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Writing a History Lesson

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Amanita, Dec 9, 2012.

  1. Amanita

    Amanita Maester


    there's something I'd like to get a few opinions on. I've reached a part of my story where my main character needs some information about a historical figure and his role. She's in a school-like setting, so doing it through a lesson is the most obvious example. I don't want an annoying "info-dump" of course but I'm not sure if I can even judge this properly because I tend to be really interested in the historical background of fantasy worlds and therefore almost always like these kinds of scenes in other books.
    The teacher holding the lesson is one the main characters dislikes and distrusts for various reasons. The subject matter at hand is very controversial.
    So I thought I'd write him telling them the backstory in small bits, being interrupted by students asking questions, doubting the truth of his statement, getting upset about the subject and so on. The main character being from another country knows almost nothing about the subject but has strong personal feelings about some elements of it, while most of her classmates know more and have strongly formed opinions beforehand.
    This way, the scene isn't only about the information but also about the character's positions on important issues which plays a huge part in my main character's opinion about them.
    The question if the teacher is really telling them the entire truth remains open as well. (He doesn't lie to them on purpose but he's arguing in favor of a certain position.)

    Do you think this can work or would it still be too boring for the reader?
    Making the main character discover the information herself through old books or something would be an option as well of course, but at this point of the story, she doesn't know how important it's going to be for her yet. (And therefore only cares about the reactions but not about the stuff happening 100 years ago itself.)
  2. saellys

    saellys Inkling

    That sounds like it could work very well. Not only would you be establishing the history itself, but aspects of the various characters simultaneously. It sounds much more interesting than the "research montage" option (though that can be made interesting with a little work, too).

    I think you should write out a draft of this scene and see how you like it then. Other ideas might occur to you while you're composing, but it sounds like you know exactly what you want out of it, so the process should be relatively easy. :)
  3. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Definitely sounds like you've found enough tricks to make sure it works.

    One thing that could still be working against you is that the MC doesn't know it'll be important; that could mean it's harder to put some emotional spotlight on the material itself as well as the arguments around it, unless you play up what it means to the characters he likes and dislikes. They might even take it as a direct analogy to themselves: "Are you saying we wizards can't win wars?" "History suggests that the archmage failed--" "You can't prove that--"
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver


    if its controversial - meaning people in power might be ticked off by certain parts of it - there is almost certainly an 'official line.' For a teacher to put forth anything other than the official line would be grounds for serious trouble.

    Hence - maybe -

    The teacher puts forth the 'official line' in small bite sized doses - one or two sentences at a time.

    The MC mentally amends each line. 'Sure - like you expect me to believe that.' 'And what about this?' And so on, all through the lesson.
  5. Shockley

    Shockley Maester

    Having sat through a myriad of history classes, my experience has always been that there is a shocking lack of questions. More likely (and this is just my personal experience), the students would be facing their desks and trying to run out the clock.
  6. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I only have a minor in History but from my experience I've noticed that questions & student participation usually correlate with a teacher's passion and presentations. I've had some great history teachers who I could listen to, engrossed for hours while with others I couldn't wait to be out the door.
  7. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Thank you for your answers.
    There is an "official line" that's being taught at school, but the story is set in a society where freedom of speech is resected. Besides that, the students in question are magic students who are expected to know things the general public doesn't. The problem isn't what he's telling them but the way he's judging these events but it's still not illegal to think that way and he isn't the only one.
    In my experience, the interest of students in a history class depends on the teacher as well as on the subject matter. There are some subject where many people just have an opinion they care about and try to defend. There are others where many would be really shocked if someone told them something different from what they've been told is the "morally right" way of looking at it. I admit that it's rare and many history lessons drag on without much student participation, but I'm not going to write those down because they don't do much for the story.

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