Saturday, September 24, 2011

On unicycles, basketball, and good storytelling

A few weeks ago, I was spending the day with some friends out on Governor's Island when we ran across something I had never even imagined existed. Here, I'll let you experience it as I did:

Hey, cool. Dudes on unicycles.
Wait a minute. Are they On unicycles?! 
Um, yeah, that's precisely what they're doing. Basketball. On unicycles.

Camera phone pictures don't quite do it justice, though. So here's some video (not my own) I found online, from the same day, and from two slightly different vantage points.

Amazing stuff, eh? (Can you imagine the core strength these guys must have?) 

And as unlikely as it seems, Unicycle Basketball perfectly illustrates a writing/craft concept I've been discussing lately with several authors and illustrators. There's no particular name for it, but basically: one trick of masterful writing and illustrating and storytelling is that it brings together things that totally don't seem like they have anything to do with each other at first, but by the story's end, they've been woven together so well that absolutely feel connected. 

Because the thing is: basketball being played by a bunch of guys on a Saturday afternoon? Honestly, I probably wouldn't have paid much attention. A bunch of grown men on unicycles? Ok, I would have paid a little more attention, but really just for a minute, for the novelty of it. But grown men on unicycles playing basketball? I watched, I snapped photos, I came home and googled "unicycle basketball" to discover that yes, in fact, it's a thing, and weeks later, I was still thinking about it enough to want to blog about it. Why?

Because it showed me something new. Because it connected two things I'd never dreamed could be connected, and in doing so, made my understanding of the world a little bigger, a little broader, a little more interesting. Watch those video clips. At first it's crazy, but by the end of the clip, it starts to seem totally normal, wholly believable, that they're playing basketball on unicycles, with crowds of supportive fans watching. Who would've thought it, and works. It totally works. 

Sometimes stories can be crafted in a way that's too linear, too obvious. If you put in only ingredients that have obvious links from the start, the resulting story can become easy to predict, to anticipate. There's a place for that kind of storytelling; don't get me wrong. In some stories, trying to bring in extra disconnected elements would ruin the rhythm entirely. But other times, those seemingly disconnected elements can ultimately add new layers that take a story to places that are more thought-provoking, more memorable, or just more fun. And if it's done right, by the story's end, you can't even separate which of the elements is the odd ingredient anymore, because they've been blended in a way that can't be undone without ruining the story as a whole. In other words, success!

Unicycle basketball WIN. 

Want some concrete examples? Off the top of my head, I'm tossing out Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (small avian creature + urban transportation + high-minded career ambition); The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (cooking + seasonal migration + incarceration); Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (friendship + fairytales + baseball); and The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (death + romantic heartbreak + the catering industry). 

P.S. I'd love to hear examples--or further thoughts from all of you on Unicyle Basketball and its relationship to storytelling--in the comments section!

1 comment:

  1. Molly, this is exactly how I look at these strange combinations. There's something about being specific and weird and unexpected that opens the door to things we might have intuited but never articulated. And it's a delightful thing to read.