Q&A: Writing Training

What kind of things do you need to emphasize in a training scene? One of my characters, a fairly prodigious fighter, is trying to teach a craftsman’s apprentice the basics of fighting, and I want to show the learning. Your post earlier talked about the buildup & payoff to a fight scene, but how does it work with scenes that happen fairly early and don’t carry the same kind of weight/stakes?

There should always weight and stakes to any fight scene, any scene in your novel from big to small. You should always be on the lookout to figure out how to build into your small scenes because that will lead you into a bigger whole.

Let me ask you a question: What will happen if the craftsman’s apprentice never learns to fight? What happens if he or she fails? How does this potential failure impact their future? How does the prospect impact them personally?

Learning to fight is difficult. No matter how good your teacher, the onus for success is on the student. The student who doesn’t want to be there won’t be for very long, and the student who does may give up rather than persevere. The building of endurance, the slow pace, the physical requirements, the necessity of patience, focus on simple techniques broken down and studied piece by piece. Going to bed tired and aching every day if the training lasts for prolonged periods of time. The student learns quickly that all the glory they imagined is replaced by hard work. Most of them give up.

If you haven’t contemplated the possibility of this apprentice failing, you should. You should contemplate how this character behaves when they start to struggle, when they get bored, when they feel like they want to quit.

If they fail, does it matter?

Those are your stakes.

As for what you should emphasize, the sports movie training montage and training sequences are some of the best templates to choose from. Alternately, the martial arts movie training sequence and training montage or the military bootcamp training sequence and training montage. Once you’ve watched enough of these, they become pretty easy to conform into writing.

The basic template for traditional martial arts is:

  1. Student is excited to learn training.
  2. Training is not what they expected, training is repetitive singular motions which may not connect to what they thought they’d be learning (wax on, wax off, or hang up the jacket) and endurance exercises that wear them out. They go home every day tired and aching, don’t feel like they’re making progress.
  3. Student gets frustrated and complains to teacher. Teacher tells them to practice more.
  4. Student practices more, gets more frustrated. Threatens to quit. Because student is close to the hump, Teacher relents and shows them how the motions they’ve been practicing connect into a single technique. They realize they have been learning to fight.
  5. Student goes back to training, but more excitedly than they did before. Master gradually opens up to them.
  6. Several weeks/months later, student shows off their basic technical mastery. Leaves their master ready to face the world, the big tournament, or whatever it was they were training for.
  7. Encounters the real world, discovers that their training has prepared them well but will be much more difficult than previously expected.

This will be difficult for you is if the trainee is not the main character of this story, but a stop over point for the character who will be training them. Training another person to fight is a long and involved process if you want to do it well, and requires anywhere between months to years of commitment from both student and master.

If you don’t know anything about the technical details of fighting or the specific style your character practices, then you’ll find writing a training sequence to be extremely difficult. You can’t write what you don’t know. You’ve got to sit down and learn what you didn’t know before. Part of the reason I recommend watching a film over reading a novel is you’ll be able to see the physical intricacies of training which often get glossed over (outside some authors wanting to portray a romantic connection.) Training someone else to fight involves a lot of physical contact on the part of the instructor, this is usually in adjustments. They mimic what you show them, then you correct their positioning into the correct one so their body can feel the difference. They remember that sensation, and practice the motion until they can achieve that same feeling.

You’ve often got to move their feet into the proper position for their stances, remind them to bend their knees so they go lower, move their shoulders back or sideways so they’re on the proper angle, lift their elbows or shift the position of their arm while their hold position, tighten up their stomach/abdominal muscles, fix their breathing (breathe through your diaphragm and not your stomach. You want as little air in your stomach as possible.) Etc.

There’s no one size fits all training, you have to adjust your approach per student based on their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll rarely have the perfect student. They may have a strong grasp of their physicality, but a weak drive or poor endurance. Where some students grasp the basics faster than others, the slower ones with good endurance and drive can outpace the more talented students at higher levels because their grasp of the basics ended up stronger. Students who are rushed to the more advanced or difficult techniques (the way they usually want) are usually weaker than students forced to master the basics before given opportunity to advance. The reason for this is because the basic techniques form your foundation for both attack and defense, they’re also the most commonly used techniques.

The biggest component of training is endurance based. The assumption is that this is “strength” as in what you can lift, but it is not. Re-focus on long distance running and short sprints which build up lung capacity, climbing exercises which emphasize agility and dexterity, push ups, sit ups, and others which build your core muscles for better balance. You’ll see a focus on fine motor control, lengthening (endurance exercises) rather than tearing (weight lifting) the muscles. Unless you plan on having them wear armor or draw a bow, they’re going to develop the type of body similar to a long distance runner. They’ll train on a multitude of surfaces if their teacher has the option, indoors, in the flats of forest, in the mountains, on the beach, so they learn to adjust their body and their fighting style to effectively fight/conserve energy on different terrains.

If you’ve never tried to run on the beach, you’ll learn quickly you want to be running near the waves and were the sand is wet rather than on loose sand. The surface is harder and more stable where its wet, dry sand will sap your energy.

A good teacher will try to expose their student to most situations which can be done in relative safety. One of the advantages of training is the preparation and that preparation leads to quicker responses than from someone experiencing the situation for the first time. However, you cannot prepare your student for everything and some experiences can only be learned by experiencing them outside the safety of the training floor. As a writer, you’ll be making the executive decisions for your trainer about what is and isn’t too dangerous. This is where most of the suspension of disbelief breaks occur in these sequences because the trainer ends up requiring their student to do something far above and beyond what they could conceivably be asked in a real world scenario.

Two humans fight with real blades rather than training blades without any safety measures is one example. The scene may seem sexy, but contextually the decision is stupid.

Always treat your characters in your head like they’re real people. Your trainer is making decisions based on what is safe for your character to learn. Any serious injury the trainee suffers could lead to months of recovery time or them never fighting. You want to push them just hard enough that you take them beyond the limits they’ve set for themselves, but not past what they can actually accomplish.

Always ask yourself: what are they learning?

Training exercises generally have multiple lessons attached beyond the technique itself. Remember, training isn’t just training the character’s body but also their mind and their character. Their values are reshaped, their beliefs shift and mature, and they develop as a character. Training is character development. Consider who this character is at the beginning of their training and who they are by the end of it, if you don’t envision them changing you should ask yourself why.

Most writers are tempted to do what the student wants or sympathize with the student in their training sequences, this is either because the student is their main character and they empathize more with them or because they’re beginners themselves. Or, it could be both.

You’ll handicap your character and your narrative if you give them what they want, but most of your audience won’t notice. Only a very small contingent will respond with, “lol, no.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t try your best to do it right, I’m just saying don’t worry too much about blow back. You’ve got nothing to worry about. The vast majority of people can’t tell its not bacon.

Again, don’t trap yourself into thinking you need world altering stakes in order for your character’s story to matter. The stakes of any narrative are what you make them and they are driven by the participating characters’ desires, wants, dreams versus their situation and what they are asked to sacrifice or do in order to attain those desires. Leave yourself open to possibilities and uncertainty, contemplate failure even if you know long term the characters are going to succeed. Failure is not always malicious or malevolent, sometimes its unintentional. It can be easy as saying “I don’t want to do this anymore” and deciding a few days later that you really do, only to discover the opportunity has passed.

There is always an alternate world or worlds filled with the choices we did or didn’t make, and there are stories in all of those potential choices. Learning to make the most of those potential stories is part of what writing is all about.

-Michi

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