Episode 221: Get in the Game

On March 11, 2023, Kasie and Rex took on sports stories and their natural drama as devices for your fiction. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Built-in Stakes: Sports in Fiction


  • Classic sports novels
  • The types of stakes sports add
  • How to write a sports plot
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week we worked on legal thrillers, legal courtroom dramas, the kinds of stories that have built-in stakes. Something illegal has happened: will the culprit be caught? Will the prosecution prove guilt? Will the defense attorney manage to tell a specific story and get the accused acquitted? Will late-arriving testimony or evidence skew the case beyond salvage?

It got us thinking about how many other real-life experiences have built-in stakes. We’ve done some of these before but here’s a basic list:

  • Family rituals – funerals, weddings, holidays
  • Corporate events – parties, benefits, ceremonies
  • Pregnancy, birth, and parenthood – oh the drama! Even just thinking one of these can complicate things
  • Big purchases – house, car, company; whenever there’s a lot of money at stake, there’s drama
  • Rites of passage – graduation ceremonies, milestones, birthdays
  • New environments – moving to a new town, starting a new job, first day of school
  • New arrivals – stranger arrives in town, new kid in school, new coworker hired
  • Games – chess, monopoly, poker; games have rules and how and when the players follow them (or don’t) can cause drama
  • Sports – also have rules and rely on skills, but also rely on athletic skills and strength of mind and body

So today we’re going to focus on sports and we might circle back to one or more of these later in the month.

Here are some classic sports novels (link). Which ones have you read?

  • The Natural – Bernard Malamud (baseball) – a player whose career was derailed, attempts a comeback 16 years later
  • End Zone – Don Delillo (football) – high school football and nuclear war? Yes, please.
  • Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (tennis) – yes, if you can wade through the 1000 pages of trying, you’ll eventually discover some tennis

This was a good list, if for no other reason than it reminded me that the sports trope in romance isn’t actually a sports book (wink).

Here’s a different list with a couple of duplicates so, you know, maybe there’s no consensus:

  • The Great American Novel – Philip Roth (baseball) – about a fictional baseball league.
  • Bang the Drum Slowly – Mark Harris – second of four books about the same pitcher, named to Sports Illustrated’s best sport books ever list
  • Bear Town – Frederik Bachman – about a successful junior hockey team in a struggling town

There was a trend of creative nonfiction sports books that are worth reading:

  • Seabiscuit – (1999) Laura Hillenbrand’s book about the Great Depression and the underdog racehorse that gave a nation hope
  • Friday Night Lights – (1990) Buzz Bissinger’s book about Permian, Texas, where high school football is a religion
  • The Blind Side – (2006) Michael Lewis’s book about the rise of the left tackle position and its importance in the game (to protect a passing quarterback) and one player specifically, Michael Ohr, who came from desperate circumstances and was fostered by a family that saw his potential

Segment 2/3

So what is it about sports that make them compelling stories? Here are some things all sports have that contribute to their story-ability:

  • Stakes – there are winners, losers, injuries, and baggage, so much baggage.
  • Rivals – there are natural protagonist/antagonist relationships in competition; it’s better here because usually the players believe their own cause to be just. If you’re a writer who struggles with antagonists, just imagine what a character would say or do across a tennis net
  • Disappointment – nobody wins all the time; even in Rocky IV the biggest challenge for Drago was learning to lose; we see that in real sports, too. Amazing players like Trevor Lawrence realize that losing is part of the game. Injuries, too. Being taken out of the sport, the play, the lifestyle because of an injury presents a whole slew of disappointments for your character.
  • Exceptionalism – to really be good at sports, an athlete has to work extremely hard; they have to make sacrifices. Those sacrifices can be grist for great stories.
  • Tropes, Tropes, Tropes – the abusive coach, the has-been father, the cheerleader who picks the better player, the underdog team, the cheaters. Sports stories love their cliches and we recognize them immediately, not only for what they are but for the expected outcome.
  • Justice – in sports, we believe the best team will succeed; we want to see justice served, we think there’s a kind of balance that sports keeps in place. That’s why cheating scandals and performance enhancement are such odious things. We want to believe sports are pure and that they’ll deliver rightness.

Segment 4

So how do you do it? Well, here’s my quick take on what you have to have to write a good sports book:

  • Know the sport. The rules of the game, how it’s played, what it takes to win. Know the sport’s various levels of competition, the paths people take to the top, etc. 
  • But don’t teach it. A novel is about the characters’ growth, the journey for the protagonist, the antagonist’s tactics for preventing success; it’s not really about the sport. So keep the rulebook on your desk for reference, but don’t bore the reader with the history of the league.
  • Watch game film. When I wrote the rodeo scene for Blue, I watched YouTube videos of bullriders to get a sense of the movement, the pace of the experience. Sports have a particular feel to them – it’s in the scent, sounds, texture, visuals, and taste of the game. If you don’t know those things, because you haven’t played or attended a game, then go to a game but at the very least watch some of the film for the game.
  • Mirror the arc – the sport and its team’s success can be a compelling mirror for the character’s personal arc. Let the highs and lows of training and competition map directly to the character’s own highs and lows while dealing with their internal struggle.
  • Make strategic choices – you can’t include all the hours of training or all the minutes of the game in the book. That’s why films have montages. Consider what moments are the most important and keep those. You might have to write all of them and then cull them during revision.

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