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  How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, part 2

The first part of the workshop is here.

The battle in your novel begins before the first arrow is fired and the first sword drawn on the fiield. Climactic battles need some build-up, and part of it will be what you, the writer, have to plan beforehand, pretty much along with King Isandor or general Agricola.

A battle weaves into the story.

Let's have a look at a well known battle avaliable both in word and image: the battle on the Pelennor fields in Lord of the Rings. Several earlier scenes are part of that battle: Aragorn riding throught he Path of the Dead in order to block the Corsairs of Umbar from reaching Sauron's troops, the muster of Rohan and the secret march through the woods led by Ghân buri Ghân, Éowyn hiding Merry - without him the witch king would not have been slain, Denethor sending Faramir off in a doomed attempt to retake Osgiliath.

And like waves, cause and effect ripple backward to the very moment Merry and Pippin join the Fellowship, because without Merry present at the battle, the Witch King would not have been slain, and without Pippin in Minas Tirith, Faramir would have been burned. Aragorn and his friends might still have won the battle, but at a much greater price.

If Isandor had not overcome the death of his first love and developed feelings for the daugher or the neighbour king where he lives in exile, the king would not have seen a reason to give Isandor his splendid cavalry. If Malgant's mother had not been so ambitious and poisoned his mind, he might not have taken the throne to begin with.

If the Batavian auxiliaries at Mons Graupius had rebelled - and Agricola was afraid they might because there had been a major rebellion in Batavia a few years ago - the Romans might not have won the battle (history). If Madalric, the Batavian leader, had not trusted the tribune Horatius Aquila, the Batavians would have rebelled (fiction). And so forth.

Now we've anchored the battle in the plot, planned it out and put our armies in position. - That's nice, but how do I move those armies on the page and make it interesting and coherent?

It's actually quite simple: by breaking up the battle into smaller scenes.

Remember how it's in the movie? The Rohirrim lining up, Théoden holding a little speech, the hosts starts to ride, closeup on Éowyn and Merry, then camera from above showing all those riders, and then it splits. Éomer throwing his spear at one of those XXL elephants, Éowyn riding under one of the beasts cutting the sinews of its legs, Théoden's horse falling, followed by the scenes with the Witch King. Enters the green goo from the ships, Legolas performing some crazy stunts - "that still counts only as one...."

All those scenes focus on characters people know and care about, like Éowyn, Merry, Théoden, and secondaries like Gamling. The Random Rohirrim 1-283 only come into the picture in the wider views, and at the periphery, so to speak. You'll see glimpses of them to enhance the impression that there are many men in the battle, but no scene focuses on them.

In the book most of the ride of the Rohirrim and the scene with the Witch King are shown from Merry's POV, then the POV shifts to Éomer when he takes the banner from the fallen king. For the last part of the battle, after Aragorn and Éomer met on the field, Tolkien does something most writers won't get away with these days: He tells how the united forces of the men from Belfalas and the Rangers led by Aragorn, the Rohirrim led by Éomer, and the sortie from Gondor led by Imrahil of Dol Amroth ("and so great was the power of those three that few dared to face them in their hour of wrath") kick the Orcs and Southrons off the field albeit with great losses (follows list of those who didn't make it).

It is a scene with great impact because of the beautiful, heroic language, but I suppose in a different book, most readers would want to see Aragorn killing Orcs and Halbarad die.

What Tolkien uses is a mix of narrative omniscient and multiple third POV. Tolstoy does the same in War and Peace (and adds some philosophical musings, but never during the actual battles). It's a mix that works quite well for battles. You can use use narrative omniscient - aka the camera overview - to inform the reader about the positions of different contingents and their moves, if they are relevant for understanding how the battle develops. But such parts should be short nowadays.

To have more than one player to focus the POV on makes it easier to break the battle into scenes without losing the view of the large scope of the action. Many historical fiction and epic Fantasy novels have more than one POV character, and we'll stick to those for now.

Back to King Isandor. He is not the only POV character in our Fight for the Invented Kingdom. There's his faithful follower Earl Lycander who shares the kings exile because he likes Isandor and because Malgant has put one of his cronies on Lycander's lands. Then there's Isandor's brother-in-law Valerin, leader of his father's cavalry, and Carlis, a farmer who fled from Malgant's henchmen. Malgant has POV scenes, too, as does Kervec, the man who sits on Lycander's lands and also leads one of Malgant's phalanxes.

Here are some possible scenes. Lycander has convinced the king that he should not take the risk to fight himself though Isandor stays close to the field. During the battle, Lycander sees Kervec in the melée and presses through to him; the leaders fight. With Kervec's fall, the phalanx gets discouraged and the formation breaks, so Valerin manages to have his riders press them closer into the trap. Valerin is wounded and Isandor gallops in to take his place. Carlis only sees what's happening in his vicinity, he's tired and scared, but he keeps fighting.

You see how the POVs build up during the novel and continue to the battle. We have six POVs here (and maybe Isandor's wife who doesn't fight) which is a nice average. I haven't counted the POVs in Lord of the Rings, but I think every major player can hold it, and some not so major ones as well. But not everyone is present at the two major battles, Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields, and not everyone present necessarily gets a POV scene. There must be a balance between enough POVs to have diversity and not so many it gets confusing. Tolkien knew that.

Much depends on how many POVs you feel comfortable juggling through the entire novel. Adding a new POV only for the battle usually will not have a great impact, because the reader has not learned to care about him. Though of course, like with all writing 'rules', it can be done well enough to work.

Also, you can build up such a character through previous glimpses. If you have Common Soldier guard the king's tent, the king asks his name and sends him on an errand or some other small stuff like that, it won't confuse the reader if you decide to get into his head during the battle. You will always need some minor characters anyway.

Focussing on the POV characters doesn't mean that there are no Random Soldiers™ in your battle. Your characters fight them and may notice them fight each other on the periphery of their focus. You want to give the reader a feel that there are many of them guys around.

The main rule is: The scenes you pick must present important points in the battle and / or have an emotional impact.

Carlis is scared at the sight of that big, mean looking phalanx, but he has a memory to stick to. One evening, the king talked to him and called him friend. Isandor is a king worth fighting for. Also, Carlis' wife died of exposure when Malgant's henchmen chased him off his farm because he could not pay the taxes.

The moment Lycander kills Kervec is important, because Kervec's men sorta panick. Kervec had never taken as much as a scratch in the many battles before, he was said to be charmed.

When Valerin leads the cavarly to close the ring, he is severely wounded, but his men hold the place because Isandor takes over the lead.

And Malgant doesn't lead the mercenary cavarly because it's beneath him, and they promptly leave the fun when the hidden archers come forth.

You see why writing battles can be a lot fun? *grin*

A good example for a fine battle description with several POVs is the battle of Crécy in Bernard Cornwell's The Archer's Tale. He uses three or four POVs and presents both sides, with one clear MC, Thomas of Hookton. Scott Oden employs the same technique in Men of Bronze, a few POVs covering both sides, and Hasdrabal Barca the hero. Both authors shift between fighting and the leaders discussing tactics to keep the reader oriented. It's a way of dealing with that aspect if you don't like to have narrative passages.

David Gemmell usually has a whole basket full of POV characters throughout his novels, and he was a writer who could rip it off to introduce another one just for a battle. He often achieved that by giving us a little glimpse into the character's backstory, making him real.

In my books, technically everyone who has a name can also carry a POV, and I often write pure omniscient (I define narrative omniscient as telling what the characters do, and pure omniscient as showing it while being in everyone's head). We'll deal with omniscient and the other end of the line, single first person, in the next lesson.
You've made some excellent points here and both your posts about battles are very useful info.
It happens I just wrote a blog about "the writer as a choreographer" on a similar theme (without having previously read your two posts on battles).
Excellent post.
Battle scenes are an area where I think multiple points of view really helps, because you can zoom in to the blood-and-guts and then back out for the commander's overview. In a first-person narrative you're confined to one or the other, and that always reduces the impact for me.
These battle posts are really interesting! :)
I use only one POV in my battles - sometimes two if both Marcus and Geravan are present. It can be difficult sometimes if something extremely important happens and Geravan is killing Romans on the other side of the field, but usually the chaos that ensues is fun.
I'll go read the other blogs I neglected this weekend. Looking forward to yours.

Cornwell can make it work, somehow. His battle in The Winter King have no less impact than in The Archer's Tale though the first is in first person. But he has a knack for writing battles few writers have.

you can introduce a ninja, eh messenger calling, 'the general has fallen', or something. And most battles are chaotic.
True, Cornwell is a master at battle scenes. I still find that on the whole I prefer his third-person narratives like Sharpe over his first-person Derfel and Uhtred, though.
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), 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. :-)