Friday, July 14, 2017

We Need a Montage!* How to Show a Character Learning Without Boring Your Readers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday takes another look at a reader question on how to show a character learning a skill without spending a lot of time on it.
Q: In the beginning of my book the main character is given powers, and by the midpoint she has to be relatively competent (but no expert) in using them. How do I have her training and learning to use her powers (while discovering the setting of the book, the other characters, etc) without it being super boring?

A: I'm going to guess learning to use the powers isn't the driving force of the novel. Some other problem is driving your protagonist to act, and mastering these new powers is just one way in which she hopes to win. So, for example, if the core conflict is stopping an evil wizard who is using an amulet to raise the dead and attack the land with his zombie horde, then saving villages, finding magic to counteract the amulet or weapons capable of killing zombies might be steps to that greater goal.

(Here's more on creating a strong mentor character)

Each obstacle your protagonist encounters gives her a chance to put that power into action. It also provides opportunities to show other traits she might need for that final showdown, and gives her chances to fail and raise the stakes. Ask:
  • What existing obstacles could be learning opportunities for her?
  • What quiet moments might be spiced up by adding a small training scene?
  • Are there personal conflicts you could explore if you combined them with her training?
Look at your plot and see what situations could be made worse if the protagonist messes up while trying to learn.
  • Where are places she could fail? 
  • Where can she succeed, but it costs her something else? (Such as, she magically burns down a house to kill a zombie, and loses the respect of the guy she loves).
  • Where are places she might be too scared to act because of a past failure?

(Here are seven ways your character can screw up their decisions)

It can also affect her internal conflicts as well.
  • Does the power cause trouble with something she believes in?
  • Does she has an issue or hangup that is made worse by these new powers?
  • Are there any ethical concerns she can struggle with? 
  • Does the power go to her head and cause personality changes or reckless behavior?
(Here's more on creating inner conflicts that make sense)

Don't forget to also give her moments where she does master the power, as you'll want to show her getting it right so her use of it later becomes believable. Mix those small victories in with other plot issues throughout the story, so maybe there's a win in one aspect, but something else goes wrong in another to keep the story moving.

Think of the powers as being another tool she uses to achieve her goals and cause her conflict in the story. She's likely going to act no matter what, so her powers could easily be one more option at her disposal on her way to resolving the core conflict problem of the novel.

How do you show a character learning?

*Extra brownie points to those who get the title reference.

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. All excellent things to ask yourself while writing something like this. My current SF WIP is my first attempt at teaching an MC how to use her "powers", and I think you brought up just about everything I'm trying to convey through her learning process. Nice to know I'm on the right track. :)

  2. Um...Team America?

    This is a great post. It's something I was trying to figure out too. This makes me want to sit down with these questions and answer them before I write anymore. LOL.

    Did you get the email I send you to blogquestions? Not sure if it when through.

  3. Yes Amanda, I did, I just haven't had a chance to respond yet :) (and you're close on the reference)

  4. Cool. I love email and distrust it at the same time. I've had things not go through or go unexpectedly to the wrong person when they weren't even on the string.

    Now I have to wrack my brain some more.

  5. Love this post. It is exactly what I needed to hear and think about. As for the title reference, I know it's not Team America, but I can't remember who said it next.

  6. Wizards of Waverley Place has used that too LOL

  7. South Park! When Stan has to learn how to ski. Love it.

  8. Great question and answer. I struggled with this so much. I hope I figured it out in my last revisions to my manuscript. Still it's great how you set it all out here and how to solve the problem. Thanks.

  9. *ducks and fends off falling sledge hammer*

    Okay, I get the point! I'll sit down and evaluate my scene flow and make sure my 'learning' and relationship-developing scenes actually build the story and don't just sit there looking pretty! I promise!

    ^_^ In a silly mood. Anyhoo, when I first read this post, I thought "Okay, my narrator's already trained, so this doesn't apply."

    Then I looked again and realized that I have one WiP where it does apply--and that this concept of mixing development with plot-moving aspects applies to more types of scenes than learning. Like, say, two characters developing as friends or love interests.

    And having my one narrator mess up while learning?! *realizes* Oh, my. There's SUCH an obvious one, there, I'm gonna have use it! *grins widely*


  10. Ahh, my favorite montage quote from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I know it's been used on multiple shows though.

  11. Thank you so much for answering my question! This post was very helpful and has given me a few new ideas for revising that part of my novel.

  12. Since you brought up the concept of a montage (which is, along with VO - voice over - generally considered the worst plot contrivance ever imagined and the mark of a true amateur filmmaker/screenwriter), I'd suggest going back and reviewing some montages in movies to see what shots they use. Most movies use them to introduce the setting or, as you mentioned, to show someone learning something (which is entirely fine but completely lazy), but actually *watch* what shots they use. It's not just a bunch of random stuff (unless it's a dressing room montage, then may Persephone help you), but important shots that either mean something individually or are drops in the bigger bucket.

    What I'm getting around to saying is rather than just throw a bunch of shots up on screen, think about the key points your montage is emphasizing and write those scenes instead, or find a way to include those important bits in the dialogue of other scenes.

  13. Awesome post. This was something I struggled with earlier this year, obviously you don't want you MC to get it right everything and it's awesome if there are unexpected consequences to using powers.

    Your post was really encouraging. I think *fingers crossed* I'm on the right track with how I've managed the whole learning to use it thing.

  14. Awesome: and incredibly useful advice even for people not writing a fantasy. (I'm still working on my own perspective towards this issue.)

  15. What great advice! Thanks for the tips.

  16. Tessa wins! (though I see the line was used in more than just the South Park I always connect it to)

    Most welcome, and thanks for asking it Elizabeth.

  17. I'll echo Janice's advice on your character improving in high-tension scenes. The Shifter actually has some excellent moments where Nia is pushed to her limit and her increasing ability is revealed.

    Another suggestion I would add, is if you're writing a training scene, the scene should not be about training. Give the character some other conflict or goal, not related to their training. The training is just background, a way to frame the scene.

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  19. I was waiting for you to advise this writer to "show your character failing" -- but you really fleshed out your explanation not only on how to accomplish that, but how to spice up the rest of the work and amp up the internal conflict/theme. Very well done!

    Can't wait for your writing advice book to come out. I'm going to buy a copy for every single writer friend I've got. You rock!

  20. Love your advice, Janice, as usual straight for the bullseye. ^_^b

  21. Paul, aw, thanks! And a good tip indeed. Unless there's conflict and stakes involved, training is often better as a backdrop.

    Courtney, thanks! Plugging away on the books. Scrivner is totally making it easier.

    Vero, thanks!

  22. Janice you have a gift. I struggle with getting characters through training sessions, often boring myself as I write (never a good sign). But as I've come to expect, your tips are practical and encouraging - and once again give me hope. I'll definitely be bookmarking this one! Thank you.

  23. Raewyn, happy it helped. A lot of it is just thinking "How can I make this matter to the reader?" If they care they'll follow you anywhere. If they don't, nothing you do will work. Boring yourself is a big hint it's not working :) Ive got one of those scenes now I'm working on.

  24. Always great advice. I'll add one more variation:

    Sometimes you can mix in a bit of dialog, the character talking about what she's learned, or more often what she's gotten stuck on or worries she won't be ready for when the crisis comes. Dialog's great contrast to scenes (or montages) of directly training or testing her powers, and it can jump instantly to whatever's the biggest possible problem, plus it shows off your characters' own perspectives on it all.

  25. Robert Jordan in his Wheel of Time saga has one of the main character's Rand Al'Thor learning not only sword techniques but also his abilities in magic. This takes place over the first couple of books and the lessons are interspersed throughout several chapters. It was an interesting way to watch the character grow, not only physically (his abilities improving) but also mentally as he learned that he was more than he imagined himself to be. Jordan also used this as part of world building as the techniques used in sword play and magic both gave insight into the world in which the characters were living. Excellent topic posting.

    1. It's been a long time since I read those, but now that you mention it, I do remember his training being part of the story. Good example!

  26. Lisa is a police who, despite her lack of size, is a great Tomiki Aikido fighter, a military police officer who, on her first day of employment in a civilian police department, must shoot a former school mate of hers who is wielding an old over-and-under shotgun in a sleazy bar, and disarms an accomplice with a move that breaks the accomplice's elbow at the joint. But I show her as obtaining her skills before entering the Marine Corps. Because of her skills and determined spirit, she accomplishes much. I show the skills she learned in childhood and then polished over the years. I show the finished product with minimal time explaining how she got the skills.

    1. Slipping skills in over the course of the story is a nice way to do it.

  27. A bit late, but Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb has some GREAT training scenes, but they are deeply associated with the plot and the antagonist.

    1. Oo, another great series I haven't read in ages. You guys are calling out all my faves :)