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7 Tips For Writing Realistic War Stories

realistic war stories

Both fiction and memoir writing have endeavored to make sense of (or even see the senselessness of) violent conflict. But writing about war can be tricky: Some readers might be sensitive about graphic depictions of war and violence; others may have a hard time understanding what’s happening if you don’t go into detail. Here’s how to write battle scenes that are accurate and effective.

Important Tips For Writing About War

Consider whether certain violent elements need to be included. Graphic, explicit scenes can become offensive when they’re overdone or unnecessary. Of course, you may be going for “offensive” in order to make a point about your subject, but violence that’s heavy on detail needs to have a point. The key is to be aware of your choices and why you’re making them.

Use a panoramic lens. Capture the vastness of a battle by showing us a wide view of the action. Allow your narrator a moment to look around at what’s going on so that your reader can also see what’s happening. However, remember that “epic” doesn’t necessarily mean emotionally engaging. If not handled properly, big battles can feel impersonal and lead to “action fatigue.”

Focus on the details. Whether you’re writing about the trenches of World War I or the Time-Space Wars of the Zygine Galaxy, pay attention to the little details of everyday life. Sometimes, the familiar smell of coffee and a campfire can be more emotionally powerful than the less familiar smell of a lit cannon fuse.

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If your violence is comic, be cautious of subtext. Some people may laugh; others might be offended. If you need to make a choice about your character’s actions that happens to align with stereotypes of violence, make sure you do so with caution.

Understand your characters. Whether you’re writing about a perpetrator of violence or a victim, dig deep within your own personal capacity for empathy to tease out elements that will make all of your characters human, relatable, and real—even the villains. You might not respect your antagonist’s decisions, but by understanding them, you’ll bring depth and emotion to your work.

Get it right. If you’re writing historical fiction or even memoir, check (and recheck!) your facts. Confirm that your details are accurate. By spending the extra time and doing the research, you’ll have a story that resonates with authenticity and powerful details—especially if you’re writing military fiction.

Avoid clichés. While every genre has its tropes, be aware of choices that lead to scenes that are overly familiar. Falling back on clichés is sometimes the easy way out. If you find yourself writing a familiar battle scene (one soldier dragging another to safety, or one person dying in another’s arms), be sure to mix up the action with your own unique perspective.

When In Doubt, Read Military Memoirs And Fiction

If you’re not sure your battles have a realistic edge, read other books in the genre. Reading is one of the best ways to improve your writing, regardless of your topic. Here’s a list of the best war novels to get you started.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What do you think is one thing many battle/war scenes get wrong?


8 Responses to 7 Tips For Writing Realistic War Stories

  1. Vincent, the ranks for officers are easy to find. They are: 2nd Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Brigadier General, Major General, Lieutenant General, and General.

  2. I’m writing a fictional war story, meant to focus upon the ascension of a Battalion Commander, to the ranking of General. One issue I’m having is the rankings themselves. While I can hide behind the excuse that this is a fictional war, with a fictional military that could have fictional ranking orders, I still would like to know what the actual officer ranking order is like. Google isn’t very helpful, could somebody please point me to an explicit explanation of military officer ranking ? I would greatly appreciate it, thank you! I eagerly await your reply.

  3. I’m going to write a battilistic war book. It’s not an American war. Another countries war. A central american one. This has been helpful.

  4. This is some really good information about writing good war stories. My sister wants to be an author and she loves historical fiction. I liked your advice about getting it right and doing research about the time period. It does seem like a good idea to try reading some memoirs of actual soldiers.

  5. To Mr. JL Gibson: I loved your comment. I don’t imagine that many of us think of what the other guy is fighting for. I have no plans to write a novel about war, but I still believe that this article and your comment could be used for any other type of story. We all have our battles to fight whether it be for love, wealth, a job promotion, or even our own simple way of life. Thank you for the insight.

  6. In response to your question, “What do you think one of the things many battle/war scenes get wrong is?” I would like to say it is the disconnection/connections between two common enemies. Many solders do not even know the real reason they are fighting. Many American solders have gone to battle under the false premise of spreading Democracy. Our enemy fight for what they believe to be the opposing cause. Yet, when the war is believed to be over, a new bicultural atmosphere has almost always been established. That is because, as humans, we all have more in common than not.

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