What a Writer Can Learn from Friday Night Lights

By Lindsey Brackett, @lindsbrac

 

Listen, if you’re southern born and bred, or simply landed here by happy chance, don’t even pretend you don’t care about football. You may not give a flip about the sport itself—but the mere drama of Friday nights and Saturday afternoons down South? Any southern writer observing the world around them better be taking notice of what we can learn from those guys on the field.

After all, Friday Night Lights was billed as the football show that wasn’t actually about football. Which is what made it such a rich, complex source of lessons we writers can apply to our own work.

6 Writer Plays from Friday Night Lights

1. Raise the stakes. This show is not just about high school football, but Texas high school football. Not only is this the best team in Texas, they’re considered the best in the nation. The scouts come to pre-season practice and fill the stands. Oh, and as if that’s not enough, the show opens with Coach Taylor’s first year as head coach. Talk about pressure. Pretty much, those stakes don’t get any higher. And when you’re at the top, you only have one place to go, right? So the high stakes story becomes all about how the characters handle the fall—or keep it together at the top.
2. Introduce the players. Whether you’re writing a script or a novel, whenever multiple characters are going to pull equal weight in a story, you’ve got to introduce them quickly—and succinctly. FNL handles this wonderfully in the series premier by having the boys interviewed for a media outlet. In only a few sentences, we learn which player is cocky, which one is terrified, and which one has all the pressure riding on him.
3. Make them honorable, vulnerable, and human. Once your cast is on the page, don’t forget to make them relatable. Every story needs a hero who demonstrates humility, but we also need those characters who exist in our real life. Unfortunately, real life isn’t sanitized and when you deal with hard issues, you make your characters resonate more with real life. I loved FNL because I grew up in a small town that loved its football players and dealt with many of these same issues (racism, alcoholism, promiscuity). For the first time, I felt like someone got my story right. Life was gritty, not cutesy.
4. Give them something in common. When dealing with characters who have varied backgrounds and beliefs, it’s important to give them some common ground on which to interact. You may think in this illustration that ground was the football field, but in actuality, the key players were united by something much deeper. Matt, Smash, and Tim all needed a father figure, and they found that in Coach Taylor. By taking the relationship beyond coach and player, the story deepened and the audience began to care more about these people—and less about the game.

5. Say less, show more. Movies and television shows don’t have it any easier with the “show don’t tell” adage. For them, it would be all too easy to get caught in the trap of using dialogue over images. But on FNL, when the worst thing happens during the season opening game, the writers didn’t opt for actors recounting the situation. Instead, they gave us images—like the players linking hands when Matt gets called on to captain—and they gave us silence. When a football stadium gets quiet, you know it’s bad. Then those boys drop to their knees and lift their voices to plead for the wellbeing of their teammate, and I never fail to cry. It’s easy to have a character say or think how they feel. But readers react when the character faces an uncomfortable situation and proves who he’s going to be.
6. Offer a uniting goal. Everyone in Dillon, Texas believes football is the ticket. For some it’s their way out. For others it’s all about the community pride. For a few, they’re simply striving to better themselves or their family’s situation. But all these very different people have one common goal—the success of their beloved football team. That unites them, and it could even destroy them. But this goal creates the tension a story needs to drive the reader to the next page, the next scene, the next book.
So take a few plays from the boys on the field—whether or no they’re wearing a championship ring.

 

Award-winning writer Lindsey P. Brackett once taught middle grades literature, but now she writes her own works in the midst of motherhood. Her debut novel, Still Waters, influenced by her family ties to the South Carolina Lowcountry, is a story about the power of family and forgiveness. Called “a brilliant debut” with “exquisite writing,” Still Waters also received 4-stars from Romantic Times.
A blogger since 2010, Lindsey has published articles and short stories in a variety of print and online publications including Southern Writers Magazine Best Short Fiction (2015 and 2017).  Her popular column appears in local North Georgia newspapers weekly. Currently, Lindsey is a general editor with Firefly Southern Fiction, an imprint of LPC Books, and she freelances as a writing coach. Previously, Lindsey served as Editor of Web Content for the Splickety Publishing Group where she wrote and edited flash fiction.
A Georgia native, Lindsey makes her home—full of wet towels, lost library books, and strong coffee—at the foothills of Appalachia with her patient husband and their four rowdy children. Connect with her at www.lindseypbrackett.com or on Facebook: Lindsey P. Brackett, Instagram: @lindseypbrackett, or Twitter: @lindsbrac.

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