When describing a grand tactical battle, do you find it easier to focus on the main characters with a few out shots of the entire battle, or do you describe the entire battle including layout, tactics, strategy and structure?
Or do you intersperse as the situation demands?
And how do you decide which method to use?
Any comments would be greatly appreicated!:D
June 21st, 2003, 03:02 PM
An interesting question Se'dray-on. I'm curious to know what others do as well.
The main factor that guides me here is where I want to go with the story. More often than not, I'm concetrating on a few core charaters (I tend to shy away from the epic scale stuff). So I'll use their points of view and concentrate on what they are going through.
I enjoy speculation about large scale tactics, so I do draw back and talk about that kind of thing too. Quite often one of my characters is some kind of leader: company captain, platoon lieutenant - not quite a general, but higher up than a private. Characters in such position have to command their units and therefore, they give the reader a picture of the large scale, while focusing on the small.
Large scale strategy is something that I tend to work in more subtly. Unfortunatly this occasionally annoys the reader according to some crits I've received.
For example in one story I have a group of "space marines" dropping onto a planet - not unlike the opening of Starship Troopers (the novel). The soldiers banter back and fourth, complaining that they don't know why they're dropping, or even where the enemy is. The rules of engagement are skewed from the start. (Anyone who has any military training relates really well.) It's only later on in the story that they find out the higher-ups were working on faulty intelligence and were forced to make decisions based on partial knowledge.
June 22nd, 2003, 02:41 AM
The general emphasis seems to be using characters to draw the reader right into the heart of it. If you want to describe tactics in situ then you can in POV such as third person omniscient - but as this view is notorious for allowing poor character you can seek to offset it by using character as much as possible. In other words, when referencing strategy, you do it through the commands given - even show a new character to help show this (I'm sure a lot of writers use that tactic) - or else simply refer to tactics afterwards as characters analyse the battle experience.
You should also note that prior tactics may well be known by characters before combat - but also be extremely aware that the history of warfare is essentially about winning through luck and fortitude. Tactics and recon info help steel against failure, but ultimately there are so many variables out of user control that luck can very much a part of it all. The great general's were not those who simply deployed units in good formation, but who attempted to ride every unknown to their best advantage. And luck can play an astonishing large role in that. I learned that reading about Napoleon's campaigns, and nothing I've read since - from ancient to modern warfare - has contradicted that perception.
June 22nd, 2003, 06:18 AM
Loser : "You were lucky."
Winner : "The more I prepare, the luckier I seem to get."
June 22nd, 2003, 06:52 AM
Well, I'm fond of tactics, but aware that they are usually lost on the reader.
What I generally do is begin with an overview of the battle as seen by the field commanders, give a general description of the clash of forces, the desperation of the combat, the blood and agony of the dying.
I like to let the 'good guys' get their backs to the wall, then switch to individual combat scenes, using quick, sharp, short descriptions, taking a hit, blood running, on your last legs sort of thing.
Then revert to overview, a bit of strategy that turns the tide; a flanking manuver, taking out a leader, or whatever.
And finish with the individuals in the aftermath.
Too much 'grand scale' isn't personal enough to hold a reader's attention, I suspect.
June 22nd, 2003, 12:50 PM
So the general concensus seems to be that battles are mainly described through character interactions with a few brief overviews of the overall battle.
Thank you for your replies!:D
June 22nd, 2003, 01:58 PM
Most of the time the actual details of the battle are unimportant and the tactics used will only slow the action down and result in a boring story. Use your characters to see their part of the battle and only use the battle so far as it advances the story. Unless your characters are actually in charge, none of the grunts on the ground really know much about the tactics involved, nor do they care.
June 22nd, 2003, 03:29 PM
Authors who can understand tactics and strategy (as opposed to reading Art of War or a bunch of history books and then assuming they do) are few are far between. Even rarer are the ones who can actually break it down for the lay person and make it interesting (Iain M. Bank's chapter dealing with his protagonists' commanding military campaigns in Use of Weapons is a good example). It seems to be a definite requirment for those who aspire to write Military SF.
The Miles Vorkosigan novels offer a kind of a pop-tactics for SF readers who want a kind of strategy lite that is easy to visualise and understand, and yet is more mentally stimulating than cartoonish first person battle scenes. The kind of 'strategy' involved tends to be very basic notions of deception and misdirection, like the trojan-horse gag that Miles employs against a mercenary ship in the second novel (the title escapes me). At the end of the day, it's probably better to be entertaining and at least mildly convincing rather than terribly authentic, anal and deathly boring.
People seem to consistently have better luck writing more personal, smaller scale presentations of conflict. After all, while few people can actually get their head around what large scale combatatives involve, most people have some feel for smaller but nonetheless savage violence involving small groups of people, given the society we live in. I regard both David Gemmell and Peter F. Hamilton (particularly in the first Mindstar novel) as being excellent at evoking the feeling of what real fighting is like. Likewise someone like John Steakley (although he gets a bit more carried away, with his run-on sentences and splatterpunk gore).
June 22nd, 2003, 03:47 PM
Doesn't look like I'll be disagreeing too much here. I view large scale battles as hundreds of individual combats as the battlefield moves and so I concentrate on individuals and gove a very 'close-up' POV.
To engender the chaos and confusion of any battle in the minds of readers, I switch POV very often (always signposted though, never in mid-para for instance) and will always have given the reader knowedge of the size of the opposing forces, the terrain etc so that there is always context.
Finally, I write it as fast as I can with almost no planning. It's a method that for me, throws up the mistakes and misfortunes that happen - the less it's planned the less it reads choreographed and the more energy it has.
June 22nd, 2003, 04:51 PM
Personally, I usually skim lightly over a battle-passage when it starts to go in to tactical details. To me, it seems too much like work to constantly flip back-and-forth between the map and the text in order to comprehend which flanks moves where. Usually, I can't be bothered. I just trust that the author knows where everybody is, at least.
To me, it's much more important to know who's fighting who, and why. There must be some persons and some issues at stake that I can identify with and relate to. The "sense" of it (epic or not) is much more important to me than the "how."
Another trick I've seen and liked is when the authors uses POV's from both camps of the conflict. It can really add suspense in some situations. And when the critical point arrives, and the tide of battle finally swings in favour of the Heroes, it can bring home the moment in a very gratifying way to see it from the point of view of the enemy commander, for instance. I think I've seen it done most often in military SF, though. David Weber, for example, does it all the time.