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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. 

In a performance story, the main character (or the group of main characters) 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 for the protagonist, he or she 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. Yikes! 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

In every performance story, there needs to be something specific that the protagonist is working towards. This could be something like a big event, a prize, a title, or an award. Whatever it is, it’s what sets the story in motion, but often has less meaning once it’s achieved. The important thing here 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

In performance stories, there’s usually one or more mentors responsible for training the protagonist. This can be a coach, a retired performer, a parent, a friend, or anyone with the skillset to get the protagonist ready for the upcoming event. Usually, the mentor in these stories has some kind of personal wound in their past that they will overcome (or not) by the end of the story. The mentor’s wound can help to reinforce the theme of the story.

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 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.
  • 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

In a performance story, there’s usually a team that either competes on the same side as the protagonist or that shows up to support the protagonist. The team members often have qualities that the protagonist lacks, but needs in order to succeed in the upcoming event.

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. According to 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

With a specific event or goal in mind, the protagonist must practice to gain or recover the skills and knowledge necessary to perform. As he or she trains and learns new skills, they will also start to become a better version of themselves internally. The important thing here is to make sure that there are "levels" that let the reader know how the protagonist is advancing toward his or her goal.

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. They also learn how to work together and utilize their individual gifts. They have to beat the other teams in order to make it to the state championship.
  • 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

In performance stories, there’s often some kind of social problem or moral challenge that the protagonist has to face or deal with. Examples include things like bullying, social class divides, abortion, poverty, civil rights, marital affairs, climate change, gender equality, divorce, sexual and gender identity, etc.

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

In every performance story, the protagonist needs to have a worthy opponent. Otherwise, there’d be nothing standing in the character’s way, and nothing to force him or her to grow and change. The protagonist’s opponent isn’t always bad or evil -- sometimes they just want the same thing as the protagonist and only one of them can win.

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

In every great performance story, there’s something that kiboshes the plan just when victory is in sight. In other words, some kind of monkey wrench gets thrown in and stops the plan cold. Usually, this occurs near or at the “All is Lost Moment” 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

At some point in every performance story, the protagonist realizes that the world isn’t going to change, so he or she must change instead. The protagonist stops caring so much about getting approval from others and instead learns to value themselves 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

In performance stories, there’s usually a bittersweet ending. There is a clear sacrifice for the win or a need is met in light of a loss. Prize pales in comparison to the real treasure — love friendship, self-esteem, etc.

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 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're probably thinking, "This is so obvious! Tell me something I don't know!" But seriously, you'd be surprised how many first drafts I see that are missing these conventions.

These are the things readers LOVE — what they come to performance stories for.

Everyone wants to see the protagonist train for the big game or event, right? Will they be ready in time? Is the mentor really qualified to teach them? Will they win or will they lose?

Can you imagine a performance story without some of these key roles or set pieces?

(I bet you can't. And if you have read a book that was missing any of these conventions, you probably stopped reading it somewhere in the first 50 pages.)

So, don't leave these conventions out!

Instead, find a way to give the reader what they want, in new and unexpected ways. After all, many great stories stick with us precisely because they innovate on these genre conventions. You can do it, too!

👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Are you writing a performance novel? How do you come up with innovative ways to deliver these conventions?

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