As a writer, we write all kinds of events. Weddings, proposals, battles, graduations, deaths, births, rainstorms.
For the longest time, I thought weddings were the worst. I hated writing them, I did whatever I could to avoid writing them, and I got really good at writing all the wedding planning and then glossing the wedding in a way that somehow satisfied my readers.
And then I started writing sporting events.
When these are done well, they can enhance a story in so many ways. They help give a level of physicality and timing that can sometimes be difficult to obtain. They can add an emotional element that doesn’t involve characters actively emoting. They also can help draw in readers who might otherwise have little to connect with in your story.
I write lots of different sporting events, but mainly I’ve been doing Formula 1 lately. I like F1 for a few reasons. One is that it works into the types of social spheres that I typically write my stories in. Also, it’s an annual, season-long, global sport that’s been going on for decades, so it expands my geographic possibilities.
For example, in a short story I have F1 events on two continents, and characters across three countries. In a novel I’m working on, my main character is Canadian and lives part time in the US and UK, and I have her go to the Montreal and Silverstone Grand Prix. It also helps keep seasons straight for me and the reader. Those are typically June/July races, so by always having a race after her birthday, it reminds me that her birthday is early June – since I didn’t write it in my notes anywhere and using actual dates feels so clunky to me.
But how do you write a spectator at a sporting event without just giving a play-by-play?
Well, J.K. Rowling takes the viewpoint of a player (Harry) with play-by-play Quidditch commentary (typically done by Lee Jordan) and occasionally spectator viewpoints (most notably in the very first Quidditch match where Hermione sets Snape’s robes on fire). This can give multiple layers to an event and allows the writer (and reader) to shift attention to the most interesting thing, like when you’re watching a football match and the camera angles shift to show you the best bits instead of always giving you an aerial shot of the pitch.
I don’t always do this, partly because it can be difficult to find the right balance and partly because I don’t have the expertise to show a player viewpoint for some of the sports I use. Like F1 – I’ve never even sat in an F1 car, much less driven one, but I’m an expert spectator.
Also, because my reader may not have seen some of the sports I use – like F1 or cricket – I want to be sure that the where and what and who is clear. When I first wrote an F1 race into a story, Natalie read it and didn’t even know what I was talking about. For about half that scene she thought I was talking about horse racing, so I had to get more in-depth. I had to use specifics, names and dates and tracks and words like “pit lane” and whatnot. Just as I had to write a specific brand of cigarettes, I had to look at details on the racing.
That’s what makes a sporting event. You don’t have to cover a play-by-play, and maybe your spectator doesn’t even watch the full match of…whatever it is. Have them talk to someone. Have them smoke a cigarette (if that’s historically viable). Have them share a beer with their neighbor. Doing play-by-play of a tennis match in words would bore the reader to tears, and probably you as well. Just show what matters in the match, the big plays and the ending. Give it drama. Give it flow.
And most importantly, use that lovely writing rule that seems to hold true the more I write: If you’re bored writing it, they’ll be bored reading it.