There are many different ways to write a fantasy or a historical novel, but if you’re looking for a climatic finish, a great battle at the end is hard to beat, and it fits in nicely to both genres. Here are five types…
The Siege. I love castles, great fortresses of stone with arrow slits and murder holes, battlements festooned with banners. A great setting for a defiant group of defenders to hold out against overwhelming odds – and for an added bonus you can arm your attackers with a whole arsenal of siege engines: Huge trebuchets, deadly bolt throwers, fearsome battering rams, crafty siege towers.
The Set-piece. Rows of soldiers, resplendent in their burnished armour, lined up rank upon rank, the pride of a nations strength standing proudly in the sun awaiting the enemy to approach. Only for them all to lie dead by the end of that same day – the tragic loss that comes from man’s ambition. To successfully describe a set-piece well will require the author to have a grasp of the tactical strategy used by the opposing commanders. However, be warned, if you get overly bogged down in complicated battle tactics, at the expense of the all-important action, you might bore your readers. Keep your narrative clear and concise, so it doesn’t descend into a confusing muddle, and keep the pace fast and exciting.
The ambush. The trap is sprung on the unwitting enemy who walk blindly into their fate, oblivious of what awaits them. A healthy dose of deception and trickery is as old as the hills, and ever since man first took up the spear, this form of combat existed. Whether those ambushed manage to fight their way to freedom or die to a man is up to you – but don’t forget to show the confusion and terror that such an attack inspires. My novel Roman Mask uses one of the most famous ambushes of all time as its central theme, the battle of the Teutoburg where three Roman legions were taken by surprise.
Invasion. ‘You don’t just walk into Mordor,’ claimed Boromir – no you wait until you have all the free people of the West behind you only to find yourself still outnumbered when you get there! As well as the Lord of the Rings demonstrating how to setup a great climax, history also give great examples of successful invasions. Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire, Ceasar’s ground shaking victories in Gaul…but don’t rule out the disasters too – not all wars go to plan!
The fighting retreat. After the battle is lost the story doesn’t necessarily end. The survivors need to make their way to safety, often under assault the entire way, morale low, fatigued beyond endurance, yet a spark of spirit remains – the instinct for survival and a refusal to give in. Not all novels need to end with magnificent victories and the triumph of good over evil. Sometimes the darker the tale, the more compelling the story.
Okay, I think that covers most scenarios, but if you can think of any more, please feel free to post them here….
Another type of battle is the encounter battle, where the two sides blunder into each other. This sort of battle is often protracted, fluid and difficult to control, as it starts small and builds up as both sides bring up reinforcements. Gettysburg was a battle of this sort: it started with one side reconnoitring for a boot store.