I remember writing my first big epic fantasy battle scene. Despite having written lots of smaller fights and scuffles, when the moment came for an all-out battle across a large area and encompassing favorite characters and my oh-so-favorite villain, I floundered.
And the worst part was this moment was THE big climax to a trilogy culminating around 300,000 words across three books that took three years to write. You can’t screw that up! Imagine what readers would think? Or worse, what they would say…
There are a lot of moving parts to a battle. And the later it comes in a series, the bigger the scene has to be. Because it needs to be worth all the love, hardship, and struggle that came before. Bad enough when it is the climax of book one. But the climax of the last book in a series? It has to be HUGE big. No skimping on the rise and fall of the battle, the near defeat, the villain’s near win, what turns the tide, and how it all works out.
Needing to master all of that, I developed a few tricks that got me through. If you are struggling with tackling an epic battle, or nervous about writing your first, try these techniques out and see what you managed to create!
Start with an overall flow centered on the main character and villain
This is the core of the climax after all. The entire point of the novel revolves around this confrontation. So capture it first. Plus it will start you off writing. You have to begin somewhere.
The hero and the villain do not simply walk up to each other and start fighting. If it were that easy, this moment would have happened chapters ago. So begin with maneuvering these two players into the position where they finally face each other. And then choreograph this ultimate battle to its conclusion.
Accomplishing this will not only give you the core of the climactic scene, it will show you what else needs to happen before the fight to get these two main players face to face and who, if anyone, needs to be present at the final battle. Last minute motivation brought about by the death or wounding of key figures will point to missing scenes that need to be fleshed out as well.
And don’t forget that it is the ups and downs of battle as victory seems close only to have the opposing force rally as they pull out a last ditch effort that draws out the scene and leaves the reader trembling. Sketching out that epic back and forth until the hero and villain finally face each other for the last fight will create a framework while pointing out the gaps. It all happens too fast if you only focus on these two.
Write in Layers
Now that you have the core narrative and see the gaps, fill them in with the POV of other characters. What happens on the far side of the battlefield that ties up reinforcements and friends and causes the delay that leads to near defeat?
Start with the pivotal action that is missing and grow the wide scope of the battle from there. Remember that a distant view of what is happening across a large area sounds … distant and not very engaging. What grabs a reader’s attention is the immediate threat to a character and her reaction. A battle, even a large one, comes across with greater depth when it remains within a single character’s struggles.
So create chapter or scene-long snapshots of the main characters, including the villain, as the battle unfolds. By moving between characters who are positioned across the battlefield, the reader witnesses the entire picture without the distant narration of an omniscient viewpoint.
Of course, the drawback to this method is that time rushes forward and in the next chapter rewinds a bit. It is impossible to give the viewpoints of several different people at once unless you write from an omniscient viewpoint or head hop so much the reader is spinning.
Me, I write in Deep POV, which means long stretches (as in full chapters) in one character’s POV focused only on what that character can think, feel, and see. So to layout an entire battle from different perspectives as a variety of events unfold and interact means time is staggered as one chapter begins by jumping backward to then move the sequence of events forward. How do you do that without losing the reader?
Create several pivotal moments that are visible across the battlefield.
These create a timeline that crosses viewpoints. If a large explosion happens as one force overwhelms the enemy in one chapter, have it visible from the other side of the battlefield in the next. The reader gets it. She’s sharp that way.
The beauty too is that you can write the first-hand experience of creating these large and visible events, allowing the reader to know each one signals a triumph, defeat, or even death. In the next chapter when the following character witnesses the result, the reader is carrying with her the joy of being one step closer to victory or anguish for what the character doesn’t know quite yet.
Writing the climactic scene this way creates a tightly woven main event that also covers a lot of information in a highly engaging way. And isn’t that what a great climax is about?
Plus, writing the climax in layers by capturing the core event and then filling in the details from the perspective of other characters isn’t all that difficult to write. At least not nearly as difficult as the finished chapters make it seem!
What do you think? Are you ready to tackle your first epic battle? And what are some of your favorite climactic moments? How about ones that you think are a horrible fail? Let me know in comments!