LeFire's Basic Military FanFiction Writing Guide
Its been quite some time since any of you guys have seen me writing. Indeed, I have been busy working on a full-length novel (named "Eclipse") that I will (hopefully) be publishing in a couple years time. Its difficult to write small-scale fanfics while writing a full-length novel, so I guess you guys will understand the lack of writing from me thus far.
LeFire's Basic Military FanFiction Writing Guide
(Notes: All military info inside is freely available on the Internet and media sources. Copying of this guide requires permission from me at email@example.com)
I have noticed that fanfic writers have enthusiasm and a pretty good knowledge of real-world weapons and technology. Therefore, this little writing guide that I'm putting together will deal very little with the technical aspects of war-story writing (for example, the calibre of a tank's main gun, etc.)… simply because you guys already know a lot of that kind of stuff. Instead, I will give out some hints and tips on how to change an already good piece to an exceptional piece… with the help of a few writing touches and techniques, some customized specifically for military fiction.
All you guys know that a good story has to have a plot. It doesn't have to be a very extraordinary event that you are writing about. For example, "Entrapment" was a simple story of ground forces engaged in a typical combat scenario. Still, your better pieces will tend to have a "motto" of some sort, a message to tell the audience. Keep your "motto" in mind as you write, and customise the settings to suit your motto. For example, if your "motto" is of the cost of war, include plenty of both mental and physical "suffering" imagery (hollow-eyed and exhausted soldiers, long trails of displaced refugees, dust and dirt everywhere).
Notice the way that I have sectioned out my points. Makes it easier to read, yes? Same thing goes for everyone… If you give them a continuous stream of narrative and dialogue, the readers WILL lose interest, no matter how well you have written your piece. If the website permits, use italics to show a character's thoughts. Remember, dialogue MUST be separated and marked (hit enter after each character speaks and put in those "" quotes, starting a new line for each reply. For examples, look at the conversation between Yankee One-Five and Golf Three-One in the early part of "Entrapment").
Paragraphs also allow you to add powerful punch to certain events. For example:
"A sudden sound startled Maclane. It was terribly familiar, yet the source remained elusive from him until he looked straight up.
There was a Tesla Coil behind... and it was powering up."
Contrast this with:
"A sudden sound startled Maclane. It was terribly familiar, yet the source remained elusive from him until he looked straight up. There was a Tesla Coil behind... and it was powering up."
Notice how the pause between "…looked straight up." and "There was a Tesla…" in the first example gives a impression of Maclane's dread and surprise when he finds the Tesla Coil? The effect is absent in the second example. For a really powerful effect, use a double space. However, it is best to only do this double-spacing technique once in a story so as not to dilute its effect.
A lot of people make the mistake of naming dead-ends only scant moments (few sentences) before they snuff it. "Dead-ends?"… Well, those are the people that play really small roles in the story before getting killed (in an unspectacular way). For example, a soldier who gets shot dead beside your hero does not need to be named. Reserve your names for the fellows who play bigger roles. And don't make the mistake of just naming only those who will be alive at the end of the story either… That makes the story too predictable. Predictable stories are boring stories. Try to find a balance. For example, in "Angels High", Bear dies in the end despite being described in detail at the beginning.
The more experienced writers can explore this. For example, "Bear Surgery" includes a humorous sub-plot… Both Maclane and Doomsday were cheating on their lucky coins, a fact only revealed at the end.
This sentence contains a Multi
"The missile slammed into the ship, exploding in a massive eruption of flames and debris that disintegrated the entire port side of the ship."
This one has the Multi removed.
"The missile slammed into the ship, exploding in a massive eruption of flames and debris that disintegrated the entire port side of the vessel."
Notice that the second sentence sounds a lot better? The only difference is in the substituting of the second "ship" with "vessel". Always avoid using Multi's (same words used in the same sentence). This is why school teaches us synonyms… to make sentences sound better.
Before you use any of these: Exclaimation mark "!" Run-on "…" and Comma ","
Ask yourself if you can substitute it with a full-stop. Remember, most sentences do not contain more than 3 to 4 commas. Use full-stops most of the time, reserving the exclaimation marks to conserve their effect in sentences that really need them. Avoid run-ons. I have noticed that I am sometimes guilty of using too many "…" in my stories.
To tighten up a story and include a sense of urgency, introduce a time factor. For example, "Bear Surgery" has the commandos working against the Iron Curtain, and "Angels High" has Vixen working against her fuel status. This makes the reader anxious, doubling the effect of both good and bad decisions in the story.
We are all in the business of writing war stories… and there are only limited ways in which you can kill someone or destroy something. Use some inventiveness to sustain interest. Example : Maclane uses two grenades in "Bear Surgery" to cut off the sentry gun's flexible ammo feed, thus incapacitating it.
9.) Ranks and unit organization.
Here is a very important point that I learnt the hard way… Nothing makes a war story break faster than a glaringly obvious military hierarchy/organisation mistake. Things like calling a sergeant "Sir", saluting a non-officer, and placing snipers in every squad are going to give your story a bad taste. Do your research before you write. Consider it a first priority. Ranks below officers vary (a lot!), but typical rules include never saluting them, and never calling or referring to them as "Sir" (unless the non-officer is a warrant officer).
Officer ranks are usually universal. Here are the US Army ranks:
(The lowest level of officer, leads a platoon of 30 plus men. If young and inexperienced, sometimes referred to as "Butter Bar" after his golden single bar on the collar when out of earshot.)
(Same as above, but with a silver bar in the US Army. Normally given the role of company XO or second in charge. Eg, Lieutenant Winters in BOB after he gets his silver bar in episode 1)
(Two silver bars. Leads a company. For example, that ruthless officer that leads Easy company in the first episode and who tries to court-martial Lieutenant Winters in BOB. Can be informal at times. Tom Hanks plays one in Saving Private Ryan. Some will lead by example and fight in the front-line. Tendency to be called Old Man when out of earshot.)
(The first of the senior officers. Majors tend to be older men who mean business. One golden oak leaf. Usually ends up as second-in-charge (2IC) of a battalion, which comprises of several companies. Number of companies varies by army. As a staff officer, majors usually hold the S1 to S4 positions (Manpower, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics respectively) in a brigade. Captains serve in the S1 to S4 non-combat roles in battalion-sized units. Majors (and ranks above them) are usually seen only in command posts/non-front line roles unless a pilot, tank, or special forces officer. Note: Regiments don't exist in some armies, or are the same size as battalions.)
(Usually called "Colonel". These officers tend to lead battalions or serve as 2IC's for brigades. Silver oak leaf insignia.)
(Nicknamed "Full-bird" colonel, named after the sliver eagle that indicates his rank. Normally leads a brigade or acts as a 2IC for a division. Also addressed as Colonel.)
(First of the stars. All generals are addressed as "General". Usually leads a division. In short war stories, generals seldom appear in person during combat scenes.)
Major General (2 stars)
Lieutenant General (3 stars)
General (4 stars)
5 stars and above (Very rare. Ranks among the top decision makers in a big country/coalition.)
10.) The Detail Trick
Readers rarely notice versions… That means that you can use this loophole to your advantage. Unsure of a certain plane's speed? Leave the version out. For example, "Angels High" used MiG-29's of an unknown variant, simply because most readers will concentrate on it being a "MiG"… a standard-issue Commie bad-guy plane. Ditto for the Tomcats that I used in the story. Remember. Detail is a trade-off. When you provide overwhelming detail, the chances of something being wrong becomes higher. If you are not confident about the facts, but need to use an item in the story, reduce the detail.
Try to avoid exact numbers in combat. This is a major problem among newer writers. Combat is normally a confusing affair, and numbers sometimes do not register to the stressed mind. Leaving out exact numbers gives the reader an impression of the confusion of battle, and adds to the uncertainty of a dire situation. For example, instead of "There were 12 tanks and 10 Conscripts attacking us", substitute it with "There were at least a dozen tanks accompanied by a handful of infantry attacking us."
As I mentioned above, combat is a sensory overload. The sound of your own rifle firing CAN cause temporary deafness. The smell of gunpowder causes a itchy feeling at the back of your throat. Sand and dirt that gets into your uniform will stick to the sweat and sandpaper your skin when your clothing moves. Good war story writers will include some of the senses in their pieces to increase the realism factor and make the hero seem "human", subject to the same discomforts, small pains and flaws as the rest of us.
13.) Friendly Fire
Friendly fire happens. In the noise, smoke and confusion of combat, chances of blue-on-blue are extremely high. Ever played a multiplayer team-based first-person shooter with friendly fire switched on before? Accidents do happen, right? Now add in uniforms and helmets colored almost the same (covered with mud and dust), smoke blocking your view, no respawns, fatigue, equipment weight, environmental discomfort, deafened eardrums… Bang! Oops… There goes another teammate.
Including friendly-fire in your war story improves its realism by a massive amount.
14.) Breakdowns and accidents
Anybody who has served in a military unit before will notice the high rate of breakdowns and accidents. Haste, rough usage and panic translate into screw-ups. Have some degree of accidents in your stories (Eg. A paratrooper dropping into the wrong area, a bazooka man killing a buddy with the backblast from his weapon, a tank immobilized after tipping over into a deep ditch… Etc.) Life is full of unexpected pitfalls and fubars. Use them for added realism.
15.) Death and destruction
Movies are not a very good source of descriptions. Sometimes they end up being totally misleading. Until recent shows like Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers came along, we were made to believe that everything goes boom with a big fancy orange fireball when hit with rocket/grenade/gunfire. Remember, explosions "shatter and scatter". Bits and pieces will fly off (along with a whole lot of dust and smoke) and a lot of that stuff ends up as shrapnel that can kill or wound. Death and destruction can come from a lot of things, not just bullets and explosives. Examples: A refrigerator falling from a weakened second floor onto a soldier's head, a jagged piece of tooth from someone's exploded jaw hitting somebody else in the eyeball, a tank running over an enemy soft-skinned vehicle, a soldier knocked unconscious by a ricochet hitting his head and drowning during a beach landing, Etc. Use your imagination, (but do not let it make up scenes that are too far-fetched) while keeping the large proportion of casualties caused by "normal" means.
16.) Medical facts
It is extremely rare for someone to die instantly after a mortal wound. In fact, a human is capable of full and rational action for (up to) 15 seconds after his heart has been destroyed by a bullet. People get incapacitated most of the time… meaning that they get messed up so bad that they cannot move/shoot/think/fight anymore. Examples include broken spines, severe concussion, and lung puncture wounds. Those incapacitated ones die when they do not receive medical treatment in time, get run over or executed by the enemy, or when they are hit repeatedly by stray shrapnel/bullets.
17.) Medical evacuation
Soldiers operate on trust. The only reason why a man does not run in combat is because he trusts the man next to him to stand firm. Likewise, soldiers will try to pull their buddies to safety if they are hit and have fallen in an exposed location. Watch Band of Brothers to see how this phenomenon works. Note that the "medic", the fellow in the front line who usually runs to the aid of wounded troops, is normally an enlisted man holding the rank of Corporal. The "medical officer" at the regimental or battalion medical center, on the other hand, is normally an officer holding the rank of Captain.
18.) Military slang
Most military units permit some degree of informality between ranks when in combat situations. For example, a private may be permitted to call his sergeant "Sarge". Similarly, a sergeant may choose to refer to his lieutenant as "L-Tee" or "LT". Captains, who normally lead a company of about a hundred soldiers, tend to be older than lieutenants, thus giving them an informal (not said in his presence though) nickname of "Old Man". Notice that informality will begin to disappear at the rank of Major (leaders of regiments/battalions). Any officer can be addressed as "Sir" by any non-officer rank or by an officer of lower rank. A senior officer addressing a junior rank by his formal rank instead of first-name (For example, a captain who calls for Lieutenant so-and-so) usually indicates that the junior fellow is in trouble with his boss.
Morale is to numbers as 3 is to 1. A group of soldiers is usually defeated after its morale breaks, not after everyone is killed/incapacitated. For example, witness how the British/Australian troops in Singapore surrendered to a smaller Japanese force after their morale tumbled. You don't need to kill everyone during a victory scenario… fleeing soldiers are very common in warfare (Shoot a few in the back for realism's sake though). Officers and veteran senior sergeants are vital to morale. If they are incompetent or have been taken out, leadership and initiative disappears. Everyone either huddles down behind cover waiting for something to happen (pinned down) or panic and flee. Finally, elite special forces troops (SEAL's, SAS, SPETS, Delta Force, Rangers, etc.) will fight to the last man or pull off a fighting retreat, unlike typical GI's and conscripts which may simply drop their weapons and run. There's a reason behind their elite (think rare) status and hard-core training.
Soldiers aren't clones. If you want realism, you should not stick too closely to the fanfic that you are writing and "equipment-clone" everyone. Include some variety for reader interest. Some GI's can carry one-shot rocket launchers, pistol side arms, claymore mines, etc. However, also remember that you are writing fanfic, not a Tom Clancy novel… meaning that you must still include some game-related equipment and unit types. How do you do that? Simply make the weapons for special troops more effective to maintain some relation to the game that you are writing for. (For example, Guardians can use powerful TOW-2 antitank missiles, as opposed to small LAW rockets for normal ground troops.)
21.) Overwhelming detail.
Compare these two descriptions.
"Maclane carried a Colt M-16A2 5.56mm assault rifle in his hands, slinging a Heckler & Koch PSG-1 7.62mm calibre sniper rifle over his shoulder. A Colt Model 1911 .45 calibre pistol rode on his right hip, while his combat webbing was festooned with M67 anti-personnel fragmentation grenades."
"Maclane carried a M-16A2 assault rifle in his hands, slinging a H&K sniper rifle over his shoulder. A Colt .45 calibre pistol rode on his right hip, while his combat webbing was festooned with frag grenades."
The first one provides a whole lot of detail… but will your readers read all of it? A whole string of numbers and letters will seem impressive, but WILL eventually switch off people who read your work. Subsequent letters and numbers may thus be lost to these people. Remember, people read stories for storylines. The detail is just there to improve realism… and to show off the writer's knowledge (its an ego thing, I know it myself). If they want overwhelming detail, they would read a technical manual instead. How do you get your painstakingly researched knowledge across then? Simple. Space out the stats of your weapons/equipment by introducing various details throughout your story when the traits of the weapon/equipment in question come into play (For example: "The bullet struck the target" can be changed to "The 5.56mm bullet struck the target"). This helps prevent mental fatigue in readers and sustain interest.
22.) Spell check
The lsat thing you want is a grammar/spelling error. Even the best story can have its flow disrupted by a misplaced letter… notice how the "lsat" spelling in the previous sentence has broken your concentration? Humans remember mistakes more easily then they remember flawless events. Simply highlight your work, use CTRL-C to copy the words, drop it into a word processor by pasting with CTRL-V, and run the spell check. Copy and paste it back to email/post reply to a forum. It will help a lot, trust me.
Here is where you leave impressions in the minds of your readers... Simply meaning? The ending is bloody important. It's a matter of personal style and experience. Endings vary from winner takes all, winner wins but at heavy cost (Entrapment), main character learns something new (Bear Surgery), main character/main character's friend dies (Angels High), cliffhangers (Transient), etc. As I said, only experience (and a lot of reading) can help you in making killer endings. A rule of thumb: Long sentences make bad endings. Keep it short, keep it sweet, load that final sentence with hidden meaning... and you have a winner.
That will be all for this guide. It isn't much, as you cannot expect to write Lord of The Ring-type novels after reading my few notes. Writing is a matter of practice and listening to critics. Critics are both good and bad for writers. They boost morale with tactful praise, but make authors pissed when they criticise favourite parts in a story. Angry minds are closed minds that will NOT improve.
Keep your mind and ears open, but you should also not alter your style simply because a single person mentions that a certain bit in your story is wrong. The rule of thumb is "2 and above". If only one person comments badly on something, thank him for his advice, but keep your ears open for similar comments from unrelated people in the future. If 2 or more people mention that something is not right, revise the section and let another person of similar language ability review the whole story. See if the new party notices the "not so good section". If he doesn't, then chances are that your edit has improved the bad portion.
There you go people… a little bit of advice and tips from one of the least hardworking fanfic authors around. Good luck, and keep those works coming.