Jul 24 2009

How to Do Training Scenes

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?

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “How to Do Training Scenes”

  1. B. Macon 24 Jul 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Haha! Here are some other ridiculous details about Secret Service training…

    –They’re trained in emergency medical care, like how to help a head of state that gets hit by lightning on a golf course and how to deliver a baby. (They delivered two last year).

    –“During barricade-shooting, a technician chastens Dan: “Don’t expose your leg. You get hit in the fibular artery, you’re dead in seconds.” Though, if hit, you are still expected to fight: “You have 10 seconds where you can keep fighting.” They call it “the dead man’s 10 seconds.” The one Secret Service employee who died in the line of duty shot the would-be assassin after he’d been mortally wounded. “He fired back. He didn’t give up.””

    –“The students learn how to adjust their gas masks after they’ve clapped on the president’s, whose straps are custom-sewn for a tight seal. They inhale caustic fumes in a gas chamber, discovering their initial symptoms — Scott’s throat itches, Dan’s eyes blaze, Krista’s lips sting — to recognize a gas attack.”

    –An instructor who chauffeured George W. Bush cautions, “I hit a bump in Denver and hit Bush’s head on the ceiling. He asked me when was the last time I had a drug test. Try to avoid that.”



    Mixon levels his biggest criticism at the entire class. “Everyone took steps backwards when the shooting started.” He glares at a former police officer.

    “I’m used to going down on a knee,” the former cop pleads. It’s a reflex, basic officer safety.

    “Well, resist. Now you’re working protection. You need to be the shield.”



    Then, the students are tested in the tactical village. Krista and Mr. Home Depot stand outside a bookstore, where a candidate is signing books. Across the street, men squeal up and rob a bank. Some of the other recruits had chased the robbers.

    “It may be a diversion, a favorite tactic of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,” Mixon says. Never abandon your guard post, Mixon says, even if someone faints: “Make sure he’s not doing the funky chicken with foam coming out of his mouth, it could be a nerve gas attack. Otherwise, it’s not your problem.”

  2. Marissaon 25 Jul 2009 at 3:37 am

    Not quite as bad as Navy SEAL training.

    To become a SEAL, one thing you have to go through is drowning and being resuscitated. On purpose.

    Uhm, no thanks.

  3. B. Macon 25 Jul 2009 at 9:09 am

    One of my Army friends was gunning for Robin Sage, which is the final phase of training for prospective Green Berets. Part of the exercise is leading inexperienced (read: helpless) freedom fighters into battle. The freedom fighters are played by ROTC cadets.

    Let’s see. In SEAL “Hell Week,” time is so limited for the candidates that they have to save time wherever they can. For example, they get a ludicrously short time to eat. When the food is scalding hot, there’s no time to wait for it to cool. So they soak it in salad dressing. Eww!

    Also, SEALS work so hard during Hell Week that they eat something like 9000 calories a day. Nom nom nom.

  4. Lighting Manon 25 Jul 2009 at 9:22 am

    Then you have to learn how to balance a ball on the tip of your nose, which I think would be humiliating.

  5. Loysquaredon 15 Jul 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Nice to know! I’ve actually thought of introducing characters through training sequences, like having teammates do a “friendly” sparring in the background while the leader briefs them on their next mission. Even “awesomer” if those teammates didn’t get along at all (talk about blowing some steam!), hahaha.

  6. Crystalon 19 Apr 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Rebecca, my MC actually is kind of an instructor. She teaches younger kids (ages 5-12) how to fight…
    That’s because she doesn’t have a team, so she trains other teams.

  7. B. Macon 20 Apr 2011 at 1:22 am

    Crystal, if she’s primarily in a support role, how do you keep the kids from taking the spotlight away from her?

  8. Crystalon 24 Apr 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I’m planning on having her go around teaching the kids individually. Most of the kids are minor characters, so it’d be something like this:

    “Nice job, Sara,” I called out to the tiny girl punching a dummy twice as big as she was. “Keep up the good work!”
    “Thanks,” Sara replied.
    I checked my watch. Class was almost over.
    A scream rang out across the gym. I sprinted over to the wrestling mats, where one boy was twisting his classmate’s arm into a painful position. “Richard, I’ve told you, you’re not allowed to hurt your opponent!”
    Richard hung his head. “Sorry.”
    My communicator beeped. I plugged my other ear to keep out the noises of the gym as I listened to the message.
    “I’ve got to go.” I turned to the oldest student in the class. “Erin, you’re in charge until I get back.”
    “What’s wrong?” she asked.
    “I don’t know,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure that I’m gonna find out.”

    The real scene wouldn’t go like this. I just made this up on the spot. But basically, most characters get only a few lines of dialog. Erin is one of the more important characters, so she would get more lines.
    This kind of thing happens fairly often, as Rebecca has to balance life between her superhero duties and her responsibilities as a teacher.

  9. Crystalon 15 May 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Actually, completely disregard the above scene. My story is changing. Now, I’m putting Rebecca on a team.
    She’s being forced to work with Eva and Daniel.
    There’s a lot to explain about the team, but I have a question:
    What name would you suggest for their instructor?
    He’s not the nicest guy, and very critical of anything you do. For example, even if Rebecca were to succeed at leading her team out of a tough situation, he would still find about ten things that she did wrong and point them out.
    Referring to him by a title like Mr. wouldn’t work very well.
    I’m thinking of referring to him by a superhero name…
    Any suggestions?

    P.S. Sorry; I still don’t have Chapter 3 posted. I’ll try to do that next week.

  10. Crystalon 21 Jul 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Okay. What do you guys think of this kind of training?

    -Basically, at the beginning, we have about 19 superheroes in groups of four, with the exception of one group of three (Rebecca’s group). This is to learn teamwork. (Later on, Eva joins in, evening out the groups.)
    -Regardless of the groups, each superhero is ranked in a list; 1-20, based on their overall performance. Only the top 5 actually make it to get actual superhero jobs.
    -The very first challenge (and by very first, I mean that it takes place as soon as they wake up on their first day) is to basically climb a cliff (maybe 50 feet?) without any safety gear or nets (well, actually, there is a force field at the bottom that will catch you, but they don’t know this).
    -They also have to spar with each other; regardless of whether or not their powers match up. (Try having healing and fighting someone who can set you on fire).

    So, basically, Rebecca is at a severe disadvantage; she can’t win a single fight and is ranked #20 – She basically has no powers, and her instructor is not going to cut her any breaks. Later, when she confronts him about this, he admits that he did this because the only way she was going to get good was if she actually faced the obstacles that her powers cause.

  11. B. Macon 21 Jul 2011 at 6:22 pm

    –I’m extremely encouraged that she would start dead-last in competitive training and has to dig herself out of a massive hole. That feels totally plausible to me, given that she starts out with an attitude that ranges from petulant to useless. One of the things that might convince her to move forward is seeing someone do fairly well (maybe getting pretty close to one of the top five positions) with powers that are possibly even worse than hers. Alternately, maybe someone in the top five has pretty much the same powers she does, which raises the stakes for her because she’s more expendable.

    –At first glance, I think it seems silly that they have everybody do battles. A healer’s use in battle would almost assuredly be healing someone else rather than actually fighting, so I can see why she’d complain that they should at least do some team battles so that she has someone to use her powers on. (Speaking of team battles–Maybe she gets paired with someone that’s pretty good, on the verge of making the top 5, and that person gets really upset about the protagonist’s attitude and/or powers*. Over time, we might see the protagonist earning this character’s respect). However, it sort of makes sense to me that they’d test everybody in single combat as well because it gives you the opportunity to see what their battle instincts and attitude towards work are like. There might be a situation where a character loses but does something so indisputably impressive with limited powers that he/she ends up moving up in the ranks anyway**. (If I were a character with stronger powers, I’d probably get annoyed by that. I’d want teammates that were winners. Losing with style is probably going to get us killed against an actual supervillain).

    *If you’re familiar with The Taxman Must Die, I did something vaguely similar with the relationship between Gary and Agent Orange.

    **Please do not use this to give the protagonist an undeserved edge, though–I feel like Jesse was too soft with her, even when she was whining and generally acting like she’d be absolutely useless in a crisis.

    –It makes sense to me that they wouldn’t mention the force-fields. In real life, there wouldn’t be any FFs, so you’d probably want to test in conditions as close to real life as possible. That said, I sort of wonder about why they aren’t giving them climbing equipment. Wouldn’t they have climbing equipment if the mission called for it? IE: Maybe the characters are told they have to climb the side of a building with suction cups in the middle of an intense rainstorm. So they’d have equipment, but it’s still a struggle using it in the rain and wind. If you wanted an interesting twist to show it’s important to follow instructions, you could have the instructors excoriate a few fliers for trying to fly to the top of the skyscraper/mountain. “I told you to climb to the top. I never said anything about flying.” “But I made it to the top anyway!” “I told you to climb because I’m controlling the weather and you’re not tied down to anything. Next time, climb it.” *rips the flyer into the air and forces him off the building/mountain* It’d be pretty hilarious if the main character got beaten by a climbing flyer even though the flyer has probably never climbed anything in his life and the protagonist had a bit of a head-start on him.

  12. Crystalon 21 Jul 2011 at 7:04 pm

    You practically read my mind with some of these!
    When they’re sparring, she’s either paired up with Daniel or Maria – ranked numbers 1 and 2 , respectively.
    About the flyers…The exact same thing happens with Eva (except she doesn’t get in trouble. The idea is to use your powers in whatever way to get to the top. Imagine getting beaten by a little girl a foot shorter than you who doesn’t even weigh ninety pounds soaking wet. Now imagine getting really freaked out halfway up, finding no handholds, and finding out about the force fields the hard way. Yup, that’s what happens to Rebecca.
    Also, her instructor is not the least bit soft. When she complains, he basically tells her to suck it up, and points out that before there were real superheroes, little kids used to worship a made-up superhero called Batman. And he didn’t have any powers.

  13. B. Macon 21 Jul 2011 at 8:22 pm

    “little kids used to worship a made-up superhero called Batman. And he didn’t have any powers.” It might be more dramatically effective to use an in-universe example. Are there any superheroes that have succeeded without powers? For example, maybe one of the original founders of the hero organization was someone like Batman.

  14. Wingson 21 Jul 2011 at 10:48 pm

    I am attempting to find a way to make a training facility which isn’t The Danger Room.

    It is difficult.

    Since they’re government superheroes, they have the funds to create a high-tech simulation room, but how do I differentiate it?

    – Wings

  15. B. Macon 22 Jul 2011 at 1:33 am

    You could try a different team dynamic with different relationships between the characters. (IE: Maybe one member thinks somebody else is letting the team down. Maybe one member thinks he’s letting the team down).

    You could play with the stakes. For example, maybe only a few candidates pass the test and everybody else gets rejected.

    Maybe some of the scenarios are highly unusual. In real life, Army War College sometimes tries wacky scenarios like “how would you deal with a ghost invasion?” to encourage commanders to think outside the box.

    Maybe the training is actually in the field. For example, maybe the organization usually tries to ease in rookie superheroes with safer cases like art robberies and missing person cases and has them work up to bank robberies and eventually supervillains and Godzillas.

    Maybe there is no training. Perhaps there’s an emergency so urgent the organization is forced to use everybody in the field. For example, in The Taxman Must Die, the superagency recruits an IRS accountant after a supervillain tries to kill him. The agency’s original goal was to train the taxman protagonist for a few months and eventually bring him out into the field to draw out the villain. Other agents receive harrowing reports of an 100-foot mechanical monstrosity showing up and mysteriously vanishing in Ohio (i.e. within 500 miles of 150 million people). They find the factory where it was built — since abandoned — and inside the villain has scrawled on a wall using a chemical weapon as ink. He doodled the the accountant’s likeness and THE TAXMAN MUST DIE. The trail is cold, the government is panicking and the only lead is that the villain still wants to kill the taxman. The taxman gets deployed immediately, even though he’s nowhere near ready.

  16. ShyVioletson 12 Nov 2011 at 10:05 pm

    The heros in my story are *generally young and inexperienced so they have to train a lot. Theo almost fails her first major test because her powers aren’t very offensive. Part of the entrance exam is to make it through an highly advanced obstacle course and even though she pretty much **flunks combat she scores higher than anyone in the history of the on ***stealth.

    is that okay?

    *i have a pair of brother who work as part time sidekicks so they know what they’re doing

    **she gets her but kicked by they combat instructor.

    ***she could spot all traps, surveillance devices and trip wires and evades them quite deftly

  17. Anonymouson 01 Nov 2015 at 5:36 pm

    I’m doing a story about a young, fourteen-year-old protagonist named Quinn who inherits super-powers – umbrakinesis and cryokinesis – from his extremely powerful father. He ran away from home when he was twelve after his mother and sister were murdered.
    Without going into too much detail, the story is about Quinn being found and trained by his half-brother, Raphael, to kill the supervillain who he thinks killed his family.
    I have the plot lined out, but I’m not sure how I should do the training, because it’s just Quinn and Raphael. What kinds of training exercises should I use, and do you have any tips on on one-on-one sparring scenes?

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