FGCU and Writing an Underdog Story

Attila by filin ilia from FlickrI love it when the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament hits every March. Mainly because I love filling out brackets.  Generally speaking, I am quite awful at filling them out. I know nothing at all about college basketball and I tend to base my picks on a mixture of whether or not I like the mascot and how funny I think a team’s name is. But I make my choices, lock them in, and then get to watch my choices live and die as the games progress.

Last Friday night a school I had never heard of, Florida Gulf Coast University, beat a school I once applied to, Georgetown, in the first round of the tournament. FGCU was a number 15 seed, Georgetown was a number 2 seed. This was supposed to be a rout, a massacre, Georgetown was supposed to walk through the game, win, and  move on.

But FGCU won, and it was awesome. While watching the game on Friday night I found myself caught up in the story being played out. The underdog against the sure thing. The unknown versus the dominant. The tiny versus the giant. It’s a common story theme, and Friday night’s game played out as the best of stories (unless you’re a Georgetown fan) with this out-of-nowhere school shocking everyone and beating a  team that was a landslide favorite.

I always marvel, when something like that happens in real life, how difficult it is to pull that off in fiction, how hard it is to create a character, or group of characters, that really seem unable to win and then have them go on to victory.

It’s made doubly hard in fiction because the reader knows, in the back of their head, that the people you’ve been following for the whole book are probably going to win. Whatever the struggle, whatever the tale, unless you’re reading some dystopian nightmare story, odds are that the downtrodden good guys will triumph. Maybe they won’t win fully, and maybe not with every single piece of their story coming together, but somehow they will win; certainly they will overcome the obstacles in their way.

The reader already knows what’s going to happen. Watching FGCU play Georgetown, I knew in the back of my head that the outcome probably wouldn’t be interesting. That Georgetown would probably come back. And that made the surprise so much larger and the story so much better. Real life isn’t scripted, so I wasn’t primed to expect anything.

But how do you accomplish this in fiction?

How do you create real worry about the outcome?

As far as I can tell there are two main point to focus on: a well structured story to fit the conflict into, and mastery of craft during the actual conflict.

A good story can cause the reader to let go of the notion that what they’re reading is a construct. They can sink in and forget that someone else is in charge and treat the story as an account of actual events. Even if you’re writing about a space war 10,000 years from now or a love story 2,000 years ago, if the characters are engaging and the story is tightly told, then the reader will submit and the veil will be lowered and you can sneak surprises in that much easier.

And good technique? Forget about it. Good technique can make anything happen. I’ve read plenty of books which have contained one or two masterful scenes that have had me on board with what was going on entirely. Even if everything else is lousy, when a good scene comes along it reaches out and grabs a hold of you.

Knowing how to pace your beats? Knowing how to describe a room so that the reader can see, feel, hear, and smell it? Knowing how to get the reader’s adrenaline flowing with a villain being an asshole or a hero stumbling in a pain? Knowing how not to linger too long so that we start to disengage from the scene? You can craft real emotion with words if you take the time to write your scene correctly.

So how is real drama created?

It’s easy, just have an overall engaging tale written with flawless craftsmanship from scene to scene.

Oh.

Well no wonder it’s so freaking hard!