Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, part 3

The second part of the workshop is here.

Writing an entire battle in omniscient and being in the heads of a dozen characters all the time might get confusing. Or it could end up in a lot of telling. Personally, I tend to mix third limited and omniscient scenes, depending on what I want the scene to do. But I have to admit, the choice is mostly by instinct, so I can't tell you how to figure out when to use omni.

It is a POV seldom used; I can't come up with a writer who has a battle in omniscient. Gemmell with his short, multiple POV scenes comes closest.

The other end of the spectrum is limited third one person or first person POV. It's tricky to cover several aspects of a battle if you're in one head only, but there are ways.

First, let's have a look at the diary of our hero Titus Bravus, Roman soldier in the forth cohort of the Legio II Adiutrix.
Day 1: We marched 25 miles to the north and built camp. Damn digging.
Day 2: We marched 25 miles and built camp. One of my socks has a hole. Need to write to mother to send me new ones when I'm back in Vindolanda.
Day 3: We marched 25 miles and built camp. It rained. I hate Britannia.
Day 4: We marched only 15 miles because we had to cross some bloody bogs. Built camp. Everything is wet. I want a decent bath. And that bastard Sextus Nastius cheated at dice.
Day 5: Marched ten miles, then saw the Caledonians in the distance. Quite a lot of them. Built camp. Our centurion says there will be battle tomorrow.
Day 6: We arrayed for battle in the morning. General Agricola sent the Batavians in first, they kicked those Caledonians off the hill where they were hiding. Don't really like the Batavians, but they're good fighters. I killed two Caledonians. Have to clean my gladius now. I hope there will be wine tonight.

A somewhat limited presentation of the Battle at Mons Graupius, isn't it? But there is a way you can have a MC like Titus Bravus and yet get a broader view of the battle and the incidents leading up to it. He could do a good job on a special mission and the centurion would keep an eye on him, always needing a few guys who had a brain; maybe promote him to optio. Next time a tribune needs and escort, Titus will lead it and save the tribune's life because he managed to see the tracks the Caledonian war chariots left. Titus has a fling with a local girl and picks up some of the language, so he's called when a prisoner is brought in. More staff officers begin to remember him as able soldier and with the next vacancy, he's made a centurion. In that position, and with his knowledge of the locals, he could be called to the strategical discussions. From that position, Titus Bravus would understand better what is going on, and so would the reader.

Though I bet Titus still hates digging, and centurions weren't exempt from that duty.

It's pretty much what Bernard Cornwell does in The Winter King, told from the first person POV of one of Arthur's followers called Derfel. Derfel rises to a postion where he holds the trust and often the confidence of Arthur and thus can see the grander scale of a battle and other events of Arthur's time. In addition, he tells his story as old man, in form of a chronicle, and he can therefore use the occasional glimpse ahead because he knows the outcome. That is a trick not to be overused, though.

If something important happens elsewhere on the battlefield, you can introduce a messenger to get the information to the character and the reader. But make it brief during battle - if you want a more detailed version in form of a witness describing the event, it's better done after the battle.

What one gains with such a tight POV, is the immediacy of the battle action. The reader is in the shield wall with Derfel. So, if you feel more comfortable with a single third or first person POV, there are ways to still tell an epic story. Jacqueline Carey has her first person MC Phèdre watch the battle to relieve a siege in Kushiel's Dart, and since Phèdre is a trained observer, she notices a lot of details. And she knows most of the major players in person, which gives the reader a connection to more than one character. The same goes for Derfel as 'mediator' between the reader and the main players.

It's even easier if your character already has a position that gives him a broader view of events, like Simon le Preux. Wait - who would like to be in that head? No, make it Aubric le Noble, the doomed hero of your Romance who will survive the battle of Crécy only to languish in the dungeons of an English baron. In vain, he has told the king not to underestimate the English, not to listen to arrogant men like Simon. In the end, he has to ride in an assault he knew would fail.

One of the challenges with a single POV is the breaking up the battle into scenes, because you can have only scenes from that POV, and it might end up in a screwed pacing if there's fe. too much fighting frenzy and no calmer moments.

Which leads us to the last part of the workshop.

Pacing the Battle

5K of breathless action will leave the reader bored. You'll have to intersperse the actual fighting with calmer scenes like a view to King Isandor watching the battle, or the women in the camp some way from the field (see The Archer's Tale). You can even add emotional tension that way.

Also, many battles have times where the fighting slows down in some area because after several attempts to break a shieldwall, the men are simply exhausted (see The Winter King), or because the development of the battle will leave a group without an enemy for some time.

The longer a battle lasts, the more probable are periods without fighting. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest (technically an ambush on the marching army) played out over three days, and in the first night, the Romans still managed to build their fortified marching camp. The Germans knew they needed time to deal with three legions and several auxiliary cohorts, and they knew better than to attack the night camp - their leader Arminius had been a Roman officer, after all.

If you have a longer battle and a second plotline taking place somewhere else, you can switch to that for some scenes and then return to the battle.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the battle probably lasts longer than it takes to read it, but a single fight between two men last only seconds and takes longer to describe. If you are deep in one POV, avoid having the character muse about the god and bad of mankind in that moment. No soldier does that. What thoughts there are should be short and related to the fight. Aubric threw himself back in the saddle and the horse skidded to a halt before the pit. He ducked an arrow. Damn the king and his stubborness. With a tug on the reins, he veered the horse to the left. A blade flashed, Aubric lifted his targe, the sword caught in the wood.

Some books have more than one battle. In most cases, the battles increase in scope and importance, like the skirmish in the Mines of Moria, the siege of Helm's Deep and the great battle on Pelennor Fields. The build-up takes longer each time, and usually the battle scenes will require more space in the book. Bernard Cornwell invents the smaller siege of La Roche-Derrien to present his MC Thomas Hookton as archer and as part of a group of men that will stick together, plus he introduces one of the bad guys. The subsequent actions will find their culmiation in the historical battle of Crécy that gets a much more detailed treatment.

German writer Iris Kammerer has her MC getting captured on a mission, and he spends the time of the Teutoburg Forest battle wounded and prisoner in the house of a German leader. That way, the main battle of her trilogy is Idistaviso. Same basic structure as Cornwell uses. I can't resist to have Teutoburg Forest as major battle in the first third of my novel and I'll have to see how I can uppen the stakes for Idistaviso. But that's the challenge and the fun of writing military historical fiction. *grin*

I hope this has been of some help for writers who have to deal with battles. The actual writing is a question of your personal style, so I won't go into that. I have some other stuff to deal with, but there may be a post about sieges and naval battles later. If you are not one of my regular readers and want to be informed about that, drop me a line in the comments. And feel free to ask questions.
Great post, very informative. Even if I don't end up having a major battle in any of my books (and I'm pretty sure that my fantasy will) knowing this will certainly help me appreciate battle scenes in books that I'm reading. Thanks.
Thank you. I'm glad those essays are of help to some people.
Thanks for the wonderful battle posts, Gabriele. I'm going to have to think up a plot with a battle now :)
I loved the diary comment about the socks, and the fact he'd have to clean his gladius after the battle!
You're welcome, Shelley.

Write a book set in Ancient Rome, and the battles will come by themselves, lol.

The socks comment is a reminiscence of the Vindolanda tablets (Roman letters written on wood tablets). There will be a post about these soon; stay tuned. :)
"Don't really like the Batavians"

I'm going to have a word with Titus... ;)
Well, he's just your average, prejudiced Roman. :)

Great post.

Remember while being a centurian sounds like fun. One of his jobs was to be sure the soldiers on march wore a dry pair of socks every day or more often in wet country.
Excellent post. Cornwell is one of the few who can manage to have a battle scene last for pages on end without getting dull. I think the Neville's Cross battle in Vagabond runs to something like 100+ pages, but that's a third-person novel so he can keep cutting between different characters to keep the pace up.
Oh, by the way, a question. Do you think the battles have to get progressively bigger throughout a book, or is it possible to have a big battle scene in the middle and a smaller battle (but highly significant for the protagonist) towards the end? I'm thinking of LOTR where the Black Gates battle is a lot less detailed than Pelennor Fields.
I have to agree Bernard Cornwell does a great job of creating a battle scene, the best I have read. He really puts the reader in the chaos of the battle, and by the time you finish reading it, you feel out of breath, as if you've experienced it yourself. I haven't read the Arthurian books yet, but I've read all of the Grail Quest Series (Archer's Tale, etc.), and I'm currently reading the second book in the Saxon Series (The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horsemen, etc). In the Archer's Tale, he details the Battle of Crecy, which is amazing. And the Last Kingdom puts you in a first person POV of being in a shield wall.
there's no rule in writing, lol. And authors of historical fiction often deal with battles at the 'wrong' place. It's just an observation I made that battles often get bigger during a novel. I don't see the Black Gate as battle like Pelennor Fields which had to be fought for the freedom of Middle Earth, but more as part of Frodo's plotline - the ring has to get to Mount Doom, and the battle at the Black Gate is a deviation.

For the rest, you can do anything if you make it work. As I said, I have the problem to have a really huge battle (Teutoburg Forest) way to early and have to deal with it. I think I'll focus on the fact that Idistaviso is a pitched battle, something Arminius never wanted, and that the Germans still managed to get out of it with no clear winner/loser.
Hi Steven,
welcome to my blog. Yes, Cornwell makes the reader be there with the characters. But if you have a close look, even he has breaks, moments of less frenzy during the battles. He just manages to balance everything so well that you never analyse what he's doing. Except if you want to write rocking battle scenes yourself. *grin*

I completely agree. Cornwell does balance those moments well. He has been a great influence on my own writing.

Glad to find your blog. At the moment, I don't have a blog of my own. Those associated with my profile are quite old. I plan to start a new one either later this year or next year sometime. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us.
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)