Wednesday, October 26, 2011

There’s No Crying in Baseball, But There Is Good Story Structure

by Sara Rosett 

I suppose I should preface this post with the comment that I’m not a rabid baseball or Rays fan, but I do keep up with local sports teams. I was aware of the Rays standings in baseball the way I was aware of the bridge closure downtown—it was there in the background, but not front and center on my radar. 
I paid more attention as the season wound down. When I saw Evan Longoria’s homerun at the bottom of the twelfth inning on the last day of the season send the Rays to the post season, I thought, it’s like a book or movie.
Of course, since I’m a writer and a big fan of process, I began to break it down and discovered the Rays' journey to the post season provided some excellent tips for creating good story structure:
Your characters need problems and obstacles
During the summer of 2010, there had been a steady bleed of talent as Rays players were traded or departed as free agents to teams that could pay higher salaries. Expectations were low. 2011 was labeled as a “rebuilding year” for the Rays. By September, they were almost nine games behind the Boston Red Sox, a gap that had never been overcome. Their odds of going to the post season were miniscule. 
Why this is important for good storytelling:  Our characters need problems and issues to overcome. There must be a struggle. If there’s nothing wrong in our characters’ lives, no challenges, then there is no story. The Rays’ situation was extreme, but it’s more thrilling to watch the underdog win than to watch the leader steadily progress to victory with no serious challenges.
Your characters need some redeeming qualities
While the Rays had lost some of their stars (Crawford, Garza, Pena, etc), they still had talented baseball players and brought out the best in their new players. Their manager, Joe Maddon, emphasized good mechanics and was the winner of Sports Illustrated’s poll that asked MLB players who they would most like to play for. The Rays might not have the biggest names in their division, but they were persistent. They didn’t steadily climb up the standing though sheer luck. Their own hard work helped them get there.
Why this matters in good storytelling: Readers want to like your characters and root for them. You don’t have to make your character a Pollyanna, but if you have a complaining, rather grouchy cop who is depressed over the death of his partner, readers will be more likely to root for him if he’s got a redeeming quality or two. Maybe he’s a volunteer Little League umpire (fitting for this post, eh?) or keeps an eye on the rookie at work. Don’t let your character succeed through dumb luck or coincidence. Of course, your character will have flaws, but be sure he/she has admirable qualities, too.
Your characters need a good rival
This won’t take much time to explain:  the Rays are in a division with the seemingly invincible and deep-pocketed Yankees as well as the Red Sox, two tough teams. The Red Sox steadily declined throughout September, which opened the door to the Rays, but both the Yankees and the Red Sox were quality opponents. With the Red Sox sliding, the Rays last games weren’t with a last place team, they were with the division leader, the Yankees. To go to the post season, they’d have to beat the best.
Why this matters in good storytelling: Your characters need a worthy rival. A victory over a worthy opponent is sweeter than a victory over a weaker rival. If you do well on an easy test that everyone aces, there’s not much pride there, but if you’re the only student to make an “A” in the class with the professor known to be difficult, you have a reason to feel good. Think of the feedback on reality shows. Praise from Simon on The “X” Factor or from Len on “Dancing With The Stars” means more to contestants because these “tough grader” judges have such high standards. A worthy rival tests your character and pushes him/her to the limit, revealing your character’s best and worst qualities. Seeing a character face down a worthy opponent and succeed through their own intrinsic qualities gives the reader immense satisfaction and that’s what we want to do as writers—give the reader a good ride.
Your character must always be in jeopardy
Even with the Red Sox fading, they were still tied with the Rays on the last day of the regular season and there was always the possibility that the Red Sox could pull it out, down to the last moments of the last game.
Why this matters in good storytelling:  This is what’s known as “stake.” What is at stake for your characters is what motivates them, keeps them struggling against those hefty odds. If the stake goes away, the tension goes away. If the Rays had pulled ahead of the Red Sox and the Red Sox had no chance of winning the Wild Card slot, those last few games wouldn’t have been filled with tension and pressure. Keep the stakes high. Keep your characters in jeopardy until the last possible moment.  Howard Bryant summed it up on, “In the span of three minutes, what couldn’t be settled for 161 games was settled. The Red Sox were one strike away from the playoffs; the Rays one from extinction. All was reversed. Even in the clubhouse, professionals who have seen it all, stood and stared at each other because they had never seen this, a virtual split-screen pennant race.”
So there you go…a couple of great story elements courtesy of Major League Baseball. (That’s I post I never thought I’d write!) but I bet someday there is a book or screenplay, maybe even a movie, based on the Rays’ 2011 season. In fact, it sounds a lot like the plot of Moneyball.

What about you? Anyone else have inspiration for story elements or structure from some place unusual? 

Sara Rosett is the author of the Ellie Avery mystery series, an adult “whodunit” mystery series in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Publishers Weekly has called Sara’s books, “satisfying,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.” Library Journal says, “...Rosett’s Ellie Avery titles are among the best, using timely topics to move her plots and good old-fashioned motives to make everything believable.”

Visit for more information or connect with Sara on FacebookTwitter, or Goodreads.


  1. Sara, thanks for this -- you've hit a home run! :-)

  2. I live in New Orleans, so the sports analogy works for me. The Saints and the Super Bowl journey? High drama.

    Thanks for the tips!

  3. Well, Sara, as a diehard Red Sox fan, I must take exception to your post! That said, I must also let you know it was outrageously clever, smartly written, and oh-so-much fun to read! From a writer's perspective, you make excellent points, and from a fan perspective, I'd agree that you did tell the story!! (They do have a fabulous manager! And if you want Carl Crawford back, it's ok with us) See you next spring!

  4. Thanks, Wendy!

    The Saints--now there's a story, Christa. And their story is bigger than just the sport.

    Hey Laura. I know it was a hard season for Sox fans. I'm sure they'll have a better season next year. And you can take comfort in the fact that the Rays run ended when they played the Rangers! :)

  5. Wonderful post, Sara. So clever to use the baseball analogy. Have a lovely stay in Italy.

  6. This is great . . . and just what I needed as I dive into a rewrite!

  7. Couple of years ago I started watching the NBA and got hooked. (Boo lock-out!) I learned very quickly why we use so many sports metaphors in every day speech--there's a lot of story and drama in sports. I learned a lot too from the way the athletes approach their sport--I wish I could put that level of discipline toward my writing! Great post!

  8. Sara, this is so cute! With the Cards in the World Series (well, they'll be out of it if they don't win tonight!), I think this perfectly hits the spot, and I must share! :-)

  9. Thanks, Karin and Judy!

    We do use a ton of sport metaphors, don't we, Carleen? I tweeted that I was "up to bat" today at the GBC...

    Hi Susan! I appreciate any and all sharing--thanks.

  10. Sara, I loved your post and -- as someone whose understanding of the ins and outs of baseball is severely limited -- you helped me gain a greater appreciation for the sport by connecting it to writing ;). My baseball-loving husband will thank you, too!

  11. Glad I could help, Marilyn. (Although I am not incredibly savvy about baseball, I did pick up quite a bit watching baseball with my dad and watching my brother play on teams when we were kids!)

    Thanks, Brenda!

  12. what a great post, i really enjoyed it, the baseball has many things so funny, like this one, thank you so much for sharing sara, keep it up...