By Jill Williamson
If you’re writing one point of view at a time, then a full-scale, epic war is no different from the one-on-one fight scene. You can only show one battle at a time is one battle. There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps you are writing from the point of view of an onlooker on a hill. In that case, try describing one aspect of the battle at a time. How you choreograph all the little fight scenes and move from one to the next will help you show your epic battle.
This took me a while to learn. And, as always, I learned it the hard way. As I was working through my edits with my super cool editor Jeff Gerke, he said, “Why are all these people traipsing through the woods when they don’t know what’s ahead? They should send out some scouts. And what about the rearguards? What are they doing?”
And I was like, “What’s a rearguard?”
This made me realize I knew nothing about war and full scale battles. Another example of how necessary research is to storytelling. Armies move slowly, and they don’t just wander around, hoping to stumble upon their enemy. Commanders send scouts out ahead to see where the enemy is and check the lay of the land. This helps the commander decide where to move his group of several hundred—or thousand—men.
Even now, I’m far from an expert, and to tell a fun story, you don’t have to learn everything. I did learn the basic layout of an army and what each part does. I made a little diagram to give you an idea of how an army might look.
Who your character is will determine where he is in such a processional march. Here are the vital areas:
Scouts- these fellows ride ahead to locate the enemy. As they do, they consider the terrain to determine the best route for the army to take whether on foot or if vehicles are involved. Engineers might help scouts decide how to bypass major obstacles.
Security Guard- These men operate 2 to 6 miles in front of the advance guard. Once they find the enemy, the security force keeps watch on them.
Advance Guard- These soldiers stay about 1 to 2 miles ahead of the main army to protect the main army from surprise and to cover the main body if it becomes engaged in battle.
Main Army- This is the main body of the army. Units in the main body should know the situation at all times.
Flank Guard- Flank guards operate between the rear of the advance guard and the front of the rear guard to protect the sides of the main body. The flank guard is responsible for reconnaissance along the main body to make sure the enemy doesn’t attack from the sides. Flank guards also help with communication between the advance guard and the main army.
Rear Guard- Rear guards operate along the back of the main army and the flank guards. The rear guard must make sure no one sneaks up on the army from the back.
Commander- The commander positions himself in the main body so he can receive information, see the ground, and plan ahead for the deployment of troops. After the enemy is located, the commander should be far enough forward to influence the battle but not so far forward that he loses control of his troops.
Jeff recommended a book, which I found intriguing. It’s out of print, but I was able to find a used copy. It’s called Battles of the Medieval World 1000 – 1500. It goes into detail about many historical battles and includes tactical illustrations of the battles. Those were invaluable for me, since I’m a visual learner. So I drew out tactical battle plans for my story and it really helped me see how things might work. Here is my battle plan for the battle of Reshon Gate from the third novel in my trilogy, From Darkness Won.
I confess, I’m addicted to Photoshop. So here is my first sketch of the battle. As you can see, it’s pretty much the same, just not so pretty.
Planning out the general layouts of the terrain and your two army sizes will help you. You also want to know how the battle is going to end. This should give you enough information to brainstorm different ways the battle could go.
But here’s the deal: You don’t have to tell the reader everything.
Hopefully, you are writing from one point of view at a time. If this is the case, you only need to show the reader what is happening with that character’s part of the battle. If you have multiple points of view, you can place your characters in a way that lets the reader know what’s going on where. Tolkien did this in the Return of the King. We were in the main battle with Eowyn and Merry when they slayed the Witch King. And Aragorn and his crew traveled over to the Black Gates.
So think through your plot and what needs to happen. Then deal with each part as you would a single scene. Your main character should fight one battle at a time, then find out when he gets a breather who else was injured and how they’re doing.
Any questions about the full scale battle?