Battle Scenes



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  • Battle Scenes

    I would like to open discussion on battle scenes, how they're written in spec scripts, tricks to the trade, must-reads, etc etc etc.

    I have finished my latest script and love 95% of it. However, the final scene, a battle between two tribes, just doesn't have "it."

    There are no real battles throughout the script until the conclusion. I'm thrilled with how the battle lays the foundation for the ending, however it just isn't reading well for me.

    I've seen scripts with something as simple as: They fight.

    I want to be more detailed with that and find myself (once again) turning back to this board for direction on how to rewrite my final battle scene.

    How have you written battle scenes in the past?

    Again, any good reading material you can reference on this subject?

    Tricks of the trade? Advice? Thanks to all who respond.

  • #2
    Re: Battle Scenes

    IMO, The bigger the battle the more succinct you gotta be, don't get bogged down in the details. Be really careful with the length, because you can lose people with too much of the same. Stick and move.

    For a reference, All You Need is Kill had some tremendous battle scenes in it.
    Write, rite, wright... until you get it RIGHT.


    • #3
      Re: Battle Scenes

      I know this feeling well... I'd say the best way to start is to think of movies/scripts you're familiar with fight/battle scenes and track down script. Helps to remember it, then compare to how they wrote out the scene. For example, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Gladiator etc.

      Second theres a ton of articles blogs interviews out there where folks have written on how to pace these scenes effectively. Offering sufficient detail, without getting bogged down unnecessarily.

      Did quick google search for screenwriting battle scenes and found a virtual font of info, including but not limited to links to sites such as:


      Even ehow has a link along with's Battle Scenes: How Not to Write Them. Done Deal Pro also has a thread/discussion from June 2011 on how it always seems all the other fighters seem to ignore the protagonist/antagonist as they square off.

      Anyway, you get the drift I'm sure. I hope this all helps. Good luck!!

      btw- I sent you a pm realphipps...
      Last edited by MJ Scribe; 07-11-2013, 07:46 PM.
      " Don't really like writing. But I do like having written." Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad.


      • #4
        Re: Battle Scenes

        We once had a similar discussion, years ago, and the person asking the question said something like: "I don't want to just write Insert neat fight scene here."

        The same thing applies here. Don't just write Insert great battle scene here.

        The most important requirement is that you have got to have a concept and a vision of what happens. Who does what, how, and so forth. Without that, you cannot do anything but write Insert great battle scene here.

        "The fact that you have seen professionals write poorly is no reason for you to imitate them." - ComicBent.


        • #5
          Re: Battle Scenes

          Snippets, or, that's how I'd tackle huge battle sequences.

          At the end of the day, the director is going to decide what makes it into the frames, so you'll just have to give some input to make him think it could be a kick-arse scene.

          The armies run towards one another, like two different coloured swarms of bees, countless in number, their swords and shields glint in the sunlight.

          They clash - the colours merge, light flashes in tiny sparks as weapons catch the light before descending upon a foe. The ROAR of men is deafening, even more so than the clang of steel-on-steel.

          Closer: men fall, ground underfoot as the battle passes over them.

          Closer: blood cakes a warrior as he pulls his axe from a foe's skull... beyond him -

          A fighter loses an arm to a sword - his blood jets out... through the mist, shield locked to a behemoth -

          [Our Hero]. The bigger man's strength forces him back...

          Hero's feet look for support... a dying comrade provides him leverage.

          et cetera.

          Basically, you have to focus on the parts you want to see. In my version, I suggest that the camera starts with a long shot, holds it for the clash and jumps into the fray, where the director can dolly in for a one-take (yeah, right!!!) or jump shot through the battle as it unfolds, until finding our Hero.

          What you don't want to do is skip the surrounding battle and go straight to your lead, because that's like showing the audience that the battle may as well not even be there - he's fighting, but not a part of it.

          Hopefully, this gives you a few ideas.
          Cufk, Tish, Sips.


          • #6
            Re: Battle Scenes

            An excerpt from Cameron's script for the climactic battle in AVATAR:

            EXT. MOUNTAINS - DAWN
            THE DRAGON DESCENDS on final approach to a large clearing --
            the LZ. The Samsons flair and touch down, disgorging troops,
            while the gunships hover protectively.

            THE VALKYRIES blast the ground with their powerful lift jets.
            They land. The ramps drop. Troopers pour out, weapons
            leveled, advancing in a cordon.

            UP ANGLE as AMPSUITS descend from the Dragon on cables.
            Their massive feet smash down, and they march forward,
            leading the army into the forest.

            LYLE WAINFLEET, walking point in his hydraulic suit, scans
            his cockpit screens. He sees movement on the FLIR display --
            ghostly THERMAL SIGNATURES.

            Contact. Two hundred meters.

            A chilling SOUND echoes through the forest -- the ululating
            WAR CRIES of untold Na'vi. The troopers, look around,
            spooked. They can't tell where the sound is coming from.

            Then they feel it -- the GROUND ITSELF SHAKING. They grip
            their weapons, bracing themselves as --

            THREE HUNDRED NA'VI HORSEMEN charge through the forest at a
            full gallop, their hooves POUNDING the earth. It is an
            awesome sight.

            NORM SPELLMAN rides with the Na'vi hunters, carrying an
            assault rifle.

            THE NA'VI CHARGE thunders toward the human line. The hunters
            raise their bows as --

            THE AMPSUITS raise their GAU-90's.

            ON THE THERMAL IMAGERS target-cursors track the ghost riders.

            Fire for effect.

            The entire line of troopers opens fire. TRACERS riddle the
            jungle, blasting foliage into confetti.

            CHARGING DIREHORSES crash down, flipping over. Riders are
            flung off. The withering fire continues, and the ranks are
            decimated as --

            RIDERS LAUNCH their arrows at a full gallop. A few hit their
            marks among the troopers. NORM FIRES his AR on full auto.

            TWO CHARGING DIREHORSES have a heavy log slung between them
            like a battering ram. At a full gallop they hit an ampsuit,
            FLIPPING IT onto its back with a blown-out canopy. Victory
            is short lived as the two riders are cut down.

            NORM'S HORSE is hit by tracer fire. He is flung off as the
            creature cartwheels. He hits hard, scrambling for cover as --

            A WARRIOR HURLS his spear a moment before his horse is cut
            down. It SLAMS through an ampsuit's canopy but --

            THE MERCILESS FIRE continues. Horses rear and collapse.
            Riders pivot their mounts to flee and --

            THE THERMAL SCREENS show the remaining ghost riders

            LYLE signals and the line advances, firing sporadically at
            moving targets.

            OVERHEAD, NA'VI HUNTERS stream through the trees, running
            along the branches.

            As the troopers advance into bow range, the NA'VI open fire
            and --

            TROOPERS SPROUT ARROWS in throat, legs, masks -- the targets
            Jake taught them, but --

            THE FIRING LINE aims upward, tracking the THERMAL TARGETS.
            TRACERS rip through the foliage and --

            NA'VI FALL while others retreat as bark and wood is blasted
            off the limbs beneath their feet.

            NORM sprints frantically through the woods, shouting into his
            HANDSET --

            Jake! Jake! We're falling back!

            SURVIVING NA'VI flee the horrific onslaught. It is a total
            Lots of good ideas to pick up here. Starting each new graf in ALL CAPS to orient us as we hop, skip, and jump across the battlefield. A mix of big picture and personal moments. Lots of reversals as the battle surges to one side or the other. The occasional use of '--' to end grafs, suggesting speed and urgency.
            Patrick Sweeney


            • #7
              Re: Battle Scenes

              Another way to do battle scenes that I like, this one from Michael Mann's THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS:

                EXT. FOREST, TRAIL - DAY
                             On point. The trail cuts the side of a hill. The ground on 
                             one side rises into a forest acclivity and on the other falls 
                             off into a forested ravine. Magua walking towards camera.
                             CLOSER - MAGUA'S
                             slid his tomahawk out from the front of his belt that girdles 
                             his waist. He lets the shaft drop into his hand. He shrugs 
                             off his blanket. There is a solidity to his dark, tall figure 
                             we didn't see before. Magua turns about face and advances on 
                             the column.
                             TRACK WITH Magua.
                             Heyward and the Munro girls pass the camera as does Sgt. 
                             Major Ambrose, marching in advance of the men. Magua is 
                             approaching the soldier on the left in the first row.
                             We see Magua has caught the Redcoat's eye.
                             is curious, starts to smile. What does the Huron want to say 
                             to him? When Magua is two steps away he caves in the side of 
                             the infantryman's head at the temple with the spike end of 
                             his tomahawk and, backhanded, hacks the blade through the 
                             side of the neck of the center man in the first row.
                             thirteen muskets EXPLODE from the wooded rise.
                             FIVE REDCOATS
                             are blown off the path, two others are wounded...
                                       Form company! Left face! March!
                                       shrieks. Cora grabs Alice's reins 
                                       and her own.
                             pulling his fusil (short musket), seeing, firing, reaching 
                             for the women...
                             CORA'S HORSE
                             ALICE'S HORSE
                             bolting, dodging sideways, spilling Alice to the earth.
                                       Company make ready!
                             The regulars slam into a firing line, stepping over the bodies 
                             of their comrades. All thirteen face the incline.
                             FORESTED RISE - HURONS
                             flash downhill through the trees. Partnered in two-man teams, 
                             one loads and prepares and fires while the other advances to 
                             the next cover. He, then, prepares and fires covering his 
                             partner's advance. Leaping fallen trees and boulders, they're 
                             athletic, fast and rapidly closing.
                             Even though the disciplined English regulars are a killing 
                             machine, we now see their tactics in the dense forest are 
                             grossly inferior to the Hurons'...
                             covers Alice with her body, holding the reins of their bolting 
                             from horseback aims his horse pistol, FIRES...
                             AN ATTACKING HURON
                             leaping at him past Alice & Cora drops.
                             with baggage crashes off, down the ravine. Another two 
                             Redcoats drop. Nine left.
                             Then eight.
                             A musket volley as eight muskets go off as one shot, sending 
                             a lead scythe through leaves. But...
                             Hurons were behind cover. Only one was exposed and hit.
                                       Load! Prime!
                             The English rush to complete the reload. Will they do it in 
                                       Present! Present!
                             Suddenly, Hurons - en masse - CRASH down onto the Redcoats 
                             line with tomahawks, war clubs and point-blank musket fire.
                             on the ground, screaming insanely, covered by Cora who's 
                             protecting her little sister, and...
                             horse shot from beneath him, the animal folding, falling 
                             straight to the earth, and...
                             shoots Ambrose in the chest, and...
                             by the Munro daughters spins, swinging his fusil like a ball-
                             bat, upending one Huron and lunges with his bayonet in his 
                             left towards another. But this Huron easily slips the thrust 
                             and slams Heyward with his rifle butt.
              Patrick Sweeney


              • #8
                Re: Battle Scenes

                Originally posted by realphipps View Post
                I would like to open discussion on battle scenes, how they're written in spec scripts, tricks to the trade, must-reads, etc etc etc.

                I have finished my latest script and love 95% of it. However, the final scene, a battle between two tribes, just doesn't have "it."

                There are no real battles throughout the script until the conclusion. I'm thrilled with how the battle lays the foundation for the ending, however it just isn't reading well for me.

                I've seen scripts with something as simple as: They fight.

                I want to be more detailed with that and find myself (once again) turning back to this board for direction on how to rewrite my final battle scene.

                How have you written battle scenes in the past?

                Again, any good reading material you can reference on this subject?

                Tricks of the trade? Advice? Thanks to all who respond.

                The idea (to me) of anyone writing "Insert battle scene" or words to that effect, or the notion that one can simply leave it to the director to figure out what's going to happen in the battle makes as little sense as writing, "Insert dramatic scene" or "insert funny scene" or "insert scary scene" or sad scene.

                Is any of that really the director's job, or the job of the reader to imagine what's supposed to be going on?

                Whatever the external action of the scene -- two people talking, attending a funeral, a woman discovering her husband is cheating -- or the Zulus attacking the cattle station -- whatever it is -- the particularities of the scene. Who does what, who goes where and which characters decide to do what in the face of what's happening are what move the story forward.

                That's not the director's job.

                Every scene in any kind of movie, including battle scenes in action movies are no different than scenes with two characters in a little drama. They are there to advance the story of your protagonist.

                So how is your battle scene doing that? Where is your protagonist in the middle of your battle? What is the relationship between the two? Between what your protagonist needs viz your story and this great big thing having to do with armies in conflict. Because, obviously, the latter is there, dramatically, in service of the former.

                Obviously, in military terms, we understand why D-Day happened in World War II. But that's not why D-Day happened in Saving Private Ryan. In SPR, D-Day was there in order to introduce Tom Hanks and his platoon and unfold their relationships in order to set up the story that was about to follow.

                If you want to know how to write your battle, you need to know why it's there and what dramatic purpose it's serving in relation to the larger unfolding story of your protagonist. Then you should have the necessary underlying structure on which to build it.



                • #9
                  Re: Battle Scenes

                  To add to Patrick's post:
                  I attended a film festival in Chicago a while back and I had the good fortune to hear Michael Mann speak. He was describing filming/editing the battle scene in the Last of The Mohicans where the Magua-led Huron ambush the British troops escorting Cora, and Hawkeye, and company their prisoners.


                  Mann compared the editing to the composing of music.

                  I'm paraphrasing, but as an example, the overture is the Huron surrounding the British. Then, there are certain notes, like Magua's war-cry, and then the cacophonous music of the attack and battle. The lead melody, though, is key. Hawkeye's goal, was to save Cora and her sister and that is the lead melody. It's what makes that battle scene memorable. Mann kept building the fight scene, rhythmically returning to, and building to that lead melody, which when when sustained, is the climax of the battle scene.

                  The major beats in that set-piece raise the stakes and build up to the climax of saving Cora (and Alice) and escaping. The lead melody.

                  What are the major beats in your battle scene? Focus on hitting those beats in your description. Hit those notes.

                  But more importantly, what are the emotional stakes of your battle scene? The greater the emotional stakes in the scene, the better. What is the lead melody of the battle? What is the through-line of the battle?

                  Had there been no Cora and Alice to save, the battle would have much less emotional impact, and resonance. But that goal was there and, imo, it makes it a terrific example of a memorable battle scene

                  It was over ten years ago and I still remember Mann's description, it stuck with me. Recently I wrote an "epic" battle scene, I tried to tap into those ideas.
                  #writinginaStarbucks #re-thinkingmyexistence #notanotherweaklogline #thinkingwhatwouldWilldo


                  • #10
                    Re: Battle Scenes

                    Thanks to all for the advice thus far.

                    I was surprised to log on and find multiple references to Mann's Last of the Mohicans. I've watched that fight scene, while reading the script, probably a million times trying to find the "it" that Mann accomplished in that scene.

                    My protag is in a similar situation. He wants to save the girl. Only, the battle takes place in his former village, thus creating an internal struggle of A.) Save the girl or B.) Join the fight to save the village.

                    And I honestly think I've written it how I want, at least on that front. I'm ecstatic with the ending and how it plays out at the conclusion of the battle. It's the actual fight itself which has me in a pickle.

                    I'll continue to work on it and, of course, pop back in here for any additional advice.