Sports books are action-oriented, fast-paced and full of memorable characters; but the core of a sports book–fiction or non-fiction–is people. Characters make sports interesting. Granted, these characters are constantly on the move and not inclined to deep musings about life. Yet, it is the character interacting with the unique aspects of a sports novel that keeps the reader interested.
When you think of sports characterization, think passion. Danny Walker is the basketball player in Mike Lupica’s 2004 title, Travel Team . During the whole first chapter, nine pages, Danny is busy with his evening ritual of practicing defense. He set up folding chairs and dribbles around them. He looks left, but passes the ball squarely to the seat of another folding chair. Lots of actions here, but the deep undercurrent of the chapter is disappointment. Danny didn’t make the “travel team,” and the reason given was, “You’re too small to play.”
The chapter is pure passion–emotion. Lupica never says that Danny was disappointed. But the actions, the ingrained habit of working at his sport, develop a depth of emotion that is rare in sports novels, really, in any book for boys.
It’s the first lesson of writing sports fiction or non-fiction : don’t be afraid of emotion. Lupica’s book hit the #1 spot on the New York Times Best Seller’s List, not because of reviews, but because of its popularity with kids. Lupica’s 2006 title, Heat , gives kids more dreams of glory, this time in baseball. In May, 2006 was at the #2 spot on the New York Times Best Seller’s List. Published by Philomel Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, these are middle grade literary fiction.
While Lupica begins with pure passion, the character arc, as played out on the field, is important. It’s a cliche that the underdog wins in the end, but writers can distinguish between success in sports and success in growing or maturing in some area. Act I sets up the unequal strengths or abilities of the protagonist and antagonist(s), and the antagonist has the upper hand. Act II has the protagonist learning the skills or character qualities needed to challenge the rival player or team. Act III delivers a final confrontation, and usually the protagonist and antagonist are more equally matched. The protagonist can win the sports rivalry, but that could be good or bad for their character-growth. Or, they can lose the sports rivalry, and that could be good or bad for their character-growth. That gives four options: Win Game/Lose Character, Win Game/Win Character, Lose Game/Lose Character, Lose Game/Win Character.
Even though it’s the most cliched option, Lupica delivers a Win Game/Win Character ending for Danny. It can be done, if the writing is strong enough to carry it. But don’t overlook the other options as a way to surprise your audience, yet still satisfy.
Defending Irene (Peachtree) by Kristin Wolden Nitz, is one of the lively new sports novels for girls. Nitz lived in Italy for three years and used that setting as a background to make her sports fiction stand out in the crowd. Irene was a good soccer player in the United States and when her family moved to Italy, she still expected to play. But in Italy, teams were for boys and she must earn her spot.
One problem common to sports novels is how to keep characterization strong, while dealing with action. Verbs are particularly important in action-oriented descriptions. It’s not enough to say, “I like the sound and feel of kicking a ball.” Nitz puts passion for a sport and action together as Irene thinks about soccer: “I love the sound and feel of the ball exploding off my foot.”
Avoid the “to be” verbs (is, are, has, had, was, am, etc.), in favor of more active verbs. Replace generic verbs with more specific ones. These sentences demonstrate the progression from general to specific action verbs:
The boy ran across the field.
The boy dashed across the field.
The second one gives the reader a more exact image of what is happening.
For the strongest communication, don’t add adverbs or other modifiers, until you have the most exact verb possibly.
Not: The boy ran quickly across the field.
But: The boy dashed wildly across the field.
Of course, sometimes “to be” verbs are exactly what you need. Use good judgment, but push active verbs whenever possible.
Another special problem with sports writing is pacing. Obviously, you can’t give a play-by-play of an entire basketball game. Sometimes, you have to speed up time and summarize as Lupica does describing one game: “Matt picked up his fourth foul halfway through the third quarter. . .” (P. 221) That nicely takes care of half of the third quarter in only half a sentence. The key here is focus. The important thing was that Matt was in foul trouble and we didn’t need to know the rest of that quarter’s action.
On the other hand, at the big moment, you need to slow down action, expand and let it take up more space, so it feels big. Lupica slows down time for Danny: “He pushed off on his left leg, going up hard but laying the ball up there soft. He saw the ball hit the square as if there were a bull’s eye painted on it.” (P. 226) This extra detail lets the moment grow in the reader’s perception, creating ups and downs of reaction. At tension-filled moments, good pacing makes the reader wait to know the outcome.
Full of Characters: Teams and Crowds
Crowd scenes are one of the major problems with sports novels. Often, there’s a large audience and there’s an opposing team. Both need to be described in memorable, yet concise ways. Nitz says, “I always remember that there’s twenty-two people on a soccer field and many more on the sidelines. It’s so important to introduce each new character with a special, memorable scene that will cement that person’s role in the readers’ head.”
The scene usually anchored in the sport. Here’s how Nitz give Irene her first good look at her future antagonist:
A boy with curly black hair, surprisingly blue eyes, and a determined chin was dribbling at top speed. He dashed at players head-on and then cut left or right. I heard boys call out his name in protest: “Matteo!” He was as graceful and gorgeous as Bernini’s statue of David, but he could move like a racehorse.
In Defending Irene, Nitz names only one opposing player in the entire book, because he is the “dangerous player.” For less dangerous, but still important members of the opposition, Nitz often uses jersey numbers: Number 54 hit a three-pointer.
Using the jargon of a particular sport can also help distinguish and characterize characters. For example, you might call one soccer player, “the keeper,” because he’s the goalie. Use that characteristic and make the Keeper a bit of a pack-rat, too, who always has things in his pockets. It’s a small thing but helps the reader track the characters better.
Zooms, pans and scans can also help with crowd scenes. For a zoom, think of pulling in close on a player’s hands holding a basketball. The reader sees the splint around the jammed left pointer-finger, the hang nails, the carefully-printed kid’s name written on the ball in a statement of proud ownership. Zooms thrive on such carefully observed details.
For panoramas, or pans, on the other hand, think of sitting at the top of the bleachers and the football field is laid out in front of you. You get the wider view of the parking lot with the school buses parked in a row, the bright lights shining down on the stadium, the pageantry of colors as the cheerleaders and band welcome the football team onto the field, the swaths of color for each team. With the emphasis on Show-don’t-Tell, writers often rely too heavily on the zoom. The pan offers an alternative focal length with unique opportunities to pull back and set up the environment in which this character operates. What are the larger issues that affect the character? Where do you want your reader to focus their attention?
A final tool for crowd work is the scan. Crowd scenes often are generic: “The crowd was hungry for a score.” With a scan, the writer gives short, intensive zooms on a series of people. Zoom in rapid succession on the quarterback lunging forward to pass; his mother taping the pass play with a digital video camera she bought two hours earlier and maxed out her credit card to buy; the quarterback’s girlfriend–the head cheerleader–chewing on the fingernail of her little finger and not even noticing the taste of red fingernail polish; and the coach writing on his clipboard the quarterback’s name alternately with the second-string quarterback’s name, until the pass is overthrown and he circles one of the names. Suddenly, the crowd is more layered and undercurrents are exposed–all with a simple scan.
Sports non-fiction includes how-to-play, trivia, statistics or sports history. There opportunities for writers here. For example, some of the non-fiction series for girls were published in the late 1990s, and could be due for updates. But by and large, sports non-fiction is dominated by characters, too, this time in the form of biographies.
For example, Matt Christopher adds to his Legends in Sports series from Little Brown with titles on Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. The Amazing Athletes series from Lerner adds 2006 titles on David Ortiz, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Freddy Adu, LeBron James, Michael Vick, Sammy Sosa, and Travis Pestrama.
As with fiction, these people are interesting because of the obstacles they have overcome, the passion they display for the sport, and how the sport affected their lives. In short, characterization. It might take research and interviews, but the same qualities in sports fiction can be used in sports non-fiction. Look for places where you can demonstrate a person’s passion. Activate the prose with good verbs.
Unless you describe a particular game, pacing will be more in terms of the player’s career. When and why did they play well? Why did their game fall off for a while? Look for motivations as places to slow down the pacing and give a detailed account. Panoramas of a season can give the player’s success and defeats a context.
Zooms, pans and scans can also help you write about the people surrounding the player. Teammates and family members can be presented in a scan that helps focus on a point you are making.
Most of all, in sports fiction or non-fiction, find the passion. Here’s how Nitz has Irene explain her sport: “Dad had passed his passion for soccer along to me. I loved it!”
Read more 15 Days to a Stronger Character.