October 2022: Drawing the Battle Lines Pt 1

So far, we’ve talked quite a bit about writing fight scenes. However, there’s a certain and rather considerable difference between writing a one-on-one fight or a limited brawl and writing mass combat between two armies or other large groups of belligerents. Naturally, this is something I’m rather familiar with. It’s probably the case that most of the fights I write are mass combat rather than single combat, whether that be a cavalry skirmish, or a “set-piece” battle, between two armies who’ve shown up at one place to do battle.

There are some similarities between writing single combat and mass combat, of course. If you’re writing from the limited perspective of a single character, you’ll probably find that a lot of the guidelines I’ve already set down about writing combat will still apply, especially when the perspective character is in the middle of the action. Of course, the thing is that a large-scale mass combat involves more than just individuals fighting each other but on a larger scale. This is a mistake a lot of people have about mass combat, and one which is reflected especially in visual portrayals: battles are more than just a whole bunch of people fighting individually with each other. The ‘shape and feel’ of a battle is determined by things like the capabilities and doctrines of the forces involved, the terrain, the character and decision making of individual commanders, the technology at the disposal of each side and so on. It’s a lot more complicated to narratively set up a plausible mass combat than it is to set up a single combat.

This is why I’ll be dividing my thoughts on this subject into two parts. In the first half, I want to talk about the ‘setup’ of a mass combat, what that entails, what a creator should consider, and how that affects the shape and feel of the resulting scene. In short, it’ll try to offer some advice about answering the question of why these two armies are fighting in this particular place, and how they’ve gotten there with the forces they have when battle is joined. In the second half, I’ll be talking in more detail about the specific challenges of writing perspectives within a mass combat, and how the factors which we’ve established in this first section will affect the reactions and perspectives of the individual characters within that battle, and how that will in turn shape the objectives of a writer trying to describe that perspective.

Before that, however, I’d like to offer a reminder as to why this sort of setup is necessary, even though we’re mostly talking about science fiction and fantasy, where ‘realism’ isn’t necessarily a concern.

All stories function on an internal logic. In stories which purport to take place in our world, that internal logic is also our logic. In fiction, this isn’t necessarily the case. The laws of physics are subject to the laws of magic and of technology-which-has-the-effects-of-magic, and as a result, the laws and principles of our own world and its history don’t necessarily apply. However, that doesn’t mean the internal logic has been removed, merely that it’s been altered, or replaced. To make sense, a narrative still needs to adhere to its own internal logic. A story which fails to do so will quickly lose its ability to keep the audience engaged. As plot, suspense, characterisation, and stakes are all based on the assumptions which the audience has built through an understanding of the narrative’s internal logic, violating or altering that logic in a fundamental way leads to the failure of those assumptions and any new plot elements introduced through this sudden change will feel contrived or unearned: a ‘cop-out’.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a story in a fantastic setting has to be constrained by ‘realism’. The internal logic of a narrative is whatever the creator says it is, so long as the parts of that logic which are narrativistically important are established early, and adhered to. It doesn’t matter if red is a smell and the sky is green in a story – so long as the characters within it can still smell red and see a green sky later on. As a result, I won’t be going so much into the weeds of particular historical principles of campaigning and operational planning in this section. Instead, I’ll be speaking in more general terms, which will allow you, as the creator, to create your own internal logic, and create the setup for a battle which adheres to it and makes sense, both for the characters within the story, and the audience experiencing it.

It is often said that amateurs study tactics, and professionals study logistics. What this means for us as creators and worldbuilders trying to write a battle is that the conditions for a battle within a fictional setting are determined firstly by the means available to the societies of that setting for transporting, organising, feeding, and equipping armies. This in turn is determined by the technology available, the way which the society which fields that army is organised, and the doctrine which that army has developed to deal with what its leaders and theorists consider to be its greatest threats. That stuff I’ve already covered elsewhere (specifically, in my Ordering a Society series), so I won’t go into too much detail about those wider topics here.

However, what is important for us to keep in mind is that armies are limited by where they can go and where they can’t go based on their ability to maintain the food and supplies they need to remain a militarily effective force – which is to say, a force which can put up enough of a fight to reasonably expect to achieve its objective. This applies just as much for fleets of starships, flights of dragons, or parties of adventurers. If an army is relegated to pre-industrial means of transport like wagons or sailing ships, then that strongly limits how far an army can go from its established supply bases. It also determines how big that army can be: there’s a reason why armies in the European Middle Ages tended to be very small – the existing infrastructure and technology simply didn’t allow for bigger ones to be organised or supplied. Likewise, there’s a reason why armies massively increased in size during the late 19th century, because the advent of railroad networks meant it suddenly became a lot easier to move, feed, and equip large numbers of soldiers.

These limitations determine not just where armies can go in a broad sense, but also beg the more narrow question of what paths are available for that army to reach its objectives. Here, we move into the realm of strategy (sometimes called grand strategy), or the way by which an army is intended to achieve the political objectives for which it was assembled. After all, armies cost a lot of time, effort, and resources to assemble, and even more to maintain in the field. If an army is being fielded, then the people spending that time, money, and those resources are doing so for a reason. These can vary from setting to setting, based on the nature of the societies involved: a society based on personal bonds of loyalty might have one individual (a monarch or a noble) assemble an army to force a rival to become a personal subject of that individual. Alternatively, a society might intend to conquer neighbouring societies to subsume them into a greater socio-political identity, or simply intend to deter a perceived bad actor by forcing them to withdraw from an area, or else destroy their means of making war.

The question of a given army’s strategy is important because it determines what it is out trying to do, which sets the conditions for the location, and the type of battle which it is going to fight. For example, an army which seeks to capture an important city (which might be the ultimate political objective, or simply a potential supply base from which to achieve further objectives) might march with the intention of laying siege to that city directly. But if the enemy also has an equal or stronger army in the field, then that opponent might seek to intercept that attacking force before it can begin the siege. The result would be an open field, or ‘set-piece’ battle between two armies. Alternatively, if the opponent is weaker, it might seek to hold out within that city for as long as possible, in the hopes that the attacking army will run out of supplies before the defenders do. Maybe the first army’s objective isn’t to take a city, but to weaken the enemy, so instead of making for a fortified city, it burns crops, raids villages, loots livestock, and forces the opposing force to answer to counter-raids or patrols to defend the hinterlands.

In these examples, you can see how the interplay of logistics and strategy create the conditions by which two opposing military forces interact with each other and set the conditions for the type and scale of battle which they might engage in. Modern military theorists refer to the ability to work within this interplay as the ‘Operational Art’: the ability to work within logistical limitations to most effectively (which could mean with the lowest loss of life, within the shortest period of time, or the lowest chance of failure) achieve the objective of a strategic plan.

This creates the framework which leads two armies to be driven into each other, whether the result of that collision be a series of skirmishes, a season of fruitless manoeuvering, a siege, or a set piece battle. The available technology and resources create the logistical conditions through which each side applies their strategies, looking for the easiest way to achieve their objectives while mitigating their risks and losses. Of course, this sort of framework doesn’t necessarily lead to a major confrontation. In our own past, large decisive battles were actually pretty rare – commanders usually didn’t want to risk their entire armies unless they were absolutely certain of their superiority in the field (in which case, it would be the enemy who would do their best to avoid open battle – like the Russians did against Napoleon in the 1812 campaign). Of course, there are ways to make a battle happen even when it doesn’t quite make sense. A favourite among some creators is to simply have one side’s commanders be incompetent, or have their culture demand that they commit to a certain type of engagement even when it doesn’t suit the circumstances. I can’t say I’m a fan of this approach. Generally speaking, societies which regularly put incompetent individuals in charge of their armies and maintain cultures which insist on disadvantageous engagements tend not to last long. While it does happen, it isn’t something to rely on.

However, as the creator, you have more subtle options at your disposal. After all, you ultimately control both the setting and the conditions which exist within it, and you have the ability to shape these conditions until the kind of battle you want for your narrative is inevitable: put a fortress where it will necessarily interfere with an attacking army’s strategy to force a siege. Allow one side enough territory to retreat to so that they can resort to raids and skirmishes. Manipulate both sides’ strategies, or shape the land their fighting over in a way that a set-piece battle becomes inevitable.

We’ve now covered the framework which puts two armies on a course for battle, and sets the conditions for that battle itself. While in the study of history or military theory, engagement with this framework mostly exists through the processes of observation and analysis, a creator and worldbuilder can take an active role, altering geography, culture, technology, and politics to create the conditions necessary to create the battle they want for the story they intend.

Next, we’ll move from the realm of operations to that of tactics, which is to say, towards the writing of the battle itself.

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