What Monster Jam taught me about storytelling
Last weekend my in-laws took our family to Monster Jam, the monster truck rally, and it was...loud! But it was also so much fun and an especially amazing time for my 3.5 year-old son, who is vehicle-obsessed.
It was a big experience! But one that (of course) got me thinking about the magic of storytelling, and why this event has such a huge following, and what we, as fiction writers, can take away from it.
First, I have a confession: I am not a sports fan. I mean, I can appreciate a great game and high stakes, but on a day-to-day basis, I don't give a hoot who is winning and who is losing.
BUT, as I was sitting at Monster Jam, which, okay isn't a sporty sport (motorsport, I guess?), I felt myself getting caught up in the show. Why? Well, that's exactly what I wanted to understand.
These enormous trucks come out, each of them with their own personality, and driver and fanbase. There's the dump truck-shaped Earth Shaker, the shark-shaped Megalodon, spooky Grave Digger, and bull-horned El Toro Loco, plus a Dalmatian-themed truck (which unfortunately didn't participate in our show), and a few others as well. There are different events that the drivers compete in, ranging from a race, to doughnuts, to two-wheel tricks, and free-style tricks, and the crowd gets to rate the drivers' performance in each event.
Do you know what I discovered? The same principles that guide a good story, are the same things that keep viewers entertained as they watch Monster Jam: character, desire, obstacles, stakes. Let's take a look:
Character: Let's take El Toro Loco, for example. The truck is a bright reddish-orange bull-shaped vehicle that actually snorts real smoke from its nostrils. The driver, Elvis, is from Texas and he was really good at rallying the Latinx population. He is charismatic, passionate, and very competitive.
Desire: He wanted to win. Why? Because a win leads you closer and closer to the finals, the champion title, and probably a lot of cash and cachet. What did winning mean to him? Well maybe it meant showing the world that a Latino was capable of excellence and amazing feats. Maybe it meant proving to naysayers in his life that he could be a freaking fantastic driver. (I'm speculating a little here.)
Obstacles: He was also having a little bit of a bad day. Event after event, he came in not-quite-first against the star of the day, Earth Shaker. He also, during an event, crushed the bull-nose hood of his truck. In the final event, the hood detached, and he was out there, laid bare. Other obstacles we saw during the day were: a very tight arena, which made it hard to pick up speed or do doughnuts; engine trouble; human error as they balanced the trucks trying to drive on two-wheels... the list goes on. There were obstacles aplenty.
Stakes: Winning and moving toward the championship or losing and demolishing the vehicle. Risking his job?(Just some theoretical possibilities, but humor me here...)His livelihood? His life if he crashes? Funding for the El Toro Loco brand? Speculation aside, what it all comes down to is what happens when he loses. There IS something at stake.
My takeaway was this: It is in human nature to want to see, want to know, how people handle the obstacles that are thrust upon them. THAT is why, at the end of the day, I was invested in the show. I wanted to see how these characters would perform against the others. I wanted to see how they would handle driving on two-wheels or, what happened after the unthinkable (a crash) happened.
Sure, the tricks were neat, but you've gotta have more to your story than just a bunch of cool, emotionless stuff happening one after the next. I cared about these "characters" and their Monster Jam journey.
All of that is to say that these are essential elements of building a good story. If yours doesn't have them, it will not create invested readers.
P.S. If you don't follow me on Instagram, keep an eye on my page for some Monster Jam visuals.