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Everyone loves a good underdog story. In some ways, we can all relate to the downtrodden character who rises against insurmountable odds. And the requisite feel-good ending is as sweet and satisfying as a warm cup of cocoa at the end of a cold and bitter day.

How to Write an Underdog Story Readers Will Cheer For

The underdog plot is a sure-fire recipe for a story readers can care about, invest in, and cheer on towards a rewarding conclusion. Plus, it can be a lot of fun to write. Read on to learn more about how to craft an underdog story that will ring your reader’s happy bell.

The Universal Appeal of the Underdog Story

At its heart, the underdog story is a rivalry, with at least one character vying against the protagonist for a high-stakes object of desire. But the underdog plot takes it a step further by forcing the hero to face overwhelming odds.

A well-written underdog story rouses the reader’s sympathy like no other. It’s visceral and relatable. It represents the triumph of the little guy over the giant. It embodies the hope that lives in each of us.

Here’s a short list of underdog story examples:

  • David and Goliath
  • The Martian
  • Independence Day
  • The Hunger Games
  • Rocky
  • Rudy
  • Cinderella Man
  • The Fugitive
  • The Karate Kid
  • Oliver Twist
  • Holes
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Seabiscuit
  • The Pursuit of Happyness

Elements of the Underdog story

In order to set up your underdog story to achieve the greatest impact and success with readers, you need to make sure the necessary elements are in place. Readers are in for an emotional experience and you want to prepare them and give them the best ride your story can provide.

Here’s how:

1. Create a character readers can root for

Always an important step, but crucial to the underdog plot. Readers must care about and feel some kinship with your protagonist. In my article How to Write Action Scenes That Thrill Your Readers, I covered some effective techniques for achieving this.

What it comes down to is making your character likable and in some way oppressed. Readers rally around a character suffering undeserved misfortune.

2. Portray the disempowerment

Show how your protagonist is being stripped of everything they’ve worked for. Show how circumstances have turned against them, forcing them to their knees.

This is the first stage and should come early on, usually after a brief phase of showing your protagonist’s life before disaster strikes.

3. Show the underlying strength

Even though your hero is being beaten down, persecuted, perhaps even to the brink of destruction, you must show an underlying core of strength and determination. It might be just an ember at this point, but it burns beneath the surface.

Your character has the will to resist the opposition. Tantalize your readers and make them ravenous for a reversal of fortunes.

4. Design a series of challenges and try/fail cycles

Things will get worse before they get better. Your protagonist will try and fail, or perhaps succeed with unforeseen consequences that take them from the frying pan into the fire.

This is a good place to apply the Rule of Three to satisfy readers.

5. Present the turning point

Here’s the reversal readers have been waiting for. It’s delicious and sustaining, but readers will sense your hero is not home free yet. And they’re right.

This is a good opportunity to turn a former weakness into a strength or to expose a vulnerability in the antagonist, helping to even the playing field and make your hero’s ultimate win believable.

6. Inflict the darkest moment

You’ve shown your readers the light at the end of the tunnel. This is when you snuff it out.

It’s difficult to write this. It hurts. You hate to do this to your valiant character and to your faithful reader. One thing that helps is clinging to the conviction that the victory will feel exponentially more satisfying by contrast.

7. Produce the triumph

Oh yeah, baby! You’ve kept your audience in mind every step of the way, in touch with your readers’ emotions, and now everyone’s ready to enjoy the payoff.

Don’t skimp here. Make sure to indulge your readers’ craving for vindication. Let the catharsis fully play out. Let fists pump and hearts swell. Let your reader love every minute of it.

Underdog Example: The Shawshank Redemption

To illustrate the elements of the underdog story, let’s explore the brilliant movie The Shawshank Redemption, based on a story by Stephen King.

Great big spoiler alert: watch the movie first. It’s fantastic!

1. Create a character readers can root for

Andy Dufresne is a smart guy who’s worked hard as the vice-president of a bank to provide a good life for himself and his family. What does he get in return? His wife steps out on him with the local country club golf pro and the two of them end up murdered.

We see the evidence stack up against Andy in the courtroom and he gets precious little sympathy, mercy, or help. He goes to prison to serve out two life sentences, back to back.

2. Portray the disempowerment

We meet the antagonist, the prison warden, and witness Andy’s descent into humiliation, pain, loneliness, and despair. He is ridiculed, roughed up, and repeatedly raped. He is—literally and figuratively—in a very dark place.

Without doubt, Andy is being thrust down hard and if he is ever to rise again, it will be from a well-defined underdog position.

3. Show the underlying strength

Despite the many privations he suffers, Andy shows an underlying toughness and resilience. Red, who functions as the prison procurer of goods, bets Andy will be the first to crack under the pressure, but Andy proves him wrong and the two become friends.

Andy doesn’t bow down or squeal, and when he finds a way to work things to his advantage, he shares the windfall with his fellow prisoners.

4. Design a series of challenges and try/fail cycles

We watch Andy struggle through conflicts with other inmates, guards, the prison warden, and even the state prison system. We see the rise and fall of his hopes and dreams and admire the way he manages to bring some real moments of beauty and light into the dark confines of the prison.

We see his situation seem to get better as he sets himself up as the resident tax advisor and reaps the benefits. However, the warden’s corruption results in Andy’s deeper imprisonment. Not only is he behind bars, but now he is forced to participate in laundering a river of dirty money for the warden. He is virtually a slave for an evil man.

5. Present the turning point

There’s a new kid on the cell block, a good-natured repeat offender named Tommy. He’s a breath of fresh air to the oppressed prisoners and a boost to Andy’s spirits as he tutors the young man to a GED and a chance at a future outside the prison walls.

The real turning point, however, comes when we realize Tommy holds a piece of evidence that could prove Andy’s innocence and spring him out of prison.

6. Inflict the darkest moment

Just as it seems things might be looking up, the warden has Tommy killed, smothering any hope that Andy might be able to appeal his sentence and escape enslavement as financial manager for the debauched and manipulative prison boss.

Andy is well and truly squeezed under the warden’s wicked thumb. The darkness of the moment is underscored when Andy is thrown into solitary confinement for months on end.

7. Produce the triumph

At this lowest moment, when all indications point to Andy’s destruction, he literally vanishes from prison. Gone! In a moment of supreme and delicious victory, we realize Andy has escaped. But it gets even better.

Not only has he bolted and made fools of the warden and his minions, but he’s managed to take a large chunk of their ill-gotten gains with him and forward solid evidence of their wrongdoing to the press, leading to their takedown.

Perhaps sweetest of all is the reunion he arranges with Red, his prison comrade who would never have made it outside the prison walls if not for Andy’s friendship and intervention.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most satisfying underdog movies of all time and is full of poignant and beautiful moments. It does a great job of embodying all the emotions you want a reader (or viewer) to feel throughout the story.

The Underdog’s Vicarious Thrill

There’s something irresistibly appealing about an underdog story. We all want to believe that we can succeed in the face of insurmountable odds. Give your readers that vicarious thrill by taking your underdog protagonist to the lowest of the lows so they can fight their way back to triumph.

What’s your favorite underdog book or movie? Tell us about it in the comments.

PRACTICE

There are a lot of moving parts in an underdog story. Let’s focus on one aspect. Write a scene portraying the disempowerment of your protagonist. You might begin by showing their life before events started tearing them down and then write about the downward spiral that forces them into the underdog position.

Create your own idea or use one of these prompts:

  • Kyra joins the swim team with aspirations to become a state champion. However, someone is spreading malicious rumors that spell trouble.
  • Declan’s work as a chemist wins him a lucrative position in a promising new startup, but not everyone is happy about that.
  • Tanya enjoys her career as a successful horse breeder. Until a valuable horse is stolen from a neighboring stable and she is a suspect.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you are finished, post your work in the comments and be sure to provide feedback for your fellow writers!

Joslyn Chase
Joslyn Chase
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.
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