I remember well Steelers championship games, NBA championship series between the Celtics and the Lakers, tennis matches between MacEnroe and Lendel, and the Olympics every four years, which I was grateful to share with my children this summer. I am old enough to have actually watched ABC’s Wild World of Sports and cringing when the dude on skis wipes out down the ramp. I learned to play sports, basketball and tennis especially, but loved watching and sharing those events with friends and family.
I learned to love my own teams – the Atlanta Braves, the Falcons, the Hawks, the San Antonio Spurs – along with my college football favorites, Alabama.
If you love to watch sports like me, then you know what I mean when I talk about the power of rivalry. Watching the Bulls of the 90’s go against the Knicks or Miami, or watching Sampras go against Agassi, or the Braves gearing up for the Indians or the Yankees. Television stations advertise these rivalries. There’s history. There’s drama. There’s something more than just another game.
Nowhere is this more consistent than with college football teams. Rivalries among pro teams come and go, usually due to one or another team getting worse or losing star players. But college football is about loyalty beyond stars. College teams have “programs.” And when we have two teams in the same state or a neighboring state, the stakes are raised. Even with two teams that have no shot at being in any bowl or championship, it will be on national TV and people will watch it.
This past week was rivalry week in college football. More underdogs win in these games than usual because it’s more than a game. They get bragging rights. They remember when they lost. They look forward to THIS game every year, whether it’s Michigan and Ohio St. or Louisville and Kentucky, people will watch and care. Alabama and Auburn meet and call it “the Iron Bowl.” These games are sellouts because they are personal.
What does this have to do with writing?
When we write our stories, we must learn how to raise the stakes and make it personal. Think about the cliche cop show or movie where the trailer dude says, “now it’s personal,” in that gruff voice.
How do you make it personal in your story? Good writers take their main characters and put them in situations where they are personally invested or at risk somehow. There are a myriad of ways to do it – is their life at risk? their marriage? a loved one? their career? The goal of the main character has to mean something personal to him or her or the readers will care less.
We want to read about passionate people who fight for high stakes. Not for pride or personal power, but for universal, understandable, or noble purposes. We can relate to it when it is personal. The fight against the Empire becomes personal for Luke when he understands his father was “betrayed” by Darth Vader and then sees Obi Wan die … and then understands Vader is his dad and Leia is his sister … Frodo wants to save his peaceful and tranquil home, his people, from the encroachment of the evil Sauron, so he agrees to take the ring because there’s no one else. Personal stakes are raised on the journey.
These are common and familiar examples, but any book that connects with people will have this dynamic. The journey for the main character will mean everything to him or her. And to make it a “page turner,” sometimes two huge, personal desires come into conflict with each other.
As we craft your story, make sure that this is clear to the reader. Even if it is unclear to the main character, it must be clear to the reader, or we lose them.