Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Battle – Strategy

Last week, I got in real close to the battle, inspected the writing of the close-POV and finding the right details and flow of movement. I talked about the importance of constant SoM and the importance of reality in your writing.

Today, I’d like to talk about that one thing that plotters love too much and character-driven authors are terrified of: strategy.

Approach One: The Escape Route

If you’re one of those how detests the idea of strategy and don’t really want to try to find a way to don’t.
write it, then here’s an idea:
Instead of trying to learn how to write strategy, simply don’t. I realize that this seems odd, but it’s really not. See, most soldiers don’t know what the strategy is, and they never will. Instead, they’re simply told where to go and who to kill.
If you don’t want to write strategy, then write your characters like this. Don’t write the generals or the officers (at least the high officers), write the footman and the scout and the lowly officer and the cannoneer.

This might feel like a cop-out, but it’s actually not. It’s perfectly fine to write the POV of characters who are simply told “shoot the bad guys”. In fact, it’s anti-cliché to do so. It’s so rare that they’re actually represented in writing that doing so is new and intriguing to your reader.
We tend to relate more to them anyway, because we’re more like the foot soldier than like the noble knight or the brigadier general.

Approach Two: Becoming Mirrors

But what if you already wrote the knight character? What if you already wrote the dude who works on the bridge of the spaceship who has to relay orders exactly and so overhears all the tactical discussions?
Those characters have to know and understand strategy, and therefore so do you.

What then?
If you’re still reluctant to learn and create your own strategies, there’s something awfully nice about our world’s history: it’s full of wars.
What’s even nicer: historians like to keep track of what happens in those battles. If you can find accounts of these battles, you can find strategies.
The nice thing about strategies: they’re not copyrighted. If you look up accounts of the battle of Waterloo, you won’t find “©1815 by Napoleon and his Foes”. Sure, you can’t just copy the battle word for word, but you can copy the ideas. The way the armies communicated, lined up, advanced, retreated, flanked, counter-attacked, and the way in which the French were defeated (spoiler alert).

Therefore, when you have to write strategy but don’t want to, do your research and become a mirror. Find battles in history and morph their strategies to fit your story. A good way to do this is to simply find a history book or use google or use books such as “How to Lose a Battle” or “How to Lose a War”. These can not only show you what the strategy used was, but also why the loser lost the way they did.

Approach Three: Becoming the Strategist

If you actually want to do this to the fullest, taking no shortcuts, then you’re going to have to do it right. If you’re of this type, you either already know how to strategy or else need to learn. If you need to learn, I suggest those books above, or else do some in-depth research online or in other books. I don’t have the space to teach strategy to you, so come back when you’re finished.

You know strategy. You know what you want your battle to be.
Your job is to write it well.

So here’s your first job: don’t burden the reader. I realize you’ve thought up a brilliant campaign with a detailed strategy and battle plans, but your reader doesn’t care. Sure, some read for the strategy, but even they don’t want the story burdened with it.
It’s fine to have strategy, even good. Story always outweighs technical details. Never info-dump to your reader about the strategy for any reason. We’ll get bored. Even if your character doesn’t know and needs to. Summarize, summarize, summarize. We want to know enough to be able to follow along, enough to believe that there is a plan, but not really anything else.
Like I said earlier, most of your readers identified with the foot soldier, not the general.

Pulling It All Together

Believe it or not, this is it. I’m done.
The battle over battles is over.
I don’t know if we won, but I certainly hope so. I hope that we gained the tools to write battles in such a way that they’re not boring, cliché, or inaccurate.

So let’s sum up: for those of you who dropped out and didn’t really pay attention, this is where I sum up what you should have learned:
1.      Don’t be afraid to write battles.
2.      Remember that battles are fought by real people who have hopes and dreams and fears and family and when they die it matters.
3.      Wars are visceral, violent, and brutal. They aren’t glorious and shouldn’t be presented as such.
4.      The way battles look depends on time period and genre, as well as the strategy you create.
5.      Always, always write battles in a way that draws your reader in with a strong State of Mind and realistic emotions, thoughts, and encounters.

We did it.
We survived. Now we can go and write good battles, right?
Well… maybe. At the very least, we can try our best, make mistakes, and try again.


  1. I really appreciated this series. I've tucked pretty much every post away for future reference. Thank you, seriously.

    About this one in particular, if I remember correctly, Herodotus has several battles (mainly between the Persians and the Greeks, I think), and he's really easy to read. The Iliad, too, although that's not so easy and there are paragraph-long metaphors. And the great thing about both of those are that they're public domain, so you can get them for free on at least Kindle, and they're probably floating around the internet somewhere.

    1. You're most certainly welcome!

      Ah yes, Herodotus is really easy to read. I didn't enjoy the original, unabridged Iliad as much as I thought it was, and maybe it's because of the paragraph-long metaphors. I prefer more abridged versions of it for that reason.
      But they're both excellent examples of well-written battles!