Three Basic Tips For Writing Epic Large-Scale Battle Scenes

Ah, the epic final battle. The grippingly dramatic climax of an epic thriller, fantasy, horror and/or historical fiction story. Although the idea of writing several thousand words of constant, mindless and spectacular-looking fictional violence might sound easy, doing this can get very monotonous very quickly.

But, plenty of stories have extended final battle scenes. So, how can you make these scenes interesting to both read and write? Here are a few basic tips – however, they are designed for stories written from a third-person perspective.

1) Sub-plots: One of the easiest ways to make an epic, extended final battle scene more gripping is simply to add a sub-plot or two to it. The easiest way to do this is simply to split up your group of main characters into two or more smaller groups and then show alternating scenes focusing on each group. This can add some variety to your epic battle scene in a number of ways.

For example, each group could have a different mission, each group could be on different sides of the battle and/or each group could be trying to find each other. A slightly more sophisticated way to handle this is to assign a different genre to each group of characters. For example, one group of characters could be engaged in dramatic, fast-paced thriller novel -style combat, whereas the other group could have a more suspenseful stealth-based storyline.

The trick here is to add some variety to your extended battle scene. After all, thousands of words of nothing but the same mindless violence over and over again can get really dull.

2) “Zoom in” on the battle: Although your story might contain a gigantic epic battle scene, remember that you are writing a story and not making a film. In other words, lots of distant descriptions of the battle as a whole might look spectacular when rendered visually but, if you’re just using words, then too many of these descriptions will sound really dull and vague.

In other words, you need to focus on the characters who are actually fighting. Instead of showing the battlefield as a whole, “zoom in” on a familiar character or two and show your reader what they are doing. Show how they narrowly dodge death, how they use their weapons, how they help out the people on their side etc….

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, focusing on a tiny part of your epic battle scene can result in much more intense and gripping storytelling than just focusing on the battle as a whole.

3) Danger: Simply put, battles are horrific and dangerous things. You need to show your audience this. Yes, it can be tempting to get attached to your main characters and want to show them winning easily without so much as a scratch. But, this will completely ruin any tension or suspense that would actually make your battle scene gripping.

But, even if you don’t want to kill off several of your main characters, then there are still other ways to show that they are in danger and are fighting for their lives.

The easiest way to do this is simply to show your characters sustaining injuries from fighting. Although, like in films, these injuries shouldn’t slow the characters down that much – be sure to emphasise the pain that these injuries cause.

Although this might sound needlessly sadistic, it instantly adds suspense to the battle scene by showing the reader that the character in question is fragile, mortal and in danger. Likewise, the fact that a character keeps fighting despite their injuries also makes them seem more courageous/heroic too.

Likewise, if you want your main characters to survive but still want to make the battle scene appear sufficiently dangerous, then introduce a few extra side-characters just before the battle starts. And, well, you can probably guess the rest….

But, whatever you do, you need to make sure that the reader feels that your characters are actually in danger during the battle. Without a genuine feeling of danger, fictional battle scenes are incredibly dull.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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What “Blade Runner” Can Teach Us About Fictional Violence

Well, although I’m still busy preparing next month’s webcomic mini series, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about webcomics and talk about what Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece “Blade Runner” can teach us about how to make fictional violence more dramatic and/or complex.

Since I’ll be talking in depth about my favourite movie of all time, expect lots of geekiness and lots of SPOILERS too.

This is mostly because, although “Blade Runner” is a violent film, it handles these parts of the film in a very different way to the average Hollywood movie. This film does all sorts of clever, and very subtle, things with it’s violent moments that really help to shape the emotional tone of the film and to make it considerably more suspenseful, impactful and dramatic than the average Hollywood movie.

The first thing that Ridley Scott does is to ensure that most of the violence within the film isn’t “fair”.

For example, in all scenes involving gun violence, only one character has a gun at any one time (with the other character or characters being unarmed). This has the effect of making guns seem like much more powerful weapons than they usually appear to be in films. It also instantly adds an element of chilling suspense to every scene that includes a gun – since one character instantly has a huge advantage over the other character or characters.

By ensuring that only one character is armed with an instantly-lethal weapon at any one time, the film changes the dynamics of it’s combat scenes from thrilling duels between evenly-matched adversaries to something more like a hunter/prey dynamic (which is more similar to something from the horror genre). This allows Ridley Scott to add an element of unpredictability, shock value and fear to the film that is often missing in more conventional thriller movies.

For example, an unevenly-matched fist fight between two characters is suddenly ended in a shockingly abrupt fashion when another character turns up and uses a gun that was knocked out of someone’s hand earlier in the fight.

Another intelligent thing that Ridley Scott does with the fictional violence in “Blade Runner” is to present it as an ugly thing. Instead of the more sanitised, fast-paced and spectacularly choreographed violence found in many Hollywood films, the violence in “Blade Runner” tends to be a bit more realistic. Violent events in “Blade Runner” are often chillingly abrupt and/or they are drawn-out things that are filled with pain and suffering.

This has the effect of making the violence in the film a lot less abstract than in many Hollywood films. Instead of, say, “a detective fighting a criminal” – a scene in Blade Runner will be more like “one person harming another”. By focusing more on the consequences of violence and refusing to present violence in a typically “thrilling” way, Scott is able to criticise the more blase way that most Hollywood movies depict violence. “Blade Runner” is that rare thing, a violent film that is genuinely anti-violence.

This also extends to the characters’ motivations for acting in a violent manner. In this film, violence isn’t a way for heroic characters to appear “tough” or to save the world or anything like that. In this film, there are no clear heroes or villains (although it could be argued that Deckard is the villain, but that is an entirely different essay).

So, the motivations behind the violence in the film often tend to be chillingly “realistic” ones. Whether it is a frightened person making a last-ditch attempt to protect themselves, someone overcome with fury exacting brutal revenge or even a “just following orders” police officer shooting an unarmed character in the back (because she is considered to be “non-human” by the authorities), Ridley Scott makes sure that the motivations behind most of the violent events in the film aren’t things that the audience can cheer for.

In addition to all of this, yet another clever thing that Ridley Scott does with the violence in “Blade Runner” is to contrast ‘ugly’ violence with beautiful set design. Seriously, the locations in “Blade Runner” are the kind of fascinating, mysterious, imaginative, visually-detailed places that will linger in your imagination for the rest of your life.

Such as this awesome-looking cityscape.

Not only does this contrast make the violence seem even uglier by comparison, but it also taps into a much more fundamental instinct in the audience.

We have a natural instinct to protect and preserve beauty. Beauty being destroyed or marred in some way elicits an instinctive feeling of digust or horror. So, by showing ugly violence within beautiful locations or showing beautiful locations being damaged by violent actions, the film is able to tap into this instinct in order to make the fictional violence seem even more shocking.

For example, this awesome-looking neon corridor is the site of a brutal shooting. Several cutaway scenes in this segment of the film contrast this beautiful location with the disturbing image of a dead body. By juxtaposing beauty and horror, Ridley Scott is able to lend the film’s violence more of an emotional impact.

I’m sure that I probably haven’t covered everything in this article (eg: how the film’s ending is about the value of life etc..), but hopefully these examples from “Blade Runner” will show you that fictional violence can be handled in a much more complex and intelligent way than you might think.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Ways To Reduce Or Increase The Emotional Impact Of Fictional Violence

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the subject of fictional violence today. This is mostly because a few of the computer games that I’ve been playing recently have handled the subject in subtly different ways and this made me think about how creative people can choose what level of emotional impact violent scenes have on the audience.

And, no, I’m not one of those idiots who thinks that violent games make people violent in real life. In fact, a lot of the reasons why fictional violence gains or loses it’s emotional impact depends heavily on the audience not being emotionless sociopaths or sadistic criminals.

Depictions of fictional violence depend on the audience having both pre-existing moral standards and the capacity for empathy – since low-impact fictional violence finds various ways to bypass the audience’s empathy/ moral standards (in order to evoke more positive emotions), whereas high-impact fictional violence doesn’t do this (in order to evoke a sense of horror or disgust).

So, that said, how can you reduce or increase the emotional impact of fictional violence in any stories, comics, games etc… that you create?

1) Individuality: Whilst playing a first-person shooter game from 1998 (that I plan to review sometime in the future) called “SiN”, I suddenly realised why the fictional violence in the game comes across as thrillingly dramatic rather than disturbingly brutal.

Many of the generic evil henchmen your character has to fight are pretty much clones of each other and, as such, the game feels considerably less “brutal” or “disturbing”. But, how does this lessen the emotional impact of the events of the game?

Yes, occasionally their uniforms change, but the character models, voice actor etc… are identical for each low-level henchman.

It is because part of the horror of violence is the destruction of individuality. This is why, when one of your favourite fictional characters dies, it is a genuine shock for the simple reason that there’s no-one else quite like this character. However, when generic identical henchman #72 dies, it causes much less of an emotional impact because the audience know that they will soon meet generic identical henchman #73.

So, the more individuality and characterisation a character has, the greater level of emotional impact any scenes of fictional violence involving them will have.

2) Moral context: Moving away from games for a minute, a couple of weeks before writing the first draft of this article, I happened to watch a really great episode of “Supernatural”. This episode partially concludes the dramatic story arc that has played out through the season and it is also one of the most action-packed episodes of the show that I’ve seen in a while. And, yet, when I watched it – I noticed something.

This is a screenshot from season 12, episode 22 of “Supernatural”.

Virtually all of the violence in the episode seemed to follow some kind of unspoken chivalric code. For example, even when one of the show’s more unprincipled villains finds that one of the show’s heroes is unconscious, he insists on waking him up before they both have a fair and evenly-matched fist fight with each other. Yet, despite the episode being one of the more violent episodes in the season, it’s a thrilling, dramatic and uplifting episode.

This made me think about how moral context affects the emotional impact of fictional violence. I mean, one reason why many “violent videogames” aren’t disturbing is for the simple reason that you are playing as a heroic character who is often clearly shown to be fighting in self-defence (or in the defence of someone else).

Even though the adversaries in many violent games are often considerably weaker than the player character, their increased numbers give the player the impression of being one person against hundreds. Of being David, even though they are actually more like Goliath.

All of this is designed to tap into the idea of “good vs evil”, or “weak vs strong”, or “victim vs aggressor” and the long-standing moral codes surrounding these things.

Of course, when any of this is changed, the emotional impact of fictional violence in games is increased sharply. A good example of this is a game called “Hotline Miami“.

In this game, you don’t play as a heroic character – but as a deranged criminal who attacks other criminals. The game doesn’t present the player character as being even vaguely heroic in any way. In fact, even a scene where he rescues another character (who it is implied has been held prisoner by gangsters) comes across as more of a kidnapping than a rescue.

Likewise, the game’s health system heavily encourages the player to attack the main character’s adversaries before they even so much as think about raising their weapons (and to do evil things like killing unconscious adversaries etc..). Plus, the violent events of each level are always shown to be initiated by the player, rather than by the other characters. All of this means that you don’t really get the sense of fighting in justifiable self-defence either.

Even though this game features generic “henchmen” characters who are literally identical to each other, the violence in this game has a much less thrilling and a much more disturbing emotional tone to it for the simple reason that it is presented in a more “immoral” way. So, yes, the more “moral” fictional violence is, the less emotional impact it has.

3) Speed and consequences: The emotional impact of fictional violence is also heavily affected by the speed that it happens and how the consequences of it are presented.

For example, the classic 1993 computer game “Doom” is an incredibly fun action game where you fight against hordes of monsters. Yes, the game includes some mildly grisly death animations, but they are over swiftly and the only “consequence” is the player’s survival and eventual victory.

This is a screenshot from “Doom” (1993) [Played using the “ZDoom” source port] .

However, there is a very famous fan-made mod for this game called “Brutal Doom”. Although this mod is intended to make the game more “badass”, it often just serves to make playing the game feel incredibly disturbing. Why? It takes a sadistic relish in showing the horrific, drawn out, grotesque, painful consequences of the original game’s “quick” and “clean” violence. And, no, I’m not going to include a screenshot of this. It’s pretty gross.

In “Brutal Doom”, the player is given time to see the suffering and misery that they have wrought. And, as such, you can’t help but feel sorry for the game’s monsters. A similar mechanic is used in “Hotline Miami”, where – instead of a victory screen after each level – the player has to walk back to the entrance of the level whilst gazing upon the grisly carnage that they have caused.

Moving away from games, one reason why the violence in many modern action movies is often “thrilling” rather than “disturbing” is because the consequences of it are rarely presented in a realistic way. For example, the “baddies” will often die quick and bloodless deaths, and the protagonist is never shown defending their actions in court afterwards, spending months recovering from the injuries they sustained in battle etc…

So, the emotional impact of fictional violence depends heavily on how quickly it happens and how the consequences of it are presented.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂