Okay so I want to write a fiction where a character is learning something, for example a language, such as Japanese. I want to show the entire process of learning the language with all the details included, but I also don't want it to bore the reader. Is this possible?

I was thinking of showing the thought processes of the character, for example the character going "Ah!, So these are the vowels in the Japanese language." But I fear doing this repeatedly for everything might end up boring the reader.

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    Have you read the Newbery-winning children's novel, The Avion My Uncle Flew? In the novel, the young protagonist learns lots of French words (made fairly interesting by being relevant to what he is trying to accomplish in his interactions with French people) and, in the end of the book, actually writes an entire letter "in French." The cool thing is that a young reader who has been paying attention will be able to understand the letter, and will feel that they "know French." – Anna M Jul 15 '14 at 13:58
  • @AnnaM I've read many novels that include made-up words, especially fantasy and science fiction novels where the writer invents words for things that exist in this world but not in ours. I was thinking once that it would be amusing to write a story where, over the course of the book, you gradually introduce made-up words one at a time, so that the reader barely notices. And then make the last sentence of the book consist entirely of made-up words, so someone who read the last sentence without reading the rest of the book would have no idea what it meant. – Jay May 15 '15 at 14:03
  • Will the study activity be active throughout your piece or it just one of the many obstacles the protagonist must overcome? If the learning is simply one of many sequences, this answer on "narration" might be useful: writing.stackexchange.com/a/26499/30043 – MXMLLN Oct 1 '19 at 6:02

If you as the writer find the process of X fascinating, you will be able to translate that to the page in a way which makes it fascinating for the reader.

If you enjoy math, you talk about the satisfying click of numbers as they slide into place, and how there is always a right and a wrong, unlike the slipperiness of philosophy. If you love languages, you show the character uncovering the parallels between French and Italian, and then Italian and Spanish, and suddenly making the leap to Portuguese. If you're into puzzles, you channel Sherlock Holmes. And so on.

The easiest way to get this on paper for your first draft is to transcribe, in a sense, what it was like for you do process X. Never mind the character for the moment; just write down your experience as if you were writing a blog post or a diary entry or a letter.

Once you have the entire lesson/scene on the page, then you can start rewriting it for your character, and adding fictional flourishes and compressing time etc. to make it more readable.

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Each of these techniques will apply better to some topics than others.

Make the learning process interesting. A few years ago, when my wife and I were preparing to visit Ecuador, we learned a little bit of Spanish. Every day I would listen to the next 30-minute Pimsleur Spanish lesson. And that evening we would walk the dog together, trying to tell each other jokes using the eight or ten or twenty Spanish words we had learned. It was a lot of fun, and helped us learn.

Make the learning experiential. Not merely learning by rote, but by interacting with the material in some way. I have attended scores of experiential workshops, and designed and delivered dozens.

The idea with experiential learning is to arrange for much of the learning as possible to come from the learner, rather than the “teacher.” Learning activities are designed to introduce a certain small amount of frustration, and the “teacher” helps the learners to make sense of what happened. The learning comes (mostly) from from the learners. Then the next activity applies what has already been learned, and introduces a new twist that leads to the next learning.

What’s fascinating to me is how “sticky” the learning is from experiential workshops. You not only learn something new, but you also remember the story of how you learned each thing. The stories are rich and interesting, and make the learning unforgettable.

Experiential learning is tricky for topics such as languages, where the body of knowledge is well-defined in great detail. But there are ways to make even that more experiential. Take a look at these videos, using techniques designed by Evan Gardner and Willem Larsen for their work to preserve dying languages: http://www.whereareyourkeys.org

Precociousness. The learner becomes a little cocky, and tries to do something beyond their skill. Perhaps way beyond their skill. Hilarity (or disaster) ensues. They have more to learn.

I once used precociousness to my advantage. I had learned to count only to 12 in Spanish. We travelled to Ecuador, and visited a market in the Andes. As I was haggling with the vendors, any time they said a number higher than twelve, I didn’t know what the number was. So I shook my head and frowned. When they finally said a number I recognized, then I’d start haggling further, offering prices of my own. (It is possible that nothing I bought for $12 was worth more than $3. But I also have this fun story, and that’s worth $9.)

Embed or interweave the learning in some other interesting activity. Maybe the characters argue about something while they learn. Or they're flirting as they, uh, drill each other.

Sample the learner's progress. Show the learner learning something basic. Then something intermediate. Then something advanced.

Conflict (or contest). Make the learning a central feature of some conflict. The hero wants the girl. She needs tutoring. She asks the hero’s handsome arch-rival to tutor her. Or the hero confronts the teacher, or bests the teacher in some (explicit or subtle) contest. Or the students compete for the teacher’s respect.

Examples. Karate Kid makes the learning process interesting, and creates conflict. (Why the heck am I learning wax on wax off?)

Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind includes numerous battles between Kvoth and his teachers. And also a disastrous example of precociousness.

Dead Poet's Society embeds the learning in a larger story.

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    +1 for Myiagi San from Karate Kid. That was the first image that came to my mind too. – Giuseppe Jul 15 '14 at 9:19
  • +1 for the real-world examples! I have also learned a language (Mandarin) and this is a spot on description of the process of learning the language with additions to make it interesting for a reader! – J Crosby Oct 1 '19 at 14:07

Your fears are correct: "all the details included" is a terrible way to write fiction. If all the details were included it wouldn't be fiction, it would be a textbook--and we all know how much fun those are to read.

The power of fiction lies in the reader's imagination--what you want is enough detail to prompt their imagination, while still giving it some room to work with. In your case, what this means is that you should provide the reader with only the most interesting or surprising details, then let them fill in the rest. Your readers can probably guess that Japanese has vowels--that is not a very interesting detail. However, it might surprise them to learn that written Japanese is a mix of letters (representing sounds) and pictograms (representing concepts). That is the kind of detail that might be good to include, especially if it has some other relevance to the plot (see Dale Emery's answer).

It's easiest to separate the interesting details from the boring ones when you yourself have some familiarity with the subject, so you might want to go do some research on the Japanese language first, then take the details that surprised/delighted/intrigued you and put them into your story as your character's thoughts and observations (see Lauren Ipsum's answer).

EDIT: For the advanced techniques, go read this essay.

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"with all the details included" If you mean that literally, then your book will be teaching the reader Japanese. Which probably won't make for an interesting novel. If you can really merge together teaching the reader a new language with an entertaining story, that would be a great achievement, and your book could become very popular with educators. But wow, that sounds difficult. I'm a software developer by profession. I can't imagine writing a book that would include all the details of how to program in Java and also be an interesting story.

Now if there are some things about the Japanese language that you think are particularly interesting and that you want to work into a novel, that's a different thing. I don't know anything about Japanese, but I can easily think of many ways that some detail about a language could be made relevant to a story. A story could have an important plot point where a difficulty in translating created misunderstandings. A character might realize something important about his friend from this society or about the culture in general from some characteristic of the language. (I'm suddenly reminded of a TV show I saw years ago where a character talks about the tropical paradise that he plans to retire to, and he says, "The natives there have no word for 'work', but they have a hundred different words for 'cocktail umbrella'.") Some subtlety in grammar could turn out to be an important clue in solving the mystery. (In the Bible, in Matthew 21:31-32, Jesus makes a theological argument based entirely on the tense of a verb used in a scripture quote, that makes sense in English but is more pointed in Hebrew.) Etc.

Would it be possible to write a story where the learning process itself is made interesting? Maybe. I think it would be hard. You could certainly have a scene where a character who has been struggling to learn some difficult subject suddenly gets a burst of understanding, and has a "eureka" moment. Plenty of stories have been written where the struggling student suddenly has a breakthrough and demonstrates that he can now beat the master in a sword fight or chess game or whatever. But could you do that over and over again as he meets each new challenge? I think it would get tedious. I'm not saying it can't be done, and more power to you if you can pull it off.

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If I were writing it, I might include some descriptions of the physical process - using flash cards, reading books, labels in Japanese stuck on the refrigerator - as well as descriptions of how the language becomes clearer in the character's mind. For example, she might overhear (and you might show) spoken Japanese regularly that starts out as gibberish, then has a few intelligible words, then phrases, then misheard things, and finally makes sense. She might find herself beginning to substitute Japanese words for words in her native language, and she might dream in it.

Her learning Japanese should illuminate who she is or move her toward her goal. Is she determined? Diligent? Is she a dreamy type who wants to speak the language, but struggles with doing the actual work? Does she show off what she's doing, or hide her book in a cover while she studies on the bus? Does she take out her mother's diary and get a little further every time toward understanding why she disappeared so suddenly in 1963? Figure out why you need to show her learning the language, and it should fall into place.

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If most of the book revolves around learning or training, this would be considered performance fiction. Most of the novels is this genre will have analogies you can play off of. According to the Story Grid genres, good examples of subgenres are:

  • Sports
  • Art
  • Music
  • Business

One way to integrate a learning environment in writing would be to start each chapter with an excerpt from the book being studied. Jurassic Park does this with excerpts from a chaos theory book written by the character Dr. Malcolm. Frank Herbert's Dune probably does this even better, though I don't recall it as well.

Sadly, it is much harder to find other examples of performance fiction, like The Imitation Game.

Looking at the Japanese example specifically, the language borrows a lot from other languages, just like English. In fact, Japanese is a third Japanese, a third Chinese, and a third English. Chinese can be seen in the kanji and on-yomi readings. More importantly, the katakana alphabet, used entirely for foreign words, is 99% English. Learning katakana's use could be an interesting revelation for the character, similar to the scenes in fiction about research. Kanji has a similar revelation point: When a new word is encountered composed of two characters already studied, the learner can make a close approximation of the new word's meaning, despite having never seen it before. For example, 食堂 is composed of "eat" and "hall", meaning "cafeteria".

James Clavell's Shogun is not performance fiction, but learning Japanese plays a particularly significant role in the story.

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – weakdna Oct 1 '19 at 14:39
  • Answer has been updated to include examples, instead of answering the question categorically. @weakdna – MXMLLN Oct 2 '19 at 0:56
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    Thank you for taking the time to edit your answer. It's much stronger now. I hope people who previously downvoted will take the time to revisit that decision. – Cyn says make Monica whole Oct 2 '19 at 2:04

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, is boring writing material if you're fascinated about it. I always had my doubts about subjects worth writing about and those not, but what finally quelled my fears was listening to Hamilton. Who, in their right mind, would have thought that a rap/hip-hop musical about America's first treasury secretary will go on to have the impact that it did? That the writer (Lin-Manuel) would be hailed as a celebrity, and all age groups will learn the lyrics by heart? On paper, the idea sounds boring. But Lin-Manuel imbued it with character and infectious energy and you just can't get enough. And he was able to do it because he was in love, in love with his art, and the resultant musical was a labor of love. Nothing is too boring to write about if you are in love. That's the only rule for writing well - to fall in love.

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