By Kevin Paul Tracy
I've spent the past three posts discussing elements of politics in fiction, somewhat focused on world-building, which is often considered an activity of the speculative fiction writer, but I submit is also a job for any crafter of mysteries, adventures, thrillers, etc. who wants to provide a solid plot line that fulfills and satisfies readers. It is time to move on from political intrigue, or spies and terrorists, to full-scale war in fiction.
Most of us have written the occasional (or frequent) action scene - fist fights, exchanges of gunfire, and various forms of chase scenes. But few have the occasion to relate a full scale battlefield clash between two forces numbering in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands. To some the task may seem daunting, but if you keep in mind that, in the end, even chapters about massive combat are still ultimately about characters the readers have, hopefully by this point, come to care about, the task becomes manageable, if no less complex.
The challenge is to relate the larger events of the battle, the strategy and tactics, the turn of advantage, the ebb and flow of victory and defeat, while still keeping the very small, individual, human element integral to the narrative. I suggest planning for the battle comes at the very beginning of story craft - in the outline phase for the entire book. If you know this book is going to have a large-scale battle in it, you have some elbow room to plan ahead. Introduce characters whose diverse occupations and roles are going to be useful in giving the reader insight into the various aspects of the conflict later. In a medieval setting, for example, introduce the Kings and Generals early in the story, but also perhaps a squire, perhaps a message runner, an infantryman or two, and perhaps a conscientious princess or lowly midwife who might become a nurse to the injured or a beacon of leadership to refugees, etc. These do not have to be major characters, and they do not necessarily have to hold the roles at the very beginning of the book, as long as they are in place when the conflict starts so that we can turn to them from time to time during the battle for their very personal, human dramas amidst the larger backdrop of war.
Characters in place now, the battle starts. A battle is kind of like a tide at the beach, it ebbs one way, flows another, breaks against hard forces such as rocks, then tumbles past soft forces like shells or seaweed. Think of writing your battle sequence like a tide. Start with a bird's-eye view, giving us the larger context, the state of war as it begins, then rush down into the midst of it and focus on the actions and consequences of one of the characters established earlier. At an appropriate point, preferably upon a cliff-hanger, zoom your storytelling camera back out to the thousand foot view again, tell us how the tide of battle has shifted, who is advancing and who retreating. Then, dive back down again, choose another character whose very personal story gives us a context-filled experience that affects us and keeps us engaged.
And so it should continue - wide-shot, then close-up, wide-shot, then close-up, keeping us apprised of the progress of the larger war at hand, while simultaneously keeping us engaged on a deeper, much more character-driven level. If done well, the reader comes away from your book with a fulsome sense of satisfaction, that they were able to follow the impact of the greater events at hand because they were also given the very personal, individual micro-view of how those larger events affected individuals they cared about.
Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the upcoming sequel to Bloodflow to be release 4/15/2015; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.