Kenny Soward grew up in a small Kentucky suburb listening to hard rock and playing outdoors. In those quiet ’70s streets, he jumped bikes, played Nerf football, and acquired many a childhood scar. His love for books flourished early, a habit passed down by his uncles, and he spent many high school days in detention for reading fantasy novels during class. At the University of Kentucky, Kenny took creative writing classes under Gurny Norman, former Kentucky Poet Laureate and author of Divine Rights Trip (1971). By day, Kenny works as a Unix professional, and at night he writes and sips bourbon. He lives in Independence, Kentucky, with three cats and a gal who thinks she’s a cat.
by Kenny Soward
Writing epic battle scenes in fantasy is demanding. It requires a lot of imagination and attention to detail. But these are the scenes the reader holds out for and appreciates, the things you’ve been building them up for over the course of your novel, and these scenes need to be bold, emotional, breathtaking, unique, and quite simply, cool.
One of the best examples of this sort of epic buildup is in China Miéville’s Railsea, where a giant (Moby Dick-sized) mole rat, a moldywarpe called Mocker Jack, is hunted by train ship captain, Naphi – who also sports a robotic arm. Cool. The chugging train bears down on the moldywarpe as it plows through the dirt, leaping and spinning like a whale in the ocean. I’ll not spoil the rest … except to say,
cool, err, neat.
Another breathtaking battle occurs in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, when the oliphaunts pound their way across the field to smash the good guys. Unique, especially for the time it was written.
While I’d written a few battle scenes in my GnomeSaga series, a series featuring gnomes as the primary characters, I saved the best for last. I figured I’d already blown up a few things, had a wizards duel, and created some solid action scenes with fighters on the ground, but we all know that gnomes also rule the sky.
That left only one more thing to do; an airship battle! Oh yes.
I used the following principles to build the scene
- Created the elements.
- Learned the technical aspects.
- Gave life to the elements.
- Threw in character interaction.
- Applied the action.
I looked at the scene like I was making a pot of stew; a little of this, a little of that, mix it all together, and hope to blow the reader away.
Creating the elements is essentially looking at what possibilities you have already incorporated and growing those elements, expanding on the foundation you’ve already built. For example, gnomes are technological masters, so it was quite natural for me to build the airships into the story. If you’ve left open the possibilities of things like giant mole rats or orcs or dragons in your own work, well … you’ve already set the stage. Take it to the next level. Dragons with armor, orc wizards, moldywarpes, oliphaunts! Go wild.
In some cases, you may need to learn the technical aspects of what you are writing about. For me, learning the nautical terms for the sides of a ship (like port and starboard instead of left and right) was vital in making my airships feel authentic. Saying rigging instead of a bunch of ropes hanging about, was a much better choice of words, too.
One thing I like to do is bring the elements to life through sounds and smells. The creaking of the wooden deck, the labored whining of the engines, the wafts of burning oil from the exhaust pipes, all lent tangibility to the scene. I wanted these characteristics to be palpable to the reader, make them feel like the airship was going to fall out of the sky at any second because it was so damn rickety. I wanted them to cringe when the ship was hit with a stiff breeze and turned sideways, leaving them hanging suspended over a rail five thousand feet above the ground.
The last piece to consider is character interaction and action. Are there specific players that especially contribute to the legend of your beasts or machines? For China Miéville, it was Mocker Jack, the absolute meanest, most legendary moldywarpe of all time and the determination of Captain Naphi to hunt the bugger down – the legend of it all, resulting in a relationship that gave the climax even more intensity. In Tolkien’s work, the oliphaunts’ impregnable skins as they were driven by those southern Haradrim archers firing down from baskets on top of the beasts. This made the oliphaunts seem nearly unstoppable.
In my case, I started by naming my airships whenever I felt it pertinent. Sometimes the names were ironic, sometimes quite fitting. I used my airship crews to expand the ships’ personalities. Maybe there was a part that constantly failed, or a condition that always needed attention, something the crews complained about. When writing the scenes, I wondered how my characters felt about their vessels. Did they want to be back on solid ground as soon as gnomishly possible? Or had they started to develop a love for their old creaky boats?
By the time I was done, throwing action on top of it all was like squirting lighter fluid on a pile of simmering coals. All of the elements I’d developed with the airships’ characters and crews just exploded to make the action that much more impactful, fun, and sometimes even devastating.
Creating epic battle scenes is an art in itself, tricky, and sometime elusive. But it’s also one of the most satisfying components of any epic fantasy novel, both for the writer and the reader. It takes a lot of imagination and practice, and the patience to build things up to the big scene.
What are some of your favorite over-the-top literary battles? What elements did the author develop to bring the scene to life?