June 24, 2014

7 Storytelling Lessons from Sports

Basketball, baseball bat, and football helmet with text: 7 Storytelling Lessons from Sports

At their essence, most sports have a lot in common with storytelling. There are “good guys” (the home team) and “bad guys” (the visiting team), and they battle for who comes out on top. The audience becomes emotionally involved and roots for those they identify with to succeed, and we all wish for a happy ending.

Arena football is the perfect sport for seeing these commonalities because they do a great job of balancing the entertainment aspect and respect for the sport. The successful transition of quarterback Kurt Warner from arena football to three NFL Super Bowls proves the “respect for the sport” aspect, so let’s talk about the entertainment side of things.

This past weekend, my family enjoyed an outing at our local Arizona Rattlers arena football game. Whenever we’ve gone to a game, we’ve had a great time, and that’s not just because the Arizona Rattlers are the best team in the league. *smile*

The rules of arena football and the way the games are run contribute to the fun, fan-friendly atmosphere. Naturally as a writer, I looked for insights we could take away and apply to our writing.

What Makes Arena Football a Good Model for Writing?

Most of you probably aren’t familiar with the Arena Football League, so let me do a quick introduction to the sport. Arena football is a variety of American-style football (that is, not soccer-style football) played indoors on a field the size of a hockey rink.

The rules of arena football keep the ball in play for a fast-paced game, eliminate punting (my least favorite part of normal American football, as the teams often seem to give up their chance for another first down too easily), and lead to high scores. In other words, if baseball is like a slow literary fiction novel (sorry, baseball fans!), arena football is an action-packed page-turner.

Games are played in arenas built for hockey or basketball, which allows for more theatrics than outdoor sports. Teams can dim the lights and use spotlights (and indoor fireworks and cannons, etc.) for the grand entrance of the home team. Music, announcements, and an abundance of video boards all engage the audience more than in large stadiums.

So… Action-packed, fast-paced, and high audience engagement with scrappy characters who don’t give up—sound like some of our goals for our stories? *smile*

7 Storytelling Lessons from Arena Football

#1: Use a “Ticking Clock”

With few exceptions (TV timeouts, injuries, etc.), there’s always a ticking clock in arena football. From the game clock counting down the remaining minutes in the quarter to the play clock counting down the seconds until the offense must make their move, ticking clocks keep the game from dragging under a slow pace.

In our stories, ticking clocks are often figurative and related to the stakes. Our characters might have deadlines for reaching a decision, or we might hint that the you-know-what is about to hit the fan. Whatever our approach, ticking clocks are one way we inform readers that our story is driving toward a finale and won’t just ramble endlessly.

From our very first page, we’re often able to allude to a minor ticking clock for an initial goal or situation. In The Hunger Games, we know from page one about the “day of the reaping” deadline, when the tributes for the games are chosen. From there, the story counts down to the start of the games, and then counts down to when only one tribute will remain.

Our stories will usually flow better if we replace a finished (or now-irrelevant) ticking clock with a new ticking clock as soon as possible. A scene without a ticking clock might feel random or meaningless, just as a scene without a goal does.

#2: Keep Up Momentum

Related to #1, despite the ticking clocks in arena football, it takes time to set up kickoffs, deal with injuries, etc. So during downtime, game producers use audience engagement activities to build (or at least maintain) interest and meet their goal of creating an entertaining sports experience for fans.

Likewise, in our writing, we don’t want to stall the story by getting sidetracked by “action” that no one cares about. As this post by editor Mary Cole points out, “stuff happens” isn’t the same as action that furthers the plot.

If our characters have a big goal to do A, we could easily think we’re making our story more interesting if we throw lots of side obstacles in the way. To do A, they first have to find B, but to find B, they first have to talk to C, and that means they have to navigate the dangers of D, so they should probably get advice from E first, etc.

As Mary says:

“Is this a valuable component of your plot or is it stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective?”

To be worth the page count to the reader, that B had better be really important to the goal of A. Each piece needs to legitimately bring the character either closer (if they succeed) or further (if they fail) from their ultimate goal. If we, as writers, lose sight of the end goal, readers will too, and that loss will stall the pace and kill the stakes (along with reader investment in the story).

When events don’t feel like they’re building to a bigger picture or don’t affect other events or the story as a whole, we call stories “episodic” in nature, like episodes of a TV show where one week doesn’t affect the next. If we ever hear the feedback that our story feels “too episodic” in nature, check for this stalling issue of side obstacles.

#3: Make Subplots Matter

Along related lines, the downtime activities during Rattlers games matter to the fans because they keep everyone engaged in the events in the arena. “Muscle cams,” “dance cams,” and “fist pump cams” prompt the audience to participate, sometimes for prizes. The audience cares about what happens on the video boards during downtime—just as they care about what happens on the field during plays.

Similarly, we want our subplots to matter to readers. For that to happen, our subplots have to matter to the story. Subplots need to be full participants in the story, and they need stakes too. If subplots have no consequences, the story doesn’t need their distraction, and it will be hard for anyone to care whether they’re resolved or not.

#4: Make Your Audience Feel Appreciated

The game I attended celebrated “Star Wars Day,” and the Rattlers encouraged fans to dress up. Costumed characters were in the lobby for pictures and participated in the team’s entrance and coin toss. Downtime activities included a fan trying to guess the quarterback’s favorite Jedi Knight.

All of these added together helped the game feel like a complete entertainment experience. We were going there for the game itself, but they exceeded our expectations by including additional enjoyment.

As storytellers, we can deliver more than our readers expect. From fantastic writing quality and awesome characters to reader engagement and appreciation, we can respect our readers’ time and money choices by going above and beyond.

#5: Make Characters Relatable

The Arizona Rattlers encourage fans to feel a connection with the players. They host an autograph session after every home game and include “player profiles” in the free program with tidbits about their family, what drew them to the sport, and favorite movies, hobbies, and songs.

Many audience engagement activities involve the players too. One was a taped skit between two players doing a Star Wars-themed Pyramid game show, where one player tried to get the other to guess a word or phrase. His imitation of Chewbacca’s howl to prompt a guess of “Chewbacca” was hysterical.

We need to make our characters relatable as well. Like the players, our characters can be entertaining or snarky. They can be experts or rookies. They can be friendly or powerful.

The details could be almost anything. But something needs to make them relatable.

#6: Small Mistakes Can Lead to Big Problems

In arena football, the field is so short that teams should score on every possession (even if just a field goal from the opposing end). Many games follow a “possession–>touchdown, possession–>touchdown” pattern with teams in a constant battle to maintain a tie—and then someone screws up.

An interception, fumble, or incomplete pass upsets the pattern, and now instead of a tie, one team is desperately behind. Worse, they can’t catch up unless the other team messes up too. It’s a game where deviation from perfection will cause problems. Talk about high tension.

Luckily in our stories, we can fix the problems we find. And luckily, we’ll often discover that big problems are caused by small—and relatively easy-to-fix—issues. Sometimes just a line or two might be enough to fix missing or broken goals, stakes, or motivations.

#7: Maintain Interest until the End

In many sports, one team will gain so much of a lead that we know they’ve clinched the victory. There’s simply not enough time for the other team to make up the deficit. This is what we’d call “no stakes” in our writing. *smile*

Many sports fans will leave at that point. They figure there’s nothing left to justify their time, and they want to beat the crowds to the exit. Smart sports teams focus on other aspects—from after-game activities to entertainment—that can keep interest high.

In our stories, after the climax scene, we don’t want readers to feel like there’s nothing worth reading in the remaining scene or scenes. The plot arc might have experienced its climatic scene, but what about the emotional arc?

We can maintain interest through the resolution by ensuring readers know there’s something worth sticking around for. Readers want to see these characters they care about enjoy their victory by getting a hint of what their life holds in store for them in the future.

Not too bad for the lessons I picked up at one arena football game, right? Other games and sports would probably offer additional insights. Human nature loves stories, and we look for them every where—even in places we wouldn’t expect to find them. *smile*

Are you a sports fan? Have you seen the storytelling/sports connection before? In what ways? Do you have additional lessons to add? Have you ever watched arena football?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Not a sports fan, so I’ve not seen the connection before, nor have I watched arena football. It’s interesting, though. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Ooh interesting analogy. I like the sound of Star Wars day. ^^ Good point about events, actions, and subplots mattering to the big picture. I feel somewhat more positively towards “episodic” stories, though, because I’ve seen some successful examples. Little Women was rather episodic, that for many of the “episodes”, they don’t change anything in the plot except for the gradual development of the characters’ relationships. This was good enough for me, though, since I love watching the (even if it’s slow) growth of character relationships, but I understand that for those readers who only want the story, this character relationship episodic approach might be frustrating! These character relationship episodes tend to reveal and develop character personalities too, so I like those scenes—but this doesn’t mean that all readers will like them, lol. BTW, one reason why I love romances so much, is that scenes that would be seen as mere character relationship development would actually be main plot progression (hero and heroine growing closer to each other) in a romance! So you get to develop character relationships AND advance the main plot at the same time! I’m not saying that you can’t reveal character or relationships in “main plot” scenes in non-romance genres, though. Oh, maintain interest after the climax scene. Yes, the emotional arc would definitely come in handy here. In a romance, after the big exciting dangers are over, you still want to stick around and wait till the hero and heroine marry and have kids, lol.…  — Read More »


[…] So much goes into a novel. Jennifer Lynn Barnes explores how original your plot needs to be, Ninie Hammond shows us the one thing you MUST do after the climax of your novel, and Jami Gold shares 7 lessons from sports. […]

Kathryn McKade

I’ve never been a sports fan, but you make some good points here about ways to keep stories interesting. Thanks! 🙂

Ken Hughes

Not a sports fan either, but I’ve taken a few lessons from them.

Besides the back-and-forth of a given game, it interests me that most fiction about sports actually ends with a Big Game that the hero team LOSES. Not always, and not the feelgood stories we sometimes get, but the more respected tales tend to do it. (Casey at the Bat, Bad News Bears, Friday Night Lights, etc.) It’s a great reflection of how sports is a world where there’s “always a next season” rather than ever completely settling into an arc–more like life than most stories is. Plus, it’s a world where fans know their team almost always WILL get eliminated somewhere on the way to the championship, so going all the way seems unconvincing.

And then there’s this blog I did on how plotting out a story is a matter of lining up different forces to meet at certain sequences, with some of them continuing in the story. Like… Bracketology! It’s at

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