Saturday, 17 January 2015

Guest Post: Duncan Lay on Writing Battle Scenes

Today I have a guest post from Duncan Lay, whose new book, The Last Quarrel, is coming out from Momentum over the next few months. Starting with Episode One on the 22nd of January, there will be a new episode out every fortnight. The full book in the omnibus edition will be out on the 23rd of April. In the meantime, read on to learn about writing plausible battle scenes, something Duncan does so well.

Once upon a time, fantasy books could take the Bilbo Baggins approach to battles. In other words, the hero gets hit over the head and misses the entire thing, waking up after all the intestines have been swept up into a nice pile and the screaming has stopped. CS Lewis was also notorious for skipping battle scenes, usually by having forests come alive and chase all the baddies away. Which seems silly on the part of the trees, seeing as all that blood and bone makes excellent fertiliser. But, thanks to Peter Jackson and the Narnia adaptations, as well as the likes of 300, today's audiences aren't going to be satisfied with merely the hint of a battle. They want to see dramatic battles, ferocious swordplay and an impressive body count.

However, before you decide to go all Legolas and have heroes slaughtering baddies in enormously inventive ways, you had better think about how battles were fought in human history. In fact, when it comes to your battles and army training, you almost need to be writing more historical fiction than fantasy. Today's reader has a very strong dodginess detector and you run the risk of losing them unless you have done some research.

Fantasy asks the reader to suspend their disbelief from the moment they open the cover. But there is a fine line there. Force the reader to accept too much and, at best, you lose all the dramatic tension you just spent 200 pages building up. Worse, you could lose them completely.

You can't be lazy and just "wing" the battle scenes. You have to take it seriously, or don't include it at all. It's better to find another way to resolve the drama than give the reader something they find unsatisfying.

You must remember that:
  • Peasants can't just pick up weapons and take on hardened warriors. It takes even fit men months to develop any sort of proficiency with weapons. If you don't have that time available, then you need to think of something else. Sure they won't be swordsmen in anything less than six months but they could learn to hold a spear or pike in a week or two.
  • Archery is a skill that takes 10 years to master. But they could be reasonable with a crossbow in a week or two.
  • Armour does provide protection from swords and knives, but not spears. Edged weapons quickly get blunt and can't cut but instead bludgeon. Fighting in armour, with swords, is exhausting and after no more than half an hour, even the best warrior will be so tired they cannot lift their sword.
  • Armies need to eat. Unless they have wagons full of food, they can't march long distances and fight.
These are all simple ideas but can have a dramatic effect on your battle plans. You have to take the time and trouble to work these things out. After all, you wouldn't create a world that makes no sense, with jungles next to snowfields. So why have a battle scene like that? You can't be lazy, or the reader will punish you for it.

So do some research, plot out your battle with as much detail as a pivotal emotional scene and then all you need to do is garnish with blood, brains, bones and intestines. Your talking, walking, fighting trees will thank you for it - and so will your readers.

1 comment:

  1. good points. Though I have to admit, walking fighting trees are pretty cool :)