Episode 222: Get in the Game Pt 2

On March 18th, Kasie and rex continued the conversation about the built-in drama caused by sports in stories. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Built-in Stakes: Sports in Fiction Part 2


  • Classic sports films
  • The types of stakes sports add (continued)
  • Sports as primary and sub plot
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week we worked on sports Part 1 – we knew it would have enough for a part 2 so the notes are a continuation of that discussion with some repeat links.

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.

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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