Anatomy of a Battle

A war may last for years, but a battle can be determined in minutes.

Despite the stupidities of any given society throughout history, it should be noted that whether or not warriors are admired, war is ugly. It is cruel, unrelenting, cold, and brutal. A warrior doesn’t have the luxury of playing sides in the heat of debate, for a battle is won by the swiftest steel, or the higher ground, or the better tactical advantage/mind. A battle is won by employing trickery, sacrificing pawns, and applying a strategy that ensures victory.

The supreme Art of War is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ~Sun Tzu.

For those of us who have served in the military, The Art of War was required reading. For many of us who have studied any form of martial arts, The Art of War holds firm in bringing out the strategic mind in any encounter.

Sun Tzu used deception in many of his teachings as a method to overcoming one’s adversary, but in the end, he showed that it was best to avoid war where possible, but always to be ready for it.

A battle, by definition, is any encounter where there are two or more opposing forces seeking to overcome each other with violence. A force is two or more people. Most often, the numbers are much higher, but you get the point.

Points to ponder:

  • What are sizes of the forces? Is one significantly larger? Or are they fairly equivalent?
  • Were there scouts dispatched to ascertain the size of the opposing force? And, most importantly, did they make it back?
  • Who has the high ground? Higher ground is a huge tactical advantage. It doesn’t ensure victory, but it certainly helps.
  • What is the caliber of warriors on either side? Seasoned warriors? Young forces? These things matter. After all, if one side is seeking to retreat because they about crapped themselves by knowing who they’re facing, or the sheer numbers of those they face…it says a lot.
  • What are the commanders on the battlefield like? Are they tacticians, able to think on their feet and adjust? Or are they more of the type that plans and sticks to the plan. Both methods can be equally effective, but can add a lot of dimension to a story.
  • Should one wish to, one could employ Sun Tzu’s teachings to their story. For instance, a small force could use a tactic that employs them being spread out so as to appear larger than they are. Likewise, a larger force could do the opposite in an effort to appear smaller.
  • What are they fighting for? Lands? Conquest? Defense? Retribution or vengeance?
  • And what may be one of the most fun things to contemplate…what is your MC/protagonist/antagonist thinking? Obviously, point of view here will be a big deal, but the events leading up to will cause a stir of emotions, as will the prelude, the battle and the aftermath…

It is of utmost importance that the idea for how the battle will play out is done in advance. For instance:

  • If the fight is going to be linear in progression, or if there will be instances where certain deaths will swing the tide in one or another direction. To put this in movie terms, let’s look at Troy for inspiration, specifically where Hector defeats Ajax. The defeat of Ajax deflated the Greeks and the Trojans won the day.
  • If one of the forces has backup that shows up at a key moment, or at all.
  • What kinds of tactics are being used by each side? Sheer numbers and force of will? Or perhaps applying strategic thinking to the battle? Bear in mind that the higher the difference in numbers, the higher the chance the sheer numbers will win – but at what cost?
  • No army has unlimited resources. Resources, supplies, etc are the keys to victory. Taking away an opponent’s resources is a devastating blow to them, and will almost ensure victory. As was mentioned when discussing the Anatomy of a Fight Scene, a well fed warrior is far superior to a starving, dehydrated one. Imagine then the ramifications of an entire army being malnourished going up against a rested, well-fed army.
  • To piggyback on the above statement, a blow to the supply lines large enough can force an opposing force to draw down and give up the fight before it starts.
  • What is the reason for the battle? Often it’ll be positioning for a greater plan/scheme, or perhaps a foolhardy attempt at retribution or vengeance. Stupidity in action can either pay dividends or get an entire fighting force decimated.
  • What is the terrain like? Has there been rain lately? If there has been rain, the grounds could be wet and muddy. Are there cliffs to work with/use? How much higher is the high ground? Are there any choke points? For many medieval castles, this was the point of the drawbridge and moat. A choke point means a much smaller force can take the taste for battle out of any army…

The focus should be on key elements. Placement, mindset, parts of the action. Timing is also key in any battle, and when writing of it, this should play a rather large factor. Momentum and time of day should also be considered. An early morning raid with a small party can cause panic and it would be possible to push the panicked individuals toward their death; whether it be a cliff or to the rest of the standing army waiting to end the fight.

And here’s the biggest question of all… What does it look like? In cover of darkness is there a moon? In daytime is the sun out? Or perhaps it’s cloudy that day. What’s the weather? Rain? Snow? Dry? Consider what a dry day could do, especially if under drought conditions…fire could be used to great effect. What are the winds like? It would be foolish to have the wind against you and still use fire. But if the winds are at your back the battle could be over before it starts.

Of course, this is not all inclusive, to say the least, but I do hope it gives you some things to ponder when considering what and how to write your battle scenes. Remember to attack it from a bird’s eye view and from the ground. Focus on the little things that make a battle scary, but also on those things that make a battle worth fighting. What do the movements look like? How do I show this? Have a visual of the terrain in your mind and run with it.


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