How to Horribly, Epically Lose a Battle

I happen to really love history, especially military history. When on vacation, I drag my less-than-enthusiastic friends to obscure Civil War battle sites and get WAY too thrilled by accidentally stumbling across a house that was once used as a Civil War hospital.

Recently, I got my hands on a series of lectures about great military disasters. I’m talking about battles that went so horribly wrong that entire armies were wiped out and empires fell because of it. The losing side in some of the battles in the lectures had something like 80-100% casualties.

Interestingly enough, the SAME problems kept popping up in almost every battle that went horribly wrong. And, as a writer, I started paying attention. If I wanted to write a battle scene where the villain lost a battle in a horrific, defining way (or the hero, though this is more rare because battles that are lost this spectacularly are hard to recover from) , history gives LOTS of examples on exactly how that should be done.


Here it goes. A set of instructions on how to Horribly, Epically Lose a Battle.

Military disasters

  1. Be as Overconfident as possible. 

If you want to lose a battle as disastrously as possible, this is the number one thing to keep in mind. Almost every horrible, tragic defeat stems from this.

Overconfidence leads to a host of other errors such as underestimating the enemy’s intelligence and numbers (preferably coupled with a healthy dose of prejudice that the other side can NEVER be as awesome as your own men), ignoring basic military tenants (such as scouting the land and the enemy’s position before engaging in battle), not knowing when to retreat, pouring more resources into an already lost battle and thereby making the loss even worse than it would’ve been, and even ignoring your own orders (such as ignoring your own order to fortify your position when encamped in enemy territory and instead letting your camp sprawl out in all disorganized directions).

This number one error will ultimately cause a compounding of several errors and lead to an epically horrible defeat that will probably end your life or at the very least bring down whatever empire you were hoping to build.

2. Put People in Leadership Positions who Hate Each Other. 

If your commanders, especially your top commanders, cannot work together, you will be well on your way to a massive military disaster, especially if you’ve stuck to advice #1 and cling to overconfidence.

If your commanders hate each other, they won’t communicate on the battlefield, leading to mismanaged charges, missed opportunities, and strife within the ranks. They might even get so caught up in verbally fighting each other that they forget about actually fighting the enemy, or they will actually hinder each others ability to fight the enemy.

Better yet, make sure one or both of these commanders are incompetent as well as argumentative. Epic military disaster will ensue.

3. Make as Many Tactical Errors as Possible

Usually, these tactical errors will automatically arise from overconfidence, and that overconfidence will also prevent you from correcting them when they do occur.

Best blunders to make:

  • Not scouting the land or enemy position. This sets you up for getting your entire army trapped in an ambush and wiped out.
  • Fighting the current war with the tactics of the last war. This always has horrible consequences, especially when advances in technology have occurred. Even if no technological advances have happened, always using the EXACT SAME tactics in every battle usually gives the enemy a chance to figure out a way to counter them.
  • Having advances in technology, but not using it to its best effect.
  • Not sending in enough men to turn the tide of battle at the crucial moment.
  • Not retreating when the battle has already been lost. Even better, keep sending in men into a losing battle. This maximizes casualties and guarantees the worst possible outcome.
  • Sending out unclear orders to your commanders. This will send them into chaos and confusion, especially if they are arguing with each other.
  • Having unclear reasons for even engaging in that battle in the first place so that the cost of the battle, even if you won, would outweigh the benefit (such as using a whole army to capture an outpost that a small group of commandos could capture just as easily).

If you follow these three instructions and compound all of these errors one on top of another, you will lead you, your men, and your empire into a disastrous military defeat that will probably lead to your death.


 

All joking aside, while this list seems like a rather hyperbolic list, in the lectures I listened to on military disasters, this is exactly what happened through 23 major military disasters across thousands of years of history all over the world. Some of the mistakes that were made were so foolish, a writer would hardly dare have a villain make that mistake because they would appear too foolish to live (and that is usually exactly what happened in history). Some of the battles were hard to listen to knowing that much of the bloodshed was unnecessary.

Anything else you would add to this list?


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Fiction Friday – Mardan's Mark

I’m hoping to start a new feature on Friday’s where I showcase a book or series I’ve really enjoyed. It’s not a book review. More like my random, fangirl gushing about books I absolutely adore.

I’d like to start with Mardan’s Mark and Healer’s Curse by Kathrese McKee.

Mardan’s Mark

About the book

Srilani is second in line to the throne, and she’s always known what is expected of a princess — bring honor to her family and marry well. Aldan has been a pirate’s slave for as long as he can remember, and all he wants is to be free. The Twin Kingdoms have been sister nations for centuries, but now their unity and existence are threatened by enemies both inside and outside their borders.

After pirates abduct Srilani and her three siblings, they are stranded behind enemy lines and across the Great Gulf. As the eldest, Srilani is faced with the dangerous task of bringing her father’s heir home. She convinces Aldan and his two fellow slaves to share their journey to freedom. These unlikely allies — seven young captives — must defeat the web of lies, murder, and betrayal tearing the kingdoms apart.

My Recommendation

Read this book! Seriously! I heard lots of good things about it and was expecting a good book, and it still blew me away.

The characters are excellent. Srilani is a tough girl who can fight her way out of trouble but also has a vulnerable heart. Too many books and movies don’t get that balance. Either the girl is an almost heartless, kick everybody’s butt kind of girl or she needs saving all the time. Sometimes in Christian fiction, the tough girl is the one who needs to be softened until by the end of the book she’s totally given up her tough girl attitude. Srilani is none of those things. She both saves the guy and needs to be saved. She finds a way to be vulnerable but without losing her fighting edge.

Not only was Srilani awesome, but her male lead was also amazing! Aldan can hold his own with her and doesn’t fall into the helpless male sidekick stereotype.

Best of all, several of the other characters also got their own points of view in the book. The character voices were all distinct, so I was never confused.

I also adored the setting. Too many fantasy books fall into the trap of basing their setting only on Europe. It’s fantasy. It can be set anywhere. The setting in Mardan’s Mark is based off the Gulf Coast area of the United States, which gives it a flavor not found in many other fantasy novels.

Finally, the cultures of the different kingdoms are well-done. I could see parts of all kinds of cultures, but I never felt they were directly based off any one culture in the real world. The Christian aspect of the culture is well-done, and feels like an Old Testament kind of faith, which is neat.

Healer’s Curse

Healer's Curse About the book

Was this my curse? To lose everyone I loved?

What good is Elilan’s gift of healing if she can’t save those she loves? Elilan must risk failing once again or turn her back on her calling—and the stranger she’s learned to love—in Healer’s Curse.

My recommendation

After reading Mardan’s Mark, I wasn’t sure how Healer’s Curse could compete. The novella follows the events that are happening at home during the events of Book 1. I wasn’t disappointed. I could see how this novella was setting things up for book 2, but it also managed to be it’s own story. Elilan was strong like Srilani, but also vulnerable and I couldn’t help but root for her. And the main guy? Well, he gave Aldan a run for his money. I’m really looking forward to seeing all these characters together in the next book!

In the interest of full disclosure, I was given a copy of Healer’s Curse in exchange for my honest review/recommendation. I bought Mardan’s Mark myself.


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Realistic Fight Scenes (Part Two): Choreographing Fight Scenes

Sword fight

So you’ve decided you need a fight scene in your book. You’ve researched fighting techniques and weapons. You’ve done your homework on war wounds. And you’ve come to the conclusion that a) the scene has to be told from the POV of an experienced fighter and b) it needs to be detailed.

This is where fight scenes can get tricky. A one-on-one fight scene between two skilled characters needs to balance your level of research and your readers’ expectations. Your research tells you a fight scenes should be short. But it falls as the climax of your book and your readers expect some sort of payoff for waiting for 200+ pages for this fight. Too short and they’ll walk away disappointed. Your research tells you all the moves that a fighter can or cannot do, but your readers’ expect to be able to follow the fight without a lot of jargon. Yet they want it detailed.

Are you thumping your forehead on the table yet?

This is where you take a page out of Hollywood’s fight scene textbook and choreograph your scene.

Every fight scene in a movie is choreographed to give the illusion of reality (though the level of success can be debatable). The illusion of reality is what you’re striving for. Perhaps the fight extends longer than it would in real life. Perhaps the movements are played as if in slow motion so the reader can follow along. But, the reader will be so caught up in reading the scene that those things won’t matter. The fight scene will still feel real.

So how do you set about choreographing a fight scene in a book?

1. Work Backwards. I’ve heard this tip given for everything from editing to outlining, and it works really well for fight scenes. Figure out how you want the fight to end first. How is the opponent disarmed? Are they killed? Wounded? Do they get away? Or perhaps win? Once you know how the fight has to end, you can work backwards to bring the fight to that point.

2. Whole Body Motion. In a fight scene, your character isn’t just moving their hands. They are moving their feet, twisting their bodies, setting themselves up for the next move. For each move your character makes, you need to figure out where it puts their body. If they just did a wide swing to their left, they will have to move differently depending on if they want to follow up with a back stroke, downward stroke, or upward stroke.

3. The opponent wants to win too. The opponent wants to win just as much as your POV character. He/she won’t simply react to what your POV character does. Your POV character will be just fighting a statue if that were the case. Have the opponent throw your POV character off balance and do things your POV character did not expect.

4. Picture the fight. This can be tricky to do depending on how your imagination works. What works best for me is closing my eyes and running the fight scene through my head like a movie in slow motion. I tweak the positions of the characters’ hands and feet. Sometimes (when I’m by myself in my room), I’ll close my eyes and pretend I’m one of the characters. I’ve heard some people like drawing stick figures. Whatever method you use, it should be something that lets you test your choreographing until it flows smoothly.

5. Write it. Once you have a clear picture in your mind, write out the fight scene. Once it is written, you can go back in editing and decide what movements are necessary for the readers’ understanding and what are implied. When you have the movement pared down to the essentials, the fight scene will flow quickly, even if it takes a page or more to tell.

These are things that work for me. Any fight scene tips that work for you?


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Realistic Fight Scenes (Part One)

I ran across this blog post today, and it made me think about the fight scenes in my own book. In the post, Lisa Voisin addresses 8 things that writers forget about when writing fight scenes.

Fight Scene

I’m not going to claim to be an expert, but here’s some things I’ve discovered that help you remember to put in the 8 things she lists:

1. Think about your POV character. Someone who knows nothing about fighting will describe the fight with vague details. This can  be a good thing for you as the writer. I had a fight scene in a book that I was worried about. It involved several characters in different places in a room all fighting different people. It seemed like a lot to fit into a small space on the page, until I realized that my POV character was watching the fight and would only focus on the parts of it at a time.

If your POV character is knowledgeable about fighting, lack of details or technical fight language isn’t a bad thing either. You are in the character’s head. They’re too busy fighting to be worried about what type of punch was thrown or the fancy name for that maneuver.

2. It is a good idea to get some knowledge about bodily injuries. In a fight, the odds are high that one of your characters is going to get injured in some way. I have the advantage of having a mom with a medical degree. It saves a lot of awkward Google searches when I can ask her, “Where can I stab someone here without killing them?” or “What happens if you grab a sword and it slices your hand to the bone?” If you don’t have someone you can ask in person, Google with caution. The pictures you’ll pull up can be a little graphic (talking from experience here).

3. Show some detail, but not too much. I’m not a guts spilling on the ground type of person. I’m okay with blood gushing in a few places, but I’ve put books down before when they start describing entrails flopping around. I don’t like gore for the purpose of gore, and I usually hold back on making my fight and battle scenes as gory as they’d be in real life. In this case, I think a little can go a long way. I usually show some blood, a touch of gruesomeness, then pull back into how the character feels about seeing it. Trust your readers’ imaginations with this one. Give them a small glimpse and their imaginations will fill in the rest of the description without you needing to go into detail.

4. Don’t chatter in battle. Let’s try an experiment here. Go outside and grab stick. Start swinging it around for several minutes. Pretend you’re sword fighting. Now try to talk. Notice how it is suddenly a lot harder to breathe? And your movements become jerkier because you are trying to focus on swinging your stick AND talking?

That’s why your characters shouldn’t talk and fight at the same time either. If you have some witty banter to be exchanged, have them do it before. Get the talking out of the way, then fight.

5. Keep skill levels realistic. It’s hard to pick up a sword and even swing it right, much less fight with it. Give your characters time to train before you ask them to save the world.

6. Battles are ugly affairs. Remember that your characters will have to react to the things they are seeing. Maybe not in the moment, but it will have an effect. If this is your character’s first fight, it will hit them differently than if it is their seventh or eighth. Show your character dealing with it.

7. Keep it short. Most battles don’t last long. A minute is a long time for a one on one battle. It should last only seconds. So how do you balance a short battle with the need to make it tense and climatic? Too short and it will feel anticlimactic. I usually err on the side of short sentences and short words to create quick actions. To make a longer scene, break up the fighting with something else, like one character trying to get away or some other kind of interruption.

8. Train yourself. While I have never taken a martial arts class, I have researched sword-fighting. There are a lot of sword fighting manuals out there. Look for one written by a medieval martial arts teacher. Same thing if you need to know about archery or fist fighting. You should know more about your type of fighting than ever makes it into your book.

So how do you make your fight scenes realistic? What bothers you when you read fight scenes in books?


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