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How to describe a war

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How to describe a war

Postby ola » Sun Mar 04, 2007 8:12 am

When it comes to describing a war there are many questions, like do I describe the overall happenings or just the scenes which my main characters encounter or a bit of both? Does it make sense to switch back and forth between main charcter action and what is happening around it? How can I put the chaos of a war in words?

And many more.

Here's the place to answer those questions and ask more.

Please let us know your opinion.
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Postby shadow » Sun Mar 04, 2007 1:01 pm

I think the answer is very dependent on both who your characters are, and the perspective of the war/battle that you would like to have the reader come away with.

The personal, chaotic struggle of a foot soldier is going to be quite different from the more removed, tactical POV a high-ranking officer would have - so it isn't always necessary to move away from your characters to get an idea of the bigger picture.

IMO, I think I've enjoyed battle descriptions that jump from character to character, with references to the overall action interspersed.
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Postby aldan » Wed Mar 07, 2007 1:43 pm

I agree there, and add that your best bet in determining how to go about figuring out how to properly describe the battle would be to see how others do so. Go out to a library and find some factual (non-fiction) accounts of battle from the pen of a person who was there, and then read a few novels that contain battles between large numbers of participants. Try not to limit yourself to only the genre in which you're writing, though, because war is war is war, and you're looking for writing style, which will give you the help you feel you need.

However, if, after doing the reading, you just still haven't a clue what to do, go ahead and ask again.

Oh, and the rest of you, would you please post the names of the novels and such that did the best jobs, in your opinions, of communicating the insanity of battle?
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Postby Bread Butterbeard » Wed Mar 07, 2007 4:17 pm

The battle with the elves and demons in Elf Stones of Shannara was one of the best battles ive read IMO. To me I like to read the different point of views of characters as the battle rages on.
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Postby Starfire » Sat Apr 05, 2008 8:56 pm

I found that some understanding of art of acient war helps. Reading some claissic military texts could point the way. I got Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" from my local library. I found that things like flags, banners, and drums had practicle uses. I also understood the role of the general much better.
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Postby RHFay » Sat Apr 05, 2008 10:19 pm

ola wrote:When it comes to describing a war there are many questions, like do I describe the overall happenings or just the scenes which my main characters encounter or a bit of both? Does it make sense to switch back and forth between main charcter action and what is happening around it? How can I put the chaos of a war in words?


Are you talking about ancient or medieval war? A good place to start finding out how to describe it may be find historical accounts of battles and see how they were described in their day. There are accounts of battle going back to ancient Egypt. Medieval chronicles also often contain accounts of battles. Obviously, the genuine accuracy of these accounts may be questionable, but they can give you an idea about the feel of ancient and medieval battle.

Being something of a medieval and military history buff, I can tell you that an individual soldider on an ancient or medieval battlefield wouldn't know much about the overall view of the battlefield beyond what was immediately around them. Often times they would keep their leader's banner in sight, and if the banner fell, they would break and try to run, assuming that the battle was lost. Armoured warriors with helmets (especially great helms or visored bascients) would often have restricted vision and hearing. There are claims that some French knights actually fell and suffocated in the mud during the battle of Agincourt.

To give you an idea about the confusion of late medieval battles - during the battle of Barnet in 1471, in a fog, the stars on banners of the Earl of Oxford were mistaken for the suns in spelndour of the Yorkist banners by the Earl of Warwick's division. Oxford was then allied with Warwick against the Yorkist Edward IV. Warwick's men loosed arrows at Oxford's contingent, their own reinforcements, leading to shouts of "treason" and many men fleeing. This caused a general unease for Warwick's side, and the loss of the battle and his life. In other words, even the "generals" often didn't have great control over the flow of events in a medieval battle, although this varied with each commander and circumstance.

Richard the Lionheart was a strong commander, but even he had troubled keeping his army from charging prematurely during the battle of Arsuf in 1191. Harrassed by Saladin's archers, the rearguard of Richard's army eventually could take no more and charged before Richard gave the trumpet call signalling an all-out attack. Luckily for the Crusaders Richard was quick to seize the moment and the charge sent Saladin's army reeling back.

If you're telling your story from your character's PoV, you will have to stay restricted to what that particular character sees and experiences. And even then, the wrong conclusion can be reached based on what's seen and heard. There's a good example of this in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when Cassius took his own life when he mistakingly thought his side was losing after his servant misinterpretted the course of the battle. (A good example of the insanity of battle.)

Keep in mind that the generals of ancient and medieval times often commanded from the front. Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Edward the Black Prince, all fought alongside their men. Even Edward II, a rather unskilled commander and unlucky king, was still a brave warrior and found himself in the thick of things during the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The Scots had actually grabbed hold of his horse's cloth trapper, but he fought his way free with his mace. Then he was whisked away from the fighting by the Earl of Pembroke and Sir Giles D'Argentan. D'Argentan, full of knightly honour, actually returned to the battle after he was sure the king was safe, only to be killed by Scottish spears.

Now, a modern, post-modern, or futuristic war may be different, but the fog of war can still play a role in the confusion and chaos. There is the ever-present danger of "friendly fire", which has become a concern in this day of remote warfare. However, it's by no means a new threat. I recall reading about Allied bombers in the Normandy campaign in 1944 dropping their loads too soon and bombing Allied troops instead of the Germans.

When describing the chaos of war, you might want to make sure you include the sounds and smells as well as the sights. There will be warriors shouting battle cries, commanders barking orders, and dying men screaming. There will be the clash of arms, the thunder of hooves, and even the clatter of wheels if chariots are involved. The air may smell of smoke, dust, sweat, and death. Dust and smoke may sting the eyes and blur vision. Arrows may blacken the sky while the sunlight glints off polished helms. Banners will beat in the wind while raised spears stand like a thicket.

Or, tanks rumble across a landscape torn apart by incessant shelling. Their tracks rattle as mud flies, their engines roar as their drivers steer the metal mosters forward. Then a flash and thunder as a target is spotted.

Well, these are some ideas, anyway.
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Postby tiriel » Wed Apr 30, 2008 7:52 am

You should try reading some poetry from the world wars. There were quite a few poets that made it big post war. It might give your fight scenes that realistic edge you're looking for.
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Re: How to describe a war

Postby reecehiggins » Thu Aug 14, 2014 12:46 am

War is heck!!

silly, pointless, ruinous, crazy, inept, self-destructive... this is absurd: you could discover a huge number of words and expressions which depict war faultlessly (thus negatively!!).
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