Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Learning Curve

Learning is really important in stories. Often, a large part of a particular character's development involves learning of one kind and another. Sometimes a character learns a skill. Sometimes he/she learns a language. Sometimes he/she learns something about his/her own personality or character, or strengths, etc.

So I thought today I'd share some of my thoughts about learning.

People typically can't just pick up new things and do them right instantly. Talent is one thing. Miracles are entirely another. I know it's been done a thousand times if it's been done once, but simply handing a sword to some school kid from our world and expecting him to know how to lift it, much less fight the bad guy with it, isn't very realistic. If realism is what you're going for (as it is very often with me) then you'll want to build in the opportunity for your character to learn to use that sword. Or ride that horse. Or do the dancing/kung fu/whatever.

You can put learning in a character's background. Early in my writing, I had the experience of looking at one of my characters and asking how he got to be the way he is. I thought to myself, "He's intelligent. He knows about politics. He's also as graceful as a dancer, and strong enough to pick up a grown man. Shoot - he's a superhero!" Given that he wasn't in a story about superheroes, this was a problem. I had two options to consider at that point. Either I could give him weaknesses (which I did in one respect - he can't sing at all) or I could explain how he got to be so cool. It was that explanation that made me realize he'd been through lots of special schooling, including political training and bodyguard's training, and even training about how to move, stand, and pick up objects. This was now his background. He wasn't a superhero - he was a highly educated specialist. I could weave his experiences in schooling into his thoughts and memories, and suddenly he became a much more interesting character.

You can also put learning "on screen" in your story. If you choose to do that, start by remembering that learning is not instantaneous. Then think through the fact that learning is not linear. A learner can make progress steadily for a period of time, then appear to plateau, then start making rapid progress again thereafter. This offers great opportunities for conflict and frustration for your character. One of the factors involved in the changes in learning speed has to do with novice/expert distinctions. A novice tends to think through a task on the surface level, plowing through what comes at him/her. The novice can get faster at plowing through, but won't "reach the next level" until he or she achieves some kind of expert insight. Expert insight can mean different things, but typically it involves the ability to stand back from a problem and consider it from a meta-level, from the point of view of a larger overall pattern. Once that overall pattern has been grasped, the speed and skill with which the character accomplishes the task jumps up radically, because they don't have to plow through in order to get it done. The answer suggests itself on the basis of this larger pattern.

I have an example of this from language learning, where people talk about the "U-shaped curve" of learning. This curve is observable quite often in child language. Let's take past tense endings. For quite some time, a child will appear to be learning steadily how to make past tense verbs. They'll say:

"had" "hit" "walked" "stood" "cooked"

Then all of a sudden their performance (from a testing point of view) will take a sharp decline, and they'll say:

"hadded" "hitted" "walked" "standed" "cooked"

Notice that I said their performance declined from a testing point of view. What has actually happened here is that the child has suddenly grasped that there is a rule for creating the past tense. Before that, the child was having to memorize each instance of past tense. So if you asked the child with perfect performance to create the past tense form of a made-up verb like "quanch," they wouldn't be able to answer. The child with the apparent problems in the second set of examples (which could be the same child just a bit later) would be able to tell you that the past tense of "quanch" is "quanched." It's at that point, once the rule has been grasped, that the child goes about re-instating all of the exceptional cases, until they get back to:

"had" "hit" "walked" "stood" "cooked"

While this isn't always directly applicable to non-linguistic learning, it does bear some similarities to the difference between novice and expert performance. Grasping higher principles of mathematics, or techniques for how to approach a problem - or even seeing a sword duel in terms of body relations and dynamics rather than blow-by-blow - is where I think the similarity lies.

Language learning isn't always like other types of learning. It's often glossed over in books, and understandably, since it typically takes a very long time and progresses in fits and starts. I've spent so much time studying the details of it that I can tell you it's not worth trying to pin it down to a step-by-step progression - not for story purposes. But make sure you think through how the person grasps the different elements of the language from phonology through syntax and semantics, and also pragmatics. Explanations of these can be found in my "How Linguistics Can Help You!" series in the left nav bar. A person can have bad pronunciation but still do really well with grammar. Or the reverse. Or they can have good pronunciation and grammar and bad pragmatics, and be taken for a social boor. The possibilities are endless, so I won't go into them here.

Lastly, learning isn't just about learning skills. It's also about putting together clue-puzzles, figuring out mysteries, realizing what the bad guy is up to, realizing that you're in love with the girl/boy/etc. Watch out for realizations that happen without any appropriate build-up, because they can be just as awkward as when the schoolboy gets the sword. Think through the underlying components of the realization - the clues - and make sure they're all in place, and in the right order. Then think about what factor might be the single one that clicks everything together for your protagonist. Don't leave that last piece out, either, or readers will be confused. If the realization is important to your story, give it the time and words it deserves. Your story will be stronger and readers will trust you more.

It's something to think about.


  1. ...but simply handing a sword to some school kid from our world and expecting him to know how to lift it, much less fight the bad guy with it, isn't very realistic.

    Which reminds me of the first day of class when I was learning how to fence in college. The teacher had been explaining the various fundamentals (the equipment, how to hold the foil, how to stand and move the body, and so forth). By the end of the class, she knew we were all chomping at the bit to give each other a whack, so she said she'd close her eyes and turn away for a few minutes so she wouldn't have to see us flail away. :) It was fun, but we certainly didn't know how to fence after 45 minutes of instruction. There were no superheros in that class. ;)

  2. A very good book about "talent" is David Shenk's The Genius in All of Us, which thoroughly debunks the concept (especially of genetic talent, which bona fide biologists already know about: genes don't code for complex behaviors).

    Bottom line: to become great at anything, you need about 10,000 hours of constant practice at it. And it's easier to attain if you are immersed in it from early childhood.

  3. JDsg, love your description of the fencing class. What a kick!

    Athena, thanks for your comment and book recommendation.

    Thank you both for stopping by!

  4. Brilliant post! You just pointed out a weak spot in my WIP - not that I have a superhero, but that I don't show my MC knows how to do something hard before he does it. Thanks!

  5. Thanks, Deb! You've brought up a good point - if your character has to use a complex special skill at a critical moment in the plot, it's always good to seed that with some previous scene demonstrating their ability. If you can pull it off in such a way that the skill is used in a totally unrelated way, then the later use of it will be even more of a surprise.

  6. Thanks for bringing up something I'd vaguely been thinking about as a problem in my old draft of my WIP. Things along the lines of "Why does she feel/do this here?" "How can she do this now?" I've been trying to keep those sorts of things in mind while I rewrite the story. Like my jeweler girl getting some combat training.

    Before I never showed why she has any combat skills or why she's pretty good at it. Now she had been given some knife training from her street friends, so when she meets another knife fighter for more training, she will have a few basic moves already and can make a jump in skill.

    You really clarified the learning curve. That'll help as I go along.