I get a lot of surprised looks when people find out about my love of listening to Test Match Special (TMS) on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra. Either people are surprised because I’m female, and everyone knows women don’t like sport, or because I’m under 50, and young people don’t like test match cricket these days, or because cricket is boring and nothing happens.
Now I realise that in the age of instant gratification, where any information we want is available on our smartphones at the touch of a button (or tap of the screen, if we’re being pedantic), test match cricket, where matches run over five days, is not everybody’s cup of tea.
But listening to Test Match Special is not just about the cricket. When I was in my teens and first starting to write, my dad recommended listening to Test Match Special. It wasn’t for several years, when I reached my twenties and had cultivated a reasonable interest in cricket, that I eventually tuned in.
And here are five writing lessons I’ve learned from Test Match Special:
1) Good description is an art-form.
Whether you’re world-building or trying to present realistic characters, as a writer the key is in your description. With radio commentary the trick is being precise, painting a picture for the listener of the match, the fielding positions of the players, the atmosphere in the cricket ground. With your writing, the same applies. Don’t be vague in your descriptions. If you can’t see the world your characters are in, or if you can’t see your characters, nor will your readers. Make it real.
2) How to build a narrative.
Story-telling is key. TMS commentary weaves live-action commentary with anecdotes and asides into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. Sounds like everything you want in your novel, right? Unless you’re writing something completely in-the-moment, you need your narrative to flesh out your characters, give them a past, present and future. They have an internal world as well as the world they inhabit. Learn the different elements with which you’ll construct your narrative, and how to piece them together.
3) How to entertain (even if there’s not much action going on).
So you’ve plotted out your novel, all the key events, but now you’re writing it and you’re slugging through the lulls between two big events. It can’t be constant-non-stop-explosions-high-drama! You’ve got to transition between one scene and the next, and you’ve got to keep your audience engaged. The same challenge faced by the commentary team for TMS when there’s been an hour of play and only ten runs scored, no wickets, no near misses, just a long period where nothing much has happened. But their commentary is engaging, relevant and interesting… writers, take note!
4) The importance of different voices.
Imagine listening to the radio for eight hours a day, for five days straight, and only ever hearing one voice. Now imagine reading a book with only one character, no-one else even appearing on the fringes of the story. Boring, right? You may be totally in love with your main character, they may be real as can be to you, but remember that your secondary characters are just as important. Spend time on them, too. Their voices matter just as much as your main character’s. They’re in your novel too.
5) Sometimes… all you need is cake.
Need I say more?