The Art of the Epic Battle
“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”—Braveheart
Nothing sets fire to our hearts and minds like a good old-fashioned climatic battle. That epic clash where good stands against evil in the face of almost certain death, fearlessly protecting that which is most sacred to them--be it honor, freedom, or the world itself. Few things are more inspiring than seeing those brave, proud few draw a line in the sand and throw down for what they believe in against almost impossible odds. Because these people believe in something greater than themselves, and believe it so strongly they have chosen it over their own lives.
Sacrifice has the power to lend tremendous credence to a cause—as well as an unbelievable amount of heart-wrenching drama to your book (I think I will always cry during Theoden’s speech in The Lord of the Rings). But writing a scene that takes every emotion you have built up and every thread you have set into motion throughout the entire story--and sets them on fire--is incredibly intimidating and difficult. With so much build up, you really don’t want to disappoint--or, heaven forefend, bore--your readers at this point. Here are a few tips to help you figure out what sets a climactic battle apart, and how to make it the epic conclusion to your epic fantasy you’ve always dreamed (epically) about.
What Are They Fighting For?
A climactic battle is at its heart a fight scene (read Master of the Fight Scene R.A. Salvatore’s advice on writing fight scenes here) with just a few differences:
Before you write your climatic battle scene, make sure you’ve raised the stakes, and driven your characters to the point where they are fighting for more than their own skin. And then, you need to make sure you let us know what they are fighting for, and why it is so desperately important to them.
For instance, one of the things that makes the Battle at the Black Gates so incredibly moving is that their sole purpose is to stand tall against death and fear for as long as possible, to give Frodo a chance at destroying the ring. It is a compelling and powerful sacrifice on the part of all the armies of the West, as they cannot hope to win—they can only hope to give another the chance to win it for everyone. It is a battle of pure faith and idealism in the face of a bleak, gritty, and terrible reality. And for that, it is far more powerful than if they were just fighting for their lives.
What Gives Them Hope?
And that’s where battle speeches come in. I am such a sucker for a good, rousing battle speech. Just hearing one of these spitfire speeches infuses you with such passion and idealism that you’ll wish you were there that day to lend your sword to their cause, no matter how ridiculous the odds.
The secret to a good battle speech is figuring out what about this struggle lends these men and women such strength. One of my favorite battle speeches is Hal’s classic Saint Crispin’s Day speech in King Henry V, the end of which I’ve copied here:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Hal’s inspiring speech puts an emphasis on belonging—on the idea that fighting side-by-side unites them in a way no one else can understand, binding them together with ties stronger than blood: the bond of brotherhood. And that their brotherhood will inspire awe, fear, and respect in all other men. This grounds the reward for fighting in incredibly human needs: the need to belong and to be respected and to be remembered.
When the time comes for your characters to make an inspiring battle speech, think about what promise drives them. Is it the promise of pride and freedom? (“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”) Is it to be immortalized, to make “such an end as to be worthy of remembrance”? Think about what kind of hope your characters crave—and make that the heart of your speech.
How Does It All End?
One of the most important aspects of a climactic battle is making sure it ends in accordance with its characters. A normal fight scene can end on almost any note, depending on the needs of the narrative, but a climactic battle is symbolic of the conflict at the heart of the character—it is where the inner (emotional) and outer (plot) character arcs come together to drive the character to one end. Therefore, it’s important to think about how the fight scene—and the main conflict—will end. In Return of the Jedi, the climactic battle takes place in space, on Endor, and on the Imperial ships. However, the heart of it takes place in the Emperor’s chambers, where Luke faces down the Emperor and Darth Vader. If Luke had defeated the Emperor and Darth Vader himself with his skill with the lightsaber, it would not have been half so perfect an ending. For Luke to decide he would not go darkside (internal conflict)—not even to win and not even to save his friends lives—and for him to hold out hope for his father’s redemption, is a far stronger, far more symbolic ending. And to make that ending perfect, Darth Vader had to die killing the Emperor (external conflict)—his sins could not be washed clean by anything less than his own blood, sacrificed to save his son in his moment of faith. If Darth Vader had lived, the ending would have been flawed.
A couple questions to ask yourself before plotting out your final battle are: what are my character’s internal and external conflicts, and how should they manifest themselves in this epic battle? What is the resolution of my character’s internal and external arcs? And don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions: do they get the girl/guy? Do they succeed in their goals? Do they even survive?
Flash Fiction Practice
Your turn! Write a rousing battle speech. Remember to first identify what they are fighting for and what gives them hope. Alternatively, write a comedic battle speech, by applying most of the “rules” about epic battle scenes and applying them to a truly non-epic situation (like a kid stealing another kid’s candy bar).