10 Ways to Write about War

10 Ways to Write about War

On the eve of Remembrance Day, veterans of war and those who fought and died are on our minds. November 11 is just one day but the solemnity and memories of the day carries an emotional intensity that many of us bring into our stories.

Writers have been chronicling battle stories since ancient times. Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, offers us a searing immersion: so all had one longing, to let the sword decide.

We’ve been letting the sword (or gun or cannon or bomb or laser beams or…) decide ever since. Naturally enough, we writers have mined (pun intended) humanity’s predilection to fight and there’s no end to the kinds of books – biographies, histories, poetry, stories, novels – that explore that motherlode of emotion and power. Here are ten possible approaches:

1.  Heroic battles – Here the writer has a vast landscape and nobody does it better than the ancient storytellers, such as Virgil, Homer and Sophocles. Their legacy can be found in all the epic scenes of warrior hordes (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with clanging, clashing, slashing swords and axes hacking their way to the castle gates. Those scenes echo into modern history where swords are replaced with bayonets and rifles. Futurists imagine the same scenes but played out with visionary weaponry.

2. One-on-one Combat – Move beyond the broad landscape and get up close and personal with the dance between two enemies. It is a tension-filled moment that deserves a slow burn to reach a full roiling boil. Two characters, circling one another, gauging each other’s weaknesses, holding back until the moment to engage is clear. Now think beyond the battlefield and examine other kinds of fights between two characters: for example, a marriage falling apart. Warren Adler’s The War of the Roses chronicles the emotional costs of the legal battle and the soul-sucking aftermath.

3. The Homefront – Who’s left behind? How are they surviving? Pacifists, injured, too young, too old, too frightened – stories that focus on everyday people who can never forget what is happening in the wider world. Keeping the war in the background has been excellent inspiration for kidlit authors such as beloved writer Bernice Thurman Hunter and her novel The Girls They Left Behind. In adult fiction, the WWI Homefront is explored beautifully in Frances Itani’s Deafening. If you plan to write a novel set during our current and relentless pandemic, reading books about the Homefront might give you some needed distance.

4. From the Enemy’s POV – Writing through the enemy’s perspective is an exercise that can offer writers entry into their antagonist’s motivations. This is an excellent tool to breathe more life into that character. And sometimes, it might be more interesting to write the whole book with the villain as your Main Character. Oscar Wilde did it with the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Gillian Flynn’s delightful Gone Girl.

5. Turf War – From schoolyards to neighbourhoods, boundaries real or imagined are instant tension points. Opposing gangs have a long history in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a classic example. In Richard Scrimger’s Ink Me, Bunny, a mentally challenged 15-year-old, gets the wrong tattoo and that gives him entry into a gang about to do a high-stakes deal. Often funny but never patronizing, readers get a glimpse into the world of gangs and that of young adults who are differently abled. In Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, readers get a deep dive into complex issues of racism, police brutality, activism and social justice – all of it framed within the context of boundaries held by gangs, organizations, institutions and families.

6. Civil War – A nation divided, rebellion, cults, rumours and secrets. Any social unrest is pure gold for tension and a fascinating cast of characters. Suzanne Collins dove into that world when she created The Hunger Games and you know how that turned out for her. But if you want a lived-experience to flavour the writing, Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War, is great writing. Ahead of his time, Bierce has a speculative fiction touch that offers us more than battle stories.

7.  The Aftermath – From Ancient Greek playwrights (Euripides’ Trojan Women) to cold war novelists (Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) to post-apocalyptic authors (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) much of post-war life, real or imagined, is never easy. Trauma, starvation and uncertainty can be counterbalanced with resilience, foraging and rebuilding both physically and socially. It’s up to the writer where to place the greatest weight.

8.  The Peacemaker  Diplomats, politicians and kings. Historical fiction is rich with books about peacemaking in world history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace gives us a sweeping saga plucked from history. But writers have a way of taking the known and applying it to the unknown. Erin Bow’s masterful YA novel, The Scorpion Rules, takes diplomacy onto an intergalactic scale that holds hostage the lives of world leaders’ children. No war between worlds and no kids get euthanized. Simple genius.

9. Undeclared War – Nothing underpins a story’s tension meter with more energy than a seething simmering dance between two enemies. As up close as a divorce in the making (The War of the Roses) or as broad as worlds balancing on the verge (Peter George’s Red Alert, inspiration for the classic film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). When the threat of war is constant, readers keep turning the page.

10. Tools of War – Speaking of loving the bomb, a war without weapons is a schoolyard turf war. Come to think of it, even that situation has its own weapons: taunts and gestures can ignite a war of words; fists, knees and teeth can up the scale. So, as much as big shiny boom machines can have an impact on a battle, remember that your reader’s emotional journey will accelerate with the smell of sweat, taste of blood, squeeze of skin and screams of battle, not to mention the look on combatants’ faces: jubilant in celebration or horrified in defeat.

No matter how large or how small the scale, a story of war offers writers so many possibilities and these ten musings are merely a long view with a pair of binoculars. It’s up to you to find the emotional heart in your story’s battle and bring it beating and alive for your readers.

On November 11, you will be asked to offer “a moment of silence” at 11 a.m., the date and time the Great War officially ceased in 1918. Writescape suggests that “a moment” as you well know, it merely a breath, a blink of the eye or a swallow. Those who have given their lives for their country need more than a moment to be remembered. War, no matter the cause, is hardly a reason to celebrate because the human cost is far too great and death is forever. Keep that in mind with all your war stories.