With a nod to the Onion…
I’m trying not to fly off the handle, but please indulge me, at least at first, in a bit of tough love.
If your current work in progress contains a scene, or worse, a sequence of scenes, in which the young protagonist spends his or her days at sword training or magic training or frickin’ social studies you must immediately highlight all of that text and delete it now, before it does you any actual harm.
And it will do you harm.
By now I hope you know that I’m not big on hard rules—you have to do this, you can never do that—but the obligatory fight training has, for me at least, gone from cliché to actual annoyance. And it’s in at least half the books I read—maybe two thirds.
As far as I can tell, here’s why those scenes are there, in no particular order, and sometimes for a combination of these reasons:
- You started your protagonist off too young.
- You feel as though you need to explain everything, including how he or she got to be such a great sword fighter (or whatever).
- You’re trying to hide a worldbuilding info dump by wrapping it in a classroom—sending your readers to worldbuilding school along with your character(s).
- You’re establishing a strength and/or a weakness that will very obviously come into play later.
- You’re trying to establish certain key character relationships in a non-threatening way.
- You’re essentially re-writing Harry Potter or Ender’s Game because they sold really well.
I could think of more, but these are enough, I hope, to convince you not to do it. And anyway these are essentially half a dozen different ways of saying:
During this part of your story, nothing in particular is at stake.
The swords are made of wood, so no one is going to get hurt. We get that the young protagonist is going to grow up to be the hero, so let’s just see him or her being the hero.
But I can take them one at a time with a bit more detail, combining the first two:
You started your protagonist off too young, or you feel as though you need to explain everything, including how he or she got to be such a great sword fighter (or whatever).
There is no reason to believe that a character has to be revealed at all life stages. If the hero does the exciting heroic thing as a thirty-year-old then let the hero be thirty years old and cover essential snippets of his or her formative years in interesting flashbacks, if at all.
You’re trying to hide a worldbuilding info dump by wrapping it in a classroom—sending your readers to worldbuilding school along with your character(s).
An info dump is an info dump is an info dump. If you’re explaining, you’re not storytelling. If you’ve built a part of the world that doesn’t actually intrude on the story then you don’t actually need that bit of worldbuilding. Leave it in your notes. Stop setting the scene and start writing it!
You’re establishing a strength and/or a weakness that will very obviously come into play later.
This definitely comes down to the question of stakes, which underlies all this. If you’re showing us a strength or weakness when it doesn’t matter, all you’re really doing is telegraphing the fact that eventually it will matter. So then just get to where it matters. Of course you should tease that the hero is lacking in some regard or particularly talented in another so it doesn’t just come out of nowhere at the convenient moment, but show that in action, where it matters. Show this character fail, and maybe get one of his friends killed or suffer some other significant setback in real time, when there’s real loss. When we (your readers) experience that, we then worry he’s going to make the same mistake in a later pivotal moment, and there’s suspense because we’ve seen the visceral results of failure spelled out in blood, not some vaguely threatened results communicated by a teacher. Whatever it is, it should matter in Act 1, blow up in his face in Act 2, and matter most of all in Act 3.
You’re trying to establish certain key character relationships in a non-threatening way.
Never do anything in a non-threatening way. If at the beginning of the scene we’re told everything is going to be okay but maybe she’ll get a D instead of an A, but it doesn’t really matter because let’s be honest, grades almost never do, then at the end she gets a C+ and is pleasantly surprised, well… I won’t know because I will have already dozed off. Again, what’s actually at stake here?
You’re essentially re-writing Harry Potter or Ender’s Game because they sold really well.
Yeah. Good luck with that.
So then all that having been said, just as I’ve called for a United Nations Resolution banning all vampire stories for at least ten years—but then there were some weird, unique, cool vampire stories like Let Me In and 30 Days of Night that I actually liked—well, show me a training session that matters and I’ll gleefully toss this “rule” aside. Infuse every word of it with essential story, with emotional and physical stakes. Make it matter right in that moment, not eventually down the line. Make what they’re learning dangerous, set a clock—we figure out how to work together by Thursday or the world is doomed—or make the whole thing a huge twist, like: “Wait, I signed up for Kung-fu lessons, but this is actually a cult that’s training me to be a terrorist!”
It has to matter beyond what is actually being learned (sword fighting or magic or worldbuilding) and do more than just say “she was a lowly chamber maid but they’re teaching her to kick ass with a quarterstaff,” or whatever. If the story is about her kicking someone’s ass with a quarterstaff, get to the ass-kicking, and maybe throw in an offhand reference to her having been trained in the Monastery of von Staffenstein. Or maybe you’re writing the fantasy equivalent of Psycho where the young protagonist is killed in training and a new protagonist takes over—in which case, yes, please, write that book. That would be cool.
Either way, it must matter.