Some of the most beloved scenes in movie history involve training for combat.
Obi-Wan Kenobi making Luke put the blast shield down so he can train blind with his lightsaber in Star Wars: A New Hope. Morpheus and Neo fighting an epic, beautiful, mesmerizing joust after Neo learns kung fu in The Matrix. Take your pick from hundreds of “ragtag fighting force humorously gets their s*** together” montages.
Now, I challenge you this: Name a great training scene in a novel.
Okay, sure. Of course they exist! I list some below, and I’m sure some good ones will pop up in the comments section. But if you put the scene where Morpheus tests Neo’s kung fu into a novel, it would be a snoozer. When I’m editing novels, I often see interminable training scenes that were clearly written for the future movie adaptation rather than the actual novel at hand.
Screenplay-ize your novel at your peril. If you have movie training in scenes in mind when you’re writing a novel, you risk crafting a stinker of a scene unless you can tailor it for what works in books.
The reasons for this discrepancy reveal a whole lot about the narrative differences between good cinematic storytelling and good novelistic storytelling.
The interiority of novels
At the risk of oversimplifying, cinema is a storytelling device that favors the exterior, whereas novels favor the interior.
Cinema is visual. It’s nearly impossible to get intimately inside characters’ heads the way we can in novels. We judge cinematic characters almost entirely by their actions (hence the classic “save the cat“), rather than being attuned to their hidden motivations and desires. The occasional clunky movie voice-overs that tell us a characters’ secret thoughts are the exceptions that prove the rule.
With novels, we’re far, far more attuned to why characters are doing what they’re doing. We often know their precise hopes and dreams. We can see the way they’re thinking through their options and choices. It puts a much greater premium on how a character is prioritizing their time and energy and scenes flowing from characters actively going after the things they want in a relatively coherent way.
I am willing to stake this claim: Novels need to make more sense than movies.
That’s because when we read, we’re busy co-creating the world in our own heads. When it’s unclear why exactly a character is doing what they’re doing, it rings a much louder alarm than it does when we’re sitting back in a comfy chair in the theater and just watching things unfold on the screen.
Why cinematic training scenes don’t work in novels
The martial arts scene in The Matrix is wonderful.
It also makes absolutely no sense from a strict narrative perspective. There’s no real reason for Morpheus and Neo to take precious time out of their day to engage in combat that doesn’t change anything in the story beyond “proving” that yes, indeed, Neo now knows martial arts.
It just looks extremely cool. When Laurence Fishburne does that little come hither hand wave and they start flying through the air… I mean, what a time to be alive.
Novels can’t get by in the same way on visuals alone or action for the sake of action, no matter how vivid your physical description may be. Because readers are so much more attuned to the characters’ motivations, readers are usually less willing to just “go with it” to watch a relatively meaningless scene for the sake of it being visually cool. Banter for the sake of banter also tends to ring hollow in novels.
Instead, in novels characters are more often thrown directly into the fire. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the author who must not be named brushes past the first Quidditch practice pretty quickly (merely to establish rules that make absolutely no sense whatsoever) and our first real introduction to the sport is a fully fledged chapter about Harry’s first Quidditch matter with the stakes clearly established:
On Saturday, Harry would be playing in his first match after weeks of training [NB: this training happens off the page]: Gryffindor versus Slytherin. If Gryffindor won, they would move up into second place in the House Championship.
Tellingly, the movie adaptation dwells on the training scene much more as a percentage of the overall story.
In order to work in a novel, a training scene needs to matter beyond simply learning a skill or action for the sake of action. The scene should meaningfully advance the story, or else the reader may wonder why you didn’t just skip ahead through the drudgery it takes to learn a new skill or simply throw them into the fire to learn as they go.
How to write a training scene in a novel
In order for a training scene to work in a novel, there needs to be something more going on than simply learning a skill. There needs to be more at stake.
In other words, there’s something that matters to the protagonist–either a risk or a reward–in the here and now of the training scene and the protagonist is actively trying to get what they want and/or avoid the perils. Not something that matters in some far off “you need to learn this to defeat the bad guy at some point in the distant future,” something that matters now in the present narrative.
- The trainer is a love interest and there is separate intrigue in the scene (e.g. Tris and Four at the ferris wheel during a capture the flag game in Divergent by Veronica Roth)
- The training scene isn’t mere training, it’s a test. And if the protagonist fails, they won’t get something they want or that could be crucial to their survival. (e.g. Katniss and Peeta physically and mentally jousting with Haymitch in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
- There’s a reason training matters beyond the simple skill. For instance, the character needs to overcome a fear rooted in their personal history or they’re trying to prove something to themselves. (e.g. Lauren practicing shooting in Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler)
In all of these cases, there’s something advancing the story beyond just a skill. There’s a desire, obstacle(s), stakes, and the protagonist emerges from the training scene either getting or not getting the thing they want, which rolls up into their broader objectives. It matters as a scene in the present, not just for some future date that may or may not occur.
It’s not just training for training’s sake. Save that for the movies.
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Art: The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Eon by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau