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Ducks on the Pond

The Writer's Playbook

One of the most fascinating aspects of writing in the mystery/thriller/suspense genre is the enormous opportunity to consistently deliver a unique plot twist that the reader didn’t see coming. It’s the chapter that ignites the story like a rocket, captivating the reader such that they never forget it for the rest of their lives. The grander that “moment” plays out, the more unforgettable it becomes.

Now place yourself at a baseball game at whatever level – Little League, high school, collegiate or MLB. While the sport offers several incredible moments in every game, there is one that trumps them all… a Grand Slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the game. As the game unfolds the intrigue builds and sets up that seminal moment to transport the fan from watching the game, to inching to the edge of their seat, to standing to elation or complete depression. The reason is the emotional investment by the fan culminating in that razor’s edge setting of a thrilling victory or crushing defeat.

The reason both a reader and sports fan experience a very similar “rush” is the experience they witnessed in the outcome of both stories. For the reader, the plot twist triumph of good over evil and for the fan, the plot twist athletic accomplishment that results in victory for their team.

In this manner, I think lifting a page from baseball’s most glorious moment is educational in the construct of a plot twist that a reader will remember forever. The Grand Slam set up takes time to build to because all the pieces must fall in place in a certain way, and in a definitive order to set the stage. 

Baseball’s ability to deliver that plot twist moment is different than any other sport. It takes time to build to because all the pieces must fall in place and in a certain way in order to set the stage for that glorious home run. The game lingo for players on base are “ducks on the pond,” a metaphor used by baseball announcers and fans across the country. Its origin goes back to the 1940’s and is still used today. Most often, getting those ducks on the pond is not accomplished with big plays, but rather a combination of small moments that have connective tissue to the previous one. 

As an example, it’s the bottom of the 9th inning and the hometown team is down by one run. Last chance to win the game is they must score at least twice. I’ve seen this countless times over my 15 year career with the Detroit Tigers. What happens is a combination of smaller plays that build the Grand Slam story along the lines of:

  • Batter 1 is walked unintentionally.
  • Batter 2 sacrifice bunts Batter 1 over to second base, eliminating the double play possibility and advancing the runner. 
  • Because Batter 1 is at second base in scoring position, so the pitcher intentionally walks Batter 3 to reset the opportunity to force a double play and end the inning. Now Batter 1 and Batter 3 are on base.
  • Batter 4 hits a deep enough fly ball to allow Batter 1 to advance to third base but holds Batter 3 at first because the relay throw comes to second base preventing Batter 3 from advancing.
  • The pressure has ratcheted up the pressure on the pitcher, now facing Batter 5. The pitcher’s composure is challenged, resulting in a hit-by-pitch scenario on the sixth pitch with a 3-2 count and the game on the line. The pitcher has now erringly put Batter 5 on first and has moved Batter 3 over to second.  Bases loaded…ducks on the pond!
  • Batter 6, the best slugger on the team, steps to the plate and you know the result. Fans go nuts as the plot twist unfolds. The crack of the bat brings them to their feet in unison as they watch the baseball sail over the fence. Elation! Victory! Can you believe what just happened? Grand Slam to win the game!

The point of this comparison is that a combination of smaller plot lines that build and feed off one another (positively and negatively) is maneuvered in such a way as to build plot and ratchet up the stakes of the outcome. It may be your antagonist commits an unforced error, or that your minor character does something that the reader doesn’t even realize feeds the set up later in the book. By the time the unbelievable plot twist chapter comes along, it’s loaded with “ducks on the pond.” 

A home run plot twist is great for the reader, but a Grand Slam, bottom of the ninth inning home run is an emotional thrill ride of huge proportions. 

Happy writing!