5 Things March Madness Can Teach Us About Screenwriting

Basketball swish
Credit: Flickr user Phil Roeder [CC]
Most of us don't watch the college basketball tournament for the teams — we watch for the stories.

Even as a casual basketball fan, the NCAA basketball tournament has a way of sucking me in every year. But most of us watching actually know very little about the teams themselves. We're watching the games because we're hoping for a great story to unfold in front of our eyes. As I watched the opening rounds of the tournament this past weekend, I realized that these games had many parallels to what we try to do every day as screenwriters.

Here are five lessons we can learn about screenwriting from watching the college basketball tournament:

1. Everybody loves an underdog

They're called Cinderella stories for a reason. We don't necessarily care which #12 seed upsets a #5 seed (although, thank you, Yale). We just want to see the fairy tale come to life. Audiences root for the little guy. In terms of writing a script, make your protagonist the underdog, and you've already got viewers on her side.

2. You gotta stay one step ahead

As the screenwriter, you're the point guard. You can see the whole court in front of you. Your audience is expecting you to move the story one way, so you constantly have to find ways to stay ahead of the them to move the story forward in different directions. Find ways to draw your audience's attention, then kick your story back out for the jump-shot the audience never saw coming.

3. Put the full-court press on your hero

Audiences pay to see your protagonist double-teamed in the corner of the back court with seemingly no way out. As the screenwriter, you need to find a way for your hero to overcome what look like impossible odds. And, please — come up with a better solution than your hero jumping out of bounds and trying to bounce the ball off a defender's foot. That's a cop-out, and as Northern Iowa will tell you, probably not the best action plan.

4. Reversals down the stretch flip the script

Just when the audience thinks a team is done and they know how this story is going to end, a reversal changes everything and the unthinkable becomes true. One of your hero's allies becomes the villain. Your hero finally discovers the villain's one weakness and gains the upper hand just when all was lost. Whatever the reversal, make sure you've set it up in the first act, or else your turn of events will fall flat.

5. Finish strong

Oftentimes a team can jump out to an early big lead, putting on a clinic in the first half of a game, only to go into cruise control for the second half. In our screenplays, the fanfare of a great idea, interesting inciting incident and its immediate aftermath can fizzle after the script's midpoint. You need to have a game plan for the entire game, not just the first half. With the proper setup, the second half of your story should play even stronger than the first and really earn its ending. 

Where do you draw inspiration in everyday life for your screenwriting? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.     

Featured image by Flickr user Phil Roeder [CC]

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