Writing the Big Battle Scenes

One of the things that really annoys me as both a writer and a reader is poorly executed battle scenes. So often I find them to be disappointing. Many authors seem to adopt a vague approach to writing these scenes, as if vagueness on their part some how conveys the confusion of battle to the reader. It does not. A lack of clarity just suggests a lack of research or, even worse, a lack of understanding. Some writers take the approach of adopting an eye in the sky perspective. They describe the conflict as if they are looking down on the battlefield from a great height. Although that approach can be useful for describing troop movements it also leads to the reader being removed from the action. Putting distance between the reader and the characters that they are supposed to care about is never a good idea.


Cirrius, the City in the Clouds. Home to the Queen of the Mountain Kingdom.

When I started writing the ‘Sorrow Song Trilogy’ I realised quite early on the importance of giving an accurate description of the three major battles that each book concentrates on. I go a long way to explaining why they occurred, where they happened, the influence of the local geography, and the decisions made by the commanders that ultimately led to the outcomes. I did not adopt an eye in the sky approach but instead have chief characters describe events as they happened from their point of view. I used the same method to explain to the reader the arms, armour, and tactics that the warriors would use. All of this was the product of countless hours of research. In one review a reader mentioned that my battle scenes took them into the heart of the conflict and proved very immersive. I think that is exactly what such scenes should be like. Every reader has an imagination; an author should exploit it to the full. Lazy writing just frustrates it.

‘The Queen of the Mountain Kingdom’, still a working title by the way, concludes with a large-scale battle. As I have moved away from the usual medieval setting for this fantasy book I have had to do more research. The aim of the battle remains exactly the same as that pursued by the protagonists at Fulford Gate, Stamford Bridge, and Sentlache Ridge near Hastings of course; to overcome the enemy. The detail is in how they go about it. I have read up on the appropriate strategy and tactics, weapons, and unit formations. I have placed various characters in the action so that I can describe it up close and personal. Events develop from their point of view. I must admit that I have really enjoyed writing this part of the book. When I was a child I used to play wargames with model soldiers. I think that I just got lost in a world of my own imagination during those battles. It might also be that this childhood experience has given me an insight into writing these conflicts with both detail and energy. I certainly hope that prospective readers think so.

There is one aspect of the battle in ‘The Queen of the Mountain Kingdom’ that is different to the three others fought by my Saxon heroes, however; two powerful sorcerers are involved as well. ‘The Sorrow Song’ is historical fiction, ‘The Queen of the Mountain Kingdom’ is fantasy. You get to play a lot more with fantasy. That said, I have been at pains to keep realism in the conflict as much as possible. The battle is being fought on two levels. First, there is that on which the soldiers fight. It is very logical and full of the madness of war. Second, there is that on which two individuals bring enormous amounts of magical power to bear as they try to destroy each other and give their respective side an edge over their opponents. I have never written anything like this before, so it was a challenge. To begin with I wrote the conventional battle in what is for me an equally conventional manner. It is not complete yet, but all the major points are there; the battle begins, the key moment of decision is reached, the battle ends. A lot of polishing is required, and I need to flesh out the role of several characters, but it is a working model. Next, I wrote the magical battle that overlays the conventional engagement. This is a little more intense because it only really involves two characters, who are at different ends of the battlefield, at least to begin with.

Remember my comment about vague writing? Well, I often find that descriptions of magic in fantasy novels are guilty of being vague. Few authors seem to really think about how magic could possibly work. J. K. Rowling is guilty of this in her ‘Harry Potter’ books. In fact, her use of magic appears to be contradictory. Some spells have to be said with a particular inflection to work properly, others just require a flick of the wrist and the use of a wand. I decided to try something different. My magical characters do not use wands or spells. In fact, they do not use ‘magic’ but rather ‘magick’. What is the difference? I decided to employ the definition attributed to Aleister Crowley, which is, ‘the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will’. The word magick is also used by some to differentiate their practice from that of entertainers. The magick that appears in ‘The Queen of the Mountain’ is not used for trivial purposes. Okay, it is to begin with. That is, the character Heren has to learn about the magick that she discovers inside herself so, obviously, she indulges in a few parlour tricks. In her defence I will say that she is consumed by a desire for revenge, which is why she ends up fighting a magical battle trying to assist her countrymen as they fight the conventional battle. I think that I will save the subject of my theory of magick for my next blog post and just finish the writing of battle scenes for now.

Creating two layers of a story is nothing new. Writers have used this technique many times in many books. I find the trick to be, especially when reserving this approach to a particularly exciting and dramatic event, that the two layers must compliment each other and add to the storytelling. The flow from one area of combat to another has to be smooth to be believable. Any jarring must be for effect only and should be reserved for key moments if it is going to be used. I use a series of rewrites to iron out the wrinkles. A lot of rewrites in fact. Smooth transitions between the two layers adds to the flow of the action, rather than diverting from it. I can see a possible area of conflict, however; both must be equally believable. I have no doubt that I can make the conventional battle credible. My pen is loaded with all that research after all, but what about the magical struggle? Well, hopefully, I will have already convinced the reader of the logic inherent in my system of magick to the point where they can suspend their disbelief and just go with the flow long before they reach the battle.

At the conclusion of the battle the two layers should merge together so as to achieve a seamless end to the encounter. I do not mean that all the ends must be neatly tided away, that is a plot concern. I mean that in the writing of this powerful event the reader should be able to move onto the next part of the story believing that a logical and rational end to the engagement has been reached. Its impact on the characters present will already be apparent in most instances. Certainly, for those that survive. They will have passed through the maelstrom and come out the other side just a little bit different. If my writing is any good then, perhaps, so will the reader.

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