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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.

 

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.Submit to Review Board

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

 

14 Comments

  1. John L. Gibson

    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.

    Reply
  2. Connie Terpack

    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.

    Reply
  3. CHURCH BOY

    I’m writing a war story and this has been helpful.

    Reply
  4. Ivy Baker

    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.

    Reply
  5. Jesus A.

    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.

    Reply
  6. Vincent Price

    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.

    Reply
  7. Andrew

    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.

    Reply
  8. Sala

    Thank you , I am a struggling writer who will indeed benefit from this

    Reply
  9. Emma B. Jackson

    Thank you for the help! I am writing a book that has many military scenes. I appreciate this a bunch!

    Reply
  10. Frederick

    Read books written by veterans

    Reply
  11. Randy Surles

    Definitely read books by veterans. And if you are writing a book about the military, it would be extremely helpful to have a veteran as a beta reader. Lee Childs doesn’t write military, but his main character, Jack Reacher, is an ex soldier – however he has so many military fact incorrect it sometimes drives me crazy. One of his main problems is that the author is British, and the character is American. In the British Army, I guess, the enlisted shine the officer’s boots and do their laundry; this is absolutely not what happens in the US Army. Also, his premise that the military police are better trained in weapons and hand to hand so they can subdue elite Rangers and green berets when necessary is crazy.

    Reply
  12. Kari Mofford

    The government actually has many good primary resources in this area. I recently took over a blog written by a librarian that highlights government sources to help authors with realism in their fiction. I am still in the process of transferring, editing, and updating the older entries (which has been fascinating), but it has several military history posts:

    https://fictionwritersguidetogovernmentinformation.wordpress.com/

    Hope this is helpful!

    Reply
  13. irina

    Hi. I´m terrible when it comes to battle strategy. I just have my characters with the planned development, dynamics, relationships and often – fitting deaths. I have the moral questions. I have the magical system. I somehow just make the war fit my needs… Which is extremely frustrating! I have to think of stuff to fill plot holes and all the strategies don’t add up! It’s like a patchwork – a beautiful piece of art (an emotional moment, a character death, a release of a magical power) is hanging on some weak shit.

    Please send help. I always get stuck on the tactics. How to master it? Or how to write smart and compelling fantasy stories without it? Even if it’s not fantasy, I have the feeling that without all these scheming and mind games my stories sound boring.

    Reply
    • David

      Look at what you did in the first paragraph. You have already arrived at most of the story, since story is about character and relationships. The action that arises from the characters, i.e., what each character does, moves along the plot, defines character, and produces story theme and meaning. Then, think of your story within the context of a particular moment in the war. For example, “Platoon” selected a section of a company to go on patrol in the Vietnam jungle, night and day, to tell the story of young American foot soldiers and particularly, the growth of one particular named Taylor. How does the war fit into the story? The war, or a particular aspect of the war necessary to the story is selected and used as a container to hold the entire story about Taylor.

      Take a look at another war story, “The Deer Hunter”. This is the story about Russian-American steelworker friends who go off to Vietnam as foot soldiers. Each one is altered. Therefore, the writer must have planned particular moments in the war to highlight the exigencies of each character as such character encounters life-challenging and possibly, life-changing conflicts that determine what we must notice about the character.

      Please don’t allow the loud and epic nature of war to scare you into giving up. Writing about war is no different than writing about a city, or school, or people on a cruise liner. The fact remains that all of those are contexts or backdrops to your story, which should always be about the human condition, i.e., our thwarted desires that lead us to the truth and beauty of realization and/or learning, if we (the characters) accept the challenging lessons, or losing, if we reject, as the author intends to depict.

      Finally, a war is always about one side against the other, with a line drawn in the sand. Such could be visible or invisible. Find your war, select a context and people that context with who would be necessary for the particular story. My war story challenge tonight is to tell a story about particular soldiers on the frontline of WWI, but not across the entire several hundred miles of trenches. I selected one small area that produces the particular challenges of that area, which I feel excited about depicting., and how that place set up significant pressure on the characters to think and behave in certain ways that I believe to be necessary for telling the reader/viewer about our mysterious human condition — perhaps, even deepening the mystery.

      Reply

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