Women’s World Cup Wednesday: What Does Soccer Have to Do With Writing?
In honor of the truly spectacular soccer game played Monday between Brazil and the U.S., today’s Wisdomous Wednesday is all about the World Cup—and how it relates to writing. (Trust me.) It was such an amazing game that one of the most common reactions I’ve heard has been “Someone has to be writing this book” or “You couldn’t write a better script than this.” So it really got me thinking about come-from-behind victories in literature, and how to make them believable—and most importantly, as fiercely satisfying as Monday’s victory for the USA.
(Note: In case it’s not obvious, I’m a USA Women’s World Cup fan and have been since I was teensy, when I played with a number 9 on my own jersey to be like Mia Hamm, so this is gonna be more than a little biased!)
For those of you who may not be sports fans, I’ll try to keep the summary brief. The first half of the game was relatively uneventful, with an own goal by Brazil—meaning one of their players accidentally scored on themselves. In the second half, though, the referee started making a series of truly bizarre calls. Every fan thinks the ref is against their team, but even the announcers were scratching their heads in this case. She called a penalty kick in the box for Brazil, after it seemed clear that Marta Vieira da Silva, the star player for the Brazilian team, drew the foul. When the U.S. goalie (appropriately named Hope Solo) blocked it, which is nearly impossible, the ref said one of the US players had moved too soon and had Marta shoot again, and she scored that time. She pulled yellow cards left and right against both sides, inconsistent and unpredictable. She gave a red card to a U.S. player for almost no reason, knocking the player out of the game and forcing the U.S. to play one man down the rest of the game. The game went into overtime, tied 1-1. Brazil scored a second goal which counted, despite the player being off-side (an illegal position in soccer). In literally the last thirty seconds of the game, U.S. player Abby Wombach headed a goal in to tie the score back to 2-2.
The game went into a shootout—and the US won 5 penalty kicks to Brazil’s 4, after Hope Solo blocked one of their shots.
So that’s all very stirring, but what does it have to do with writing, you might ask? Well, I think the game offers some pretty valuable lessons about how to write a believable but intensely satisfying underdog victory in fiction.
- Make events conspire against your protagonist. When it seems like nature itself is against the good guys (or the referee, as the case may be) it makes it that much more triumphant when they overcome.
- Make good things happen for the bad guys. This ties into #1, but I feel it deserves its own bullet point. While I don’t actually mean to call Marta a bad guy, because she’s an absolutely BRILLIANT soccer player, possibly the best in the world–but for the purposes of this example she is playing against our “protagonists.” Her first goal as a result of that replayed penalty kick, under such questionable circumstances, completely united the spectators against Brazil and for the USA team. The whole stadium would boo every time she got the ball.
- Everyone loves an underdog. Keep the numbers against the protagonist. The U.S. was playing one man down for at least half the game, which is a huge disadvantage. It’s a lot easier (in theory) to win if you’ve got more players than the other team.
- Make things seem as grim as possible for as long as possible. The U.S. didn’t tie the game up until the last thirty seconds of stoppage time. One of the announcers called the game in Brazil’s favor a good five minutes before the tying goal. The whistle blew for the end of the game just moments afterward.
- Make sure it’s the protagonist, not fate, that turns the tide. The referee never changed her style, and never swung back to favor the U.S. with her calls. If she had, the victory wouldn’t have been so satisfying. Here, it was entirely the U.S. team that pulled through, never giving up even to the last seconds of the game in overtime.
- Make the key to victory something hinted at earlier in the story. Earlier in the game, Hope Solo, the goalie, managed to stop a penalty kick with a characteristically insane save that was then discounted, when the ref said the goalie came off her line too soon. In the end, the game was won in overtime when Hope stopped one of the shots by Brazil, giving the victory to the U.S. when all the U.S. players made their penalty kicks. We already saw that she could do it, so having her come in at the eleventh hour and show that crazy skill again was entirely believable, and poetic to boot.
Maybe I’m a little nuts for seeing the elements of fiction everywhere, but with that game, I’m definitely not the only one. Abby Wombach herself, who scored the tying goal in the last seconds of overtime, said it was like a story.
And if anyone wants to see the next chapter play out, USA plays France at 11:00 AM EST today. I’ll definitely be watching!