, some of the stories we write may never see any action up close, but they do take place during a time of war. These could be anything from historical sagas to space operas. In these wartime stories, we writers must always be looking for ways in which to find the connective tissue between the warfront and the day-to-day activities of main characters who aren’t on active duty, so to speak. Usually that tissue is a value, something the character is fighting for on a very personal level. They may be safeguarding a value that’s literally being fought for on a battlefield miles away, but that value informs every single thing that our character does and thinks about. Whether they’re making love or making dinner.

Think, for instance, about the act of making a Christmas dinner from an offering of paltry rations. Not only is it a religious expression, but one of hope and sacrifice. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the months of planning it would take to make Christmas dinner special during World War II. Going without, not buttering your toast or sweetening your tea for an entire season so that you’ll be able to save enough ingredients to bake a few cookies for the children.

It’s these very human details that bring the war story to life.


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