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The Choreography of Battle Scenes in Fiction
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 11:34 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 353

One of the reasons I created this top level topic in the Discussion forum was to hopefully give writers a place to talk about how they go about writing not just one-on-one fight scenes between characters, but the much harder task of choreographing a naval battle or two armies meeting in battle. How do you get your choreography right? Which writers do you turn to for inspiration? Which military or strategy guides? And can you share your favorite battle scenes from other books?

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 11:50 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427

I'm currently reading the ACACIA series by David Anthony Durham, and there are some excellent, may I say textbook, examples of battle scenes. 

You can't have epic fantasy without a few realistic and well-drawn battles! 

Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 11:53 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 353

Nevena -

ACACIA is a great series. But David has his roots in historical fiction. If you get a chance, read his historical retelling of the battle of Carthage. AMAZING battle scenes! I think it's called PRIDE OF CARTHAGE.

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 6:56 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

Piers Anthony (shush you) has a book called Steppe, in which there are some great retellings of battles in which Attilla the Hun and his horde were present. (It's a sci fi retelling, but keeping the feeling... you have to read it. )

Bio of a Space Tyrant, especially book 2, Mercenary, has some good space/naval battles.

Raymond Feist has lots of army movement and tactics in his books.

As for writing them myself, so far, I haven't even tried.

Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 8:31 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 244

Most of the fight scenes that stick out in my memory aren't the big battles between armies. Sure there are a lot of people involved in some of the fights, but the author choreographs them so that characters we care about are split up and fighting their own smaller battle within the context of the larger fight.

That said, Tris's Book by Tamora Pierce has an awesome massive fight from land against an armada of pirate ships. (At least, it's awesome in my memory but it's been a while since I read it.)

I have to say it, but the last Harry Potter book. The battle for Hogwarts. Yes, Rowling split up the characters we care about, until the final stand in the Great Hall.

For me, I have only once yet attempted a giant fight scene once. And I quickly brought it to a close in favor of a one-on-one swordfight between the protagonist and antagonist.
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 4:41 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Battle scenes (heh-heh-heh, she chuckles, having written a fair number of them in SF, fantasy, and alternate history.)  OK.   There are several ways to approach a battle scene, and they've all been used by good writers of both fiction and nonfiction.  They're easier to analyze in nonfiction, so my first recommendation is "Read a lot of military history by good writers."  (I'd start with ancient history, where the armies were smaller and the complexity marginally less.) 

First decision: what POV?   Individual interior POV allows you to show the experience of one soldier in the midst of combat (definitely read combat memoirs of individuals), but--unless you switch POVs out of that dramatic into something more remote, you can't show the whole battle.  Intermediate: POV is a commander who is not personally engaged in the combat but commanding  a unit--who is sending orders in, let's say.  You have that person's thoughts & emotions, but not the front-line soldier's.   Omniscient or equivalent: your POV is still further away from the soldier in the front lines--you're looking at the whole battlefield, either as omniscient author or as a senior commander with incredibly good intel.    I've chosen different POVs in different books/stories for the effect needed at the time.  Greatest intensity is the close-in.  Greatest clarity for readers of the overall situation is the omniscient, usually. 

Second decision, which is partly dictated (but not wholly) by the choice of POV:  which part of a military operation do you concentrate one?  Operational, tactical, strategic, support, etc?   Militarily, what is at stake in this battle?  Is this an attack, a defense, a delaying action, a feint?   

Third decision:  What is at stake in your story, in this battle?  Is your story, in other words, about the battle, or is the battle an incident in a story that is largely about something else?   (Even if it's a culminating incident, very important, the story may be about something else--and that will result in writing it differently.)  In a history or alternate history story, the story may indeed be about the battle itself--or not.  In SF, the story may be about a clash of cultures, and the battle an incident in that clash. 

Fourth decision:  assuming a POV character who is your protagonist, what (besides survival) is at stake for that character in that battle?  What will survival mean for that character if the battle is won or lost? 

There are other decisions that come up during the writing, but those are the ones you want to be clear about before starting.   Now it's time to research: basing your battle on realistic military scenarios helps readers with the right background suspend disbelief.  Sure, you're making it up, but only children will believe heavy late-medieval cavalry could gallop 150 miles without stopping and then fight a battle.  Or that "dodging bullets" is foolproof. 

Read military history, and lots of it.  Read the books that people read if they're studying military science.  (Read, by all means, The Defense of  Duffer's Drift, a book written to teach young British officers about mistakes they should not make.  Readable, witty, etc.  A later US book, The Defense of Hill 781, is less readable, less witty, but very useful as well.   Don't forget naval history, including submarine warfare.  Don't forget military aviation.  Dig into the battle reports until you can "see" how forces came into contact, how commanders tried to make use of terrain and other conditions, and you begin to grasp (as well as you can without being in every single battle yourself) what went wrong and what worked.

Now to plan your battle.   If you're making one up out of whole cloth, it's for a story reason--it is plotworthy..  Do not forget the story reason.  A beautifully written battle that does not advance the plot is just another load of infodump.  You can design your battle--victory or defeat or inconclusive for your protagonist, as needed for the story--but keep it to the storyline.  Consider, on the basis of the story so far, what forces are logically available to each.  Imagine the command on both sides.  If you have relatives or friends who wargame, this is ideal...they won't let you make it too easy for your protagonist.   Yes, enemies sometimes do stupid things...but not always, an ideally not in your story, because it weakens the story.  If they make mistakes, those mistakes should be logical, and your protagonist will also make mistakes.   Refer to historical sources for similarly balanced conflicts, and note the casualty counts.  

In a story, battles have a narrative shape.  Depending on how big they are, and the purpose, that narrative shape can be simple or complex...short battles are usually simpler in narrative shape than long battles; smaller battles are usually simpler in shape than very large ones.  (Note: very long battles are exhausting to those in them and can even, through exhausting, be boringly awful.  If you must bore characters, OK, but do not bore readers.)   Give them that kind of structure and they will hold readers. know what you need to do--you've designed a battle that works militarily and as part of your plot and you know how your characters interact with the battle.  Now write it.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, June 29, 2012 12:43 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Addendum to the above.  This is not a pretense that the sea battle I wrote is better than anyone else's, but it's one where I can discuss exactly how  I set it up and why it worked for some naval historians.  (If anyone wants to look it up, it's in the anthology is Alternate Generals, ed. Green & Turtledove, 1998. The story is "Tradition."

The period is WWI, in which I replaced the British admiral commanding the Adriatic Squadron (Troubridge) with one of equal rank (who later died in the Pacific) but a very different personality.  No other changes were made to ships, personnel, geography, weather, etc.   In history, Adm. Troubridge obeyed Adm. Milne and did not pursue the German battle cruiser Goeben, a story told in Barbara Tuchman's  The Guns of August..  In my story, Admiral Cradock did. 

The story, in line with the anthology guidelines,  was about the effect of commander personality on engagements--on the choices leading to them and leading in them--and alternate history is ideal for this kind of story.  The battle was then a major part of the story, the first outcome of the change of command.  

I chose Cradock's POV; he was a logical choice for an alternate admiral, and--since he would be on one of the ships in the battle--using him as POV I'd have the advantage of both a commander's broader understanding of the situation, and the immediacy of combat experience. 

As the POV was commander of the squadron, all elements of planning the engagement were in his purview--making sure his ships had enough coal, making sure the crews were prepared, planning an engagement that would give his (inferior in speed and range of weaponry) the best chance against the faster and more heavily armed enemy.  This allowed me to deal with strategy (briefly), tactics (more), operational details, etc.

What was at stake is not as clear in the story as published (we were originally asked to write a "and this is why this mattered" essay for the book, but various things happened and the essays weren't used.)  In real life, the Goeben reached the Turkish capitol and prevented (among other things) the Russians from resupplying via the Black Sea and Mediterranean...resulting in famine conditions in Russia and (though this might have happened anyway) the Revolution.  The Turks entered WWI on the side of the Germans; their defeat had many and complex results, including the massacres of Armenians and Pontine Greeks...and the roots of some of the unrest in the Middle East today. 

As Churchill realized (but his appointee as commander in the Mediterranean Fleet did not)  the Goeben's arrival in Turkey had profound and long-lasting consequences.   The consequences also hit Admiral Troubridge, who was highly criticized for not attempting to interdict the Goeben, and Admiral Cradock who--determined not to be accused of cowardice himself--took on another German battlecruiser off the coast of South America--a coastline far less useful for the purpose than Greece--and went down with his ship. So there was a lot at stake, at many levels, giving the story natural weight.

On to the research stage.  I read Cradock's book on seamanship (via Interlibrary Loan), confirming his different personality and command philosophy.  That helped me pick out a unifying personality metaphor for Cradock and his flag captain, Wray.   I studied books on naval vessels of the period, naval ordnance of the period, etc.   I ordered naval charts of that part of the world,  which saved me from a really stupid mistake the land-based topo maps made attractive.   In 1998, some of the world views now available weren't, so zooming in via Google Earth wasn't possible (esp. on dial-up!).  And things change.  I used a book of maps published just before WWI to give me the historical names of places aren't called that anymore.  The helpful librarians in our small-town library not only got me books by Interlibrary Loan but located memoir of the then-Prime Minister's daughter, who had cruised with her father aboard a Royal Navy ship in the very places I needed to use, exactly one year before the events in the story.  Violet Asquith noted in her diary the very details officialdom left out--her impressions of the different harbors, things the officers talked about, shipboard details taken for granted by the personnel.   For the final details I needed, I went online to a specialist group of WWI enthusiasts, and one of them knew someone who knew someone in working in the archives of the Royal Navy--and I found out the names and captains of the other three destroyers. 

So now to plan the battle.  Weather, moon phase, tides, currents, all recorded.  Everything the same up to the point where my alternate admiral would act differently.  What would Cradock do?    Good visibility, ships spouting coal way to stand off and throw shells at one another from a great distance.  

Now the topo maps and marine charts came into play, along with the performance details of the ships involved.   Given that the Goeben was probably heading for Turkey, the shortest route--the one requiring the fewest coaling stations--was clearly through the strait between the Peloponnese and Cythera.   Because an open water confrontation would invariably mean the Goeben sinking four smaller, slower, ships who were outgunned...where could someone set up an ambush? 

These were coal-burning ships--belching extremely visible plumes of wind direction was crucial.  What Cradock would have needed:  deep enough water, high enough cliffs to hide behind, where he could be sure the German ships would be within his range (the Goeben would still be superior in range and weight of armament, but at least the British ships could hit her.)   And wind blowing the right way.

I spent a lot of time with those maps and charts...trying to think like Souchon and then Cradock, back and forth.  What were the constraints on each?   I made myself aids (especially helpful were the little cardboard wedges giving the range and angles at which each ship's guns could fire: when the Goeben  would have an armed cruiser in range; when the armed cruiser would have the Goeben in range, etc.

The battle itself was based on reported WWI naval battles with ships of the same weight, speed, and armament.  But the actual time, if written action by action, would be boring:  See flash....a shell is coming from miles away...and then it hits (or doesn't) BOOM and meanwhile your ship's guns fire...and the shell is traveling....traveling...and then it hits (or doesn't.)   Though a ship might be sunk with one shell, some naval battles also took hours.   Hours in real life often need to be compressed in a story. 

 The first draft had every single shot by every ship's gun, every miss, every hit, the exact result of every hit, every change of direction or speed.  Not story: reportage.   Then I looked for the battle's narrative structure--for the story, not the  analysis of the story, the thoughts and feelings of the POV character as the battle went on.   The story, to be salable (and readable) had to function as a story--and that meant the battle had to function as a story within the story.  

One strand of that internal story is the way Cradock experiences the battle--as the culmination of an internal battle between several types of  naval "tradition" that he values--obedience to authority v. initiative when faced with an enemy.   He understands the stakes for Britain, but he has his own personal self-understanding and self-respect at stake.  So he's aware of the battle in terms of who's shooting what at whom,  the damage done, the ships that sink, the lives lost--but he's also aware of his responsibility for deciding to use initiative.   He's aware that his flag captain, who argued against the engagement (as Wray successfully did with Troubridge) blames him for the ships and lives lost; he's aware that even if the squadron sinks the Goebin, he will be blamed for disobeying orders and for the ships lost.   He is fighting for his country--and for the tradition of Nelson, his hero. 

In the final ~9100 words, 1700 are directly about the battle.  350 deal with the immediate aftermath, and 6600 lead up to it, from July 31, 1914, to August 7, the day of the battle.  

Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 9:57 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

I'm one of those readers who gets bored reading fight scenes.  I liked Zelazny's Amber books but my eyes just glossed over during some of the fights.  I recently read a novel with what I suspect were very accurate naval battles but they just didn't hold my interest because apparently I have no interest in naval battles.

On the other hand, an author could probably slip some pretty unrealistic battle strategy past me because I just don't get that into it.

One author who does very well with the details of fighting is Elizabeth Moon, so when she offers advice here, seriously, pay attention to it.  Like different kinds of swords for fighting in close formation, etc.  (Sorry if I mangled that detail, but I've already explained my indifference to battle scenes.)  Another one who does well is Paul Kearney, especially with his Macht trilogy.  I think he handled the perspective of an individual in a battle nicely.

I haven't had to write too many fight scenes in my own work, which tends towards a more political type of drama.  There's one duel between poorly-matched opponents; it is over quickly.  There's a fistfight between two groups of rivals in the streets of a city, but this is interrupted before it gets too far out of hand.  But I'll be following this thread, because I do have one battle coming up and I've been agonizing about it.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Saturday, August 4, 2012 6:05 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Thanks for the kind words, SneakyBurrito.   I'm helping a friend choreograph a battle right now.  She's outstanding with fight scenes, but this is the first big battle she's tried to write and we've been emailing back and forth.

The story trumps the battle, even if someone's writing historical fiction.   Some readers, who eat up military history, always want more details.  But most aren't at that end of the spectrum of "fight interest" let alone "military campaign interest."  Some readers will be interested and follow the fight sequence, or battle sequence, but others will be glazing over and flipping pages until they feel a connection to the character again.  Sounds like you're at that end of the axis of interest, and nothing wrong with that.

So the critical thing is to keep the story moving, which means focusing on the POV character (or characters)  and what's motivating what they're doing.  It helps to have a lot of background to work with...but most of it won't show.  The battle S- and I are working on is quite interesting (in that S- has created an interesting setup, interesting "sides" and so on, and had done a lot of the background research--just needed help in organizing, picking where to start and finish, etc.)  Mostly I ask questions, and her answers are helping her figure out what to do.  (IOW, I'm not writing the battle--I'm just saying things like "Can the commanders on A side do this?" and "Specifically how many whatsis does the B side have?  Because if you don't know, you'll be tempted to the deus ex machina and hand them what they need later.  Start with some hard limits on both sides."

She's now got the kitchen table covered with topo maps and various visual aids from the gaming side of her life.  I suspect by tonight she'll have it all worked out.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Sunday, August 5, 2012 1:25 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Actually she had it worked out by late afternoon...the emails waiting when I finished the post above related in great glee some of how she'd worked it all out.  Wow.  I can't wait to read the book. 

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, August 17, 2012 10:02 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

The more you can do what you write about, the better.   Writers who want to write stories in which the protagonist is proficient with firearms should become proficient with firearms, to the extent that time and money and the legalities allow.  Writers who want to write stories in which the protagonist is good with a sword should at least take some lessons (ideally in the style they intend to write.) 

No one writer gets everything "right" for every reader.  Some of the best fighters aren't great writers.   That being said, learning to handle a sword, learning to handle a pistol, a rifle, etc...and making friends of those far more proficient than yourself so you can listen in on their conversations and get the feel of being that kind of expert...that will enrich a writer's fight scenes more than any amount of reading, no matter how good the writer was. 

The problem with working from fiction--in any craft, from riding horses to sailing small boats to shooting--is that you're working with a distillation of whatever that writer knows.  Even if the writer's an expert, not all the writer's expertise can be in a work of fiction.   To serve the story--and these elements must serve the story--the expert writer will leave out the majority of what he or she knows.  Some of it can't be described in words anyway--it has to be experienced.   If you've never cleaned a firearm after use, one of the most distinctive things about that task--the smell of the cleaning solution and gun oil--has to be known to the reader, can't make it clear.   Sensory things are especially slippery (esp. smell and taste, but also sounds: if you haven't heard good crystal ring, then someone writing "The crystal rang when he tapped it" brings up no vivid image.

So with the skills and craft of fighting, and of writing fights (the two are not the same.)   First, learn some of the skills you want to write about.  You don't have to be a world-champion or anything--just learn the moves, and go far enough to understand how the flow of a rapier-and-buckler fight is different from that of a bastard-sword fight and different from a knife-fight.    How a duel with pistols in the late 18th century differs from a duel with swords, and from a shootout in the 19th century, and from a confrontation with rifles. 

read the books and learn how the best fight-writers make the fight serve the story...make it fit within the entire context of the story--cultural, historical, etc--as it enriches characterization and of course moves the plot along, while being true to the kind of fight it is. 

One of the modern masters of this difficult art is Arturo Perez-Reverte.   Any of the fights in any of his books I've read (the Captain Alatriste novels, of course, but also The Fencing Master.)   How each person fights--in addition to the level of skill--reveals character.  Everything about the fight--its causes, its character, its outcome--enhances the reader's grasp of what is going on.  But I would not take Perez-Reverte as a single model for writing fights...I would take him as an excellent example of making well-written fights serve the story.

R Leslie Snyder
Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2012 12:18 PM
Joined: 8/18/2012
Posts: 3

Very interesting discussion, Colleen, thanks for posting it.  Just discovered this site and am honored to comment/reply to the great Elizabeth Moon.  Read The Deed of Paksenarrion many years ago and thoroughly loved Paks. That book as well as the John Varley books, Demon Wizard and Titan are what inspired me to write a story of my own featuring a strong and real female heroine.  
On fight/battle scenes, the thing I take from this discussion...putting aside the meat of it, is this.  What is at stake?  How does it move the story forward?  And my question would be this?  How 'real' does it have to be?  A story set several thousand years in the future featuring a scene, being able to watch a battle that had taken place long ago, swords, armor, bows and so on.  I read the Conan and Gor books growing up; read many books featuring fight scenes.  The main thing is to create an intense experience, where things are happening quickly and the outcome, the stakes to a central character are high.  Assuming a general audience, the fight scene has to be credible and real, but not necessarily technically accurate?  Thoughts?  
Sneaky Burrito
Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2012 1:39 PM
Joined: 5/28/2012
Posts: 43

As a person who is not terribly interested in fight scenes, I have two answers.  One, you can probably slip a lot of inaccuracies by me and I won't notice.  But there are people out there who care about those details, and who will notice.

Two, there are some things that irritate me, even in my role as a member of a general audience (and not a battle/fight-scene specialist).  For example, quick sword strokes that easily remove the head of one's opponent.  There's a reason executioners used heavy axes, and a reason the guillotine was invented -- severing the head is tough.  A casual sword swing isn't going to do it.  (I'm willing to give George R.R. Martin a pass if the sword is Valyrian steel, which has special properties.  But most swords in fantasy novels are not specially-endowed.)

I'd argue that in general, it's important to get it (whatever "it" is) right.  Maybe it's a fight scene.  Maybe it's a craft or trade that your character practices.  Maybe it's a historical period that you're using as a setting.  In my case, it's science -- I have a PhD in chemistry with an extensive biology background, and I get pretty worked up about bad science in fiction (a lot of the genetic engineering fiction that's out there is pretty far off the mark, for example).  My point is, if you don't go to the effort to do your research, to talk to people who know or at least to consult books, there's going to be someone out there who spots the problem.  And you'd rather have the focus be on your story, your world, your characters, and not on holes in your research.

R Leslie Snyder
Posted: Saturday, August 18, 2012 6:05 PM
Joined: 8/18/2012
Posts: 3

You make good points Sneaky.  At the very least, I'd go back and read fight scenes of the type and period, that I would set one in (from books that have done well) and follow the parameters and limits as laid out and write from there.  Thx
Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 1:17 AM
Joined: 5/27/2013
Posts: 108

Not even sure if there is anyone following this thread, but I will give it a shot.

The fight scenes for me, because they are throughtout my tale, are the worst. I am not going to go into a long narrative about my experience, but I am not a stranger to it in real life. What I remember most about them..when it comes to actually recalling them, they are cloudy and hard to explain. They often just happen.

Having said that, it wouldn't do to take my reader through one with that sort of recall. In one chapter I had to cover almost an entire day of fighting for a character. (It is posted as Rostig's Test in the only book I have posted).

As my own worst critic, I have thrown the chapter out so many times I cannot count them. I didn't want the battles to be so much that I lost a reader, yet did I do it well enough to carry them along? And is that going to be the right way for all battle scenes in the book?

While there has been good posts concerning this, maybe  someone can find time to educate me all the better?

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Thursday, January 9, 2014 1:20 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427

I need to chime in because we just had epic fantasy Anthony Ryan write a really cool post about crafting effective battle scenes. He differentiates between two approaches for writing them: (Read the full post here.)

With regards to the mechanics of writing battles I find there are two principal approaches: the ‘spectator battle’ and the ‘direct participant’. BLOOD SONG, my first book, employed a single point of view, which meant establishing the character’s vantage point became a key factor. At one point, by placing my main character on a hill and giving him a relatively small part in the battle itself, I made him a witness to the ensuing spectacle. When depicting the ‘spectator battle’ try to avoid overuse of jargon, too many references to ‘flanks’ and ‘pincers’ may well alienate readers who unfamiliar with military history. The keyword to remember is ‘clarity’; real battles are intensely confusing, but this doesn’t mean your reader should be left in a state of bafflement. The ebb and flow of conflict should always be made as clear as possible, even if it means sacrificing your well-researched description of the correct formation for advancing pikemen.

The ‘direct participant’ battle is more challenging but also vital in ensuring your battle scene has the maximum dramatic impact. Placing your character in the heart of the action requires a firm grasp of pace and description; lengthy paragraphs covering a single sword-fight are likely to have your reader skipping ahead. Also, combat is an exercise in heightened experience, so don’t overlook the sound and smell of battle, neither of which is likely to be pleasant.

Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 12:03 PM

A bunch of my novel ideas are inspired by movies, and rather than aiming for realism in one-on-one duels, either with swords or martial arts, I'll deliberately aim for trying to recreate the way such fights scenes are done in these movies.  One of my novels is a tribute to Bruceploitation movies, and the fight scenes are deliberately designed to read like something out of a Bruceploitation movie.  Likewise with Black Flag - I was going for sword fights straight out of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power movies, rather than, say, the fight from the movie Rob Roy.


I'm less likely to do this for army vs. army battle scenes, and I don't tend to put as much thought into choreographing those as I do my duels beyond making sure readers can make sense of the battle and get a sense of being in the thick of it.

--edited by Ian Nathaniel Cohen on 1/28/2014, 12:05 PM--


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