Five Steps to Writing Awesome Battle Scenes

Hi everyone!
As a veteran reader, I’ve read my fair share of battle scenes over the years. Now, as a writer, I find myself rereading many of those older stories and novels to see how different authors have approached battle scenes. I’ve taken these lessons and applied them to both Brass Legionnaire and Copper Centurion, and will continue to add on what I’ve learned in future novels!

First off, there’s a huge difference between writing ancient or fantasy battle scenes and sci-fi ones. After all, your weaponry, tactics, skills, battlefield knowledge, and technology (or magic!) all play a roll in how, where, and why you will fight. Urban combat in a medieval city will not take months to play out, as you have to fight it out toe to toe with your opponent. Not so the modern or futuristic era, where you can kill a man hundreds of yards away, then duck down through the sewers to the hidden bunker created in the apartment complex over yonder.

But what about for steampunk? How can I write a good battle scene for my novel if they include a smattering of things for all eras? Well that’s where I’m here to help!

First, remember that conflict is never about the weapons. It’s about a fight between two people/sets of peoples. Sometimes, in steampunk, we authors have a tendency to focus on the awesome gadgetry rather than the stories. Gadgets are cool, but humanity needs to be the guiding force. So show me how the character is feeling as he chops down his opponent. I want to see through the targeting reticule with him, slice off the zombie’s head with her, I want to feel and hear and taste (the iron tang of blood in your mouth! – Okay, maybe a bit gruesome, but you get the point) War is hell, it is experience. It is not some pretty dainty thing. Don’t treat it as such.

Leonidas is not pleased by your pitiful battle scene.

Second, do yourself a favor. Find a few movies that are in the time period closest to yours (or those with the closest weaponry-wise) and watch them. Not the extreme movies like 300, but rather a movie like Alexander. Think documentary over Hollywood flash. Don’t watch the newest “3 Musketeers” but find the original. Find a movie that shows you the battle panoramic style and close up. In other words – Do your research. While the weapons are not the focus of your story, they impact the use of tactics and how your army/soldiers fight. IE – My legionnaires are not going to charge a group of mechaniphants – They know perfectly well that they would get squashed. But they have created tactics to deal with them. you see the point.

Alternative – READ A BOOK(s)! Seriously – I read Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul prior to writing Brass Legionnaire. If you want people to take your battles seriously, demonstrate you understand what you are writing about.

Third, try to stay focused on one part of a scene at a time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to go back and reread a battle scene because I just didn’t understand what was happening. Sometimes, that’s the point, and the character is also lost in the ‘fog of war’ but then that should be in your writing. Jumping point of view can be a killer, and unless he is floating high above the battlefield, it’s hard to give him that ‘power’ to know what’s happening on the other flank in real time.

Fourth, your character is not a superhero. He/She will get tired, confused, wounded, exhausted, mad with rage, etc. Express that. I read a book once where a character sliced his way through half an opposing army. He had been a poor, simple, teenage farmer forty pages earlier, received no training, and then went to war. Realistic Result – Farmer dies on end of swordsman’s blade. Or runs away before hand.

I want to see growth and training. My characters may be Roman Legionnaires and have gone through difficult training, but they are still more deadly as part of a team, not as lone wolves. Besides, the idea that Conan the Barbarian will destroy the bad guy’s army single-handed is a bit overdone, don’t you think? And remember, most real battles ended due to the arrival of nighttime or one side fleeing. Very rarely did the losing side stay around to get pummeled into the ground. Terrain or circumstance forced that.

Finally, Don’t make your opponents cardboard props. They shouldn’t be dumb and flat, they should be sneaky, conniving, tricky. They should have motivation and a basic knowledge of tactics and warfare. Warlords get that way because they… go…to…war. They won’t lose all that knowledge the second they face your hero’s army. A talented opponent makes for a better story, a more engaging plot, and the chance for sequels.

Whew! There you have it! Five easy steps to writing awesome battle scenes. You can apply them to any era or type of battle, not just steampunky ones! Enjoy, and take a sneak peek of Copper Centurion below.

I’m about 20 thousand words in. For those of you keeping track, I have not, and won’t meet my goal of finishing it before the family vacation (six days or so away, no way I’ll be able to type 60k words or so!) But I promise you, I’m making progress! Copper Centurion involves a lot more airship combat and larger conflicts than Brass Legionnaire, so here’s a first look at an (unedited and un-beta-read) part of a larger airfleet combat. I’ve tried to follow all the rules listed above, but once again, this is a rough draft.

“Centurion, get your soldiers into position. They appear to be trying to double up on our airships. There’s more than we thought.” He shouted over the humming of the engines. The tempo of the large propellers had increased and Julius felt the ship move faster under his booted feet.

“Check your gear, lads. If you’ve got the grappler, remember to aim for the deck or something that can hold our weight as we cross on those ropes. Everyone else, clear the deck with your repeaters before you cross.” Julius passed on the orders from the briefing earlier. “Let’s not bring any extra things across. We go in fast, and either capture the ship or set the flares, and get off fast. The flares should do the work for us, but we have to get off before the fire spreads to the Scioparto. I don’t think the Captain would like that!” His voice felt full of false confidence as he gave the rallying speech to his men.

The enemy airships closed in tighter, from what Julius could tell. His view was blocked off to his left by the large bulk of the Scioparto’s gasbag and airship proper. Straight ahead, he could see several enemy airships closing fast on the line of Roman fliers headed straight at them. To Julius’ inexperienced eye, the airships seemed to vary little in design or shape, except that they had two airships that were as big as the Roman flagship. One was bearing down on the left flank of the Roman formation and the Scioparto.

The flagship began firing, joined by the ships flanking it to either side as the two lines clashed in mid air. The rolling line of explosions and the cacophony of battle started soft but were soon loud and immediate as the enemy airships closed in, engulfing the entirety of the formation. Julius counted twelve enemy warships, equaling their number. And those were just the ones he could see.

 From below, the sounds of metal and wood screeching came as the ship’s artillery ports opened. Julius and the men of the XIII Germania watched, anticipating the first salvo from the Scioparto with glee. A larger vessel appeared to be sliding towards them, closing the space until it was just parallel to the smaller Scioparto.

All at once, the artillery on the Roman ship fired, launching a barrage of explosive missiles at the Nortland vessel. This time, the artillery crews fired as fast as possible, joined by the smaller pieces on the exposed deck. Julius’ legionnaires tried to shield the exposed aircrews as they fired their lightweight weaponry. When the breeze blew away the smoke and fog of war that obscured their damage, Julius’ eyes went wide in surprise and he cried out in alarm.

The enemy vessel was mostly unharmed.

Author: Daniel Ottalini

Author of the Award-Winning Steam Empire Chronicles Series

One thought on “Five Steps to Writing Awesome Battle Scenes”

  1. Love the sneak peak! And the blog post is great! I wrote something like that a while ago, I’m planning a three-part how to write battle scenes but only got the first one done 😉 It really does help to watch movies that show the right kind of fighting styles, that’s why I love the really well done historical ones. And I like the point you made about those heros that can smash through half an army and come out unscathed. Come on, this just is not realistic. And there’s nothing I love more than a real gritty battle scene 🙂 Good luck with your writing! I’m having quandaries about which book I want to write next as I’ve started both of them…

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