Why I hate schools and contests

A classroom with rows of wooden seats
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Some people think the “magic school” trope started with Harry Potter, and the “contest for your life” one started with Hunger Games. Thus any similar story is just a knockoff and derivative.

I don’t think that. The first “special boarding school” book I loved was Dragonsinger, decades earlier. And besides, derivative doesn’t mean bad. We’re all making art in a world in which people have made art before. We’re taking those things we like and remixing them in infinite ways. It’s fine.

No, I just don’t happen to like those tropes. Books involving them can be great and bestsellers and popular, and yet I personally come across them and give a silent “ugh.”

The first reason is because I was homeschooled. It bugged me, as a kid, that almost all the books about people my age involved an experience I didn’t have. At the same time, I read lots of them to get that experience. Just like I had never babysat when I started reading The Babysitters Club, but I wanted to learn about it. After a while, though, it got old. Why does everything have to be a school? You’re in a magical universe! You could be doing anything! And yet the only thing you can imagine is being in a classroom all day with your same-age peers? Once I’d actually been to school I understood it even less. This is what the fuss is about? Being bored all day surrounded by people who mostly don’t like you?

The second reason is that when I finally did go to a magical boarding school for super special people, it actually sucked and I kind of resent all the books that made me think it was awesome to be in an institution without my parents.

The third reason is that it’s just not a very punchy introduction to your story. See, a lot of stories aren’t “school stories” but they blow a few chapters on school. And those are often the worst kind. The story doesn’t start until the hero graduates, so the first chapters are pure worldbuilding disguised as a story. We’re intended to learn about the world when the hero does, and be impressed with their character by how they handle school. Instead I’m kind of skimming till the story starts.

See, dumping worldbuilding in like that is as bad as going around the table introducing all your main characters. (Another thing that often happens in school stories- presenting us with the implausible scenario that our hero finds their core school friend group by happening to sit with all of them on the first day.) You’re thinking “wow, I can get everyone introduced at once!” Your reader (and probably your hero) are thinking “ugh, I am never going to remember all those names.” It’s so much easier to learn the names and traits of characters when they’re introduced one or two at a time, in different scenes, interspersed with action. The same is true of worldbuilding. Dumped on you all at once, it splashes right out of your brain. Carefully dribbled in with an eyedropper, interspersed with relevant action, the reader might remember.

The last reason is that a lot of school experiences are boring. Authors think, “Oh I know! Instead of infodumping the important info about the world at the beginning, I’ll have a professor give a lecture about it!” But lectures are boring. I’m probably reading your book under my desk to avoid paying attention to a lecture! Ditto “president of the school gives a welcoming talk.” Unless he gets shot during the speech, I don’t care. Big blocks of a single character speaking are blah. Don’t like. Studying is boring, training is boring, exams are boring.

Why are school experiences so boring? Because they are controlled. There are adults in charge, somewhere, deciding how challenged our heroes are allowed to be. The same goes for contests. If we are told, at the beginning, “Twenty-three of you will die, and one will win,” then we know from the beginning exactly how bad it’s going to get. Stakes are hard to raise after that point, there can’t be many twists because the rules of the contest have already been stated.

It is possible for schools and contests to be more dangerous and interesting than that. Say, if the staff is incompetent and lets the children be hurt for some reason, or if the person in the contest is undercover and after something altogether different than winning. (Red Rising is a good example of the latter.) But even then, the kinds of challenges and experiences possible are limited a little by the framing that this takes place in a school. You know, at the very least, the characters almost certainly won’t leave the school. Compare that to a spaceship. Anything might happen on a spaceship. What if, instead of learning how to fly a spaceship at the Academy, you’re just stuck on a spaceship in the role of grunt and expected to figure it out?

School stories can and have been done well. There have been a few I’ve really liked. But in general, it’s one of my least favorite settings. Especially with MG and YA books, I always like it when the kids aren’t in school. A summer adventure, a world with apprenticeships, anything that allows kid heroes to make their own rules. And if you’re writing a story about an adult, you don’t have to start with their training. You can start with the action, have them mysteriously hung up on a specific issue, and then reveal later in a flashback that it’s a hangup they picked up in school.

If you do write a school setting, remember the pitfalls. Find a way to make the peril real, not manufactured by the teachers. Let us feel the setting isn’t entirely controlled. And, for pete’s sake, don’t subject us to more than a paragraph or two of teacherly lectures before somebody throws a spitball. I’m here to have fun!

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