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.