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Steps to Write a Battle Scene
It can be daunting to write a battle scene, but sometimes that’s exactly what the story calls for.
Since I typically write space opera and military science fiction, my scenes often take place centuries in the future, but I have advice that can apply to a variety of genres across the spectrum of speculative fiction. But whether you’re a writer, reader, or critic, these considerations could be a helpful way for you to analyze and break down a battle scene.
Just use the acronym SNEAK!
Start your battle scene like any other scene.
I like to use a few basic ingredients to start with: give us a setting and then drop in some characters.
Descriptions will come in handy here, especially sensory details to root the reader. Giving your scene at least two characters can make things dynamic and tense, especially if these characters are in conflict.
At least one of your characters should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. In other words, give your characters goals. Watching your characters try (and fail and try again) to realize their goals makes the scene compelling. Make sure that the goals as well as the obstacles are made clear to the reader. We should have a sense of what the stakes are, and they should be more consequential than merely ‘winning the battle,’ whatever that victory might look like.
There could be more than one goal, or minor goals along the way in the service of a long-term goal (IE fixing a damaged component on a spaceship while the battle is happening). The complications are there to guarantee that your characters struggle, because a story isn’t as compelling if there aren’t challenges. They can be internal like the main character struggling with a personal crisis or external like a fleet of enemy ships, but this is no time to be nice to your characters! Diamonds are made under pressure.
Narrative distance should be changed up.
Generally, the more global your perspective, the less attached we feel to characters. Limited third person perspective is very common in contemporary storytelling, and personally I feel much more invested in a character when I’m looking right over the shoulder or through their eyes. I feel an emotional attachment when I know what a character is feeling. Don’t lose that human connection in a big battle.
There may be times when you’ll want to pull the ‘camera’ back and give us a broader sense of the battle’s progress. There are all sorts of gimmicks and plot devices available to speculative fiction authors to reorient the reader no matter how epic the fight becomes. Characters can receive live updates during battle via telepathy or advanced communications devices for example.
Writing conventions can be incredibly useful as long as they’re used in service of the story. Break out your McGuffins! SF has lots of buzz words, but the technobabble should be used to create an air of competency, not to confuse or intimidate the reader.
The concept of faster than light travel has become ubiquitous in science fiction partially because of convenience. Space is really really big. Depending on the genre, readers may have certain expectations. Magic use is standard in most fantasy.
Just make sure that your story’s speculative elements are set up before we get the pay off, because a battle may be happening further into the second or third act of a story. We should have a sense of what the McGuffin does even if it’s only strongly hinted at. Make sure that the mechanics of your plot devices are consistent. Don’t break the rules of your own universe or the internal logic falls apart.
Action is key.
Battle scenes are typically fast-paced and action-oriented. Evoke feelings of intensity and urgency through your language.
This is when you lean on those action verbs. Use active voice, vivid descriptions, and punchy dialogue. Raise the stakes constantly, introducing new complications, and show us the consequences of our failures.
Chekov’s gun in this case could be a death ray cannon pointing at a planet with a literal ticking clock to give the reader a sense of urgency.
Know your audience.
I don’t think that a ton of research is necessary for worldbuilding or storytelling. I think that the storyteller needs to know just enough to inform artistic decisions and shape ideas. And of course, knowing about certain fields will help you write confidently.
Someone writing a fantasy epic with a medieval feel might want to research armor or melee combat. A basic understanding of Newtonian mechanics will make a space combat scene more believable. Find the right balance of tone and exposition. Don’t give your readers a dry lecture, but don’t insult their intelligence either. The goal here is not to impress people but to convince them that your fictional world is real.
Specificity is a secret weapon that goes a long way towards making a story more convincing, and having delved into a given subject will give you some of the vocabulary to establish a sense of fluency. Ultimately, the story’s world will be made up, but the illusion of veracity is such a powerful tool that it hypnotizes an audience.
If you’re ever unsure, err on the side of clarity. Technical language, however accurate, will not serve you well narratively if it’s inaccessible to readers.
Battle scenes can be extremely exhausting and tedious with many moving parts and considerations, but they’re also big money-makers drama-wise and often come in at the crucial climax of your story. Like in a battle, it helps to go into writing these scenes with a plan, and using some kind of approach to get the ball rolling makes the task feel manageable.
Just remember: SNEAK!
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