So, I’m getting into the business end of my first draft of Stormdancer 3. Yeah, I know book 1 isn’t even out yet. Deadlines is deadlines, people.
Interlude: I feel ridiculous saying ‘Stormdancer 2’ and ‘Stormdancer 3’. These books have names, and though I’m not allowed to reveal them yet, calling them ‘Stormdancer 2’ and ‘Stormdancer 3’ is like my parents referring to my younger siblings as ‘Jay 2’ and ‘Jay 3’. And my siblings are both GIRLS. It makes no sense. So enough of this. Enough I say!
From the remainder of this post, ‘Stormdancer 2’ will be referred to as ‘Albert ‘Danger’ Fantastic’ (Mr Fantastic to his peers, and ‘Danger’ is his middle name) and ‘Stormdancer 3’ will be hereby referred to only as ‘The Dude’.
True to campfire rumor, The Dude has been far easier company than Mr Fantastic. Mr Fantastic is all about set up. You can have conflict, you can have minor resolution, you can have earth shattering revelations of the Empire Strikes Back variety (No, Darth Vader is not Yukiko’s father in case you were wondering) but in true man of mystery style, Mr Fantastic leaves the big questions unanswered, and the big bad guy undefeated. By comparison, all the pieces are on the board in The Dude, and my job as an author is to tie up the threads with some suitably crunchy action and gut-wrenching tragedy and make everybody cry at the end.
Yes, it is The Dude’s intention to make you cry. He’s mean like that.
I’m also finding The Dude comes with a metric shit-tonne (slightly less than a fuck-tonne, significantly more than a frack-tonne) of battles. And not Michael Jackson filmclip style battles, either, where hardened street thugs work out their differences with a dance-off. I’m talking Pelennor Plains style battles. Cities under siege. Fleets of sky-ships riddling each other with shuriken-thrower fire across storm-torn skies, armies clashing on stretches of ashen, dead earth while colossi of black iron and smoke so tall they blot out the sun crush legions underfoot and godDAMN it’s fun to write.
I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m possessed of XY chromosomes, but I like writing violence. I like building sand-castles made of words and then smashing them to pieces before the tide comes in to wash them away. And maybe my epic battles suck more than my mum/sister/significant female other when the navy is in town (this is the standard measurement of suck, or so the wonderful and well-balanced young gamer gentlemen in the League of Legends community would have me believe), but since I’m writing so damn many of them lately, and since it’s been a while since I wrote a ‘writing’ type article, I thought I’d share a few pointers on how I go about writing them here in this little microcosm of mine, which you can feel free to ignore or adopt as you see fit.
Hell, I gotta blog about something while we wait for cover reveals. So, awaaaaay we go:
Short introductions – In an epic battle, you’re dealing with thousands of people trying to murder the bejeezus out of thousands more. The armaments, formation, disposition, size, mood and personal hygiene of each of your combatants is something you can spend a lot of time on if you really want to. But I’m not sure many people care. You need your establishing text to describe the forces involved, but spending an enormous amount of time talking about the peculiar braiding on the collars of the elven archers cloaks, or how the pikemen from Southern Whosiwhatsit were descended from a race of sheep buggering madmen from the Upper Thingamabob… I’m not sure. Flavor text is good. Flavor text will help establish some color in the scene. But spend too much time on intros and you’re going to bore your reader stupid, particularly when they know most of these fellows are going to be decorating the sharp pointy things of your main protagonists soon. I’m not sure readers care much about the canon fodder.
Keep your wide shots to a minimum – Think about any showpiece battle you’ve seen on film – after initial introductions, the camera usually spends very little time following the movements of large bulks of troops. After we’re shown that, yes, that is an awful lot of Uruk-hai, and yes, those Riders of Rohan are proper fucked, the camera takes us up close and personal. It’s only in clutch points during the battle, when the tide swings one way or the other, that we’re given a wide view. Most of our time is spent medium/close up. Battles are visceral. Terrifying. If you find yourself using terms like ‘pincer movement’ or ‘flanking manoeuvre’ you’re shooting way too wide. Your audience is removed from the action. They need to be so close they’re worried a stray shot might take their head off. A guy in the thick of battle doesn’t know the enemy is performing a ‘pincer movement’. All he knows is that there’s another guy with a broadsword the size of a small tree trying to cleave him in twain.
Cleave him in twain – NEVER use this turn of phrase in an epic battle. Or in any other fashion, actually. There is a special circle in Wanker’s Hell for writers who do.
Carnage – People die in battle. And to be honest, they die in brutal, painful ways. Compare the melee in a film like Braveheart to a film like the Phantom Menace. Menace has these huge set-pieces with thousands upon thousands of figures all pew pew pewing at each other, all very visually impressive. Braveheart has a couple of hundred dudes swinging big sharpened chunks of metal. The difference? In Menace, the combatants are robots. In Braveheart, the combatants are big sacks of meat and blood. When someone gets hit, you feel it. You see the aftershocks. The camera gets little splashes of blood on it. Which battles are more spectacular? Which ones are you more heavily invested in? Which one will you be more excited reading? Battles are about crunching bones and spraying arteries and people screaming. They’re about the stink of blood and smoke and excrement (Fun fact! People void their bowels when they die!). They are noise and chaos and red, red krovy. PG’ing that shit isn’t going to work. Nobody will care.
Point of View – God’s eye is functional for establishing the ebb and flow – who is winning and who is losing. But as discussed above, it’s also impersonal. Epic battles are not about armies. They’re about the people inside them. And not necessarily the heroes leading the charge atop a disco unicorn, golden locks all blowing in the breeze and whatnot. Sometimes, sure, you want to see spectacular heroism and feats beyond the ken of mere mortals. But doing it too often gets boring quick. Try writing the battle from some grunt on the front line. Lord Richard of Gobblecock, last Scion of the great House of Withknobson wants to win this battle to claim the throne from the evil clutches of usurper King Tackleout (waheyyyy, pee-pee jokes!). But Garreth of Pigswill, some pressganged farmer with a wife and three kids to feed and the local Magistrate eying off his plot of land? He just wants to stay the fuck alive. Reading from his point of view, rather than the Lord atop his gleaming unicorn, will give your battles a different kind of gravity. And gravity is what you’re after.
Lastly, never, EVER use the phrase ‘Cleft in Twain’ – I know I said this already, but it’s so important I thought I should mention it twice.
Alright, I’m gonna go hang out with the Dude some more. See if he can make me cry, the big meanie.