Training scenes work in movies. They (usually) suck in novels

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From Nathan Bransford:

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.

I’ll wait.

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.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

1 thought on “Training scenes work in movies. They (usually) suck in novels”

  1. As usual, it’s all about assumptions.

    In a novel a training scene can be the perfect vessel to show the character in a setting dealing with a problem.

    However, if the writer fails to demonstrate the character, the problem and the setting then the training sequence will fail.

    Films are much easier to show this compared to showing it in writing.

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