By Django Wesler
The Thousand Names is, basically, the story of a military campaign, and so it’s no surprise that it contains quite a few battles, skirmishes, ambushes, and generally combat of all sorts. These scenes—not just action, but full-on battles—can be a lot of fun, but they can be a headache as well. Here are a few of the things I picked up after reading the masters of the genre and going through many, many revisions of my own work:
- Perspective is key. This is probably the biggest difference between a battle scene and a straightforward action scene. In a battle—assuming the battle itself is part of the narrative—not just the immediate fate of the protagonists but the larger outcome is important to the reader. As the author, you have to convey a sense of what’s going on in general, while at the same time remaining relatively grounded in your point-of-view character. (Assuming you are using one. There are other solutions—R. Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing trilogy deftly uses an omniscient viewpoint for battles.) The important thing, therefore, is where you put your point-of-view character! Battles vary a lot, depending on the level of technology and sophistication of the forces involved. The Thousand Names takes place in a fantasy world that roughly corresponds to Europe of the late 1700s in terms of technology, and the battles of that time were large enough that it could be difficult for an individual soldier to get an idea of what was going on. I admit I sometimes had to sacrifice a bit of realism for the sake of keeping the reader informed—it’s usually not terribly interesting to describe a character doing nothing for hours, only to be informed that the battle is lost, even if that mirrors the real-life experience of many soldiers! Winter and Marcus tend to be in the thick of things, where they can see what’s going on for themselves.
- Visceral experiences are interesting. To march into battle in the age of muskets (or any age!) is a strange and intense experience, and one that (thankfully) most of us don’t share. To make it feel real to the reader, you need to go beyond the bare mechanics and describe the feel, sound, and smell of things. Reading firsthand accounts is invaluable, and I got a lot of use out of books collecting many primary sources. Ultimately, it’s dull to read about two lines of men standing and blasting away at one another until one group runs away, and it doesn’t convey anything like the authentic experience of what it might be like to stand in one of those lines. The Thousand Names deals with musket-era warfare, and that means you have to know about the smoke—black powder generated gritty gray smoke in such quantity that a few volleys would leave a battalion standing in a pea-soup fog, firing blindly at the flashes of enemy muskets. Muskets kicked so hard against the shoulder that men came home with bruises or even dislocated shoulders, and an experienced soldier usually sported scars on his cheek where burning sparks had landed. Loading a musket involved tearing open a paper cartridge with your teeth, and in an extended firefight mouths would go cottony-dry with the salty, gritty taste of gunpowder.
All that, and a lot more, makes up the experience of battle, and it draws the reader into the moment. No author can recreate it exactly, of course, much less one who’s never been there, but you should strive to do the best you can.
- Variety and elision. Battles can get boring. Just as important as describing the action is knowing when not to describe it, when to summarize with a simple “It went on like that all day,” or similar phrase to move the story forward. Unlike on a movie screen, where you can wow an audience with bigger and better spectacles, in a novel you have to rely on your reader’s sympathy with the characters to draw their interest, and that can be worn down by too much combat.
One way to keep things interesting is to make sure to include the full variety of battles and combat experiences possible given the level of technology, and not repeat the same thing too often. For The Thousand Names, this meant drilling down into the details of combat, and finding out how different those experiences could be. We stand with the troops as they form a bayonet-ringed square against a cavalry charge, trying not to waver as the huge weight of men and animals comes on, and march with them as they press home an attack with cannonballs and musketry blasting all around.
Not every book needs to have a big battle in it. But, done right, they can be riveting, and a little research and revision can turn one from a vague muddle of fighting into something your readers will tell stories about.
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. Visit him online at djangowexler.com.
Purchase The Thousand Names here.