Every new author has the same problem when it comes to action scenes. They have this idea for a big battle scene or car chase – but they don’t know where to start!
I’ll show you.
- Using Braveheart, we will make a complicated action scene easy to visualize, understand, and write.
- After the Braveheart example, we’ll lay out see how other types of action scenes are done, like a car crash, and
- the writing style you can use in action scenes that isn’t utilized elsewhere in your story.
Car chase or medieval battle, we can create a process to follow. I like to use Braveheart because everybody saw it and everybody knows the big battle scene I’m referring to. While every action scene is different, many have similar foundations. Bullitt and The Blues Brothers contain car chases that are very different from each other, but many elements are the same.
The big battle scene in Braveheart may be one of the best action scenes of all time. Using it, below, we will see what a complicated action scene looks like – and how we can take it from complicated in our heads to written into one of our stories.
Here are the steps to getting your big action scene down.
- Take what your scene is in your head and narrate it to yourself verbally. Tell yourself the scene as though it were a movie you saw and are telling it to a friend.
- Record this somehow, on a talk-to-text message or on video.
- Transcribe your narrated scene so we have some words to work with. That is your initial outline.
- Break it into as many steps as necessary, the smaller the step, the better – initially.
- Don’t worry about POV yet or even proper spelling. Let it flow. Anything good you think of, add it in. Cut-paste it to wherever it needs to go.
- Flesh each step out in small segments, called microscenes.
- Be sure to add tension via teasing – more on that later.
- Let it rest, then revise it. Take out unnecessary stuff and put in better stuff, like dramatic action verbs if appropriate, to paint in the scene as you need it.
- Send it to a trusted friend for input, preferably a CP.
- Revise it again with the friend’s input and your own newly fresh eyes until it fits what you want in your story.
That’s all easier said than done, and it will take time and effort, but it will work. There are also a lot of tips to go into each step, so let’s begin.
The action scene starts before the action starts.
Usually we have a complex scene in out head with lots of things happening. And of course when you go to write your story, it may be hard to know where to start because you might envision 10 different things happening at once.
My prescription for that has always been: envision the scene in your head. Then tell yourself out loud in some fashion what happens. Pick up your cell phone and talk to text, or leave a series of messages on your answering machine, but walk yourself through what you see happening in your action scene. You know what it looks like. Start telling it. As you do, you’ll get ideas and see gaps, but it’ll be the basis for an outline.
In Braveheart, where Mill Gibson’s ragtag group of clan members crosses the big field to clash with the English army, it’s a big scene. But if you were to play it on video and narrate what you see, you would have lots and lots a little chunks of information. For starters, what do you remember from Braveheart? Mel Gibson gives a rousing speech and then his army runs across the field towards the other. The other army runs toward Mel’s. They meet in the middle for a giant clash.
Then Mel grabs someone and slashes their throat open. Another man falls off a horse. Elsewhere an arrow flies into a shield. Things like that. You just pick moment after moment after moment and tell yourself what you see in the scene – in your story or in Braveheart.
When you’re done, that is your outline for the scene.
You take each sentence you wrote and you make it it’s own little mini scene. A scene segment.
Then you go back and you flesh it out. You give specifics about what you see in each one of those little segments. Sweat. Yelling. Mud on the face. Whatever.
Let it rest, and then attack again. Adding detail and honing. When you are looking at a segment, what’s happening behind a character or in front of a character?
When you’re done, you will have lots and lots and lots of pieces of information that don’t necessarily fit well together – but you’re writing a scene about a battle, not about a chorus line or synchronize swimming.
When you read an outline, you are not reading the whole story. You’re reading basics, arranging pieces of the puzzle. After you arrange it how you want, you can polish – scroll through to see where to add emotion to characters, or swap out your original verbs for more battle-y ones.
If you can’t decide where to start in your scene, find one that’s already been done, in books or movies, and see how they did it. Why reinvent the wheel? Use it as a guide, a template, not for plagiarism.
Let’s break down the famous battle scene from Braveheart,
the one at Stirling where Mel has half his face painted blue and has that crazy long hair.
If we can see how that’s done, we can break down any action scene, see how they are constructed, and build ours from there.
The scene is sixteen minutes long. That’s it. Watch it. You have sixteen minutes to devote to learning how to write great scenes.
Sixteen minutes is a lot in a movie, and it seems like a lot longer when you watch it, but in sixteen minutes they recreated a battle they probably went on for many, many hours. For that reason, you can probably dedicate a few thousand words to it in your story. Write it over a few days – start to finish – and do it properly. (16 minutes in a 3-hour movie is nearly 10% of the running time, not counting ending credits. If they can devote 10% of the movie to a single scene, you can devote 10% of your book to one and spend a few days to get it right.)
Before the battle begins, before William Wallace (Mel Gibson’s character) even arrives, some of the gathered members of the other clans explain how it will work. A young man asks his older friend, “What are we going to do?” and the friend says “We’re going to negotiate then we’re gonna go home.” The Scottish nobles, who have allied themselves with Wallace, reinforce this idea. So do the English commanders, in a different way.
Another Scottish man, upon learning the English army is bigger, declares “I’m not going to die for these bastards (the nobles). Let’s go home.” And he starts to leave with his clan – part of the overall army gathered to confront the bigger, better armed English army.
That is why Gibson has to give his famous speech from the movie.
He rides casually into the clansmen without saying a word and observes the troops.
Then he addresses them. “If this is your army, why does it go?”
He gets answers. “The English are too many.” “We didn’t come to die for them (the Scottish nobles).”
On the Internet you will probably be able to find it to where you can just watch the big battle scene, but since I happen to have it on DVD, I will give you my play-by-play of that scene and break it down for you.
It’s worth remembering that the reason we are sympathetic to Mel Gibson’s character is because he is wronged so many times throughout the movie, as are his people. At least from the perspective of this film. (The English may have seen it differently.)
What is his big goal? Freedom. Goals don’t come much bigger than that. Life – that one may be bigger.
There is a huge amount of tension before the big battle scene.
A Scottish scout returns from the English side and tells them they are outnumbered 3 to 1, and the lords of the various clans react very, very scared by this information. They keep saying things like “Three hundred heavy horse!”
And Wallace gives a speech that endears him to the soldiers. He says, “I can’t be William Wallace because that guy is seven feet tall and lightning bolts shoot out of his arse.” He tells the men you’re not fighting for these nobles, you’re fighting for yourself to have freedom – and he tells them to look down the road, that they will be proud, and by inference, they would be remembering this day in shame if they don’t follow his lead.
When he tells them what he sees, he projects onto them with they could be, not necessarily what they are. That’s important. You want to hear that your leader things you have greatness within you.
And he says what is probably perceived to be the seminal lines of the movie. “Fight and you may die. Run and you will live. At least a while. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you trade every day from that day to this, for one chance – just one chance – to come back here and tell our enemies ‘You may take our lives but you will never take our freedom.’”
It’s a great speech!
But . . .
When you read the words here, you don’t feel it. That’s good acting – and if you write it properly with the right expressions, it will read very dramatically as well.
He’s in front of his army. And what do they do when he delivers that line? The music swells and his army cheers.
Had they not cheered, you as the audience would not know that this speech changed their minds from running away to fighting. In other words, the director had the characters react the way he wants the audience to react. We talk about that all the time. (He also has a nice music score. That helps.)
Okay, so Wallace cheers Erin go brah and the clansmen do, too. And now we’re all worked up. They’re unified.
Now, we shoot back-and-forth to the nobles into the Kings army about how they’re not going to honor any terms they agreed to in the middle of the field, and once again we see Wallace is about to wronged. So now we are ready to fight with him. He’s justified. So let the fun begin.
The leaders of the two armies meet in the middle to discuss terms, at which point Wallace insults them all – and that’s that.
And then we’re ready for the fight to begin.
So I will give you the play-by-play on what I see as the scene unfold before me over the sixteen minute scene.
You don’t need to read it, per se. You DO need to:
- See how the action is laid out. It’s very choppy. It jumps all over the place – and yet we can follow it, so relax. Your will be fine.
- See how much detail there is. There’s a LOT. So yours can be detailed, too. Eventually.
- Ease your mind about how YOU should do yours. Visually you now have an example to follow, and like Jane Austen said, if a book is well written, I always find to too short. Same with your action scene or battle scene. If it’s good, it won’t seem long to your reader. You’ve already made them care about these characters, so they’ll wanna see what happens to them in the battle.
- If you didn’t know how to start, now you do.
Remember drama. As the English commanders leave the meeting, Wallace turns to the clan leaders on his side. Prior to this moment he was not necessarily their leader. Now he is. He tells them what he wants them to do, and they basically agree – most of them. The point is, this is when he became the leader of the whole army. That moment. It’s subtle but it’s worth pointing out. Prior to that he was a rising star. At this point he’s in charge, possibly of the whole country. (And he’s willing to give that power up to somebody else by the way! So we love him again because he’s humble.)
He tells the nobles his plan, to let part of the Scottish army appear to be fleeing while it actually doubles back to attack the English archers.
He sends his horse away in kneels in the front line with his army as a priest gives a blessing.
We cut to the English commander who has just heard the insult and who is now ready to have Wallace’s heart on a plate.
The drums start. The flagman ride out on a horse.
We are getting a sweeping shot of the English army. It is huge. It’s a wide shot, and the farther back it pans, the more of the thick, crowded English army you can see. It stretches to the horizon. It is an overwhelming site. A sea of men and horses and artillery. It’s worth it to stop at that moment and explain in whatever detail you choose how threatening this army appears.
And of course, to drag it out, they had a priest come through and give everybody a blessing.
Then the Scottish fighters raise their kilts and flash the English. So we chuckle at that.
And the low drumming in the background is ominous. So just as I did with the Dahlia scene where I kept mentioning the rain and the lightning and the wind. As Dahlia got angrier, the wind and rain increased. The drumming helps the tension. Well, you can say the same thing in your description. You’re noticing it so you should point it out and it will be …
It’s hard to describe why it works in the movie and why it would work in a book, but let me try.
It’s taking the reader away from the battle that’s about to happen. That’s a tease. The longer you sit there sensing they’re gonna fight, they’re gonna fight, they’re gonna fight – and don’t let them fight – that’s a tease. There are big teases a little teasers. This is a micro tease. When you refer to the constant drumming, you can equate it to a heartbeat. Or a racing pulse, but by jumping away for just a few seconds, you have lengthened the tease. That would be my assessment as why that works. It’s probably purely psychological. And it only works if you really, really built up that this is about to be a massacre.
On the English side we see the archers run to the front of the line with their bows and arrows. We see a flagman riding on a horse out front, signaling for the troops to get ready.
The English archers step in front of the line of horses. They are now the front line before the massive empty field between them and Mel Gibson’s army.
Since it was a sea of men on the English side, several shots show the flagman continuing to ride and more and more archers coming to the front. By repeating that scene, they show you how big of an army it is. By repeating that information in your book, you would also be explaining and showing how big the English army is. You would use different words each time but it would convey the impact, the massiveness, of the army readying itself.
The commander on horseback observes the long row of archers as it stretches off to the horizon. He sits on horseback in front of his army.
There is a jump cut to Mel Gibson’s army. It looks pretty big but it’s nowhere near the size of the English and nowhere near as well-equipped.
And it’s dirty. Mel Gibson’s guys have no uniforms or uniformity. They are covered in mud and war paint. The English have uniforms and all their helmets match and all their spears are the same length. This detail shows the disparity visually, but again by taking a few sentences to mention it, you would underscore the ragtag nature of Gibson’s army while delaying – teasing – for another few seconds.
A shot of Gibson taking a deep breath. A shot of one of his lieutenants – his childhood friend – taking a deep breath. They are steadying themselves, getting ready.
As the low drumming continues, the field is basically quiet. A little bit of noise like a horse whinnying in the background as we see different shots of the English army standing still and ready.
This would be a worthwhile micro tease. The shots of Gibson’s army, they are nervous. On the English side, they are waiting patiently. So you have an emotional difference that you can convey. Also, the guy who professes to be (Saint) Stephen looks to the sky and is apparently praying. All of these little details don’t take very long to say but they are micro teases that help sustain the tension while you are delaying your tease.
Drumming, drumming, drumming – as we show the resolute faces of the English commanders.
Part 2: The Braveheart Analysis – The Battle
Gibson gives the war cry and his men all yell jeers at the English. This breaks the tension in the movie. It would probably do the same thing in your book. I wasn’t expecting that. I was just expecting them to fight. Instead they taunt each other a few times first. So, we have another delay.
The English stand resolute as the Gibson army moons them and yells curses.
The very calm English commander gives the signal to his lieutenant. The lieutenant waves his arm at the archers. The archer line steps forward to their arrows, which are stuck in the ground. Hundreds of men pick up their arrows and guide them into the strings of their bows.
They aim high because they must shoot across the long field but as they do you hear the stretching of the strings as they pull the arrow back. It tells you two things. First of all, it gets other senses involved, to hear that, and it makes you realize they’re pulling it very, very hard – so it’s going to have a lot of impact on whatever it hits.
With the command “loose!” the lieutenant drop his arm and the arrows fly. We see and hear the arrows in midair. They sound like a swarm of bees.
Gibson’s men see the arrows coming and they duck and take cover behind their shields
We see shot after shot of arrows hitting wooden shields – and a few arrows getting past the shields and landing on a thigh or exposed shoulder or foot. A few men are killed. It is obvious the shields are not big enough.
A close-up of Gibson as he flinches when an arrowhead comes through his shield a few inches.
Next to him, Saint Stephen says something funny. “The Lord says he can get me out of this mess but he’s pretty sure you’re (screwed).”
Never underestimate the impact of your roller coaster. You have a ton of tension and you were starting to deliver it and you break it up with a humorous line. As soon as the audience gets their little chuckle, they are holding their breath again. You are playing them like a piano.
Gibson’s reaction is less than confident. Like, how could you say that. Saint Stephen laughs.
It is worth it then to describe what we see on the face of Gibson after Stephen delivers the line that Gibson/Wallace is screwed.
When Stephen begin speaking, Wallace’s eyes are fixed on him, his face is one of concern and his mouth hangs open. Of course it does. He almost got an arrow in the forehead. At hearing he may be screwed, Wallace flinches slightly and widens his eyes, turning his face more toward Stephen. His mouth and goes from gaping to raised eyebrows and a look of concern. So surprise turns to fear. However you would best describe that, it happens quickly so you have to say/write it quickly, but it’s a huge change in demeanor. And ends with Stephen laughing. We don’t get Gibson’s reaction to the laugh, but he will have one. It’s a moment of levity.
Fun fun fun. Arrows keep hitting. A few screams. A few men fall to the ground.
A moment of quiet as Gibson’s army peaks out from behind their shields. No more arrows come down, so they jump to their feet and scream like You didn’t kill us!
The English Lieutenant commands more arrows to fly. The long line of archers let them loose. Again we see them fly and hear them go through the air. Gibson’s men quickly lower their kilts and turn around to grab their shields.
As a viewer, we realize their timing was a bit stupid. They may not get their shields back up in time. That’s more tension.
Gibson and Stephen look to the sky as the arrows come down. The army covers itself again – most of it, anyway. A few get caught unprepared and one takes an arrow in the butt. Almost everyone has an arrow sticking out of their shield at this point and we are starting to wonder about the sanity of this type of defense. There seem to be a lot more injuries on the second valley of arrows.
Of the injuries, we see them in greater detail the second time, too. But at the end of the valley, Gibson stands and gives his signal to the support team to leave. They do.
The English commanders joke to themselves that half the opponent’s army is running away.
The English commander says to send in the horses now. To make a run at Gibson’s army.
The archers step behind each other to allow soldiers on horseback to ride through with long Spears.
Now the long line of archers is passed by the long line of horsemen and their spears. The spears are insanely long. Maybe 25 feet long like lances in a joust.
A shot of Gibson’s army as they kind of pale at this. They realize more of them will be killed with this assault.
The English horseman advance their horses at a walk. Calm. Confident.
Gibson’s army seems less so.
A look of calm confidence on the English commander’s face.
Smiles on the Horsemen’s faces. They move from a walk to a trot.
Close-ups of the horses’ hooves thundering across the grass. You would want to describe that.
A rumbling wave of soldiers on horseback sweep across the green field.
Gibson’s army breathing heavy, their faces drawn and slack jawed. It surely scares them.
The confidence of English soldier after English soldier as they move the horses to a gallop.
The wall of mounted men is thick and wide and deep. Endless.
Shots of Gibson’s men taking deep breaths, backing up slightly, gritting their teeth, every face is resolute but uncertain.
A look of fear appears on Gibson’s face.
Another shot of the horses thundering towards them. They break into a run.
Gibson appears as though he is nervous and almost trembling, but he shouts to his men: “Steady!”
A view from behind Gibson’s army as the horsemen come closer. They will be upon Gibson’s army in seconds. The faces of Gibson’s men are fearful but they are not backing away.
Gibson shouts “hold!”
Another shot of the horses thundering towards them.
Gibson raises his voice. It wavers a bit. Hold!
The horseman are now maybe 50 feet away.
Gibson shouts again. Hold! Each time he says it, he says it loud louder but with more urgency. Hold!
The horseman take their spears from vertical to horizontal and scream their war cry.
One of Gibson’s lieutenants has a look of absolute horror on his face as he prepares to receive the impact of whatever is coming.
The horseman sweep who the last few feet of distance between the two armies and
Gibson, his sword held high in the air, takes a deep breath and almost appears to lift himself up onto his toes.
The camera rushes forward from the point of view of a horseman, as it moves at full speed into the faces almost in the faces of Gibson’s army.
Gibson shouts “Now!”
The front line of his army drops to their knees and raises long wooden spears they fashioned out of tree limbs. Shouting and raising them, they shove the back end into the ground and hold them up to skewer the horses and riders as they race forward.
And it is a long line of spears the horses are about to ride into.
And as they do, some stop short. And the riders go flying. Horses get speared. Gibson’s army is screaming there were cry.
Horses rear back at the last second to not plunge into the spears. More riders go flying. A rider pulls back too hard on the reins and causes his horse to fall backwards onto him as the horse takes a spear to the belly. The second and third line of horses – you would’ve described there were multiple lines of horses – continues forward and pushes the first line into the spears, and gets speared themselves. Man after man is impaled on the long homemade spikes. Bodies go flying into Gibson’s army; groans and groans and screams of stabbed horses fill the air.
Spears ripping through horse flesh.
Gibson’s men begin hacking the English soldiers who have fallen.
Horse after horse falls to the ground screening.
Men are trapped under the horses; Gibson’s soldiers advance. The hand to hand combat begins.
Gibson wields a pickax and drives it into the skull of one of the English soldiers.
The next shot is of two or three soldiers surrounding an Englishmen and beating him with their swords and mallets.
The next shot is a few other horses continuing onward into the spears and one of Gibson’s soldiers jumping forward to pull the rider to the ground, raising his sword to kill the man.
The next shot is one of the soldiers surrounded by Gibson’s army as they descend upon him.
The next shot is the second and third line trying to turn the horses around and conveying an air of confusion among the riders.
More horse screams.
Gibson’s friend clubs a rider as he comes into their ranks, pulling the man to the ground.
Another rider is thrown from his horse.
Men with spears trying to hold the spear study or lift it and stab the riders.
Horses running away through the crowd.
English soldiers being butchered by the Scottish horde.
Gibson’s soldiers jumping over fallen Englishman and horses as the Scots advance, chasing the remaining English riders or trying to attack them.
A shot of the English commander. His face shows concern. He is no longer confident, he is surprised and possibly scared of what he is seeing.
With an uncertain voice he commands the lieutenant to send the infantry. The lieutenant begins to contradict him. The commander grits his teeth and raises his voice. “Send them. You lead them!” He is not at all certain of the outcome of this battle at this point. He is disappointed at his mounted soldiers being tricked and slain.
Shots of Gibson’s men smiling as they enjoy the fact they have pushed back the first wave of the English attack.
Soldier after mounted soldier fall from the horses to be slain.
Hand-to-hand combat. An English soldier is clubbed in the back. Another one is smashed in the head with a club as he leaves on the ground.
The clash of swords fills the air. Gibson wields his axe and peers out over the field. The English commander stands there as the infantry prepare themselves, holding battle axes on the end of long poles that tower over the long line of infantrymen who have moved to the front.
The lieutenant raises his sword and waves it with a cry; his infantrymen come forward, row after row after row, stretching to the horizon, as they scream their war cry. In front of them, the lieutenant rides on his horse, sword drawn.
Bearing his teeth and scowling, Gibson waves at his men, he screams and runs toward the English. His men follow.
Still horses are being slaughtered as Gibson’s army runs past them in the open field.
The mass of ragtag soldiers sweep forward with their crude weapons.
Running full speed towards the English, their legs are bare as their kilts fly up from the speed. They do not move forward in a uniform line, they run as fast as they can like a mob, as opposed to the English who moved in a line.
The English soldiers, swords in hand, now break into a flat out run.
Gibson’s army sprints towards them.
It almost looks more like a sport then a battle with everyone running towards each other this way.
A shot of Gibson’s army getting closer, a shot of the English army getting closer, everyone yelling the battle cry, sprinting as fast as they can, wielding their weapons.
The lieutenant, on horseback, gallops in front his sword raised.
His army sprints along behind him.
Gibson’s men are now at a full out sprint, covering the ground between them.
As the armies descend into each other, the weapons are raised overhead to be brought down onto the opposition.
Here comes the tricky part. You’re going to have two big armies on foot running in clashing together. In your book you will have to consider who’s point of view you’re going to maintain, because if you are in Gibson’s POV, he can’t see what’s happening behind him – so for this scene you may choose a different point of view. After all, a lot is happening.
Two side notes: Your scene starts before your scene starts. You can’t just jump into a battle, you have to set the stage. Also, the reason Gibson is so distraught by Stephen’s words is, Stephen had his back before that.
The fact it was a joke still introduces the audience to the fact that Wallace is not invincible and could in fact get killed. Which he does at the end. So it’s also a masterful bit of foreshadowing.
The armies surge forward into each other.
The sound of steel on steel fills the air as sword meets sword.
Bodies stream past each other and smash into each other as weapons fly.
In the center of the field, an ocean of men and weapons swirls.
The old man, bleeding from the forehead, rushes forward and wields his weapon, screaming as he collides with an Englishman.
A young man throws himself into an English soldier and they both fall to the ground.
The mob is chaotic as each person swings their weapons trying to make sure it lands on a foe.
An Englishmen up ends a Scotsman and throws him to the ground. Gibson raises his sword with both hands overhead and slashes at the arm of one English soldier, turning and drawing his blade in one smooth motion across the belly of another, then raises it high again to knock the sword out of another advancing Englishman.
His best friend slashes away at an English soldier, a wild eyed look on his face.
A mallet smashes into a head. Blood spews everywhere.
With many of Gibson’s army holding nothing more than sticks, they rush towards the Englishman.
Hacking and slaying as weapons meet flesh, regardless of whose side they are on in the melee.
Stephen slashes at an English officer.
The old man collides with an Englishman and drives his sword into him, turning to cheer victoriously before driving his knife into the next soldier.
Gibson swipes at one soldier after another.
His friend swipes a broadsword across the belly of an Englishman.
Gibson raises a hand and catches a soldier’s sword before headbutting the soldier and whipping around and dropping low to take out the legs of a horse that rushes by.
The old man, grabbing his sword with by the handle and putting his other hand on the blade, kicks at an Englishman.
A mallet meets in English soldiers head. Blood flies everywhere.
The old man screams as he slash is wildly at his opponent.
Stephen slashes and an English soldier.
An English so soldier gets his throat slit
Stephen stabs his opponent
One of Gibson’s soldiers, no weapon in his hand, kicks at a fallen English soldier.
Gibson’s friend slashes another soldier, taking on two at a time and pushing his way into them. He raises his battle ax and chops at the soldiers head neck
A sword rips through an English soldiers leg, dismembering him
One of Gibson’s men falls. Then another, as if the Englishman are able to turn the tide a little.
Gibson’s young lieutenant slashes his opponent
The old man chops into the belly of another Englishman.
St. Stephen skewers an opponent, then bows low and takes an advancing soldier and throws him on his back before raising his sword and slashing at him.
Scottish soldier bashes in English order in the face.
Another square mallet splits open English head
The old man kills one opponent then another in a bloody violent dance, grabbing a third and elbowing him in the head.
Gibson swings his long sword in a circle with both hands, getting one or two Englishman with each pass.
He jumps forward, slashes a man’s face open before raising his sword high and plunging into another one, taking the man off his knees and dropping him over his back.
Gibson plunges his sword into one of the English sergeants, it’s goes completely through his back. As he throws him to the ground, another soldier advances. Gibson takes a backswing across the soldier’s face before raising his sword high with both hands and bringing it down onto the soldiers skull, splitting it like a coconut.
The English commander’s face is drawn, his lip lips in a tight O. Thundering hoofbeats are heard behind him. He turns around to see the second wave of Gibson’s army – the ones they thought had left – advancing upon his flank. He turns and shouts to his lieutenants
He licks his lips first. Nice move.
The English archers, retreating from behind by Gibson’s second wave attack, leave the field.
The commander spins in all directions, his eyebrows raised and his mouth tight.
More shots of his archers being butchered by the second attack
The second attack is on horse so they had the advantage of height on the archers.
Rushing forward on their horses, the second Scottish wave butchers the archers one after another trampling them and squishing them between horses and stabbing them and spearing them.
The English commander is in complete confusion over what to do. He commands his army to flee from the battlefield.
The ones who can, do. The rest fall victim to the swords and clubs and mallets and rocks and spears and knives of Gibson’s army as the assault in the middle of the pasture continues.
Gibson ducks out of the way of a soldier’s sword and brings a mallet from the ground into the man’s belly. Another soldier comes in. Gibson grabs the soldier’s sword hand and clubs the man’s legs. Another soldier comes forward and Gibson grabs an axe and throws it into the man’s chest.
The old man is clubbed to the ground and his hand hacked off. He plunges hos sword into the belly of his attacker.
Stephen skewers a sword through the eye of an opponent.
The best friend clubs man after man with his battle axe.
The scene in the middle of the field shows fewer and fewer Englishman.
Gibson slashes an opponent before driving his sword through the next one
Man after man falls by Gibson’s hand.
Looking around, Gibson takes a moment – as he stabs his next victim – to assess the situation. The English Lieutenant rides forward on his horse towards Gibson. Gibson drops his current opponent and stands, his arms outstretched, sword in hand, raised to meet the lietenant in battle.
The lieutenant speeds forward on his horse, screaming.
Gibson screams and raises his sword higher.
As the horse descends upon him, Gibson slashes the legs out from the horse and the lieutenant falls to the ground. Gibson beheads him with one powerful swing of his massive broadsword.
In the middle of the melee, we see the clan leader on horseback from the second wave of Gibson’s attack nearing the middle of the field, shouting victoriously.
Priests drag Gibson’s wounded from the field amidst the fighting.
Hand to hand combat ensues on the ground. Those were wounded and are on the ground slash and stab at whatever opponent they can reach.
A sea of bodies lies in the middle of the field, many with swords sticking out of them, all of them bloody, as Scotsman weave their way through them, stabbing the wounded English to death.
A Scottish victim here and there tries to crawl out from under an opponent who has died on top of him.
The air is filled less with the clash of swords and more with the moans and groans of the wounded, as the mounted second wave continues to the center the field. The commander of the mounted second wave approaches Gibson, who turns and raises his sword to attack. Both and then realize the victory has been successful. They gaze around themselves and smile. The main part the butchery is done. Now only a little cleaning up to do.
Gibson says “All right” and walks off the field, turning to look back over it.
Exhausted and bleeding, staggering, he looks out upon an army of the dead man in his living soldiers, raising his sword and giving one last battle cry
His army raises their arms and shelves back triumphantly
Gibson, gasping, nods, his mouth open his eyes tired. They have won.
He stabs his sword in the ground and walks off the battlefield.
The next scene is him kneeling in a church before the nobles as they knight him. When he stands, knighted, they all cheer. His army and everybody else.
This scene took 16 number of minutes to unfold in the movie. It took about an hour for me to go through it on slow-motion and narrate the main points of what was happening in the scene to create this play by play outline/template. 4000 words went down on paper, to be clarified by me over the next 90 minutes.
How many words this turns out to be is up to your and your book’s requirements. I could easily see 8-16 hours creating the first draft of this chapter or scene, so don’t try to rush. Take each microscene and make it – show it – as best as you can.
I could easily see spending another few hours – spread over a couple of days – refining and tweaking it before I sent it to a critique partner for their assessment.
I would let it rest 3 to 5 days before reading it again, catching words that were wrong or things that seemed out of place. After that, I would let my beta readers have a look and I would refund it one more time after they were done with it.
Then I would probably let it go.
My point is this: you could come away with an amazing battle scene. Yours is not going to be Mel Gibson’s. You’re not writing Braveheart. But by looking at these 4000 words and what information they convey in outline form, you see a starting point for an amazingly complex battle! Whatever you are writing, if you can dictate it to use dictate to yourself whatever you see in your head, then you can go back and lay in what amount of detail you feel necessary. Then you can refine it so that each micro segment is a scene until it self.
And when you jump around from one to the other, it will be okay because everyone understands it’s a big battle scene and there’s a lot going on at the same time – but you show it step by step, one microscene at a time.
It’s like the answer to the question, How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time
Do you have in your head what your big battle looks like? If you don’t, use this as a template. If you have your own, in your head, write that down as we discussed.
Even if you use this template step-by-step, you’re not going to eat end up writing Braveheart because what is important in your story is different from what was important in Mel Gibson’s.
And you’re not gonna want to write every single scene and shot anyway. You’re not writing a screenplay. You’re not drafting a movie.
In your book you’ll write as much as you need. And then you will take out whatever is not needed.
And after you’ve done it a few times, it won’t be this big intimidating mountain of information you don’t know how to do. It will be something you’ve done – and if you do it a few times it will be something you do well. And by a few times, I mean a few different books or a few different drafts or a few different short stories. Doesn’t matter. Practice is what will make it great.
TOMORROW: Part 2 – other types of action scenes and the writing style you should use in action scenes.
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!
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