Saturday, July 6, 2019

The challenge of writing battle sequences

There are very few writers who can make battle sequences worth reading. It is difficult to make battle sequences both vivid and clear. I think John Ringo, W.E.B. Griffin and J. Curtis are as good as it gets.

The challenge is compounded by the fact that the the vast majority of the people on the battle field have a very fragmented understanding of what is going on. Not only does the fighter-on-the-field have a very narrow window into events but it is distorted by the fog of war.

One technique writers use is to place the battle in a barren, easy to describe landscape. Consider how Griffin started his book The Lieutenants: The opening scene is of a sparsely vegetated, undulating dessert where the vertical relief was sufficient to hide a German Panzer Tank.

Maps are wonderful but many people cannot read them. I once shot a buck in a picked bean field similar to this one. I stalked 200 yards down-wind to the buck that was bedded down in the middle of the field. I jogged sideways twice during my approach. Once to keep a rise between me and the buck. Then a second time to keep a rock-pile and tree between us. He was 35 yards away when I shot him.
Most landscapes are much messier than Griffin's North African desert and the dilemma is that describing them in the degree of detail that the person on the battle field experienced will cause the reader to go to sleep. The other approach is to describe only those portions of the battlefield (a bush, a saddle, a boulder or a rock pile, a "clamp" for storing vegetables in the middle of a flat field) that are germane to the approaching battle and that implies a God-like prescience of future events.

As a writer, I chose to have Chernovsky's forces criss-cross the landscape umpteen times during training. That way you knew that they had intimate knowledge of every square foot of that landscape. They knew each bush and saddle and boulder, swamp and bump. As readers, we expect rational actors to take maximum advantage of the field-of-play. Quinn would not bury himself in a hole filled with cattails. Rather he would hobble to the best vantage point, in this case a rock pile that gave him elevation for improved battle field visibility and a solid barrier should he need a steady rest for firing or to shield against incoming fire.

Hey Rocky: Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat
There is only one play in football. The only thing that varies are the details. Present "evidence" that you are going to move the ball in a certain way and then move the ball in a different direction or different mode, preferably one which catches the defense in a sub-optimal configuration.

Battles are same-same. Present evidence to the target to get them to focus in the wrong place: A string of fire-crackers going off, a puff of smoke, a pretty girl or an ice cream truck, a flash-bang in the middle of the room. Then pour the fire to them from a direction they are ill-prepared to defend against. Bonus points if the fire is "stealthy" and the defenders are not capable of deducing the nature of.

I know my limitations as a writer and make some assumptions about you, as readers.  Rather than have your eyes roll back in your head as I bury you in excruciating detail, I prefer to skip lightly across the tops of the waves and let your imagination fill in the details.


  1. As a woman I have no idea how battles are waged and what you should do or not do. I'm sure guys eat up the details but it's usually over my pretty little blond head :)
    I love the story and battles and defending home is an integral part of the story. Keep up the great work. I look forward to every installment.

  2. The guy that wrote 'House to House' takes the reader INTO Falluga.(sp)

  3. How about Larry Correia? He did Monster Hunter, the first one is free on Kindle:
    Been awhile since I read it. Perhaps that is too small scale to qualify for your Best At Combat authors. I just remember I loath the subject matter but he was a good enough writer to make me enjoy it.


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