Set up, pay off

When I embark on a new writing project, I always consider the setups and the payoffs. By that I mean the events that connect and give a certain satisfying symmetry to the story. The more of these elements scattered throughout the work the better, as they add layers and complexity for the reader. They also ensure that you don’t have an un-fired Chekov’s gun, or an unsatisfactory deux ex machina happening.

A powerful early setup can create tension for the rest of the story. This can be in a prologue where you show what will come later, like the explosion at the start of the film Michael Clayton. The reader has that hanging over them for as long as you want. Then seeing the event later, in the context of the story, is the payoff.

Other setups (or foreshadowings) are important when you need to communicate believable outcomes later. For example, in early conversation your hero reveals he won sharpshooting competitions when he was young. This is paid off later when he makes an incredibly difficult shot to save the victim. Because of the setup, it’s believable. Setups can also be questions, the payoffs the answers.

The more subtle and satisfying set-ups come where your character says something, or something happens, or something is carefully noted, that only becomes significant later. This gives the reader a moment of clarity where everything falls into place, like in the final episode of Better Call Saul (I won’t include any spoilers here).

The setup/payoff is an element that can be added in subsequent drafts, once the arc of the story and the themes and characterization have been fully realized. But never underestimate its importance. I tend write each one down and connect them on a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet, to make sure I’ve left no setups or payoffs bereft of a partner.

For those of you who study the Bible, this element is executed with perfection. See the above illustration, created by Chris Harrison and Pastor Christoph Römhild. (Click on the image to see it in higher quality.) The symmetry is beautiful, and something we can aspire to in some small way in our own work.