View Full Version : Good battle sequences: how tough to write?
October 12th, 2004, 06:33 AM
I know I've posted this to the SF forum, but I'd like to get a writer's input on this question.
Do you, like me, find lengthy battle sequences in books very difficult to enjoy?
No matter the author, genre, setting, style or how hard I concentrate – I just can’t stop my brain from switching off after a few brief paragraphs of flashing steel, blazing guns or zipping lasers. For me long stretches of fighting are incredibly tough to visualize and serve little purpose other than to drag me away from emotionally engaging human tales that were developing nicely. It’s like having a neighbour knock at the door just as you’re about to stick the fork into a juicy gammon steak. They’re annoying, frustrating and they dare me to commit what I consider to be the ultimate reader’s sin: skipping pages.
Paradoxically I have few problems with such sequences in cinema. Indeed I often look forward to them.
Perhaps I’m not looking at the right material (although I am a prolific reader of several genres). Perhaps I just don’t have enough imagination to transform the words into pictures. Or is it that complex battle scenes are incredibly difficult to write well and very few authors have mastered the art?
Just to add to this, I've always been a big fan of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings but I've got to admit I completely switched off during his battle sequences. It was practically impossible to keep track of who was doing what and where.
Likewise when Iain M. Banks moves into high-action mode words and meaning break apart and my eyes glaze over.
Is there a good action writer working today and how does he or she manage it technically. The only SF artist I can just about tolerate is Peter F. Hamilton but even his work has that all-too-familiar anesthetizing effect.
October 12th, 2004, 06:44 AM
Yes there are many excellent action/battle writers out there, but it seems this boils down to personal taste, if you don't like it there ain't a writer out there who is going to change your mind...
Have you tried GRR Martin, Mary Gentle, James Barclay or David Gemmell?
I have thrown together two writers who can (note the word 'can') be considered as Epic Fantasy writers and then two who can be considered Heroic Fantasy writers. The latter write books that I reckon, read like action movies.
I really recommend that you give Matthew Reilly a chance, he has developed a style which intentionally increases your reading pace and really feels like you are projecting a blockbuster into your imagination.
Try reading 'Band of Brothers', you will love the characters and the battles are very well written.
I don't think the good writers do manage it technically, they manage it by making the battle or action, character driven or at least meaningful to the characters or plot... You have to care about the results or implications of the sequence or it is just words, or 'clashing steel' as you described it.
I enjoy battle sequences when the story zooms right in and focuses on how a character or small number of characters cope with the horror and reality of war.
October 12th, 2004, 06:51 AM
The problem I have is that I get very frustrated when I feel as if I've lost track of what is going on, and nothing is more likely to cause this than a big battle sequence.
It's not that I dislike them - I just find it incredibly difficult to visualise the often very fluid scene.
I'd be interested to hear what the writer's opinions are on what you should and should not do when putting one of these sequences together.
October 12th, 2004, 07:07 AM
If you are confused, then you understand battle. I say this as a former military man, and in training for the military again. Battles ARE confusing, however I think the writer should be focusing on one part involving the main character.
I understand what you are saying when thirty names get thrown at you and what they are each doing. For my personal preference on how battle scenes are written, I would say that broad action is nice...
I don't care what everyone's name is I just want to know what is going on. If Bob is stabbed, tell me after the battle when they are policing the dead (unless you want to be really clichéd and everyone sees him fall and gets angry... ugh).
October 12th, 2004, 07:43 AM
If you are confused, then you understand battle.
But surely confusing the reader is probably the surest method of switching him off?
October 12th, 2004, 08:44 AM
If the writer wants the reader to feel like they are IN the battle, they might want you to be a little bit confused... If you try to read too far into it though then you are just going to be entirely turned off by it.
Starship Troopers is a pretty good example of where I think action is straightforward, they don't tell you about how everything glistens with every strike yadda yadda yadda... They are there to bomb someone, they have a plan, they follow it and regular chaos ensues. If you haven't read it then head to Barnes and Noble and check out Chapter 1 ;)
I think ANYTHING can be confusing with too much detail, because if the reader isn't absorbing it entirely and understanding it the first time, they are going to get tripped up and turned off.
October 12th, 2004, 12:36 PM
Writing combat of any kind is hard. You have to balance the action, with plot and characters.
Nothing worse than a book or film that seems to stop every now and then for the "fight scene".
The reasons behind the combat have to be logical, least for your characters. It must have repercussions, good or bad. It must move the story forward. Choosing the POV from which you want to so the fight or battle is very important. How your individual character responds draws your reader into the event. Remember a battle or fight can be seen totally differently by two individuals.
Also, description of moves and blows; the fighting itself. How much do you need to tell the reader what is going on?
A tip given me, put on the Video/DVD of your favourite film with a battle scene, like one you are thinking of writing. Watch the scene, then try and write it down, describe it. Then watch it again and write down the bits that portray to you the feelings of the combatants. Watch it again and write down what you think the character is feeling when a blow is struck or they strike a blow.
Then use this on your own characters. Do the same with the scene you want to write. Then edit it, cut it down till you give the reader the feeling and impression of combat, the rush and drive of it, filtered through your character’s POV.
More or long descriptions are not always better. The feel of a sword in your hand, the way the blade jolts if you hit away from the “sweet” spot, the way it jars or flows cleanly. The tug on your wrist muscles as you turn the blade in your hand and so on…. Also decide what your characters can do, if human limit them to human abilities, if others then create limits…. Limits heighten the excitement and fear for a character in a scene.
October 12th, 2004, 04:10 PM
I admit that I generally don't do the huge battle scenes. My fight scenes are never a blow-by-blow of a fight but more of the run down as to who was involved and the feelings of the POV character at the time whether he's scared or exhilirated. The pain that they encounter and the fatigue. My fights are almost always short with little vivid description because my take on it is that in that real situation, you're NOT going to remember everythign that happened. You'll remember the pain and the fatigue and the outcome, but not every blow.
Just my $0.02 on this. For good fight authors, Steakley's "Armor" was really good as was Starship Troopers. Martin's scenes are good too though sometimes slower paced than reality just to get in some of the gory sport of it (particularly the Red Wedding scene)
October 12th, 2004, 04:42 PM
It is pretty tough.
It isn't like a movie where there is clash clash clash ping clash clash pin ping AHHH!
Its got to be in words or sometimes a sound but either way it is tough to get the feel.
October 12th, 2004, 08:24 PM
But surely confusing the reader is probably the surest method of switching him off?
You guys are talking about two different things. Combat should be confusing in the sense of "chaotic", not in the sense of a flood of words that no one can make sense of. Mug is right, battle scenes shouldn't need to reread.... slowly.... to be understood.
But Ear makes one good point: fights are confusing from the POV of the combatants. They usually don't know what is going on. What they do know -- with crystal clarity -- is how they feel about what is going on (usually a complex emotion like - OH @#$%!!!). This is what the reader should understand. My favorite fight sequences are the ones that get right into the heart of the trenches and let me feel, viscerally, just what the characters are experiencing. Martin does this well. In Sci-fi I think Dan Simmons is probably the reigning champ.
Personally, I'm a firm believer in long fight scenes. My first book has a 6,000 fight in the middle of it. My second book ends with an 11,000 word fight sequence.
As for the original point, fantasy has plenty of talent in this area, but I think writing good fight scenes is dying art form in Sci-fi.
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