Tom Palmer's Top Tips for Writing a Sports Story
Sport is a fantastic area for creative writing: it's loaded with drama, conflict and tension, the essential ingredients of any great story. Sporting triumphs and disappointments don't just affect the central players, they affect fans too, so the impact of events is always powerful. We asked Tom Palmer, author of the Football Academy series and a wealth of other great fiction for younger readers, to give his top ten tips to help any young writer embarking on a sports-related story.
Think about your own passions and annoyances
What is your big passion in sport? What thrills you on the pitch, from the stands or watching on TV? Think about it. What annoys you? What do you hate? What gets you really excited? Write about that.
Imagine your greatest sporting day
Are you a player or a fan? Which is most important to you? If you are more of a fan, think about the greatest match you could attend at Murrayfield or Hampden Park. Have you been to one? Can you imagine what your best day would be watching live sport? What would happen if you won, or if you lost? What would it mean to you? Write about that.
What is your big passion in sport? Write about that
It's about the people
Most stories are about people. People who have hopes and fears, people whose happiness is threatened by something. In the end even sport stories have to be about a person. But who? You? Your dad? A player who has a massive decision to make? Think about the person at the centre of your story. That’s the key to it.
Make it about more than just the game
Long descriptions of football, rugby or any other sporting matches are boring. That’s why sports writing has to be about more than just a ball being kicked around. You need to add another element. Add crime. Add spies. Add ghosts. Add romance (if you want to). This will open up your sport story into being much more interesting.
Introduce a villain
Every story needs a villain – or, at least, something bad that could happen to the characters. You can base a villain on someone in sport who you don’t like. Then you can exaggerate what you don’t like about them. A lot. Then you’ve got a villain. Try it. It’s fun.
Explore your characters' feelings and motivations
You have to get inside the head of your characters. The nice ones and the nasty ones. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? You have to really feel their anger or fear. Then you can make what they say and do feel more realistic.
Find inspiration in history
Choose a scene from history if you are struggling with what to write about. History is full of real events that have never been used in stories. Take the WW1 story about McCrae’s Battalion: a team full of footballers who signed up to fight in the war and were mostly killed. Terrible. But just imagine being one of them. Giving up your dream of being a footballer to go and face possible death in the trenches. How would that feel? Write about it.
Start in the middle of the action
Think of a major pivotal point in a sports match. A real one or a made up one. The Scottish captain steps up to take a penalty against England in the World Cup or the Six Nations. Your story starts there. The tension in his head. Does he score? Does he miss? You’ll have the reader in the palm of your hands.
Sports writing has to be about more than just a ball being kicked around
Visit your setting
Where is your story set? Can you go there? Can you sit in an empty stadium on a football pitch at night? Can you stand outside Hampden on a match day and watch people’s behaviour? It could help make your story really realistic. Go there and think about your five senses. What can you see, hear and smell? It all helps to build up a sense for the reader that they are in that place. Take a notebook.
Look back and edit your story
A day or two after a match, Vern Cotter or Gordon Strachan – and their players – will review the match they played in, win or lose. They’ll look at every play and see how they could have done it better – or be pleased with what they have done and try to remember how to do it again. They analyse the match to become better. You need to do that with what you’ve written. It’s the same thing.
Tom Palmer’s new book: WINGS: FLYBOY is out now (Barrington Stoke):
On and off the pitch, Jatinder always plays it safe. He lines everything up for glory. Then he fluffs it. The football summer school is meant to change all that. But next to the school, a long-abandoned airfield hums with mystery… When Jatinder opens an old book about ace fighter pilot, Hardit Singh Malik, he’s propelled into an adventure more thrilling than any football match!
Visit Tom Palmer's website to find out more about his extensive range of children's books.
Check out the rest of our blog posts for young writers to find some cracking advice to pass on to the keen scribbler in your life!