Battle Scenes

Captain Blackadder’s reluctant company prepare to go over the top

Again, this blog contains adult (violent) depictions and may not be safe for work.

If you thought sex scenes were tricky. well battle scenes are an utter and total pain in the backside. (In Richard III’s case, literally; it appears on discovering his remains that of his many injuries at the battle of Bosworth, one of them was a spear in his rump, though it was the blow to the head with a large blunt object that actually killed him.)  The one biggest problem with battles is the following:

Most of them actually happened

With a real battle, you have some advantages starting out. You will be able to establish pretty much what happened, give or take the chaos that emerges even in the best planned campaigns (history admits to about five of those; the rest of them are somewhere in the “Varus, Varus, where are my legions” category) because battles have a handy information trail: survivors’ testimonies, maps, reports back to HQ, poets, letters home etc. There is also, in my experience, a lot of observation of the weather, for obvious reasons: you aren’t going to lead an infantry charge on a full moon. You have a lot of data at your fingertips, even for relatively ancient conflicts.

However, the richness of information is also a problem, because it means you have absolutely no excuse for fouling up. Before writing a scene, I usually take notes, but never as long as those I do for battle scenes, which go on for pages and pages. You will probably have at most two protagonists in the scene: you have to keep awareness of where they are, what the terrain is like, how everyone else is getting on. And it helps to know something of the methods of the battle in question. When I went to the Imperial War Museum in 2011, it was quite an eye-opener, In my ignorance I realised that I had no idea what a trench system looked like. It really helped to see it laid out in a model in front of me.

Detail is Good, But Should You Be Pornographic?

I have a real problem with the way people some people write battle scenes in that in a sex scene they’d be the first to bring the characters to the bedroom door and them priggishly end affairs with a section break and the next break starting with “Afterwards…” while when it comes to battle, they will describe with detail and gusto every shattered organ of the human body and every state of degradation that can happen to the dead and wounded in the course of violent conflict. They take such joy in this gruesomeness that they betray inaccuracy: I once read a paragraph saying, “He came to among a steaming pile of intestines” (or maybe it was a sea of same, I can’t remember) and that had me shaking my head. Usually dead bodies would be spread out – how were these intestines supposed to get together – did something call a ceasefire so that a Gut Party could get started and all these internal organs wind up in the same place? It made neither anatomical nor narrative sense.

Don’t get me wrong – war is a foul, disgusting business and every horror known to man and, to a lesser extent, women, has happened in that arena. Humanity gets left at parade. But gleefully including every detail is reminiscent of those people who always turn up the radio when the most ghastly murder cases are read out. The writer’s motives are so suspect that the reader will disengage, out of disgust at being called to join in, rather engage in than horror at the atrocity concerned.

I’m open to debate about this but I think you have to be careful.

And Avoid the Male Protagonist Who Does Absolutely Everything

You know what I’m talking about. He sets off the mines and blows everything up. He saves his entire company from a shell. He has a love affair with a beautiful partisan which is inexplicably doomed. There’s no battle he doesn’t get involved in. He engages with the enemy. And engages with the enemy. And engages…oh my God he and the enemy just got married and doesn’t the treacherous Hun look fetching in white! He is mysterious and cold and kills to avoid his pain. He is the author. Male writers, pay attention. Allow your protag to be a little bit crap in battle. Allow him to fail. Maybe even have him give in under interrogation and cry like a baby. Infallibility is fine if you are Pope Francis, but the Pope is not, as far as I know, writing any war novels. So be on the qui-vive (which I originally spelled “qui-vivre” until someone more on the qui-vive than I was spotted my mistake!)

I will probably have more to add to this “battle scene” post later, but those are my thoughts for the moment.


3 thoughts on “Battle Scenes

  1. This was a great post. I’m totally with you on the Great White Hero trope-thing, and how it actually makes characters *better* if a little vulnerability is shown in the writing of them. Really, though, you had me at ‘Blackadder’. That episode – that whole series, actually – gets me. *feels*

    Anyway, great stuff. It’s fab to get an insight into your writerly process. Makes me all the more gagging for ‘White Feathers.’ 🙂

    1. A certain gentleman not unknown to me freely admitted that he cried when he saw that last scene!

      I do like the Firing Squad and the untimely arrival of Captain Flashheart (Woof! Woof!)

      Glad you’re looking forward to WF! The interesting thing about scenes there is that even when I’m writing a scene that’s part of the background action during the battle (e.g. being in a field hospital) it still feels like battle simply because everything is go go go and it’s action all the time. For me, that’s a battle scene, even if nobody’s wielding a weapon.

      1. Well, exactly. I’m sure the people serving or being treated in a field hospital felt like they were in battle, even though they weren’t on the front line. So, it makes sense that writing about it would feel the same! I really am looking forward to WF. Hope you’re keeping well. 🙂

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