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My MC is going through boot camp. Physically and mentally, he goes from high-school boy to soldier prepared for combat. Along the way there's struggles, there's new friendships formed, there's the changing interaction with his family (we're talking Israeli boot camp - he's home every third weekend).

This is what I'm struggling with:

Boot camp is mostly very repetitive. So I show little flashes of it: first day, first time on guard, first Shabbat dinner on the base, first time firing a rifle. Then I go back to the same tasks a month later, and they're routine - they're happening in the background, while something else takes the focus of the scene.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling starts Hogwarts with a first Potions lesson, first Transfiguration lesson, etc. Problem is, Rowling can put all the "firsts" in the course of one in-story week. In boot camp, "firsts" are spread over a longer period of time. I find myself with relatively short scenes, and time-skips of a week or two between them. The overall feel is very disjointed.

To explain differently, when a movie shows a training montage (example from Mulan), it is understood that there are time skips between the short frames of training (not only between beginning and end). In a written medium, this doesn't work.

I could see those scenes working as short diary entries - in a diary format, you expect time skips when nothing interesting happens, and short entries when the character writing is tired. But I'm writing in third person limited, so a diary format wouldn't work.

How can I reduce the "choppiness" of my narrative? At the moment, I feel I'm giving my reader separate pictures, each framed and hung in sequence, when what I should be giving them is a movie, if that metaphor makes sense.

  • Have you had a look at Ender's Game recently? From memory, it deals with what you're struggling with at the moment quite well – Thomo Jan 17 at 1:46
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Does he have any friends there?

One solution is to push the training camp into the background. The problem sounds like you don't have enough conflict, your scenes come up short.

I'd focus on some relationships, perhaps a competitive one with friends, but you can have a conversation while these things are going on. Get some perspective on the character, create some conflict through competition, discussing the jerks in charge, screwing up, etc. Make a friend or two. Develop some character. Tell some life story.

In a way, we don't need to know that much about boot camp. Hooray, he learned to march and shoot. All that can be accomplished while he's doing something else, like building a friendship, writing home, helping other people get through it, screwing up and needing help, joking around, etc. The thread that ties the scenes together is a growing friendship, comraderie and comfort that most people develop when going through an ordeal together.

That can also help us see what he's good at, and what he's bad it. And how he handles winning, and handles losing.

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Question: How to tie 'choppy' short scenes together?

Answer: Tie them together with an overarching 'internal journey' that defines this character uniquely and carries through all the lessons.

It sounds as if you are concerned about the lengths of your scenes, and also the choppy feel of them. You've compared your character's situations to Rowling's writing of Harry's first year at Hogwarts.

But part of what tied Harry's early lessons together were his wonder at the discovery of a magical world. A few weeks earlier, he had no idea of magic or the possibility of escaping the Dursleys, and now he lives in a magic castle with flying brooms, magic wands, and people who can transfigure into animals. And he has a power that the Dursleys never will! Everyone around him takes magic for granted. He experiences wonder at every turn, and so do we as the reader.

So. What is the emotion that your character feels throughout bootcamp (ideally that we readers also want to feel)? It's probably not wonder, like Harry feels, but maybe success at small victories. Or a sense of getting stronger (maybe your character has a way to measure his success and strength), perhaps he gains respect from his 'classmates,' or maybe he feels sheer relief at breaking free from the constraints of the world he left.

You can lengthen the scenes by embellishing the internal emotions and reflection of your character. Quiet moments. Little asides, maybe with a new 'loyal best friend' or mentor--like that fantastic scene in Lord of the Rings:FOTR when Gandalf and Frodo are quietly talking about what is/isn't possible in life. (We can't choose our challenges, only how we face them ... or something like this).

I think if you tie the scenes together with an emotional journey and theme, and deepen the reflection and internal monologuing of your main character, you'll feel that your scenes cohere into something really nice.


Edit to add: I use a diary in 3rd limited. I have the PoV character find the diary of the non-PoV character and read it. In your case, depending on what you wish to reveal, your PoV character can find someone else's diary. They write about (whatever)--maybe the ten-mile run that day and how easy it had been for them. The PoV character reflects--that it hadn't been easy at all, and he could feel the soreness creeping into his muscles already. Maybe he'd tripped and badly gashed his arm which would make pushups damn near impossible, but if he can't keep pace--even with a gashed arm--the sergeant will double the number.

Then he turns the page and reads another entry, and reflects again.

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    "he's home every third weekend" - If Harry Potter had ever went back home in the first movie, it would've stopped it dead. But you're talking more about down time spent wandering the castle, which was cool af; not dinner with the fam. – Mazura Jan 17 at 14:09
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    I like it. The training montage can be effectively tied together with a "journey" – ashleylee Jan 17 at 15:18
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I'm dealing with some similar problems, on a smaller scale. The first third of my novel is composed of short chapters that move the story along. All the emphasis is on getting to the main location. Then they're there.

Suddenly their days and nights become repetitive and wearying. This is part of the learning experience and something they need to go through. Obviously I don't want the reader to go through it in the same depth as the first part of the book (which spanned about a week).

In the last third (or more) of my book they're moving again and encountering new things, though there will be some repetition there too.

I'm dealing with it by shifting the time arc of the narrator.

Perhaps there's a name for this but that's how I think of it. My narrator is also 3rd person limited, with slight peeks into my MC's head (I have a couple chapters from other characters' points of view and get more into their heads).

Some of the narration happens in real time, more or less.

Not five feet away crouched the woman, pushing mud into the corners of a form. She dipped her hand in water to smooth the top and finished with a dusting of powder from the other hand, before moving on to the next. Others, all grandparents—some so old they could barely balance on their bent legs—did the same a few feet away. Children—all younger than Simon—stood nearby, ready to pull up the forms and run them elsewhere in the mist.

Sometimes the narrator uses details to compact a longer action, but one that is still within a fairly limited time period, in this case, no more than an hour.

Ruth tried everything. The fresh dates that reminded her of home, soft chewy bread baked in rounds and spread with spiced lentil paste and minced onion, squares of what looked like feta cheese soaked in olive oil and herbs, and some fruits she didn’t recognize. Even the water was delicious.

Time compression is going to happen more often than not, otherwise you'd never get anywhere. Real time storytelling usually happens with dialogue, but not always. Transitions often compress time and merge multiple actions into one.

When the sunlight was completely gone and the nearly half-full crescent moon shone in the sky, more people began to filter into the courtyard.

Sometimes the narrator needs to compress even more into a few lines. Here's where you can do things like describe a task in detail then add "as the days passed, he found was able to lift two boxes at a time, then three." Or show how his shoes are worn down and his shirt is tight around his biceps.

Or just straight up cram years into seconds.

After six long years, Sophie turned 15. She had one letter from her parents, written a month after they left, and five postcards from Gustav. The war was over. Renee’s parents moved to New York and she left on the train to join them. Werner had to take a train and a boat to meet his father in Australia. Eight children had the same news: No one was sending for them.

In your story, bootcamp is going to end up being a disjointed memory for your character. Just like college or summer camp or 8th grade or any other long mostly-same experience is for someone. Days (weeks, months) run together. A few things will stand out, especially firsts. If your narrator uses past tense, there's no reason you can't describe much of the experience like an actual memory. Memories skip around. You might want to keep the chronological order of things but what's important will be brief details and the overall picture, not the mundanity of the in-between.

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Expanding on Cyn's last paragraph.

In the case of bootcamp, you can skip it entirely and just give a summary at the end. The important element is making the reader know what all the boot-camp brought to your character. As a matter of fact, the knowledge could have come from having trained for many years, or from uploading it in their memory (e.g. as it happens in the Matrix movies). There is an emotional aspect too, and the true deep meaning of it can be fully grasped at the end of the process.

In practice:

MC enrolled in the academy on May 20th. It was a bright day and MC was singing a martial tune with the heart full of hopes and dreams of glory in his young mind. It took six years to break him, and just when he was about to quit, he reached that incredible graduation like an animal about to drown who miraculously feels the shore under the paws.

"You look so changed." said his childhood friend, meeting him at the reception. "And that shooting demonstration! Your skills are amazing!"

"Yes ma'am." said he.

"I imagine you have a lot of stories to tell."

"Not really. At first it was just running around the courtyard with the Sergeants screaming in your brain. Then it was getting to love and fear the weapons. It is like a relationship, you know? The first day you think it is going to explode in your hands, and you don't want to ruin it like that. After one hundred days, even if you could dismantle and reassemble it with a blindfold, and yet you cannot think of parting from it."

"Those sound like incredible stories to me."

"They did to me too, years ago. Now it is a past I wish I could forget."

There we have it. We skipped six years. Asserted what the training was about. Showed that the MC has gained some skills which you may want to use later. And we also hinted at the emotional impact on the MC. And by keeping the time jump in one place, it does not feel choppy, and it does not drag.

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I'm assuming your larger story isn't focused on bootcamp, and that other things happen afterwards. If so, I would suggest the Iceberg Method. Write all your little scenes from bootcamp, but don't (necessarily) use them in the final novel. Instead, write your main narrative, and if you get to a place where you need a piece of history, you'll have it ready and waiting. For instance, your MC and his best friend are out on patrol. The MC flashes back to how he initially hated his best friend when they first met in boot camp.

If the whole story IS bootcamp, then you have a larger problem, in as much as you're apparently bored by, and eager to skip over, your main setting. But you can still use the same method. In this scenario, go back and write some backstory for your MC and his squadmates. Then, as you're writing your bootcamp scenes, you can draw on the MC's childhood for other material to interweave it with. That saves you from jumping from one bootcamp scene to the next.

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I suspect that the problem is that the training 'episodes' are actually background/peripheral to the main story you are telling.

You probably need to weave the training aspects into the journey of your main character (I think someone else may have suggested the same thing).

I try to avoid sections which don't carry the story forward.

Maybe touch on the training by having the main character and his friends discussing it after the event ... that way you could do something along the lines of a short intro into the nature of the boot camp, time passes, groups of recruits in the mess hall discussing what they have learned in amongst the main discussions of the story you are telling.

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