Elizabeth: What Hockey Taught me about Story

Conflict in action

Conflict in action

Last night, while watching my local hockey team battling for a play-off win that would allow them to advance to the next level of competition, I couldn’t help but see correlations between the game and story structure.

In hockey, the basic goal of each team is pretty simple: score more points than the opposing team by the end of sixty-minutes of play. A conflict box shows a strong conflict lock, with the offence of each team neatly blocking (hopefully) the defenses of the other. If the teams are well matched, the outcome is uncertain until the final buzzer sounds.

Once one team scores, there is a turning point with an increase in tension. The main goals still hold, but now the team that is behind has a more immediate goal of needing to score a point, just to get back to an equilibrium state, while the team that is ahead needs to balance scoring with maintaining their point advantage. Additional turning points occur as points are scored and tension rises as the time remaining decreases.  Events like penalties or questionable referee calls can swing the game in unexpected directions with unpredictable results. In last night’s game, for example, a contested call toward the end of the game gave one team a boost of momentum (which they used to their advantage), while fracturing the focus of the other team. The whole thing disintegrated into a cross between a boxing match and a schoolyard brawl and I’m sure there were a fair number of bruises and black eyes this morning.

When own my story starts out, the goals of my protagonist and antagonist are also pretty simple – each wants to prove he is not a traitor – with the actions they take creating a strong conflict lock. Tension escalates for my protagonist Michael when his wife Abigail comes to town. Now he doesn’t just need to prove he is not a traitor, he needs to do so while keeping Abigail from getting involved (he’s the I-can-do-it-myself protective loner type).  Just when he’s starting to make progress, another curve is thrown his way when evidence of his (alleged) treasonous activities become public. Now, he has to counteract the evidence, keep Abigail from getting involved, and prove his evidence. Things aren’t any better for his antagonist who keeps encountering roadblocks of his own as the story progresses.

At McDaniel, we talked a lot about story structure and conflict and how the actions by the protagonist and antagonist block each other and turn the story in new directions, but I was never able to clearly see how it all worked for my story until I watched the back and forth of last night’s game. Now, as I walk through my story, I can see just how the actions shape and change things. I also see how I can incorporate that “fractured focus” scenario from the end of the game into my story, although it will be my antagonist who experiences the disintegration, allowing my protagonist to achieve his goal and reach his happily ever after – hopefully without bruises or a black eye, though no guarantees on that.

So, have you gotten any “ah ha” moments about your story from unexpected places?

7 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What Hockey Taught me about Story

  1. (-: We humans are such narrative creatures! A good hockey game tells a story, a bad one tells a bad story.

    As a reader, I can think of quite a few books that left bumps and bruises in the morning! (The Lovely Bones, for example. Great book, but a little bruising.) I think that’s one measure of a really good book: do you remember it the next week? I tend to forget lots of things easily . . . .

    • I’m finding narrative to be a really interesting concept. Now that I’m thinking in terms of story and structure, I see it everywhere.

  2. I think what you’re describing, Elizabeth, is one reason why sports stories—of the underdog, the hero, and so one—are so enduring. There are two clearly opposing factions, only one side can win, and it’s a fight to the finish. Nothing demonstrates the conflict lock better than that!

    • I think it’s the ‘character is choice under pressure’ thing, too. When things get really tense it’s fascinating to see who gets stronger and who crumbles, who cheats and who never gives up even if they are cheated against. I think that’s why I enjoy watching tennis so much – all the top players are really good and super-fit so it becomes a battle of wills.

      • Absolutely Jilly. The “character under pressure” is really interesting. In the game, the individual players had very different responses to what was going on and there was a lot of strategy and mental battling going on as well. Definitely kept things lively and the tension high. Now if only my team had wound up the winner at the end 🙂

    • Kay – you’re right. I think that is why I really got the conflict lock concept this time around. The two sides are so obviously opposing each other and there can only be one winner. Not a lot of grey area there.

  3. Pingback: Elizabeth: A horse-racing fairy tale | Eight Ladies Writing

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