Think Small to Make Big Scenes Work

By John Gilstrap

Let’s say that you want to write a bit of fiction that’s set at the Battle of Gettysburg.  You want to convey the scope and terror of the battlefield, and you want your readers’ pulses to pound with the drama of the event.  You want to show the humanity and the awfulness, all while eliciting an emotional response from your audience.

By way of refresher, from July 1-3, 1863, 104,000 Union soldiers clashed with 75,000 Confederates in a little town populated by 2,400 residents.  By the time the smoke cleared (hey, guess the origins of that phrase!), each side suffered 23,000 casualties.  That’s 46,000 killed, wounded or missing soldiers.  Now, consider the 1,500 dead horses.  In July.  The Union Army marched away from 14,529 wounded men, while the Confederates left behind about 13,000 wounded soldiers.  So, in addition to the 46,000 moldering human corpses, the town had to deal with 27,000 men in need of urgent medical care.

The magnitude of the battle and its aftermath are almost impossible to grasp.  And you want to bring it to life on the page.  It’s a daunting challenge, and it’s equally applicable to any large conflicts, whether real or imagined; in this world or a pretend one.  If we stipulate that the primary building block of any story is character, how can we possibly bring all of those people into high relief on the page?

The answer is to not try.  The trick is to pick your point of view characters carefully and develop them well.  During any bit of action, the new recruit may want to lie down or run forward, but the sergeant major has to preserve order.  Both are likely to be terrified, but one does not have the luxury of showing it.  Which POV is the most compelling for which bit of action?  If the set piece is about a frontal assault on a defended position, maybe the most drama is found in the POV of the kid who’s watching the human wave charge at him.

Let your POV character serve as an exemplar for the other characters of his class and rank.  Through his set of eyes–the ones that belong to a character we care about–we experience his confusion and his fear and his horror as he does.  He’s less likely to count the bodies he passes in the grass than he is to be sickened by the brutality with which those other soldiers were dismembered.  As readers, we don’t need to know about the number of people killed, we just need to understand that the number is incomprehensible.

In the opening pages of Total Mayhem (2019), a sniper with a semiautomatic weapon opens fire on a high school football game.  The main challenge I faced in writing that scene centered on how to show the horror from the point of view of a character who is running away.  No one is going to stick around and observe details while his neighbors are dying in the stands.  I chose to show the awfulness through tiny, fleeting details.  The heavy thump of bullets as they impacted people and the sound the victims made when they were hit.  The character–Tom Darone–observed those details but didn’t dwell on them because his emotions were focused on saving his own life.  That scene was really hard to write, in large measure because of Tom Darone’s fear.  He’s just not paying close attention to others.  By contrast, a later sniper scene with many times more casualties, was much easier to write because I presented the action from Jonathan Grave’s POV.  Jonathan is confident in his skills and actively searches for opportunities not to run, but to bring the fight to the bad guy.  That means he notices details.

In any crowd scene–whether a violent one or a social one–the trick is to remember that the character you choose to reveal the events is your readers’ guide.  Every new interaction is a new learning experience for the reader.  I urge you to think small to make big scenes work.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

10 thoughts on “Think Small to Make Big Scenes Work

  1. Thank you for this post! I’m constantly amazed at the timeliness of many TKZ blogs.

    In the scene I’m polishing now in my current WIP, my MC, a 30-something mother of 4, is in the local park with her 3-year-old. The toddler goes missing. As a mother myself, I thought back to a time when my little daughter wasn’t where she should have been. It was a harrowing ten minutes or so before she was found.

    In the scene, I tried to put myself in the MC’s sneakers. The quietness of the deserted park was the most frightening to her. She felt the entire neighborhood had gone shopping. As she ran from one end of the park to the other, searching in bushes, in the public restroom, up and down the sidewalks, all she heard was the thumping of her own feet and heart.

    Then a car engine gunned. She saw a curtain flick closed on the front window of a house across the street from the park. The caw of a crow sounded evil.

    By now, she’s manic with fear. Her mind plays scenes from movies and news reports about what happens to cute little girls who go missing.

    I’ll stop there, but I’ve got to say: by the time I finished the first go-round of that scene, my hands were shaking on the keyboard.

    I’m going to take a look at that scene again and look for those “small things” that will scare the reader to death. (Figuratively, of course.)

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      • Watched it…you’re right–terrifying.

        And combining black & white, staccato scenes, the song, mom shining the lunch dishes, then clutching her stomach, the clock, the first glimpse of the man in black just a shadow over the street bulletin, the abandoned ball and the balloon, hearing it in German with English subtitles–all of that made the tension mount unbearably.

        Thanks for sharing.

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  2. As I read I thought about just about every war book/movie ever. All the good ones focus on events of no more than four people. It is where the tension lies.

    I am a fan of the Ian Fleming Bond books. “The Living Daylights” is a short story, about 5 pages. Most of it is the inner turmoil and methology of James Bond, sniper. Getting set up. Looking for his target. Making his decision. On screen it is almost a side bar. On page, a great story.

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  3. This is a question that I’ve gotten more than once from fantasy writers. (I taught writing fight/action scenes for years.) Should I go epic omniscient or tight viewpoint? Figuring that out is part of deciding how you want to write your book.

    An author I always suggest to study is urban fantasy writer Ilona Andrews who wrote the Kate Daniels series. Andrews is a husband and wife team, and the man is former military. The battles and the individual fight scenes are smart and visceral on the part of the author as well as the military characters. For fist fights, it’s Western writer Louis L’Amour who was a professional boxer and tough guy. I would never go as detailed as he does, but he did understand bare knuckle fights.

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  4. So many good examples of this — Gone With The Wind, Atonement are two that came to mind.

    Can’t remember who I first heard preach this, but they said: Take the universal and make it personal.

    Good post!

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