What does baseball have to do with the way stories are told? How will the image of home plate and the diamond of bases help you pace the “big moments” that propel your story forward and keep readers hooked?
One of the things I’ve learned over the past few weeks was how to analyze stories I’ve been reading all my life through the lens of structure. There’s a whole language that goes with this. First plot point. Key event. Mid point. Climax. (Those are not in order.) I’ve heard of words like these before but was always a little intimidated by them, and never thought I’d be able to grasp how to work these requirements into my own writing. If you’re like me, this blog post is for you.
Because I’m a teacher by profession, I’m able to take complex ideas and reframe them into simple images that make them easier to understand.
Here’s the structure we’re trying to build into our stories:
First Act: Hook, Inciting Event, Key Event, First Plot Point
Second Act: First half of the second act, Midpoint, Second half of the second act
Third Act: Climax, Resolution
Sound complicated? I read about it in a complete series on story structure in K.M. Weiland’s blog. She explains story structure and reasons to follow the plan in such a compelling way, that there’s no need for me to reiterate anything she covers.
But I will build on it to give you the image of the baseball diamond, and show how you can use this visualization to frame your story, even as you are first dreaming it up in your head and before you write one single word.
With only three acts in story structure, and four bases in the baseball diamond, you may wonder how this analogy works. So allow me to make the comparison between a baseball and structured storytelling in the form of a story.
A baseball diamond as story structure
The hitter (we’ll call him Tom) steps up. First we see Tom on home plate, and in terms of any story, this represents the beginning, when we see the main character at home in a type of “comfort zone” before events start to unfold.
Tom and the pitcher duke it out, and finally the pitch count is two strikes and three balls. The next pitch determines whether Tom hits, gets a walk, or whether he’s out. Maybe Tom’s team has two outs in the ninth inning, and their fate hangs on the next pitch. If Tom gets another strike, it’s over. We sit on the edges of our seats, wondering how this will play out. As spectators, we’re hooked, the same way we want to hook our readers near the beginning of a story.
Then Tom gets a hit. In a story, this is the inciting incident that draws the main character into the story’s events. Suddenly we’re completely engaged in his game and we want to know what’s going to happen to him. While he’s running to first base there are several throws in the field that tighten the suspense. There’s a throw to first, and Tom is just about to tag the base.
The first baseman catches a split second too late (the key event) and with his foot secure on the base, Tom is now so deep in the game there’s no going back. This is the first plot point, the moment the “First Act” makes the transition into the “Second Act.” In terms of structure, as with baseball, it comes at one quarter of the way into the story, or 25% of your word count. This is necessary to hold your readers’ attention.
The truth is, even though Tom is safe at first, he could be tagged out at any time. The pitcher, his ultimate antagonist, keeps tabs on him and threatens his progress at all times. But Tom is a fighter, and from first base he takes a lead-off, pushes his boundaries, tests his limits. But he’s a bit nervous, and doesn’t want to blow his chance. With the next hitter up, the catcher fumbles the ball and Tom sees his chance to steal to second.
Spoiler alert: The “Second Act” is the entire expanse between first base (the first plot point) and third base (the climax). That’s a whopping 50% of your word count in the middle of your story. The first half of the second act (between first and second bases) is the time when your main character is reacting to the event of the first plot point, still a little unsure of how he feels about it.
While Tom’s stealing to second there’s a desperate throw to the second baseman, but Tom prevails. He’s safe. In a story this is the Midpoint, when the main character turns the corner of his character arc and begins to face his challenges head-on. Instead of reaction, this means action. Confidence. Taking charge.
With another hit, Tom runs to third. The ball is fumbled in the field, and he touches third only for a fraction of a second, because the third base coach tells him to run. There’s no stopping the momentum that powers him all the way home. But there’s still no guarantee of success. If he’s out at home plate, his team will lose the entire game. The crowd goes wild, urging him on.
This is the goal with the climax. We want the climax to be such a gut-wrenching sucker-punch of an event, that there’s literally no putting the book down until there’s a complete resolution. In stories, the climax happens at the 75% mark, and the remaining quarter of the story is entirely caught up in untangling the tension.
With the ball hurtling through the air, and a throw to home plate, Tom hits the ground and slides feet-first full-tilt at the precise moment the catcher, foot on home plate, latches the ball into his voluminous mitt. There’s an audible gasp as everyone awaits the umpire’s verdict.
Safe! Tom is the hero and our story has a happy ending.
I must admit that I’d never given any thought to structure prior to finding Weiland’s blog. Luckily for me, by absolute fluke, my novel, Scenario, is very close to the 25%, 50% (with mid-point), 25% structure. Is yours?
I now know I need to remove about 8,000 words to move the first plot point to the 25% mark in the word count. To figure out what to remove I’m going to create a scene map to find out which scenes give me the most bang for my buck, and then cut the ones that don’t stand the test. I’d like to challenge you to do the same.
The other thing I’ve learned is how important these landmarks are to the character’s development through their arc. The first plot point, midpoint and climax aren’t there just to make a story exciting, they’re there to push the character to grow, to dig deeper. With this in mind, I now know I must create bolder strokes in my storytelling to show how the events in my story shape my main character. I would challenge you to ask yourself the same tough questions: How have your story’s events shaped your character’s development? How have you shown it?
Story structure is much more than a formula. It is a tried and true map of plot development, character development and reader engagement. I hope my baseball analogy compels you to consider its usefulness to you, and makes the structure unforgettable as you continue to hone your skill as a writer.