Unlikely Influences: What Marina J. Lostetter learned about conflict and tension from football

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by Marina J. Lostetter. Happy Super Bowl Sunday!

By Anthony Quintano
By Anthony Quintano

What I learned about conflict and tension from football

by Marina J. Lostetter

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and millions of people are gearing up to watch what will be the 49th iteration of the game.  But, why are they watching? Why is there conflict in football and why does any given game deliver enough tension to keep us interested? And what, if anything, can this tell us about narrative fiction?

Conflict: Villainy and the Rival Team

POV (point-of-view) matters. Why does someone root for the Packers instead of the Bears? Why, if you’re a Washington fan, do you “hate” the Dallas team and vice-versa? What exactly do the people of Oakland have against the people of Denver?

There’s not much to it, really. Most people root for their regional team, or the team their spouse or parents root for.  Your geographical point-of-view or familial point-of-view are akin to narrative POV. In a story, we’re told who to root for through a series of cues, often related to who has the most “screen time'” and whose thoughts we are allowed to examine most closely. In the opening pages of a story, we’re introduced to a character with a goal, and this is the character we’re pushed to root for — much in the same way a person who grows up in Green Bay is first introduced to football via the Packers, and thus roots for the Packers.

Rivalries form in a similarly simplistic way. Over the years, one team meets another time and again to “do battle,” and they may develop a narrative that bolsters in-grouping and out-grouping amongst fans. For instance, the long standing rivalry between Dallas and DC seems destined from the beginning. The Dallas Cowboys were created by Clint Murchison, right after he failed to buy the Redskins from George Preston Marshall (who was also the only NFL team owner to oppose the creation of a new team in Dallas). It appears Murchison’s choice of “Cowboys” might have been a nod to the old game of “cowboys and Indians,” once played by children across the country. Today the rivalry is still strong. One team hails from the capital, and one hails from the heartland, and as such, they vie — in our minds — for the title of “America’s team.”

Both teams want to win, but their goals are fundamentally at odds.

In fiction, an antagonist is not necessarily evil. On the most basic level, an antagonist is the individual whose goals are inverse to the protagonist’s goals, just like in football.

Conflict: Sometimes Cheaters Prosper

The latest in a saddeningly long tradition of tacking “-gate” onto the ends of things is Deflategate. The NFL is currently investigating claims that the Patriots underinflated their game balls in the AFC championship game in order to make them easier to grip. A possible cheating scandal made all the more potent by the fact that their head coach, Bill Belichick, was previously involved in a training-ground spying scandal. For anyone already in the Seahawks’ corner, these instances of cheating (both verified and alleged) are likely to heighten anti-Patriot fervor.

But wait, the plot thickens! Pete Carroll, the Seahawks’ head coach, can just as easily be villainized by Patriot’s fans.  He was the head coach at USC when the NCAA’s rules were violated (USC players such as Reggie Bush admitted to improperly receiving financial benefits), but because Carroll left the university before the violations were uncovered, he was never subject to sanctions or professional repercussions (while the university and its student players were heavily sanctioned).

Which offense is more unforgivable? Once again, that probably comes down to your POV. Was Soon-to-be-Captain Kirk a villain for cheating on the Kobayashi Maru? Or was he an innovative thinker fighting against an unfair system? Since Star Trek sets us up to root for Kirk, we’re led to believe it’s the latter. A fan’s permissiveness towards their team’s sins come from a similar narrative perspective.

If there’s one thing cheating does accomplish, it’s an increase in tension. Breaking rules and trouncing traditions is a great storytelling tool that can be used in either the protagonist’s or antagonist’s camp.

Tension: Blowouts aren’t much Fun for Anyone

I can hear the protests already, “That’s not true!  I have loads of fun when my team wins in a blowout.” You might be happy about it, but that’s an entirely different kind of enjoyment than the kind gained from watching a close game that keeps you glued to the screen. How often does your attention wander in a blowout game versus one that starts off neck-and-neck and only ends in overtime?

When the hero wins too easily, audiences get bored. In storytelling, winning isn’t nearly as important as not winning easily. For instance, we don’t go to see James Bond movies because we’re not sure who will win. Spoiler alert: Bond will prevail. It’s the struggle we go to see. How many bad guys will he have to fight along the way? How many Bond girls will he fail to save? How close will he come to biting the big one?

We would be surprised if Bond didn’t win. But we would be disappointed — and worse, bored — if he won too easily.

Of course, the inverse is also true. We don’t want to see our hero, or our team, trounced too thoroughly. If we’re the losing team in blowout after blowout, we start to feel demoralized. We lose our hope of coming back, of winning against all odds. Even tragedies keep their tension by making the audience think there’s a chance everything could turn out alright in the end. Oedipus is such a horrifying tale because Oedipus’ supposed victories against fate turn out to be losses. If he appeared to make no progress, the audience wouldn’t feel his defeat nearly as keenly.

Tension: The More to Lose, the More you Feel it

What’s the difference between playing a pre-season game and playing in the Super Bowl? Why do millions of people tune in for one and not the other? Simple: stakes. There isn’t a significant result to a pre-season game. If you win, maybe the guys on the NFL pre-game show will be more likely to predict you’ll continue to win the next time out. No big deal. But the Super Bowl crowns the over-all champion for the season. It comes with life-long bragging rights, bigger paychecks, and seeing a spike in ten-year-old fans wearing your team’s jersey with your name on it for the next year. Winning this game is the biggest accomplishment a football team can jointly make on the field.

Narrative fiction works best when it follows a similar flow, raising the stakes with each “game” until the climax is reached and the stakes are at their highest. In fiction, the author should shoot for the moon. What is so important about your character’s journey? What do they have to gain? What do they have to lose? The more important you can make the stakes to your characters, the more important you can make their winning or losing to your audience.

In football, we know the Super Bowl is the crucible in which champions are forged. Build a crucible for your characters, watch them struggle, have them fight forward — perhaps break a rule or two — and see if you can keep your audience hooked until the last yards are gained and the final field goal is kicked.

MARINA J. LOSTETTER’s original short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. Marina enjoys globetrotting, board games, and all things art-related. She tweets as @MarinaLostetter, and her official website can be found at www.lostetter.net.