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Chekhov's 21-Gun Salute: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle Scenes
A system for structuring battle scenes that makes sense for my not-very-battle-ready brain.
I'll tell you a secret: I've always had trouble focusing on battle scenes, either in movies and shows or in prose novels. There are so many moving parts, things whizzing by in so many directions that I forget what the point of it is - or else so many pages of tedious descriptions of troop movements that I forget what the point is of that, either. I like introspection, dramatic character interactions, and weird supernatural happenings. I can get spooky as hell, but I'm not much of a fighter.
But for THE INFINITE - Book 3 in the Outside series - I found myself in a jam. I'd written the story to a point where of course it needed to be solved with a big, final battle. I wanted to see the battle, the flashing lights and big sounds and drama of it all. But I didn't know how to put one together in a way that made sense. It was a kind of scene that I knew wouldn't come naturally.
So I set my mind to figuring out how battle scenes work. I pored over some of my favorite big battles from existing media - battles where even my battle-challenged mind stayed invested the whole way through. I broke them down into their component parts and I figured out what purpose each part served. In the process I came up with a system that allowed even me to write a final battle scene that my editors loved.
I'm going to share that system with you now.
This is going to be a multi-part series.
In Part 1 - today - I'm going to talk about how I came up with my system, and then I'll walk you through the basic concepts involved.
In Part 2 - on July 5 - I'll go into more detail about a battle's structure, as well as complications that can arise that change the structure.
In Part 3 - on July 19 - I'll talk about how to take this understanding of battle structure and block out a battle of your own. And I'll talk just a little bit more, spoiler-free, about how I applied this system to THE INFINITE.
All three posts will be public and free to read, but on June 28 and July 12, I'm throwing in two extra parts just for paid subscribers. More on that below.
How This Happened
I started working on this system after finishing THE FALLEN and beginning to work on the draft of THE INFINITE. THE FALLEN culminates with a kind of battle - a mass protest of sorts which is violently attacked by angels. In my first draft of THE FALLEN, the battle was very underwritten. I'd rushed through the main points as efficiently as I could, and my editors and beta readers weren't satisfied. I had to work a lot at that battle in revisions, adding more setup and more detail about what every character was doing at each stage of the battle. The revised version, which you can read now in the published book, was much improved - and almost twice as long.
In the process of revising THE FALLEN's big battle, I came up with some techniques out of desperation. I made charts and lists to track each character's goals. I divided the battle into sections based on the characters' overall progress (and the angels' progress as they shifted tactics, changing the kind of threat that they posed) - then I made sure most of the important characters had something important to do in every section. It worked, but I was doing it on the fly, without a solid idea of why it worked.
As soon as I started THE INFINITE, I knew that THE INFINITE's battle would be even more complicated - and I couldn't get away with writing it in the same way. Preparing for the battle and fighting the battle are two of the most important tasks the characters have throughout the book. I couldn't wing it, because I wouldn't be able to make head or tail out of most parts of the book until I knew what would happen in the battle. Plus, THE INFINITE's battle is challenging - the characters are up against a foe vastly more powerful than themselves, they have limited information about what that foe is actually like, and for narrative reasons they need not just to survive the fight, but to pull off a decisive victory.
I needed some help.
I tried searching the Internet for advice on how to write battle scenes, but most of the advice out there wasn't what I was looking for. Most of it revolved around principles like:
Don't exhaust the reader with too many battles; and
Make sure each battle in the book is actually necessary; and
Make sure each battle matters to the characters; and
Make sure to describe the battle vividly and with strong sensory descriptions.
These principles are not incorrect, but they were written for people who had basically the opposite of my problem. Too many battles? I needed to know how to write just one. I needed to write that one because it was necessary and mattered.
What I needed, I realized, was structural advice. I needed to know how to string events together into a battle shape. I needed to know how to determine what each character needed to do, or could do, at a given point. And I needed to know how to make all of those needful actions interesting: with no one winning too easily or losing so badly that I couldn’t find a way to pull them out of it, and with enough character in them that it didn’t devolve into a dry list of maneuvers.
So I went back to the drawing board and started to make my own notes about battles.
Specifically, I started taking detailed notes on the vanishingly small number of battles in fiction that I didn't get lost in, battles where the characters' sense of urgency came across to me perfectly, where the reason for each perilous thing they have to do was always fully clear. I wanted to write this kind of battle; and I wanted to study it closely enough to understand why it made sense to me.
A central battle for this study was the Battle of Scarif from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Everyone knows I'm Star Wars trash, and I'd often told people that the Battle of Scarif is an astonishingly well-written battle. It's complex and has a lot going on, often in several places at once; but it's a battle that has never once lost me the way so many other battles do. Every little tactical moment feels absolutely clear and absolutely necessary, and every emotional moment packs a huge punch. I did not, of course, want to kill off as many characters as Rogue One does - but in many other senses, this was precisely the kind of battle that I wanted to create.
So I set about deriving the principles for creating one.
(Here's where the subscribers-only posts come in: on June 28, next week, I'll show paid subscribers a cleaned-up version of my notes on the Battle of Yavin - I actually did this one first, because I wanted to start with something simpler - and on July 12, we'll do the same with Scarif.)
Once I'd done this analysis, I was able to block out the first draft of THE INFINITE's battle in a way that felt much less like flailing and more like following a sensible map. (More on that in Part 3.) And where THE FALLEN's final battle was one of the first draft's weakest points, THE INFINITE's final battle - despite being more complex and more technically challenging - was one of its strongest.
Who This System Is For
I'm sharing my system for anybody who finds it useful, but I suspect it will be more useful for some kinds of authors than others. Everyone's different! If you love battle scenes and they already come naturally to you, then this system might not tell you much that you don't already know. I think that this system will be most useful for authors:
Who struggle to follow battle scenes in fiction, like me, and need some help decoding their structure
Who naturally think more in terms of characters, character arcs, and emotions than tactics
Who are reasonably comfortable with step-by-step problem solving outside of battles
Who write more confidently when they have an outline, or at least some form of plan.
I think that it will also be most useful for stories where:
You’re looking for help writing one or two BIG, pivotal battles, rather than a lot of little skirmishes. I created the system to help myself write the big closing battle to a trilogy, so that’s where it will probably be most useful.
You’re using a mainstream Western story structure that focuses on conflict to drive the story foward.
Whether the story is lighter or darker, whether there are overt speculative elements or not, you’re looking for an “epic action,” genre-fiction-y vibe. I based the analysis on Star Wars for a reason! If you’re writing a literary story about the horrors of war, this system will be much less useful.
Guns On The Mantel: The System
You've heard of Chekhov's Gun - the idea that every detail in a story should be necessary, and should be used. If there's a gun on the mantel, then by the end of act three it should go off.
We can quibble about whether and where this principle really applies. Perhaps some details in a story are there to give atmosphere, or to suggest something thematically. But I'm referencing it now because it's the key to what I realized, after some study, about good battle scenes:
Every character in the battle brings a gun.
Not a literal gun, but a Chekhov's Gun. Every character has something about them that they bring to the battle. It could be an ability that’s special and central to the character. Or it could be something emotional - a connection to another character, or an arc they’ve traveled on throughout the story that will affect what they do in the battle. A central character might have more than one gun. (Non-human entities or organizations might also bring guns - more on that in part 2.) But every character who matters will bring one.
These are Chekhov’s guns, specifically, because they are aspects of the characters that were introduced or hinted at long before the battle began. And they are Chekhov’s guns because every gun that a character brings, especially in the story's final battle, must be fired. The battle must be arranged so that, in some way, every gun on the mantel ends up mattering to the outcome.
(For brevity, I'm going to refer to the protagonist's side of the battle as "heroes" and the opposing side as "villains," but please don’t take that too literally! It just felt clunky to write "characters on the protagonist's side" over and over again. Any battle needs at least two sides, which are opposed to each other in some way - but there doesn't need to be anything morally clear-cut about it.)
Both the heroes and the villains will bring guns. Both sides' guns need to matter to the outcome. But this system isn't fully symmetrical. It works best when we think of the heroes as using their guns to achieve a goal, and the villains as using their guns to get in the way.
Thinking of abilities, relationships, and character arcs as “guns” might sound facile, but it transformed how I think about battle scenes. A battle isn’t just a pile of things that go pew-pew and kill people! A good battle is a way for the characters to show what they’re made of, and a way to bring their character arcs to dramatic peaks - by having them use their guns effectively in service of a goal.
Speaking of which:
Every battle has a goal.
This is more obvious than the line about guns, but it bears stating. In an interesting battle, the characters aren’t fighting just because. There's something the heroes want to accomplish, and the only way to accomplish it is to fight. Different battles can have various goals - to capture or destroy something, to defend a stronghold under siege, to escape a bad situation or provide cover for someone who's escaping, and so on. (The villains have a goal, too, of course, and often the villains are the instigator - but in a Western story structure, the focus is on the heroes.)
Because the battle has a goal, we can think of it as a problem to solve. The heroes have a goal, but there are obstacles in the way. In this way, a battle is not very different from any other substantive problem in a story.
Like other substantive problems, the battle can be plotted using try-fail cycles. (I did not invent the concept of try-fail cycles; you can Google them They're everywhere.) But I prefer to think of them as problem-solution cycles. In a typical battle, the heroes don't simply fail over and over again. Instead, here’s what happens:
There's a quick bit of setup (and I do mean quick) where we're reminded which guns are on the mantel.
The battle is broken down into subgoals. To win the battle, the heroes need to get to point C; to get to point C, they will first need to get to point A, and then B. (These may literally be locations in the battlefield, but they don’t have to be.) So for our first problem-solution cycle, the heroes try to get to point A.
As soon as the heroes start trying to get to point A, problems get in their way. The problems may be villains, but they may be more abstract things - technical difficulties, for example, or problems with the terrain.
Each problem is immediately countered by a solution - or an attempted solution. In the battles I studied, most of the attempted solutions actually work - in a “yes, but” kind of way. Yes, the heroes got past this obstacle, but they're not at point A yet, and now here comes another problem. An attempt can also fail, or succeed only partly, or succeed at great cost.
Eventually the heroes either get to point A, or fail so decisively that they have to regroup and try a different approach. This is the end of the first cycle. We now have a quick space (again, quick) to show the characters’ reactions to what just happened, and to set up the next cycle’s guns.
We return to step 2 and repeat until the heroes have made it to point C and won the battle (though perhaps at great cost, or perhaps not in the way that they believed they would). Then there's a quick coda, showing each surviving character's reaction, before we move into whatever other plot events happen in the battle’s aftermath.
Using All Your Guns
Now here’s where the principle of guns and the principle of problem-solution cycles interact. Before the end of the battle, every important character needs to use each of their guns at least once. And they need to use each gun effectively.
What does it mean to use a gun effectively?
For the heroes, it means using the gun to solve a problem successfully. The gun becomes a necessary part of how the heroes reach their goal.
For the villains, it means using the gun to present a problem successfully. Ideally, this should be a problem that takes several steps in the cycle to solve.
And that's it! If you can understand these simple principles, you'll understand the core logic of a battle scene. But it might take further thinking to identify which abilities or parts of a character arc make effective guns, and where and how those guns should be used.
I'll illustrate how these principles can work in next week's subscribers-only post, where we'll use them to analyze the Battle of Yavin. And then in Part 2, even if you're not a subscriber, we'll break down further details of how they're applied - including the difference between practical guns vs emotional ones, guns that are loaded at the beginning of the battle vs guns that are loaded between cycles, characters with guns vs support characters, how emotional guns develop character arcs, and some structural complications (like battles where multiple groups are working on multiple subgoals at once, or cliffhanger problems that we cut away from before we see their solutions).