Writing Action II: Battles

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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.

1. Number.
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.

2. Placement
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.

3. Variety.
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.

5. Size.
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).

6. Perspective.
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.

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25 comments to Writing Action II: Battles

  • All excellent points. Whenever I’ve done massive battle scenes, I like to use real-life examples as a guide. I once a wrote a battle in which a massive Earth force had to invade a planet that knew the invasion was coming. In addition, a technological advance created battlefield conditions that were extremely new to all involved. The real world parallel for me was D-Day. I read a lot on the subject and found a wealth of material for both tactics as well as personal character stories. There have been so many documented battles (sadly) in our world that just about any scenario you can dream up has a real-world parallel which can provide information and ideas.

  • AJ,
    Wonderful macro considerations that I wish more authors would recognize. I’ve read my fair share of heroic fiction and it grates on my nerves when authors don’t pay attention to at least the simplest of tactical concepts or armor considerations. I’m not asking for it to be completely historical, just that the story adheres to some sense of reality.

    What strikes me most in all you’ve written here was the last part. The fighting unto death heroic scenario is oft overplayed. If a unit of troops were self-sacrificing for the greater good, such as at Thermopylae, I can see them staying until the end, but otherwise it would be a rare occurrence. Most troops would fight as long as they think they can win, even if that margin of victory is slight.

    I’m curious as to how you’re battle scenes are done in first person. I’ve just written a skirmish (200 vs 100 soldiers) and found it tough. My scene is terribly up-close and personal, but the grand scope is lost. The overall sense of what happen needs to be discovered when my character comes down from his berserker rage.

    Thanks for the post. Looking forward to part 3.
    NGD

  • Stuart, that’s a great point. Using real world battles to ground fictional ones will help with the specificity we sometimes lose when we’re reliant solely on what we can dream up. Thanks.

    NGD, glad you found it useful. You’re right about it being hard to get a sense of the oveall battle from a first person perspective. For me it helps that my character is anything but a berserker, and is therefore fairly cool-headed, if only because he’s gauging when to run away. When there are lulls in the combat, of course, he can get infomration from others about what’s going on–or what is rumored to be going on elsewhere.

  • Thanks for the continuation AJ, I’ve not delved into battle scenes yet, but now my head is full of new knowledge!

  • This is a great overview, AJ. You raise several terrific points, not the least of which is the one pertaining to scope. Battles involving tens of thousands of soldiers are a relatively new phenomenon historically speaking. Most epic fantasy is set in some sort of quasi-Medieval world, and Medieval battles often pitted armies of only a few thousand against each other. Medieval battles involving tens of thousands of warriors would be something of an anachronism.

    I do prefer to write battle scenes from multiple POV, because I find it a great way to let me readers see shifting tides while at the same time personalizing the experience, if that makes any sense. That said, I’ve never tried a battle scene from first person POV, and that sounds like it would be lots of fun. I’ll have to do that some day.

  • And not only terrain and weather, but locale is an important factor to consider. A ground-pounder battle will be much different than an air battle will be much different than a space battle. The thing I’m dealing with in writing sci-fi battles is trying to keep the battle from only taking place on one flat plane in space, with at least the suggestion of three dimensions.

    Another thing, which you’ve already touched upon is dealing with perspective and combat. I’m writing third-limited and one of my proofers felt like one of the main characters was the only one in a combat in one scene, but in a harrowing fighter style combat she really didn’t have time to look around to see what the other people were doing and I can’t suddenly switch to omniscient to show the entire battle from a wider, overhead perspective. I’ll be going in and trying to rectify that situation, perhaps when she has a chance to breathe. 😉

  • Thank you, A.J. for the wonderful post. I’ve used computer games to simulate how certain types of battles would play out, and you’re right it is useful, but not always accurate. If one has time to create their own scenarios it can be a lot of fun as well–too bad it can rob time from my writing!

    The Tolkien examples are excellent. He wrote those in third person, omniscient I believe, and manages to keep the battles pretty personal. As a reader it makes sense to me, as a writer though, I think I would have a hard time with omniscient. I’m no Tolkien, and guess I just need more practice making 3rd/omniscient work for me.
    I mainly write in third person limited and my battles have been focused on the viewpoint character, so I’m afraid I miss the big picture.

    I think David did a great job with battle scenes in his ‘Winds of the Forelands’ series. I felt I was getting the whole picture, but at the same time it was very intimate. (Sorry, I haven’t read ‘Blood of the Southlands’ yet, but it’s on my list!) Also, the numbers he dealt with were fairly small, where losing fifty to a hundred men would make a difference.

  • Hinny, good luck when you start delving!

    David,
    great point about medieval battle numbers. Populations were, of course, much smaller in the middle ages, and those societies were radically different from ours in terms of military structure, so yes, I think tens of thousands or more in a battle would be rare to say the least! Perhaps when I post next time we could consider linking to extracts from battles in both our books so we could explore the POV issue and the different challenges each pose.

    Daniel, you’re right about fighting in different elements (air, water, space etc.). I think the trick with large scale fighting from a very limited perspective probably has to do with how long things take to unfold on the page. It’s hard to sustain focus in a prolonged fight sequence which lasts pages and pages when the character can’t see anything but the next guy trying to kill him! POV/voice finally affects the kind of stories we tell, I think, some approaches lending themselves better than others to different story elements. There’s no question that being in tight to one character during a large battle makes it hard to see the forest for the trees and you may have to think of how your story unfolds differently if you are that close to one character.

    Alistair, great point about Tolkien. His perspective/voice is much higher than most writers use today and it helps him with the big combat stuff. Sometimes he even moves out of the narrative moment to give us the the songs which depict the battle after the fact! This is in keeping with a certain tone, a notion of heroism and (of course) a general lack of interest in the psychology of many of the participants, particularly orcs and such. So what seems like omniscience in terms of knowing the details of what all participants–including the orcs–are doing, is still inflected by the book’s larger ethical perspective. It’s tough to do well, and easily disolves into pastiche or parody, so I don’t think you’re alone in not feeling entirely comfortable trying to write like that today.

  • Daniel,
    One option to give the appearance of more taking place in a sci-fi battle is comm chatter. As the battle transpires, if other pilots are reporting attacks, asking for help, and such of the radio, that will help bring a sense of larger scope. Perhaps your POV character is piloting in a non-linear fashion, he can catch glimpses of other skirmishes going on around.

    Alistair,
    One method I’ve seen to help with overall battle scope in 3rd person limited is short scenes of alternating POVs. What’s key there is that transitions must be done right. They need to bring the reader clearly back to the POV character, reminding the reader where they left off, but in as few words as possible. I’ve seen as little as a page per scene to several pages. If done right, each scene can have a mini-cliffhanger and really ratchet up the drama.

    -NGD

  • Another great post. I’ve got a bunch of comments, in no particular order.

    Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion stories, especially Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, are a great view from the trenches. Then again, I think Ms. Moon was trained as a marine. This is a great example of how to make multiple battles feel different each time, using the POV of a rookie mercenary learning her trade. I think the point here is that war was the protagonist’s job, and as in Old Man’s War (or Starship Troopers) that changes your point of view.

    Second, bigger issue: costs. Personally, I like spears, and I think that they’re usually made too weak compared to swords. If a swordsman can’t close with a spearman, they’re toast. What does this have to do with costs? Read on.

    Similarly, slings outrange all but the most powerful bows, which is why the Celts and the Inkans used slings almost exclusively (as did the Roman Army until late in the Empire). The ammo is cheaper too. Trouble is, rocks don’t do well against plate armor. What does this have to do with costs? Read on.

    But the bigger thing is that swords are expensive, and spears are cheap. You can see this even now, if you look at, say Cold Steel or Museum Replicas, or similar websites. A quality sword will set you back ~$500+. A quality spearhead will set you back $50-100.

    Similarly, the reason why you find arrowheads all over the place is that a good shaft is harder to replace than a good arrowhead. The Traditional Bowyers Bible series will tell you more than you want to know about making bows and arrows, but the key message is it’s not easy to make good arrows or bows, and they’re not cheap.

    Generalizing, the point here is costs: your traditional fantasy hero with his English-style yew longbow and late medieval longsword strapped to his waist is walking around with the modern equivalent of about $3000-$4000 in weapons. This is in a world where the peasants are probably making a few dollars a day (scaling to modern Third World peasants). Slings and spears are cheap and scary effective if you know how to use them. That’s why massed spears are so popular, and slings were even more popular a thousand years ago. The ammo’s literally lying around, and a few bits of leather and fiber will make you the equivalent of an archer.

    This even extends to guns. Metal-working wise, guns aren’t much more expensive than swords. However, gun powder is expensive, because you have to use fertilizer to make it. In England during the Napoleonic wars, English “Petermen” scoured the outhouses and compost heaps for material, and while no one has looked at the cost to the peasants of losing the fertilizer to their fields, the Petermen who did this were justly hated. It’s worth remembering that you can feed your guns or feed your fields, and that can be used creatively to limit the use of guns and explosives, particularly in a fantasy world.

    Hope this helps.

  • Excellent post as usual AJ. I was looking forward to this one and you did not disappoint. I have a single battle scene in the YA novel I am working on and I was glad to see that I had done a couple of things you mentioned already, and also glad to see that there are some things I can do in the rewrite to make it better.

    I found it interesting that you didn’t take any time at all to explain any of the LOTR story but simply assumed–safely one would expect–that anyone reading this post would understand every example. I’m sure we all did.

    It just goes to show that in many ways, Tolkien’s work is the standard by which all other fantasy/adventure work is often judged. Surely there is no argument on that point. Perhaps if one is going to write that type of fiction, a strong familiarity with LOTR is in order.

    As a writer of thrillers as well, what novels come to mind as “standards” in that genre?

    Thanks again for something immediately useful in this post.

  • To add onto Het’s post a bit, this is also why many weapons on the battlefield in medieval times were farm implements and quite a few battle weapons were born from farm implements. This is seen even more clearly in the weapons of ancient Asia/Japan. When the peasants were conscripted they weren’t all given quality weapons and they had to make do with whatever they had on hand. Quite a few polearms owe their evolution to things like scythes and bill hooks, things used in the fields.

  • A great example of realistic medieval battles can be found in GRRM’s ASOIAF. Even in the biggest of battles, there’s never more than ten thousand or so soldiers. Another thing I liked about Martin was that he understiid the issue of multiple fronts. Very few wars involve each side massing their soldiers up in one group and pounding it out. He also keeps to the several skirmishes, few battles tactic that you used Tolkein as an example of.

    I think the issue of morale is another important one. When I played Rome: Total War, I could turn a battle around with only 25% of my troops left (mostly with cavalry or elephants), but in reality that’s not likely to happen. I played a no-retreat strategy for the most part, but I could do that because of the Save function and the relative ease with which you could recruit new troops. In a battle between singe countries, most armies are going to be small, and new recruits limited. There’s this thing called a Pyrrhic victory, and when you’re fighting at a disadvantage, there’s a much greater chance that it’ll be your result. Regrouping is a good thing, people! (Although I’m sure most commanders wsih it wasn’t necessary.)

    For now, my final thought is an on-screen off-screen sort of thing. One thing Martin does that I like is not describing every single battle. Sometimes, what happns during the battle just isn’t all that important, and you need to focus on the prelude or the aftermath. Without major spoilers, during Dany’s campaigns across the ocean, Martin does very little description of the actual battle, because Dany doesn’t participate directly, and so the specifics are not very important to the plot or character arcs.

  • Heteromeles, Joe, NGD, Atsiko and Daniel. Good points all. I’m sorry I can’t respond more fully as I’m ducking out of a conference for a couple of minutes before returning to issues of Shakespeare and the staging of emotional realism a la Stanislavski :) But I’m delighted that the post generated some thought and such useful sharing of ideas.

  • For space battles I love the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber and the VorKosigan novels Lois McMaster Bujold.

  • Thanks AJ and all,

    These are good points. The other one I forgot to make was training. I was recently reading a book (Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice) about an ethnobotanist who was working in the Amazon. One of the Indians he was working with shot an arrow between the author’s fingers to kill a large fish that the author was reaching for (they’d poisoned the fish), and he also talks about Indians shooting hummingbirds through the eyes to avoid damaging the skins for an ornithologist who was collecting them. These hunters had been using bows and blowguns since they were maybe four or five. If I recall correctly, English longbowmen started shooting around age six to learn how to shoot those 100-lb monsters, and the Balearic slingers of a similar age were only allowed to eat the food that they could hit with their slings. Similarly, the people of the Andes still use their slings all the time.

    This isn’t about battle so much as about preparing for battle. I absolutely agree with Daniel about the peasant’s tools, and I’d add that it’s easier to teach someone to fight with a tool they use all the time. Not that they’ll necessarily win (there’s things like tactics, morale, and so forth that do matter), but it’s easier than teaching them to use something new.

    However, traditional weapons, particularly slings and bows, take time to master. Guns and crossbows are comparatively easier to master. If you’re arming a bunch of conscripts for a battle, if you can afford it, you’ll probably want to pick a simple weapon.

    This DOES NOT mean that peasants can’t learn to fight. The long existence of high-quality Chinese village martial arts (such as Chen Style Tai Chi) attests to the fact that low-ranking people in a rural village can become extraordinary warriors, and there are comparable examples in the west. However, if you want your people shooting bows, using slings, or anything else that takes time to learn, it’s a good idea to make those weapons part of their everyday lives long before they fight.

  • I hit go and didn’t meant to. Was also going to say — I admit to being scared silly at the thought of writing full fledged battle scenes. So — Go Aj and others!

    And — I agree that David did a great job on his battle scenes. They were both personal, telescoped down (soldier’s POV) and wide-angled (writer’s POV).

  • Space battles are an issue. The sort of battling in Honor Harrington is based on naval tactics if I remember correctly, which is a completely useless basis for space battles. At least as far as realism goes. Same goes for Star Wars. Star Trek is somewhat more realistic in many cases, but still geared towards a naval sort of conception. But, while we’re throwing around sci-fi, I’d like to nominate Seikai no Senki as having a particularly interesting space battle style. A lot of it won’t be applicable to normal space battles, but there’s a good number of interesting ideas there.

  • I’ll have to look that up. Is that from an Anime or manga? I was really happy with how my final battle turned out in my WIP. I ended up popping in some Anime battle music from Robotech and Mobile Suit Gundam 00, slapped on the headphones to tune out the world and went to town. The final battle turned out well.

  • AJ, that’s a very cool idea about the posts. Let’s figure something out. Alistair, thanks very much for the kind words about the Winds battle scenes. They were wonderfully fun to write. And thanks to you, too, Faith, for the second.

  • Atkiso, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. While there was a strong naval component, it was 3D, gravity-deficient, vacuum-based fighting. Not very earth-based at all. And a lot of fun!

  • I do have to say, Harrington did have some decent space combat. It was a little slow in places, but I’ll have to get the novel. We were listening on audio and sometimes I can muddle through long discussions better in novels than audio…for some reason.

  • Honor Harrington is a space battle rebuild of the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forster. Realistic? The problem is in the space we live in, the normal difference in velocities between objects tends to be measured in kilometers per second, which is why dropped screws and tiny scraps of debris are so dangerous to the space shuttle and the space station. Rifle bullets travel around ~0.5 km/sec, although this varies substantially

    David Weber took a swipe at getting this, but basically, humans can’t aim fast enough to have a shootout in space. We don’t have a good intuition of what a “real space battle” is like, so we tend to go with what sounds good. Weber’s solution was to have ships engage at extreme long range. This sounds good, but if you do the geometry, you find that a twitch of a micrometer in the laser mount can make it miss a battleship at the other end of the beam 100 million miles away, and in the middle of a battle, you’ve got two ships moving relative to each other faster than speeding bullets, and you have to aim accurately to the nearest micrometer to hit them…you get the idea. Shooting at another ship is *hard.*

    Not that I’m objecting to the fun part of Honor Harrington I loved that series back in the day. Realistic? Nope. I’m looking forward to someone taking the reality of space battle (see above) and making a good story out of it. We’re not really there yet.

  • Het makes the main part of my point. There are a lot of other issues that make the Honorverse style of combat unrealistic, such as naval ship classifications that are mostly meaningless in space. That said, story comes first. I never denied that Weber could write some fun battles.

    Unforunately, there’s not much you can do to make realistic space battles fun. Slinging planet-killing RKVs, lack of major ship classes such as Weber employs, the ridiculousness of fighter-craft… But you can still squeeze some fun out of un-realism in space battles.

  • Finally emerging from my conference only to find you guys didn’t need me at all and have been sharing ideas among yourselves. Good job all. We’ll revisit the battle idea in a couple of weeks.
    Cheers

    AJH