Thursday, June 11, 2009
David vs. Goliath
Better a couple of hundred sweaty warriors than two masses of 50,000 men marching toward one another across a sea of special effects.
I was writing a battle scene recently, and it went something like this.
Subscene 1: Protagonist fights lots of enemies, wins against great odds.
Subscene 2: Flashback to explain how protagonist learned a certain skill, to flesh out his character and to provide a breather before the next bout of action.
Subscene 3: Protagonist fights lots of enemies, wins against great odds.
While this wasn’t exactly bad, I felt vaguely dissatisfied, and after thinking about it for a while I realized what the problem was. Subscenes 1 and 3 are the same thing. Oh sure, my hero would have been fighting different types of enemies – goblins vs. orcs, for instance – but it would still have been the same thing. He would have, for the second time that chapter, been hacking his way through a mass of largely nameless enemies. And worse, using the same tactics.
Not very interesting for the reader. Not very interesting to write about either, if my niggling feeling of displeasure was any clue.
So I rewrote it, and in the revised version the protagonist faced down a single, hugely powerful enemy, mano a mano. David vs. Goliath, Achilles vs. Boagrius, Fingolfin vs. Morgoth, Prince Oberyn Martell vs. Ser Gregor the Mountain. Well, maybe not the last two, but you get my drift. That worked, because he had to use a different method to beat that single opponent, who was also much easier to visualize and personalize.
And of course, if this opponent is much, much stronger, that sets up an imbalance that will have most readers on the edges of their seats, because they’re really hoping the underdog will win – they’re just not sure how he’ll do so.
How to use this in the average battle scene, though? I didn’t want mine to come off like those B-movies where the various opponents of the hero considerately attack him one at a time. Fortunately, during subscene 1, his opponents realized that he outmatched them, and therefore they were better off staying back and allowing the Goliath of their side to take him on in subscene 3 (and they had plenty of reason to believe the Goliath could crush him like an eggshell).
This could be an option, if you’re hoping to isolate the protagonist with a single enemy before, during or after a battle. Or the protagonist could hack his way through those enemies to get to the bosses.
For instance, in the House of Blue Leaves scene in Kill Bill, the Bride takes on six swordsmen before facing off against the last remaining bodyguard, the meteor-hammer-wielding Gogo Yubari. Then dozens more swordsmen burst in and she takes them on more or less en masse before finally confronting their mistress, O-Ren. There’s variation, in other words, a rise and fall of the tides that come against our hero(ine).
In Troy, the form of the duel seems to be respected even in a battle, since the Greek and Trojan forces stop fighting to surround Patrocles and Hector as they duke it out. This didn’t come off as entirely realistic in the film, though, and it may not do so in a story either.
On the other hand, I once read about a spell suggested for just such a society; on activation, this spell takes the protagonist and one person of his choosing to some isolated place where they can duel. Since there are a limited number of copies of the spell (on scrolls which self-destruct after use), this tactic can’t be used indefinitely to pick off weaker members of the other army one by one.
There are probably other ways to isolate the protagonist’s counterpart and vary the flow of battle. I’m pretty happy with how my scene finally turned out, though. :)