Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (Setups, payoffs, and the clues in between), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
In a previous movie, we talked about how the brain analyzes everything in terms of cause and effect, if/this, then/that, because we're hardwired to see causality as the cement of the universe. The brain detests randomness. As a result, it's constantly converting raw data into meaningful patterns, the better to figure out what's safe, what isn't, and what the heck to do about it. So it's no surprise that as readers we're always on the look out for patterns.
To the reader, everything is either a setup, a payoff, or the road in between. Once readers spot a setup, they immediately start hunting for the breadcrumb trail that will lead to the payoff. Another words, a setup is anything that implies further action. Like when a guy throws a banana peel over his shoulder and we immediately start wondering, oh, who is going to trip? A big part of the pleasure of reading is recognizing, interpreting, and then connecting the dots as the pattern emerges.
After all, it's curiosity that keeps us turning those pages. That means you want to make sure every setup actually has a payoff and that there aren't any inadvertent setups leading nowhere. This is crucial since as we know readers assume that everything in a story is there on a need-to-know basis, which means they take it for granted that everything you tell them is part of a pattern. They believe that each fact, each event, each action will have story significance.
That's why it's incredibly easy for them to mistake a random unnecessary fact for a setup. To make matters worse, because its relevance to what's happening now isn't clear, readers assume it'll have even more significance later. So it becomes part of the filter that they run the meaning of everything through from that moment on. Naturally, this undermines the assumptions that you do want them to make. If for example, no one immediately slips on that banana peel, your reader will spend the entire story expecting someone sometime to take the fall.
In order to make sure you don't lead your readers astray, follow these two major rules of the road to get from setup to payoff. Rule 1, the setup must come long before the payoff. Telling us about a problem at the very moment it's being solved robs the story of suspense and of those specifics we were talking about earlier. We don't just want to know that the problem was solved, we want to know how with the protagonists solved it and what she went through to do it.
This means that the clues escalate as we go from setup to payoff because solving a problem is almost always harder than it seems at first. Rule 2, the reader must be able to actually see the problem unfold. Writers often believe that once the reader knows that the protagonist is dealing with the problem, they'll automatically imagine how that problem is affecting the protagonists, not so. It's the writer's job to make sure that each clue along the way is there in plain view so the reader can see it.
Writers tend to hold back because since they know what each hint and each clue actually means, they certainly will be completely obvious to the reader too, it's not. What the writer fears as a dead giveaway is actually a tantalizing clue to the reader who is counting on these clues to be able to anticipate what might happen next and do what readers love best, try to figure out what's really going on. Remember, by creating engaging setups, you'll trigger the reader's curiosity, and by giving them intriguing clues that they lead toward the payoff, you'll keep them reading.
So when you find something random, irrelevant, or neutral in your story, boot it out. Lest it become the banana peel that causes your reader's curiosity to slip and fall.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots