(Possible spoilers to Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon)
The key to being a great plot-complexity creator seems to be distilling all of the action into very abstract movements. The hard part comes from co-ordinating multiple movements all at the same time, as well as having it all blend perfectly with the more ‘uncoordinated aspects’ of the narrative – like themes, characterization, and poetics.
Of course, one of the best places to reap this structured approach is from history – which is full of great examples. Kyoukai Senjou no Horizon is masterful in its structured approach, especially with regards to how it blends
High Diplomatic Context > Macro Strategic Context > Micro Individual Tactics
That is, Horizon sets out the political context which dictates the alliances building up to the various battles (and inserts various mini battles and debates before the large-scale ones), then orchestrates a macro-scale battle with a grand strategy approach, while outlining various micro-conflicts in the middle of the macro-scale battle.
Anyone with a strategy fetish worth his salt would probably be able to come up with scenarios, but only a crazy person could co-ordinate everything so well and yet have the setting still be as ridiculously clustered as the one in Horizon – while abusing the so-called ‘awesome’ beats in a way that allows for continual excitement.
The Spanish Armada battle in Season Two is the insane peak of this. Two sides co-ordinating airship formations, and within those formations are individual encounters that will determine the sway of whether the higher strategy succeeds, and the strategy itself evolves depending on the situation. That, though, only occurs on the event-level (plot).
The narrative level is how Kawakami structures the viewpoints to make it exciting, tying in character interactions, exchanges, and awesome beats to allow the mere details to transcend into high entertainment. This is the bread and butter of what makes an action story an action story. It doesn’t quite reach the sublime level that Hanachirasu managed to create with its perfect symmetry of event and theme (that was more achieved in season one with the ‘parallel dialogue’), but the exhilaration is impeccable.
I think I can whittle down the techniques to a few categories though: Interaction, Reveal, Chuunibyou
Interaction is in the domain of characterization. Whatever banter, running gag, or previous history the combatant has had is utilized here. A really good writer would allow the psychological dimension to seep into the plot dimension seamlessly, but Kawakami is more of a person who uses wide genre strokes and genre gags (like ecchi comedy) to build this up, although he can also push these to extremes to create a completely new level.
Reveal is what, in chess, would be called a ‘brilliancy’. A tactical twist that changes the entire scope of things. A person cannot really be called a tactical action writer without being at least adequately competent at coming up with these.
Chuunibyou falls under the concept that if you’re going to pull a deus ex machina or sudden hidden skill out of nowhere, at least make it crazy awesome, just like Wuxia moves. Abusing philosophical speak or poetic verbiage is very very good here. E.g. Unlimited Blade Works, or the triple-axel prostration in the trade negotiations between Britannia and Musashi. Anime’s heavy abuse of these types of moments comes from the realization that you don’t need to actually have good tactics to make for a good action story, just a whole lot of awesome beats.
Horizon makes use of all of these in its battles. A lot of wins can come from various tactical reveals, and some from Chuunibyou, and even some from the pure power of interaction (usually in diplomatic debates, although the ‘parallel dialogue’ is one of the best and shining examples of this). I think interaction is one of the weirdest and coolest ways to secure victory, though it’s usually used more in ‘psychological game’ fiction than battle fiction. Zetsuen no Tempest had this with the girlfriend discussion in the climax, and Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria has quite a number of these spread throughout its various psychological battles.
Is it possible to combine all of these into a single thing? Like a character wins with a move that is entirely psychologically and characterization relevant, a brilliant tactical move, as well as awesome-madness to boot? Quite possibly. The whole point of Hanachirasu, after all, was to outline how the mechanics of the action was innately tied to the disposition of its characters. Explaining tactics, though, may cause one to lose out on the poetics and awesomeness part because they have no way to make the lengthy explanations sound nice. That is all pure craft, and depends solely on your ability to streamline information while coming up with poetic connections to link the information to greater aesthetics. I think Nisio Isin has some moments that are like this.
Either way, the necessary requirements are still obvious. Read up good literary fiction to get the poetics, character and psychological part down, and read action novels, military history or history in general to get the strategic part down. Possibly also read Mystery Fiction to understand a few interesting perceptual mechanics that can be abused for the tactical parts. Science Fiction is a bit harder because you actually have to have it all be based on enough real science to allow for the suspension of disbelief. Read philosophy or theoretical models to come up with good Magic Systems for Fantasy. Focus on writing practices to chunk information down into readable poetic parts while studying the mechanics of wit to enliven the narrative. Mastery of all these facets is how you break out of the ‘genre ghetto’ and come up with something completely next level.
Here, by the way, is a top-down analysis of the first battle in Horizon from the light novel.
Aim: Defeat Oriotorai
Chuuni: Ninja Tenzou circumvents terrain problems with Ninja abilities.
Reveal: Moves in for a low strike. Guesses that longswords are weak against low approaches.
Reveal (Counter): Oriotorai plans it so that she’s propelled backwards when the swing comes down
Reveal: Urquiaga launches a sneak attack from the roof simultaneously, using Tenzou as a distraction
Reveal (Counter): Oriotorai releases the sheath of the sword to extend its reach, mid swing.
Chuuni: Tenzou masks Noriki’s sneak attack with Ninja abilities
Reveal (Counter): Oriotorai releases sword grip to have it fulcrum off Tenzou and hit Noriki
Chuuni: After the three are defeated, Asama uses a quadruple reinforced Holy Tracking Arrow on Oriotorai
Reveal (Counter): Oriotorai disables Tracking ability with her hair.
Even the reveals here can be classified as physical, dependent on the movement of objects in space, and perceptual/semantic, dependent on stuff like the meaning of ‘tracking’ or whatever. The way it’s actually written, showing the character’s internal processes and whatever as they’re being foiled, is all a part of the trade. Too bad it’s still a far cry from the witty and crazy explanations that appears in Hanachirasu:
“When fighting multiple opponents, these are the rules that must be followed: seize the flow of battle. Under no circumstances surrender initiative. Even when defending, it should never be for defense alone. Stay on the offensive, and ensure that every movement, whether your own or your enemy’s is of your own design. Should you fail at this, the majority rule will immediately take effect. The greater number always wins. Become the dictator, the absolute tyrant, and rule the masses with an iron fist”
A strategic view would probably look like this
Setting: Space Battle
(Macro Strategic Level)
Reveal: Battleship A holds Formation A
Reveal (Counter): Battleship B holds Formation B
Reveal: Soldier A attacks Position in Formation B to create weakness)
(Micro Strategic Level)
Reveal: Soldier A faces Soldier B and attacks
Chuuni (Counter): Soldier B reveals secret megaweapon with XXX attributes
Reveal: Soldier A circumvents megaweapon with XXX trick
Outcome: Position in Formation B weakened
Chuuni (Counter): Battleship B reveals super megalaser
Reveal: Battleship A does Formation C
Many large scale battles with small scale tactics and character interactions, told in a witty, thematically, and poetically engaging way – is pretty much the abstract ideal of what an action novel should accomplish. (Take note I use battles in a wide sense here. The diplomatic talks are battles, as are the interaction-battles in stuff like Katanagatari)