Friday, 31 August 2012


Paula Rawsthorne looks at what we can learn from the Olympics about storytelling.

I’m writing this when the Olympics is still in full swing and my household is in the grip of Olympic fever. This involves my family watching hours of coverage on t.v, interspersed with heading outdoors to engage in bursts of sports before returning to scream at the screen.  We started bidding for tickets as soon as they were released and were lucky enough to spend a day in the Olympic Park were we watched the women’s hockey.  We also stood on tip toes in Hyde Park with 250,000 other spectators, marvelling at the men’s triathlon.  We cheered and clapped until our hands were sore as we watched the fabulous Brownlee brothers take gold and bronze.  The whole Olympic experience was joyous and inspiring.  The organisation was a triumph.  The atmosphere in the stadiums and crowds was uplifting.  People were good natured, smiley and friendly.  Everyone seemed to be loving this, once-in-a-lifetime, shared experience.

The London 2012 Olympics will live in my memory for its many spectacular sporting feats by Usain Bolt, the Team GB rowers and cyclists, Mo Farah, Nicola Adams, Jade Jones, David Rudisha (too many to name). We’ve witnessed heart stopping drama and the wonderful spirit of the athletes, spectators and volunteers and, of course, the incredible, funny and moving opening ceremony masterminded by the dream team of Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

However, it doesn’t seem enough to just watch these world class athletes at the top of their game.  We want that extra dimension, we want to know their STORY and, in true X Factor tradition the  journalists and presenters covering the games have created, for the viewer,  their versions of each athlete’s ‘Journey’.  They assume that we want to know about the personal trauma and adversity that the athletes have had to overcome in their ‘journey’ to the Olympics. They assume we want to hear stories of heart ache, bereavement, star crossed lovers, the come- back kids, the troubled teen saved by sport, the Sudanese former child slave (Guor Marial) who has overcome unimaginable suffering and has made it to onto the Olympic stage.

Whether we love or loathe the culture of the ‘journey’, these stories help us to empathise with the Olympians and empathy is a most admirable human characteristic. Feeling a connection with these athletes makes us want to root for them (even if they aren’t from Team GB).  It brings out the best in us.   So, when we see a down to earth young woman, from an ordinary background, win Gold in the Heptathlon, it makes our hearts swell with pride.  It may even make some girls feel that great achievements are not beyond them, given hard work, determination and discipline. I would love to believe that even one teenage girl may now aspire to be like Jessica Ennis instead of a Big Brother contestant.

We’re not so interested in hearing about athletes with trouble free ‘journeys’.  It’s much harder to work up a passion for an Olympian born with a silver spoon in their mouth, who has won every important competition without trauma, who lives in a world of privilege that means that losing won’t have a big impact on their charmed lives.  No, we naturally enjoy stories that involve people rising above adversity, fighting every step, overcoming whatever obstacle is put in their way:  We love tales where the stakes are so high that the athletes compete like their lives depend on it and to have a nemesis in the mix makes it even more appealing (Victoria Pendleton has Anna Meares).

So what has all this got to do with writing?  Well, I think what we’ve seen over the Olympics has a lot to teach us about storytelling and the universal importance of story.   When we write, the journey of our hero/ine needs the elements displayed by the most engaging stories of the Olympians.  Firstly, we need the reader to empathise and connect with our hero (even if our hero happens to be an alien). We need to see our hero battling and, eventually, overcoming obstacles as they strive to reach their goal.  Our stories need drama, pace, conflict, high stakes.   We need to take the reader on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as they cheer on our hero towards some kind of triumph, against all the odds.  Oh, I’m welling-up just thinking of it- I’d better get back to the t.v. and cheer on more  Olympians!

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