What do war films, comic books, high fantasy and epic poetry have in common? Their writers must hold our interest through long battle scenes.
I love a good explosion, mech fight or horde of screaming orcs as much as the next geek. But I struggle with large-scale senseless violence if it doesn’t make a point. Do I care about the giant who just swept aside fifty nameless, faceless barbarians? Of course not. It looks cool for five seconds, makes a nice trailer shot, but leaves no impact on me.
SPOILER WARNING: This post uses examples from Edge of Tomorrow, Game of Thrones Season 4, Blood of Tyrants (Temeraire series), Avengers Assemble, Man of Steel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Iliad. These spoilers include major character death. You have been warned!
So, how do you write an exciting, enthralling battle sequence, while marking the tragedy of death and ensuring our heroes die well? And what pitfalls do you need to avoid?
Heroes kill heroes
If a major character dies, they probably die at the hands of another major character – or, at least, someone with a name and a face recognised by the audience.
Let’s take the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones Season 4. Mance has finally arrived at the wall and the Night’s Watch make their Last Stand. Unsurprisingly, lots of people die. Thankfully, George R.R. Martin has a large cast of characters marked for death, but let’s examine the individual passings of our brave warriors:
> Pyp – shot by Ygritte
> Alliser Thorne – stabbed by Tormund Giantsbane
> Styr – hammered by Jon Snow
> Ygritte – shot by Olly
Two of those were death by “random arrow” – shot by people we’ve met and known – and two of them followed lengthy battles between evenly-matched characters. One death I’ve omitted is Grenn, who doesn’t die at the hand of a main character but does get a rallying pre-death speech before he meet his end off-screen at the hands of a massive fuck-off giant.
Pyp and Ygritte get cradling and last words. We see the impact of their deaths directly on Sam and Jon respectively. Grenn’s death is briefly acknowledged by Sam and Jon, over his body. Alliser Thorne and Styr’s deaths are made “heroic” because we’re invested in them – they’ve antagonised Jon for this season and beyond, and we want closure.
However, if you have too many heroes dying bravely on the battlefield, what you end up with is a huge glut of names and my shrivelled black heart has a limited supply of tears for them.
Let’s look at The Iliad, that exceptional epic poem by Homer. If your only knowledge of The Iliad is Brad Pitt in Troy, you are fortunate indeed. Troy takes all the best bits of The Iliad (minus the Achilles/Patroklus insinuations) and condenses it into a feature film.
Homer, however, had an agenda. When he wrote this poem, he wanted to name-check all the supposed ancestors of his audience to make sure they felt special and included in his tale. There is a long and tedious section in Book 2 called The Catalogue of Ships, which is basically a list of all the people who went to war and is a massive snorefest.
The majority of the battle sequences aren’t much better:
“Then Priam’s son, Antiphus of the glittering cuirass, replied with a spear-throw from the ranks. He missed Ajax, but struck Odysseus’s loyal comrade Leucus in the groin as he was hauling Simoeisius away.”
Homer’s original audience knew these heroes well, and every one of them had to die well – and named. The modern reader really couldn’t care less and some fantasy works do fall into this trap.
The Off-Screen Exit
However, in some cases, your audience will feel robbed if your hero’s demise is not laid out in all its heart-breaking glory. One example that particularly strikes me is Anya in the series finale of Buffy. Her dead body was a casual postscript, not important enough to dwell on for more than a few seconds. She deserved better.
In Harry Potter 7, a number of characters die off-page. At least, Remus Lupin (my personal favourite) gets a goodbye after the fact, but the majority get their name entered into the Butcher’s Bill without ceremony. The difficulty of bringing a rich tapestry of characters to one final battle, within the POV of a single protagonist, is highlighted here – there was no way to do justice to all those deaths. JKR had to be selective in what could be shown, so that we didn’t end up in the middle of The Iliad.
Know Your Comrades In Arms
If you are writing a single/dual protagonist piece as opposed to an ensemble, your hero probably needs to survive to the end but realistically someone has to die in these battles. Who better to do that than his friends and comrades?
In Edge of Tomorrow – which is awesome, by the way – everyone has to die in the first go-round. So, we meet them, give them names, have some banter, and then watch them all die. And, because this is a time-loop film, we get to watch both our protagonists die too.
By the time we get to the loop that can’t be reset, we really don’t want them to die this time and we feel the loss of these characters we know, even though they are only peripheral.
But what happens when you’re venturing out alone, and all your friends are fighting some other battle?
In the Temeraire series, the Napoleonic Wars are retold with the added awesome of dragons. I love these books, but the latest – Blood of Tyrants – was lacking something for me.
In the last third of the book, Temeraire and Lawrence go to Russia to kick arse. Meanwhile, all their friends go off to fight on another front. In the ensuing battle, Temeraire isn’t allowed to join in much of the actual fighting and the result is that the battles are a series of troop movements, tactics and the occasional bit of politics.
In previous books, we’ve had multiple characters to track through the fight, to get injured, to be heroic, to rescue. Without the supporting cast, without an active protagonist, the Russian battles fall flat.
One Man’s Fall
When you do have a lone hero in a battle of hundreds, thousands, or multiple heroes involved in separate fights, how do you keep interest and tie it all to the wider story?
Avengers Assemble has one of my favourite action sequences of recent years. As the Avengers fight among the skyscrapers, the seamless leaps from hero to hero keep continuity in a chaotic and spectacular fight. If I had one criticism, however, it would be that this violence is superficial. We don’t see much of casualties, consequences. Except for Tony’s spectacular fall from the sky, a personalised tragedy for our heroes. The threat of death on one of our heroes.
Less is More
Contrast this to Faramir riding out to retake Osgiliath in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, at the command of Denethor and in expectation of death. We don’t really give a damn about the men of Gondor at this point, though we do like Faramir. Instead of concentrating on Faramir’s fight, we watch him ride out as the crowd mourns in advance and Pippin sings him a lament – and only see his broken body return to the city. The best thing about this battle is that we never actually see it – we anticipate it, and we see the consequences. Witnessing the actual blows would’ve diminished it.
When destruction is completely devoid of consequences, it becomes hollow. One criticism of Man of Steel was the mindless destruction both sides inflicted on Metropolis. Buzzfeed consulted disaster expert Charles Watson on exactly how much damage was inflicted in that final battle and estimated “129,000 known killed, over 250,000 missing (most of whom would have also died), and nearly a million injured”.
And did those deaths mean anything to the viewer? No. We weren’t aware the vast majority were even happening. It is difficult for us to conceptualise death on a large scale – as the saying goes: “One death is a tragedy – one million deaths are a statistic”
Writing Battles: The Personal Touch
So, what can we glean from these examples? For battle to be satisfying, it must focus on the personal – the hero, his friends, individuals among the enemy (if possible), and the consequences of the whole bloody mess. Without these touches, battles in fiction become meaningless slaughter – a violent titillation, perhaps, but relegating your battle to those forgotten as much as the dead men on your field.
What are your favourite battle sequences? How do they make the battle personal? How can you apply this to your own writing?