the rules of the game

I like baseball. It has a storytelling rhythm to it.

There’s one test after another, as the role of hero is passed from batter to batter. There’s a mentor in the dugout yelling instructions and encouragement. Back when there were crowds in the stands, the trickster mascot would trot around between innings, shooting t-shirts from a cannon.

The pitcher is the hero of his own tale, facing down that club-wielding shadow with the help of his faithful ally, the catcher. The promised scene may be hours away, but the ninth inning is always out there, waiting. 

What can baseball teach us about writing? Two things come to mind:

  • A story is far more engaging if you have someone to root for. A tale with no clear protagonist doesn’t grab the reader’s emotions. The deep, passionate attachment sports fans have for “their team”  is what makes sports so fun (and such a big business). Does your story invite the reader to feel that depth of engagement with your hero?

  • Clear rules let the reader know what to root for. In a general sense we want our team to win, just as we hope our readers want our protagonist to prevail in whatever mission we’ve designed. But on a beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene level, what exactly are we rooting for? A third strike? A foul pitch? A home run? A double play?

    Is the game tied with two outs in the bottom of the ninth? If you know the rules of the game, you’re on the edge of your seat!

    If you don't know the rules, this moment looks exactly like every other moment in the game. It’s random men in pajamas running around a field. There’s no engagement or suspense. It’s just a lot of meaningless action.

Part of building your fictional world is establishing the rules for the reader. Some think of world-building as something only writers of fantasy and sci-fi have to deal with, but every fictional world needs clear rules.

When your reader knows the rules of the game, they know when the stakes are high. They know what kind of events will lead to “their team” winning, and which are terrible setbacks. They can tell good news from bad. They feel mounting suspense as the end gets closer! They are engaged.

Importantly, clear rules means the writer does not have to keep telling the reader how well or disastrously things are going for the hero. The reader knows. They’re in on it, and they are experiencing all those juicy emotions for themselves.

That’s the kind of story they’ll remember!

TIP – Ask yourself: Have you given the reader someone to root for? Are the rules of the game clear enough that your reader knows what to root for, every step of the way?

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