Six impossible things

Planning battle scenes

Back when I was writing my first novel, I got somewhere in the middle and realized I needed to write a battle scene. Not just a bar brawl or a fight between six of the good guys and ten or twelve bad guys; an actual clash of armies. Furthermore, the battle plan had to make sense. I immediately panicked for a couple of weeks; when that didn’t help, I eventually had to sit down and figure out how to do it.

I was reminded of this last week when a good friend started panicking over her first battle scene. So I thought I’d do a post on How To Write Battles When You Don’t Know Anything About Battles.

The first thing you do is to learn something about strategy and tactics. This means hitting the library; there are tons of good books on the subject. However, when I hit the library, back when, I read several books on strategy and tactics and emerged no wiser than before, because even the basic ones were too advanced for my meager level of knowledge on the subject.

So I hit the children’s section.

Seriously, if you really, truly don’t understand basics terminology (which was at least half my problem with the adult-level “beginner” books), the children’s section is the place to go. I think I worked my way down to middle-grade books before I found something comprehensible, and then started working my way back up the age groups. It was exceedingly useful.

The second thing I did, which I also highly recommend if you can manage it, is to find someone who actually knows something about military strategy – a wargamer, a military history buff, someone who’s actually been in the army or navy. Then you ask them to help you plan the battle, and take copious notes on what sorts of questions they ask you, because those are all the things you need to know in order to figure out what the battle is going to look like.

The very first thing my military consultant asked was “What kind of terrain are they going to be fighting in?” And he didn’t mean “plains” or “hills” or other general descriptors; he wanted a map showing the rivers, woods, hills, city walls, etc. in the immediate vicinity of the battle, along with basics like what the weather had been like and where the sun would rise and set.

The next thing he asked was “What kind of forces does each side have?” This included numbers, equipment, and capabilities for every segment of the armies from cavalry and infantry to archers and magicians. This is moderately complex even if the armies are all “regular” troops of the sort you’d find in real life, because you have to decide whether the army is balanced between infantry, ranged attackers, and cavalry, or whether it’s predominately one kind of troops with few or none of the others. When you have multiple species involved – aliens, elves, dwarves, etc. – or futuristic technologies, it goes from moderately complex to insane.

Which is why most writers, especially those of us for whom the military stuff is not a major interest (to put it mildly), have to plan things out in advance.

For writers, the next thing you want to know is how you want the battle to come out. Is it a clear win for one side or the other? A win, but with major casualties to some portion (or all) of the winner’s army? Indecisive? You also want to know where you want your heroes/protagonists to end up, plot-wise, at the end of the battle, so that you can design the fight to put them where they need to be.

As regards that last, battles are usually a lot easier to manipulate than bar fights, because, as the author, you have a lot more ways to make things go the way you want them to. You can manipulate the size of the armies, their composition, the supplies and training each side has, the communications they have, how well each side knows the terrain they’ll be fighting on, whether it’s been raining or not. You can turn the battlefield into a sea of mud that will bog down the attackers’ cavalry or provide strong, gusty winds that play hob with the defenders’ archers. You can arrange for reinforcements to arrive early, late, or not at all. And so on.

Once you know what you have to work with and where you want to go, you get to sit down and design two battle plans, one that makes sense for the attackers and one that makes sense for the defenders, given the kinds of forces each of them has and what they know about the terrain and the troops that are facing them. The thing to bear in mind here is that neither commander is going to have any idea what the other intends to do unless there are spies of some sort involved, so it’s really unlikely that at this point, the two plans will fit together neatly.

In fact, you don’t want the two plans to fit together neatly. Each commander is going to be trying to do things the other one isn’t going to expect and be ready for, and they each ought to succeed at least some of the time.

That’s the next bit – when you set the battle in motion and work out how things happen on the macro level all along the line of battle. Diagrams are REALLY useful for this part.

Then you figure out where in the fighting your character(s) are going to be, and how much of this they’re going to know as it happens. If one of your viewpoints is a general, standing on a hill or a battlement trying to get an overview of the battle so he/she can order troop movements, then you’ll probably get to explain a lot of the macro-level movements; if your only viewpoint is a grunt down in the trenches, the battle scene will have to be limited to the grunt’s actual experiences, and your reader won’t find out how things played out overall until afterward, when the grunt finds out what happened. But if you don’t know that the left flank was under heavy attack and nearly collapsed before reinforcements came up from behind and scattered the attackers, the grunt’s experience of the battle more than likely will not fit properly when the big picture story comes out.

Which is why you want to go through all this planning, because unintentional stupid military mistakes on the part of the author really, really annoy a lot of readers. (This is not a problem when it’s obvious that the commander is supposed to be an idiot, but you still have to do all the planning, because there are some varieties of stupid military mistakes that simply will not be made by even a very stupid commander, so long as that commander has any military experience at all. The writer needs to know what these are and how not to do them, so that the fictional stupid commander can be realistically stupid in all the right ways.)

  1. “The writer needs to know what these are and how not to do them, so that the fictional stupid commander can be realistically stupid in all the right ways.”

    Which applies to more than just battle scenes! 🙂 Believable stupidity is harder to achieve than it seems, sometimes, at least in my experience.

    And I love the idea of going to the kids’ section for strategy books. I’ve just been avoiding writing any battle scenes by making them all happen “off stage,” which is kind of cheating.

  2. I think going to the kids’ section is helpful for other sorts of basic information — basic tracking, say, or astronomy, or broad-brush cultures. This was advice my mum (a teacher and writer of curriculum) gave to me when I was trying to find out a bunch of things at once, to orient me in the subject — then you can move up along the right lines to the complicated stuff. (Ah! I want to know about South American monkeys, not Old World ones. Etc.)

  3. I advise my students to follow “Carolyn’s Law”, named after my mom, who told me to “always start in the children section to get your outline.” Thanks for sharing that law independently.

  4. This is why I keep my brother around 😉

  5. Children’s books are great resources. My housemate has a series called, IIRC, The First Book of [Whatever], which is a wonderful starting point when I don’t even know enough to know what questions I need to ask.

  6. Sometimes, what I find helpful is having the wargame miniatures on a table. If you can create that 3D effect to see what the battle looks like, it will help your descriptions tremendously.

    Or if you know a gamer that uses miniatures, they can help give you the idea of what the scene looks like.

  7. Pondering this, it’s occured to me that I’ve got a WIP that may need a battle scene, when I get to that point. I’ve got a decent grounding in small-unit tactics from my martial arts background, but army-scale activity is outside my knowledge base. Do you remember any particularly useful titles from your battle research? Is there a
    First Book of Wargaming?

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