By Kasie Whitener
Everything I know about boxing I learned from the Rocky movies.
The gritty character of
Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa is an
American icon and the Rocky story is a classic American underdog tale. We love
stories about an unknown, scrappy, determined kid whose heart and passion win
him the big prize. Think Karate Kid, Annie,
or Goonies; how about David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, or Cinderella?
According to Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots, rags-to-riches or underdog stories are so much a part of our shared storytelling experience that we actually take them for granted.
NBC’s Olympics journalists are looking for underdog stories on every competitor in
Rio. Americans want to
cheer for underdogs. That’s our national character: the drive and gumption
needed to succeed despite the odds. We believe if you work hard enough you can
be a winner, a champion, a gold medalist.
In the telling of the athletes’ stories from
Rio, a pattern has emerged. First, we’re told who the
athlete is and we’re reminded how difficult the event he’s competing in will
be. A flashback sequence follows full of grammar school photos of the athlete
as a child meeting his idol or winning his first championship. Next, a major
setback is described: an injury, a personal loss, a competitive loss, or a
catastrophic diagnosis. Then the comeback is described: how the athlete found
the inner strength to push through heartbreak and work even harder to achieve
his dream. The final bit is always the tee-up moment, the athlete himself
stating his goal.
“I’m just here to compete and maybe take home a medal.” Humble to the last.
We love these stories so much that sports journalism has developed a formula for them and nowhere is the formula more effective than the Olympics. Because yesterday we didn’t care about these people and next week we won’t care about them again. But today, right now, we care so much we’re shouting at the TV for Mara Abbott to maintain her lead on the bike, Katie Ledecky to shatter her own world record in the pool, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to spike that ball into the sand like it’s her job.
Lots of genre fiction conforms to formula. Mysteries and romance each have patterns that genre writers freely admit to following. Sometimes it seems as though we really are recycling the same seven basic plots over and over again.
When storytelling has been such an essential part of the human experience for centuries, it really is hard to tell a new story.
As writers we can be discouraged by that knowledge; maybe we’re just renaming old heroines and spinning the same trite tales. Or maybe we can use the seven basic models to keep our own ideas balanced and familiar.
Then we can add a little magic like that classic underdog Harry Potter.
We can make old stories new and keep our audience cheering for our heroines until the last bell of the last round. There are 12 of them, according to Rocky.