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Chekhov's 21-Gun Salute, Part 2: Fitting Guns Together
Welcome to part 2 of the series on how to do battle scenes when battle doesn't come naturally!
In part 1, I talked about where this system comes from for me, and I introduced some basic concepts. Among them, there's the idea that every character goes into the battle carrying a gun - not necessarily a literal weapon, but some ability they need to use to turn the tide of the battle, or some emotional arc they're on that needs to progress or resolve as the battle rages. The guns are Chekhov's Guns - they've been placed on the mantel, and to make the story satisfying, they need to go off. So the challenge of structuring a battle scene is mostly about creating a series of challenges, in which the villains bring all their guns to bear against the heroes, and it takes all the heroes' guns to solve the problems the villains present.
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If you're a paid subscriber, I've also broken down how the Chekhov's 21-Gun structure applies to the Battle of Yavin from Star Wars.
Today, I'll be talking in more detail about types of guns, ways of using them, setup and reactions, restraints and complications that can all affect the way a battle's structure unfolds.
It's all very well to say a character has a gun, but how do you tell which guns a character is carrying, and how to set them off? If you read the Battle of Yavin post you probably saw that there were a bewildering variety of guns - from actual weapons that have to be used, to skills that a character possesses, to character conflicts or connections between two characters that needed to pay off in some way. And some characters, including Princess Leia, didn't carry a gun to the battle at all.
The truth is that a gun can be almost anything! What guns your characters carry will depend entirely on the specifics of your story. But here is a non-exhaustive list of questions that can get you identifying them:
What is the worst thing the villains could do in this battle - the thing that they've been threatening to do throughout the story, and that the heroes are trying to stop? How could they get as close as possible to really doing it? What would happen if they actually did do it - or started to?
What is your protagonist good at? What extraordinary thing have they been told they have the potential to do? Which of their allies also have notable abilities? They should definitely use them.
What other resources do both sides have at their disposal? Have you already established that one side has a particular type of troops, or weapons, or defenses, or terrain that's in their favor? It'd be silly not to make each of these things as effective as possible.
What about your protagonist's inner arc? Is there something inward that they've been struggling to do - like believing in themselves, or breaking free of a sinister figure's control? Can they do this in the battle at just the right moment to turn the tide? Does anyone else in the story have an important arc like this?
Are there conflicts between characters on one side that will affect their ability to work together? Are two people clashing over how to approach something, or vying for power within the group, or is there someone the majority of the team isn't sure they can trust? What happens during the battle can decisively resolve these kinds of conflicts - in any direction.
Are there pairs of characters on opposing sides who have a particular, personal vendetta against each other? How could you arrange the battle so that those pairs can directly face off?
All the types of guns on the above list are guns that should be effective in the battle in some practical way - they should be fired in ways that move a try-fail cycle along. But there are also subtler guns, in the form of emotional connections between characters. These guns can be effective practically, but their most important function is to increase the tension and emotional stakes of the battle.
Are there pairs of characters in your battle who care about each other strongly? There are probably quite a few. You probably thought of romantic pairings first, but you should also think of friendships, mentorships, family relations, and teammates who have an unusually good rapport. In a battle, any and all of these pairings will have their connections tested, simply by the very fact that they're in a battle together. They're both in danger! And caring about someone who's in danger is an incredibly potent source of drama.
It's easy to overdo the emotional guns. If you've seen any movies at all, you can probably think of a scene where a character dies, and their partner falls apart or charges headlong into battle to avenge them. There's nothing wrong with doing this once or twice, but most of the time you can fire the emotional guns by doing something a lot smaller:
A character gets cornered, or otherwise into trouble, and their partner gets them out of it again.
A character gets injured, takes a big risk, or is temporarily out of contact with their team, and their partner worries. (Ideally, both the worry and the loss of contact should tie into something effective - but you can also just show the partner's expression of worry to drive home the stakes.)
A closely bonded pair of characters work together to overcome an obstacle in a way that most other pairs could not.
Maybe one half of the pair is only invited to the battle in the first place because their partner wants them there - and then they do something crucial, and their partner's choice to invite them is proven correct.
Maybe a character has something really difficult to do, and they succeed because their partner made a sacrifice to help them (and think outside the box here - there are lots of things a character can sacrifice without dying!)
There are also characters who exist in the battle to drive home the stakes and to remind readers of what will be lost if the heroes fail. For instance, there might be frightened civilians caught in the path of the enemy, or maybe loved ones or children who are threatened. Characters like these can be given agency, and they might be resourceful enough to contribute something effective in the battle themselves - but most of the time they simply aren't in a position to defeat the villains, even briefly, for themselves. These characters don't carry guns into the battle, and they won't usually be a part of your try-fail cycles, but they can be shown or referred to at key moments.
More About Structure
Your heroes are going to enter the battle with goals and plans. Even if the villains surprise them and they start out on their back foot, they're going to need to quickly find some way to try to get out of the scrape they're in. Obviously, the villains should have goals and plans too, and you should know what those are - but since most of a typical story is from the heroes' point of view, I find it more useful to focus most of my attention on the heroes' plans. This stops the battle from becoming a sort of extended, agency-less flailing session on their part.
A goal is what the heroes need to do to win the day. If they achieve their goal, the battle is over. Some examples of goals might be to destroy the villains' doomsday weapon, to capture the villains' big spaceship, or to fend off the villainous army beseiging your castle.
A plan is a means of getting to the goal. The plan will often have more than one step. For example, the heroes might plan that they'll destroy the villain's doomsday weapon, first by getting past the legion of minions guarding the weapon, then by pressing the big red button that makes the weapon self-destruct.
The goal of a battle usually doesn't change - something major would have to shift in the heroes' understanding of the situation, mid-battle, in order for this to occur. But the plan can, and frequently does, change. In fact, one of the common ways to create more tension in a battle is to force the heroes to change their plans on the fly. The heroes might find that one way of getting past the legion of minions doesn't work, so they have to try another. Or the villains might bring out an evil wizard who rains fire on them as they approach - now they have to take out the wizard before they can advance on the doomsday weapon itself.
These twists that change a battle's course shouldn't come out of nowhere. They should be the result of the villains firing a gun that was already on the mantel.
Life Stages of a Gun
To talk about the role guns play in a battle's plan, let's define some terms:
A gun is on the mantel when it's been established that the gun exists, and it will need to be fired. This generally happens before the battle begins. Most guns are placed on the mantel either through narrative convention (we've been rooting for the hero to use their abilities in a particular way) or through logistical deduction (we saw that the villains have tanks, so it would be very silly if they rolled into battle without them...) Every gun that will be used in a battle should be on the mantel by the time the battle begins.
A gun is loaded when we've shown that someone is preparing to use this specific gun in this specific battle. For example, we might see one side's soldiers putting their armor on and getting their weapons ready - we now know that these soldiers are ready to fight, and we know what weapons they have. A gun can be loaded either immediately before the battle, or during the battle (usually in a break between cycles).
In some cases a gun may be put on the mantel and loaded at the same time. This works for relatively expected guns that don't require a lot of dramatic buildup. For example, if we know that the villains have a source of powerful fire magic which they've already been using in smaller ways, we might not be introduced to a specific type of nasty magical fire-bomb until we see them getting ready to use it.
In some cases there might be an existing story element, like a side character, who doesn't necessarily have to participate in the battle (at least, not by any very obvious laws of narrative or logistics). But the element is turned into a loaded gun just before the battle begins, when they make some fateful decision or reach a fateful point in their character arc which needs to be satisfyingly resolved in the battle. In this case, you can also think of the element as being put on the mantel and loaded at the same time.
In some cases a gun is not visibly loaded - only placed on the mantel earlier in the story and then fired by surprise. This works only when you actually want the gun's role in the battle to be a surprise. It still has to be put on the mantel at some point so as not to come completely out of left field.
But in most cases - especially for important guns - a gun is first put on the mantel some time before the battle, then loaded just before or during the battle.
A gun fires when it is used effectively as part of a try-fail cycle (or, in the case of emotional guns, to increase the tension). Once a gun fires, it is in play as long as it stays on the battlefield and has the potential to fire again. A gun is removed when it cannot fire again - either because it is destroyed, or because it somehow ceases to be useful.
In a typical battle, guns will be loaded and added over time, and other guns will be progressively removed - especially in the battle's later stages, when it becomes more apparent that everything's up to the protagonist now.
The most important guns won't just be fired once, but several times. It would be a shame if the protagonist of the whole story was only useful at one specific point in the battle and spent the rest of the time twiddling their thumbs! They'll probably face many small challenges that they have to use their skills to overcome. Similarly, if the heroes have a big army, it would be strange if the army was only useful at one moment.
Cycles, Setup, and Reactions
As I mentioned in part 1, these guns are fired as part of try-fail cycles, and each try-fail cycle revolves around a plan to achieve a subgoal. Eventually the heroes either achieve the subgoal, or get thrown off so badly that they'll have to start their next attempt from scratch.
There are two other parts to this structure of cycles. These are setup and reactions. Setup occurs at the beginning of the cycle, and reactions occur at the end.
Setup is a chance for your characters to load the guns that they're about to introduce in the next cycle, and to remind the reader what they'll be trying to accomplish next. Reactions are a chance for your characters, having succeeded or failed at their subgoal, to take a quick breath and display some emotion about what just happened - or to think fast as they come up with new plans on the fly. These shouldn't be long interludes - your characters are still in the middle of a battle, after all! - but a quick break for reactions can be very effective for moderating the battle's pace, driving home the stakes, and reminding readers where everyone's character arcs are at. This is also a good place to briefly show how any non-combatants are doing.
(The structure of try-fail cycles followed by reactions is also called a "scene and sequel" structure - you can read more about it elsewhere.)
It's especially important to have setup at the very beginning of the battle and reactions at the very end. Setup at the beginning of the battle should be used to load most of your guns and to go over the plan - or at least, the plan that the heroes think they'll need when they begin! Reactions at the end are important so that we can ground the tactical victory in the characters. Don't just show the villain's evil tower finally burning down - show what the surviving heroes think and feel when they see it happen.
So far I've been writing as though there is essentially a single group of heroes, making progress through the stages of a single plan against a single group of villains in more or less a single battlefield. But this isn't always the case. Here are some times when a battle can get more complex:
The heroes and their allies might be split into several groups. Not only that, but each group might have a different role in the plan. For instance, maybe one group charges towards the evil necromancer who's threatening the city, while another group engages the skeletons she's summoned, and a third tries to destroy the portal of darkness that will allow her to escape. How do you write a try-fail cycle for people who are trying to do three different things at once?
Usually, the easiest way to deal with this is to realize that only one of these goals is the main goal. In this example, the evil necromancer is the biggest threat, and the primary goal of the battle is to take her out. The skeletons have to be held off so that the heroes can get to the necromancers without being piled under a giant skeleton swarm; the portal has to be blocked or destroyed so that the necromancer can't slip away to fight another day. Dealing with both of these threats is a necessary part of the plan - but the real goal, towards which the plan builds, is to fight the necromancer herself.
Once you have your eyes on the real goal, you can write a try-fail cycle in which all three groups of characters deal with obstacles towards this goal. Maybe there are too many skeletons to easily hold off, and that group has to try a fancy maneuver to destroy a lot of them at once; maybe the necromancer casts an evil spell in her own defense; maybe something awful is beginning to come through the portal. You can switch between your three groups and show them dealing with all of these obstacles in the same cycle - as long as you remember the reason why you're including all these obstacles; all of them are problems that make it harder to achieve your primary goal of defeating the necromancer.
Trading Off Subgoals
In a more complicated battle, you may have a plan that hands off the primary goal between several groups. You might have a situation where first one group has to switch off a shield generator, or create a distraction to call most of the villains away; then, only when that group is finished, can the second group move in towards the battle's final goal. In this case you would first have a cycle centering around the first group, followed by a cycle centering around the second group - but both group's actions can still appear in both cycles, either as support (like the groups in the necromancer example) or as setup.
A battle might not be confined to one battlefield. If you have multiple groups that are each working on a different subgoal, those subgoals might all require being in a different location. This can be handled in the same way as any other situation with multiple groups - it will just require more scene changes!
By now, you might have noticed something. I've talked a lot about what the parts of a battle are and how they fit together - and if you're a paid subscriber, I've illustrated how this works in practice by breaking down a famous fictional battle (there'll be another, more complicated one of those next week). But except for the part about identifying guns, I haven't talked much about how to put these pieces together when you're writing your own story from scratch. And if you've come here for writing advice, then that's the important part!
In Part 3 of this series, on July 19, I'll be going over just that - complete with the (spoiler free) example of how I used these principles when putting together the final battle of THE INFINITE.
Everything Is True is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.