Writing Tip: Pre-Battle Speeches
What is a good pre-battle speech? What is it that stirs the soul of the warrior, that inspires them to fight on and have hope? Well, to learn this, I’ve been studying many of the “greats,” namely Aragorn, William Wallace, King Théoden and Katniss Everdeen. I’ve boiled the speech down There will be spoilers for my novel Torchbearer below, so read on if you’re unafraid!
When you do the pre-battle speech, you have many choices ahead of you. You could keep it realistic, or you could make it dramatic. It all depends on your characters. Are they the dramatic type of person? How many people are they inspiring? If it’s just a few people, then making bold roars looks a bit dumb.
I’ve been able to boil down the key parts of the speech into a few key elements. Firstly, tone and theme. There are two main types.
The first one is grim and gruff. The commander might be no-nonsense, but you could throw in some grim jokes as well. This is well-suited to more modern settings, such as a Navy SEALs team. It’s essentially snarky instructions, but work quite well. If your character is one who appreciates simplicity, this might be what you want.
The other option you have is to make it dramatic. This is possible in writing, but this is something that’s more common in movies. With movies, you can play things more. You’ve got awesome scenery, huge shots of the army, and stellar actors, and music. The music makes the scene. See “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” from The Return of the King or “Cancelling the Apocalypse” from Pacific Rim.
In this kind of speech, what you want is a strong call to action. What do you want these people to do? If it’s a pre-battle speech, then most likely you want them to kill people. You need to get them convinced that they have a chance, and they’re dying for something more than themselves. You might use an ideal to motivate them. Are your soldiers dying for a cause, or just the whims of a tyrannical leader?
Try William Wallace in Braveheart: “Fight and you may die. But… would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for just one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
When you’re writing a dramatic speech, you can’t just have the voice ring out onto the page. It comes across as cheesy and lazy, and it doesn’t have that same strength without the actor. But words are powerful, and its not just the dialogue you can write. You can use so much more.
So when you’re writing a speech, different leaders have different reactions. Here’s what else is included in the story: thoughts and descriptions.
Don’t just have all the dialogue splashed onto the page like it’s wet paint. Break it up with these descriptions. Here’s Sarah J Maas in Empire of Storms, probably my favourite Throne of Glass novel. Before the epic naval battle, she devotes about two pages to Aedion’s pre-battle reflections. But a lot of his strength is his persona. Aedion made himself chuckle. Made himself the Wolf of the North, eager to spill blood on the southern seas.
When he does speak, he uses humour to defuse the tension. As arrows strike all around them, he just starts smiling. “Just a bit of rain, boys,” he said, grinning widely. “I thought you bastards were used to it out in the Wastes.” Now we’ve already seen in his thoughts that he’s terrified, not for himself, but because his queen has just vanished. But he’s pushing that aside to lead his men. His speech isn’t dramatic or flagrant, but it’s still effective. Grim, dark humour—always good, because these people are likely trained soldiers. They’ve seen enough death, they’re used to it.
Different leaders have different styles, and they have different ways of communicating. After all, what is a pre-battle speech but a method to make your soldiers brave enough to fight and die?
Short dialogue can often lead to a cool quote if it becomes a common phrase. In Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, the crew just has one saying; “No mourners. No funerals.” It’s short, but it has the same effect as any sort of florid speech.
Sometimes, you don’t need a massive speech. Sometimes it’s just a moment of tension. Maybe you can do with description and thought more than what you could do with dialogue. This is the trade-off between written speeches and spoken ones in motion picture. In a movie, you gain the powers of music and facial expression, props and scenery, but you lose the ability to see inside a character’s thoughts.
In my novel Torchbearer, I kept the dialogue minimal pre-battle.
“For our friends,” Kyra murmured.
“For us,” Eli said. I did this because Kyra and Eli have sealed themselves in with their enemies to buy time for their friends to escape.
However, I accentuated it with a look into Eli’s character. He’s faced suffering and its built and built into this final battle. While the dialogue is minimal, it’s accentuated by thought. “The fear, the dread had melted away. Now he would avenge two weeks of atrocities and release ten years of rage." So maybe what you lose in dialogue, maybe you can make up for it in thought, and create a powerful speech.
I hope you picked up something here! If you are interested in reading more, hit the button below to subscribe! Take a look around the blog, there’s plenty to read around here. If you’d like to chat about writing or anything at all, you can tweet me at @sr_thiele.
Have a great week!