I’ve often said I needed a training montage for one thing or another. It’s so satisfying—three minutes, a kick-ass soundtrack, and I become an expert at something. One of the many ways I want to be more like Mulan:
Training montages speak to a primal part of our psychology. The simple fact that, through deliberate practice, we can transform ourselves into highly skilled writers, dancers, or rhinoceros-seducers is perhaps the most inspiring and underrated facet of our nature. Watching a character go from incompetence to mastery is so satisfying because it’s a manifestation of our free will, our ability to take control of the direction of our lives through our actions.
Here’s the basic setup for a training plot: The character is incompetent at a certain skill, the character does the hard work to improve that skill, we see the character at several different stages of ability, and then the character is a master of the skill. Daniel in The Karate Kid is probably the ultimate demonstrative example of this progression, both because of the writers’ skillful execution of his training plot and because it was the main plot instead of a subplot, so there are no separate storylines cluttering up the training.
Daniel starts out a pure Everyman (read this if you don’t know what I’m talking about), relatable as characters come: an unremarkable high school boy with a crush on a girl and a tough older kid constantly bullying him. We start out sympathizing very strongly with Daniel, but we also pity (and therefore despise) him a little bit—he commands our empathy, not our respect. At the end of the movie, however, he has turned from the person we all are to the person we all want to be: competent, in a relationship with the girl, and having just beaten his bully to a pulp in front of everyone he knows. He has transitioned from Everyman to Superman, all by virtue of a single training plot.
The movie is famous and well-beloved because of
Mr. Miyagi its training plot, and the character growth it brings about. There are other notable parts of the story, which we’ll discuss in future posts—the resolution to the mystery of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax-on wax-off” training, the underdog character arc, the universality of the subject matter—but the training plot is still the glue that holds all the other pieces together, and is the heart of the story.
Outlining a training plot involves four steps:
1. Figure out why your character’s motivations—both the explicit motivations she tells to others, and the real underlying reasons for which she wants to become a master of her chosen skill.
2. Show her at every level of skill, starting with complete incompetence and progressing through different levels of ability until she achieves her final state of expertise.
3. Introduce obstacles and problems at various stages of her training, because overcoming conflicts strengthens any plotline. (There’s nothing satisfying about easily-attained mastery—we want to see the character overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As Neil Gaiman and G. K. Chesterton said, the purpose of fantasy is “not to tell us that dragons exist, but to tell us that dragons can be beaten.”)
4. Drink coffee and eat cheesecake. (I thought I had four steps, but it turns out I only had three. But this fourth step is applicable to everyone in every circumstance, so I decided it had to be included.)
A training plot, as shown by Daniel’s Everyman —> Superman character arc, is perhaps the best way to move a character toward the Superman side of the spectrum. There are other potential ways to make an Everyman into a Superman—for instance, reveal that Clark Kent is just a disguise, have a microchip inserted into your character’s brain to give her extraordinary skills without any practice or exertion of effort, or have your character’s skeleton forcibly replaced with Adamantium—but none of those ways is as powerful as the training plot, because only the training plot makes us feel like the character really earned our admiration. Blood, sweat, and tears is the name of the game when it comes to becoming a Superman.