Two weeks ago I ran a post on action sequences and combat in particular, centering small scale scenarios: one on one fighting. I got a couple of queries/comments which asked about larger scale fighting, and have been considering how best to answer them. I must admit that I was surprised (pleased, certainly, but definitely surprised) when my Will Hawthorne books got positive critical attention for their battle scenes, and so I offer the following with the proviso that I don’t claim to be an expert on this and can only discuss what has worked for me. I’m hoping that some of the regulars will share their thoughts on the subject as well. I had intended this to be part 2 of 2, but in the writing I discovered I’d like to add a third part in another fortnight, one which uses a specific example and talks more about the paragraph/sentence level writing. Consider this a macro setup for the micro specifics next time. Sorry it’s a bit long.
Battles, if given real attention, are inevitably big “set piece” episodes, involving lots of characters (major and minor) and pages of description. As a result, they have to be used judiciously, with an eye to the larger arc of the story. It’s worth remembering that though there are plenty of smaller skirmishes and action sequences in the three books of The Lord of the Rings, there are really only two large scale battles: Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields. The movie versions increased this number significantly, partly to suit the visual medium and partly to add scale and drama to three separate films, but even so (and I’m speaking as a fan of the movies) they start to feel repetitive by the end, particularly if you watch all three in sequence. Battles are the coup de grace of dramatic action, but more is not necessarily better. For one thing they generally need to get bigger, more significant and dramatic if they are not to feel anticlimactic, and this alone is reason enough to use them sparingly. Opening a story with a big, exciting combat sequence certainly gets the book going with a bang, but how do you top that? Begin too big and you’ve nowhere to go but down.
Some planning—even for you pantsers—thus seems in order. Figure out how many battles you are going to use and then where in the story you are going to put them. Tolkien’s example is a good one: skirmishes at the beginning (Weathertop, Moria, and the death of Boromir) one major battle at roughly the mid point of the story, and another even bigger one at the end. You may have more, of course, but you should think of the larger story in terms of its rhythms and stresses. I don’t think they have to escalate over a series of books, necessarily, but they probably should increase in dramatic intensity in a single book. Battles should probably be placed in terms of the larger patterns of plot and character simultaneously. In terms of classic three act structure the two LOTR battles I mentioned occur at climactic points in the middle and end of the second act (it might be argued that Pelennor is part of Act 3, but if we think of the narrative as ultimately being the story of Frodo and the ring, the third act is all mount Doom and the return to the Shire). It is true that battles can liven up a story, but if they are finally incidental (just an opportunity to get the blood pumping), keep the scale small. Larger battles shouldn’t feel arbitrarily positioned.
If you have more than one large battle in a book you should seek ways to make each one distinctive. That might be achieved simply if those involved are different, but if it’s the same characters each time, even the same enemy, you need other ways to make the conflict unique and memorable. There are lots of ways to do this that have nothing to do with forms of combat. Battles feel differently according to the kind of weather in which they are fought, if it’s day or night, or what the terrain is. A pitched battle in open fields is very different from the assault or defense of a fortress, or the holding a mountain pass. The nature of the troops involved, fantastic beasts, magic or other distinctive means of fighting can all stamp a battle in ways that make it different from the others you have written. In the LOTR examples I’m working with, Pelennor is a classic plains conflict while Helm’s Deep is a defensive siege. Factor in the battles I consider skirmishes (and I include Moria in this because the reader experiences it as a clash between small numbers in cramped quarters, regardless of how many orcs there are involved), and you’ll see what I mean: the Nazgul assault on Weathertop, the fight in the mines which is dominated by the Balrog, and the attack of the Uruk Hai by the great river, are all radically different.
4. Combat rules/style.
As there’s lots you can learn about hand to hand combat so there’s also research to be done on large scale fighting. There aren’t rules, exactly, but there are principles which are generally held to be true which can be studied: why it’s good to fight from high ground, for example, or where to deploy different kinds of troops. It is simplistic, perhaps, but most troop types have strengths and weaknesses depending on who they are fighting. Cavalry, for instance, can be fast, powerful and intimidating in a charge against infantry, but they are vulnerable to polearms (spears etc.). Those spearmen are, in turn, vulnerable to armored swordsmen. Archers can be lethal at range but are quickly decimated by troops who get in close. Roman legionaries had particular shield configurations designed for self-protection, while the Macedonians used phalanxes with oversized spears, and the Carthaginians used massed war elephants to break up enemy formations. And so on. All tactics had their strengths and weaknesses, and what worked well against one opponent was disastrous against another. Break through the Macedonian phalanx and the soldiers with their long pike-like spears are powerless against shortswords. Force the elephants back on their own troops and you destroy the attacker. The basics can be learned quickly through research, and a fun way to practice the principles of battle is by playing some RPG games (like Warhammer) and computer games such as Medieval Total War II. These aren’t always accurate, but that doesn’t always matter, and they are certainly a good starting point. Changing the nature of the conflict in terms of troop types also helps maintain a sense of variety.
My books tend to deal with armies of hundreds, a few thousand at most. I like this scale because I feel like my core characters can still play a significant part without disappearing, and that their experience can be written as representative. I admire the skill of authors who can handle tens of thousands without getting generalized or tedious but I’m not sure I’m ready for that (and have been burned reading some old fashioned high fantasy that doesn’t do it well).
Because of the kinds of books I wrote (the Will Hawthorne books are first person), I stay in the head of a single character throughout a battle. This creates particular challenges in terms of both maintaining interest and showing what’s going on. If you can cut between different points of view you get both more variety and a fuller perspective on the action. The advantage of a single perspective, however, especially a first person one, is that it’s easier to keep character uppermost: the account becomes less a tactical depiction and more a single participant’s experience, and that can be exciting and terrible in useful ways.
6. Should I stay or should I go?
Contrary to most heroic accounts of battles in film, few armies fought to the death unless they were given no choice. A twenty five per cent loss of forces was generally more than enough to precipitate a rout, which is very different from a retreat or tactical withdrawal. How long your soldiers stick around in a losing fight will depend on why they are there in the first place, and that’s something you have to address when you draw up the social, cultural and economic rules of your world. Are they professional soldiers fighting for a cause they believe in, or are they mercenaries? Are they conscripted peasants, or trained knights ideologically invested in the code of battle even if they are only fulfilling feudal obligation? Unless you are working in the realm of absolute good and absolute evil (I’m not), you need to think hard about what factors influence how hard your troops fight and when they decide they’ve done more than enough to keep honor or payment intact.