This might be a long one. So if you don’t feel like hearing some asshole tell you what he thinks about writing over the course of several paragraphs–well, you’re probably on the wrong blog altogether. If you missed the first two parts, you can find them over here: Part One and Part Two.
Now let’s get to the killing!
There are lots of ways to write a fight scene. How you choose to do it really depends on the way you want the fight to impact your audience. Do you want your reader marveling at the epic scale of your conflict? Counting the columns of soldiers crawling across the hills of your battlefield? Or do you want the reader wiping blood out of their eyes, crawling through the mud, worming their way through the tangled legs of your frenzied combatants? Or do you want some blend of both, or some other effect entirely? Cold, distant, calculating? Or visceral, emotional, horrifying? It’s up to you, and the way you write.
Today we’ll talk about battles in particular, as the style of the piece really has a great effect on the way the reader perceives something as meaningful and important as a pitched battle. You see, writing style is very reminiscent of camera work in a movie. I’ll explain.
The way I see it, there are two main styles in which to write a battle: cable rig and shaky cam.
Now the term cable rig is interchangeable with any number of long-distance camera techniques. Shots from a helicopter, a crane shot–it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what this conveys to the audience. It’s far-reaching and huge in scope. There is a sense of order implied. A general surveying the battlefield does not feel the same that the soldier on the front line does. That’s the effect of distant, sweeping camera work. The corresponding technique in writing is not merely in the description, but the style of the description. Long, flowing sentences that focus on large movements rather than tiny details give the reader the same sense of order and understanding. This is an expository, descriptive writing style rather than a character-driven, immersive style. Of course those things can be written in, but they are less emphasized. So it sounds like this:
General Markham brought the looking-glass to his eye and surveyed his men. The field was theirs, or his rather, and he cast his eye on their progress with pride and confidence. But something was wrong…Was that smoke?
Thick black plumes coiled above Captain Berthol’s column, twisting their way skyward with a patient ease that was quite at odds with the chaos beneath them; angry red tongues of flame could be seen at intervals among the Captain’s troops, who were roiling about in evident panic. General Markham swept his magnified gaze across his battlefield to determine the source of the conflagration–and found it. A small troupe of enemy horsemen carved their way into a nearby field of barley–returning whence they came, Markham guessed–only to come careening out of the grain at a different location. They hurled projectiles at Berthol’s column, and though General Markham could not hear the noise of the battlefield, he was certain by their expressions that they raised quite a din as their missiles exploded into gouts of searing flame, the black smoke from which was now beginning to crawl up the hillside toward the general’s position.
“Shit,” he said.
So there’s your cable rig/chopper/crane shot. The length of the sentences, the measured diction, and the overall tone–they give the passage a sense of control. The general is still a personal part of this story. But his experience and confidence is felt in the style of the writing. I (the author) don’t want you (the reader) to feel panic, because the general, despite the unfortunate turn of events, has not begun to panic. Yet.
The next passage will illustrate the other style. For fluidity’s sake I’ll get right into it, and then I’ll break down the stylistic choices.
The smoke was seething over the crest of the hill, and in an instant it had swallowed General Markham’s camp. His fellow officers hacked and coughed as the gritty cloud enveloped them. Markham tried to maintain his steadfast composure. But something distracted him. A noise… What was that God-awful noise? Over the whooping and wheezing of his associates, a thunderous growl was growing. Markham knew that sound. It had been a long time since he’d heard it so clear. But he knew that sound for sure. His bowels twisted in his gut.
He knew that sound.
He amended his previous statement. “Fuck,” he said. And then the riders were upon them.
Awful, tortured screaming replaced the pounding of hooves in his ears. He had to move; his legs were frozen in place. It had been too long. This wasn’t supposed to happen. What the hell did he do? With an inhuman wail one of the riders appeared out of the smoke. And began riding toward Markham. He brandished a sword in his free hand. His eyes were wide. Wild. They found a mark. A horrible sound then, like a rotten cabbage being kicked, and the horseman’s blade buried itself in the face of a nearby officer. The body fell, rolled over with the rider’s momentum as he jerked his weapon free.
Markham’s legs suddenly decided to move. But in the wrong direction. He buckled to his knees on the turf. He couldn’t stop staring at the dead man. Ander. That had been his name. Markham had met him at a ball once. His face… Not a face anymore. Almost unrecognizable. Blood and splintered bone. Markham felt the bile churning in his throat. But he didn’t get any time to be sick.
Because the horseman had come back. The cries of Markham’s cohorts were dying out as they themselves surely did. The horseman sat his horse and stared at Markham. The wildness was gone from his eyes. The bloodlust was gone. Instead there was a cold joy. An expression Markham had worn himself many times. The look of a man who had planned everything perfectly. The look of a leader, victorious. General Markham swallowed.
The rider spurred his horse.
So that’s shaky cam. You see the difference? Though the passage was longer, it reads more quickly. Choppy. Erratic. Lots of. Interruptions.Very annoying when. Used inappropriately.
You see, shaky cam in movies is of questionable value. A movie is different from a book. Sometimes it’s best to just see what he hell is happening onscreen, and shaky cam gets in the way of that. But in a book, the equivalent effect–that of disorder, confusion, and mayhem–can be very desirable. The difference is in point of view. I’ll call it PoV because I’m lazy.
With few exceptions, movies are very loose in terms of PoV. The audience is free to see things that the character cannot. Books, on the other hand, are made and unmade by their authors’ effective (or ineffective) use of PoV.The most common PoV is limited third, and it’s a doozy. The writing is not directly from the character’s point of view. The author has some freedom to explain things about the character that said character wouldn’t notice by him or herself. But the author also explores the character’s thoughts. Observations and descriptions are colored by the character’s personality and understanding of the world. So when the character panics–you guessed it. The writing reflects that.
Short. Choppy. Sentences. Hard, sharp consonants. “The jagged blade twisted into his guts” has a lot more immediacy and violence to it than “the knife slid smoothly between his ribs.” Both styles have their place, but they both tell the reader different things.
And that’s how you write blood, gore, and violent death. I’m by no means an expert on writing, but I read a lot of books about people who stab other people with sharp things, or get stabbed themselves. And I hope my experience with the subject can shed some light on your future reading and writing endeavors–at least those that involve some amount of stabbing. So next time you want a character to fall gurgling to the ground with an arrow in his throat, think of me, dear reader.
And, as always, go in peace. That means keep the murder on the page.