Throwing your readers a curve
That’s a wonderful cliche in the title–throwing someone a curveball. It’s one of those things you shouldn’t really say because it’s been said so often it’s old and boring.
Unless you’ve actually seen what this cliche refers to. In the mid-1980s, my beloved Mets were anchored by a pitcher named Dwight Gooden, and for a few magical months for a couple summers, it looked like the baseball gods had decided to let one of their own come down and play with the mere mortals.
It wasn’t just Gooden’s fastball–the pitch most people knew him for. In the place of his right arm, he had a cannon that looked like someone’s arm. But the pitch that determined whether you had a chance against Gooden was his curveball. It was a big, beautiful 12-to-6 curveball, called that because it seemed to go from twelve to six on the face of a clock before the catcher received it.
At his best, Gooden would get you looking for the fastball, then give you the curve. For most batters, the result made them look foolish. They started early, to catch up with the fastball, but the curve was quite a bit slower, and it came to the plate differently. And in the fraction of a second it took the ball to travel sixty feet six inches, you’d start to swing, realize you guessed wrong, and when you stopped, your knees would buckle.
For a pitcher, it’s a thing of beauty. As soon as those knees buckle, you know it’s strike three. If you’re pitching at home, that called third strike pumps the crowd like a home run.
When you throw your readers a curve, you have to be like Dwight Gooden. You have to convince your readers that you’re going with the fastball, get them to bet all their emotions on the fastball. They have to see enough skill with the curveball that they know it’s there, but get them to figure the fastball’s coming. If you don’t sell the fastball and the curveball in your writing, it won’t work.
If your literary fastball–your bread-and-butter–the meat of your story isn’t that great, the reader won’t buy it. They won’t look for more of the same. You won’t take them down the place where they expect a specific outcome. But they have to know about the curveball, to understand it’s a possibility. In other words, when you throw the curve, it has to be believable in the context of your story. Dwight Gooden’s curveball worked because people knew about it. But they had to account for the fastball. When the curveball came, it shocked them.
The trick to buckling your readers’ knees is to make your plot so strong that they won’t think to consider the curve you’re about to throw, but as soon as they see it, they’ll realize it was inevitable.
If you can do that, you’ll be a literary ace.
Check out the batter thinking the pitch will hit him.