If you want to learn how to write battle scenes, the Old Testament should be your guide. Genesis chapter 14 is like reading a scene out of Tolkien’s classic parallel story “The Ring of the Lord.” There’s great lure, providing just the right amount of back-story in verses 1-4. I mean, check out this great opener: “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of nations;” (verse 1) See what I mean? What great names for an epic fantasy novel.
So these five kings make war with “Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeborim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar.” (verse 2)
Imagine the vast armies, each robed in their own colors, waving the crest of their king, astride horses and camels with foot soldiers and artillery facing off “in the vale of Siddim” (the Salt Sea). That would make an awesome novel, and the title is built right in: In the Vale of Siddim.
Verse 4 continues with the back-story of how the people served Chedorlaomer for twelve years, rebelled in the thirteenth year, and were smote by Chedorlaomer and his allies in the fourteenth year. In the movie version, this would be the intro-dubbed over by the narrator, letting the audience know the events leading up to the moment our story begins, like they do in 300 and Lord of the Rings.
As a writer, it can be tricky to start a book with relevant back story or prologue in most cases. It’s easy for the writing to come across “telling” or “teaching” and the audience feels a great distance from the narrative. Plus, the reader has no vested interest yet. There is no main character to cheer for or any emotional ties established because the story hasn’t started yet. So how do you deliver back-story without losing the reader? Let’s see how the great author accomplished it.
This story in chapter 14 involves Abram, Lot, and the promises God makes to Abram. These are elements we already know because Abram enters the scene way back in chapter 11, along with Lot, and the pinkie swear occurs first thing in chapter 12. We get characters, relationships, story problems, and setting well-grounded way before we take this segway into epic battles and many kings.
In my novel Dreadlands there is a book containing a prophecy that strings the story together, but I didn’t share the ancient text on page one or in an unnecessary prologue. I didn’t even let the main character, Arud, open the book when he first discovered it. I waited until the story was moving along and needed a break to introduce the back-story over several different chapters, not in one sitting.
Author Davis Bunn teaches that your story should open as a door that the reader must run through to catch up. That is rarely if ever accomplished with a prologue or back-story. Movies, of course, are different. Star Wars uses the opening scene of each film to display written narrative back-story, and it works. The same is true of Hunger Games and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. The exception? Sequels. Book two can break the back-story rule. Why? Vested interest. The reader is back, which means they care.
Take a look at your work-in-progress. Have you opened the scene in a moment or a memory? What information can you cut out and paste back into the story in small snippets after the story problem and characters are established? How much of the back-story is for you, the author, to understand the characters and problems? Is it necessary for the reader to know this information?
If you notice in chapter 14, we aren’t given the reason why this epic battle started. Did the author know why? You better believe it. But he determined the reader didn’t need to know. It’s crucial to know what is for you and what is for your reader. That’s why I believe most prologues are unnecessary for the reader, and when I’m editing a book for a client I take prologues out almost every time. In fact, 9 times out of 10 you can read, understand, and enjoy the novel without ever needing to know a single detail from a prologue.
In verse 12 we discover Lot has been taken. Now our story starts. Why? Because our main characters, Lot and Abram, are involved. Abram is given a message by someone who escaped the great battle in the Valley of Siddim that Lot and his belongings have been stolen from Sodom, where Lot lives. So Uncle Abram goes in like Rambo with a guerilla crew of 318 of his personal guard and “smote them.” (defined: defeat or conquer; attack severely-Webster’s Dictionary) Not only does Abram return his nephew and his nephew’s belongings, but he brings back “all the goods,…and the women also, and the people” back to the king of Sodom.
I love this side of Abram; face painted in desert camo, girded with daggers and shields, sneaking into camp in the middle of the night, and slitting his enemy’s throats. That’s my kind of story! I know some of you just cringed, but you have to understand when you read these Old Testament tales that this is what they’re about. Images of peaceful patriarchs with flowing white beards don’t match up to the truth of the ruthlessness of the day and age in which they lived.
What can we learn from that as writers? The folly of the cliché.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap: the dumb jock, the blonde bimbo, the shy nerd, and the sweet girl-next-door. Shake things up! Characters that break the mold are far more likely to stick with your reader. Think about Shrek and Monk and Ender Wiggins. These characters are the wrong species, have psychological issues, or are way too young to be playing their roles. But they work brilliantly.
Where have you written lazy cliché characters? How can you adjust or change them to break the mold and create unique, organic characters your reader won’t forget? Remember, your story is original and so you should populate it with original characters that are provided with just enough back-story to engage the reader while pushing the plot forward.
(This is an excerpt from Writing Your Novel, Using the Bible as Your Guide, published by A Writer For Life available from Amazon as a paperback or ebook.)