Jul 24 2009
Training sequences are really useful because they help introduce a new member (often the main character) to a team of superheroes or another group of exotic and powerful protagonists (a SWAT team, an Army unit, etc). Training scenes are especially important if your superhero team is unusual and needs to be introduced gradually to readers.
Here are some suggestions.
1. Don’t make it a cakewalk– give the hero opportunities to prove himself to readers. If the team is meant to feel impressive, the training should be hard. Here’s an article about Secret Service training, for example.
Overseeing them are instructors like Mixon, who wears a size 52 suit jacket, whose T-shirt says “Fighting Solves Everything,” and whose 2-year-old son knows how to do a one-man takedown. This morning Mixon, 40, is testing control tactics, or ground-fighting.
Even his toddler knows how to do a takedown! That is hardcore.
2. If possible, I recommend staying away from trainers that disappear as soon as the training is complete. In a realistic Army story, the drill sergeants are gone as soon as the recruits complete basic training. The recruits will go onto Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever and the drillers stay behind. If possible, try to develop characters that will be present after the training ends. For example, use series regulars as part-time instructors (X-Men) or use the instructors as minor characters, a la Ender’s Game.
3. Which values does your team value most highly? For example, according to the Washington Post, the Secret Service’s first lesson is called “Get Ready to Die.” Whatever it takes to keep the VIP alive. They also tend to be freakishly alert, preposterously reflexive, and unusually good at detecting lies, of all things. In contrast, a group like Navy SEALS would emphasize different values because they have different needs. Substantial backup is rarely available and they often operate in small teams deep in enemy territory. So the SEALs are more likely to teach members how to be stealthy, self-sufficient masters of the wilderness.
4. Introduce us to some of your team’s tactics. What sort of crises do they prepare for? What sort of strategies do they emphasize? This is a good way to foreshadow what your team does. It’s also a handy way to reinforce the team values. When Dr. Nefarious unleashes killer grasshoppers on a shopping mall, is someone assigned beforehand to clear out civilians or is that just an afterthought?
5. This is a great time to introduce us to any superpowers or other supernatural capabilities. That way, readers will already be familiar with each character’s capabilities and limits when the real action starts.
6. Don’t neglect the characters! In particular, I recommend developing the main characters with team exercises. If only one of the main characters is training, partner him up with some of the current teammates.
7. Use competition! A tryout is usually more interesting than on-the-job training, where you’re already guaranteed a spot on the team. For example, let’s say your superhero team has 10 people trying out but only one actually makes the team. Does the protagonist have what it takes? That’s an interesting question, particularly if we really care about whether he succeeds (because he’s likable, for example). In contrast, if he’s already been offered a spot on the team and it’s just an orientation program (like in Soon I Will Be Invincible), readers will probably start thinking “umm, can we get on with the story already?” sooner rather than later.
What do you think? What sort of advice would you offer to an author writing a training sequence?