Two armies face off across an open field. You’ve set the scene; the battle is about to begin, but what do you do now? How do you capture the chaos and frenzy of hand-to-hand combat on paper? Do you try to gather a sweeping panorama of the battle from an omniscient narrator’s point-of-view, pulling back and describing every action from cavalry to infantry to archers to artillery, giving the reader the sense that they are viewing the battle from an overhead, aerial view? I believe this is the mistake a lot of writers make when attempting to write such a scene. They remove themselves from the characters in an attempt to describe the battle, or they have the characters describe what they see in too much detail, and as a result, the sequence often comes across too slowly, and the battle loses that sense of chaos.
If your character is on the front lines, and the enemy army is approaching, your character may have time to describe what he sees in a wider perspective, but also in this instance, it’s important to stay inside your character’s head, so readers understand what he is thinking in that moment; he may be taking the entire battlefield in, and it would make sense to put this down on paper, or he may be scared out of his mind, and he can’t think of anything else besides how he is going to die, in which case your approach to writing the scene would be entirely different.
As that enemy army gets closer, and the first wave of troops smashes into the front ranks, your character — at that point — should only be thinking about what is immediately in front of him or beside him or behind him; he should not be able to see what the cavalry is doing on the far flanks; he should not be able to describe the king’s reaction to the battle who is commanding from somewhere behind him; he should not be able know that on the far side of the field, the enemy cavalry is attempting to circle around behind them and attack the line of archers. Stay inside your character’s head. Put yourself in that moment. What does he see: blood and spit and vomit and broken shields. What does he hear: men screaming, the tearing of flesh, the breaking of bones. What does he smell: blood and sweat and urine. Stay in the character, stay in the moment, and you will stay in the chaos.
No one does this better than Bernard Cornwell. The following is a passage from The Last Kingdom, where the Saxons are facing off against the Danes at Cynuit.
I was tired, too. I had not slept. I was soaking wet. I was cold, yet suddenly I felt invincible. It is a wondrous thing, that battle calm. The nerves go, the fear wings off into the void, and all is clear as precious crystal. and the enemy has no chance because he is so slow, and I swept the shield left, taking the scar-faced man’s spear thrust, lunged Wasp-Sting forward, and the Dane ran onto her point. I felt the impact run up my arm as her tip punctured his belly muscles, and I was already twisting her, ripping her up and free, sawing through leather, skin, muscle, and guts, and his blood was warm on my cold hand, and he screamed, ale breath in my face, and I punched him down with the shield’s heavy boss, stamped on his groin, killed him with Wasp-Sting’s tip in his throat, and a second man was on my right, beating at my neighbor’s shield with an ax, and he was easy to kill, point into the throat, and then we were going forward.
I love how Cornwell creates those long run-on sentences; by the time you get to the end of the passage, you’re out of breath from reading, making you feel as though you’re in the battle yourself. Here’s another passage, this one from The Archer’s Tale by Cornwell. This is at the Battle of Crecy during the Hundred Years War, told through the eyes of an English archer.
Thomas shot again and again, not thinking now, just looking for a horse, leading it with the steel arrowhead, then releasing. He drew out a white-feathered arrow and saw blood on the quills and knew his bow fingers were bleeding for the first time since he had been a child. He shot again and again until his fingers were raw flesh and he was almost weeping from the pain, but the second charge had lost all its cohesion as the barbed points tortured the horses and the riders encountered the corpses left by the first attack …
… the horses were on top of them, vast and high, lances reaching, the noise of the hooves and the rattle of mail overwhelming. Frenchmen were shouting victory as they leaned into the lunge …
… the lances struck the shields and Thomas was hurled back and a hoof thumped his shoulder, but a man behind pushed him upright so he was forced hard against the enemy horse. He had no room to use the sword and the shield was crushed against his side. There was the stench of horse sweat and blood in his nostrils. Something struck his helmet, making his skull ring and vision darken, then miraculously the pressure was gone and he glimpsed a patch of daylight and staggered into it, swinging the sword to where he thought the enemy was.
I thought I would also include an excerpt from my novel, as I’ve worked tirelessly to perfect the technique of writing a medieval battle sequence, though I’m not yet at the level of Cornwell — though in truth, few writers are at such a level.
The two shield walls collided with a crack of iron and wood, and Cobus held his shield high and felt the impact of a spear point snap against the wooden frame, and he felt the weight of men pushing in from the front as well as at his back, curses and screams and metal raking against wood and the crunching of flesh, and he saw the feet of his enemies digging into the earth, and overhead, he heard the whooshing of spears being thrown into the deeper ranks of the Pagannian lines. He felt the enemy wall falter as the fighting shifted to the left, and he saw a break in the line and lunged forward with his shield, the impact sending a burst of pain up his left arm, but the pain disappeared quickly, and he stabbed to his left with the point of his short sword, and the steel tip ripped into flesh and bone, and a soldier fell to the ground at his feet. He stepped over the fallen body and attacked the next man who tried to fill the gap, and stabbing over his shield, his blade caught the man in the throat, spraying blood, a fine mist, warm and bright red, and the man grabbed at the steel edge stuck in his neck. Cobus ripped the sword free, another gush of blood, the man’s face pale and eyes wide, hands grasping at the wound as he fell to his knees choking and gurgling on his own blood.