Thursday, March 3, 2011

Planning your battles or battling your plans

War - and battles, and smaller-scale conflicts - are something of a staple in science fiction and fantasy. If it's not central to the story, it tends to be part of the backdrop, not least because conflict drives story, and having two or more groups vying to control something (or someone), preferably with a high body count along the way, is a pretty effective way to push a storyline and to make life difficult (if not totally miserable) for your characters.

So, how many times have you read an interesting book and got to a battle, or a fight, and been left going huh? (Maybe I'm just fussy, but I'd guess something like 2/3 of what I read, with the usual exceptions, fall into this category. Most of the rest are smart enough to realize that writing a fight scene or a battle is hard and find a way not to write it.)

Here's the thing: it's bloody difficult to write battles well. It's just as difficult to write one-to-one fighting well. Whoever is point-of-view is either watching, in which case they're not seeing everything, or they're in the thick of it, in which case they're so loaded on adrenaline or sheer terror (sometimes both) that their perceptions are warped. Somehow the writer has to take that and turn it into something that gives an overview of what's actually going on while it's creating the illusion of actually being the point of view character's point of view.

And that's without a basic understanding of strategy - which is essential. All those space battles in the old-school space operas? I never really saw the point. They're either naval warfare with a different backdrop, or World War One dogfights with a different backdrop. Very few books cover things like why any group is going to go to the colossal expense and risk of space warfare when there's no apparent reason for it (if you can build a Death Star or equivalent, why the heck do you care about some back end of nowhere planet?). It's almost as bad as the fantasy races perpetually at war with each other for reasons that amount to "because".

When you add in the joys of supply chain logistics (which is, admittedly, rather more germane to fantasy than science fiction - but only because science fiction tends to deus ex out the distances and timeframes involved. The batteries and ammunition never seem to run out. At least swords never run out of ammo. But anyway...) and in-fight tactics, there's a lot for an author to juggle. Personally, I usually have to play out the entire thing several times while I'm writing it, from several different perspectives, before I can 'see' how things play out. Then I can write it with the portion of it seen by my point of view character while dropping in enough information that a reader can fill in the blanks. I'm not quite far enough gone to move little models around on grids, but that's a good chunk of what happens in my head. Along with crude emoticons on the models' faces to indicate what their general perspective is. (Admittedly, in Impaler the enemy perspective is usually 'WTF???' - but that's mostly because Vlad makes extensive use of night and surprise attacks to give his forces an edge. Okay, a lot of edges, and all of them very sharp. The blunt stakes happen after he's won.)

After learning medieval warfare and early renaissance warfare and battle tactics and becoming damn near a walking encyclopedia on how wars were fought during Vlad's time, it's incredibly frustrating to see battles written by someone who doesn't know "more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery". Maybe I've just been spoiled, but it seems to me like a lot of what gets published, the battle happens because someone's outline says there is one, and the end result is what the plan says it should be. It's kind of like the Final Battle for the Fate of The World is there because the book (or the mega-series) isn't done until you've had one.

What do you think? (And if what you think is 'Kate should not be posting when she's this tired because she's about as coherent as a politician in a lie detector', please don't bother. I know).


MataPam said...

I agree entirely. :: Looks guiltiy at pile of books she needs to read :: I've stalled out on sword fighting, and haven't started strategy yet.

So, what books did you find especially helpful?

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I have a degree in War Studies, and I cannot tell you how much I agree with you. My academic background has had a massive influence on me as a writer (of alternate history) and as a reader of fantasy and science fiction. Whenever an intergalactic empire is reduced to trench warfare, I groan in misery. Whenever logistics - thank you for highlighting them! - are essentially forgotten or considered to "just happen", I feel let down.

It is part of an author's job to create a believable world. If that world happens to revolve around war, or if the story being told is one based on war, an author has a job to make it believable and realistic, or they just aren't trying hard enough.

C Kelsey said...

Battles of any sort are exceptionally hard to write. Your post brings to mind something Tom Kratman once said, "amateurs talk tactics, wiser ameteurs talk logistics, professionals talk about it all".

Last June David Weber remarked about a scene in one of the Prince Roger books. John Ringo had given a large number for the army about to cross a bridge to engage in battle. David read it and did some calculations. Original intent was for the army to go straight into battle after the bridge *but* Dave determined that it was going to take a day and a half for that many soldiers to cross said bridge. Devil in the details and all that.

Lucius said...

What is there to say, but "I agree"?

That said, despite its decline in recent years, I think third-person omniscient is one of the better ways to describe battles if you can't find a way to avoid them.
(Of course, it can also be taken too far, and has its own problems.)
Of course, if highlighting the confusion, fear and chaos of a night raid is the whole point of the scene...

MataPam, what are you specifically looking for?
At the tactical level, "The Last Hundred Yards" by Poole is extremely hard to beat.
Amazon will tell you it's out of print, and copies of the paperback are going for a minimum of $80+ on ebay. But you can buy a new copy here: for about $30 including shipping.
At the strategic level, you'll want to look at the classics (Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz) at some point, but they're a lot more about the "why" than the "what". There are a lot of good books on strategy during war, but IMO, most of them are as dry as dust. I'd recommend "How Great Generals Win" and "How Wars Are Won" both by Bevin Alexander.

Kate Paulk said...


The classics got a good workout - Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Machiavelli's The Prince, and his Art of War. Also mad Google skillz for any period accounts of major battles (translations - I'm not THAT good!), a collection of general references on medieval warfare and early renaissance warfare... Machiavelli's Art of War was probably the best of them because he covered so many scenarios that were unfolding in that general time period and the kinds of problems commanders faced.

In a more general sense I've read a LOT of unusual reference material, including a "biography" of my grandfather's regiment in the First World War - not the most well-written piece, but a phenomenal resource about WWI technology and battles. Plus massive quantities of military fiction by a WW2 Navy man which had brilliant depictions of WW2 naval battles because he knew what he was talking about even though his plots were all pretty much the same thing. Dad being a WW2 history geek kind of helps, too.

Another hugely valuable experience was touring Gettysburg. The longer audio self-guided tours are absolutely perfect for getting foot-battle scale into your head.

Kate Paulk said...


Oh, now I know who to harass when I write the sequel! You'll no doubt be pleased to hear that Vlad obsesses about logistics through Impaler. What I tried to get was the mix of careful planning to have the logistics and strategy in place with the flexible on-field tactics to cope with whatever happened once the battle started.

Galactic empires and trench warfare just... don't go together. It's like space battles where everything happens on an invisible ocean surface.

And yeah, if there isn't a good solid attempt to make it believable and realistic enough, you're not trying hard enough.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris K,

Exactly! When you're writing about it, you have to cover all of it whether your space fleet has a massive auxiliary fleet of supply drones for repairs and supplies, or you've got a mile-long train of camp followers and the leaders are trying to keep their soldiers from gambling their clothes and weapons away (or everything in between).

Oh, yes, details like how long it takes an army of so many thousand to cross a bridge this wide are crucial. I had to work out how long it would take to ferry light cavalry horses across an estuary - several hundred light cavalry horses who weren't accustomed to large bodies of open water. (A long time, no matter how many boats you're using). Not to mention ferrying several thousand men across said estuary. Which is why Vlad stayed in that particular town for longer than he'd have preferred (It was still faster than going back to the nearest fordable crossing and marching his army around the loop).

Kate Paulk said...


Probably the biggest problem with third person omniscient is that it tends to have a detaching effect - readers are less involved with what's going on, so the impact of the battle isn't as powerful.

My usual method in close third is to position my various points of view in enough different locations that between them they've got the overview.

Impaler that couldn't happen because Vlad insisted on being first-person. Instead, I worked with a combination of immediacy and detachment - when Vlad is in the thick of battle, I wrote his impressions and actions, and when he's not leading the battle, his processing the things he's observed, and giving orders to cut off potential problem spots. Hopefully the end result does what I was aiming for - it certainly wasn't an easy balance to maintain.

With the night raids, it was often confusion, fear, chaos, and Vlad's sheer bloody-mindedness in a fight.

Thanks for the reference list - I'll have to check a few of the ones I don't already own.

Brendan said...

The thing that often gets me is when leaders are praised as bein tactical geniuses but you never see them doing anything particularly brilliant or innovative.

Brendan said...

In general it seems to me more battles are won due to the incompetence, arrogance and bloody-mindedness of the opposition rather the tactical brilliance of the victorious leader. Defeat of the least competent if you will.

Chris L said...

Hi Kate,

There are so many implausibles, how can you pick out just a few? I agree with Brendan though, the old 'You attack from the front while we sneak up from the rear', ain't that brilliant a strategy.

But I can't have anyone criticizing dogfights in space. Man, some of that stuff is just the best ever!

I had an audio book of The Art of War going in my car for a long time. It was a pretty accurate translation, followed by a translation of the translation for dummies like me.

I liked the idea that the battle was won before the physical fighting took place (not so great from a writer’s perspective but still…). And I especially liked the idea that a smart general wouldn't allow fighting to commence until he had karma on his side. Almost more like the Zen of Art than the Art of War.

Brendan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Paulk said...


That kind of thing drives me crazy. If So'N'So is a tactical genius, it helps to actually show So'N'So being brilliant.

Of course, that requires understanding tactics, strategy, and logistics enough to know what brilliance in tactics and so forth.

Kate Paulk said...


When the only way the good guys can win is to make the bad guys dumber than dirt, there's a problem.

Kate Paulk said...

Chris L,

Oh there's no shortage of bad to make fun of. As far as the dogfights in space go, there'd better be a good reason for them to be there.

The Sun Tzu Art of War is excellent and reasonably simple. Machiavelli is a lot more involved - and yeah, a smart commander will avoid getting into a battle unless/until he's got all the factors in his favor. Which can turn things into a waiting game - at least until someone screws up or someone's nerve goes (That part of the battle for Helm's Deep was dead accurate - although the effectiveness of the dud shot was a tad less likely)

Lucius said...

Oops. My apologies if that came across as a negative critique, that wasn't at all how it was intended.
[grin] Of course if you're sitting comfortably in your chair there's already a good deal of detachment in place, but I understand what you mean.

Of the Alexander books, "How Great Generals Win" is (IMO) the better. It covers some of the most significant campaigns in history. (The chapter on Jackson's Shenandoah Campaign is especially good.) There are times when you'll wish it had more depth, but it's a good, solid grounding that's enjoyable to read and has a high signal:noise ratio.
The second ("How Wars Are Won") largely focuses on thumbnail sketches of battles, so there's a good deal of oversimplification going on, but provides a good broad overview. It gives some general rules (while noting the tensions between them). There is an annoyance factor with it though. He tries very hard to make it "relevant" to a casual reader, and exhibits a good deal of wishful thinking when it comes to what our military will do, and how it will restructure in the near-future. (So expect to grind your teeth a bit during the first chapter.)

Kate Paulk said...


I didn't take it as criticism, implied or otherwise. Impaler is written in first person, so the third omniscient wasn't even an option. I was just noting that it does have disadvantages that need to be balanced against the advantages.

It definitely sounds like the great generals book is the one to get - I've already covered a LOT of more general ground one way or another.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

For battles, I do local pov, around character, then occasional input from outside, but mind you, my characters have NOT been commanders.

Stephen Simmons said...

Weber was GOH at one of our local Cons last year. He said he stopped watching Star Trek TNG because the writers created a scenario in which the characters were failing to use the weapons and tech they possessed in blatantly obvious ways, just to set up unrealistic battle scenes. (If they could beam at-will into any spot on the big Borg cube, why couldn't they beam a ton or so of anti-matter, distributed to a couple dozen spots ...)

Being a submariner, I havea long training background in three-dimensional battle-space -- but it doesn't translate to space battles without considerable consciuos effort, because my experience still subsumes an inflexible "up" and "down". Closer-in combat? I tend to use the fights I had every day with my older brother when I was growing up (including the weapons I occasionally employed ...)

Chris McMahon said...

I agree trying to write battles is difficult, especially when there is complex strategy. Some writers do it very well.

Perhaps I have a good instinct for who to read, because I have been rarely been disappointed in the fantasy I have read. I am fussy though.

I love a good battle scene. It used to be a joke between me and my wife. 'Chris!' Pause. 'I can't come now - I'm in the middle of a battle!' :)

Dave Freer said...

"When at a glance I can tell a Mauser rifle from a Javelin, when I know exactly what is meant by ravelin..."

I hate writing battle scenes.

TMSG said...

As mentioned a couple times above, it seems to mostly not brilliance, but that one side makes a couple more mistakes, or their execution is a little worse.

One thing I've noticed is that it feels a lot less like 'to stupid to live' and more just human if the reader knows why they made them. For instance, they are generally competent, but this was the best of the bad options they saw open to them.

Kate Paulk said...


I've done both (although not published), and commanders are a LOT harder. Especially if they're supposed to be good at it and you're not all that sure YOU are!

Kate Paulk said...


Weber has that right. The "rules" of the Star Trek universe are astonishingly lame, and the decisions... well. I think the last word here can go to Isaac Asimov and his (then) 8 year old daughter, after watching the premier showing of Fantastic Journey. (quote is probably not accurate, since it's from memory)

Kid: "But won't the submarine expand and kill the man, Daddy?"
Asimov: "Yes, it will."
Kid: "So why didn't they see that when they made the movie?"
Asimov: "You're smarter than the movie producers. After all, you're eight."

Kate Paulk said...

Chris M,

Good battle scenes are magnificent. I think everyone who knows me would agree with your wife there. "I can't come now, the battle's still going!"

Kate Paulk said...


"and know precisely what is meant by commissariat"

They're difficult, but you do them very well. You're one of those consistent exceptions who gets it right.

Kate Paulk said...


Yes, competence doesn't help much when all the choices stink - and I appreciate authors who show that. I really appreciate the ones who also show smart commanders who actually pay attention to what their subordinates think, and don't treat their soldiers like robots (unless of course the soldiers ARE robots, in which case it's a whole different set of cliches).

Herr Oberst said...

WRT the Last Hundred Yards, it may be great, but I'd be very leery of anything with William S. Lind's name on it. (He's listed as a co-author.) The man manages to lower the world's aggregate level of military understanding with each clause he writes.

As for logistics, a couple of things to note. No truck borne log system has ever reached 23% of theoretical capability over the long haul. (i.e. 100 5 tonners should be able to, say, move 500 tons forward 100 miles per day, for 50,000 ton-miles. In practice, you would be doing well getting 11,000 ton-miles... _exceptionally_ well.) Airframe logistic efficiency in modern times in theory is about 7%. I have it on pretty good authority that 2-3% is more like it. Almost everything will cube out before it weights out; the exceptions occur when there's a lot of high density, low cube material to be moved. Only ships and rail are really efficient, and even they rarely if ever reach maximum theoretical capability. Right now, I am pulling my rapidly thinning hair out trying to squeeze a mechanized task force, an infantry battalion, an artillery battery (105 towed with prime movers, etc.), an ADA battery, an engineer company and a headquarters and support package - all in all 547 vehicles and guns and 3713 men - onto a realistically small number of ships and craft and they just won't _freaking_fit_...

Okay...I'm calmer now.

In any case, I've commanded through battalion level (plus three companies, one of them about battalion sized) and have about 6 years of loggie time (every grunt ends up doing different things over the years) and if it's hard for me how hard is it going to be for you? Frankly, I think people without the experience and training mostly need to take a leaf from Scalzi's books and try to stay away from things you don't know, but if you absolutely must, prepare for a lot of thought and a lot of work.


Tom Kratman