In this week when so many of us have been watching and reading about the Olympic games I’ve been struck by the way the coverage captures our interest by embedding individual stories into the larger story that is the Games. To be honest, I started thinking about this when someone pointed out that NBC has done much less of this than ABC used to do, recalling all those lovely little vignettes we used to see of some athlete’s tiny little village in Finland or Ethiopia or Trinidad and Tobago, which in these games you might not know are even competing unless you catch sight of their uniform in a track heat. And yes, I realized, I do miss that.
Each of those little, personal stories, compressed into a couple of minutes of tape, contained all of the essential elements of Story. There was, first and foremost, the main character, the protagonist, our hero: the athlete who, by virtue of being in the Olympics, was clearly different from other people. These folks we still see, obviously, generally in interviews. The stories, however, almost always include other, secondary characters – family members, friends, teammates and opponents. Each added flavor and interest and insight into the main character. Occasionally these are mentioned, this year, and this piques my curiosity. I miss them.
The next element of story which I find myself missing is setting. It’s probably my particular interest but I loved the peek into the lives of these athletes “back home,” all the more so when their homes were very different from my own. I loved seeing little Kenyan kids running miles up and down mountainsides to get to school, or elite Swiss skiers whose childhood homes seemed straight out of Heidi. Like the background in a painting, setting isn’t just pretty (or ugly), it informs the viewer/reader just as it shaped the character.
The plot of the Olympians’ stories might seem to be obvious and repetitious, and the conflicts obvious, but of course no one’s story is ever exactly like anyone elses, and a skillful storyteller builds the plot slowly, highlighting first one obstacle, letting us see the character overcome or be stymied by it, and then focusing on another, building to the climax of the tale (in this case, the climax is always the event you are about to watch). And the conflicts are not simply against other athletes: all the classic conflicts are possible and most good stories (pacem your high school English teacher) involve more than one: not simply “man versus man” but also versus the elements, versus society, and of course, within herself. We have see a couple of these this year, as there are some athletes who’ve overcome astounding obstacles to reach this level, but there must be thousands of good plot lines going unnoticed in these Games.
The final essential element of plot is, of course, what the Games are all about: resolution, what happens in the end? Someone wins, someone loses. There are cheers and there are tears. For writers, these are often the most difficult bits of the story – describe the resolution in a satisfying way, and then get out. For television, of course, this part is easy – they just go to the commercial. After the break, another character, another climax. Stay tuned.
And we do. Because it’s the Olympics. But I do wish that the next time around, they’d bring back the storytellers.