"True ease in writing comes from art, not choice,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance
"Tis not enough no harshness gives offense;
The sound must seem an echo to the sense."
Alexander Pope 1688- 1744 "An Essay on Criticism" 1711 l 162
When writing battle or fight scenes, or scenes of sexual passion, it is important to remember that 'pacing' is the key to the successful building of tension. These scenes must be choreographed, just as in a dance. Not only are the actions of your characters important, but your word choice and writing style is too. (Active verbs, short sentences have an impact. Even single word sentences.)
I'm not a person who is fond of violence (either watching it on TV or reading about it), but in my novel Shadow of the Lion I had to learn how to write some violent scenes effectively. I cried after my first assassination. I was cheered on with "more blood! more blood!" by my critique group when I had to write another disastrous scene with soldiers being eaten by crocodiles and stomped on by elephants. Eventually I learned to relish the opportunity to delve into my 'dark side' and pull out all the stops. And there's plenty of episodes throughout the novel that call for this.
I do believe that violence needs to be tempered and balanced by some lightheartedness and perhaps the occasional steamy love scene too. Actually love scenes are quite enjoyable to write, a chance to live vicariously through your characters (hehehe) and an opportunity to recall feelings that may be lying dormant. (Ah, fantasy is so much fun!)
The most important thing to remember in either of these kinds of scenes is to frame a mental picture so you can see and 'feel' it, then describe for readers the key details --not just any details but the right ones. You must first know what you want the physical aspects of your scene to accomplish. If you're establishing a mood, look at your setting and choose details that will help reinforce it. eg: If you're writing a horror novel or a noir mystery find a detail that's dark and ominous that will give the reader a sense of danger. Details of setting can be used to convey emotions too. Conflict is critical to the development of tension (whether sexual or in battle scenes) The higher the stakes, the more intense the tension. And remember, what your characters are thinking and feeling is important.
Hints for successfully creating tension:
1. create characters who emotionally engage your readers. The attraction between characters should be emotional as well as physical.
2. Conflict is critical to the development of tension The higher the stakes the more intense the tension. By throwing your characters into an emotionally intense situation you raise the stakes and heighten the tension.
3. Don't make your scenes cliche. Make them unique to your characters and your story.
I've just finished retyping the last of Part III of my novel. It was interesting going back over work I'd written some time ago. I looked on it with an editor's eye, because truthfully there were parts I'd forgotten I had written. So it made it easier to make editing notes where to chop, change or revise. The end of each Part of my novel is an "Interlude" -- an epitasis in Greek tragedies -- where the action often shifts to a different location. As this story is very much a Greek tragedy, I have used this device in order to let the reader know what's going on behind the scenes. For instance, the royal caravan bearing the joint-kings is on it's way to Pella, accompanied by Polyperchon, the Deputy Regent. What they don't know is what is going on in Pella while the Regent, Antipater, lies dying. Here's a a snippet of one part of the Interlude of Part III demonstrating pace and 'tension'.
The Athenian senator Demades, has come to Pella with his son Demeas to appeal to the Regent on behalf of the Athenians to have the Macedonian garrison in their city removed. They did not know when they arrived that the Regent was on his death-bed and his son, Kassandros, the Chiliarch, has taken charge of state affairs. This is what happened:
There was a hush as Demades and his son took their seats beside the other petitioners to await their turn to speak.
They sat all morning in the Assembly listening to envoys and agents from towns they had never heard of: judgments on land claims, reports from officials and petty grievances from local land barons. Finally their names were announced by the herald.
“Demades of Athens, representing the Archon Phokion and the Democrats and his son Demeas, first speaker and representative of the citizens of Athens.”
When the purpose of their petition was declared there was a low discontented rumbling in the room. Demades looked around and saw resentment on the faces of the old marshals and highland lairds. He stared back at them square-shouldered and defiant. He had his pride.
For years the Greek envoys had been coming to Pella, arguing the policies of the new regime toward their City states. After the Greek defeat at the Battle of Chaironeia the city states had been governed by Macedon. Demades himself had conveyed the terms of the Macedonian victory to Athens and because of his loyalty to Macedon he had retained his political statues and his wealth. Now, all these years later he had come to ask Antipater to free the Athenians. Would the Macedonians accept his plea?
“Sir,” Demades said. “I have a petition from Athens regarding the Macedonian garrison at Munychia. May I beg you to hear it soon?”
Before the words were out of his mouth he heard the cat-calls and shouts of protest and realized how futile it was. But it was too late to run from his Fate. He had relied on the good will of Antipater to uphold the Athenians rights. It was clear that these stanch old defenders of Philip’s policies would stubbornly resist any new sanction.
There followed a heated discussion, an angry babble of Macedonian, the mixed argot of the hills and ill-spoken court Greek. Clearly they were antagonistic toward the pleas and petitions of the Greeks, even from those Greeks who had always been pro-Macedonian, like himself.
A white-haired baron stood up and shouted, “Alright then. Let’s hear what they have to say and get on with it!”
“Yes, yes!” Kassandros sounded indulgent but his face was set in a scowl.
The barons and marshals gritted their teeth and glared in silence. Every eye was on Kassandros. He sat stroking his beard, then leaned over and said something to his brother, Nikanor, who sat on his right.
“The first speak is Demeas, the Athenian, son of Demades, representing the Archon of Athens.”
Demeas kept a stoic expression on his face, but he hands were shaking . He glanced toward his father for courage. Demades managed a reassuring smile and whispered, “He’ll listen to you. You are the voice of youth. Do your best.”
Demeas stepped forward cautiously as if he were approaching the edge of a deep precipice. He bowed to the Kassandros and began to speak in his precise, well-rehearsed rhetoric.
“Both my father and I know we Athenians have been fortunate to have such a man as Antipater as a friend and ally. My father, Demades, is a loyal friend of Macedon. He would not lead Greece to war against Macedon, but treated with both Philip and Antipater to bring about a common peace. We have always been generous to the Macedonians and loyal to the royalty. We have treated kindly and fairly with you. Our citizens favored peace. But now there is dissatisfaction in Athens and we fear if the people’s wishes are not acknowledged, they will rebel.”
Demeas was at his very best, the rise and fall of his voice, the melodic cadence of his speech, like an actor on stage, each well-turned phrase persuading in its appeal. It was a good speech, following the scheme they had outlined together. With youthful enthusiasm and skillful charm, Demeas urged the Macedonians to release the citizens of Athens from the bondage and selfish corruption of the oligarchies, to abandon the garrison at Munychia and to allow the citizens democratic freedom once again.
By Zeus! thought Demades. Between the boy and myself we will turn the tide and save our City!
He waited as the actor awaits his cue for his turn to speak. He was a brilliant speaker and knew how to kindle the interest of even the most dissolute statesman with his exemplary prose and political fervor. And paramount in his favor, he could speak extempore if the need arose.
Demeas was almost finished his speech, appealing to Kassandros as a peer and fellow Peripatetitc, speaking for the youth of Athens, his own generation who desired a return to the moral values and integrity of the old democracy.
“And my father, representing the Archon of Athens, will bear out what I say. For have we not been friends and allies in all our dealings? Fair, honest and loyal to Macedon and Alexander.”
Suddenly Kassandros leapt to his feet. His eyes seemed almost to bulge from their sockets as he stared contemptuously at Demeas.
“Loyal to Macedon? Do you think we beat you at a game of knucklebones? This is no party!”
A soldier burst into a guffaw. All around there were murmurs of approval and hearty cries of assent. Demeas stood his ground bravely. “The Acropolis has never fallen. We Greeks are free men. We want our civil liberties restored. It is time for...”
Demades stepped forward and whispered, “Demeas, careful...”
Demeas drew back, so he took up the speech from where his son had left off.
“I ask you, Kassandros. Who gains most from prohibiting the Athenians their freedom? We Athenians or you? If you do not remove the garrison the Athenians will revolt, and in the next battle you could lose everything. Athens will gain by a civil war. Remember, you no longer have Philip or Alexander to back you. Your father the Regent is an old man, ill and possibly dying. You would do well to listen to our petitions.”
Shouts broke out and the clear voice of the Assembly responded with cries and jeers. The soldiers muttered together and closed their ranks closer around the perimeter of the room.
Demades felt something strike his head and clank at is feet. A wine-cup thrown by Nikanor clattered across the stone floor. Nikanor was on his feet shouting a barrage of profanities. Demades clapped his hand to his temple. Blood seeped between his fingers. He reeled, then caught his balance by grasping Demeas’ shoulder. Over the clamor of the crowd Kassandros screamed, “You Greek blackguards. Traitors! You dare threaten Macedon?”
The Hall was in confusion with an outbreak of muddled noise, dismay, protests, the sound of swords being drawn from sheaths and men banging on shields and table-tops. Loud voices cleft the air. A brigadier roared commands at his squadron and the soldiers crowded forward.
“You Greeks are a race of liars, thieves and traitors!”
Demades mind hung suspended. Shocked, he heard Kassandros’ high-pitched voice yelling “False friends -- betrayal -- treason!”
He opened his mouth to speak again but his voice strangled in his throat. He who had made a name for himself addressing thousands of Athenians in the law courts and Senate House, felt unnerved here in the presence of a handful of rustic land barons and clansmen. In alarm he saw the powerful aristocracy of Macedon rallying in a force against him. Suspense and terror scattered his thoughts. He tried to regain his composure but could not.
Kassandros hurtled forward from the dais. “You will die!” he screamed.
There was a flash of metal. Demades heard his son gasp and cry out “Father!”
then Demeas fell back against him, a crimson stain spreading from his chest where the blade of Kassandros’ dagger had pierced him.
As if they feared for their own safety, the other envoys rushed toward the doors elbowing, shouldering, bullying each other as they pressed to escape but the doors were blocked by the soldiers.
Kassandros looked like a demon. Dark blood engorged his face and his eyes bulged. “Die, you traitors!” he screamed.
His knife struck again and again until all the cloth of Demeas’ garment was darkened with blood. Blood splattered the floor and saturated the front of Demades’ cloak. He was struck dumb with horror and stood still in the center of the chaos blinking as if awakening from sleep. Demeas lay at his feet, his face white as chalk, his eyes open in a panic stare. He knelt and touched his son’s body. There was blood in Demeas’ hair and a trickle ran from his mouth. He moved very slightly, his shallow breath gurgling in his throat. His lips parted, drawing in just enough air for life, the breath hissing softly as he struggled to live. Demades cradled his dying son’s head in his arms. Demeas opened his mouth once and tried to speak, his lips again formed the word, “Father.” Then blood spewed from his mouth and his body went limp, his face emptying of life.
“In the God’s name!” Demades cried. “Why? My son was innocent of any crime. He came here only to speak for freedom!”
Kassandros stood over him red-faced and panting. “You got your wealth currying favors from my father and in turn you betrayed him.” He shook an accusing bloody finger in Demades’ face.
“You are a liar and a traitor! Look here!” He snatched up two rolled pages of papyrus and waved them in Demades’ face. “These are the proof!” He unrolled the letter scrolls and held them out. Demades gasped in surprise and stared incredulously, recognizing the fine Greek script, handwriting he knew to be his won.
The noise in the Hall died to a restless hum. Except for the click of the soldiers’ weapons, the Assembly fell silent. Kassandros began to read fragments of the letters that Demades recalled he had once sent to Perdikkas and Antigonos the One-Eyed, urging them to return to Macedon.
“Because Macedon is held together by an old and rotten thread...” Kassandros voice trembled with rage as he read. “Your words and your vanity are your nemesis, Demades.”
Demades thought to explain himself, to say that at the time he wrote these damning letters he knew Antipater was ailing and who but a seasoned veteran like Antigonos or Perdikkas could fill his shoes. But there was no use protesting now.
“Justice, Kassandros! There will be justice for all this evil you have done. You have butchered my son and the Furies will avenge his death and mine.” He stood looking down at his son’s bloodied corpse, unbelieving, thinking of all that he and Demeas had planned together. He grieved for his son’s wife and their unborn child, for his own wife with whom he had shared a lifetime of happiness. With these thoughts, somehow from the depths of his despair he recovered his dignity.
Kassandros threw the parchments down and crushed them into a pool of Demeas’ blood with his heel. “These letters, Sir, are your death warrant. What will it be? Death by sword, poison or torture?”
Demades had known for certain that he was going to die and had resolved not to cower or beg. In Athens he would have been offered hemlock for his so-called treasonable crimes. Like Socrates he would at least have been allowed to die in dignity. At the hands of this mad dog, Kassandros, he knew his death would be brutal. In Macedon men were impaled, flayed or stoned to death. Whatever they did to him, he prayed that his death would be swift.
For a moment the only sound was his own labored breathing. The red of Kassandros’ face had deepened to purple. He was trembling with rage and drew back his hand forming a fist. His hand was red to the wrist with Demeas’ blood.
“You son of a dog,” he cursed. The fist struck Demades full on the cheekbone and sent him sprawling. Demades struggled to get to his feet but Kassandros stood over him, a cold, eager smile on his face. Then he kicked Demades backwards, the full force of his boot catching Demades in the groin.
There was an astonished silence in the Hall then chaos broke out as Kassandros’ rage was unleashed and he screamed at his soldiers to seize Demades, do what they would with him. “If there is anyone among you in the Hall who sides with these traitors, you will share the same fate!” he shrieked.
The Hall became silent. At Kassandros’ order the soldiers rough-handled Demades and stripped him of his clothing, mocking him as he stood naked in their midst. He had heard how these brutes made sport of their enemies, passing them from man to man as if they were barracks whores. He stood rigid, holding an indrawn breath. The pain he felt in his groin was almost more than he could bear but he bore it as bravely as any battle wound. They bound him like a felon and flogged him, the lash laying open the flesh on his back to the bone. He heard his own cries, like a hollow echo, over the shouts of the Macedonian mob. When he was a youth the scars of such a whipping would have been a disgrace in the palaestra. He thought, with each lash of the whip, how he was suffering for Athens, and he would suffer with honor. He heard Kassandros’ harsh voice cry: “Stop!” and he was flung to the ground, thrashing about, choking on blood.
Kassandros stood over him holding his dagger. “You will die, Demades!”
“Murderer!” Demades cried. He clutched Kassandros’ arm with both his hands as the knife was plunged into his chest. “Murderer!”
He gasped as Kassandros withdrew the blade and drove it between his ribs up to the hilt. He had no time to feel the pain. No time. As he drew his final breathes he thought: The Macedonians have defeated us again!
Kassandros stared down at him, his eyes glinting. There was a look of feral pleasure on his face.
To die, one should do it for something great, and he was dying for the sake of Athens’ freedom. He thought of the high city with its painted pillars and gilded temples. Yes, for Her, he was dying, for Athens.
As Kassandros dragged his head back, Demades heard him say “Let the Athenians smell the stink of your corpse, Demades, and they will know who is it who rules.”
He hardly felt the slash of the blade across his throat but he could taste the blood and choked on it. His sight blurred; he saw nothing but a swirl of red.
Then, in his mind he saw Her, gray-eyed Athena, patron of his beloved City. She was smiling her enigmatic, peaceful smile. He reached out to Her as the darkness engulfed him, and she caught him in Her strong arms.
* * *
"As soon as Kassandros saw Demades after his arrival in Macedon he placed him under arrest. First of all, he had Demades son slaughtered in his presence: the two were standing so close the young man's blood poured onto the folds of his father's tunic and filled them: then he reviled and abused Demades for his ingratitude and treachery, and dispatched him in the same manner."
Plutarch "The Age of Alexander" chapter: Phocion.
Plutarch "The Age of Alexander" chapter: Phocion.