The realm of appropriate payoffs
Summary: The best story payoffs match the setup while being better than expected.
The most satisfying executions of story setup and payoff surprise audiences in some way. But, not just any suprise will do. The payoff must still fulfill the promise of the setup. It must fall into what I call, for lack of a better term, the “realm of appropriate payoffs.”
Every setup has an appropriate domain into which a payoff must fit. If the setup is a mystery, the payoff must be a revelation. If the setup is emotional (fear, grief, romantic attraction), the payoff must be emotional as well (security, acceptance, love).
In Character and Viewpoint, author Orson Scott Card explains:
“Whenever you tell a story, you make an implicit contract with the reader. Within the first few paragraphs or pages, you tell the reader implicitly what kind of story this is going to be; the reader then knows what to expect, and holds the thread of that structure throughout the tale.” (Card, Page 70)
The setup determines the realm of appropriate payoffs. When stories leave audiences unsatisfied, it’s often because the storyteller set up expectations in a certain way and then failed to deliver a payoff that matched.
Here’s Orson Scott Card again:
“Choosing one structure does not preclude using another. For instance, in . . . [a] murder mystery, you can also follow [a] widow’s attempts to find a new role for herself. The reader will gladly follow that story line as a subplot, and will be delighted if you resolve it along with the mystery. However, the reader would feel cheated if you began the novel as a mystery, but ended it when the widow falls in love and remarries — without ever solving the mystery at all! You can do that once, perhaps, for effect — but readers will feel, rightly, that you misled them.” (Card, Page 71)
Thus, the challenge for storytellers is to find a payoff that’s optimally surprising while still falling within a realm appropriate to the setup.
Similar in kind, different in magnitude
One simple approach is to have the payoff match the kind of thing the audience expects but subvert their expectations in terms of magnitude. This provides a payoff that directly meets expectations but is better than expected.
Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson explains:
“Imagine it as if you are giving a present to your children . . . And you’re like, ‘Oh you like cars? Do you like Matchbox cars?’ And they’re like, ‘Yes! I love Matchbox cars.” . . . And they’re like, ‘Man, I bet [I’m going to get] a Matchbox car for my birthday.’ And they get really excited by it. And then it’s socks.
“That’s a twist. It’s not hard to surprise a reader by giving them socks instead of a Matchbox car — really easy to do — and it makes for a terribly unsatisfying experience . . .
“Good twists are of a different sort, where the kid opens [the present] and . . . you have learned that they love Super Mario, so you have given them a Super Mario Matchbox car. So it combines two of their loves. It’s more than they ever wanted.” (Sanderson, 3:30-3:50) (Emphasis mine.)
In Sanderson’s example the satisfying gift does end up being a Matchbox car. It’s true to kind. But it also delivers more.
There are other ways to do this that go further afield. The gift could have been a remote-controlled car, for example — still within the realm of “appropriate to the setup” but more different than predicted.
A practical example
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice provides a good example as demonstrated across the arc of an entire story.
From the beginning of the story, Austen establishes Mr. Darcy as the one whom Elizabeth should marry. He’s fabulously wealthy and respected in society, and he’s smart, too. But, his cold and prideful manner pushes Elizabeth (and the audience) away. Elizabeth cannot be with someone whom she cannot respect. This is key to the story, the promise of the setup is that Darcy must become someone whom Elizabeth can respect, and she must come to respect him.
The genius of Pride and Prejudice is not in whether or not this happens but in how.
Austen masterfully weaves the protagonist’s story together with Darcy’s through Wickham, a scoundrel who first appears as an appealing alternative love interest and then transforms into an antagonist. Through their dealings with Wickham, Elizabeth discovers her own prejudices and Darcy demonstrates true self sacrifice for her.
When the couple finally get together, the audience understands that they’re deeply suited by mutual regard and respect precicely because of their shared experience. The way in which they gain respect for one another is impossible to predict ahead of time and yet deeply satisfying when it happens.
Austen delivers what she set up, but she also delivers more.
This is the magic of a payoff done well. The setup creates a trajectory that establishes what makes up the realm of appropriate payoffs, and it points the audience to a false prediction, which will be subverted. Then, the ending pays off the trajectory in a way that is appropriate to the setup but better than expected. It gives the audience what they wanted, but in a way they didn’t see coming.
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