Friday, December 16, 2011

The Battle Scene: The Hazards of Listening to Your Source

My main character and I have just conquered our first battle scene.

This challenge made me nervous. While I am a fan of epic battles in fantasy—especially the one in King’s Shield by Sherwood Smith (If you have not read that book, you are missing out on one of the most amazing battle scenes in fantasy literature), I am not a great fan of wartime nonfiction.

My "Source," however, whom I introduced to you in a previous blog, has probably read ninety percent of the non-fiction Civil War and World War II books currently published.

Naturally, I called my Source. “Hello,” I said, “So I’m writing a battle scene and this is what I think should happen. Yada yada—”

The Source interrupted. “I don’t they would really do that—”

“Oh,” I said.

“This is what they would do,” said the Source.

“Oh,” I said again. “I suppose that would be the clever way to do it. But what about . . .”

“No,” said the Source. “They wouldn’t want to do that.”

“Oh,” I said again. “But I can have this, right? And this? And this?”

“I suppose,” said the Source.

“But I have to change this?”

“I’m not telling you that you have to change anything. I’m just telling you how someone in that situation would have fought the battle.”

“Oh, but—”

And at this point my Source had had enough and hung up the phone.

Drat. You see, I always draft a scene first before consulting my source. (There’s no point in pestering someone about a scene until you actually know you want to keep it). And I was feeling pretty good about the chapter. Before that phone call.

This was going to be a major revision. Which one never wants to do, but one feels like one should. Otherwise why consult the expert?

So . . . I rewrote the scene.

It didn’t work. You see the problem was that the general within my book is not an expert. In fact he isn’t a general at all, but someone given the title of “captain.” And he wouldn’t fight this battle like an expert. If he did, he might have a chance to win. And I don’t want him to.

He is going to die.

Which is exactly how my chapter felt after I rewrote it.


Nine days on the same twelve-page chapter, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was frustrated. My source wouldn’t talk about it anymore. And my main character was furious.

Finally I consulted my other main character. You see this hadn’t occurred to me because this character isn’t in the scene. He is off suffering emotional damage and other tragic events during this battle. He doesn’t show up until after it’s over.

“At which point,” he told me, “I am appalled by how stupidly this battle was fought.”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Oh! I realized. I don’t have to fight the battle the way the experts would have fought it. I just have to let this character explain afterwards how they should have fought it.

I scrapped the whole revision, and wrapped up the chapter in twenty-four hours.

Always consult your other main character.


  1. I read an article by Lucy Coats once, where she said - "Every writer is the amanuensis to their characters."
    How true, right? :)