How to Write Battle Scenes: The Ultimate Guide for 2024

Whether you’re writing a script, novel, or even a short story, knowing how to craft a compelling battle can make all the difference.

Here is how to write battle scenes:

Write battle scenes by starting with a captivating opener that sets emotional stakes. Choreograph action and include vivid, sensory details for immersion. Balance power dynamics for tension and “show, don’t tell” for emotional depth. Add mini arcs and vary pacing to keep readers engaged.

In this ultimate guide, you’ll learn essential tips and techniques for bringing your battle scenes to life.

My Best Tips for Writing Battle Scenes

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Digital image of a battle scene in a valley between cliffs - How to Write Battle Scenes
I made this image – How to Write Battle Scenes

Let’s dive right in with my best tips for writing battle scenes in your story or screenplay.

The Opening Gambit

Kick off your battle scene with a compelling hook that instantly grabs your reader’s attention.

The first few lines can set the emotional tone, establish the stakes, and plunge the reader into the middle of the action.

Remember, your opening doesn’t have to be loud or overly dramatic.

Sometimes, even a subtle change in atmosphere can signal the beginning of a significant event.

Example: “The sky erupted in flames as the first catapults released their deadly payload, signaling the beginning of a battle that would decide the fate of kingdoms.”

Setting Stakes: Why Should We Care?

Once you’ve hooked your audience, establish the stakes.

Why is this battle happening? What does each side stand to gain or lose?

The audience needs to know the consequences of the conflict to invest emotionally.

Introduce key characters and what they’re fighting for to add a personal dimension to the larger-scale war.

In summary:

  • Clearly define the stakes.
  • Introduce key characters and their motivations.

Example: If you’re writing a medieval fantasy, you might show a king looking over a map, visibly anxious, mentioning that if they lose this battle, the kingdom will fall into the hands of a cruel conqueror.

Structuring for Impact: Highs and Lows

A good battle scene has its highs and lows, moments of intense action paired with quieter instances for emotional or strategic depth.

Consider structuring your battle scene like a rollercoaster.

Think about peaks of action and troughs for dialogue, reflection, or smaller confrontations.

  • Use a mix of high-intensity and low-intensity scenes.
  • Variation in pacing can emphasize emotional or strategic aspects of the battle.

Example: Consider the following high-intensity and low-intensity scenes.

High-Intensity Scene
Captain Aria’s sword clashed with that of her enemy, General Zorak.

Sparks flew as steel met steel, the battle around them almost fading into insignificance during their duel.

“You won’t win, Zorak!” she yelled over the cacophony.

Low-Intensity Scene
Zorak pushed her back, creating some distance between them.

For a moment, their eyes locked, and Aria remembered the betrayal that put them on opposite sides of this war.

“You used to fight for justice,” she said, lowering her weapon for a second.

The Dance of Death

Physical action needs choreography.

Being specific about who does what can provide clarity and make the scene more vivid.

However, don’t get bogged down with excessive detail.

It’s about striking a balance between action and description, giving enough information to excite the imagination without confusing the reader.

Example: “Sir Lancelot lunged forward, his sword narrowly missing Guinevere’s captor, but his second thrust found its mark, piercing the enemy’s armor.”

Paint the Scene

Visual and sensory details can make your battle scene more immersive.

Describe not just what happens, but how it feels, smells, and sounds.

This kind of sensory input can make the scene more believable and engaging, inviting the reader to experience the battle rather than just witness it.

Example: “As the soldiers advanced, the soggy ground beneath them squelched, and a thick mist rolled in, obscuring their vision and adding a layer of eerie uncertainty.”

The Balance of Power

The power dynamics between the warring sides can add layers of complexity and tension.

Whether it’s an evenly matched showdown or a desperate last stand, acknowledging this balance or imbalance can give the reader a better sense of the odds and stakes.

It can also provide opportunities for surprise twists.

Example: “Though they were outnumbered three to one, the rebels had the advantage of higher ground, making every arrow count.”

Show, Don’t Tell

Show the brutality, the fear, the courage—don’t just tell us about it.

You can use dialogue, internal monologue, or specific descriptive language to illustrate the intensity of the battle.

“Showing” provides readers with a much richer and emotionally engaging experience.

Example: “Soldiers screamed in agony as arrows found their mark, and the clash of steel against steel filled the air like a deadly symphony.”

Mini Arcs within the Battle

Complex battles often contain multiple smaller story arcs that contribute to the overall conflict.

Whether it’s a soldier seeking revenge, or a general making a crucial tactical decision, these mini-arcs can serve as emotional or thematic waypoints, giving readers more entry points for engagement.

Example: “Midway through the battle, Private Johnson spotted the enemy who had killed his brother, setting the stage for a personal showdown amidst the larger conflict.”

Pace Yourself

Pacing is crucial in battle scenes.

Too much unrelenting action can overwhelm the reader, while too little can lose their interest.

Try to incorporate moments of reflection or smaller confrontations between characters to give the reader some breathing room.

This variety in pacing can also provide opportunities for character development.

Example: “In a brief lull, Commander Alaric looked around, seeing the toll the battle had taken on his men, and steeled himself for the final push.”

Reality Check

If you aim for realism, then research is your best friend.

Understand the era, the weaponry, and the battle tactics of the time.

This will not only make your scene more believable but will also give you ideas for creative yet plausible actions.

Factual details can lend credibility to even the most dramatic and chaotic of scenes.

Example: “Using their Roman-style Testudo formation, the infantry advanced, shields up, deflecting the barrage of arrows raining down upon them.”

The Aftermath

The end of the battle is just as important as its fiercest moments.

Whether it’s counting the dead, nursing the wounded, or claiming the spoils of victory, the aftermath gives you a chance to reflect on the consequences of the battle.

It can also set the stage for what’s to come in your story.

For instance, another battle, a twist in the plot, or a deepening of character relationships.

Example: “As the sun dipped below the horizon, the surviving soldiers surveyed the field—a sea of fallen comrades and enemies alike—and knew that the war was far from over.”

Here is a great video about how to write battle scenes:

YouTube Video by Writer Brandon McNulty – How to Write Battle Scenes

Types of Battle Scenes

Battle scenes can vary widely depending on the context, setting, and genre of your story.

Knowing which type of battle scene best suits your narrative can help you create a more engaging and believable conflict.

Below are some common types of battle scenes, each with its own unique features and considerations.

Skirmish

A skirmish is a small-scale battle, often unplanned and usually taking place in an informal setting.

These battles are usually short and chaotic, often arising out of tension between small groups or even individuals.

Example: In a post-apocalyptic novel, a group of survivors encounter another group fighting over limited resources. The tension quickly escalates into a skirmish, with both sides using makeshift weapons like pipes and knives.

Full-Scale War

These are grand, large-scale conflicts often involving entire nations or kingdoms.

The stakes are high, and the scope is broad, involving multiple characters, complex strategies, and various settings.

Example: In a historical fiction novel set during World War II, the narrative might cover different aspects of the war—ranging from the frontlines to espionage missions, encompassing a variety of perspectives to depict the complexity of a full-scale war.

Duel

A duel is a one-on-one fight, often bound by specific rules or codes of conduct.

Duels are intimate and focus more on individual skills, allowing for character development and psychological depth.

Example: In a fantasy novel, two knights might engage in a duel to resolve a personal vendetta, fighting according to a code that prohibits magic or outside interference.

Ambush

In an ambush, one group surprises another, often exploiting elements like terrain or timing to gain an advantage.

Ambushes can create tension and excitement, as they often force characters to think quickly and adapt.

Example: In a thriller, a group of special forces soldiers might ambush a terrorist cell in a remote location, using the darkness of night as their ally.

Siege

A siege involves surrounding a fortified place with the intent of capturing it.

Sieges are prolonged and can be physically and psychologically draining for both attackers and defenders.

Example: In a medieval fantasy story, an army might lay siege to a castle, employing catapults and siege towers in an attempt to breach the walls, while those inside ration their dwindling supplies.

Supernatural Battles

These battles involve elements that are beyond human, such as magic, gods, or other fantastical elements

The rules can be quite different, and often need to be clearly established to maintain tension and believability.

Example: In a high fantasy series, wizards and mythical creatures might engage in a battle that involves casting spells, summoning elements, and exploiting weaknesses in magical defenses.

How Do You Start a War Scene?

Starting a war scene is like lighting a fuse—you want immediate impact.

Open with something dramatic to seize the reader’s or viewer’s attention. It could be a line of impactful dialogue, a vivid visual, or an intense action sequence.

The opening lines should pull the audience in, making them eager to see what happens next.

In a script, you might start with a close-up of a soldier’s face, sweat and mud mixing as he grips his weapon, followed by a sudden explosion that jolts the entire frame.

  • Open with a powerful visual or line of dialogue.
  • Use sensory details to make the setting and characters feel real.

How Long Should a Battle Scene Last?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long a battle scene should last, but pacing is crucial.

A battle that’s too short may lack tension and excitement, while one that drags on can bore your audience.

The key is to balance speed with detail. Too much of either can tip the scales.

  • Opt for a fast pace to maintain tension.
  • Insert moments of detail to enrich the narrative and provide breathing room.

How Do You Write a Realistic War?

The best way to write a realistic war is a combination of research and humanity.

Do Your Research: Authenticity Matters

If you’re aiming for realism, thorough research is non-negotiable.

Familiarize yourself with the weapons, tactics, uniforms, and even the psychology of soldiers during the time or setting you’re depicting.

Accurate details lend credibility to your story and enrich the reader’s or viewer’s experience.

  • Study historical battles or consult experts for insights.
  • Be accurate with details like weapons, uniforms, and tactics.

Human Element: The Emotional Toll

A realistic war scene isn’t just about the physical battle but also the emotional and psychological dimensions.

Yes, war is a hellhole of bullets and explosions.

But it’s also the strain on the mind and soul, the hard decisions, and the lived experiences of the soldiers and civilians affected.

These elements can provide a gritty realism that’s emotionally impactful.

  • Showcase the emotional and psychological struggles.
  • Include the perspectives of both soldiers and civilians when appropriate.

Full Battle Scene Example

The sky was awash with the fiery hues of sunset as the two armies faced each other across the open field. A chilling wind swept through the ranks, carrying with it a sense of impending doom. Soldiers tightened their grips on spears and swords, their armor clinking softly, almost as if whispering prayers for survival.

Commander Alaric sat atop his steed, his eyes scanning the sea of faces before him—men and women who would follow him into the very jaws of death. “For the kingdom!” he bellowed, raising his sword high.

A roar erupted from the troops, a wave of sound that seemed to shake the heavens. Then, with a swift downward motion of his blade, the mass of soldiers surged forward, crashing into the enemy lines like a tidal wave.

The clash of steel against steel rang out, filling the air with a discordant symphony of war.

Arrows flew like deadly rain, some finding their marks, others embedding themselves into the ground as lifeless as the soldiers they failed to protect. Amidst the chaos, Alaric fought like a man possessed. His blade danced in his hands, a whirlwind of death that left no foe standing. Yet for every enemy that fell, it seemed two more took their place.

Just as it appeared the tide was turning against them, a horn sounded in the distance.

It was a deep, resonant tone that cut through the cacophony of battle. Reinforcements had arrived. With a newfound surge of energy, Alaric’s troops pushed forward, breaking through the enemy’s weakened lines.

At last, as the final remnants of sunlight vanished below the horizon, it was over.

The field was littered with the fallen, a grim tapestry of the cost of war. Yet amidst the sorrow and death, there was a glimmer of hope. They had held the line, saved the kingdom, and perhaps, secured a fragile peace for another day.

Alaric sheathed his sword, his eyes meeting those of his soldiers. No words were needed. They had survived, and that was victory enough.

Final Thoughts: How to Write Battle Scenes

Battle scenes are like dance scenes – complex, colorful, and chock full of constantly moving parts.

If you enjoyed this guide to writing battle scenes, you’ll probably love some of our other guides on writing.

Check out a few below before you go.

Thank you for reading!

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