Last night Tim and I ate at the Austria Hof Bar (excellent food) in Mammoth Lakes and watched the Toronto Raptors defeat the champion Golden State Warriors. I rooted for the home team to come back for one more game against the odds with players limping to the locker room, but it didn’t happen, and I’m happy for Toronto. We watched them throughout the series and rooted for Kawhi and the team. Both should be proud of their efforts.
What this reminded me of was an essay I published in the now defunct Flash Fiction Chronicles blog about writing and basketball in 2012. The players have changed, but the premise still works. Coaches are to basketball as writers are to stories. Hopefully the names of past players will ring a welcome bell, and the analogy will work for you today. Here’s the piece:
Jun 20 2012
Well, dang. It’s Wednesday and something needed to show up in this spot and I forgot to double-check last night. Blame it on the Heat and the Thunder!
What a terrific game. I just hope the Thunder can come back so the series goes to seven. Nothing like great basketball to get me thinking about teamwork and how it applies to writing. The writer is the coach. The team: each member is a story element and they must work together to WIN. (Indulge me here. Everything seems like a metaphor for writing to me!)
Think about it. The coach is the one who teaches, guides, plans, shapes, and has a heart attack when all the teaching, guiding, planning, shaping doesn’t work. The team has potential, it may even have talent, but if left to their own devices, the members might play well, might even be brilliant, but going all the way, winning that trophy? Not so easy.
The big man might not let the others play because he never gives up the ball. The point guard might try to get everyone to pay attention, to work the ball around to the player with the best “look,” but maybe there’s a bumping battle for position in the key and the player misses the pass. You’ve heard it before from the master himself, Michael Jordan, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” And whose job is it to bring teamwork and intelligence to the court? The coach.
So how does that apply to writing? You guessed it, the author is the coach. He or she is the person in charge, the one who makes the tough decisions, who inspires, motivates, and keeps everything on track. The starting team includes structure, language, content, theme, and characters with dialogue, setting, clarity, metaphor, and imagery coming off the bench.
The coach puts his first team on the court. The best players, but he has to switch them out when something isn’t working, and he has a strong bench to do so. Maybe for one story, language is the focus–the element that never lets the author down. For another, structure is the inspiration, but no matter what strategy the coach decides will work, he has to count on all the elements to do their part.
I love Blake Griffin. Watched him in the NCAA championships and there was something about him that stood out (damn good basketball) and I remembered him, so when he ended up on the Clippers, I was excited. We went to a couple games and the Clippers suddenly had enough talent that we dared to hope they would be contenders, but they didn’t always play as a team. Whoever had the ball tended to shoot. There was little working around the floor and while Chris Paul and Blake Griffin might be two of the most talented players in basketball, they could not bring it in the end without the rest of the team.
The same is true in putting together a story. An author might be brilliant with words, stringing them together like easy lay-ups, but a story needs more than pretty words. It has to have meaning. It has to stir something in the reader. Occasionally, of course, an imagery-rich story might be enough, something there beneath the lines that works for many readers, but we’re talking about the long haul here, making it to the finals, to the championship. Sharp original language is like having a superb big man. You might win over fans for a few stories, but at some point, the author needs to send in the rest of the team.
Language, structure, and content need to work together and still have room for the other elements to play their part in order for a writer to produce championship work. Writing is like coaching. You can’t just put your best two players in the game and hope they can bring home the NBA Trophy while you cheer them on. You need to coach everyone on the team. You need to get each one to contribute the best version of their skills to the play.
If you saw the game last night, important plays were made by bench-warmers Nick Collison for the Thunder and Norris Cole for the Heat. And what about Mario Chalmers? We expect to be cheering Dwyane Wade and LeBron, but Bosh? And while Russell Westbrook scored a valiant 32 points, the Thunder lost because yes, late in the game, his team ran out of gas.
So enough of this. You get the point. We writers need to consider how all the elements of a story can contribute to the overall story and while one or the other may dominate, it is the contributions from the bench that will often carry the day.