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.
Chapter ends

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. :)


Anonymous said...

There is a reason (besides not getting in the way of the camera) that trained fighters would not necessarily rush a single opponent, they would not want to get in each others way, especially if they are wielding foot long swords. You need room to maneuver and the last thing you want is a friendly fire incident.

I wrote about fight scenes a few months back on my SuD blog. Maybe these tips can help:

To the Battlefield: Part I

And Part II (haven't written part III yet):

Anonymous said...

Hey, Marian good post and great solution.

The one-on-one duels don't come over well in the movie but I think it's true to the source material.


Maria Zannini said...

I never thought about this, but you're absolutely right.

The reader is more likely to become emotionally invested in the individual than an entire army.

GunnerJ said...

It's probably going to be the case that a modern Hollywood blockbuster made for a modern audience is not going to be able to capture the mythic logic of codes of honor represented in epic poems about the Greek dark ages orated to ancient Greeks.

But then again, I've long thought that the difference in medium allows writers (or oral storytellers) to get away with things that a film-maker couldn't. In the movie Troy you are constantly aware of the thousands of other soldiers waiting in a circle for the two heroes to duke it out because you can see them. A writer might off-handedly mention that the common warriors formed a circle while Patrocles and Hector duel. If he's skillful he can pull it off because the reader's attention will be on the heroes, not the commoners.

Still, not everyone is a Homer, and modern audiences are not going to assume any kind of code of battlefield honor... So if a story is going to include epic duels between the army leaders, it would be good to establish that the culture of which they are products has such an honor code to accommodate them.

Marian said...

Hey GunnerJ,

It'd be interesting to see the outcome of a confrontation between two army leaders, one who was raised in a culture with a code of honor that requires him to meet all such duel-challenges fairly, and one who wasn't.

Marian said...

Hey Maria,

And it's probably going to be easier for the reader to buy that the protagonist can defeat a single enemy than, say, dozens of them coming at him.

The Bride's credentials were established during the first Kill Bill fight scene, a one-on-one with Vernita Green, long before we get to the House of Blue Leaves.

Marian said...

Hi Lee, thanks for commenting.

Troy just didn't come off as realistic per se, so maybe that's what weakened the duel scenes. I'll bet that if everything else had looked authentic, it would have been easier to accept that such fights could occur during a battle.

Marian said...

Good point, ralfast, and thanks for the links! I'll check those out as soon as possible.

GunnerJ said...

It'd be interesting to see the outcome of a confrontation between two army leaders, one who was raised in a culture with a code of honor that requires him to meet all such duel-challenges fairly, and one who wasn't.

Or depending on how it goes down, maybe not:

"Sir, now that the enemy has laid down the gauntlet, what should we do?"

"Shoot him in the back with arrows as he's riding off."


Marian said...

That fits my definition of "interesting".

I'll bet on the survival chances of the Magnificent Bastard any time he takes on the too-honorable Ned Stark type.