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I am want to write scenes in a story which include one character providing instruction to other characters on how to perform complicated tasks that require a lot of technical detail and applied step-by-step examples. I refer to these scenes as instructional. Please correct me on a better name for these types of scenes.

I wrote my first instructional scene and gave to a friend to read, of whom said it was crap, and I agreed. I want to write multiple instructional scenes in a novel, but I do not know how to write them in such away that they are engaging, and not overwhelming to the reader with too much technical detail, overuse of descriptive words, and repetitive narrative.

How can I write these instructional scenes in such away that readers are gracefully tugged along without jerking or overbearing them?

  • What is your goal in including these scenes? (As opposed to, say, "Joe instructed the team in building the time machine?") – Dan Bron Aug 8 '15 at 16:22
  • @DanBron I see your point. Maybe these scenes detract from the plot and character development. – linuxfreebird Aug 8 '15 at 16:28
  • I wasn't making a point - yet. I wanted to understand your ultimate goal in describing such scenes, in order to give you the most appropriate advice on how to achieve those goals. But if your goal is simply to show the reader how smart you, the author, are, and how much you know, then yes, I'd recommend deleting them. – Dan Bron Aug 8 '15 at 16:30
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    Oh, then I'd suggest: don't do that (just like I'd suggest don't do that if a structural engineer told me he's trying to build a suspension bridge masking a desalinization plant). "Edutainment" is sometimes educational, less often entertaining, often neither, and never both. – Dan Bron Aug 8 '15 at 16:56
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    @DanBron Thank you for trying to clarify the question.Have you considered as an alternative the large number of books that basically connect a large number of anecdotes with some statements of ideal practice or 'theory'? Stories are the main substance of the books? – S. Mitchell Aug 9 '15 at 20:03
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I don't have any techniques to offer, but I can point you to some examples.

Thirty-five years ago, I was reading Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle. Partway into the story, someone teaches the main character how to juggle. I put the book down and started following the instructions. It worked.

I don't think I ever picked up the book again. But now I can juggle a little bit.

I don't remember anything else about the story. I don't remember how Silverberg doled out the instructions about how to juggle. But I do remember that it was very effective.

There's a whole category of books called Business Novels. Reading a few of those may offer some guidance. Probably the most influential one is The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. (Most of his books are business novels.)

Business novels tend to follow a very strict pattern. A character is struggling to do good things in some community (usually a large corporation). The character somehow gains a mentor, who is very wise and offers a radical new way to do things. The mentor offers an idea. The struggling character tries it, and it works. It doesn't solve the whole problem, but it doesn't create any new ones either. So the mentor offers an idea to help with the remaining problem, the character tries it, and it helps. This pattern repeats until the organization is wildly successful and everyone love the viewpoint character. (I call that the "Sam-I-Am Fantasy.") Finally, the viewpoint character and the mentor each vigorously attribute all of the success to the other.

As fiction, even the most popular business novels are just plain awful. They generally lack any of the conflict that drives fiction. And they generally don't involve any serious setbacks for the viewpoint character. And there is no serious pushback from other characters as the organization applies the radical new ideas. Lots of questions, but no real pushback. Instead, under the mentor's guidance, the viewpoint character makes steady progress.

As business books, they are quite popular.

I think there are a few keys to business novels:

  • The instruction occurs in not in a classroom, but the context of a real problem, in a "real" (see below) business or social setting. And the problem is one that readers are also struggling with. The more deeply readers are stuck, the more strongly they yearn for the magic exemplified in the book. The early focus of the story is on the intractability of the problem.
  • They story illustrate what is (theoretically) possible. Very little attention to what might go wrong or how to adapt to local circumstances.
  • They dole out the instruction little by little, as the main character needs it and becomes ready for it.
  • They in no way try to be great fiction. No attempt at all.

Many business novels (and other "instructional" novels) use a clearly fantastical setting and characters. Richard Bach wrote a series of philosophical books where the characters were badgers. Steve Denning wrote a very popular business novel where the characters were squirrels. Then there was the enormously popular (and IMO thoroughly evil) Who Moved My Cheese?, in which mice learn to shut the hell up and absorb whatever pain managers care to inflict on them. (Uh, the sales copy on the book describes this somewhat differently than I do.)

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