Lessons from “The Killer Angels”

Forgive me, every once in a while I can’t stop myself from delivering a post purely about narrative technique.

Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” won the Pulitzer in 1975

I’ve been reading Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels—fiction (but very, very real) about the battle of Gettysburg. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and it deserved to. Here are a couple of observations on the subject of “How the hell did he do that?”—just between us chickens.

How does Michael Shaara deliver to the reader the massive amount of information about topography and time, troop movements, strategic planning, weather, alterations and overthrows of fortune, within the incredibly complex tale of the battle? This question, I’m certain, was not resolved by accident or whim. Shaara thought it through deeply and arrived at his solution. What was that solution?

Much of what dramatists call “exposition”—i.e. straight information that the reader needs to know if she is going to understand the story—is delivered not by some Omniscient Author or objective third-party narrator, but through dialogue between the principal characters.

Lee bent toward the map. The mountains rose like a rounded wall between them and the Union Army. There was one gap east of Chambersburg and beyond that all the roads came together, weblike, at a small town. Lee put his finger on the map.

 “What town is that?”

Longstreet looked. “Gettysburg,” he said.

And though virtually all the “speaking parts” are of generals—Lee, Longstreet, Ewell, A.P. Hill, Pickett, Chamberlain (so that we get almost no verbal clues from sergeants or privates or troops on the field)—the action still feels absolutely grounded to the grimy reality of front-line warfare. This is because Michael Shaara keeps his point of view at ground level. When exchanges take place between the principal actors, the reader is with them on the roads, behind the stone walls, sharing coffee beside a mess tent, climbing the heights under fire. 

The staff had moved back. The two generals were alone. Longstreet said, “Sir, my two divisions, Hood and McLaws, lost almost half their strength yesterday. Do you expect me to attack again the same high ground which they could not take yesterday, at full strength?”

Lee was expressionless. The eyes were black and still.

Longstreet said, “Sir, there are now three Union corps on those rocky hills, on our flank. If I move my people forward, we’ll have no flank at all; [the enemy will] simply swing around and crush us. There are thirty thousand men on those heights. [Union] cavalry is moving out on my flank now. If I move Hood and McLaws, the whole rear of this army is open.

 “General,” Longstreet said slowly, “it is my considered opinion that a frontal assault here would be a disaster.”

Shaara uses another technique available only to writers of fiction. He takes us, the readers, inside the heads of his principals.

Longstreet got down from his horse. He was very, very tired. 

There is one thing you can do. You can resign now. You can refuse to lead [the attack.]

But I cannot do even that. Cannot leave the man [General Robert E. Lee] alone. Cannot leave because I disagree, because, as he says, it’s all in the hands of God. But they will mostly all die. We will lose it here. Even if [our troops] get to the hill, what will they have left, all ammunition gone, our best men gone? And the thing is, I cannot even refuse. I cannot leave him to fight it alone; they’re my people, my boys. God help me, I can’t even quit.

More on this subject next week.

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31 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on December 8, 2021 at 3:30 am

    Exposition as ammunition! A certain Mr Coyne has quite a bit to contribute on this subject too 🙂 Guys, Steve’s business partner’s book, ‘Story Grid’, read it if you haven’t already. Then read it again, study it, digest it.

    This is lovely post, and I look forward to reading more on this.
    Thank you Steve.

    • Tessa on December 8, 2021 at 9:18 am

      Wow! Thank you Peter Brockwell too for the Story Grid reference. What an amazing resource.

    • Joe on December 8, 2021 at 11:41 am

      Shawn knows what he’s doing, for sure, Peter.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on December 9, 2021 at 12:57 am

      Thank you Peter, it’s on it’s way!

      • Peter Brockwell on December 14, 2021 at 4:51 pm

        Tolis, Tessa,
        Do please let us know how you get on with The Story Grid. I really hope you enjoy it. Personally I think it’s an incredibly insightful framework. I think Shawn has added a lot of epicycles since writing it, but that remarkable book, IMO, captures the foundations. Shawn is very upfront saying that he builds on McKee’s presentation in his book ‘Story, and runs with it. Not only is Shawn a profound thinker, and presents a fascinating analysis of the structure of stories, but the material is very actionable for writers.
        Peter

  2. Joe Jansen on December 8, 2021 at 5:39 am

    Good stuff. My contribution this week… I have a good friend, H. David Wright, who’s a talented and award-winning frontier artist. His main focus is late 1700s-era long hunters (frontiersmen) and American Indians, and 1820s-era western mountain men and fur trappers. (https://davidwrightart.com/)

    He also paints Civil War-era subjects. Being raised mainly in eastern Kentucky and now a long-time resident of Gallatin, Tennessee, David says he’ll paint only southern subjects. In his younger years, he might have painted battle scenes, but left those types of paintings behind after he returned from Vietnam. He calls his style of Civil War art, “battlefield portraiture.” I’ve got two paintings I’ll point to in particular:

    “Solitude of Command,” a portrait of Robert E. Lee before the Battle of (xxxxx… I’m not sure; just sent him a note to ask him about location). https://americangallery.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/the-solitude-of-command.jpg

    And “Cleburne,” a portrait of Confederate Major-General Patrick Ronayne Cleburne, shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864. In keeping with Steve’s post this week, I think “Cleburne” illustrates something of the story-telling or narrative technique that Steve is describing — conveying something about the story NOT through exposition or “on-the-nose” recitation or depiction of fact. This painting *might* have depicted Cleburne bloodied and hanging by a leg from his stirrup. But no. Take a look at the shadow across the bottom right of the painting, cast across his horse’s rump and his hand not quite touching the shadow, with Cleburne looking in that direction.

    I asked David if this shadow was meant to signify Cleburne’s impending death, with Cleburne somehow seeing it coming. David told me that was not his intent when painting it, but I can’t help think that the shadow serves that function when viewing the portrait as a snapshot in time, a moment in the middle of a story.

    https://civilwartalk.com/threads/cleburne-by-david-wright.95697/

    • Kate Stanton on December 8, 2021 at 7:12 am

      My goodness, Joe! His paintings look like you could step into them; they’re so realistic. Beautiful work.

      • Joe on December 8, 2021 at 8:43 am

        Agreed, Kate. He gets a lot of that realism from actually spending time on those landscapes. He’s been a member of the American Mountain Men for decades, going into the Rockies on horseback and carrying nothing that an 1830s fur trapper wouldn’t be carrying. I talked to one of his friends who was traveling with David, returning from a Wyoming rendezvous. He said, “We spent about 200 miles of that trip on forest service roads so he could take pictures of landscapes that he might later work those into some painting or another.”

        Our friend Brad Graft did some of the same while researching for his “Brotherhood of the Mamluks” novels, traveling to Mongolia and the Levant to familiarize himself with the history and the landscape.

        • Peter Brockwell on December 14, 2021 at 4:44 pm

          Fascinating. Thank you Joe, and I really concur – that shadow is looks so preternaturally unstoppable, and indeed Cleburne seems anxious. Surely something powerful was working its way out through David’s unconscious.

          It’s wonderful to hear there are folk like David and Brad really getting getting their hands dirty and immersing themselves. I love it!

  3. George Tingo on December 8, 2021 at 7:07 am

    Ahh one of my all time favorite books and what birthed my passion for the civil war at a young age. A passion that still burns bright today!

    Thanks for the insight as always Steven!

    • Brian Nelson on December 8, 2021 at 10:45 am

      George,
      Agreed. I encourage you to read Shaara’s son’s works as well. Rise to Rebellion and Glorious Cause among many others.

      He continued his father’s style—makes history so accessible, real, and sticky. I have always loved the American Revolution period—and Jeff Shaara brings it to life much like his father with Killer Angels.

      I believe he didn’t receive the Pulitzer until late, late in his life—quite tragic, lived most of his life feeling like a failed author. I could be wrong, but it wasn’t an immediate success at all.
      bsn

  4. Melanie O. Miller on December 8, 2021 at 7:33 am

    Go to ground level.

    Yes! Brilliant – again – Steven!

  5. Wanda Bowring on December 8, 2021 at 7:37 am

    I found that small snippet of dialogue utterly infuriating. I’m speaking of the story and the portrayal of man’s ego. How about retreat or surrender? Guess life was pretty cheap and, I suppose still is.

    • Jeff on December 8, 2021 at 8:30 am

      I had the same thought, Wanda. There are higher callings than duty. I want a version where Longstreet says, “Eff this. I’m not leading my men to slaughter. Peace out.” He would have been hated, but truly heroic, I think.

    • Joe on December 8, 2021 at 10:34 am

      I think I get what you’re saying, Wanda. I think one of the marks of any piece of good writing is that it elicits genuine emotion in the reader. I’m listening to a podcast conversation with novelist Andre Debus III. Shortly after reading your comment, I heard him say this (on the Brad Listi “otherppl” podcast):

      “Hemingway has a great line, from a letter he wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins at Scriveners. He said, ‘Max, the job of the writer is not to judge but to seek to understand.’ Now I don’t think Hemingway was suggesting that writers are less judgmental, more compassionate, or more loving than other other people. He could certainly be a bombastic asshole. But I think what he was saying was that the writer, if you’re going to write this kind of character-driven fiction that I’ve been trying to write my whole adult life, you better summon, to paraphrase Lincoln, ‘the better angels of your nature.’ You better be more tolerant when you write. More merciful, more compassionate, a better listener, less judgmental. This is the point of literature, right? This is the point of the reading life.”

      I thought those were great thoughts.

    • Brian Nelson on December 8, 2021 at 11:00 am

      Wanda and Jeff,
      I had a different response. The tragedy of mankind overall, the difficulty of command, the impossible sorting of competing values…

      I don’t believe military officers, then or now, see life as cheap. It has been decades since I read Killer Angels—but I do remember how all the officers were all West Point classmates—fellow warriors in other battles—now enemies.

      Life/war is so complicated. I don’t buy the Confederate Generals we’re evil incarnate. It is way more complicated and nuanced than our view from 150 years later.

      In Jonathan Haight’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ he describes different values (puts them on Left/Libertarian/Right spectrum) as flavors. While the left holds ‘justice/compassion’ as the primary value/flavor, the right has 6 different flavors that all compete for dominance/equality. Loyalty is one the right holds dear, and the left ‘doesn’t even taste’ (I’m paraphrasing).

      Interesting read, and to further complicate the issue—he makes a very compelling case that we are all genetically predisposed to our political beliefs.

      All that is to say, I understand your anger—but to me it further demonstrates the tragedy of mankind and how difficult it is to ‘be right’. Right from what perspective?

      I encourage you to read both books.
      bsn

      • Brad Chambers on December 8, 2021 at 2:16 pm

        Although an avid reader of Steven’s weekly blog this is the first time I’ve commented. I completely agree with the comments from Brian here. Command is rarely if ever black/white, right/wrong. What was Longstreet to do? Resign his command? As if doing so would cause Lee to call off the attack? His Corps would simply have been reassigned to someone else, likely less accomplished and therefore likely to cause even more casualties.

        “Right from what perspective?” is an appropriate way to think of something so complicated.

        I’ve read the book twice and watched the movie (referenced below) several times. One scene has always stuck with me, especially when reading comments on social media about the Civil War period and how so many people want to use today’s values to judge and condemn what was the normal way of life, in both north and south, in the mid 19th century. In summary, two captured Rebel prisoners are talking to Colonel Chamberlain’s brother, who was his aide. They were obviously enlisted, young, and by all appearances were poor farmers (from Tennessee if memory serves). These, and the great majority of soldiers, were not slaveholders, had probably never even seen a slave, and likely were poor dirt farmers that worked 12 hours a day to grow enough to keep the family fed. They fought because their neighboring poor farmers, their brothers, their fellow “countrymen” from their home state were fighting.

        In short, most of the soldiers in the Civil War fought for the same reasons soldiers fight today: To protect the battle buddies on either side of them, knowing their comrades are doing the same. The scenes with Chamberlain’s Tenth Maine on Little Round Top, and the scene with Gen Armistead giving his speech “For Your Homes…For Your Sweethearts…For Your Wives….For Virginia!!” highlight that.

  6. Frank Gugino on December 8, 2021 at 8:38 am

    Yes, Wanda. Life in the Civil War was cheap. 1. Shaara’s portrayal of (a) man’s ego (Lee) was contrasted with the voice of reason and rationalism (Longstreet). The latter’s loyalty to his Commander won out over his own better judgment and love of his men with disastrous consequences. 2. Shaara also uses the dialogue between the Union soldiers of Maine’s 10th Regiment in the front lines defending Little Round Top led by Joshua Chamberlain to contrast with the dialogue of the Confederate generals. Two very different perspectives give the reader a more complete picture of the fears, desires, responsibilities and commitments of officers and men at war. Magnificent stuff.

  7. Sam Luna on December 8, 2021 at 8:43 am

    ‘Killer Angels’ was on my high school English class reading list, so it’s been a while…..but I remember it well. The film adaptation Gettysburg starring Martin Sheen (a whopping 4 1/2 hours long and the first movie I had ever seen that had an intermission) came out the same year I read it. To this day my Dad is convinced I’m a Civil War nut because he remembers his kid reading that book and going to see the movie. Thanks for the breakdown, look forward to the next installment!

  8. John C and Mary Thomson on December 8, 2021 at 9:15 am

    I find this utterly fascinating.

  9. Brad Graft on December 8, 2021 at 11:56 am

    Great posts today. What better way to bolster a writer’s confidence than by knowing the subject/history, stone cold AND having also tread the ground where the action takes place–experiencing the flora, fauna, the smells, etc. Being armed/informed of both has to make the muse has to smile (within reason, as too much becomes the dreaded Resistance, as Steve has preached). But it seems that only once we nail both are we truly able to confidently pass exposition via dialogue and convincingly get inside the historical figures’ heads.

    Looking forward to Steve’s next here.

  10. Brian Nelson on December 8, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Lot of great stuff in the comments today. I have lived most of my life on the West Coast (CA or WA), and never really understood some of my Army buddies’ fascination with the Civil War. Honestly, almost to a man these guys were from the Midwest or the South.

    Open Kimono…actually I kinda thought it was a ‘sore loser’ phenomena. I cringe to admit that. It was Killer Angels that opened up the war to me for the first time. What struck me the most–and this is likely how I identified with the deep, deep friendships that are (uniquely I believe) forged in military service. Band of Brothers is real. Very real.

    One of my buddies was talking about retiring – this was at least 10 years ago. He said, “My wife is gonna kill me if I deploy again…”

    I answered how difficult his decision was because, “What Laura is asking of you is to choose between two families. She doesn’t know the other family with which you serve, and doesn’t really understand why it is difficult.”

    The men who led these armies were all Mexican War veterans. They fought together, broke bread, attended each other’s weddings, baptisms, etc. They were brothers…and then politics pitted them against one another.

    Could be that I’m simply a Neanderthal (gotta check my Ancestry…), but that dynamic was the first ‘Aha, there is so much more to this than I thought’.

    I found a podcast a few weeks ago called the Civil War Podcast that is pretty darn interesting. I’ve only listened to about 8 episodes so far, but I find it interesting and very well done. It is a husband and wife team that do the narration. The link for their website, blog, podcast is here: http://civilwarpodcast.org
    bsn

  11. Tolis Alexopoulos on December 9, 2021 at 1:07 am

    Thank you dear Steve and all friends and writers here,

    I feel the grounded nature of these passages at first sight. They also emit a sense that the writer has so much knowledge on the topic, that it’s easy for him to describe the first-line happenings within his tools’ range. I quite envy the grounded perspective for mine is aerial and I can’t stop trying to ground it, not more than I wish to, but not less than for it to pass it’s meanings and energies to the reader.

  12. Jackie on December 9, 2021 at 4:24 am

    Sorry I missed the dialogue yesterday. Loved The Killer Angels. I think I’ll reread again for the dialogue. I’ve been to Gettysburg at least a dozen times. The ghosts of time and place constantly reach out to us to get it right. But what is right and to whom? Thanks Steve and all for writing Wednesdays.

  13. Joe on December 9, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    From frontier artist David Wright, on his paintings:

    Solitude of Command: https://americangallery.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/the-solitude-of-command.jpg
    and
    Cleburne: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/cleburne-by-david-wright.95697/

    ****
    He says…..

    Went to Steven Pressfield’s website – He looks like he has some good titles – bet they are good reading, aren’t they? [[ I sent him a copy of “The Afghan Campaign. ]]. Finally navigated to your input – thanks for the fine press. Every little bit helps.

    Solitude of Command – was based on a written piece about someone seeing Lee reading a letter while leaning on an artillery piece – read it a long time ago – don’t know where I read it and don’t recall where it took place.. It is said that Lee loved his artillery. But I thought I would portray him in a different light than we usually think of him – with an artillery piece. The location of the painting background was at the Battle of Franklin reenactment in 1998 I think (the painting was done in 2005). I was up early and walking the camp and made the photos of the camp at sunrise and the Napoleon, too.

    Cleburne’s location is where his troops kicked off the assault on Breezy Hill – across Columbia Pike from Winstead Hill. Went thru all the old photos I could find made of the battlefield from Winstead Hill, around 1900 – and it had not changed much at all since it all was still in farmland then. Put it all together with a map drawn by a Federal map maker of the battle (he was there at the time) which had the houses marked on it and used it for the layout of the land down Columbia Pike. Stood right there at the time of day, at the time of year and shot the photos. Sad story is that the battlefield was put before Congress around 1900 to buy it all for $50,000 and it was voted down. Now it is all covered in businesses.

  14. Beth on December 11, 2021 at 6:46 am

    For years, I read something by Steven Pressfield before I commence writing for the day. The resistance posts help me persevere. I also really appreciate the posts about narrative technique.

  15. happy mod on December 12, 2021 at 6:32 pm

    Go to ground level.

    Yes! Brilliant – again – Steven!

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    Wow! Thank you Peter Brockwell too for the Story Grid reference. What an amazing resource.
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  19. vex 3 on February 14, 2022 at 6:46 pm

    You’ve made so many great points here that I’ve read your post a few times. Much of your point of view is in line with mine.

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