On Writing Battle Scenes

11825788_738733412916087_3775435348695635423_nOnce upon a time, a good friend of mine asked me to critique her book. It was a fantasy novel about a war. So, seeing as how I’m a retired soldier, she wanted me to verify that her battle scenes read true.

Now, to be clear, my friend is an extremely talented writer and her plot and characters were excellent. Her battle scenes, unfortunately, failed to grab me. This is was despite the fact that she had done an amazing amount of research on the subject of medieval war. Similarly, I once threw Pires Anthony’s novel, Wielding a Red Sword, across the room because his depictions of war and warriors were utterly ghastly. Obviously, there’s something to writing a good battle scene that vexes writers both unknown and world-famous.  So what are they getting wrong?

Put simply, battles, to many people, are the stuff of history books. When a historian writes about a battle, he or she has the benefit of near perfect hindsight. Naturally, the historian can read the “after action reports” of both sides. Likewise, the autobiography of both commanders can be studied, as well as the archaeology of the battlefield itself. This lends a historical account to possess a Godlike perspective. The entire fight is seen as if from above with every move and counter move clearly understood by the reader.

But fiction is a different art!

In fiction, readers don’t care what future historians may one day understand about a battle. They want to know what the protagonist understands in the moment of the fight. Think how droll it can be to observe from above. And conversely, how exciting it is for a reader to ride into battle, sword held high and heart pounding!

So, let’s get down to cases, shall we? Here are four basic rules to follow when sending your fictional characters to war.

  1. Do your research– Whether your war is fictional or historical, you should know something about the kinds of arms and armies involved. True, I do not GTA_Art_altrecommend you copy the historian’s style. However, I do recommend you gain an understanding of the context of your battles and the common difficulties soldiers and commanders face. At this juncture I hope you’ll tolerate a subtle plug for my book Armed Professions: A Writer’s Guide, it is meant to be a primer on this subject and I hope you find it a good place to start.
  2.  Consider your point of view character Realizing that battles are whirling, flailing, confusing things, ask yourself, “What is my POV character experiencing?” First, think of what emotions are coursing through your hero’s head: fear? anger? uncertainty? panic? hate? Readers what to experience the battle as your character does so write the scene with feeling. After emotions come the physical aspects: fatigue, pain, sweat, tears are all important elements to put your reader in the fight. The last POV question to ask yourself is, “What does your hero know?” Battles are fought on incomplete information, and only the future historian will have the whole picture. Do not include information that the POV character would be unaware of.
  3. Don’t forget the aftermath- The battle may have begun unexpectedly, but afterward, your character needs to process what just happened. Dead enemies may be as hard for some characters to handle as dead friends. Is your hero a novice who’s just survived his first fight, or a battle fatigued veteran who’s seen enough bodies to last a lifetime.  Emergency care for the wounded and Burial details for the dead are also bound to keep a protagonist busy long after the shooting stops.
  4. Lastly, write using short paragraphs– Battles are experienced in seconds, not hours. In the heat of the melee, the world is seen in snippets. Tunnel vision sets in and the skirmish is reduced to short, sharp images that the mind must race to process. You may indulge in wordy, panoramic prose after the smoke clears. But during the action, try to keep your paragraphs down to three to six sentences each.

As an illustration of what I mean, I’m including a sample from my book The Adventures of Crazy Liddy, in which my hero takes part in a space battle. Keep in mind, she is not a commander and only sees her little part in the fracas.

Enjoy.

Chapter Twelve: Battle

2-crazy-liddy-510“Summer Breeze, hold your present course and speed,” the customs pilot ordered. Liddy held tight. She saw in her monitor the Azanti man-of-war banking a hard left. The ugly giant did an about face, and sped back to its brethren, a very wise decision on its captain’s part.

“Thanks, Elliot Ness!” Liddy cried. “That was wonderful. What brings you to the neighborhood?”

Before the pilot of the corvette could answer, another commo circuit crackled to life.

“Well, Ms. Schmidt,” said the voice of Governor Mendez. “That is a long story.

Liddy swallowed hard, “Governor?”

“It’s actually commodore today,” came the authoritative reply. Liddy’s comm screen lit up with the image of Hugo’s mom in a crisp white Confederation Navy uniform. The outfit was out of date and no longer a good fit but had enough military goo-gahs on it to open up a gift shop. Mendez sat at a console on the large bridge of a naval vessel. “I have to admit, Liddy. I figured you were on Tortuga by now, selling my yacht to a chop shop. I’m interested to know why you’re here, but first, understand that you are not the reason we came. Can you tell me where my son and his crew are?”

“He’s on Apollo, Ma’am. Reed’s with him,” Liddy answered. “All together he says they have over two hundred survivors from the Gallant, and the ’56 expedition, with ‘em. They’re holding out on some high ground between the university and the sea.”

Mendez tilted her head. “Apollo?”

“You know, planet Kilroy?”

“Oh, right.”  The commodore nodded. Liddy saw Captain Keats approach from behind his commanding officer and hand her a data pad. She nodded and handed it back to him. “Now, you said something about a university?”

“Yes,” said Liddy. “The Azanti have a university on the planet. That’s their ultimate weapon. They were using human prisoners to teach them how to rebuild their technology.”

“Azanti warriors learning tech?” Keats said in disbelief.

“Apparently so,” Gilead answered.

“Gilead! What in God’s name are you doing with this criminal?” Mendez demanded.

“Crusading,” the Boffin answered.

“Right…” Mendez said. “Listen, I want the Summer Breeze to stay out of the way. We’ve got a battle to fight, and I don’t want any civilian craft in the crossfire. Besides, it looks like you’ve put enough dents in my yacht as it is.”

“Sorry,” said Liddy.

“We’ll talk about that later,” came the muffled rebuke. “Right now I’ve got more important things to worry about. I assume my son can be raised on the commo unit?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Liddy answered.

“Good.” She glanced at a blinking light that appeared on her console and smiled. “Well, who says children never call their mothers; looks like he’s already trying to contact us. Mendez out.”

The screen went blank as momma Mendez hung up on Liddy.

“Liddy, if you keep us just under stall speed, I might be able to fix our fuel problem.”

“Sounds great, Gilead. I’ll put us in the back of the formation by the prison barges. They’re going so slow I think their pilots are peddling backwards.”

“Peddling?” Gilead asked.

“Never mind.” she replied. “Just do what you can. We might need to put on some speed soon. We’ll see how this goes.”

The Summer Breeze maneuvered to a point starboard of the Confederation fleet, setting course and speed to trail the massive formation. As Hugo chatted with his mom, Liddy took stock of the Confed’ ship’s electronic ID signatures. The two destroyers were called the Fearless and the Illusive, medium sized warships with reasonable armament. Mendez’s old battleship, the Conquest, sported dozens of heavy laser cannon and missile batteries making it a very well named ship. Unfortunately, Liddy’s memories of human ships against the Azanti in this system weren’t good ones. With the Azanti Empire in decline, and Confederation technology twenty years ahead, it might prove a different story, but she just didn’t know.

All of the Customs Patrol corvettes had names like the Buford Pusser or the Wyatt Earp, which meant nothing to her. They were nimble little craft, with single, forward facing laser cannons and not much else. The two prison barges didn’t even have names, just DOC009 and DOC014. And lacking names also seemed to entail a lack of weapons, as they didn’t have any lasers. Liddy wondered why Mendez even brought them.

But no matter the reason for the visit, the Azanti didn’t shy from giving their guests a warm welcome. Her two pressers retreated, but the other four ships advanced and soon all six would meet in the middle. The Azanti mega-carrier looked especially menacing. Depending on how many fighters it launched, it could make this a very messy fight.

Liddy tried to tune in the Confed’ Fleet net but found herself jammed. All the comm traffic between Confederation ships was encrypted, and Summer Breeze wasn’t equipped with a com-sec key. Liddy could only guess what orders Mendez gave to the little fleet by watching the ships move.

But from the looks of it, Commodore Mendez was a scrapper. Seizing the initiative, ten of the corvettes kicked their thrusters in high gear and raced toward the two fleeing warships. Against the Azanti man of war the little police craft looked like darts, thrown at an elephant. Fortunately, the quick little ships avoided the enemy’s main guns, maneuvered dead aft of the enemy’s engine bells, and opened fire—red lasers flashing.

The Azanti ship on the right lost one engine in a bright orange blossom. But the left hand warship made a hard turn at incredible speed to come behind the corvettes. The big warship might have looked slow and ponderous, but it moved like a shark swimming in space. Liddy held her breath as she watched the ten law enforcement ships suddenly surrounded, the Azanti plasma cannons pounding them furiously.

The remaining corvettes charged into the melee. Soon, all Liddy could see was a swirling mess of fire and debris. She let out a sigh of relief as the trapped corvettes escaped vertically out of the melee. The brave little ships spiraled upward to ascend above the enemy, but only seven of the ten made it.

The Azanti were not unscathed. One man-of-war floated dead in space, its engines puffing smoke. The other didn’t stay to defend its comrade, but instead rushed to rejoin the advancing armada.

The corvettes peeled off, and wisely stayed out of range of the dying ship’s plasma guns. Then, in a meteoric strafing run, the Fearless closed with the enemy. Liddy held her breath as the Confed’ destroyer neared the stricken Azanti hulk. It avoided engaging at laser cannon range, and instead released a barrage of missiles. The hail of rockets turned the proud Azanti war machine to a smoldering cinder in only a few seconds, leaving it to forever drift in the night.

Liddy started to breathe again.

Unfortunately, the second Azanti warship made clean its getaway. It closed the distance with its brethren to join the advancing Azanti forces. Now five great warships strong, the armada formed a sphere with their mega-carrier in the center. Liddy knew that sphere would be hard to crack with the warships protecting the carrier and the carrier’s fighters protecting the warships. She had seen this formation the last time she was in Eta-Cephei.

Commodore Mendez maneuvered the Confederation forces into a crescent shape. The surviving sixteen corvettes formed two squadrons on the right and left flanks with a destroyer anchoring each near the middle. The battleship held the center and the prison barges fell into the rear where Summer Breeze putted along at a fourth its usual speed.

Liddy crossed her fingers. “How are those repairs coming, Gilead?”

“Working on it, Liddy.”

As the opposing forces closed on each other, Liddy took the Summer Breeze on a slow arch to a position high above the battle. A smart move would be to take cover behind the barges, or an even smarter move would be to jump out of the system altogether. But she wasn’t feeling particularly smart. She not only wanted to see the action; Liddy wanted to be able to jump in if she was needed.

“Almost got it.”

Liddy bit her lip.

Like boxers entering a ring, the two sides closed on each other, dodging and weaving. The Azanti threw the first punch; launching twenty-seven fighters from the carrier to form a screen in front of the rest of their armada.

The Confederation countered by launching a barrage of missiles from the navy ships. Like most boxing matches, the first round was inconclusive. Liddy was relieved to see some of the missiles take out a few fighters, but the Azanti plasma weapons shot down the majority of the missiles before they struck anything significant.

But, the need to shoot down missiles did tie up Azanti firepower while the corvettes sprinted around the sphere and began shooting at the enemy rear. As before, the fast little craft evaded plasma blasts as they ducked and dodged around the foe. As the lawmen scored hits, Liddy watched Azanti engine bells burst into flame.

“Yes!” she cried, as an enemy craft began to drift out of its formation, exposing their flank.

The Azanti warships weren’t done, however, and they returned fire with a vengeance, their plasma cannons screaming out superheated gas. Liddy gasped as several corvettes burst into flames. It was an awesome light show as plasma burst and laser beams reflected off the growing cloud of debris, forming a sparkling halo around the battle. For a moment, Liddy almost thought it looked beautiful, and at the same time—hated it so.

“Gilead?”

“A few more seconds, Liddy.”

As the opposing fleets closed the distance each Confed’ destroyer was forced to take on multiple opponents. Soon they were surrounded by Azanti warships and trapped in overlapping fields of deadly plasma fire. Liddy clenched her fist and slammed it into the consul. She was not born to be a spectator.

But she watched, as DOC009 and DOC014 swooped around the battleship and plunged into the heart of the action. As they closed with the enemy the two barges opened their cargo bays; out dropped dozens of missiles to float free in space. By the time the Azanti recognized the threat of the ‘unarmed’ ships it was too late. As the prison barges ran for the cover of the Conquest, the missiles targeted the Azanti ships and zoomed into their sides. Three of the Empire’s warships suddenly exploded in bright bursts of yellow and orange. But the other two dreadnaughts fought on.

Liddy saw that the Fearless had sustained heavy damage from the enemy carrier. Its port engine bell smoked and only its auxiliary cannon still fired. Azanti fighters swarmed over the Confed’ ship like flies on a dying buffalo. Then she saw a green light flash on her port side fuel indicator.

“I got it!”

“Gilead,” Liddy replied as her face twisted into a feral grin. “You’re awesome.”

The cavalry was coming to the besieged Fearless. She locked the turret in the forward position and aimed with Summer Breeze’s nosecone indicator instead of the overcomplicated turret sights.

The first Azanti fighter didn’t even see her coming. Liddy smoked it from above as Summer Breeze arched into the fight. The second fighter twisted and turned but its pilot couldn’t shake her off his blue tail. When her nosecone indicator flashed green over the target, she squeezed the trigger and in a flash of brilliant light another bad guy splattered across the stars.

Then things got really interesting. The proximity alarm blared, and Liddy checked her screen to see an Azanti fighter directly on her ass. The little bastard zigged and zagged with every twist she made. Her heart raced as she pulled up on her stick and then drove it down in a sharp decent just as the enemy pilot let loose with a plasma burst. The enemy cannon struck her shuttle bay, vaporizing it instantly.

“Damn it!” she shouted to no one in particular.

“Summer Breeze, I copy,” came a voice over her comm. “This is CPC Louis Lépine, stand by.”

The Azanti burst into a ball of fire as a customs corvette soared by the Summer Breeze. The Louis Lépine came so close that Liddy could actually see the pretty little pilot, who just saved her ass, through the canopy. The woman blew Liddy a kiss and gave her the ‘call me’ gesture. Great.

Then, the black of space filled with light as the CJS Illusive ruptured in two. Azanti plasma cannons had sliced through its hull. Escape pods launched but not every spacer made it to the pods in time. Liddy watched in horror as men and women cartwheeled into space. The cost of this rescue was becoming extremely high. Shuttles launched from the other navy ships to rescue any Illusive crewmen who were sensible enough to wear vac-suits into combat. Liddy hoped that would be most of them. She knew it would not be all of them.

As she watched the Illusive’s destruction in sick fascination, another blip appeared on her close range scanner. It was huge and charged right into the heart of the battle. The Conquest was open for business and its business was death. The mighty laser cannons flashed red in the vacuum of space like brilliant lances. The beams struck at any offending Azanti warship foolish enough to come in range. Liddy cheered as the one remaining man-of-war crumpled instantly under the onslaught and drifted out of the fight as a gutted wreck. The other Azanti fought on. Soon the Conquest was surrounded in a swarm of fighters.

Fearless closed to engage the enemy, but could only move at half speed due to the loss of one of its engines. It would be six minutes before help arrived, an eternity in combat. Nonetheless, the battleship fought on. Missiles leaped from the Conquest, smacking into the Azanti mega-carrier; destroying its launch bays.

Now, the enemy fighters were without a home to return to. In desperation, many put themselves on kamikaze courses for the big Confederation target. And Liddy wasn’t going to sit still for that!

She formed the Summer Breeze up behind the CPC Alice Wells and six other corvettes to stop the suicidal warriors, and challenged Gilead to give the engines everything he could. The results were messy; Liddy found herself in a swirling, diving, twisting, climbing riot of quick death and no excuses. As the battle raged, the Summer Breeze continued to lose minor pieces of itself, but when its last laser cannon took a debris hit from a chunk of hull that used to be the CPC Elliott Ness, that was it.

“God damn it!” she cried.

Without a weapon, she had no choice but to retreat from the fight. She took up a position with the DOC009 and DOC014 and watched the end of the battle from there.

The Azanti mega-carrier, robbed of its protecting warships and most of its fighter screen, died millimeter by millimeter. Corvettes swooped in to take pot shots, while the Fearless and the Conquest exhausted their missile magazines on the big target. In a matter of minutes the carrier’s engines went super-critical, and the ship burst apart like a cheap child’s toy, carelessly stepped on by a heavy boot. This time Azanti bodies twirled out into space, propelled by the air that had once sustained them.

Twenty years after the Confederation’s declared victory, the last space battle of the Azanti War had ended. Liddy put her head in her hands and breathed in short stifled breaths.