SCRIPT SECRETS: Writing Epic Battle Scenes

Whether you are writing a war movie like “1917" or a fantasy film like “Lord Of The Rings” you will need to write epic battle scenes - but how do you do that? Do you leave it to the stuntmen? William C. Martell looks at an epic battle scene from “Game Of Thrones” for the answers.
Author:
Publish date:

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers! 

BattleBastards-SnowvsArmy

Battle scenes. The one thing that I didn’t cover in Secrets of Action Screenwriting when I updated and expanded it a few years ago. The one thing that everyone seems to ask about. How do you write a big battle scene? There was a time when I swear that half the people on screenwriting message boards were writing a screenplay about the Battle of Hastings. I don’t think that a single one of those screenplays sold. But people still want to know about battle scenes.

Movies from “1917" to the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy to “Avengers: Endgame” have battle scenes. You can find them in almost every genre - though I’m not sure that there’s an epic battle scene in any romantic comedy... but “Atonement” (romantic drama) has an amazing Dunkirk scene - better than the film “Dunkirk.” It also has kissing, though not among the soldiers... not that there would be anything wrong with that. “War Of The Roses” (1989) is not about that battle from 1455-1486 between the Lancasters and Yorks - it’s a comedy about marriage - but certainly not a romantic comedy. So, maybe there are no epic battle scenes in rom-coms... and you can be the first to write one!

But how do you write a battle scene?

Do you just write “They fight” and let the stunt guys figure it out? You can’t really do that because a battle scene, like any other scene in a screenplay, is there to explore character and to move the story forward. All action scenes are *characters scenes* and *story scenes* or they are crap, and you should flush them. We don’t want pointless filler material scenes that stuntmen could write for us, we want a scene that is critical to the story itself - without this scene, the story will not work. That means that is our job and we will probably need more than two words.

We could maybe do something like “Game Of Thrones” did in the big Season 8 battle scene which we had all been waiting a decade to see... make it so dark that you don’t have to write anything if you write what you see, it’s just darkness for about an hour. But I don’t think the audience liked that battle scene very much. I know I didn’t. But “Game Of Thrones” has all kinds of *great* battle scenes - in every season, episode 9 is a giant battle scene. So let’s look at season 6's “Battle Of The Bastards” episode since I happen to have a copy of the screenplay.

“It was really in the writing of the script where David Benioff and Dan (D.B.) Weiss worked out that tactical stuff,” said supervising producer Bryan Cogman. “Finding these wonderful character moments within the spectacle.”

BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS

The episode begins the with tail end of the battle from the previous episode, between Danny, the mother of dragons (Emilia Clarke) and the Slave Owners of Mereen. After Danny has taken Mereen and freed all of the slaves, the slave owners hired an armada of ships to attack the city while the slave owners - wearing masks - attack from within. Danny and her dragons turn the tables in a great scene. This is about a quarter of the episode, so we begin with action and then go to the prelude to the Battle of the Bastards...

The evil bastard Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) has captured Winterfell Castle and kidnapped Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) who is the last male heir to the Kingdom of the North, and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) brother and their army are going to fight to save their brother and the Stark ancestral home, Winterfell. It’s important to know what your characters are fighting for. What are the physical goals? How will we know who has won the battle? Rickon is rescued and the Stark family flag flies over Winterfell again.

There is a secondary objective - Ramsay is Sansa’s ex-husband, and I did not use the word “evil” lightly when mentioning him - he is probably the vilest character in a cast of thousands. Sansa would like to, um, finalize the divorce. She wants that bastard dead. That is character related. One of the great things about the first six seasons of the show is that every character has developed a relationship and backstory with most of the other characters, so whenever any two or three characters are in a scene together, all of the baggage from the past scenes becomes part of that scene... even in battle. If you are writing a movie screenplay, you need to introduce the characters and create the “baggage” - the emotional component of the battle scene - earlier in the story.

The second quarter of the episode begins with Jon Snow, Sansa, and their entourage meeting Ramsay and his entourage to discuss the possibility for surrender instead of battle. Ramsay has twice as many men as Snow, plus he has the fortress of Winterfell. Ramsey wants Snow to kneel before him and acknowledge that he is the Lord of Winterfell. No need for thousands to die in battle. Snow suggests that the two just fight each other, one on one, winner take all. Ramsay would rather have his army do the fighting. Snow asks: “Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?” Ramsay has Rickon, so he gets to dictate the terms. Sansa asks how they know that he actually has Rickon, and Ramsay dumps the head of Rickon’s pet dire wolf on the ground in front of her. Because Ramsay has their little brother Rickon, it’s war in the morning... and they are outnumbered.

BATTLE PLANS

So now that we know the stakes and goals and the terrible odds of winning the battle, we have a scene where they plan the battle. Much like in a caper or heist movie where there is a planning scene to tell the audience how things are *supposed* to work, so that when they go really, really wrong, the audience will know it and worry, the battle plan scene is all about telling the audience how things are supposed to go. This allows them to emotionally “participate” in the battle itself. Snow and Sir Davos Seaworthy (Liam Cunningham) and Viking-like wilding Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) decide the only way to win against an army twice their size is to trick them into charging up the middle of the battlefield and have hidden soldiers attack their flanks in a pincer movement, surrounding them. “It’s crucial that they attack us. We want them coming at us full tilt.” Now that we know what is supposed to happen, when things don’t go according to plan, the audience can worry about it.

[Script Extra: Theme, Setup and Payoff]

After the planning scene, Sansa tells Snow that their little brother Rickon is as good as dead - Ramsay will never leave him alive because he is in line for the throne. Sansa warns him that Ramsay is the one who sets traps - and he will have anticipated Snow’s plan and turned it into a trap. This is the wrong time to attack. They need to wait until they can get a larger army... that has a chance. Sansa also tells Snow that she will not go back to Ramsay alive. There’s a great unspoken pact that Snow will kill his sister Sansa if they lose the battle. Hey, even more stakes!

The audience not only has to know the battle plan for a battle scene to work, but they also need to know the stakes and how those stakes could escalate within the battle itself. So if things really take a turn for the worst, Snow must murder his own sister.

In a character moment before dawn, Sir Davos walks the battlefield and finds a carved wooden toy that he had given his “adopted daughter” who was killed on this same battlefield a couple of seasons ago... making this battle personal for him. His stakes.

These two scenes are like Act One of the battle, they introduce the conflict and the stakes and the characters and everything else that we need to know to make the battle itself emotionally involving for the audience. If we don’t care about the characters in an action scene, it’s just a bunch of pointless action.

ACTION IS CHARACTER

“All of it is action with almost no dialogue,” explains D.B. Weiss, co-writer of the episode.

Dawn. The two armies face each other across the battlefield... and we get a strong, haunting image that shows what may be in store for Snow and his army if they lose: Ramsay has placed log Xes along the battlefield with upside-down prisoners, flayed open... and now set on fire! This is one sick puppy! The audience sees these and *they* want to run away instead of fight... so you know how Snow’s army feels. They are half the size of Ramsay’s. They will probably lose and end up like those flaming flayed men. What is the strong *image* that you can use to create a feeling of dread in the audience?

Snow wanted a fight with Ramsay, and the beginning of the battle is a chess game between the two men - all about their characters and their strengths and weaknesses and *their character.* Snow watches as Ramsay breaks through columns of soldiers on his horse, dragging something behind him on a leash... Rickon. Ramsay looks across the field at Snow - eye contact - man against man - and pulls out his sword! Holds it over Rickon’s head!

And slices the leash.

Always be leading the audience. Always make them think that one thing is going to happen, so that when something else happens, it’s unexpected. Ramsay could have just cut the leash... but how he held the sword looked like he was going to cut off Rickon’s head... the way he had cut of Rickon’s pet wolf’s head. Hey, that was the reason for the scene with the wolf’s head - to set up the possibility of beheading Rickon in front of Snow in the audience’s mind. 

Everything has a purpose in a screenplay.

Ramsay tells Rickon to run to his brother. Rickon is malnourished and shaky and walks. Ramsay says “Run!” as he is handed his bow and an arrow. Rickon starts running... Ramsay - an expert archer - fires an arrow at Rickon that gets very close, but misses him on purpose. This is a cruel game... and its purpose is to force Snow to be the good and loyal brother that he is and run out to save Rickon. It’s a trap. Can Snow just watch his brother be killed? Character is shown through impossible decisions designed to explore character - and this situation creates a decision for Snow. He is a good man, so he grabs a horse and rides in to save his brother... falling into the trap.

[Script Extra: Writing Action Movies—How Much Juice is Enough?]

What are the big, difficult decisions in your battle scene that will show us character? This is the character and the story part of the scene - so make sure that you have those decisions and make sure that you know what you want the audience to know about your character, or how this decision will reinforce your character’s character. Snow is a loyal man, but also driven by emotions - he is impulsive. Ramsay is emotionless and calculating. If we had forgotten these things because we are 6 seasons into the show, we have been reminded of them now.

As Snow gets closer to Rickon, Ramsay’s arrows get closer as well. This creates suspense. This is a race. Rickon runs like hell, Snow rides like hell, Ramsay calmly fires arrows. Snow gets closer and closer, reaching down to grab Rickon’s hand and pull him up onto the horse... and that’s when the arrow slices through Rickon, killing him. Snow stops his horse, for a minute he and Ramsay look at each other. Halfway across the battlefield. Snow’s anger builds and builds - and Ramsay smiles. Then, Snow charges head-on at Ramsay’s army! Remember, the plan was to get Ramsay’s army to charge at *them*.

Ramsay’s archers fire volleys of arrows at Snow! He is now in range!

Though Sir Davos orders the cavalry to charge, and we’ll get back to that in a moment...

“I was looking for what’s the thread. What’s the thing that’s going to take me through the battle, and what works in any battle is following the characters,” director Miquel Sapochnik explained.

Snow rides like a lunatic straight at Ramsay’s army as arrows spray all around him. His horse gets hit numerous times and goes down, leaving Snow on foot... on Ramsay’s side of the battlefield. Ramsay smiles at this, and calmly says, “Now.” And his massive cavalry charges at Snow!

Snow staggers to his feet, sees the whole freakin’ cavalry coming right at him... and draws his sword. One man against a charging army. This is a big moment in the story... and a great image. One of the things to think about in your battle are the *images* that tell the story. The burning flayed men, one man against hundreds of charging riders. We need to think in *pictures*. Come up with a bunch of image ideas for your battle scene! When the Cavalry gets right up to Snow...

Snow’s own cavalry blasts past him and the two groups of mounted men battle each other around him. Okay, now we have hundreds of people fighting... and this is where writers often make the big mistake: it’s not about those hundreds of men fighting. It’s about our handful of heroes fighting. We need to *focus* the battle scene on the characters that we know (and love or hate, depending on which side they are on). So Jon Snow’s army has *thousands* of men, but we are going to focus the scene on only four characters: John Snow, Sir Davos (who commands the army), crazy Viking-like warrior Tormund, and a 20-foot tall giant named Wun-Wun (Ian Whyte) - those are the only soldiers that matter on Snow’s side.

On the other side, we have the evil Ramsey - who watches the battle from a safe distance, Smalljon Umber (Dean Jagger) his best swordsman, Harald Karstark (Paul Rattray), and the choice is made in the story for the rest of Ramsey’s army to be seen as huge numbers of men in different uniforms that symbolize their fighting disciplines. This was done to make the enemy army so massive that, instead of individual men, they can only be seen as divisions: Archers, Lancers, Swordsmen, Cavalry, etc. In your battle scene, you might decide to pick one character from each of those divisions and make them a “lead.” But the key to a battle scene is to focus on only a few people on each side, and everyone else is a “pawn” in the scene. So who are your heroes - pick 3 or 4. Who are your villains - pick 3 or 4. Nobody else in the battle matters - they are cannon fodder, or in this case, sword and arrow fodder.

“If it’s just a battle, the audience doesn’t have stakes in it, you have to be following someone,” Kit Harrington who plays Jon Snow.

[Script Extra: Creating Unlikable Protagonists]

So we are going to focus our battle scenes on these four heroes, beginning with Jon Snow, who gets an amazing “oner” shot - a single uncut take that shows him fighting man after man after man, men on horseback, men on the ground, running men - as bodies pile up all around him from the surrounding battle. The great thing about this shot is that it is never-ending, and fighting all of these men becomes more and more futile. It’s a “mosh pit” of death! Snow is becoming exhausted... and there is a moment when there is a break in the fighting and he looks around him at the endless number of enemy soldiers. This is story. They are outnumbered and there is no chance of winning. Sansa was right.

In this portion of the battle, our hero Jon Snow is almost killed a couple of times, and our pawn characters are not the ones who save him - that is the job of our other leads. Tormund saves his life and there is a quick moment between the two. Don’t forget moments like this - these are the “heart” of your battle scene.

The bodies of the dead pile up, forming mountains of corpses that surround them.

BattleBastards-Overhead Pincher

Your battle scene isn’t just going to be a lot of non-stop fighting, there will be different stages of the battle and different *types* of battles - we have had Ramsey’s archers, we have had the crush of both cavalries, we have had the Jon Snow “oner” showing him against an unending number of opponents, each of these was a “bullet point” in the outline of the battle. A different kind of fighting that makes the battle scene actually a group of *different* battle scenes within one large battle scene. Each of these “acts” in our larger battle will usually have a turning point in the story. When we think that things are going in one direction, but something happens to change the direction. We don’t want a scene that is predictable, we want positive things to happen and then negative things that we could not have predicted (but are completely logical). Reversals are an important part of the fighting itself, but also an important part of telling the overall battle story. Just when you thought they were winning...

Snow’s plan was to get Ramsay’s army to charge at them, so that hidden battalions could attack on the sides... instead, Snow’s army has entered the middle of the battleground and it’s become a free-for-all. Now Ramsay’s hidden battalions - a group of men with shields and spears wearing distinctive uniforms - surround what is left of Snow’s army. They slowly march forward - tightening the circle - until Snow and his men are huddled together. This is a different kind of fighting within the larger battle, and a change in direction after Snow’s men were winning the “mosh pit” fight.

“We went back to the Roman fight against the Carthaginians in the battle of Cannae, where the Romans get caught in an encirclement by Hannibal,” explained writer D. B. Weiss on where this idea came from.

As the circle of shields and spears tightens on what is left of Snow’s army, and the mound of dead bodies behind them grows, both the giant Wun-Wun and the wilding Tormund step up to becomes the focus on this battle. Both are crazy and willing to attack the wall of shields, taking out as many of the faceless enemy soldiers as they can. They are wounded in the process, but hold the circle of shields back for a while. Like how the “oner” with Snow fighting an endless number of enemy soldiers showed that sheer determination and skill is critical, this scene shows that taking crazy chances can be more important than organization and following orders. Each “act” of the battle pits different elements of fighting against each other. Here we have soldiers in perfect formation fighting wildmen - and that is part of the *story* of the battle.

BattleBastards-Reborn

But the circle of shields and spears continues to tighten... forcing Snow’s army up against the mountain of bodies. Wun-Wun looks like a porcupine, pierced by dozens of spears. How is he still standing? Snow looks up the mountain of bodies - maybe there is a way to escape the tightening circle of spears and shields? That’s when a group of Ramsay’s swordsmen climbs over the mountain of bodies to attack them from the rear! Maybe there’s no way to retreat? Maybe they will lose this battle and everyone will die? Tormund sees the enemy swordsmen and has his wildings fight their way up the mountain of the dead. But in this battle on the mountain of the dead, Snow loses his footing and falls... and is now kicked and hit by those fighting above him... and eventually is covered in his own dead and dying men. He can no longer see the sky - Snow is in darkness. This is the end.

But then, he begins grabbing at bodies, digging himself out of the dead into the fighting men who will soon be dead, digging himself higher and higher until he sees the sun again and takes a huge, deep breath. Like being born again! There is a moment where we see each of our heroes as they see Snow and he sees them: Wun-Wun, Tormund, Sir Davos. None of them are among the dead.

Think of strong images: The upside-down flayed men on fire that line the battlefield. Wun-Wun looking like a porcupine. The mountain of the dead that keeps growing. The wall of shields and spears getting closer and closer. Snow sinking into the darkness and then being reborn. You may think of a battle scene as some form of chaos, but movies and television are made of striking images that haunt the audience - seeing Wun-Wun with dozens of spears sticking out of him is an image that you can’t forget. It’s also an image that tells the story - he is still standing, still fighting! Snow reaching the lowest point in the battle - covered with cadavers - then crawling his way out until he is on the shoulders of men who are fighting - reborn - is another amazing image that tells the story. Shows the character. What are the *images* in your battle scene? Make a list of a half dozen or more.

[Script Extra: From Script to Screen - Black Hawk Down]

The reason why we have seen all four of our heroes is that each hears above the din of battle the sounds of a trumpet. If you were wondering where Snow’s sister Sansa has been all this time, the answer is - she went to get reinforcements. She made a deal with her crazy Aunt to provide an army of charging soldiers on horseback and the trumpets signal their arrival to the battle! The cavalry to the rescue! Now, each of our four heroes has new-found strength. Each of them has been reborn in a way. Tormund was fighting Umber (Ramsay’s best swordsman)... and losing! But now, he turns the tables and kills the much bigger man.

Snow, Tormund, and Sir Davos climb the mountain of bodies and see the approaching reinforcements coming up behind the wall of shields. When Snow looks the other way... he sees Ramsay and his generals. A moment where our hero and our villain look across the empty field at each other. Remember, it’s not *thousands* of soldiers on either side that matter, it’s our 3 or 4 heroes and our 3 or 4 villains. And it really all comes down to our hero and our villain. Two people. We want to *focus* this epic battle on the most important characters. Snow and Ramsay. The two bastards.

Ramsay and his generals retreat to Winterfell - the castle that once belonged to Snow’s father - and we have set in motion act three of this battle scene. Snow and what is left of his army, plus the reinforcements, must now storm the castle and take it back. A much different kind of battle than the others that we have seen. Once they have breached the doors of the castle, and Snow’s army is victorious (though one of our four heroes will die in the process), it comes down to Snow against Ramsay - the one-on-one battle that Snow wished for at the very beginning. Do you think it ends the way that you expect it to end? It does not!

“The final act takes place in the Winterfell Courtyard and it ultimately boils down to Jon against Ramsey,” writer D.B. Weiss.

martell secrets of action screenwriting

Listening to the commentary on this episode, the writers talked about how specifics within this episode-long battle came directly from researching historic battles. The mountains of the dead “Comes from reading real accounts of these various battles both medieval and even more modern ones. You read accounts of battles in the civil war where the bodies were piled so thick, it actually became an obstruction on the battlefield,” said D.B. Weiss.

So for inspiration, before you write your epic battle scene, do some research on similar battles throughout history. Find the interesting details that help make your battle scene different than any other. Remember to make it about the characters, to focus the battle on a few characters on either side rather than the extras, create amazing visual moments that will haunt the reader, use different types of battles as “chapters” in the main battle, think of the battle as it’s own story with a beginning middle and end, use reversals to keep the scenes exciting and unpredictable, make it emotional and focus on the characters and the story that exists within the fighting, don’t lose sight of the personal battle between your hero and villain - that’s the core of the story! Each may have an army, but in the end, it will be one character fighting the other. You want an epic battle scene that is as exciting to read as it will be to watch... and in this case, it was half of the screenplay. Not “they fight,” but an exciting series of scenes on the battlefield that resolve inside the castle where the entire HBO series began several years earlier.

Whether it’s “1917" or “Lord Of The Rings” or the street battle in “Heat,” you want your epic battle scene to be exciting to read.

For everything about writing action movies *except* epic battle scenes, check out my book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting on Amazon.

More articles by William C. Martell

Download William C. Martell's on-demand webinars! 

DOWNLOAD NOW!

william martell products 700