Stories, Sports, and Space

Wotcha all. I’m here to talk about storytelling using everyone’s favourite thing – sport. In this case, team sports where people move around quite quickly in pursuit for an object with which they must score. Hockey (both kinds), Football (all kinds), Rugby (both kinds), Basketball, Netball, etc.etc.

The thing that intrigues me about them as a prism for viewing stories is that those sports are all about space. People tune in for outrageous acts of athleticism and co-ordination, but they underlying key to them is space – finding space, creating space, preserving space, destroying space. The ideal score is one where two attackers are against one defender who simply doesn’t have a chance, and that happens because defenders have been dragged off elsewhere, creating space. Both sides know what the other is doing but through motion, misdirection, and sheer talent, space can be found no matter how hard the other side tries.

Which is similar to how I view plot. The reader knows roughly what the writer intends. There is no deliberate antagonistic attempt to prevent the plot working, but they work best when expectations are partly beaten – not wholly, wholly tends to be bad, but in part. Page space plays a big part in both our expectations as readers, and our options as writers. A writer needs to use motion, misdirection, and sometimes sheer writing chops to play with expectations so that when the moment comes for the big climactic scenes – the score – something gets through the expectations.

When you see it this way, every attempt to manipulate space in sports can be the germ of a way to advance plots and play with reader expectations.

Take the simple 1-2. Player A wants to go forward but Player Z is in the way, and Player A doesn’t believe they can get past on pure skill alone. So they pass it to Player B, who passes it behind Player Z so that Player A can run onto the ball without Player Z in the way. Have a character where you’ve written them into a plot hole and don’t know how they get out? Have another character come and help them. Obviously this raises potential other problems, but the character is through. Another good use of this thought is when you want to keep a future plan secret from the reader, but the character will go through a scene where the plan will logically be in their thoughts. A solution is to switch the PoV to someone who doesn’t have that problem.

Or take a case of Player A and Player B moving in diagonal paths that will cross each other, leaving the defence unsure on who to follow and who will receive the ball. Having two characters on at first unrelated arcs meet is a standard of fiction; it creates something for the reader to look forwards to, and creates uncertainty about what will happen next.

These are, I think, fairly simple ideas. So let’s go deeper into the part of both stories and support that’s about surprise.

There is a quote I recall reading (but can never find so maybe I invented it) that runs “if a full back goes forward twenty times a match, it will never be be a surprise; but if he goes forwards twice, both times will be a surprise”, which I think translates well enough into fiction. It’s never a surprise when Jon Snow does something noble, or Granny Weatherwax refuses to back down from a challenge. Those are signature traits and they do them all the time because they’re great at doing them. Readers expect them to do it, they’re not happy if they don’t. But no matter how hard a writer might try, you can’t get a big dramatic shock out of them doing those things. If you want a twist, you need characters doing something out of their nature – and something out of our expectations. Watching a gentle, or not particularly brave, character suddenly act incredibly heroic is something we expect.

So what is a surprise? Sometimes, doing nothing at all. A pass in in reach of Player A, drawing Player Z onto them, but they let it go and it ends up with Player B instead. Imagine a book where we believe Broody McEmopants will have a big confrontation with Cackles Puppykicker, but the moment comes and Broody says no… and then beloved side characters Oneline Onepunch gets to settle that mean ol’ Puppykicker instead. Done right, that can be very satisfying, and I feel like most people here will recognise a book with similar beats – but not so many it’s expected.

Often it’s the arrival of a player or character that people had forgotten about because they were highly focused on something else. The surprise is often momentary and that is often enough. I would add though that one place where the comparison breaks down is that savvy readers are often expecting the return of such characters – a Chekhov’s Gun situation if you will – and bringing them in is less about surprising expectations and more about fulfilling them.

Speaking of Chekhov’s gun, a good way to create limited suspense and misdirection is through options. That’s not a new thought to me – this post from a couple of years back about the need to create obfuscation about the shape of our stories to avoid Chekhov’s gun making it too obvious is still one of my favourite things I’ve written – and it’s not a new thought to sport either. It was hammered into me in rugby training to create options for the ball carrier, as it’s harder to defend someone who has multiple options for using the ball.

But I reckon the most effective surprises come from when we reckon the player/writer/character has run out of options and suddenly they overcome an obstacle through sheer brilliance, and all of a sudden, the world changes. Writing wise, the best example I can think of is revealing a hero as a villain or showing a villain as a hero, a process that often takes very good writing to fully sell. That, or a shocking tactic or sacrifice to elude seemingly certain defeat. Writers can talk structure until they’re blue in the face, but it will often be one great moment of imagination or writing that provides the book’s defining moment.

Structure and plot can be a great way of providing the platform for that moment though. Surprises and misdirection are a great way of giving the best structure and plot possible.

And sports can be a surprisingly great source of inspiration.

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