The Football of Story — by Art Holcomb

I know I can’t be the first person to make this connection.

As I sat in agony and watched my beloved Forty-Niners lose one of the most exciting football games I’ve ever seen, the link between sports and story structure became clear to me. The reason why we love sports is because they present and perfect the stories in our lives– some small (like a Little League game) and some large (like the Olympics, World Cup, Super Bowl and so on).  We have created in our games near perfect mirrors of the human conditions and the struggles of Mankind.

For example, let’s break down the game of football in structure terms as if it were a story:  – The story is divided into four acts (called quarters).

–  There is an Inciting Incident (coin toss/kick off).

-There are natural, plot-turning points (end of quarter, halftime, two minute warning, etc.). – There are naturally opposing forces (teams).

– There is a Main Character (QB).

-There is a cast of supporting characters (other players).

– There are action sequences of varying lengths (drives).

– There are scenes within those sequences (plays).

– There are rivalries (back story / arc).

– There are naturally occurring time limits placed on the scenes (the clock).

– There are affinity audiences for the different characters and group (supporters/fans).

–  There is sex appeal (cheerleaders).

– There is natural drama inherent within every scene.

– There is an escalation of excitement and conflict as the game goes on (dramatic tension). – Each of the characters has their own story that plays out in the drama – everybody has a chance to be a star.

– There is a narrating POV character that makes sure that the story is clear and easy to follow (Commentator).

– There are obsessed and broken characters that we can identify with (Character Arcs). – There are no unnecessary characters (players) – each person has a job.

– There is a balance: each character has an opponent.

– There is constantly Rising Action. – There is a Climax.

– There is a Resolution.

–  There is a plot (game plan).

– There is a setting ripe for description and rich with character (venue).

–  There are “B’ and “C” stories.

– There are False Victories and False Defeats (turnovers).

– There is an “All is lost “moment.

– There are characters dealing with internal problems (injury / confidence / commitment) in order to solve an external problem (how to preforming well) so as to prevent a catastrophic event (loss of the game) from occurring.

– There is tension.

– There is conflict.

– There are thrills and there are agonies.

– And there is a theme.How many others can you name?

In all, a powerful example of how story imbues so many aspects of our lives.

Now, here’s your challenge: Think of this as a checklist for your current project.  How many of these characteristics to you have in your story?

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and comic book creator. His most recent comic book property is THE AMBASSADOR and his most recent story is AN ECHO OF HAMMERS.


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16 Responses to The Football of Story — by Art Holcomb

  1. Excellent analogy! I always wondered why people cared so much about some pro athlete who broke up with his girlfriend, got busted on drug charges, or some other major or minor offense. People love a story, and that element of backstory is just as crucial to the game as the play on the field. My favorite reality show is The Biggest Loser (I’m sorry, it fascinates me). I claim to be appauled at all the drama involved, but without that element of tension, the show would be boring and would have never made it past the first season. In fact, all reality shows use a common formula, and it’s remarkably similar to what you’ve outlined here. If it works for the NFL and NBC, it will probably work for my novel, ya think?

  2. Great post, and how I typically feel as I watch a grand slam tennis tournament unfold every time. Thanks!

  3. …and sometimes, near the end of Act Two, the lights go out while I try to figure out what comes next…

  4. Fun read, Art… and useful.
    Let’s give a try to Theme: If everyone plays their best, the team can win the game.
    And Concept: Win the Superbowl; win the bragging rights; and win the advertising opportunities.
    Does that sound right?
    Thank you for your post!

  5. Robert Jones

    Nice analogy, Art. Also nice to see some fellow comic book guys that are using Larry’s methods. I’ve seen your name in the funny pages back in the days when I was inking them, but never had the pleasure of a face to face.

  6. Cut.


    That’s a take.

  7. Wonderful analogy! I really enjoyed your article and wouldn’t have previously thought there was so much in common. (And it was a great game, even if our beloved 49ers did lose.)

    One comment about the sex appeal, though… We women fans can also enjoy the players’ tight spandex pants! LOL… at least some of them…

  8. Art Holcomb

    @ Nann: I like to think of theme as the answer to a larger question.

    In sports, theme deals often with David-and-Goliath issues of the underdog or the battle against a dynasty team, all within the “Could X happen in spite of Y?” question.

    Or often, you can find the theme by asking “What is the big emotional decision your protagonist must make?” Whatever s/he decides becomes a theme in the piece. In the Superbowl game, we could have played with the fact that two brothers coached the opposing teams for the first time in history. For me, it was the test of fortitude that made the 49ers dig deep enough to have the greatest scoring comeback in history.

    But perhaps the real theme is God’s sense of humor by showing us his/her ability to get our attention – by putting out the lights for a while .

    Thanks, Nann!

  9. Art Holcomb

    @ Robert Jones: Didn’t know you were here, Robert. I’m a real fan of your work.

  10. Art, thanks for the post. Enjoyed it. I recently started a blog on this exact idea. This post feels like a perfect fit with my about page.
    Love anything I find on this topic.

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  12. trudy

    see, you can show this to your significant other who really doesn’t ‘get’ what you are trying to do and he can read this and see the whole picture. Art, this is magnificant. I salute you.

  13. Robert Jones

    Thanks, Art. I keep a bit of a low profile concerning past doings these days. At least until I get a lay of the land. I’ve had my share of run-ins with lit. snobs–some of whom are well respected in literary circles. Some were both helpful and encouraging at first, but at the mention of comic books being a part of my background, I was told that I should probably go seek out those who would appreciate my “graphic novel” experience. A guy with my background would be frowned upon when it came to writing a novel.

    I considered reinventing myself. Some of my past paychecks had a picture of Yoda on them from when I sold artwork from my various Star Wars projects to Lucasfilm. Could I sneak them onto my resume? Would it impress the lit. snobs if I did? That’s film, after all, and there’s a line not to be crossed there as well. And Lucas is not as classy as a Merchant/Ivory production. Then there were the boys at a company I was working for at the time (I won’t mention it by name but it rhymes with Shmarvel) said they really liked some of the project proposals I was sending them, but in order to consider me for writing assignments, they could no longer offer me art assignments. That’s a nice way of keeping people in their place. Just make them stop eating and paying their bills and see how long they can hold out.

    Finally, a mini-van smacked me and I got an unscheduled break from life as most of us know it. I did some other things for a while, some of it less than fun, still working on my novels (plural as time went by) on the side when I could. What I’ve learned is that I wasn’t going to fit easily into anyone’s box. Let’s face it, the snobs are everywhere in the world of arts and entertainment. And at the end of the day, all our creative interests blend into who we are as an artist and few are given any sort of opportunity to spread our wings, or even attempt to find out. I love the literary pros of guys like Richard Ford and Kazuo Ishiguro. But I also love a good Raymond Chandler yarn, or a story by Frank Miller. In film, Merchant/Ivory productions are superbly crafted, but don’t take away my Aliens saga either. I also like classical music, and metal.

    So when I attempted to blend my likes as a creator, I saw a guy with Bartok playing on the stereo, a glass of port in hand, and a crusty hard-backed volume of the works of Proust on his lap. Meantime across the room, crouching in a dark corner, there was this psychopath, see? He has a sharp blade, a taste for the jugular, and is listening to Blue Oyster Cult on an Ipod–and judging by the shapes cast in the shadows, it may not even be human.

    So where did that leave me creatively? Certainly not a return to past employment options, ironic as that may sound to some because most would believe those extremes blend best in that particular niche.

    My love of writing had developed into the creative outlet I loved most. Hell, I’ve been writing stories as long as I’ve been drawing. I could pick a lit. novel, or almost any genre and happily craft a tale. Just don’t pigeon-hole me because I may want to write something different down the line. I’ve been holed up with those blasted pigeons far too long in my previous existence. And with the recent changes to the way books are published, there are opportunities to do more, not to mention try different things–so long as they are kept in clearly marked boxes (in terms of genre) for public consumption. Best of all, no permission slip required that has a lot of corporate fine print stenciled on the back.

    So I’ll be self-publishing my work within the year under a pseudonym. My first one, a mystery with literary overtones, is nearly ready to be presented to Larry for his feedback.

  14. Susan Gregory

    Would you please deconstruct a story such as Wizard of Oz or To Kill a Mockingbird or some other ‘old classic’.
    Thank you.

  15. Andrew

    Well… except for those of us who’re Bills fans, when we watch them compete with the Dolphins twice a season to decide who wants to lose harder. All those exciting highs and lows you described are just… absent.

    And have been for, like, the last decade…

  16. Dave H

    Great analogy. I would add:

    – There’s a ‘crucible’ (the field/stadium) where the characters are ‘forced’ to work things out (increasing tension over the alternative, where anyone could just opt out and leave).