Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Setups, payoffs, and the clues in between), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
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Let's look at a rough draft that doesn't follow the two rules for setups and payoffs. Imagine you're reading a novel and the protagonist, Louisa, is on her way home from work when you come across this paragraph. (male speaker: Ahead a doorman whisked open a glittering glass door and a harried man dressed in black stepped out onto the sidewalk leading a sleek black Doberman Pinscher. The dog's mouth was secured by a leather muzzle, but as soon as Louisa stepped under the awning, it began to growl--a horrible low rumble.
She froze in her tracks. She hated doges, and clearly this dog knew it. She flicked wide eyes toward the dog's amused owner. "He won't bite as long as I'm holding the leash," the man said. "The hold on really tight, please," Louisa whispered, walking away as quickly as she could in stilettos. That paragraph would trigger a reader's story radar because it's a perfect setup. We instantly assume that there is something about that encounter that's important. After all, the author took the time to describe it.
I mean, there is even dialogue. But since we have no idea what the scene's significance is, from that moment on, we're on the lookout for its real meaning. Because one thing is for sure, Louisa's fear of dogs is going to come into play later-- at least that's what the writer has implied. Trouble is, the writer didn't actually intend for the dog story to mean anything. He just thought to add a nice intensity to a story and enlighten Louisa's otherwise boring walk home.
He has no intention of returning to it now or later. But we don't know that, so we are anticipating that the whole dog thing will come up again, and we're actively trying to figure out when. So what should the writer do about it? Well, unless he is going to rewrite the entire story so that the random dog scene has an actual story reason to be there, he'll have to steel himself and cut the scene, even though it's well written, even though by itself it's kind of exciting, because we know that the sooner a writer learns to kill their darlings, the better.
But what if the writer has the opposite problem? What if there is a payoff at the end of the story that doesn't have a corresponding setup? This time imagine there's been no sign whatsoever that Louisa is afraid of dogs. This, then, is the novel's last paragraph. (male speaker: Louisa had to get to Nick before the reporters did. She was innocent, but it didn't matter. He'd confess just to keep her out of jail. She was hardly breathing as the cab screeched to a halt outside the building.
She leapt out and then she heard it, the low growl of a wary dog, coming right toward her. She froze. Surely the animal sensed her terror and would do what all creatures do in the face of someone else's fear: attack. It's a dog eat do world. Who needs kindness? And then she though of Nick and what he was about to do for her. Trembling, she held out her hand, closing her eyes. She felt the dog's warm muzzle in her palm, and then a tentative lick.
Opening her eyes she saw he was wagging his tail, but he wasn't looking at her. He was staring into the building, as if he was urging her on. She patted his head and ran. But as Louisa raced up to Nick's penthouse, her anxiety evaporated. Somehow she knew she'd get there in time.) That was a great scene, except since it wasn't set up earlier in the story, we'd be thinking, wait a minute, Louisa is scared of dogs? When did that happen? And what's that thing about people attacking you when you're scared? Did I miss something? Maybe I should go back and reread.
So, does the writer have to cut this payoff the way he had to cut the stand-alone setup? No, truth is, he probably couldn't because this time it isn't just a random addition, it's something that's integral to the story he is telling. It's an important moment. He just forgot to let the reader in on it. So what he needs to do is go back into the beginning of the story and give us a setup. Maybe even that formerly random scene with a muzzled Doberman and the man in black.
But this time he needs to lace in the why behind Louisa's fear of dogs, the same way he did in the payoff when he told us that Louisa believes that showing her fear provokes attack. Then throughout the story, there will be moments when things would happen that would reference her fear, so we're continually aware of how it's holding her back and what she's doing to overcome it. These events then become that breadcrumb trail leading from setup to payoff.
They're what allow the reader to experience that delicious feeling of satisfaction when it all comes together in the end.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots