I’m a Los Angeles Lakers fan.
As I’ve followed the team over the past few years, I’ve noticed certain elements need to be present, in a game, for it to be the most engaging and entertaining — the kind that keep me glued to the TV screen. Specifically, there are usually high stakes, intriguing backstory, relatable emotion, an awesome opponent, lots of ups and downs, and a come-from-behind victory.
I think the ultimate experience, for most sports fans, is a championship game where they have a strong emotional attachment to one of the teams — and where that team is not easily winning (and in fact seem likely to lose), but somehow manages to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
It has struck me, as I work with fellow writers doing script consulting, that good movies (and television episodes) are much the same. I first had this insight while reading a handful of scripts in which it seemed too easy for the heroes to win, or they seemed to be succeeding a lot in the second act, and were clearly more powerful than their opposition.
In thinking about why this seemed less engaging to read, I found myself remembering some early regular season Laker games, in which they were winning by twenty points throughout, and the other team never made it close — and where I could barely be bothered to keep watching.
As I thought through this more, I came up with seven specific qualities we tend to look for in a “great game,” which I think apply equally well to “great stories”:
1. The players have an engaging story involving adversity of some kind, and positive qualities that make us connect with them. This is why the Olympics show filmed clips of the athletes in their home environment prior to the competition, that help us relate to them as people. American Idol also does this. A great game is always better when there is some extra relatable, emotional human element that gives what’s happening more meaning to us. In a screenplay, the opening ten pages are meant to provide this — to help us to understand and connect to the main character before the competition really begins. For this reason, I think it’s crucial that writers take the time to really give a complete and engaging enough portrait of their status quo life of their main character — told subjectively through their perspective — before trying to get an audience to care about a Catalyst or Inciting Event.
2. The stakes of this game couldn’t be higher – it is the absolute life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime championship that will change their lives forever. Industry readers always look at the “stakes.” Is there something big enough at risk here, that demands audience engagement? I think of movie stories as being the single most important turning point in a character’s life that will forever change them. Ideally, their life will be much better if they solve the story problem, and much worse if they don’t. It has to matter. They need to have something huge and relatable on the line, for audiences to really care.
3. The difficulties of this game are huge – they are facing formidable opponents against whom they seem overmatched. The main character is not favored to win, and really has no business thinking they’re going to be able to. It’s much more exciting to see someone rise to the occasion and be David vs. Goliath, than to follow someone who seems to be the strongest, most capable one in the story as they go out and kick butt.
4. Far from running away with the game, or building a big lead early and holding it, they find themselves facing unforeseen difficulties and complications. A star player gets injured. The other team is prepared for what they bring and counters effectively. Turnovers, errors, and great plays by the opposition give them all the momentum. In the best games (or stories), our team (or main character) is losing, and even in a kind of hell, for most of the game/story. This gets worse and worse, until it seems like they have no chance of winning.
5. But the team plays with passion — picking themselves up from numerous crises — and continues in pursuit of their goal. They might doubt themselves at times, but they continue to strive to meet each challenge. They make do with what they have, adjust on the fly, and despite all the problems, they stay in the game, and keep trying. In a movie, the main character continues to try to solve their story problem(s), even though most of what they do doesn’t work, and leads to complications that only add to their difficulties.
6. Nevertheless, they find themselves significantly behind as things draw to a close. Eventually, right before the beginning of the final act, things seem hopeless and lost. Their efforts seem to have come up short. But some new idea, new hope, and new plan emerges. But even this isn’t easy. They don’t just come back and trounce the opponent. They claw and scrape and get knocked down, and the tension builds to one final climactic moment. It’s the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and two out…
7. Our team comes from behind, with one final push. Finally, they are able to dig deep and find another level of play that they didn’t know they had. They find their best selves in some way. Miraculously, against all odds, they rise up in the final moment and take the game (usually) — in the most dramatic fashion. This victory resolves — in a satisfying way — those adversities that were set up before the game begun, and feels like it will have a lasting impact for our beloved team.
In my view, these qualities of a “great game” apply across sports and cultures, and for stories across genres and media. They seem to be universal elements that we as audiences need, to be most compelled and engaged in a “contest.” We writers who are seeking to win such engagement from audiences might do well to keep these in mind…
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.