As many sports fans know, the first weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is one of the great weekends on the sports calendar. Sixty-four teams enter the weekend on Thursday with dreams of making it to the Final Four and sixteen teams remain with their dreams intact at the end of Sunday, with the rest going home disappointed and hoping for better results next year. There are many things that make the NCAA Tournament so great, and it deservedly has acquired the nickname “March Madness”. These teams are made up of kids between the ages of 18 and 22, so you never know how many of them will respond to adversity. Many of the big name schools have primarily younger players because the best players go to those universities and typically leave early to chase their NBA dreams. While many of the smaller programs have more veteran players who know they won’t be in the NBA and stay through their senior seasons. That means that many of the smaller programs have players who have played together for multiple seasons and have developed chemistry that many of the bigger, more talented, yet younger programs haven’t been able to acquire. That means you can have a team like Stephen F. Austin University pulling the upset over West Virginia, one of the top teams in the country all season. This weekend we also had one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament when Middle Tennessee State University knocked off Michigan State, a team that made it to the Final Four last season and that many picked would win this year’s tournament, in the first round.
A game was won this weekend when a player made a half-court shot at the buzzer, another player tipped in an offensive rebound with one and a half seconds left to win that game. Wisconsin won their game when a player made a fall-away 3-pointer as time expired, and Texas A & M made it to the Sweet 16 only after erasing a 12-point deficit in the last 33 seconds of regulation. It’s called March Madness because games are often won and lost on desperate miracles. This tournament is all about surviving and advancing. You win or you go home, and there are no second chances.
Okay, fine, you’re saying right now. But what does this have to do with screenwriting?
It has everything to do with screenwriting.
These games are one and done, which means you have to win if you want to advance. Since the games are being played by very young men, there is an air of unpredictability that heightens the drama to nearly unbearable levels, even for the most casual of fans. Many of the game are close, with the outcome in question until the final seconds, and that creates high entertainment value. This tournament makes for great theater, and the drama that it creates should be studied by any screenwriter. There are reasons that sports movies are popular, and here are five ways that screenwriters could learn from March Madness.
1. Embrace the unexpected.
What puts the madness in March Madness is the possibility that almost anything can happen. The bracket is broken up into 4 regions of 16 teams each. About the only thing that’s never happened is a 16-seed beating a 1-seed, although Princeton came close to beating Georgetown one time several years ago. However 2-seeds have been upset by 15-seeds, as happened this year with Michigan State and Middle Tennessee State. Including this weekend’s upset it’s now happened seven times since 1991 when the Richmond Spiders took down might Syracuse. The unexpected nature of the tournament and the possibility that any team can win any game is undoubtedly one of the aspects of the tournament that keeps people coming back to watch every year. Even last season when Kentucky came into the tournament undefeated, there was still a belief that anyone could win it, and sure enough Duke upset Kentucky on the way to winning the title. One show that has successfully embraced a similar idea is Game of Thrones. It’s compelling television because they’re not afraid to kill off popular characters for the benefit of the story, and they’ve maintained, or perhaps even built, their popularity because of it. Think about your own screenplay. Is it predictable? Can you build a plot line into it that makes sense, but no one will see coming? Think about what a great plot twist can do for a movie. It’s the unexpected that gets people talking and remembering a story.
2. The underdog has a chance.
Piggybacking on that last point, underdogs have a chance to win games against more talented opponents through hard work, determination and resiliency. As mentioned earlier, many of these teams have players who know that they’re never going to play in the NBA, so they stay in school and on their teams the whole four years. That allows for many of these less talented teams to rely on teamwork and sound fundamental basketball. As the game wears on and a less-talented team continues to keep it close, you can feel their confidence rising, and you can feel the tension starting to build in the more talented team. You can feel the tide turning, and the drama building. But it’s slow. It’s deliberate. Sometimes, as with Middle Tennessee State against Michigan State it feels inevitable. Each time the more talented team looks like they’re going to pull away and win, the underdog hits a miracle 3-pointer to stem the tide. Each time it looks like the underdog is clearly on the way to an upset, the more talented team scores 6 points in a row to take the lead. It’s back and forth, and the crowd is standing and/or sitting on the edges of their seats. It’s riveting entertainment, and it’s exactly the way tension should be building in your screenplay. As you characters work towards their goals, the tension regarding whether or not they’re accomplishing their goals should feel the same way. The drama and the tension should slowly build with the advantage moving back and forth between your hero and your villain until you reach the climax and one of them finally has to win.
3 . It’s not over until it’s over.
As all of the buzzer-beating, game-winning shots show us, the game isn’t over until the last horn sounds, the clock reads 0:00 and one team has more points than the other. Until the clock reads 0:00 anything can happen and, more often than not, does. This should teach screenwriters that before “The End” appears on the screen, they need to be open to anything. As mentioned above, constantly keeping the audience guessing is great, but this point goes even deeper than that.Screenwriting should be a creative endeavor done by creative people. Even when working within the bounds of dramatic structure, as a creative person the screenwriter should be able to imagine any kind of scenario that pushes the story forward and heightens the entertainment value to great and unexpected levels. A screenwriter also should be able to do this right up until the end of the story. Most stories end with some sort of denouement. There’s no need to lose the entertainment value there. In fact, since that’s the last thing that the audience will see, I could argue that the denouement needs to be among the most entertaining and compelling moments of your story. Just like the buzzer-beater in March Madness.
4. Heroes are found in unexpected places, and they don’t always win.
March Madness is a time when basketball heroes are made. It’s a time when largely anonymous basketball players instantly become household names due to their heroics on the court. Thomas Walkup of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks was such a person. In their upset of West Virginia he made a name for himself and in their game against Notre Dame, he became a would-be hero hitting shot after shot and directing his team towards what looked like an improbably victory. However,, the hero doesn’t always win and when Notre Dame tipped in a shot with 1.5 seconds left, the hero of this story walked away the loser, but having earned the respect of the basketball world. Your screenplay needs to incorporate similar ideas with your main character. He or she starts out the story unknown to us as the audience, but her drive and determination endear her to us, and even if she doesn’t win at the end, we need to be shown that she’s still a stronger and/or better person because of the ordeal she went through. Even in defeat, many players in March Madness achieve some level of immortality. The same thing needs to happen with your characters.
5. The tournament is filled with drama and dramatic moments.
Of course the tournament is an organic thing and the dramatic moments that occur happen spontaneously. But there is tension in many of these games and that tension leads to a feeling that something dramatic is unfolding in front of you while you’re watching it. That heightened drama helps increase the entertainment value of the games. The reason for that is because the stakes are so high, and they get higher the farther you get. You have to win six games to win the National Championship, and so each victory ratchets up the pressure, as well as the competition to continue winning. As you continue to win, the teams that you’re playing get better and better, so you have to keep upping your own game to keep winning. The same thing applies to your hero and to your villain. The closer each gets to their goal, the more important it has to be for them to keep upping their games. Each challenge that your hero faces needs to beget another challenge that is more difficult than the previous one. The stakes have to keep getting higher, and the drama has to keep increasing in order to keep the audience engaged. No on wants to watch a game that’s a blow out. It’s clear who’s going to win, so there’s no drama there. But a tight game that’s back and forth with teams exchanging leads is compelling, riveting and entertaining. It’s unclear who’s going to win, so we feel the need to keep watching in order to find out. If your hero or villain wins every confrontation, the same feeling sets in. The drama comes from not knowing how it’s going to turn out.
As the tournament’s nickname implies, March Madness is entertaining. It’s quite possibly the most entertaining sporting event of the year. Your ultimate goal as a screenwriter needs to be to entertain your audience. Watching and studying how the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament plays out gives you plenty of reference on what audiences are looking for, and how dramatic and exciting you can make your own screenplay.
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