Q&A

How Can Fantasy Stories End Without a Big Battle?

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I’m pre-writing a long fantasy series and the final “act” always seems to be a build up to one great big battle scene.

Are there any other options for sci-fi/fantasy writers’ third act instead of a great big world-ending battle?

That would be a great article. Super helpful.

In the meantime, do you have any ideas for me?

Thanks,

-Justin

Justin,

Fantasy comes in many shapes and sizes, but big battle scenes are quite common in epic fantasy in particular. The stakes are very high, and if your main conflict involves clashing nations or a struggle for succession, a battle is the natural way to create an epic, exciting conflict that can realistically resolve the problems raised in the beginning. If the book doesn’t have a struggle that’s epic in scale, the field of options is much wider. For a long series, it’s often a good idea to start with somewhat smaller stakes in the beginning, so the story has more room to build without getting repetitive.

But let’s say you do have a large-scale conflict: What options are there for bringing things to a head without a battle? Another popular option is for small party of protagonists to head into somewhere very dangerous.

  • In The Lord of the Rings, Sam and Frodo have to sneak into Mordor and reach Mount Doom.
  • In other stories, the protagonists might sneak into the villain’s fortress to steal a powerful artifact, rescue someone, or just assassinate the bad guy.
  • Sometimes the protagonist surrenders themselves or is captured by the bad guy and spends time behind enemy lines trying to outwit the villain.

If you have high magic in your setting, that can also be used to set up whatever requirements you want for an exciting end. Maybe saving the day depends on restoring a magic barrier, but to do that, the hero will have to head into the underworld and convince Hades to give up an important artifact.

It’s also possible to solve big conflicts through negotiation instead of violence. As long as life or death is on the line, it will be exciting. Similarly, it could end with a duel between two champions instead of a battle. Maybe the protagonist’s tiny fortress stands no chance of withstanding the evil hordes outside, so their leader finds a clever way to get the villain to accept a duel instead. The hero has almost no shot, but it’s the only chance of everyone coming through alive. Just keep in mind that if it looks like a battle is about to happen but then it doesn’t, readers may find that anticlimactic. Keep the focus off the battle preparations and instead just make it clear what terrible things will happen if it starts.

I hope you find that helpful!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Adam Reynolds

    I really like the idea of using diplomacy in a fashion that actually works and makes everything better. Wars are narratively easy, which is why they are popular. The problem is that this is just as true in the real world as it is in fiction. It’s often easier to justify a war than it is to justify diplomacy, as diplomacy essentially requires that you don’t get everything you want(see the Iran deal as a good example). Not that war actually does better most of the time, often creating new problems as it solves old ones, especially if one of the things you want is less death.

    While diplomacy doesn’t really have action, espionage has plenty, and the two go together quite nicely. It really would be nice to see a bigger picture element of espionage done in this fashion, with high ranking diplomats replacing the generals we see in war stories. At the small scale you can have chases, heists, and the occasional violent confrontation. If you want cool spaceships or grandstanding armies, you can do things in the style of The Hunt for Red October or Thirteen Days(Cuban Missile Crisis), in which it is clearly all about posturing rather than actually shooting each other. The threat and danger is still there, and some smaller scale violence can occur, but no one actually needs to pull the trigger at the largest scale. Star Trek has done this at times, even if they also fight actual wars just as much.

    • Rosenkavalier

      Related to this is the absolute nature of good and evil in a lot of fantasy fiction, I think. A diplomatic solution, with compromises on both sides, is reasonable between morally commensurate nations. Making compromises with Lord Evil, on the other hand, would be much harder to justify to the reader, and so the ‘all or nothing’ outcome of an epic battle becomes the more obvious way of resolving things…

      • Adam Reynolds

        The obvious solution is to not use an evil empire in the first place. Evil Empires are a dangerous myth, as it is always easy to say that the group you are opposed to is evil regardless of the truth of what they have done(or what your side has done). While there are regimes that the world would almost certainly be better off without, who has the right to remove them? Does this create more harm than good? Would this regime have come to power if we had used proper diplomacy in the first place? Do we even know what it is that this group wants?

        This idea of good and evil societies is one that is problematic in another way on the opposite side. Star Trek is one of the clear cases of what is intended to be a utopian society, one in which they have largely figured everything out. The problem with this idea is that it sends the message that other societies are the ones that need to change while ours never will. We’re at the end of history and there are no alternatives that need to be considered. We’re just fine as we are now.

        • Rosenkavalier

          Definitely. I really dislike the idea of absolute evil, but it’s unfortunately prevalent in fantasy fiction (and roleplaying), and as you say it leads to some very unfortunate implications and outcomes.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, in “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu makes it clear that ‘the best way to wage war is not to wage war.’ That’s not a pacifist statement (Sun Tzu was a general himself), but a practical one. Wars are expensive. Not only do they take a lot of resources, but they also mean that all those men who are now in the army will not do their peacetime jobs. Fields will be left unattended and other wares will not be created. This costs the state a lot long-term, as spendings go up and earnings (through taxes) go down. A ‘war tax’ introduced to bring up earnings can lead to unrest back home, which nobody wants while the army is several days of marching away, either.

      Sun Tzu also makes it clear that diplomacy (aided by espionage) is a much better way to settle a conflict than sending out an army to crush the other one.

      @Rosenkavalier: yes, if you don’t go for the ‘absolute evil’ edge with your story, if you admit that the other side is also made up of people, most of whom probably aren’t that happy about the war, then diplomacy is a much better solution than a battle. Both sides might lose something, but in the end, they’ll profit from not waging that battle.

      • Cay Reet

        To add, as this is Mythcreants (and we know you all looooove Discworld).

        I really love the solution for the big battle in “Interesting Times”. Rincewind and his friends from the resistance sneaking from encampment to encampment, telling the soldiers about how the opposite army is definitely not made up of blood-drinking ghosts from beyond the wall. That’s a psychological war which leads to no real battle the next day, because you can order as many attacks as you wish as a general when your men are secretly sneaking away, you won’t get any fighting done. That solution, of course, only works in a setting like the Discworld (where Sam Vimes, if I remember it right, also once arrested generals, claiming they were disturbing the peace).

  2. Em

    While not a fantasy series, I think the Honor Harrington series would be a good study in this. A lot of the books end in some huge space battle, but other have their climax set on something far more personal and contained (duels, assassins, conspiracies, alliances etc.) Also, even the battles vary wildly in size and scope.
    You just have to wrap up most of the immediate concerns well enough that you can move onto the next book.

  3. Rose Embolism

    The main thing is whatever happens at the end of the book should be the culmination and resolution of the issues centered in the book. This doesn’t need to be a war. For example, while the Witch World novels have plenty of battles, The Year of the Unicorn ends with the protagonists rejecting their previous life and striking off on their own.

    Battle isn’t even necessarily the climax of a fantasy war novel. For instance, in Fire Logic, the invaders of the land cannot be removed without becoming worse than they are- it will have to involve a reconciliation. In fact the resolution of the first novel is dealing with a resistance leader who has done grievous harm to the main characters.

    In a different vein, the entire book of Little Fuzzy hinges on whether an alien race is sentient- which would mean the company that owns the planet would lose its control. This conflict leads to…a court battle.

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