Set-Ups and Pay-Offs

This article was originally published in The Writer magazine in 2006.

As readers, we are all familiar with the feeling that overcomes us when we’re reading a novel that’s so good we just can’t stop. We may have to be up for work in four hours, but we have to read just one more page. As writers, we would dearly love to ignite the same enthusiasm in our fans. But how do we do it?

Part of the answer lies in mastering the art of creating expectations in our readers’ minds about what is going to happen next in our story, and then fulfilling them–but in unexpected ways. In editorspeak, these are called set-ups and payoffs. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are already highly attuned to the set-ups that are aimed at us consumers of popular entertainment. Watching a horror movie, we know we’re supposed to feel suspense when the violins start screeching. In literature, our moral outrage at seeing a ragged orphan get kicked by a millionaire in Chapter One is an emotional investment that will be returned in Chapter Thirty, when the orphan, as a grown woman, becomes successful in her own right–and forgives that very same millionaire, who is perhaps now living in the gutter. Sometimes, a set-up can even be a physical object, one that is established early in a story as having particular meaning, then revisited later to reinforce the emotion behind it.
In a general way, a set-up is a cue, a hint from the author. A skilled writer can plant these cues without the reader ever being aware they are there. Of course, those cues must then be affirmed. Our readers, having trusted the author far enough to expect something from that ragged orphan in later life, are going to feel let down if she remains ragged all her life and dies without ever overcoming her circumstances.

Creating a set-up isn’t rocket science. I’ve done it in the first paragraph of this article, simply by hinting that reading this article will make you a better writer. I’ve set you up to experience an outcome. But it’s not just any old outcome. It’s one that I, the author, want you to have. One sign of a skilled writer is that he doesn’t simply hope people feel a certain way about his work. He creates in his readers’ minds exactly the kind of feeling he wants them to have. He does this by engaging their interest in a particular character or situation. It then becomes his job to lead his readers along until they’ve arrived at the point where he can pay them off in an emotionally satisfying way.

Before getting started on our step-by-step exercise, let’s create a clichéd but still effective example of a set-up: let’s invent a protagonist who’s somehow lost a floral-print cloth suitcase containing one hundred thousand dollars in cash, which she must find and deliver to the evil banker before next Sunday in order to avoid foreclosure on her farm. Us seeing her put the money in the floral-print suitcase is a little set-up. How she gets that hundred grand back is a major part of the plot, and is therefore a big set-up. She can’t solve her problem simply by winning the lottery, or by suddenly remembering where she put the money, because there’s no conflict, no transformation, no catharsis. She needs to embark on some kind of quest, preferably one fraught with risk and containing all kinds of unexpected detours.

So, the set-up, in this case, is the expectation I’ve planted that she either is or isn’t going to get that money. The payoff will happen when she gets it–or doesn’t. That’s the overarching expectation your readers will want satisfied. If they sense that you’re leading them too far off this path, they’re going to put the story down and go on to something else. Does this mean readers only want cheeseball plots with predictable outcomes? Of course not–quite the opposite. But they do want to feel that they’re in the hands of a master storyteller, one who’s not only taking them somewhere they couldn’t have gone in real life, but who’s leading them there with authority and confidence. And now, with this big set-up, you’ve given them a reason to turn to page two, so they can answer that all-important question: “And then what happened?”

Let’s keep going with this example, breaking it down into steps:

1. Decide in advance what kind of mood or moods you want to evoke in your readers.
This may seem obvious, but most beginning writers don’t understand that nothing about a reader’s reaction to a story should be left to chance. How do you want your readers to feel when our heroine realizes she’s in danger of losing everything? Let’s say that they ought to feel the same sense of panic and desperation that she does. So, that’s what the writer should be aiming for: panic and desperation. Once we’ve made that determination, Step One is complete.

2. Establish that mood through deliberate use of language.
Readers will see a fictional world through a filter that is partly their own and partly the author’s. There’s nothing a writer can do about the former, but the latter is completely under her control. There are a thousand different ways to describe a farmhouse, but because we’ve decided already that we want our readers to feel panic and desperation at the thought of our heroine losing her farm, we want to create a sense of attachment to the old homestead. Why? Because for this story to be really effective, our readers should feel as frightened as if they were losing their own homes. Our heroine doesn’t just live in her farmhouse. She grew up there; the land has sustained her family for generations; she knows every tree stump and grassy hill. It is, to her, an inextricable part of her identity. Show us all of this as we are introduced to our protagonist and her predicament, and choose words that will evoke the same feelings in us: beloved, timeworn, comfortable, familiar. Show us a banister polished by five generations of hands; let us see the initials of a young boy carved in a barn rafter a century ago. Your readers will soon come to feel that they grew up on this farm, too. They will identify with our heroine’s struggle, but more than that, they will want to go through it with her. It is that very desire that makes a reading experience worthwhile.

3. Be aware of all the various expectations readers will have, based on your set-up.
There is nothing new under the sun, as they say, so chances are your audience will have already heard a storyline similar to yours before. The author is responsible for having thought of this ahead of time, and for coming up with ways to deal with it. What stories are similar? What elements did they contain? How can the author strive to ensure that he doesn’t inadvertently mimic those stories, thus rendering his own work unoriginal and irrelevant? It’s worth making a list of titles with similar plots and revisiting some or all of them, both to learn from what other writers have done and to avoid copying someone else’s idea.

Again, it’s vital to remember the age-old conundrum storytellers have been facing ever since Homer first strummed his harp: avoid the predictable, but fulfill your readers’ expectations. How is one to resolve this apparent contradiction? The best answer is to focus on making your characters as vivid and genuine as possible. We won’t care if our heroine’s predicament seems like one we’ve heard about before if we feel that she is our heroine. But by the same token, be sure not to create a character who is deliberately and inorganically off the wall, just so she sticks out.

4. Establish many small set-ups that will be paid off quickly.
The pay-off to the big set-up won’t come until the climax of the story. What do we do in the meantime? We want to create a set of smaller, less momentous expectations, which pertain not to the big question of whether the farm will be saved, but to the daily actions of our protagonist. These are the things that make readers feel like characters are friends they’ve known their whole lives. The little set-ups and payoffs are also the meat of the story. As such, they are indispensable to good storytelling.

Let’s say our protagonist thinks she’s finally about to get her hands on that floral-print suitcase, which she has located in the trunk of a car. This could mean the end of all her problems, so the stakes are high.
‘She opened the trunk of the car, then stepped back and put her hand over her mouth. She tried to stifle the sobs, but they rushed out of her in a torrent. Frank came up behind her, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, softly, “I’m sorry.”‘
The set-up here is to create the question in the mind of the reader: What in the world is in that trunk?
‘She reached into the trunk and pulled out the floral-print suitcase. She knew it wasn’t hers, but she opened it anyway. Then, seeing what was inside, she turned away, fighting the tears that threatened to spill down her cheeks.’

Notice that I still haven’t answered the question of what’s in the suitcase. That’s to illustrate the fact that we can extend the pay-off as long as we like. You don’t want to give away all your secrets at once. How long can we stretch it out? Well, you can only get so much mileage out of opening a suitcase. But you can spin out the bigger question of “How does she get the hundred grand?” over the course of three or four hundred pages, and that’s your novel.

5. Try to deliver the pay-off in a way that the readers could not have predicted.
Pay-off, continued:
“She opened the suitcase, turned it upside-down, and dumped out not a pile of cash, but a stack of neatly-folded underwear and T-shirts, black socks, pants, and jacket, a white collar, and a Bible. Not only had she found the wrong suitcase, but it looked like there was a Catholic priest somewhere who was going to think he’d really hit the jackpot.”

Opening someone else’s suitcase is interesting, in a voyeuristic way. So, even though we didn’t see what we expected to see, we’ve still received a pay-off; we have the satisfaction of finding out what was in the suitcase, plus we’ve gotten to snoop through someone’s personal belongings, which always carries with it a kind of forbidden pleasure. And note that the reappearance of the floral-print suitcase itself is considered a kind of pay-off as well, since we set it up the first time we saw it.

6. Pay off the big set-up as part of the climax of your story.
Your readers will be expecting an answer to the question of what happened to the heroine’s money, and they will also be expecting to find out whether or not she gets to keep her house. Again, the resolution to these problems does not have to involve a happy ending. It does, however, need to answer these questions in a way that leaves no room for doubt as to how things got settled, and which also feels right to the reader.

A good writer is like a good stripper: he doesn’t show everything right away. He teases it out, little by little, prolonging the suspense for the audience. If a Chippendale dancer was to walk onstage, rip off his clothes, and then walk off again thirty seconds later, he might get a few claps and whistles, but no more than that–and there would be precious few dollar bills stuffed in his G-string. By contrast, if he takes twenty minutes to perform the same task, meanwhile always making his audience think he’s about to take it all off, he’s got them hooked.

Set-ups and pay-offs follow the same paradigm. Instead of teasing out our own personal déshabillement, it’s the story we’re gradually revealing. A skilled writer is always aware of how he wants his readers to feel at any given moment in the story. Mastering the art of set-ups and pay-offs will help ensure that whoever reads your work will keep asking for more… and this is how literary careers are built.

–William Kowalski

If you enjoyed this article, check out my FREE book, How to Write a Novel: Notes on the Creative Craft.

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