Chekhov's 21-Gun Salute, Part 3: Do It Yourself
Today we're walking you through designing your own battle with your own set of guns, and talking (spoiler-free!) about how I went through this process for THE INFINITE.
Sorry I'm a day late - I'm feeling better, but still scrambling to catch up with everything I missed while I was sick!
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Today we're closing out our Chekhov's 21-Gun Salute series by walking you through the process of designing your own battle with your own set of guns, and talking (spoiler-free!) about how I went through this process for THE INFINITE.
Step 1: List Your Guns
I talked about this a little in Part 2, under "Identifying Guns." By asking yourself questions about the structure of your story, the resources that both sides have, the arcs your important characters are on and where you want those arcs to end up, you can figure out which guns in your story are non-negotiable.
Some guns will derive from the basic structural bones of your story, and it will be hard to avoid making them central to the battle. The big villain threat that's been hanging over the heroes' heads, or the big latent ability that the protagonist needs to master and use - these are guns that you probably came up with very early in your story planning, and it'll be hard to change them without changing a big part of what the story means to you. Other guns can be placed pretty much wherever or however you like. For example, think about the terrain the characters are fighting on. You can probably make this whatever you'd like it to be, and whatever would spice up the battle in a way that you enjoy - as long as you've set it up the right way.
And remember that nobody said you had to write the whole story in order. You can go back and revise. If you think of something that would be really cool for the characters to do in the battle, but you haven't put that gun on the mantel, that's an easily solved problem! You can just go back in your manuscript and retroactively put in the hints and setup where they need to be.
For THE INFINITE's final battle, I listed:
All the hero characters who have abilities that could be useful in the battle. (This didn't include all of the Seven - some of them have abilities, like perception or healing, that weren't going to turn the tide in a battle this large - but it meant thinking carefully about who could contribute what.)
All the non-hero characters, what side they were on, and what they could do for that side.
All the obvious resources each side has, besides the characters themselves. (For example, the villains have a bunch of spaceships that are reputed to be able to do certain things - the spaceships aren't characters, per se, and there is no need to show each of their pilots' and crews' points of view, but certainly each type of ship is a gun.)
Major turning points, confrontations, or dramatic moments that I wanted the characters to have.
At this point, now that you've listed the abilities each character has to offer, you might notice that some characters have abilities that you've set up, but that you didn’t think about using in the battle. You might even notice that this changes how you think about their character arcs - or at least that's what happened to me when I did it! There were several secondary characters that I'd initially envisioned with more of a tragic, helpless arc. I felt a little funny about having it, but nothing better had come to mind. But when I listed the abilities and resources those characters had, the guns that they might bring into battle if they chose, I realized that they could play a much more active role in what happened. They wouldn't necessarily suffer less, but their arcs would feel better, less helpless, more triumphant. I was suddenly excited about my ideas for what these characters could do if they took more initiative and owned their power.
This isn't surprising in retrospect. The ability to recognize the guns you have and use them is a big part of what we call agency. I've always struggled with agency; it's sometimes hard for me to remember the power I actually have, or the power that my characters have - especially "hero" characters. (There are some important critiques of the emphasis on agency in mainstream Western storytelling, but right now we're talking about writing battle scenes that fit into a mainstream, Western, action-oriented story - and these kinds of stories are most satisfying when everybody’s choices are powerful enough to affect the outcome.)
If you're like me, and you struggle to give your characters the agency a reader expects, then think of this step as an Agency Check. If a character lacks agency - if they seem oddly helpless, or if they wait around too passively for other characters to save them - it’s often because we haven’t remembered to let them use the guns that they have on the mantel. Sometimes a character, especially a female character, is set up as being powerful but then mysteriously doesn’t get to do anything at the story’s climax. Taking the time to actively list the character’s guns can help you to prevent these problems!
Step 2: Roughly Outline Subgoals
Now that you have a list of your guns and of especially dramatic moments that you want to have happen, you should have some idea of what the major cycles and subgoals in your battle should look like. Don't worry yet about fitting every gun into your plan - that's step 3. Instead think about the dramatic moments that you already have in your head, and ask yourself:
What does the battle's big moment of victory look like? What's the final blow that decides things once and for all? This is your goal.
Look at your list from Step 1. Do you see any big obstacles that will have to be cleared out of the way before trying for the big moment of victory? Are they big enough that it would take a try-fail cycle with several steps to plausibly deal with them? If so, these are your subgoals. Jot down their names.
Keep looking at your list. Do any of the dramatic moments in your head look like failure points? Are there any moments sufficiently dire that the heroes would need to regroup and try a slightly plan? Are there any big twists or revelations that you've imagined happening, mid-battle, that would require the heroes to change their plan significantly? These are the ends of try-fail cycles, too. Jot them down.
Now look at what you've jotted down. How many try-fail cycles are there? You don't need a ton of them - three is often enough, including the final one that leads directly to the goal. If you don't have that many, think for a minute about the general situation. How many obstacles stand in the heroes' way? Would it make sense for them to have to deal with one obstacle before tackling another? Could you set things up so that there’s a stronger reason why they have to? If the situation facing the heroes isn't complex enough to need multiple cycles, then you might want to add some more or bigger guns on the villains' side. Keep thinking until you can break the battle down into a handful of cycles.
I can't talk much about the subgoals of THE INFINITE's big battle without spoilers, but I'll say generally the battle involves getting someone to a specific place so they can do a specific thing - and then fending off increasingly powerful opposition for long enough to let the person do it.
Step 3: Fit the Guns Together
Now here's where you flesh out your little list of subgoals into a full-fledged battle outline.
For every gun that your heroes bring to the battle, jot down ways the heroes could use it effectively during each cycle. For every dramatic moment that you have in your head, note down which cycle it belongs to and which guns are being fired to make the moment happen. For every gun that your villains bring, jot down where and in which cycles it makes sense for the villains to use it, and how the heroes might be able to respond. Not every gun will necessarily be used in every cycle - for some, it will make more sense to load them and bring them into play after a cycle or two has already gone by. Others will be removed from play before the last cycle begins. And some may be irrelevant, especially in a short cycle focused on a particular task. But most of the guns should be as evenly distributed across the battle as possible, and used in as many places as you can without repeating yourself.
Now take these jotted notes, distribute each of these moments you've come up with into the different cycles, and figure out what order to put them in. This stage always feels, to me, like putting together a puzzle. Think about which moments logically need to happen before or after other moments. Think about which moments are most exciting and decisive, and put those in key places, like the end of a cycle. Think about distributing the different characters' guns as evenly as you can, so that no character is neglected for too long and no character has an unnecessarily long sequence where it feels like you've gotten distracted and made the battle all about them.
Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, there's probably not a single correct solution to this puzzle. There are probably various workable arrangements and your job is to come up with one that you like. Do think about it carefully, but don't sweat too hard - if a certain ordering of moments turns out not to work well, you can always change the order in edits.
You might have noticed that this step is similar to the larger-scale task of arranging scenes in order in a book's outline. If there's a special method that you like for general story outlining, then you should try using it for this, too. Some people like to write the scene names on flash cards and move them around on a big table or tape them up on the wall. I am very basic and I like to just mess around with them in a text editor.
Remember to include moments of setup and reaction, and to load your guns when necessary during setup.
When you're finished this step, congratulations - you have created a detailed outline for an exciting battle!
Step 4: Draft the Battle
This is pretty self explanatory. Now that you have an outline, you can work from it and write the battle scene itself. This works the same as writing any other kind of scene from an outline. Just describe the events and the characters' perspectives and have fun!
Step 5: Revisions
Hopefully, if you've used this method, you will have written a pretty good first draft of your battle scene. But of course there's no method that stops you from having to revise. You'll always find something, big or small, that needs a bit of a do-over.
When I drafted THE FALLEN's big battle scene, without using the 21-Gun method, I needed to greatly expand the battle in revisions, adding many more things for the characters to do at many points. With THE INFINITE's big battle scene, when I used the 21-Gun method, I found myself with a more solid structure that didn't need as much expansion. THE INFINITE's draft, overall, needed a lot added in revisions - but the battle itself was pretty close to where it needed to be.
When you revise a battle scene, a lot of your tasks will be the same as for any other scene. You'll need to pay attention to things like sensory description, voice, character traits, clarity, tone, continuity, and grammar mistakes - just as you would in any other part of the book. These things don't need to be handled in any special way.
But you might also find yourself needing to change the plot structure or sequence of events in the battle - which means going back to your original outline and your list of which gun is used where, and making changes where necessary.
One issue that did come up in revisions for THE INFINITE was that I hadn't actually considered all of the guns that could be brought to the battle. I'd done my best, but there were a few secondary characters and small factions whose threads I'd dropped while I was drafting the book, and they needed a bigger presence - including in the battle itself.
It took a bit of brainstorming to come up with bigger, more interesting guns that these characters could carry. And I needed to add them not only to the battle, but to all the setup scenes, both before the battle and earlier in the book.
Fortunately, these weren't the most central guns in the battle. I didn't need to dramatically change the battle's structure, change the victory conditions, or add/remove whole cycles. The characters who needed a bigger presence were in supporting roles, and it wasn't too hard to tweak a few existing cycles to make those supporting roles matter. Here are a few ways to do this:
Make one of the obstacles in the cycle just a little bit harder. The gun that was going to remove this obstacle doesn't quite, or only partially does. (Make sure that gun still gets to be effective somewhere else!) The new gun sails in to the rescue.
Complicate the process of getting past one of the obstacles. Maybe the same gun removes the obstacle as before, but first the new gun has to clear its way.
Make the new gun connect closely with an existing gun - maybe they're a pair of fighters now, fending off enemies back-to-back, when before there was only a single fighter.
You might also find yourself needing to remove parts of a try-fail cycle. For instance, this could happen if multiple parts of the cycle are too similar to each other and feel repetitive. Make sure that when you do this, you're not removing the only effective time that a particular gun fires. If you do have to do that, find another place in the battle where that gun can be effective.
If you find yourself needing to make larger revisions, hopefully the 21-Gun method can still be useful to you. If you need to take out a whole try-fail cycle and start over, for example, you can go back to step 2 and plot out the cycle over again.
It will be easiest to do this if you've looked at a few examples of battles you like and broken them down into guns, subgoals, and cycles yourself, so that you get a visceral feel for how these elements fit together. If you're a paid subscriber, I hope my analysis of the Battle of Yavin is a good example that serves this purpose. (The analysis of the Battle of Scarif was delayed because of COVID - but you can look forward to seeing it next week!) Otherwise, I leave this as an exercise for the reader; there are all kinds of places you could look and insights you might gain by charting out the structure of a few battles yourself.
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