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A typical approach when presenting an elaborated plan and wanting to show its execution is to make sure that something goes wrong with it. In this way we can have a fairly detailed exposition during the planning phase and tension building during the (failed) execution.

Consider instead the case in which we want to establish the character of the strategist as a master planner. We start by giving the detailed exposition of the upcoming military plan in the war-room. I am not happy with the following options:

  • if the plan fails in order to raise tension, the strategist may look like an incompetent;
  • we could skip the execution by saying '...and everything went as planned', but it seems dull to me;
  • we could create some minor execution hiccup, which may not affect the reputation of the strategist, but does not raise tension and could bother the reader.

In the contest of medium-/large-scale military strategy, how can we have both a detailed exposition, in which additional worldbuilding details are revealed (e.g. alliances, or other strategical considerations), and an execution of said plan that does not detract from the reputation of the strategist and is still exciting/interesting to read?

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    This applies to all characters pursuing goals, doesn't it? Reader must understand the goal (at least in the abstract), but the details are important only where they generate conflict, tension, or realizations (similar to how 'magic' only needs to be understood to the extend it is crucial to the conflict)…. I think readers observe character flaws (hubris, blindspots, lack of imagination, communication) more than strategic errors: BOTH planning and execution scenes will build on the character(s). There might be a valid reason the Strategist must keep his worries quiet.
    – wetcircuit
    Jan 25 at 13:43
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    TV Tropes (obligatory warning: massive time-sink!) calls this the "Unspoken Plan Guarantee": "The chances of [a plan] succeeding are inversely proportional to how much of the plan the audience knows about beforehand."
    – F1Krazy
    Jan 25 at 13:59
  • To quote von Moltke the Elder, a master strategist from the 1800s: "No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy." Further: "Strategy is a system of expedients." I.e. instead of creating a plan that requires a certain bridge to be usable, bring engineering troops to build bridges where they are destroyed. A master planner assumes the plan will fail and brings a toolbox rather than a step-by-step detailed master plan. So, when things go awry and lieutenants and captains start getting nervous, your master planner brings out another tool from the toolbox...
    – Erk
    Jan 26 at 13:02
  • Why do you need to show the plan's details before the execution? You could do it during the execution, either by going back and forth from action to explanation, or by showing hiccups and then showing that they were actually anticipated by the planner, just the reader (or anyone else perhaps?) didn't know about that.
    – Blueriver
    Jan 26 at 17:01
  • I don't buy that the only way to establish the context/back story/exposition, and also establish the character of a master strategist, is by having something fail. Showing the tail end of a successful plan, and discussion of the following plans, provides all the opportunities needed for both of these.
    – Stilez
    Jan 26 at 22:40

9 Answers 9

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No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy:

You are making the assumption that a brilliant plan will always go as planned, and that if it doesn't, that reflects badly in the story on the stiff fool who detailed out a complex battle plan and then acts surprised when it doesn't go perfectly.

You certainly CAN make a strategist who creates elaborate plans and then invariably has everything go perfectly. It's a kind of clever. But if you describe a character expounding on the details of their plan before a battle, they will sound arrogant, and readers will EXPECT their plan to fail. Unless you're Emperor Palpatine, running both sides of a war, your enemy will do things you simply weren't anticipating.

  • To have a "Master" strategist, borrow a page from mystery stories. Don't tell your readers about the character's brilliant plan, but instead create a situation where the strategist appears to make a mistake, but in actuality it is how the plan was executed all along

Great leaders will have clever plans, and sometimes they will work. But the stuff of drama in a story is when the enemy has their own brilliant plans that don't line up with your strategist's preconceptions. Suddenly, the careful details are thrown out the window and the strategist must improvise on the fly to prevent catastrophe.

  • Responding to unforeseen enemy actions will not harm the rep of a "Master" strategist if it is due to unforeseeable circumstances (an ally betrays you, an enemy has a bigger force, or they introduce a new technology). But the strategist must come up with a brilliant fix on the fly to make the surprise enemy advantage go down in flames (sometimes literally)

So the key is to make a strategist dynamic, responding quickly to changing conditions to make a victory happen. The more rigid a plan, the more vulnerable it is to the tiniest thing going wrong. If you can listen to a plan and not get a gut feeling "Ah, THIS is where it will blow up!" then it's probably flexible.

  • Focusing on the actions and suffering of individuals in a battle is a good way to introduce drama and suspense, while not questioning the ultimate competence of the overall commander.

And, of course, an overarching plan can have a single battle blow up, but then require a clever ploy to make the thing come back into place. But if your strategist constantly needs a main character to show up and fix everything, are they really all that clever?

  • Introducing a brilliant rival is a good way to permit a "Master" strategist to have things go wrong and still look fully competent. A potential fiasco salvaged into a modest win will be acceptable in the face of an enemy of similar (but slightly lower) cleverness.
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    An added bonus would be his making a couple of contingency plans, and also holding some reserves for something out of left field -- making clear in advance that he is aware of the danger of complications.
    – Mary
    Jan 26 at 2:25
  • "if your strategist constantly needs a main character to show up and fix everything, are they really all that clever?" -- you put in words the biggest concern. I like your suggestion, and it gave me the idea of having a moment when the strategist explains their plan as an attempt to second guess the equally brilliant rival. A bit like a serious take on Vizzini's mind game in the Princess Bride.
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 23:16
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I am not sure, if this fully in the spirit of the question, but the standard way of having both, a long exposition and an exciting perfect execution of a plan, is to have both at the same point in the story.

This does not mean that they have to occur at the same time. Having a general explain the plan while it is unfolding in front of him on can feel a bit forced after all. But you can do what basically every heist movie does and flash back and forth quickly between planning meeting and each stage of the actual execution.

In a movie that would be done using a lot of voice-over in order to avoid repetition. In a written story that does not work that well. But you could probably use the different levels of details between plan and execution. To give an example:

During the planning, the strategist tells us that at this point in the battle, unit A needs to capture a certain position. You then flash forward to how they precisely accomplish this, maybe until the first shots of a counterattack once they are settled in. Then you flash back to the planning, where the strategist explains that he expects the enemy to counterattack, because of some worldbuilding enemy psychological reasons and this is why unit B will be ready to flank them. From there again forward to that, and so on.

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    Aha, this is Unfolding Plan Montage (TV tropes warning). Does not work well in writing, but can be good in visual media.
    – Alexander
    Jan 25 at 17:29
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    In the first and a half book of the Foundation series (by Isaac Asimov) this seems to work pretty well. We know that there is a plan, but the interest of the series is to learn about the plan by seeing it working.
    – Pere
    Jan 25 at 19:04
  • As an add-on, this doesn't have to be montage-style in writing. You could simply hide the initial planning stage from the reader so that during the execution stage, the audience gets the novelty of discovering the plan without any repetition.
    – user45266
    Jan 26 at 7:17
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    You can do "flashback" plan exposition without an actual flashback, by having (other) characters recount them live. "Oh my god they got entrenched first!" "Okay, then X said we would dig in, and wait until they retreat" "Why would they?" "If they're blocking us, they're not blocking B passing through that gully over there; once they realized they're outflanked, X said they'll have to fall back or, maybe, die in the cross-fire, but he didn't think that lieutenant is the type for that." See the exposition "live", through the characters, sounds like it could be interesting. Jan 26 at 15:11
  • Nice idea, with a lot of potential. It is unclear to me how to mix well the colder exposition of the plan with the high tension unfolding of the battle. Maybe it could serve as a defining description for the first battle? I don't know, but I will keep the suggestion in mind.
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 23:20
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Even a brilliant military plan usually comes with a non-zero number of acceptable losses. By having individuals the readers really care about amongst the grunts executing the plan, you have a genuine source of tention beyond "Will the plan work?", namely: "Will our guys all make it out alive?".

By moving to the perspective of a grunt, you also naturally focus on one component of the overall plan; and thus have much less reduncancy between the description of the plan and the description of the execution than if both would be done on the same level of abstraction.

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  • Excellent advice.
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 22:23
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A daring plan that does work is a common trope - both in fiction and real life.

Execution of such plan creates a lot of tension along the way because there may be a lot of "close calls" which can lead to a total failure, but fortunately everything goes according to plan and protagonists succeed (some may die along the way, this happens in real life).

Consider "Saving Private Ryan" or George Washington's crossing of Delaware river, or rebels' attack on Death Star - all involve careful planning, long odds and ultimate success.

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If you look at the US military decision making process, battle plans are a team effort amongst multiple staff members with varying areas of expertise. There is a commander that is in charge of the military operation and has the final say in the plan and its execution, but the production of the plan and orders to subordinate units are ultimately in the hands of the commander's battle staff.

Say the commander is your master strategist, have his operations officer present the plan that the staff has come up with. Your commander can press the operations officer on the details or what he perceives to be a flaw with the plan. The operations officer, confident in the process that had his team arrive at the conclusion can (and should) push back and insist on the plan as designed. The commander can concede the point, but request that a certain unit be held in reserve or positioned differently. This request is something seemingly minor that, the operations officer, happy to have made his point is willing to compromise on.

With the plan laid out, you can cut ahead to a critical moment in execution where the main effort arrives at an objective but finds it not to be as the intelligence estimates described. It was a feint, and the enemy is actually outflanking the main formation. The unit held in reserve/repositioned by the commander is actually ideally positioned to delay the enemy flanking movement and allow freindly forces to reposition to meet them. Had they not been there, the main enemy advance would have rolled through friendly forces and been able to do some major thing. You have the opportunity to describe a heroic battle where the odds are stacked against a smaller force fighting for time. Perhaps your master strategist decided that's where he needed to be.

In the aftermath in a dialogue between the operations officer and the commander, the operations officer can ask a "How did you know?" The commander can say something to the effect of, "your plan was the correct one, but the enemy were (pressed on some logistics constraint and needed to get to our supplies in one last ditch effort) they took a large gamble to do it. I didn't know if they would, so I was just hedging my bets."

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    Good point, even if it does not work for me as it would require a different organizational setup or adding some characters.
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 22:22
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Never reveal the whole plan

The brilliant strategist is often a master manipulator—he doesn't reveal all his cards, even to his own side. Whether he suspects a spy is in the room, or knows a certain general will try to be a hero and deviate from the plan, or knows people will fight more bravely if they think they're avenging their friends (even if their friends are actually alive), or has his own selfish motives (like getting the King killed so he can become King), he deliberately leaves things out, distorts the truth, or carefully chooses his words so that when reality doesn't go to plan, it actually goes to his real plan.

Plans within plans within plans is a repeated theme in Frank Herbert's Dune.

Of course in order to keep the reading interesting, what the strategist explains in the war room must be clever. Finding ways to beat the odds. The trick that seems obvious in hindsight but only a genius would have thought of before the fact. But the more the entire plan is really a different plan in disguise, the more entertaining will be the story of how it actually unfolds.

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  • This is a good suggestion, and I may use this expedient for the decisive battle after tricking the reader into thinking that 'all is lost' because the strategist's plan seemed to fail
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 21:59
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Tell as normal, then show on the wartable how it goes. This way you can see everything going on without having to switch POVs between a half dozen ground troops that might just die anyway.

Consider starting with explaining your plan.

"Artillery sets up down at the south end before light, and we move battalions one through four to the western and northern edge of the compound." He set markers onto the map to indicate the positions.

"That seems a bit exposed for the artillery. Shouldn't a guard be stationed?"

"Normally I would, but we need everybody on assault. We've pulled a few light vehicles and scout squads for guard, just enough to buy time for a few of the heavy artillery to get airlifted out before it gets overrun."

"Sounds risky."

He ignored the general. "Artillery will shell the compound for about ten minutes before battalions one and two assault. Hopefully artillery has opened up their walls for them to enter by then, and they'll soften up the base. About fifteen minutes later battalions three and four will enter and replace one and two, anybody left from those two battalions will switch from interior combat to securing their wall and gate fortifications."

"Only using artillery for ten minutes?"

"If we shell them continuously, they'll send a group to destroy them. We give then ten minutes, that's long enough for them to get annoyed and send a chunk of their troops the armory to suit up."

"Isn't that bad?"

"Normally yes, but one of our moles snuck a detonator in. As soon as battalions one and two move into the open, we'll take down their counter strike and weapons cache in one move."

"And if artillery doesn't open the wall up?"

"Then we're all dead."

Some more objections will be made, a few will not like the plan, maybe a few changes are suggested. Eventually, the all clear is given and you move your troops into place. For this next part, I'd either recommend A)skipping to after and recapping the battle, perhaps the generals walking the halls of their newly acquired base, or wondering where they went wrong as they are executed by the enemy, or B) listening into the battalion commander radios so you can hear what's going on from one character.

It will probably sound a bit like this.

"Artillery set up and ready."

"Battalions in place. All looks sleepy from here."

"Artillery, you are cleared to fire. Battalions one and two, start your timer."

"Opening fire." We heard the boom of artillery from here, a few seconds later followed by them impacting what we hoped was the western and northern wall of the compound. Everybody waited around the table as the wall clock ticked down ten minutes.

"Salvos complete."

"Battalions one and two, cleared to engage."

"Battalion one engaging."

"Battalion two right behind you."

I nudged the two markers to the wall of the compound. "Are you able to enter the compound?" I couldn't hear anything but gunfire through the radio. "Battalion commanders, are you able to enter the compound?"

"-here, we're running in now." I breathed a sigh of relief. "There's a lot more fire than we thought, the armory didn't blow. We need three and four in here now."

"Battalions three and four engage immediately."

"Moving in."

"I'll join one and two, battalion three will clear out the walls." I moved the figures to reflect the unplanned movement. More gunfire for a long while. I removed the figure for battalion one when they were absorbed into three, slowly moving them across the compound and ticking off enemy forces.

"This is battalion four commander, we've secured the walls but we're hurting pretty bad. Any troops you can spare?"

"One and two are nearly out as well, I'm doing what I can but I'm gonna need more troops before we drop into the bunker."

"I'll send what I can." I called the artillery emplacement. "Scouts, get down to the compound and support. The artillery is being airlifted out and we need more down there."

"No can do, we've got soldiers headed along the ridge to us. We'll head down after we mop up these guys, assuming we make it out."

After some more battle stuff, you'll either win or lose.

All of this shows planning and execution, both very tense, and raises the stakes as needed, keeping readers on their toes about what happens next. Perhaps an unexpected air strike takes out the soldiers on the ridge. Maybe everybody in the bunker decides to just blow up the base and collapse chunks of it to make it unusable. Or maybe there's more troops underground than you thought.

Most battles shouldn't be easy, and almost every plan will have some kind of deviation once attempted. The important thing about your plan is planning for your plan to fail, and preparing for that. If you didn't plan for a certain part to fail, then the important thing becomes adapting and reacting to the unexpected deviation from the plan.

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  • The radio idea is a cool one. It can show the battle from the POV of the strategist, while they comment on the plan too. I don't have radios in my setting, but your idea is a good one!
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 23:22
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Let's not forget that there is a difference between tactics (How to win a battle) vs. Strategy (How to win a war) because the latter does not require success in every use of the former. For example, in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia was the superior power yet, thanks to Japan pulling off some decisive victory at the Battle of Tsushima (Tsar Nicholas II and his advisors believed if lost the 2nd Pacific Squadron, which was sailing from the Baltic Sea, they could not hope to win the war as they had lost their only Warm Water pacific port.). The squadron suffered the sinking of 6 battleships and 15 other ships and the capture of a further 5 ships by the Japanese, including two Russian Battleships. By comparison, Japan suffered the sinking of three Torpedo Boats. For the non-navel oriented out there a Ship is always more valuable than a boat and in 1905 Battleships were the Capitol Ships of the day... WWI was in part a result of a Battle Ship arms race that all the major powers were engaged in at this time.

Tactically Japan had won, but strategically Russia had the resources to prolong the war and win by attrition... except that they didn't have the will. The war was unpopular with the citizens, who had started revolting and both the citizens and the palace decided they were defeated after Tsushima and sued for peace shortly after to the shock of the world. Most surprised were the Japanese who were well aware they couldn't feasibly sustain their early military victories.

This victory would ultimately cause problems for Japan nearly 40 years later when they decided to declare war on another Western Power and opened with a series of rapid and devastating strikes on that power's Pacific colonies... the most famous of which was the Bombing of Pearl Harbor. Japan was utterly convinced that crippling the U.S. Pacific Fleet as bad as it had would cause the same damage to moral on the home front that the U.S. would quickly sue for peace.

From a tactical stand point, Pearl Harbor was a loss for the United States, but strategically, Japan did not do much. They did prove the superiority of Air Craft Carriers over Battleships to the world (to the point that following WWII, the U.S. Navy would abandon Battleships altogether and make the Carrier the capital ship of choice... to the point that the U.S. now fields more Carriers than the rest of the world combined), however, they did notice the flaw almost immediately, in that the Pacific Fleet's Carriers were not docked on the morning of the attack. Because of this, Japanese admirals felt it not safe to continue the attack and called off the third wave, sparing Pearl Harbor's critical infrastructure such as it's power plant, fuel storage, administrative buildings and dry docks. Of the 21 ships damaged or lost in the attacks, all but 3 Battleships returned to service before the end of the war (The U.S.S. Arizona was a total loss, the Oklahoma was raised and slated for repairs in 1947, but capsized while being towed to dry docks on the main land. The U.S.S Utah was a total loss from the onset but at the time of the attack was not in active service and was being used as a target ship, though had she not been sunk, it would be likely she would be refitted for active duty).

With the three carriers escaping the attack, the superior industrial base and supply lines, and judicial use of remaining ships, the U.S. was able to quickly recover. While Pearl Harbor was a great victory in battle, all it was designed to do was give the Japanese some extended time to blitz U.S., U.K., and Dutch colonies in the Pacific and hope the western allies would back down. IJN Admiral Chūichi Hara, commanding officer of two of the carriers in the Pearl Harbor attack said it best in his initial report on the attack, "We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war."

Admiral Isoroku Yamamato (architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and Commander-in-Chief of the IJN) probably predicted the outcome better than anyone during planning where he said that all Pearl Harbor would do would buy him at most six months to rage through the Pacific unchecked. Six months to the day, the United States pulled off one of the most tactically and strategic naval victories of all time in the Battle of Midway, where they sank four Japanese carriers, with a total manpower that constituted 25% of the entire INJ Carrier Operations in terms of manpower (and is considered just as strategically important as Tsushima was 37 years prior). It was so important, in fact, that it freed up U.S. carriers to participate in planned campaigns ahead of schedule.

What allowed this was Japan's tactics had allowed them to become predictable (that's nothing new. It was a winning strategy, why change it). The U.S. could counter it, if they encountered it early enough with the right forces, but thanks to Pearl Harbor their forces were spread thin. The turn came when the U.S. crack the Japanese military code and were able to listen to their strategy planning. Remember, all they needed was to know where the Japanese would be and wait to surprise them.

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  • I have to say that the historical references were interesting. Not sure about how you are suggesting to tackle my issue, but thank you for the examples.
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 21:49
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we could skip the execution by saying '...and everything went as planned', but it seems dull to me;

One way is to skip the execution without saying anything.

Instead jump forward in time and leave the reader wondering for a moment what happened. Then you can reiterate the parts of missing history that are relevant for the story going forward - maybe they learned something new, maybe something interesting happened. No need to reiterate the parts that went according to plan, as it is in the past anyway.

With short plans this way of skipping mundane execution feels completely natural:

Pete woke up early in the morning. He decided to make breakfast, read the newspaper and walk the dog before heading off to work.

At lunch break, Pete started wondering. The newspaper said that the main street would be closed today, but traffic was going on as usual. Had the plans for the parade changed?

With longer plans the sudden skip forwards may be a bit jarring for the reader, but it has the benefit that they'll pay extra close attention to what you write after the skip. Make use of that to draw attention to important parts. If you want to underline how excellent the plan was, maybe mention some part that could have gone wrong but the strategist had foreseen the possibility and planned for it.

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  • Good point with the last paragraph. In general this is what I am planning to do for later battles, once I establish how battles go, but I need to show at least one battle first.
    – NofP
    Jan 29 at 21:46

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