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So You Want To / Write a War Story
aka: Military And Warfare Works

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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!

Necessary Tropes

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.
  • Character Death - 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.
  • World of Badass - More than anything else, war stories need badasses.

Choices, Choices

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 Tools. 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. Don't breeze through one event 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.
  • Artistic License Ships. Again, do the research! Each ship is a different beast, with its own strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you can tell the difference between a World War II carrier and a modern angled-deck carrier!
  • 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.
  • Bulletproof Vest: Modern body armor generally only covers the chest and abdomen with the vest, and a helmet covers the head. It's mostly meant to protect against shrapnel fragments and pistol rounds; rifle rounds fired by modern guns will have little trouble breaching them, unless they hit hard ballistic armor. Body armor works more like a saving throw against minor wounds rather than as a bonus to your defense. Being shot tends to be rather painful and flinch-inducing, even if the armor works perfectly and stops the projectile. Rifle bullets are practically guaranteed to break bones, even if they do not defeat the armor.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing. It is very difficult to make a work that is both entertaining to the audience and effectively conveys an antiwar theme. War Is Hell is not the message one gets from a work full of awesome badassery or completely earnest militarism. Trying to throw an antiwar message on at the end goes over poorly. Also, be extremely careful to avoid hitting Anvilicious.
  • God-Mode Sue. In war, people get hurt and die all the time, and no one is exempt from it, not even the main characters.
  • Hollywood Atlas. Do the research.
  • Hollywood Tactics. No, just no. This also goes for General Failure. Most actual military engagements are visually unimpressive and honestly, rather boring to watch.
  • Improperly Placed Firearms. Horrifyingly ubiquitous. Here are a few of the most common and egregious examples. Firstly, every single Kalshnikov rifle is automatically an AK-47. Genuine 47's are very rare; most AK's aren't 47's, let alone Russian. The most common AK is the AKM, or one of its innumerable clones, most notably the Chinese Type 56, which is recognizable for its fully hooded front sight and integral underfolding blade bayonet. Note that the Type 56 can also denote the Chinese version of the SKS. The American military does NOT issue the MP-5 or the Uzi! Only the USMC regularly issues the M16; almost everybody else has used the M4 since around 2009. The modern Russian military has the AK-74M as its main rifle- not the AK-47 or the AKM. These older weapons find their ways into backwater and underfunded units as well as occasionally into the hands for Spetsnaz troopers who prefer the penetrative power of 7.62x39.
  • Just Plane Wrong. Very common and easy to mistake. In general, not every single Eastern Bloc jet is a MIG, not every American helicopter is a Blackhawk, not ever single WW2 Luftwaffe fighter is a BF-109 and not every single Nazi bomber is a Stuka, etc...
  • 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.
  • Redshirt Army. Unless it's professional soldiers versus a sub par adversary, this is not justified.
  • Selective Historical Armory: Until after the end of the Cold War, particularly between the 60's and the 80's, the FN FAL was the rifle most commonly used by Capitalist groups and nations (followed by the G3), and is still in very widespread use. In WW2, SMG's were most commonly employed by the USSR, and semiautomatic rifles were most commonly employed by the USA. Most everybody else made due with bolt action rifles, save for the occasional squad SMG or machine gun. There are many more where these came from. Do the bloody research!
  • Tanks, but No Tanks. Distressingly common. For some very rare and expensive vehicles (such as tanks), it can be more easily forgiven. Many nations also make their own unique vehicles, and some, such as the Humvee, are so common as to be found all over the place.
  • Too Bleak, Stopped Caring: Even if your opinion is that war is the absolute worst thing that can ever happen, and even if your audience agrees with you, you'll find a very small following indeed if your story is completely, unremittingly bleak. Even in the worst situations, people find ways to keep their spirits up — do the same for the story and it will benefit. A Breather Episode or Curb Stomp Cushion can make a bleak plot more bearable, and a Token Good Teammate will help people find someone to root for even if Armies Are Evil.

Tropes To Handle With Care

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. Weapons need to be 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, this kind of behavior is a symptom of something deeply wrong in the service.
  • Enemy Exchange Program. Typically strongly discouraged in real life for numerous reasons.
  • 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. Note that real soldiers do tend to get a kind of attachment to their weapons, considering that they depend upon them for daily survival.
  • National Stereotypes. 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.
  • 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.

Potential Subversions

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.
  • A-Team Firing. Most bullets fired in real wars never hit anybody. Ever since World War II, the emphasis has been on suppressive fire, which calls for using dedicated machine guns to spit a lot of rounds down range towards the enemy to make them keep their heads down and to force them to stay stationary behind cover so that either fire support can be called in, or the infantry can flank around their position and eliminate them. In modern wars, fire support scores about 85% of kills. It should also be known that when fighting against professionals, particularly outside of extremely short range urban settings, you will seldom get a good look at the enemy, let alone see them like you do in movies.
  • 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 who 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 Empowered Badass Normal, 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 Empowered Badass Normal 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 their 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.

Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes And Aesops

  • 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.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: 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? In a case of Truth in Television, freelance mercenaries tend to be fuckups, rejects, outcasts, and criminals to various degrees. If they were actually good at their job and could be trusted by any kind of reputable employer, then they'd be making good money working as contractors for a PMC, serving their nations, or teaching their knowledge as tactical instructors.
  • 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.

Potential Motifs

  • 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.

Plot Suggestions

  • 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.


Set Designer/Location Scout

  • 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 WW2 European theater story, you are going to need small European towns, open fields, hedgerows, churches, forests, and snow.
    • A WW2 Pacific theater story will need beaches, jungles, and seas.
      • The occasional fishing village isn't amiss either.
    • A WW2 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 WW2 Africa stories.
  • A cool command center, maybe one with a war room and a huge map on it.

Props Department

  • Guns, lots and lots of guns are a must for any modern day conflict.
  • 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.
  • 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. Conversely, some look very similar. Some nations, such as Russia, issue large numbers of different patterns for use by different groups in different areas.
  • For very modern, extremely well-funded groups, tons of Gun Accessories. Grenade launchers, optics, infrared lasers, vertical foregrips, alternate iron sights. 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. They're actually not half so necessary as you'd imagine, and they have an annoying tendency to very quickly add a lot of expense, complication, and weight to weapons.
    • To drive home the idea that the guns The Squad is using are top-of-the-line elite weapons, make them black. However, this is fairly standard nowadays for military firearms. Having the guns painted a camo pattern would likely work better.
  • Can't find enough period-appropriate vehicles and weapons to use for a big battle? Simple: Weapons Understudies, where you give modern equipment a paint job or add cosmetic details to make it appear period-appropriate. This is fading with the advent of CGI allowing any number of weapons. If the weapons available are period-appropriate, but of the opposing side, don't be afraid for the obvious solution of the enemy using "captured equipment."
  • If your series is about vehicles, know them. Make sure to research (or write background for, in a fictional setting) its capabilities, Cool Maneuvers, crew responsibilities, and so forth. Know what the crew would be expected to think of it — especially if it's really, really nice, or (more likely) kind of a rustbucket, actually a rustbucket, or an active menace to the heroes. Know your Tank Goodness from your Mook Mobile.

Casting Director

Pretty much every story is going to necessitate these.

Stunt Department

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.
  • 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..
  • If your story is about tanks, planes, or some other kind of vehicle, throw in a Cool Maneuver or two. Even in more realistic stories, there are plenty of real-life examples to dazzle the audience. In action-style stories... go wild.

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Alternative Title(s): Military And Warfare Works