I watched the second half of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” today (yesterday). In the theater, with all the bells and whistles and the like. Aside from me crying through the whole thing (can you blame me? That’s the end of an investment that took up the majority of my twenty years of life, between the books and movies.), I found myself crying especially a lot when they brought the battle of Hogwarts to life. Needless to say it was awesome. I would love to throw out some details, but I know for a fact that some of my readers haven’t seen it, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.
But I’m rambling, here. I saw the battle of Hogwarts come to life in full glory. Flying spells, charms, and hexes abounded, and it got me thinking: this is the single greatest fantasy battle I’ve ever read and/or seen. That doesn’t mean it’s really the best one, but it’s the best I’ve been exposed to. I was in total awe at it, but on the drive home, I began to consider something else: why is this battle so incredible? What really makes this drive home so well? Why do I still think about it even though I haven’t touched the book in months and am now miles (and hours at the time of writing this) away from the movie and the theater?
I actually can’t really sum it up quickly, but I decided to dissect some of the best battle scenes thrown into fantasy. Sadly, as much as it may disappoint you all to know, I still haven’t been able to force myself to read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so those battles won’t be mentioned. I’m also not talking about one-on-one skirmishes and duels. As much as I enjoy reading the battle between Bobby and Saint Dane in book six of the “Pendragon” series, it’s not what I mean. That’s not to say that any of that stuff isn’t fantastic, or that this information isn’t applicable to one-on-one skirmishes, but that’s not what I’m focusing on. I’m talking big, nameless hordes colliding in mass struggled of death. I’m talking battles in a war.
I know, I’m blathering and blithering all over the place. Let’s get down to it.
Every major battle has to start somewhere, has to have an inciting event. Often times, especially in high fantasy, it will be either somebody yelling “Charge!” or some other such thing to set the forces a-running, or you’ll just have the protagonists side of the battle get attacked. Whatever it is, that one thing will start it. Now, this isn’t the reason that they’re fighting. If that’s not established way before you start battling, then in what sense is this battle going to be an epic struggle? I could get into a whole discussion on that, but suffice it to say that the inciting event for your battle should NOT be the reason you’re fighting. This is the first act of combat for the scene. During the battle of Hogwarts, it’s when Harry shows up. It’s that simple. Harry shows up and, blah, blah, blah, we have a battle erupting.
After the inciting event comes the action. Does this sound familiar yet? Yes, it’s the same as a plot arc. A battle has to follow that same pattern. That means that we have action. This is where writing a battle kicks a lot of people’s asses, pun absolutely intended. Up until now, it’s just writing something else for your story, but when you get to the battling action it’s almost a different craft. You have to slip into a different frame of mind for this. You have swords clanging off of one another, spells being cast and thwarted, dragons spewing fireballs into oncoming swarms—it’s so blissful to write once you get into it.
There are a lot of things to consider when you’re writing the action, too, so I’ve tried to cover them all. The first and most obvious is the actual action. I know, the action of the action—live with it. This is what actually happens. Stripped down to the barest bits of your battle, this is all you really need to tell people what’s happening. This is the slashes, tears, screams, runs, rampages—what the characters do, or what their spells or mounts do. This is what really happens, and it screw up a lot of battle scenes. People don’t know how to go into the battle, because so many of your main characters are down there at once. Most writers know enough to stay out of the heads of the faceless masses, so I won’t touch on that any more, but the rest can get tricky. As fun as it is to write it, we don’t care about every character’s every movement in a battle scene. You should treat this the same way as anything else you write, from that respect. If the character is doing nothing to move along the story line or the plot arc of the battle scene, I don’t need to know if that character exists. I’d much rather see the dweeby little guy get his ass kicked while the heroine is setting up the booby trap for the enemy general. That’s much more important to know than the fact that your favorite character just slashed across three demon mercenaries. Of course, as I write this, there’s a nagging little voice that says: I want to know who’s alive. It’s true, you do eventually have to say who survived and who didn’t—but not during the battle. Hold it off until I pivotal moment or the end of the battle, but it’s actually a good idea to show just the event that might have killed Joe over there. You can’t do it every time—sometimes your character has to die when he has to die—but keeping the reader in suspense is GOOD. It makes them want to finish.
More on action. When it comes to actually saying what happened, please make it make sense. Now, during this battle scene, is the easiest time to make a slip. Not only do you have to remember what’s going on with your characters (does he have a club foot? Really? Then how the hell did he do that?), but you have to realize the limits of what can happen. Your one-armed character isn’t going to be able to slash this guy with an axe and reach down to pick up a sword. I’m sorry, it won’t fly, and those are the things readers love to eat you over. Now, it’s not always so drastic, and in magical situations you can really go crazy and bend the rules—but you can’t break the rules of anything you laid out. If instant death magic is against your magical laws, don’t do that without a really, really good explanation. If you’re going into a battle magic free, then you really have to pay close attention. If your characters do something beyond what has been previously allowed to them, you’re going to catch some major flack. That’s why you need to be precise with your words. You have to make it so easy to track that anyone can get the picture you get, or else you have to fix it.
Also in the action is reader desire and expectation. Your reader is going to expect things to be a certain way—you can either honor that or deny it. Your reader might expect that Joe is the biggest bad-ass out there and is absolutely unbelievably unbeatable. That means that you’ve set up the character that way. You can either go with it and have that continue, or you can pull up someone that beats the snot out of poor Joe and throw your reader off. Both are good options, it just depends on when you have to do it. If you’re still building a character up to be awesome, don’t let him be a failure, but if it’s pretty much set in stone that he’s awesome—drop it down on him. Whether it be a bad wound or death, it doesn’t matter—drop it. The key to any of that is knowing what you’ve made the reader expect. As for the desire, you really don’t have a choice. Your job as a writer is to give the readers what they want, even if they don’t know they want it. That doesn’t mean give them what they expect, but what they want. In the battle of Hogwarts (I’m telling you, I’m dissecting this battle.), we get what we want. Molly, after six books, kicks ass against Bellatrix Lestrange. Finally! We know why she’s in the damn Order of the Phoenix! That’s what we want. We wanted to see why almost everyone was in the Order of the Phoenix, and by the end of that battle we knew. We saw Flitwick get his dueling magic on, Mcgonagall gets to be absolutely incredible, and even Trelawney proves that she deserves respect by throwing her crystal balls at Death Eaters. We want to see all of this, whether we know it or not.
The final piece of the action section is the dialogue. You can take it or leave it, but you’d do better to take it. People actually talk in combat, whether it be to the opponent, their allies, and themselves. They talk. Now, try to avoid any of those really cheesy sounding lines that pop up in bad action movies. If they’re taking the time to talk in battle it must be powerful. At the risk of sounding repetitive, let’s go back to Molly and Bellatrix. Bellatrix attacks Ginny and there’s Mrs. Weasley with one of my favorite lines in that whole series, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” It’s character defining, powerful, memorable, and short. Short is good, unless you can fit some rug-chewing in there effectively (for those of you wondering, rug-chewing is not related to carpet-munching. It’s more commonly called “monologuing”, but I use rug-chewing.). If you can get that rug-chewing in, make it work. If you can get that mix right between actions, expectation, desire, and dialogue, then the battle’s half over. I think that was another pun. Sweet.
If you’ve been following along, you know that the climax of the battle comes next. This can be the game-changing move or the confrontation between the king of death and Joe. The important thing is that this needs to be what everything led up to from that inciting event of this battle. In “Darkenheight”, the climax of the battle of Faerine is when the drackans come down to fight with the humans and the Faerine. In the battle of Hogwarts, the climax is, of course, the showdown between Harry and Voldy. In “A Breach in the Watershed”, the climax of the battle of Taywick Pass is the murder of Prince Garamis. It’s always going to be one event. You can have something really powerful leading to the climax, but the climax is one event. That’s it, so make sure you hit it hard and fast.
After the climax comes something much more familiar to write. When you’re winding down, your battle writing lulls into fodder you can probably deal with—we all can. We have the wrap-up. People are on cots, we see the dead in totality, people wash the blood off in the river. It’s a definite battle aftermath, but it’s aftermath. Take some time, breathe, and let your characters breathe—they deserve it. This is the falling action. Don’t introduce any assassins or anything—let it fall until the time comes that it has to level back out to the rest of the book. Otherwise, you write depressing, morbid things and everyone will hate you except for depressing, morbid people. If that’s your key audience, then whatever.
Now, this is an afterthought because it’s not a major part. It really can be left out of a battle to really pump up the drama, but throwing humor in can help increase the drama around it. It only needs to be one line (I’ve always wanted to use that spell.) or a situation that simply is funny. Of course, you have to know how to use this. If you use too much humor, it’ll kill your battle scene. Use it wisely, padawan.