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.
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.