Writing about war in a novel can seem pretty daunting – especially if you haven’t experienced it yourself. War may be the main theme of your book; or war may be a just small part of your story. Even if you haven’t had direct experience on the battlefield, you can still write about war in a convincing way that moves your reader.
Here are some helpful tips that I have devised for helping first-time authors I am mentoring, which I hope will help you too.
War scenes, in some ways, are no different to other scenes in your book. The most helpful advice is to focus on small detail. Imagine you are a film director making a movie. You need wide-range camera shots to give a sense of the overall action on the battlefield. But more important than this, you also need to zoom in on individual detail to allow your audience to identify with specific characters and connect with them emotionally.
If you have a battlefield with 20,000 soldiers fighting, that’s a bit impersonal and vague. You can also end up reading about it in a very cold and detached way, a little like the experience of reading a history book. Although we can read about 20,000 men dying on a battlefield, and although these are the terrible deaths of real people, we often feel little raw emotion while we are reading.
Now, if we look at the classic novels and how they deal with war, they use a number of devices to stir our emotions, so that the book haunts us for a long time to come or we might even be moved to tears – even though the characters are invented!
Take Sebastian Faulks with ‘Birdsong’ which explores the horrors of tunnel warfare during the World War 1. Much of the action is set beneath no man’s land in a terrifying world, 80 feet underground, where soldiers lay explosives under enemy lines in the hope of helping their comrades above ground. There is a powerful scene in this novel where the tunnelers decide to rescue a small yellow canary that is used to check if the air is breathable or toxic. The hero, Stephen Wraysford, has a phobia of birds and is afraid to reach out his hand and touch it. So there is an ironic contrast between the horror of war and his fearlessness in tunneling underground so close to the enemy lines, and his terror when faced with a tiny helpless bird.
There is a contrast between his longing to help, and his inability to put the bird in his pocket or feel the feathers on his skin. He does this eventually after a few tense moments. But it is an incredibly poignant scene because above ground, men are being gunned down en masse. Yet in spite of this, the tunnelers still have the humanity left to rescue one small bird from suffocating in a collapsing tunnel.
The other thing that is memorable about this scene is the fact that it is so original and unexpected. When you read about war – or indeed, watch it on TV – you might expect blood and gore. But you certainly don’t expect small yellow canaries!
To give you another example: in ‘Catch 22′, Joseph Heller focuses on the humour and the absurdity of World War 2. To take one example: the air force pilots have been issued with first aid kits that are often empty as the morphine has been sold on the black market. The officers are then faced with the task of helping men with horrific wounds with inadequate supplies, which creates a dark kind of humour.
There is a particularly poignant moment when a gunner, Snowden, is dying in quite harrowing circumstances after being hit by a mortar. He plaintively cries out, “I’m cold, I’m cold” unaware that he is injured inside his flak jacket, while the anti-hero, Yossarian, reassures him “You’re going to be all right kid! Everything’s under control!” There are echoes here of a scene between parent and child as Yossarian repeatedly murmurs, “There, there. There, there.” We sense that Yossarian has a false optimism, and nothing can be done to save the gunner’s life as his wound is “the size of a football”. There is no morphine available to ease his pain, only two aspirin. We are left with a poignant scene which is memorable for its humanity and suffering. It is not remotely what you would expect from a war novel.
Thinking again to ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ by Louis de Bernieres, there is another memorable scene that anyone who has read the novel always seems to mention. This is when the two sides temporarily down their weapons and abandon fighting to play football together on Christmas Day. They chat, share cigarettes, and even exchange photographs of family members. They see each other as people rather than ‘the enemy’ and realise that they might have been friends. Again, a game of impromptu football is the last thing you would expect during a war.
So to summarise, here are some of the techniques you can use when writing about war:
* Focus on small detail rather than the bigger picture.
* Look for unusual and unexpected detail.
* Create a sense of atmosphere by using the five senses – vivid colours, sounds, smells, tastes.
* Allow vulnerability to come to the fore – it isn’t necessary to focus only on death and destruction, bravery and valor.
* Focus on one or two characters only, rather than large numbers of soldiers.
* Stir an emotional response in the reader.