Let’s Talk About Romo

Tony Romo retired as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys and now he’s a beloved football announcer, but this entry isn’t about word origins and I’ve now told you all I know about Romo’s football career. This is about style. He has plenty of that.

An editorial in the New York Times today explores the value of storytelling and makes me think about craft. Researchers studied the Agta, a Philipine tribe of hunter-gatherers, and left us with three findings.

First, the stories the Agta told were morality tales, illustrating the benefits of friendship, cooperation and acceptance of different people. Up go the antennae of the would-be writer! Readers won’t sit still for anything preachy. But wait. Didn’t Bre’r Rabbit star in morality tales handed down by African tribes, but they were clever and funny? (That book got banned for the “framing” of the stories as if they were told, in heavy dialect, by the cheerful slave, Uncle Remus. The stories were okay.)

The researchers also found that Agta groups that had the best storytellers were more cooperative and more successful foragers. E.g., the audience learned the lessons. It’s not just the content, it’s how you tell the story. And finally, the Agta would prefer to live among the best storytellers, even more so than the best foragers. I’m taking that finding with a grain of salt. They’d rather hear a good story than eat? That one depends on how you ask the question.

The Agta storyteller might be more of an entertainer than an author.It’s no surprise if someone would rather be seated at dinner next to a movie star, as compared to the manager of the factory.

The researchers concluded that stories are valuable to the Agta society and storytellers are rewarded for their contributions. How does that apply to us wannabe fiction writers in America today? According to an article in The Guardian, most of us have incomes from writing that fall below the federal poverty level. A survey of members of The Author’s Guild found that incomes had suffered a sharp decline from 2009 to 2014. By 2014, median incomes for full-time writers had dropped to $17,500.

Who’s making money? Some best selling authors, surely, but not many. The publishers say they’re not getting rich. Maybe the “entertainers” who convey the story, the actors on the TV soaps, are doing better. Or maybe we should broaden the term, “storyteller.” To include, for example, Tony Romo, the former quarterback who now announces football games on TV.

What is it that makes Romo a great announcer? He has one avid fan in my household, who says it’s because Romo tells us what to watch for. He thinks Romo’s value is expertise. He really knows the game, having played the quarterback position for so many years.

Maybe he’s just a natural, but Romo might have taken a hint from a creative writing class. Experts advise that fiction succeeds when we make the reader wonder what happens next. The Night Before Christmas begins by making the reader aware that we’re starting right before — something is going to happen.

That’s the Romo technique. He gives the briefest set up: the quarterback has been throwing to this receiver all night, the defense has got him covered up, “Watch for ….”

There’s a prediction, a “story question” : “Given this set up, how will our protagonist solve this dilemma? What if he tries it this way?” The fan is riveted to the TV screen. Will he try it Romo’s way? Will he succeed?

Some fans write about Romo’s clairvoyance, but it doesn’t matter whether the prediction is right or wrong. If he doesn’t try Romo’s idea, the story takes off in a different direction. Was it a good call or a bad idea? If he tries Romo’s idea but fails, same thing, “Let’s talk about how come.” It’s the technique that’s interesting: posing the question before the action gets underway.

That’s a different approach than another announcer walking the viewers through the “replay,” pointing the problem out after the fact. Experts warn us fiction writers about the deadly habit of “ruminating” over the events the reader just read about. Let’s get on with the action!

In America today there are all kinds of storytellers: teachers and preachers, trial lawyers and news anchors. Some better than others, some better paid than others. We notice when we’re in the presence of a good one. School districts are teaching creative writing as early as elementary grades now. Good idea. The fundamentals might be valuable to all kinds of people, expanding the potential benefit beyond the starving artists who can’t resist writing fiction.