Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Big Fight Scene, pt 4 - Epic Combat

quit pooping on the knights
The problem with writing combat is that tips you read and techniques you learn to use well might work perfectly in one type of combat and be useless in another.  What works well for your WW2 book might be useless in a battle like the Narnia war in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with griffons and centaurs vs minotaurs and wolves.  The time period, forces involved, magic vs technology, size of forces, and more all will change the entire battle.

For example; what worked well in the War of the Roses is worthless in WW2: you can't hide in a castle and sally forth to attack and harass, you'll just get bombed into oblivion and your castle parachuted into.  If magic can call lightning from the sky and teleport troops around, then those trenches aren't going to be very useful.

However, there are techniques, themes, and ideas that hold true for all mass combat writing which can be applied to any time period or type or battle.  These principles are about how you write rather than specific tactical details; those are largely up to your imagination, historical precedent, and the forces and abilities at hand.

First off, no matter what you are writing, there are three basic rules or concepts you always have to keep in mind.
1) Does this move the plot along?
2) Does this develop characters?
3) Does this help set the stage and describe the setting?
The truth is, what situation you are writing or what setting it is placed, all of your writing should move the story toward these ends.  If you are writing just because this seemed badass in your head and was interesting to write, you are going to start boring or annoying readers.  They aren't reading to see how cool you are, they are reading because of the story.

If what you write does not serve those three ends, no matter what it is, then you will almost certainly need to rethink what you are doing.  Writing combat is no different.  Those huge armies clashing will have plenty to describe and explain, but all of the fighting and action should move the plot along, develop characters, and describe your setting.

That means when the Rohirrim charged at the vast orc army in the plains of Pellinor in The Return of the King, it wasn't just a really cool image or scene (although it truly was, well handled in the film).  It was showing the courage of those men, the culture of the Rohirrim, the struggle of good vs evil, and giving hope to Pippin and his friends in the city of Gondor.  It showed that the orcs were not invincible and unstoppable, and it forced the Nazgul leader onto the battlefield to be killed by Éowyn.

Which brings us to the next point.  That clip shows a key moment in the battle that is easy to miss.  There are hundreds of thousands of combatants on a field miles wide using a wide variety of weapons.  But Tolkien (and Peter Jackson) takes time to focus on Éowyn and Meriodoc (Merry).  They're scared.  They are desperate.  But they are there to help their friends, at any cost.  They are there to give the forces inside the city of Minas Tirith, and more importantly, the pair of Sam and Frodo inside Mordor a chance to succeed.

Watch how Éowyn flinches away as the king rides by; she did so to hide her face; he ordered her to stay home but she dressed as a soldier to join the fight.  Her reasons are complex, but you can see her react trying to stay there, but fear and concern written all over her.

Now, that enormous charge is so glorious its easy to forget details like that, but that's what makes it a story instead of just a description of events.  The book is about its characters, so zoom in and look at them.  Why are they there?  What are they doing?  How do they feel?  Get inside some people there, even if they are nameless or are minor bit characters in the army.  Then your reader cares about what happens, turning it into a meaningful story instead of just a depiction of some activity.  See the reaction of those orcs as they realize there's no stopping this charge, no matter what they do?  That helps the reader feel the triumph and hope of the charge.

Don't forget the enemy, its useful to be inside both sides of a war, to show what is going on, what they are feeling and thinking, what they hope to do, and how its going for the enemy, too.

Ray Barboni's goal is to not eject the magazine when he points his pistol
Give your characters goals.  Even if the goal is something minor - the army wants to defend this place, Bob wants to get a luger from a German officer, Ilias the elf wants to prove his courage, whatever- the people there have to have a reason and a goal to work toward.  If the only goal is "two badass armies fight" then there's not only nothing at stake, its meaningless to the story.  Who cares?  Even if the armies are really well-crafted and unique, it doesn't matter to readers unless you make it matter, by giving everyone there tangible, relatable goals and characters you can get inside of to care about.

And the goals change over time.  The army might start wanting to capture that castle, but find its self fighting a defensive battle where they hope only to hold their ground, then things get so bad that they only hope to survive.  Characters will have multiple goals.  The general seeks to win the war, yes, but he also seeks to protect his men, capture this territory, and beat his rival general to a destination so he gets all the glory.  Just because a huge battle is taking place doesn't mean those goals aren't around and cannot be exploited.

Fights vary in pacing, they aren't all slow or fast.  One thing any serviceman that's seen active duty will tell you is that its mostly sitting around waiting, bored, then short moments of terrifying adrenaline-driven activity.  Some of the most ghastly, famous battles of the world, such as the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge, included moments of furious death and activity, and moments of waiting.

Sneaking in was easier with the hand of God as a distraction
Your writing should reflect the momentum and pacing of these events.  When the troops are sneaking through the reeds to reach the secret entrance into Babylon through the sewers, the writing should build suspense, describe events, and feel like the steady slow movement.  But when the fighting starts, it should be quick, powerful, and to the point.

You can emphasize pacing with the language you use.  For a frenetic, desperate scene, you want things fast and direct.  Avoid long description, keep your language simple and to the point, and keep sentences short, like gunshots.  When you want to slow things down, add in more description, make the sentences a bit longer, take time to unfold the situation.

If you are moving huge armies around a battlefield, you're going to have to know how it all looks, moves, and behaves as you write.  Don't just wing it, or unless you are supernaturally gifted, you'll end up with conflicting actions by troops, forgotten elements, and illogical actions.  Remember that left wing that Éomer controlled?  If it shows up on the right, readers are going to need to know how and why it got there, and what's going on where it should have been.  Just saying "hey I forgot" will not make anyone happy.

Whether this means drawing things out as a map, using miniatures to represent the battle (whether figures or Skittles on your table), or using an existing battle to base your scene on - something many, many writers have done in the past - make sure you have a clear visual concept of how things move and are placed.  This will not only help you keep things straight, but can often give you ideas on what to do, based on the terrain and how the troops move.  See those reinforcements over there?  The way things are laid out, there's a gap they could circle around into - is that a trap, or just weak tactics by the opponent?

Clearly visualizing your battle will also make it easier for you to help your reader visualize it, through description and explanation.  And when your reader understand what you are saying and doing with your story, then you have a happy reader.

Never let everything work out exactly as planned.  Never.  There isn't a single battle or commander that ever has everything go just how they wanted.  Even in the most overwhelming, one-sided total domination of an enemy, things don't go right.  A tank throws a tread.  A spell goes wrong.  A creek floods.  A fog rolls in.  That leader who was so great in training freaks out and runs away.  Something always goes wrong.

We're not really telling you anything useful at all
Now, its not only realistic (more importantly believable) to have things go wrong, but its interesting.

If you've ever watched a caper film closely, you'll notice an absolute pattern.  Either the plan for the bank robbery is totally laid out in exact detail and goes wrong, or you don't know what the plan is, and watch it unfold.  Why is this?  Because if you know the whole plan and just watch them carry it out perfectly that's... boring.  So you get none or a portion of the plan, and you learn how they do it (Ocean's 11) or you get the whole plan and things go awry (The Great Escape).

That principle shows how to write any event, but especially wartime.  Sure, give the battle plan.  Make it seem foolproof.  But complicate matters, every time.  New orders that mess everything up.  An interfering superior officer with his own ideas.  Mutinous troops.  Weather changes, sickness, sudden reinforcements in the enemy, whatever.  Just complicate things, have them not go as planned.

Because one of the most powerful tools you have as a writer to keep interest is to surprise readers, catch them off guard, shake up their calm complacency, and remind them that they don't know what's around the next corner.  Have you ever read a book where you knew exactly what was going to happen, and it always did?  Not terribly interesting, was it?

There should never be the ultimate weapon that destroys the enemy, or the invincible character that cannot be hurt.  There should never be the army that cannot lose, the castle that cannot fall, or the hero that is always right.  You need to make sure each thing has a weakness, a failing, a way it can go wrong.  Even Achilles had his non-invulnerable heel.

By making things too absolute, the story is dull.  Yay, the wizard rides in and casts his 'destroy army' spell, and the good guys win.  Yawn.

Another repeated certainty in war is that nobody knows everything that is going on.  Even in today's modern high tech battlefield with satellites, radar, drones, cameras, and radio contact, it still isn't 100% certain what's happening everywhere.  Even if central command has a clear picture of the overall battlefield, Joe Soretoes on the ground only knows bits and pieces, and often doesn't even know the overall goal.  That's called the "fog of war," the uncertainty of every element of the battle and inability to see and know everything at once.

Remember this as you write.  Even if your Jedi Hero has Battle Meditation and Force Vision, he's still not going to know everything that is happening - and neither will your readers.  Give them pieces, misconceptions, and half-truths until the end when all that needs to be revealed, can be.  Keep things uncertain and unclear except where they have to be clear and certain, so that the war feels more chaotic and the outcome in doubt.

Lets face it, people die in combat.  That's one of the great horrors of war: that troops and innocent bystanders die.  Good men and evil lose limbs and eyesight, are mangled and ruined.  People go literally crazy in battle and some never recover.

It tastes like orange juice after brushing your teeth
You have to have at least some of this, even if its for young people, or it won't feel like war and will not tell the story powerfully enough.  Even in the Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy had to go around the battlefield and heal the wounded.  They had to bury their dead.

You don't need to overemphasize this; the point of the story is to tell the story, not focus on morbid misery and horror.  Tell what you have to for the story you're writing and the tone you have, but don't forget.  War is hell, sheer hell.

Bernard Cornwell is the best current author writing these kind of scenes; I recommend his books, particularly the Archer and Sharpe series to study and learn from.  He keeps the action huge and moving without being confusing or losing sight of his characters and why they are there.  He does an excellent job of blending individual goals and character actions with massive forces moving through the battle.