The 10 Things Every Performance Novel Needs

In today's post, I'm covering the conventions of the performance genre.

I’m also going to show you how these conventions manifest in three popular movies—The Mighty Ducks, Cool Runnings, and The Karate Kid.

Why movies? Why not books?

Well, the simple answer is that movies require less time investment than books. I’m hoping that if you haven’t seen these movies, you’ll watch them after reading this post to help cement these conventions in your mind.

But, before we get into what those conventions are, let’s go over some basics.

What is a Performance Story?

Performance stories center around a character who wants to achieve something specific in order to prove their worth to the world. For example, they might want to win a certain award, climb Mount Everest, be the best in their field, or be famous.

However, achieving this specific thing is not what the story is really about. The characters in performance stories usually lack self-esteem or self-respect. They are searching for external validation, but what they really need is to embrace who they already are. And these stories show just that.

Beyond that, performance stories can have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have various levels of romance, adventure, mystery, or magic. They can include different subplots as long as the protagonist’s pursuit of that specific thing remains the main focus of the story.

Why do People Read Performance Stories?

People read performance stories because they are extremely relatable. Every day we deal with the pressure to perform on the world’s stage, and we are constantly faced with decisions that could result in success or failure.

Performance stories inspire readers by showing us what life could be if only we learned to embrace our unique gifts and talents. These stories teach us to believe in ourselves and to determine our own worth instead of looking to others for the answers.

Not only that, but it’s also incredibly satisfying to see an underdog character work hard at something and succeed against all odds. In these stories, hard work does pay off -- usually in more ways than one.

So, how do you deliver these specific emotional experiences readers are looking for? Well, you can start by including the obligatory scenes and conventions of the performance genre in your story. In this post, we’re covering the genre conventions. Let’s dive in.

What are Obligatory Scenes and Conventions?

Conventions are a reasonably well-defined set of roles, settings, events, and values that are specific to a genre. They're the things that readers intuitively expect to be present in a work of genre fiction whether they consciously realize it or not.

Obligatory scenes are the key events, decisions, and discoveries that move the protagonist along on his or her journey. These key scenes are what help to evoke emotional reactions in the reader. And, when coupled with your genre’s conventions, will give the reader the experience they’re looking for.

If you don’t deliver the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre, your story just won’t work. So, what are the conventions of the performance genre?

Let’s take a look at our three case studies (warning–spoilers ahead).

The Conventions of the Performance Genre are:

#1. An underdog hero with a special gift. 

The first thing you’ll want to include in your performance story is an underdog protagonist. So, in these stories, the protagonist is usually an underdog with a big heart and a lot to learn. The competition is always better trained and more equipped for success in the upcoming big event. Luckily, in most cases, the protagonist has some kind of special gift whether it be a big heart, a strong will, or an excellent support system.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, team Jamaica is definitely the underdog. They have a coach with a history of cheating, a rickety practice bobsled, and no experience when it comes to winter sports. Luckily, their leader, Derice, has a strong will and doesn’t give up easily.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, Gordon Bombay and his hodgepodge crew of kids are definitely a group of underdogs. They have little to no hockey skills, have never won a game, and don’t even have matching jerseys. Luckily for them, Coach Bombay reconnects with his passion for hockey and leads the team to victory.
  • In The Karate Kid, Daniel is an outsider from the East Coast. Johnny and his karate-trained Cobra Kai friends don’t like Daniel and pick on him constantly. Daniel has no karate experience but ends up with a great mentor, Mr. Miyagi, who shows him the way and helps him succeed.

#2. A MacGuffin

The second thing you’ll want to include in your performance story is a MacGuffin or something specific that the protagonist is working toward. This could be something like a big event, a prize, a title, or even an award. Whatever it is, this specific thing is what sets the story in motion, but often has less meaning once it’s achieved. So, for example, winning first place in a competition that you hoped would bring you happiness and change your life forever, but then realizing that your life is exactly the same, you just have a blue ribbon now. Whatever it is, the important thing to note is that there needs to be a clear definition of what it means to win or lose.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, Derice wants to win an Olympic gold medal like his father.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, Coach Bombay wants to lead his team to win the state championship.
  • In The Karate Kid, Daniel wants to beat Johnny at the All-Valley Karate Championships.

#3. A Mentor with Baggage

The third thing you’ll want to include in your performance story is a mentor with a little bit of baggage. In performance stories, there’s usually one or more mentors who are responsible for training the protagonist or getting them ready for the upcoming event. Mentors can be anyone from a coach, to a retired performer, to a parent, to a friend, or really anyone with the skillset to help get the protagonist ready for whatever big event they’re working toward. The mentor in these types of stories usually has some kind of personal wound or shortcoming in their past that they will also have to overcome (or not) by the end of the story. And as a side note, the mentor’s wound is a great place for you to reinforce the theme of the story if you’re writing a performance novel.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, Irv Blitzer has a history of cheating. When Derice asks Irv why he cheated despite already having multiple gold medals, Irv tells Derice that winning was his whole life. He says that “a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” Irv urges Derice to think of himself as a champion even if he fails to win the gold, thus reinforcing the theme.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, Gordon Bombay missed a penalty shot that disappointed his coach, and cost his team the championship. When the Ducks find themselves in a similar situation, Coach Bombay shows the team grace instead of coming down on them as his coach did back in the day.
  • In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi struggles with memories of losing his wife and son while he was off fighting in the war. Because of this, he teaches Daniel about balance. He says, “Whole life have a balance. Everything be better.” Near the end of the movie, Daniel says he’ll never have balance if he doesn’t beat Johnny. He then asks Mr. Miyagi to temporarily take away the pain from his injury so that he can keep fighting.

#4. A Team of Supporters

The next thing you’ll want to include in your performance story is a team of people who support your protagonist. So, this could be a team of people that compete on the same side as your protagonist, or a group of people who show up to support the protagonist. Either way, these supporters usually have qualities that the protagonist lacks, but needs, in order to succeed in the upcoming event. Sometimes these characters are like mini-mentors or they’re a group of people who show readers or viewers that the team is stronger together than apart.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, Derice recruits Sanka Coffie, Yul Brenner, and Junior Bevil to round out his four-man bobsled team. Each of these characters has their own unique personality and voices that adds a bit of fun to the team (and to the story).
  • In The Mighty Ducks, there’s a whole team of kids working toward the same goal — learn how to play hockey and win the state championship. And in the words of Coach Bombay, “A team is something you belong to. Something you feel. Something you earn.” This definitely feels true when the Ducks band together and win the championship!
  • In The Karate Kid, Daniel’s team consists of all the people who support him like his mom, Mr. Miyagi, and Ali. This is a great example of a different way to deliver on this convention because karate is an individual sport.

#5. Trials or Training

The next thing you’ll want to include in your performance story is either a training sequence or a trial sequence that will help your protagonist get ready for the big event. So, with whatever upcoming big event in mind, the protagonist must practice to gain (or recover) the necessary skills or knowledge to perform (and hopefully, succeed). The key thing here is to make sure that there are “levels” or “tiers” that let the reader know how the protagonist is advancing toward their goal. So, for example, in karate, there are different color belts. This lets an outsider know how far you’ve come in your karate skillset. Something else to consider here is that, typically, as the protagonist trains and learns new skills externally, they tend to grow and change on the inside, too.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, the team trains together first in Jamaica and then in Calgary. They learn all about bobsledding and how to operate as a team. They have to go through time trials in order to advance to the final race.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, Coach Bombay teaches the kids how to be better hockey players throughout the whole movie. Not only that, but the team has to learn how to work together, and utilize their individual skills, to win games. They’re training (and going through the trials of a regular hockey season) so that they can beat enough teams to make it to the state championship and hopefully win.
  • In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel karate. In the tournament, Daniel has to advance through the rounds in order to face Johnny in the finals. 

#6. Social Problems or Moral Challenges

The next convention you’ll want to include is some kind of social problem or moral challenge that the protagonist has to face. So for example, this could include things like bullying, social class divides, abortion, poverty, civil rights, marital affairs, climate change, gender equality, divorce, sexual and gender identity, etc. It’s usually this social problem or moral challenge combined with the lack of skill or knowledge that makes a protagonist in a performance story the underdog. And on that note, sometimes the protagonist does have a lot of skill, but they’re the underdog because they face one of these social problems or moral challenges. So, just something to think about.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, team Jamaica is looked down upon by other countries because they’re new to the sport and because they’re from Jamaica. Other issues that get brought up are racism, poverty, and cheating.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, the Hawks are constantly bullying the Ducks. Other issues touched on are things like poverty, gender equality, and the lack of a father figure for Charlie.
  • In The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai kids pick on Daniel all the time. Other issues that arise are things like class distinction, racism, cheating, poverty, and Daniel not having a father.

#7. A Worthy Opponent

The next convention you’ll want to include is a worthy opponent for your protagonist to face. Without a worthy opponent, there’d be no one standing in your character’s way, and nothing forcing them to grow and change. Now, that being said, the protagonist’s opponent doesn’t always have to be bad or evil. Sometimes, they just simply want the same things s the protagonist and only one of them can come out the winner.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, team Jamaica is up against every other bobsled team competing in the Olympics. Their main rival, however, is the team from East Germany.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, the Ducks are up against all the other teams in the league, but their main rivalry is with the Hawks who are really good at hockey.
  • In The Karate Kid, Daniel’s main opponent is Johnny from the Cobra Kai dojo.

#8. A Monkey Wrench

The next convention you’ll want to include in your performance story is some kind of monkey wrench that gets thrown in just when victory is in sight. So, something that stops the protagonist’s plan cold. This could be anything from a rule change to a technicality to an exposed secret or even something like a storm. Usually, this comes into the story right around the midpoint or the “all is lost” moment (depending on the kind of story you’re writing) and causes the protagonist to feel like there’s no hope for success.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, team Jamaica qualifies for the finals, but are subsequently disqualified due to a technicality.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, Adam Banks (the Ducks’ star player) gets injured and taken out of the championship game against the Hawks.
  • In The Karate Kid, Kreese instructs one of his students to disable Daniel with an illegal attack on the knee. Daniel is severely injured and gets taken to the locker room where the physician determines that h can’t continue.

#9. An Internal Change in the Protagonist

The next thing you’ll want to include in your performance story is some kind of internal change within your protagonist. So, at some point in every performance story (or almost every story, really), the protagonist realizes that the world isn’t going to change so, he or she needs to change instead. This is usually when they stop caring so much about getting approval or external validation from others, and instead learn to value themselves, just as they are.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, Derice learns to value the Olympic experience and the friendships he’s made over winning a gold medal. Yes, he does still hope to win a gold medal someday, but it's not all about that anymore. He's of himself and the team -- and how far they’ve come in this sport that seemed like such an unlikely choice for Jamaica.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, Coach Bombay sees the truth about the lengths that Coach Reilly will go to in order to win. He finally stops caring about Coach Reilly’s opinion and starts to do things his own way. He’s proud of the team for making it to the championships whether they in or lose.
  • In The Karate Kid, Daniel initially wants to beat Johnny for revenge. But then he learns about balance from Mr. Miyagi and comes to value that instead. He can’t have balance until he stands up for himself and defeats Johnny.

#10. A Bittersweet Ending

The next and last convention you’ll want to include in your performance story is a bittersweet ending. And what I mean by this is that there’s usually a clear sacrifice made, or a need met, in light of a loss. So, this is where the prize or award your protagonist has been racing toward pales in comparison to the real treasure -- love, friendship, self-esteem, whatever lesson they learned throughout the story. In other words, they got what they wanted, but it probably doesn’t hold the weight or sense of importance that it used to.

Case Studies:

  • In Cool Runnings, team Jamaica doesn’t win a gold medal. But they do gain self-respect, respect for each other, and respect from the other teams after they carry the broken bobsled across the finish line.
  • In The Mighty Ducks, the Ducks win the state championship, but Gordon Bombay lost his lawyer job in the process. Luckily, he's rekindled his love for hockey (and his belief in himself) and is headed for minor league tryouts.
  • In The Karate Kid, Daniel wins the tournament but walks away with a hurt knee and various other injuries.
The 10 Things Every Performance Novel Needs | Savannah Gilbo - Are you writing a performance story? Learn the must have genre conventions for a performance story in this post! Other writing tips included, too! #amwriting #writingtips #writingcommunity

Final Thoughts

You might think that including these things in a performance novel sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many drafts I see that are missing these conventions or that don’t include these conventions in a meaningful way.

So, long story short, don’t skip over these conventions or leave them out of your story. Instead, use them to help you flesh out and construct your story and then figure out a way to deliver these conventions in new and unexpected ways.

If you do that, you’ll not only write a story that works, but you’ll probably gain fans for life, too -- and that’s the dream, right?

👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Do you have these ten conventions in your performance novel? If not, how can you add in what’s missing? Can you identify these conventions in your favorite performance books or movies? 

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