In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Troi stands on the holodeck looking frustrated as Riker approaches.

Troi can't pass her bridge officer test until she learns to make sacrifices.

We love it when scrappy protagonists level up. But to make these storylines entertaining, we must turn a slow learning process into something exciting to witness. Thankfully, whether your protagonist is heading to magic school, practicing with a sword in secret, or getting a crash course in dinner etiquette, the techniques for writing great training content are the same. Let’s look at how to create fun training sequences that support your story.

Decide How Much Training to Show

The first thing you need to decide is how much training you want to show in engaging scenes and how much you’d like to gloss over. To create a great training scene, you need a training arc to provide some plot structure. Otherwise, it will feel boring, tangential, or both. However, you may not need any scenes at all.

Even if you want fun training scenes, it’s unlikely that every canonical moment of training should be depicted in detail. Whether your training lasts an evening or several years, it probably requires dull and repetitive practice. Abbreviated training content spares your audience the repetition and allows your protagonist to go through more training. This makes their new skills feel both more realistic and more earned. It’s why so many films have training montages.

When you want to communicate that your protagonist is training without a scene dedicated to it, you have three basic options:

  • Use it for background content. Show your protagonist training during a scene, but only as a backdrop for a story arc unrelated to training. As your protagonist trains, they might romance another student or show up a rival. Social conflicts and personal issues are often a good match for training.
  • Summarize it. Tell your readers in brief about which training activities the protagonist is engaging in during what time period. Then let readers know what skills the protagonist has gained from those activities. Don’t go into detail; this isn’t the time to explain your magic system. Summary is relatively boring, so it needs to stay brief.
  • Skip past it. Let your audience know that your protagonist will receive training, then jump ahead and show your protagonist using their new skills in a scene. With exposition, fill in a little information about what they did to get those skills. If it would take too long to show them using all of their new skills, you can also use exposition to communicate what they can do now.

These tactics are great for filling your training out, but in many cases, they aren’t enough. You want at least one training arc if:

  • Any part of training is presented as a problem with an uncertain outcome. If your audience has any doubt that your protagonist will receive training or succeed at that training, you’ve already started an arc. This is especially likely if your protagonist has to learn a lot quickly. Arcs need to be resolved in a full scene. If you fast forward and simply declare it’s taken care of, your audience will feel cheated.
  • Training has high novelty. If your protagonist is becoming a keeper of giant bees or learning to commune with the AI that runs the galaxy, your audience will look forward to the training. If you don’t want to disappoint them, you need at least one scene where your protagonist works with the giant bees or all-powerful AI for the first time.
  • You need more time to explain the skill. If your protagonist is learning magic that they’ll use for the rest of the story, you probably want to explain how it works. Using a training arc buys yourself more time to communicate so you aren’t dumping too much exposition at once.

This means if your training doesn’t have any arcs, the skill shouldn’t be particularly interesting or challenging. Let’s say you have a full book where your protagonist is a merchant riding on caravans. They start learning to fight in the background while they romance a caravan guard. By the end of the book, the audience would expect that they know how to use the weapons they trained with. However, if they’re a formidable fighter, that won’t feel earned. That level of skill growth is unlikely and challenging, so it would need an arc.

Arcs come in all sizes, and you can have more than one. Perhaps the protagonist convinces a mentor to train them over the course of an afternoon. Or maybe the protagonist goes through five training arcs that cover a year of intense schooling. Choose based on what your story needs and whether training arcs are something you enjoy writing.

Set Stakes for Learning

Assuming your training includes at least one arc, the next step is to make sure you have adequate stakes. This means training is not just desirable, but necessary. If your protagonist fails to learn what they need to, something bad should result. This negative consequence is your stakes.

Stakes don’t have to be a matter of life or death, but your audience needs to care about them. If the negative consequence is that your protagonist will be unhappy, the audience should be invested in your protagonist, and the reason for this unhappiness needs to be compelling. Stakes can be milder if the arcs are briefer. The more time you spend on training, the more severe your stakes need to be to support it.

In many cases, the stakes for learning will be supplied by the rest of your plot. If your protagonist is training to fight the evil overlord, failing their training means the evil overlord will kill them. If your protagonist needs to discover the identity of a villain, they may learn etiquette to infiltrate high society and get more information. If they get caught, they’ll be thrown out and the villain will get away.

If you spend valuable page space on training, your protagonist should use the skills they earn later in the story. Spell out for readers why your protagonist needs these skills and what bad things could happen without them. Make the consequence for failure as specific, compelling, and immediate as you can.

Need more ideas? If your external plot doesn’t provide what you need, consider these more personal stakes.

  • Losing Access to Opportunities. Learning skills may be a requirement for something else important. However, the audience needs to understand the value of the opportunity the protagonist will lose. Maybe the protagonist has wanted to become a knight since they were little, but they are no good with horses. If they can’t show competence at horseback riding, no knight will take them as a squire, removing their only path to knighthood.
  • Failing to Recover From Trauma. A character may be experiencing distress after feeling helpless, being injured, or watching something bad happen to others. Make the distress real by showing how it affects them negatively on an ongoing basis. Use training to make them feel empowered and in control of their life again. If they fail training, that will only deepen their distress.
  • Making a Bad Impression. You can tie the stakes to a relationship arc. Just make training your protagonist’s way of getting close to someone. Perhaps they want to impress an inattentive parent, a love interest, or their trainer. This also means if the protagonist embarrasses themself, they could end up worse off than before.

Along with stakes, you need urgency to make your training sequence feel tense enough. Instead of giving your protagonist infinite time to train, set a deadline for success. That could mean a limited school term or a specific date when they need to put the skills into practice. As long as your protagonist can’t keeping trying over and over again for the rest of their life, you’re golden.

Choose Your Training Arcs

Once you know why training is important, decide what part of training your protagonist has a problem with. Choose one problem to keep your training sequence short, or choose many problems at different stages if want more training content.

Let’s look at some common options. Maybe your protagonist…

  • Isn’t in the mindset to learn. Your protagonist could be impatient and undisciplined, lacking the hope or confidence to even try, so distrustful they won’t let anyone help them, or (if you’re up for a likability challenge) too arrogant to admit they have something to learn.
  • Needs a trainer. Your protagonist can’t learn essential skills without a master to train them, but masters are rare, take few students, or both. Your protagonist might have to locate their trainer, impress their trainer, or convince their trainer to take them on. If your protagonist will be attending a school, you can create a competitive admissions process with an audition or other criteria your protagonist has to meet.
  • Can’t access or control their abilities. A popular choice with magic training is a protagonist who inherently has powers but doesn’t know how to tap into them. Similarly, they might tap into their magic only to create chaos rather than channeling it constructively.
  • Doesn’t have access to important accommodations. If your protagonist is different from other students, they may not be able to learn in the same manner. Keep in mind that it’s the trainer’s or school’s job to meet the learning needs of every student. If your protagonist has to figure out how to come up with their own special learning strategy or accommodations, make it clear that this is a failure on the trainer’s end and unfair to the student.
  • Is falling behind the other students. Whether it’s because they didn’t start with the same privileged background or they ran into a roadblock during school, falling behind others is not fun. It can socially isolate your protagonist, cause them emotional distress, and suggest they may fail the training altogether. Use an arc to show how they catch up.
  • Struggles with an essential technique. After your protagonist has been training for a while and has mastered the basics, they might still struggle with an advanced technique. To make these arcs work, the technique needs to have its own stakes. Perhaps the protagonist has no chance of defeating the evil overlord without the super double magic stab, or perhaps mastering the super double magic stab is required for graduating.
  • Lacks a quality they need for success. Instead of struggling with a specific technique, your protagonist’s skills could be lacking in a specific way. Just avoid something vague and cliched like “your work just doesn’t have heart, have you tried feeling emotions?” Perhaps your protagonist doesn’t act boldly enough because they’re scared, their magic keeps fluctuating because they haven’t figured out who they are, or they make mistakes because they’re too impatient for due diligence.

The training arc concludes when this problem is resolved. Depending on how big the arc is, that might take one scene or a couple chapters.

Design Breakthroughs

Once you know what training obstacles your arcs resolve, it’s time to pin down the details. For success to be meaningful, the audience must understand what is holding the protagonist back. Then story events must directly address this obstacle, so it’s clear why the protagonist finally succeeds. Simply letting the protagonist cast magic once they are in an emergency or after they see a loved one die may be dramatic, but it doesn’t show the protagonist has earned their success.

The protagonist has to solve their own problems, so don’t let the trainer tell them exactly what to do or solve it for them. However, you can occasionally bring in another character to fix things if the protagonist has done something special to earn this person’s help. See the prior achievement turning point.

Using a Character Arc

In many cases, the training arc may be driven by a character arc – a flaw your protagonist needs to overcome. If overcoming the problem requires your character to grow as a person, you are using a character arc. Like other arcs, character arcs come in all sizes, so this doesn’t mean resolving the protagonist’s big character arc for the story. Instead, it might be a small step in the right direction or an unrelated issue.

When using a character arc, ask what is at the root of their flaw. Boil it down until you get to a specific lesson they can learn.

Let’s look at some examples.

  • Is the issue that your protagonist lacks confidence? Why do they lack confidence? Did they fail at something previously, causing them to think of themself as a failure? Were they abandoned as a child, making them believe they were worthless? Do they think a poor kid like themself will never get anywhere? Those are specific messages they might learn are wrong.
  • Is your protagonist trying to do fancy moves while neglecting basics? Why? Perhaps they care less about their training than looking good to others, and they have to learn to prioritize themself. Alternately, maybe they don’t realize how important those basics are, and they need to learn better.
  • Does your protagonist struggle to control their magic? Why? Are they afraid of their own abilities? Did they previously hurt someone? Did they watch someone else get hurt? They might need to work through that trauma. Alternately, maybe they lack patience, rush through their magic, and then lose control. Being more patient could involve learning to savor the moment.

Communicate to your audience about this issue. Then create an event that teaches the protagonist the right lesson, helps them heal, or both.

Your protagonist might:

  • Reimagine their past. Perhaps they learn a parent they thought abandoned them was actually taken prisoner, or they encounter a situation similar to a traumatic past event that gives them new insight.
  • Discover something new about themself or the world. Perhaps the protagonist assumes they’re not brave enough to succeed, so they shouldn’t try, only to show bravery when it’s desperately needed. Maybe the protagonist assumes they can never trust anyone, until someone else helps them or chooses to trust them.
  • Make an error and face consequences. Your protagonist might rush past important steps after their trainer told them to be careful, resulting in disaster. Similarly, they might watch someone else make that mistake and witness the consequences.
  • Give something up. If your protagonist wasn’t fully committing themselves or was holding on to something that held them back, they may need more resolve. Make training go downhill to the point where they have to choose whether to do what is necessary or quit. Illustrate why this choice is difficult for them.

Using an External Arc

You can also use an external arc. This means the protagonist is ready to learn, but they don’t have the support they need, whether that’s missing a trainer, missing materials, missing knowledge, or anything similar. In this case, the exact problem is usually easier to identify and needs less explanation.

Instead, focus on setting up the breakthrough. Breakthroughs that you can use might include:

  • Convincing a trainer or someone else to help them. The protagonist could use some insightful observations to figure out what argument to make. They can also impress someone with their kindness, generosity, or resourcefulness.
  • Puzzling out missing information. If you’re passionate about the subject matter the protagonist is learning, making a puzzle out of it can be great fun. Perhaps they are missing the last magic glyph or the name of the person who invented warp drive. Give the protagonist clues they can piece together during an exciting moment.
  • Devising a clever way to meet unique needs. If the normal teaching method isn’t working for the protagonist, they might come up with their own way of learning. If they can’t perform tasks the same way the other students do, maybe they find an innovative way to do it.
  • Persevering during tough conditions. Perhaps your protagonist powers through the learning process by practicing day and night. In this case, the hardship they take on needs to be compelling. What is your protagonist giving up by spending all of their time practicing?

Avoid Glorifying Toxic Trainers

You can have a training sequence without a trainer, but trainers are usually helpful. For one thing, they can provide protagonists with the information and resources needed for the plot to work. For another, trainers make it easy to tell to the audience how the protagonist is doing and what they need to get better.

Unfortunately, many depictions of trainers are not good, to put it mildly. That’s because the job of any teacher or trainer is to make training go smoothly. But we don’t want training to go smoothly; that would take away our arcs! We want training sequences to be tense and full of conflict. This can result in a trainer who is at best terrible at their job and at worst outright abusive.

In almost all of these cases, the storyteller is not aware they have written a toxic trainer. In fact, our culture fosters a number of myths to support and justify toxic mentors:*

  • That controlling and cruel behavior is “tough love.”
  • That the only students worth teaching are those with natural talent. (This actually means the trainer is bad at their job.)
  • That callousness and cruelty from a mentor is a sign of their skill and prestige.

A trainer usually has power over their students. This means that if they behave in a toxic manner, it can quickly become abusive. Below are some things to watch out for.

  • Personal attacks or cutting remarks. Trainers should not insult students by calling them “weaklings” or otherwise insisting they don’t have what it takes. Destroying someone’s self-esteem doesn’t help them learn. If the student is outright arrogant, demonstrating where their skills are lacking should be enough.
  • Impossibly high standards. It’s okay for your trainer to be a little demanding or to insist on high quality work. However, if the trainer sets the bar so high that the student is incapable of pleasing them, or the trainer always finds some random excuse to tear down the student’s work, that’s a sign of abuse.
  • Exposing the student to harmful conditions. Storytellers like making training dangerous, but a trainer should be protecting their students from harm. If a student has to run a mile in hot weather, the trainer should make sure they’re hydrated. If the student has to spar, the trainer should provide a safe replacement for the weapons they might use in battle. Training hardships should be narrowly targeted to improve skills without making the student go through unnecessary suffering – emotional or physical.

A trainer’s job is to ensure the student actually learns the skills they need. If the student doesn’t learn, the trainer has failed at their job. Sure, students also bear some responsibility, but that responsibility is simply to follow the trainer’s directions and try their best. As long as the student does that, they are not to blame for any problems. This also means that if the student isn’t making progress for whatever reason, the trainer should be looking for a solution.

Repeating the same useless mantra over and over again is not a solution. For instance, if your trainer does nothing but insist their student needs to “concentrate,” and the student keeps failing to concentrate, the trainer is incompetent. Clearly the student already knows they are supposed to concentrate, but they don’t know how. A good trainer would teach them some meditation techniques or other mental exercises to help improve their concentration.

Similarly, a good trainer should thoroughly prepare the student for difficult tests and trials. If the student has not mastered the skills needed to succeed at a task, the trainer should not be giving it to them. Leaving the student without direction – or with only cryptic directions – is also not a constructive learning exercise. If the student is specifically practicing their critical thinking or problem-solving skills, the trainer should at least explain what problem they need to solve or how to go about it.

Your trainer doesn’t have to be a perfect person. If you’d like, they can be antagonistic, incompetent, or doing their best but failing anyway. But whatever you choose, it must be clear. If the trainer blames the student for learning problems, a trustworthy character should point out that the trainer is wrong. Don’t let your audience believe that a toxic trainer is a great trainer.

Training can further the plot while providing fun wish fulfillment. For this reason, it will always be an important part of our stories. However, unless we think through our training carefully, it can also be a toxic and boring part of our stories.

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