The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredicatable Tips for Novelist and Screenwriters.”
Tip #51: Understand the potential of an “arena” story.
Which begs the question, what’s an arena story? Something about a hockey game? Answer: yeah, that could work.
Arena is the embodiment of the old cliché: write what you know. If what you know is fascinating and unusual, then simply by taking the reader into that culture or environment you’re creating inherent fascination and voyeuristic juice. That’s called an arena, and your expertise receives top billing there.
An arena story is drama that unfolds in a place, culture or profession that is inherently, even without a story unfolding upon it, interesting and complex.
John Grisham’s novels are all arena stories, taking place within the legal profession and throwing back the curtain that proves every lawyer joke ever told. John Nance’s novels are always about aviation. Patricia Cornwell’s stories take us into the minty-scented world of forensic pathology. Dan Brown’s home run novels are nothing if not arena stories. Top Gun was an arena story. The Wrestler was an arena story. Star Trek is an arena franchise. When you begin to notice, you’ll see arena stories are everywhere, and always have been.
And – pay attention here – always will be.
Think about it. The interpersonal dramas that unfold in those stories really could have happened anywhere. But without the jets, Tom Cruise would have been just another taxi driver in Top Gun. (Note to self: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was also an arena story.)
More common professions and situations – working in an office, marriage, a bar, etc. – aren’t really arenas in this context, since we’ve all been there and nothing about those environments can really surprise us, nor is it remotely interesting outside of some of the whack-jobs that take up space there. They make good tapestries, just not inherently attractive in their own right. A story about a marriage needs to rely on the characters and plot exposition to work, whereas a story about F-16s and the pilots trained to fly them off carriers doesn’t really need all that much story to work, which, if you saw Top Gun, history proves to be true.
If you know an arena well – a profession, a place, a culture, etc. – consider setting your story within the context of what you know, and then give the reader some steamy inside stuff that they’ll find interesting, both separate from and also connected to the story in clever little ways that surprise and entertain.
If the arena is strong enough, your story can skate by on simply being good instead of great.
Shoot for great, but when you can’t get there arena makes a terrific backup strategy.