October is my favorite month for many reasons, including the Major League Baseball post-season. The crisp air amplifies the crack of wood on leather, and my strident voice when I scream at the television:
“Come on, ya chumps! You got a runner in scoring position, just put the ball in play and…”
I paused in my couch-coach invective: the angles of the infield suddenly reminded me of the classic plot pyramid. Introductory creative writing courses still flog that model, but as someone who’s now written several novels, I’ve found the model lacking. It doesn’t imply any relationship between the key events and the protagonist, who should advance the story with their decisions. Visualizing my story structure as a baseball infield instead, with the protagonist as a plucky batter determined to score, links narrative progress to character-driven action.
And so, as my Yankees’ World Series hopes died, the Infield Plot Model was born (just in time for NaNoWriMo). You don’t have to be a baseball fan for this approach to work. To illustrate, I’ll take a popular game-based story around the diamond. Now batting for District 12: Katniss Everdeen! I’ve used The Hunger Games as a plotting example before. Not only is it familiar to most readers, it also exhibits a simple-but-sturdy structure that taught me a lot about narrative architecture. Ready? Play ball!
Note: I’ll use the pronoun “he” to refer to your player/protagonist, since as of this writing all MLB players are male. But the analogy will also hold for softball if you prefer to envision your heroine running the base paths instead.
The Batter’s Box (Inciting Incident)
Your protagonist steps up to the plate, giving us clues about who he is before a single pitch is thrown. Is he superstitious, executing a careful routine of glove-adjustment and cleat-scraping, or does he stride calmly from the dugout? What walkout music has he chosen to represent himself? The way he reacts to the story’s opening salvo also reveals his character. A rookie eager to prove himself might take an unrestrained chop at a tricky pitch, while a veteran exhibits a more shrewd eye. Whether he takes an action (like getting a hit) or something forces him to move (like getting hit by a pitch), the Batter’s Box is a critical opportunity to introduce the protagonist as he embarks on the story’s path.
In The Hunger Games, one might say that Katniss pinch-hits for her sister. She demonstrates survival skills in providing for her family, and her fierce sororal devotion shines when she volunteers to take Prim’s place as Tribute.
First Base (Point of No Return)
While a teammate’s hit can advance the runners, this doesn’t mean your man on first is simply a chess piece waiting to move to the next square. If he’s daring, he’ll try to steal second base. A patient runner might taunt his antagonist (the pitcher) into a balk and stroll to second without dirtying his jersey. Quick runners can take advantage of an opponent’s error, like a wild pitch, to advance. All these options do more than just get him to the next plot point: they show how the attributes hinted at in the Batter’s Box support his pursuit of the goal.
Katniss steals attention with her unexpected performance in pre-game activities. No one expected a backwoods girl from District Twelve to become a favorite contender, but her grit and temper combust when she fires an arrow at the Gamemakers. Suddenly they acknowledge her as a threat…and will look for opportunities to get her off the field.
Second Base (Complications)
Ah, the dreaded middle, where the story can lose momentum and the runner can get stranded while his teammates foul off endless pitches into the stands. But it’s also where some of the best drama occurs. The runner is in scoring position, but a lot could threaten his progress. He bruises his ankle sliding into second, and has to convince the coach he’s fit to keep playing. Two batters strike out and jeopardize the promising rally. The second baseman turns out to be the guy traded to acquire your player last season; he’s still bitter, and determined to hinder our hero. Pile on the problems. The more obstacles in the way, the more satisfying it will be when our runner makes it to third.
Katniss encounters a lot of complications at second base. Beset by arena traps, she loses her friend Rue and struggles to nurse Peeta through injuries. But she finds ways to push back, challenging their authority and surviving to the final rounds.
Third Base (Climax)
This is it. Your batter has dashed around three-quarters of the infield. He’s dirty, sweaty, and sore. The goal is in sight…but now every opponent will be trying to throw him out and save the run. Raise the stakes. Make it two down, no score, bottom of the ninth in a crucial playoff game. This is a great place for an unexpected twist, like a sacrifice bunt. It’s an all-out sprint for home, and there can only be one winner.
In the final showdown of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss must engage in the fight she’s tried to avoid since entering the arena. Just when she thinks she’s won, the Gamemakers change the rules. Rather than comply, she and Peeta attempt a literal suicide squeeze that forces the Gamemakers to concede.
Home Plate (Resolution)
The binary outcome of a play at home plate neatly mirrors the genre classification of comedy versus tragedy. In a happy ending, your player scores the winning run and his teammates joyously douse him in Powerade. Writers who prefer dark, subversive endings might tag him out and send him on that long bus ride home with bitter defeat riding shotgun. Me, I like my characters to earn their run with some bruises and stains on their uniform: success, with consequences.
The game won, Katniss returns home in triumph. She’s achieved her goal and saved her family, but begins to realize that hero status may destroy both her freedom and her nascent relationship with Peeta.
Once you’ve finished sketching out the “base lines” of your story, assess your protagonist’s arc with a post-game interview. In your notes or in your head, pose him questions about the experience:
- Did the pressure of this game affect you?
- How did it feel to play against a former teammate?
- What went through your head on third base, making that crazy dash for home plate?
This silly exercise helps tease out character qualities that will make readers root for your hero and, hopefully, become fans of your work.