Serious Business

Most of us have seen something that qualifies as Serious Business. It’s not going to change the world, it’s not life or death, it might not even seem like anything more than a simple pastime, but to the people who care about it—the football fans who close their businesses when the two state colleges’ teams play against each other, the diehard movie fans who have all the merch and could recite the scripts from memory, the birdwatchers who will beggar themselves trying to have a bigger Big Year than the rest of the year’s crop—it’s still a way of life. But how do you sell an audience—or, for that matter, your players—on a plot based around a serious business sort of activity?

Make the investment clear. It’s a lot easier to take something seriously if the viewpoint character, or the people all around, are doing the same. If you can convincingly write a character who’s interesting, who’s in some way admirable, and who finds the serious business activity to be worth devoting his or her life to, then you’re likelier to be able to get your audience to suspend disbelief for the idea that this is actually a pretty cool thing. Several of these characters, and you’re starting to set yourself a culture. People who don’t do it, but still go fannish over the people who do, add to the effect.

Throw in some stakes. You know why combat is so ubiquitous in… well, in just about every fantasy thing ever, particularly the games? It’s not just that it’s easier to wrap mechanics around (and anyone who has ever tried to accomplish a grapple in almost any system would dispute that to begin with); it’s that we understand the stakes, and that they fit with our view of how people work. A life and death struggle is nothing if not comprehensible. For serious business activities, though, we have to come up with other sorts of stakes, and then sell the audience on why these stakes matter to the character, and thus why they should matter to them. If we can’t do that, the intensity with which our characters approach their serious business activities will just look a tad silly.

Make the activity itself look and sound pretty cool. I don’t necessarily mean melodramatic behavior with every stage of the activity, though with some audiences people playing the melodramatics completely straight adds a certain flair. On the other hand, if you can show the kind of work that goes into learning to do whatever the activity is, and moreso the kind of work that goes into doing it well, and you can get across what skills and temperaments we find admirable go into the serious business activity in question, then you’ve got a pretty good chance of selling people on the idea that it’s worth centering a story, or at least a character’s motivation, around.

Help the audience understand how it works. Ideally, by the time you’re done with your audience, they should be able to tell just by reading your descriptions how well a given character is doing on their serious business activity. If it’s a sport, they may not necessarily be able to recreate and play it by the time you’re finished, but they should at least be able to commentate it if they were to see a match. If it’s a craft, you’ll want them to have a sense of overall techniques, and what the major mistakes are. Have you ever been dragged into watching a sport or a contest you know nothing of by a family member awash in trivia? If a few appearances of the activity in your audience is still feeling like that, you’re probably going to lose them; it’s not near as much fun if you have no idea what’s going on.

If you want something to truly be serious business, that’s how you’re going to convince your audience. Good luck!

2 comments

  1. UZ says:

    “I’m the star player of the Zanarkand Abes!” Blitzball was serious business and it was awful. :)

    The main reason in my opinion (other than the fact that the Blitzball exemplar in that story was perhaps not super admirable) was scope. When there are life-and-death situations going on, a character’s obsession with an unrelated sport may seem frivolous.

    The easiest way to make a subject seem important is to make sure that the scope is appropriate to its discussion. When the world is being eaten by a giant monster this may not be the best time to announce that the water polo season has just started. Same goes for when the main character is undergoing a private, messy divorce that they can’t talk to anyone about. In this case the “serious business” becomes an incongruous contrast and other people’s interest in it can become antagonistic, like so:

    Luke: I just know there is good in you, father! Turn away from the dark side!

    Darth: Hush son, daddy’s watching the game.

  2. Ravyn says:

    I had been more thinking in terms of the Serious Business being the focus of the story from the beginning, rather than as being something that gets in the way of an existing plot–though I’m with you on Blitzball there–or an important element of the character, as the ballroom dancing is in Discount Armageddon. But you make an excellent point; Serious Business stuck amid actually serious business just doesn’t stay, well, serious.

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