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How Does One Plot A War?

I have a war that's referenced fairly often in the fantasy series that I am currently writing, as it's the main influence of events that happen in the series, and I need some help with fleshing it out in greater detail for my personal reference. I have no idea how to plan a war or write one really, other than giving it a name, have mostly the ending events and a few other major events noted down, and a basic timeline. What's your advice on this?


Myth Weaver
I'd look are "real world" wars for echoes of what you want and strip-mine them for prompts and idea.
Is it a world-wide war encompassing dozens of countries and millions of people? War of the Spanish Succession, Seven Years' War, First World War, Second World War [i think that really started in 1937 when Japan decided to invade Manchuria and China]
Is it an empire expanding? Alexander, China, Early Rome, Mongol, Spanish and British Empires.
Or one that is contracting/breaking up? Late Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman, Aztec, Inca
Is it a people defending themselves from an empire? The British in India, American Indian Wars
Is it one sided? The British in Africa, Vietnam, American Indian Wars
Is it very long? Thirty years war, Hundred years war.
Is it a rebellion/revolution? American War of Independence, Scottish Wars of Independence...
[and btw and with tongue in cheek; rebellions always fail and revolutions always succeed - things get named by the victors]
Is it a civil war? American Civil War, Yugoslavia in 1990, The Anarchy, War of the Roses, English Civil War...
[The British do seem to crop up a lot.]
Or a mixture.
And then technology comes in to it...
And the weather.
And resources.
All that said. I'm a world builder. I've made battle maps down to the unit level for several battles. It was great fun and I got an incredible sense of what was going on, but NONE of it [except effect of the result] ended up in the story.
This is the most helpful advice I have ever received from a fellow lover of worldbuilding when it comes to something like this. Thank you so much!


Belief it or not, it works like most other conflicts in a story.
Party A wants a thing, party B opposes - they each have a motivation and goal. They battle, there are events and development and then the conflict ends.

Also, keep in mind: every soldier, politician, spy and civilian is an individual. There must be something that motivates all of them.
Nothing causes a war story to fall flat as quickly as an army without any will or motive.
Can't really add much to what Joe and WooHoo said, but I've used the premise myself as the war in my story is one of those world changing events. For me it's a lot of tracing back to what caused it, who fought in it, who lost it and how good did the orcs do in that round (answer: usually not as good as hoped for). Wars are often complicated and horrible affairs as is and depending on your characters, some of who may have lived it, it may come through as a bit more powerful in affecting them.

And depending on how deep you go and the tech, everything from supply lines to foraging for the soldiers to the generals in charge and whether or not they make nigh on futile charges into machine gun nests (or the magical equivalent thereof) and if one or five of the Generals in charge is noble fop put in because of blood rather then any merit. And if the soldiers wouldn't mind a little friendly fire towards their superiors. Anyways, this is what little I've got for you and will stop before I really get to rambling.
I'd look closely at who

  • has the power to declare/inaugrate war
  • has the power to determine how that war will be prosecuted
  • can decide when that war should end--both, initial/ongoing goals and changing goal posts.
This can make a lot of difference.

For instance, if a single person has the power to decide to go to war, a dictator for instance, this can also affect the prosecution of that war and the goals. He defines the casus belli and determines what victory will look like and may be far less likely to seek an end to war unless he's well and good against a wall or in a corner or even dead. The reason he goes to war may be very silly, personal. And the goals, also, might be for personal aggrandizement, regardless of the reasons he gives his generals and the general populace. [Edit: This doesn't mean that such a leader will always have only personal goals, however.]

But if it's by committee—the ancient Athenians, for instance, during the early part of the wars with Persia—then there can be a lot of delay, in-fighting amongst domestic factions, and very contentious arguments about how the war will be prosecuted. There might even be factions within the polity pushing for surrender or appeasement while other factions are hell bent on never giving up. As various factions or members of factions rise in influence, this can sway things back and forth and even lead to contradictory efforts during the prosecution of the war, extending its duration through sloppiness and wasted resources.

Beyond those concerns, the relationship of those actually leading the armies—generals, admirals, etc.—to whoever is making the top decisions will play a large role. I'd look at maybe George McClellan in the American Civil War as an example of what can happen, for a negative case, heh.
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There's very little to add here to what's already been said but I'll add my bit. Most (almost all) wars are over control of territory and the resources in it and the way wars are fought mirror it. Wars are mostly about controlling strategic points that deny the other belligerant access to resources or routes into your territory. Prior to the Rennaissance, or at least from the Iron Age to the Rennaissance, battles were actually rather rare and most warfare was done through lengthy sieges. Capturing walled cities and other fortifications, such as castles, was one of the primary military objectives in the wars of this period. In the Old World, that is. I hardly know anything about Pre-Columbian warfare in the Americas to comment on it, and, as far as I know, there is very little surviving information about it.