What Sports Can Tell Us About Storytelling…And What they Can’t

I’m a sports fan. Big time. I enjoy watching pretty much all forms of competition. Baseball, soccer, football, basketball, golf, tennis. I love all the Olympic sports. I’ll even watch hockey. It’s more than just a guy thing. I love sports because they are utterly unpredictable. You never really know what’s going to happen. You never know if someone you’ve never heard of will suddenly rise to the occasion and do something extraordinary, or if someone who has made the extraordinary mundane throughout his career will abruptly rediscover his inner Charlie Brown.

Sure, most of the time the expected happens. Tiger Woods wins another tournament; Roger Federer wins another match; the Mets lose another game. But then you get those magical moments — the United States hockey team beats the Russians, or the Yankees of Mantle and Maris lose to Bill Mazeroski’s Pirates.

Why am I discussing sports at SFNovelists? What links baseball and golf and football to writing? I was thinking about this the other day while watching Juan Martin del Potro defeat Roger Federer in the finals of pro tennis’s U.S. Open. The answer is: Narrative.

Part of the excitement of sports lies in the fact that it’s unscripted, that you never know when you’ll see something astonishing. In writing, we strive for that same excitement, that same sense of wonder and amazement, but we do so within the confines of storytelling and narrative. And it’s not easy.

In sports, the underdog rarely beats the stronger player or team. That’s what makes those upsets so incredible to watch. But if you think about stories in our genre — and in others, as well — the underdog almost always wins. That’s what makes fiction so compelling. It wouldn’t be any fun to watch Sauron get the Ring back and conquer all of Middle Earth. He’s supposed to win. He has the better team. The Nine are totally kick-ass, he’s got Saruman and balrogs and wargs on his side, and the Uruk-hai might be stupid, but they’re big and strong. What does the other side have? Sure they have a few wizards and Aragon’s sword is very cool and Elves are pretty handy with a bow and arrow. But dwarves? Hobbits? Give me a break. On paper this is no contest. But that’s why we read the books.

Joking aside, making the underdog win every time isn’t as easy or pat as it sounds. In a sporting event things can happen without explanation. A fumble in football or a missed foul shot in basketball doesn’t need to be set up. Those things just happen. Not so in writing. We authors have to make those “unexpected” victories for our heroes make sense. We have to plant enough narrative seeds along the way to make the impossible seem logical. And at the same time, we have to maintain a level of suspense despite the fact that most of the time our readers know exactly what’s going to happen. Since the outcome is never truly in doubt, we have to make the path to that outcome compelling, surprising, fraught with danger, and ultimately satisfying.

There are clear ironies here. Nothing can be too predictable, except the outcome. Our readers will be (justifiably) furious with us if all the events in our books follow the expected path. But they’ll also be furious with us if our heroic characters, who have no business winning, don’t win. On the flip side of this, our readers (not to mention our editors and our reviewers) will be (again, justifiably) merciless if our narratives are contrived, or if the events that lead to our hero’s victory seem so fortunate as to strain credulity. They want to follow a logical progression of events to an illogical conclusion. In sports we see the walk off home runs, and improbable pass completions, and impossible golf shots that hang on the lip of the cup before tumbling in, and they make us cheer wildly. Put those things in a movie or book, and no one would believe them — too contrived, too easy. But they happen. We’ve all seen them. This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes about writing. It’s from Tom Clancy, author of The Hunt for Red October and countless other bestselling thrillers: “The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.”

In sports, suspense comes from not knowing what will happen or how a contest will end. In fiction, it often comes from knowing exactly how a story will end, but having no idea of how we’re going to reach that conclusion.

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, Not Remotely Writing Related, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 6 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    David – Your last paragraph says it all. Though why did you have to pick on my Mets to get there?

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks, Sam. But you see, the thing is, they’re my Mets, too…..

  3. 3. NewGuyDave

    At first I thought you were going to show how the biggest and best aren’t always the ones who swing the momentum and help one side win. Often it’s the small acts of those commonly overlooked who make the biggest difference.

    In sports, I’d point to Tom Brady (even though I can’t stand the Patriots). He backed up in College, drafted late in pro, and only got his chance because Drew Bledsoe got injured. Little did anybody suspect he would lead his team to four Superbowls. Sure now, he’s a household name, but when he wasn’t even a starter in college, he probably wasn’t.

    In fiction, I’d go back to hobbits. It would be easy to look past them as adversaries, as Sauron did. Their small, relatively weak, and not skilled in any particular way for war or even adventure. It’s their love for each other, their home, and their way of life that drives them up to the occasion.

    Anyways, great post. Maybe someday you can highlight the little game changers… ;-)

    NGD

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment and the idea, Dave. You’re right: that would be a great post, and perhaps something I should have incorporated into this post. I was focusing more on narrative, but it would have been a great way to bring in character, too. Next time!

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    David – You have my sympathy, Fellow Blighted One.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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