So You Want To/Write a War Story
War, war never changes.
Armed conflict between organized factions great and small occurs in a lot of fiction. Here's how to write a story about WAAAGH!
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Tropes To Handle With Care
- 5 Potential Subversions
- 6 Writers' Lounge
- 7 Suggested Themes And Aesops
- 8 Potential Motifs
- 9 Plot Suggestions
- 10 Departments
- 11 Set Designer/Location Scout
- 12 Props Department
- 13 Casting Director
- 14 Stunt Department
- 15 Extra Credits
- 16 The Greats
- 17 The Epic Fails
You're going to need for there to be a war, obviously. You're probably going to have a young man. There's definitely got to be some us versus them going on in some form or another. There are going to have to be battles, weapons, and deaths. Propaganda isn't necessary, but it helps. If the story is directly on the fighting, then there's going to be a lot of badassery, as well as a lot of Nightmare Fuel and Tear Jerkers. If the story calls for it, then throw in a Heroic BSOD or a Last Stand for good measure.
These are tropes you will probably need:
- The Hero - You will need a protagonist, someone from whose eyes we can view what's going on, whether he's heroic, antiheroic, or downright villainous.
- The Squad - The hero is going to need a unit to belong to, who is going to be taking part in various battles throughout the story.
- Military and Warfare Tropes - Due to the general nature of war stories in general, this will probably be the biggest thing that you will need.
- Combat Tropes - You will also need this, as the various ways of doing battle with your enemy will play a part in your war story.
- Death Tropes - Perhaps more than any other genre of fiction, people die a lot in war stories. Sometimes they go out in a blaze of glory, while other times, they die in truly horrific fashion.
- Badass - More than anything else, war stories need badasses.
There are a lot of different ways to go about writing a war story. In historical eras, the main choice is going to be between the Army and the Navy. Nowadays, assuming you're writing about the United States, you've got The Army, the Marines, Air Force, the Navy, and the Coast Guard. What do you choose? The Army is going to be the most prone, at least in fiction, to a fairly standard story without anything unusually badass or exciting happening. The Marines is more likely to have some pretty badass stuff going on, especially if they are Space Marines, doubly so if they are based on the real life USMC. The Air Force is likely going to either be about great strategic bombing campaigns, dueling aces, or slick jet pilots competing to be top dog. The Navy isn't likely to feature too much stuff directly going on, except in the days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men. In modern times, they're mostly there for artillery support or air support with occasional landings of Marines or their own elite badasses, the S.E.A.L.'s. After that comes the question of officer or serviceman. Is the story about an enlisted grunt in the field going on patrols and living in foxholes, or is he An Officer and a Gentleman? Is there a Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough duo dynamic? Is the main character a woman? What if they aren't frontline combat personnel, or what if they're a medic? You can do special operations, but be careful; a lot of stories don't do it well, or do the operators justice.
Also, one of the biggest choices you'll need to make is where your story lies on the War Is Hell / War Is Glorious scale. For every story about soldiers and warriors battling impossible odds and doing awesome things, there's a story about the horrific psychological effects that war and killing can have on human beings, especially in more modern works like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. There's plenty of room for both of these tropes, particularly in the best war stories.
War is a complex, controversial, and multifaceted thing. Whatever you do, don't get stuck on politics or ethics. It is one thing to have a character who doesn't agree with what they're doing or with the way things are run, but it is another to keep on dragging in the moral questions of war so that it gets in the way of the story. Show, don't tell! Remember, Tropes Are Not Bad, but also Tropes Are Not Good. It's all about how you write and utilize tropes. If it doesn't fit the story and serve a purpose, DO NOT Throw It In!
Other tropes to avoid:
- Anvilicious. While you may have your own opinions of war, don't let that get in the way of the story. The reader came to read about a war, not a militarist's rant on the greatness of those in the military and how awesome the military is. Also don't go on a pacifist rant about how war is bad and is just an exploitative, evil power game played by the elites at the cost of the people they claim to be benefiting.
- Artistic License Gun Safety. This should go without saying. Modern militaries live and die by their guns. If your characters fail gun safety when they should know better, then fix it.
- Author Tract. See above.
- Arc Fatigue. definitely don't breeze through some things while taking forever to get through another. Skip through or just fast forward through the boring bits. Real war is long stretches of boredom with relatively brief moments of intense fear and frenzy.
- Artistic License Military. Do the research! Get ranks, duties, and protocols right. You don't have to make the entire work run exactly as if it was taken from the Army manual, but make it fairly true to life. You can get away with some things. It's fairly easy to get some ranks mixed up, but there are some things which you should never make the mistake of doing, such as calling a sergeant sir.
- Beige Prose. War stories, especially their combat and stealth actions are popular for their intensity. The beige prose should be used for bulk events, such as waiting for things to happen, whenever a number of people are killed at once, or whenever excessive detail would drag on.
- Critical Research Failure. Just because your story takes places 9021809843500238584829399253323 light years away with humans fighting aliens with antimatter particle beam guns does not excuse you from at least getting some basic facts right.
- Did Not Do the Research. Still vexing.
- God Mode Sue. People get hurt die in war, and in many renowned stories, Anyone Can Die, including the main characters.
- Hollywood Atlas. Do the research.
- Hollywood Tactics. No, just no. This also goes for General Failure.
- Mary Tzu: Very few real life generals have ever gone undefeated throughout their whole careers. Just as General Failure will quickly frustrate the audience and set expectations for what will happen whenever anything is done that has his name on it, Mary Tzu will quickly exhaust the shock and awe of her spectacular brilliance, and the story will lose any sense of tension.
- Purple Prose: Nothing sucks the energy out of a battle like forgetting the Law of Conservation of Detail. If you graphically describe the deaths of people a character kills, then the action grinds to a frustrating halt. Save the detailed death descriptions for executions and suicides.
- Rare Guns: There are reasons why the rare guns are so rare. Typically, rare guns are that way because they were impractical, too expensive, not so good as the competition, absolutely dreadful weapons, or because their production was halted by either something better coming along, or because the country producing them was invaded.
- Redshirt Army. Unless it's professional soldiers versus a sub par adversary, this is not justified.
Many warfare tropes have been used to the point of being clichéd, some are Dead Horse Tropes. They still can be used to tell a good story if used with extreme care and skill. Be honest with yourself, and ask yourself if you really have the skill to handle them. Make sure they fit your setting and writing style appropriately if you choose to use them.
- Cool Guns. Different from Rare Guns in that many of these weapons are Awesome Yet Practical while being produced in numbers great enough to be issued to whole militaries and therefore plausibly show up in a story.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty. While most modern drill sergeants have to turn civilians into killing machines in the space of about three months and they have to be hard on recruits to do it properly, don't go overboard with it. It is perfectly reasonable for a D.I. to shout himself blue at a character who is sloppy, but for a character who is a bit sluggish in P.T. to get the stuffing beaten out of them is another thing entirely. This was a case of Truth in Television in the past, and even into the modern era, but if you are writing in the here and now it is a symptom of something deeply wrong in the service.
- Gun Porn. While it is a given those reading a war story will like accuracy in their weapons descriptions, try not to go overboard on it. Be accurate, but not gushing unless it is in-character of course, some soldiers do get a little more attached than is healthy (although unless it is a "war is hell" type of story this will be treated with suspicion by their senior officers). Few readers will thank you for page after page of minutiae on firearms when a story could be being told.
- National Stereotyping Tropes. Be very careful when dealing with armed conflict between nations, especially if there well known and negative stereotypes about the peoples and or countries involved.
- Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: This is a rather exaggerated and unfair characterization of the French to begin with. If French Forces are involved, then play them as Gauls With Grenades.
- All Germans Are Nazis. If the work involves the Wehrmacht, then don't automatically assign them as German=Nazi=Evil. Beware Godwin's Law. The trope for the modern German military, called the Bundeswehr, is We Are Not the Wehrmacht.
- Eagle Land. Both types, as type 1 can come off as jingoist and type 2 comes off as simply America bashing.
- Reds with Rockets, if combined with inherrently making them malevolent because they are Russian+/Communist.
- Arab Terrorists and any other sort of terrorist should be handled very carefully.
- Obligatory War Crime Scene. While war crimes are horrible, they happen a lot less frequently than Hollywood would have us believe (however they do happen within any armed force, even in this day and age) and those who perpetrate them are frequently brought to justice pretty quickly, don't just gloss over them. Be frank and real when dealing with them. As with all fiction writing, if it doesn't serve plot or character, then don't just Throw It In for the Wangst of it.
- We Have Reserves. In modern conflicts, the statistical death rate for most combat units overall comes out to about one in twenty. Many more people get wounded and most people who are wounded survive. Characters and extras are expected to die, but in most cases, a casualty rate of higher than ten percent would be considered extensive. If you're setting it in the past (or future) you have a bit more leeway.
There are common tropes in war stories. These have more or less become extremely common, or nearly codified conventions. Here are some to subvert:
- America Saves the Day. In many modern works, it is the Americans who are the best fighters and end up saving the day. Give other countries and groups their Day in The Limelight or show that America is just pursuing an agenda.
- A Real Man Is a Killer. Everybody in a war story has likely killed someone already, or will kill someone over the course of the story. Show that the personal level of maturity and psychological health is unrelated to battlefield badassery. Possibly go further than that and make a pretty good case as to why the guys who are the most trigger happy and seem to never be afraid are either just putting up a front, or that they are seriously disturbed individuals. Killing is after all, highly unnatural for most people, and those who can kill without being conditioned and trained to do so often have underlying psychological problems.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty. Typically, in war movies, the D.I.'s are portrayed as being extremely, if unduly harsh and then when the characters turn up at the front, they suddenly seem as if they didn't need Drill Sergeant Nasty to be so hard on them. Make it so that either the Drill Sergeant Nasty was exactly right about everything, or that he was actually being incredibly nice to the trainees compared to what awaited them at the front.
- Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy. Normally, main characters don't get hit easily, almost as if the enemy loses all their aiming skill, even accidental ones.
- Mary Tzu. While a Mary Sue and vexing to encounter regularly, this trope is okay to play with for subversions and deconstructions. For example: what if a friendly Mary Tzu is so miraculously gifted because they're actually working for the Big Bad? Or possibly the unbeatable general becomes a defeat seeker, waging wars looking for an opponent who can best him. Sure, the general's great at fighting the enemy, but they're so good that the also fight everybody else.
- Super Soldiers. If any of these are every made in real life, they will likely be normal people wh are very well trained and conditioned while being given some sort of powered armor. How about instead of making a Super Soldier invincible, make them just insanely skilled and more physically fit than what normal people could attain, but make them just as fragile and vulnerable as everybody else. Look up Yahtzee's rant on supersoldiers. Also, the idea has been deconstructed to death already; the supersoldier is Badass Abnormal, but at the cost of a short harsh life, never knowing love, being affected with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, being treated like an animal, being unable to live without fighting, and being forced to fight no matter what their personal feelings are. A reconstruction of this could show that the Super Soldier is a Badass Abnormal who pays a high personal price for their martial prowess. Yes, they have all sorts of problems. Yes, the job is tough, thankless, and will claim their life, but they do it for thier country, for their comrades, so that others may live, because nobody else can, because they have people they care about, because others are counting on it, or maybe they really love being a soldier.
- War for Fun and Profit. Real wars are extremely expensive and are getting more and more expensive all the time as more advanced technologies are implemented. A war for profit, typically of a Corrupt Corporate Executive, is very unlikely now to pay off. Most likely, he's going to end up ruined and convicted in international court. War for fun and profit only works wit very low cost low intensity conflicts such as gang wars, where controlling the sale of drugs more than compensates for the price paid in guns and members.
- War Is Hell. As mentioned above, war is a terrifying experience full of insanity and violence and affects nearly everyone involved on some level. The Great War inspired an entire generation of writers and artists, for example, and it's often called the Lost Generation. The most well-known cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurred among veterans of Vietnam. It's not all psychological disorders and cultural confusion, though war can make people do really crazy things.
- War Is Glorious. On the other hand, the cinematic value of having a group of attack helicopters coming over the horizon to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries is pretty darn awesome. War is an opportunity for someone who is nobody to rise to the occasion and become a hero. Soldiers are honored and supported like no other profession during a time of conflict. Then there's the fact that war drives innovation; tons of things we take for granted nowadays were developed for military applications at first with the civilian aspects coming later.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing. Goes hand in hand with propaganda in some cases. It's amazing what kind of spin the media can put on things when they want to and this should be at the back of your mind if you want to deal with the homefront. Played straight, subverted, inverted, do whatever you want but if your story is set in a modernesque world you cannot discount the power of media during a war.
- Fire-Forged Friends / Band of Brothers. These kinds of characters fit war stories like a glove. This is an especially good dynamic to add to The Squad in serious pieces, given that a Real Life squad will need to learn to put aside whatever differences they have and fight as a single, coordinated whole eventually.
- Not So Different. Many of the greatest war stories have focused on the fact that soldiers on opposing sides are not different creatures. They are all human, they just happen to have different allegiances and if a war wasn't going on, they might well have become very good friends. One side is not necessarily more predisposed towards war crimes and morally questionable acts than the other (that's not to say you can't have a time-honored Good vs Evil story).
- Private Military Contractors. Is there a market for them? If so, what is their reputation, generally speaking? What do the standard militaries think of them?
- The Laws and Customs of War. Be careful about this one. This is straying into the realm of politics and rants about the merits of organisations like the UN and the International Criminal Court. There will always be undercurrents of this, especially where military units are concerned, but it should only be the subject of an extensive exploration if you plan to include a political dimension. Otherwise, it can safely stay in the background until the Obligatory War Crime Scene.
- War is full of tropes from all over the site. However, one thing that definitely should spring to mind is that war is a struggle. This is a prime chance to play for the themes of growth, death, decay, hope, ambiguity, and morality. Any scene can be used to convey a point if done properly. Have a show of headstones, POW's, military amputees learning to cope with a prosthesis, or just a private's jacket gradually becoming dirty.
- For most military stories, a Boot Camp Episode will be more or less mandatory.
- Tell the tale of a main character who is conscripted, goes to war, and then readjusts to civilian life.
- Not all war stories have to take place during a war. The story can be about the trials of a Shell-Shocked Veteran.
- Similarly, the story can be about the lead up to war and what drives the parties involved to fight.
- Give the story of a single battle from beginning to end.
- In a truncated version, possible a single important mission can suffice for a special operations team.
- This will heavily depend on the time period of your story as well as where the story occurs.
- If a war is named for a place, like the Vietnam War, then set your story about it in that place.
- For a WW 2 European theater story, you are going to need small European towns, open fields, hedgerows, churches, forests, and snow.
- A WW 2 Pacific theater story will need beaches, jungles, and seas.
- The occasional fishing village isn't amiss either.
- A WW 2 African theater will need sand, sand, and more sand with the occasional oasis.
- Stories set on the Russian front will need snow, and lots of open fields as well as ruined cities.
- As a general note, any story could very well need some cities and towns.
- Modern wars are likely to occur in the middle east, so the tropes for Qurac apply. Reference the recommendations for the WW 2 Africa stories.
- A cool command center, maybe one with a war room and a huge map on it.
- Guns, lots and lots of guns.
- Unless the story is set rather far back in history, lots of vehicles aren't out of place either.
- You're to need Humvees, Jeeps, Tanks, APC's, Helicopters, trucks, and fighter jets.
- Not all of these are necessary for every single work.
- You're to need Humvees, Jeeps, Tanks, APC's, Helicopters, trucks, and fighter jets.
- Uniforms, body armor, and other such apparel.
- Army style things like Cots, MRE's, mess kits...
- Camouflage patterns.
- Do get these right; there are a large number of camouflage patterns in the world and many of them do not look at all alike. Some nations, such as Russia, issue large numbers of different patterns for use by different groups in different areas.
- Tons of Gun Accessories. Grenade launchers, optics, infrared lasers, vertical foregrips, alterate iron sites. Don't be afraid to put in some improvised modifications in there, such as using locktite on scope rings, adding pieces to the cleaning kit, taping magazines together, and so on.
- To drive home the idea that the guns The Squad is using are top of the line elite weapons, make them black.
Pretty much every story is going to necessitate these.
- The Squad, possibly subdivided into a Five-Man Band. On the extreme side of the small scale, you may focus on a fire team or a sniper-spotter pair. Maybe they're Heterosexual Life Partners.
- If you do go the way of the Five-Man Band, then here's the general rule
- The Hero= squad leader, usually a sergeant or a low ranking officer, if the officer is not a Naive Newcomer or The Neidermeyer. Usage and playing with the Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough and the An Officer and a Gentleman tropes is possible.
- The Lancer= the second in command of The Squad. If The Hero is an officer, then chances are that The Lancer will be a sergeant of some type. If the leader is a sergeant, then The Lancer may be of the same rank, or a bit below them. Chances are that they will be the team's best fighter.
- The Smart Guy= a specialist in something, like EOD, demolitions, heavy weapons, or long range marksmanship. They might also be a hacker, information officer, or the radio operator. It is common for this archetype to be the team's Designated Marksman.
- The Big Guy= Machine gunner. This guy is likely to carry The Squad's serious firepower. In historical stories, they might be the grenadier. Give them either rapid fire or big booms. They might also work for demolitions. This character is also a strong candidate to be the team's Sergeant Rock.
- The Chick= The Medic, the New Meat, the Naive Newcomer, the radio operator, or maybe a chaplain. Note that real militaries very rarely are fully gender integrated (a rare exception being Canada), women rarely serve in frontline combat units, they normally are kept in gender segregated units, and very few countries conscript women. The Chick can be either male or female, so long as they seem to be the soul of the group. Remember that despite the normally non-combat status that being The Chick designates, The Chick can still definitely be badass, tough, and competent in a war story.
- If you do go the way of the Five-Man Band, then here's the general rule
- Drill Sergeant Nasty is there to train the new recruits.
- Several different tropes can apply for superior officers. You can have General Ripper, Colonel Kilgore, Majorly Awesome, General Failure, and just about any variation of these.
- For darker works, a Sociopathic Soldier, a genuinely evil comrade, or perhaps even a number of these.
- Maybe even put them in important positions, like squad leader or mission control.
- Mercenaries, private security contractors, and the like. Their characterization can vary from people who are selling their best skills to make a living, to Complete Monster Psycho for Hire types. Often, they'll be from Blackwater, CACI, or Titan. When in doubt, use South Africa as a source for mercenaries, or at least as their origin. The biggest PMC's now are based in the U.S. and the U.K.
- Hospital staff who take care of wounded soldiers.
- Townsfolk, who may or may not welcome the occupation force.
- Maybe have some of the soldiers fall for local girls, or some of the women soldiers can fall for local boys. Depending on where the work lies on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, this can be played for romance, drama, angst, comedy, Squee, or used to set up a hopeless relationship.
- A girl, friend, or family member back home works to create some depth to a character, especially if they have to hear the news about what happened to their son.
- News Reporters may be used to provide framing for the conflict.
This is at least 50% of why people read and watch war stories. War provides a unique mix between placidity and drama. Of course, the same thing can be done with a film about gangsters, athletes, or a trial, but where else can you see a carpet bombing or a room to room clearing of a house full of terrorists?
- In a way, the seriousness and realism of the story will decide what sorts of stunts are possible.
- Realistic series like Band of Brothers tends to have relatively few stunts, explosions that are more concussive than fiery, and low key bullet impacts.
- Action series like Rambo are going to be more fanciful, with things with dual weilding, One Man Armies, endless shots without reloading, and of course, all sorts of craziness.
- A story about paratroopers, fighter pilots, or any other high octane job, will by necessity, contain some pretty cool stunts.
- Stunts are mostly going to things like Stuff Blowing Up, launching rockets, Dynamic Entry, and such things..
- Band of Brothers is a very realistic World War Two story that has great writing, plot, characterization, and music. If you want to know how to really pull of a great story, then this is the series to watch.
- Full Metal Jacket is antiwar movie Deconstruction at its finest. It features the Trope Codifier for the Drill Sergeant Nasty (which gets subverted- hard!) and it also does a great job of showing its War Is Hell theme. It has status of a fountain of memes, such as Me Love You Long Time, just about everything from Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, especially the part about steers and queers.
- Victory Gundam is in many ways like the Gundam version of Full Metal Jacket.
- All Quiet on the Western Front may be close to required reading. Warning: it is one hell of a Tear Jerker.
- To Hell and Back is the true story of Audie Murphy, the most decorated and Badass soldier in American history. If you only watch the film, then be aware that they toned down or removed some of his actions because they were too unbelievable! The book still have them all. And to cap it all off, the man was rather small, only standing at 5'5".
- Battle of the Bulge is great despite its liberties with history and geography. THE ARDENNES DOES NOT LOOK LIKE CENTRAL SPAIN! NO! NO! NO!
- Tobruk is an example from Rock Hudson.
- Battle of Britain is a very historically accurate film and a very good movie about fighter pilots.
- Platoon is similar in vein to Full Metal Jacket. It is known for featuring Charlie Sheen, adagio for strings, and one of the most chilling war crime scenes in movie history.
- Where Eagles Dare is a World War Two film.
- Operation Petticoat is a comedy about a US Navy Submarine in WW 2 fighting against the Japanese. They sink a truck.
- Apocalypse Now is essentially Heart of Darkness recycled in Vietnam. It is also a Fountain of Memes, such as fortunate son, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", and "Charlie don't surf".
- John Wayne's The Green Berets is known for being the only traditional war movie about Vietnam and it is a damn good one.
- The Illiad, and it may even be the Ur Example.
- The Aeneid has a back half that tells of a pretty awesome war story. Such a shame with the What the Hell, Hero? Gainax Ending.
- Objective Burma although this is somewhat controversial.
- Black Hawk Down is definitely one of these.
- Jarhead counts as a great film about the US involvement in Iraq.
- Modern Warfare, the series in general, although as a war story, Call of Duty 4 is probably the best written as a down to earth, gritty war story