Last week Terry came by to talk about things research and getting the little things right in his stories. Today he offers his thoughts about getting the fight scenes right in his stories. The methods he outlines below are probably better than hands on research at the malls fighting crowds of people….
Writing Warfare in Fiction
Epic combat scenes are a common fare in fantasy and science fiction. Think: Armored phalanxes armed with spears and catapults, backed by earth wizards and flame-spewing dragons vs. necromancer-controlled zombie hordes, goblin mobs and brutish ogres, backed by propeller-driven dive-bombers and mechanized tanks reminiscent of WW II technology.
Okay, maybe that combination isn’t ‘common fare’ (unless you’ve happened to stumble across my First Civilization’s Legacy Series). The question is: How can an author bring such battles to life for the reader. Infuse them with excitement and, well, believability?
Personally, I have absolutely zero military combat experience. I don’t count the several years of U.S. Civil War reenactment, where I learned 19th Century drills and military tactics, including the basics wielding a bayonet and saber. I am competent in firearm safety and basic use, my experience mainly with shotguns and revolvers. That’s it.
Add to that, how can I convincingly write about what no author, let alone human, has experienced? For example, an interstellar taskforce made up of carriers, cruisers and destroyers encountering a hostile alien fleet, from large formations down to ship to ship combat using pulse lasers, nuclear tipped missiles, railguns, ion cannons, fusion beams, and more?
It can be done, as proven by a multitude of authors. Admittedly, sometimes it’s accomplished more convincingly than others. In any case, here’s what has worked for me.
The first thing that I’ve done is a lot of reading, supplemented by watching various programs and documentaries focusing on wars and conflicts humanity has engaged in over the centuries. My reading includes a variety of books which, if listed in detail, would take up several pages. Nevertheless, I’ll share four examples in several categories:
- Books that provided ideas of overall units, weapons and tactics on a large scale:
- How to Make War by James F. Dunnigan
- The Face of Battle by John Kegan
- 50 Weapons that Changed Warfare by William Wier
- Jane’s Fighting Ships of WW II by Antony Preston
- Books that covered tactics, responses and reasoning, including personal experiences and insight from larger to smaller scale:
- The Battle of Leyte Gulf by Edwin P. Hoyt
- Citizen Soldier by Stephen E. Ambrose
- Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner
- Modern Air Combat: The Aircraft, Tactics and Weapons Employed in Aerial Warfare Today by Bill Gunston and Mike Spick
- Novels that included depiction/tales of combat at various levels, using a variety of technologies, including magic, and equipment:
- Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy
- The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson
- The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
- World War Series by Harry Turtledove
There is also the audiovisual aspect garnered from television and movies that proved useful in supplementing the various reading material studied:
- Babylon 5
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
- Saving Private Ryan
I can add that playing some strategic war games, mainly during my college years, such as Star Fleet Battles, Panzer Leader, Kingmaker, Diplomacy, and Global Supremacy also laid a foundation for depicting fictional strategies and tactics.
All of that said, I believe that #3 above is the most important and useful as it’s directly relevant in exclusively using words to depict and provides specific and varied ‘how to’ examples for me as an author.
Maybe as a writer you’re feeling overwhelmed and, as a reader, thankful it’s not your job. Really, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Identify the scope of what’s to be achieved when writing a battle or combat scene. I remind myself I’m telling a story, not writing an extensive training manual or doctrine to be studied and employed.
Identify the POV used and focus on the knowledge and observable aspects from that perspective. Yes, as the author, I have a wider understanding of the war, battle or conflict, all the way down to the individual vs. individual level. Having that allows for depth and consistency, and much of that content won’t make the pages of the novel because it isn’t necessary to convey the story. Think world building. An author may create an extensive world, with names and places, culture and history, but only a fraction of it graces the pages of a novel.
In my Crax War Chronicles, the main character, Security Specialist Keesay, has a far different perspective and available knowledge than his superiors, whether he’s serving in the trench line, fending off the advancing Crax air and armored offensive, or attempting to survive a Crax hit-and-run landing assault, assigned to defend the research lab deep within the Io colony, until help arrives—if it arrives.
Being written in first person POV, the only description and events available to the reader are those available to Specialist Keesay. But, as the writer, I’ve already determined the Crax objectives, ships, equipment and numbers they have available, and the tactics and backup plans they’ll use. I also have the resources, plans and strategies Specialist Keesay’s side will employ.
From there I just write what happens. What Keesay personally observes, is told or witnesses through cameras, sensors or other reports. His emotions and responses, and those of the characters around him. I keep in mind the effectiveness of grenades, shotguns, magnetic pulse pistols and medium-duty laser carbines, as well as the caustic pellets, molecular saws and tactics of the armored and energy shield-protected Crax, and of their Stegmar Mantis allies, with their CO2 powered firearms sending sprays of toxin-coated needles.
In addition to thoughts and actions, I include the senses. Yes, sight and sounds, but tactile and especially smells are important in relaying the desperate struggle to the reader.
But how do you get it to flow? Make it real to the reader?
First, I remember that I am telling a story, and relay sufficient action, movement, thoughts and emotion, dialogue, and sensory description to the readers so that they can create the action in their minds’ eye. No amount of words and description can match the readers’ imagination.
Then I work to pace it. Get the wording and description right. The amount of dialogue and movement and reactions set properly for the reader to make it—the conflict occurring—theirs.
How do I know if I’m doing it right? Multiple revisions. I read it orally, and share with a trusted reader. If I’m stuck or unsure, I go to the work of another authors (category #3 above), ones who have relevant examples of combat—similar to what I’m trying to achieve. I read and re-read those sections, paying attention to wording and pacing and description and more. Determine what made their scene work for me. Then I apply what I learned (or re-learned) to my own scene and writing style, making the fictional combat/struggle as real and believable as possible.
With my most recent work, Thunder Wells, an apocalyptic alien invasion novel, I counted on One Second After by William Forstchen Alien Invasion: How to Defend Earth by Travis S. Taylor and Bob Boan, and the Discovery Channel’s Alien Invasion: Are You Ready? If you, as a reader, want additional insight or as a writer, more information, add them to your list.
Terry W. Ervin II ©2016
Terry W. Ervin II is an English teacher who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction. Beyond his new release, Thunder Wells, his Crax War Chronicles (science fiction) includes Relic Tech and Relic Hunted, and his First Civilization’s Legacy Series (fantasy) includes Flank Hawk, Blood Sword and Soul Forge. His short story collection, Genre Shotgun, contains all of his stories previously published in magazines, ezines and anthologies.
When Terry isn’t writing or enjoying time with his wife and daughters, he can be found in his basement raising turtles.