If you’ve read a lot of my writing, you may have noticed that I like highly competent characters who are placed into difficult situations that may not match up with their particular skill sets. Although Kiluron and Doil don’t always have the answers or know what the right decision is going to be, and they do learn as they go, there isn’t a prolonged, concentrated learning or training period for either of them. I deliberately started the series in a place where they had both been through most of their training, and were now learning how to implement it. In other words, I skipped the training montage.
Even if you haven’t heard the phrase “training montage,” you’ve probably encountered one. They are pervasive in modern storytelling, especially in speculative fiction, to the point where the only techniques that might be more overused are prologues and flashbacks. Like prologues and flashbacks, they are overused for a reason, serving several valuable purposes in the narrative process, but so many of them have been done, with only mediocre execution, that the technique itself has become tiresome.
A training montage is a sequence of vignettes, scenes, or other small arcs within a story that exists to show a character, well, training. Its main purpose is to: show character development, justify later character capabilities, and introduce the reader to world-building elements (especially magic systems) by creating a justification for in-world info-dumps. A fourth, optional element to a training montage is plot progression, and though technically optional, that last element makes the difference between a good training montage, and a generic training montage.
Luke Skywalker on Dagobah, doing his training with Yoda, is an example of a brilliantly executed training montage. It teaches both Luke and the viewer about the Force, what its capabilities are, how it works, while forwarding the character development of Luke, building out some of the history and context of the world, and providing plot progression. When watching Empire Strikes Back, you don’t really feel like you’re lost on Dagobah, just waiting for something to happen, for long stretches of the movie. The tension between Luke and Yoda is part of what drives that, but more important is how Luke is growing, and how the training is building into the main plot. The viewer has wanted to see this training montage since they watched Ben Kenobi fighting Darth Vader and saw Luke use the Force to summon his lightsaber at the beginning of the movie.
A poorly executed training montage, on the other hand, will feel like a drag on the story, and you will probably spend the whole time going through it wishing that it were over so that you could get on with the main story. When a character acquires a new power, and fumbles around, doing things that are only tangentially related to the main plot, or when we suffer through the time lapse sequence of training scenes where there is minor team forming and mostly just generic training, we have a poorly executed training montage.
When I first needed to write a training montage, I thought that making it interesting could consist just of composing it of a series of interesting scenes or vignettes. For instance, maybe the character goes through an obstacle course, and then has to do a series of practice fights, and then gets lectured by the old wise character, and then goes through the obstacle course again and this time succeeds. Each of these vignettes might be interesting in themselves, but put together into a training montage they lose their appeal. Yes, there is progression within each scene, but the overall montage does not advance the plot in a significant way.
With the rise in the use of training montages, I’ve also seen increasing numbers of alternative approaches. Allowing the training to take place off screen, and just letting the character reference it, is a great technique in the event that the training took place before the events of the story. Take Vere’s resistance to poisons, for instance. I didn’t have to write the whole backstory of his experiences in Nycheril in order to explain his resistance to poisons. Instead, I just referenced that he had those experiences before they became necessary, and so when the poison comes and Vere is only mildly affected, the readers don’t cry foul.
Even if the training takes place within the timeframe of your story, you can get aware with not showing it, provided you have enough going on with other characters or places. In the first Fo’Fonas novel, I don’t show very much of Wraith’s “training,” and I think it still works because there are significant jumps in time for all of the characters as I switch between the many different viewpoints. The reader isn’t surprised or thrown off, therefore, when I choose to show more significant events.
In The Way of Kings, there are some training montages, but Sanderson sets it up like a mystery, where the resolution to the mystery, the payoff, is finally getting to see the characters explore their powers and abilities and attempt to explain them. Even with that, he keeps the training scenes quite short, and usually has them as only a small part of a larger scene that is advancing the plot. Considering the length of Stormlight books, this is not a case of trying to be sparing with words and scenes; it is an acknowledgement that making the training too much the focus would detract from and slow down the story.
The obvious solution to a boring training montage is to raise the stakes. The Lightbringer series does this for Kip’s training with the Blackguard. If the only consequence to failing a challenge in the training were to flunk out, the sequences would be of little interest. By adding an element of greater danger, raising the stakes for the characters involved, we care much more and are willing to read through many more pages of elimination fights and demonstration sparring.
There are also ways to hide the training montage in plain sight. Our recent novella, Destiny of Kings, does this. Yes, there are allusions to the fact that Midrena is probably trying to teach Juntan about leadership and being a King throughout the story, but the main training that takes place is really the Trials that Juntan has to complete. In a way, that whole story is a training montage for Juntan learning to think of himself as a ruler, but it is so thoroughly integrated into the plot itself that the training becomes the plot, and the main source of character development, making for what I think is one of the better stories that we’ve published here on the site. It’s a similar technique to the Harry Potter series, where each book is, in a way, an extended training montage. By making that training a part of the plot progression, the reader is less likely to become another bored student sitting through endless classes on witchcraft and wizardry.
I’m sure there are other ways of effectively doing a training montage, but these should be enough to get started. This is something that I have long struggled to execute in a way that satisfies me in my own writing, and I know that I still need to improve. It’s also something that I have seen done both very well and very poorly in storytelling both new and old, which is why I finally sat down and wrote this post to organize my thoughts on the subject, for my own benefit and, hopefully, for yours. Whether you’re working on your own stories that might require a character to undergo some training, or you’re just trying to better understand the techniques that your favorite storytellers might be using, I hope this post was useful to you. If you have other thoughts on training montages in storytelling, consider posting in the comments below. Oh, and one last note: we did this whole post without talking about the show versus tell argument, which is arguably from whence the whole concept of the training montage’s necessity arose. We’ll have the show versus tell conversation soon.