How do you write a battle scene which engages your readers and drives the story on? It’s a question many authors of historical fiction fight with. Matthew Harffy, well known for his action-filled Bernicia Chronicles series, gives Historia his advice.
All good stories need conflict, and what better way to convey conflict than to have actual physical violence portrayed in your novel? Whether this is the smoke, chaos, thunder-crash of cannons, and rippling ranks of fired muskets of Waterloo, the clash of thousands of armoured French nobility galloping their warhorses into the mud and rain of arrows at Agincourt, or a skirmish between a handful of Saxons and a shipload of Norsemen in the ninth century on a nameless stretch of sand, the past was frequently a violent place.
Therefore it is no surprise that writers of historical fiction often tell their stories around battles, or at least include some armed conflict in their tales. Stakes and jeopardy make a story gripping, and there can be no higher stakes than life and death. So one could surmise that all a writer needs to do to have a great book on their hands, is to include a lot of action-packed violence in a big fight. Stories need conflict, so the maximum amount of conflict must equal the maximum amount of story. Right?
Like many things in life, it is not a question of ‘more equals more’. And it is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing. Or in this case, too much of a horrible thing.
And yet, there can be no denying that battles are often needed to tell certain historical stories. Many tales have a battle at their heart, so the conflict cannot be avoided while still remaining true to the events. Done well, battle can propel a story from something pedestrian and humdrum, to a rousing adventure. But there are certain things to bear in mind when throwing your characters into the fray.
The most important thing to remember is that in all battles where there are many people involved, there is the big picture and the smaller picture.
This is the same with the whole narrative of historical fiction. The big picture is the backdrop of world events, such as the political machinations that are moving things that affect the characters’ lives. The smaller picture focuses on the action of the main characters. This is what the readers are really interested in.
This is especially true when describing battles. You can look at it as being made up of two layers, like the background and the foreground of a painting. The reader needs to understand the context, the lay of the land and the disposition of the combatants, but these can all be shown with broad brush strokes, rather than picking out every minor detail that might not be relevant and merely distract from the protagonist’s travails.
Here is an illustration of this from A Time for Swords. The story is told by Hunlaf, a young monk on Lindisfarne during the first savage Viking attack on the monastery there in AD793.
In the harbour were three huge ships, sleek and menacing with terrifying carven serpent head prows. Around the ships were congregated several men. The land all around was full of movement. Dozens of armed warriors had poured from the ships and had made their way into the grounds of the minster. Three of the monastery buildings were burning, great pillars of flame and smoke smudging the sky. My heart lurched as I realised one of the fires was the scriptorium.
Through Hunlaf’s eyes the reader sees what is happening on the canvas where the action takes place. The foreground though, is where the details come in. This is where the protagonist lives and it is through his or her eyes that the action should be described.
People read stories for the characters. They want to know what happens to them. Will they survive? Will they be injured? Will they kill their enemies or confront their inner demons in the turmoil? By following the characters through the fight, readers will be engaged in the action.
All battle scenes work best when the reader is invested at a personal level, and this means describing what the main characters are doing and how the fighting impacts them.
It might be interesting from a historical perspective to have the movements of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s troops at Waterloo described in great detail, as if we were birds flying over the battlefield, or generals perusing a map. But it is when we are right in the thick of the action with Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful hero, Richard Sharpe, that we are transported into the past and begin to truly care what happens.
And just as we need to feel a connection to the characters who are suffering through the fight, the conflict must in some way change them. Nobody should leave a battle untouched by what they have witnessed and experienced. War is a potent crucible for character development, and the protagonist should not finish the same as when she or he started.
Here is another excerpt from A Time for Swords, where Hunlaf discovers he is not like the rest of the monks on Holy Island:
Most men are born to raise families, to plough their fields, or, in the case of monks and priests, to pray and spread the word of God. But there are some who are born different. When these men are tempered in the fires of battle, they do not break, but become sharp and hard like the best steel. I found out on that morning of chaos that, despite having been cloistered away with holy men for much of my life, I was such a man. I was born to battle.
Just as the battle must affect the characters, so the danger presented by swinging swords, storms of arrows, or barrages of cannon and gun fire must present a real, believable threat. War is terrible and many of those involved in the fighting are maimed or killed. This is something that GRR Martin does infamously well. While the books are fantasy and not historical fiction, in A Song of Ice and Fire none of the main characters are safe, and the reader soon learns that anyone can be killed at any moment.
It is this very real danger for the characters that puts the reader on the edge of their seat. Safety is never guaranteed. The moment a reader isn’t worried about the characters involved in a fight, the battle being described loses much of its edge. This can be hard when writing in first person, as the storyteller must logically survive, but the effects on the protagonist and the risk to those they love can make a scene both exciting and terrifying.
The best action scenes give enough detail to be thrilling, but not so much as to bog down the pace. At times they can zoom in to describe a fight blow-by-blow, but at others, the action can be glossed over to avoid losing the urgency. But one thing is true of most memorable battle scenes in novels: the horror is not ignored. War is hell and the reader needs to know that.
Here we see Hunlaf as he jumps to his cousin, Aelfwyn’s defence. He clashes with one of the Vikings and everything is reduced to the actions of the two men involved in their fight to the death, and I certainly do not shy away from the blood and gore (you have been warned!).
His eyes widened in shock as he saw me approaching, wicked knife held high. He pushed Aelfwyn away at the same moment that I lunged. He raised his hand to parry my clumsy blow, but I had all the force of my horror and righteous hatred behind that thrust. He partially deflected it, but the keen edge found his throat, opening up a deep gash that instantly welled with blood. He howled with anger and pain, clutching at my arm and grinding my thin wrist in his meaty fist. I threw myself into him and we crashed to the earth, everything forgotten now apart from the enemy we each grappled with.
He was much stronger than me, muscled arms as thick as my legs. And yet the cut was deep and I had the advantage of landing atop him. He tried to push me off and for a moment he lifted me in the air. He would have thrown me clear of him too, had I not punched down again with the blood-smeared knife. The blade scraped across the rings of his byrnie, and perhaps Saint Cuthbert had listened to my prayers, for the sharp steel skittered upward and plunged into the open wound in the man’s throat. This time it found a pulsing artery and hot blood spurted, drenching us both. His strength quickly left him then, and his grip on me loosened. Soon his hands flopped at his side. He snarled and gurgled at me as blood filled his throat, but I could not make out the meaning of his words.
Finally, just as battles should always drive the plot forward, providing jeopardy and the necessary searing heat for certain character traits to be forged, the white-knuckle ride they present to the reader can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. One of the trick’s to having a reader keep turning the page is to pose some form of question at the end of a scene or chapter, but not answer it until the next.
Battles and fights provide the perfect ingredients for a writer to create such cliff-hangers. In old Saturday morning serials, these moments would literally be where the protagonist was left hanging from a cliff, only to be saved at the start of the follow week’s instalment. You don’t have to be so literal, but leaving a character in a dire situation is always a sure way of having a reader turn ‘just one more page’.
And so I will leave you with the end to Hunlaf’s brief fight against the Norse invaders during that first attack on Lindisfarne.
My assailant had dropped his shield, and his sword had been knocked from his hand in the collision and fall. But it seemed he needed no weapon to best me in combat. He clutched my habit in his fists and hauled me up. I flailed ineffectually at his arms, certain that I would soon be meeting my maker.
The warrior’s eyes blazed at me from the eye sockets of his iron helm and he spat insults at me. His breath was strangely sweet and I noticed with a vivid clarity that his teeth were white and clean. And then he smashed his armoured forehead into my face.
I was dimly aware of the crunching sound of my nose breaking, loud and echoing inside my skull. Warm blood flowed into my mouth and down my chin and then, mercifully, the day darkened about me and I felt nothing more.
Needless to say, the story does not end there, but to find out more, and to read all about the other battles Hunlaf is involved in, both physical and spiritual, you’ll have to read A Time for Swords.
The eighth in his Bernicia Chronicles, For Lord and Land, will be out in hardback on July 21, 2021.
Read Edoardo Albert’s review of Fortress of Fury, the seventh in the Bernicia Chronicles.
Matthew’s written for Historia about unexpected similarities between the seventh-century siege of Bebbanburg and his current life, whether it’s coping with lockdown or making a television trailer.
The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Ucello, c1438: via Wikimedia
The Battle of Waterloo: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, 1874: via Wikimedia
Detail from the same painting
The Viking raid on Lindisfarne: public domain
The death of Catelyn Stark: HBO
Detail of a Viking raid on a monastery: public domain