Battle Scenes in Fantasy

One of the biggest challenges in writing fantasy is the battle scene.  It presents an opporutinity for engaging drama, but how do you deal with it without turning it into a boring ‘blow by blow’ account (literally!)?

I’ve just finished reading the historical fiction novel Battle Flag by Bernard Cornwell, and I’ve learnt a lot about handling a battle scene.  Set in the American Civil War, this book is the third in Cornwell’s Starbuck Chronicles. 

Cornwell has a nice balance of factual info (eg guns, weapons and strategy) that is strongly grounded in the character’s experience.  This is the secret, I think.  Good research, sure, but a character centred perspective so that the reader really cares about what’s happening.  Cornwell might begin with a personal perspective of one of his characters, then move into the bigger picture of a large scale battle, yet he still manages to deal with this large scale on a personal level.  We see the expressions on a character’s face, or we hear the dying words of someone the hero happens to pass.  The emotional content is maintained even in the midst of action that could so easily be just a textbook rendition.

This is not to say I want a battle scene to descend into melodrama, with the hero overcome with grief.  The opposite approach could be the most appropriate.  Awful things happen in battle, and shock sets in.  The characters directly involved will be experiencing that shock, and it will show in their thought processes and actions.  They’re not going to be rational and logical all the time, but at the same time, they might not be feeling anything that can be easily identified.  If anything, they’re going to be terrified, and will be dealing with that fear in ways that may not always be consistent.  And they’re not going to walk away the same people they were before. 

As always, balance seems to be the key.  Do my research, then write it through the personal perspective of my character/s.  Think about where the story is, with whom I’m journeying, and stay true to them.  And ultimately, it’s the emotional experience of the character that’s paramount, and I might not need a lot of detail anyway.

Fantasy tends to be about ‘good vs evil’ on some level, and will inevitably involve a major fight between the two sides, even if the fight isn’t physical.  Handle it well, and it can be the pivotal point in my book, the scene that people will remember long after they’ve put it down. 

No pressure. 😉

Another Idea!

I went to a workshop today on writing crime fiction at my local Writer’s Centre.  Why crime fiction, I hear you ask, when I’m a fantasy writer?  I was curious about how authors in another genre go about building their stories, and was looking for some fresh approaches I could apply to my own work in progress.  I find this stops me from getting stale and I encourage other writers to explore outside your genre to build your craft. 

The result was surprising and exciting.  While the exercises given were similar to what I give myself when I’m planning a fantasy work, I fleshed out an idea I’ve had for a historical courtroom novel!  I thought I would really struggle, not being a crime writer myself and not knowing anything about writing it, but as is often the case, things flowed when I put pen to page and applied myself.  Now I’ve got at least one worthwhile idea I can move on to if my current manuscript doesn’t get picked up by a publisher. 

Nothing like a succession plan!

The Importance of Voice

I don’t review books on this blog (who cares what I think about a new novel or film?) but I recently read a book that had such a distinctive voice, it got me hooked from the first sentence.  The book is The Whale Road by Robert Low.  It’s the first part of a trilogy in the genre of historical fiction, something I don’t often read.  The story is set in 965AD and is about a group of wandering warriors looking for a fortune in a world that no longer needs them. 

Low uses language in a clever and engaging way, and I’ve learnt a valuable lesson.  Low uses Norse names and words to give the reader a sense of place while keeping the sentence structure clear and straightforward.  The voice of the narrator, fifteen year old Orm Ruriksson, is uncomplicated but with the lilt of the storyteller.  I was particularly impressed with the first couple of chapters of the book, when Orm is both relating events in the ‘present’ while referring back to his experiences of the near past without my getting confused. 

While the book is clearly written, the psychological and political dynamics it portrays are anything but, and I was captivated by the push and pull of desperate men struggling to live with an oath that binds them to each other, all presented through the honest voice of young Orm.  I’ve probably not done the book justice here (another reason why I don’t do reviews!), but it has got me thinking about my own writing style and how explanation and emotion can be woven into a story seemlessly without it feeling like a lecture.  I can only hope to achieve that myself.

Explanation for J-A’s silence

Yes, I’ve been rather quiet, not having written a thing for the whole of September.  The explanation is that I’m almost finished BattleFall!  I’ve only got half a chapter left to go before I can take a break and then start the second draft.  Not sure how many words it is, but it’s not 100k (no fantasy book worth its salt is under 100k).  That’s not a bad thing, though, because I tend to underwrite.  I get the bare bones down first and then work on it in redrafting. 

I find the first draft is a bit of a drag, but I’m excited about the second draft!  Anyhow, back to that half a chapter…

The trilogy and how it works in fantasy

J-A is a very happy author, having reached 61,597 words.  Only a few more to go til finished (at 100,000 – I’m in denial, I suspect).

And that brings me to a point.  When selecting the genre you’re writing, it’s important to get an idea of how many words you’ll need to write.  If you’re thinking fantasy, you’re looking at a minimum of 100,000 words per book, and you have to write in trilogies.  At least until you’re famous with a firm fan base, then you can maybe stretch the genre a little.

This sounds like a huge undertaking, and it is, but I find it helps to think about it in terms of ‘beginning (setting up and things start getting wobbly), middle (or transition) and end (protagonist triumphs, evil is overthrown and everything’s OK again)’. 

In Book one, we meet the protagonist, find out who he or she is, what conflict they’re facing and how overpowering this conflict seems.  The status quo ends for the protagonist, and they’re gradually faced with ever increasing problems. End of book one – the protagonist has just gotten themselves into deep trouble. 

Book two is about the protagonist going through hell, so he or she has the wind knocked out of them, they’re wiped out and then build themselves back up again until they’re ready to come out fighting (end Book two).

Book three is about the protagonist (and chronies of course) saying ‘Bother it!  I’m strong!  I can do this’ and throwing themselves back into the fray with a new purpose and energy.  They win, and everything is better than it was before.

Those are my thoughts anyway.  It works for me.  Still, no denying it, 100,000 is a lot of words … better get back to it.


Here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately – can fantasy be considered to be speculative, even though it doesn’t involve speculating about the future?

In the 1980s, a new section began appearing in the bookshops in my town.  It was called ‘science fiction and fantasy’, and as I had always loved both, it made sense to me to put them both together.  When in the 2000s I found these genres were often referred to as ‘speculative fiction’, I accepted that too.  But in recent weeks, I’ve found myself wondering about that and if it really fits my genre.

 Science fiction is clearly speculative, as it predicts and hypothesises about what impact science will have on humanity in the future, and what we will do with that science.  Fantasy, on the other hand, is throwing back to an ancient past, even if it’s projecting that past onto a fictional world. 

 However, in my opinion, that kind of thinking misses the point of the fantasy I write.  Any student of history knows that although the resources and technology might change, human nature doesn’t all that much.  Even if you consider your own lifetime, can you come up with a sense of your Self that has always been there, even when you were a toddler and didn’t have as much experience in the world?  I can, and I speculate that you can too (and I use the word ‘speculate’ deliberately).

 What this means is that fantasy (as I write it) strips away the distraction of technology and asks the reader to concentrate on the human dynamic. It also asks the reader to consider how much our physical, social and technological environment impacts on who we are, how we think and how we make meaning of the world around us.  Is that very different from science fiction?  Is it just a different mechanism to get to the same point?

 And another thing I was thinking is that while the role of science and understanding in sci fi is obvious, there is also a very strong role for science in fantasy as well.  It’s through science and technological advancement that we develop a fuller understanding of the past.  Also, science has peaked and troughed throughout history, and we have found and lost the ability to understand the world through scientific exploration a number of times if you look over human evolution.

 So I think that it’s fair enough that fantasy is called ‘speculative fiction’ and considering that point has made me consider my own aims when I write in this genre.

Trying something new

I managed to make the treck to a sci fi and fantasy convention recently.  While I normally head straight for the fantasy stuff, this time I decided to have a look at the science fiction stream.  I’m very glad I did.  I don’t know that I’ll start writing sci fi any time soon, but it made me look at my own writing differently, and I realised that there are aspects to my writing that fit with sci fi.  Maybe it’s not such an insurmountable leap for me to go there.

I also walked away with my first book by Julie Czerneda.  She was an interesting speaker, and her take on science roped me in!

So if you find yourself regularly going for your comfort zone, I encourage you to venture out every now and then.  You don’t have to go too far, and it might give you a different perspective on things.