22 March 2011

setups and payoffs

We've been busy going through our slushpile over at ElectricSpec. Recently, I was pondering a story that was so close to being really good...but it wasn't quite there yet. So, I had to reject it. In that situation, I wish I could sit down with the author and talk about their story. Alas, the few times we editors have tried that via email it hasn't worked. :( So, I thought I'd try to discuss some aspects of this story which didn't work--while keeping it as general and anonymous as possible. Many stories we see do not have satifying setups and payoffs. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but readers expect setups and payoffs. Editors also expect setups and payoffs. (I must admit I have trouble with these in my own writing.)

In the story in question, the opening paragraph was cute but it wasn't really related to anything else in the story. Most readers expect the beginning of the story to set up, or get the reader ready for, the rest of the story. As an example of what not-to-do, I have a story that starts with the protag's rant against her ex-husband. But as my critique partners pointed out, the relationship with the ex is not what the story is about--so it shouldn't start there. This is related to the common problem that stories usually start later than authors think they do. So, in your story: look at where it ends up. What is this story about? Now go look at the opening: is the setup there? My bad story is actually about the protag's relationship with her daughter, thus I need to edit the opening to set it up for the reader that it's about the daughter. As it stands, a page or two later, I do get to the daughter, so I probably need to cut that first page or two. Should you cut your existing opening?

The main problem with the story in question was it fizzled out at the end. I read faithfully for over four thousand words and ...blah. The protag basically achieved her heart's desire (good!) but it was by accident AND there was no satisfying character reaction. One definition of payoff is it is the climax of a story, the scene that satisfies the reader's emotions and/or intellect as it wraps up the story plot(s). It often falls at the very end of the story. Take a look at the last page of your story: is it satisfying for the reader? If not, how can you make it sastifying?

Good luck with your setups and payoffs! And keep sending us your stories.


Betsy Dornbusch said...

I should probably point out that I tend to read the first couple of pages and then, if I think it's going well, I check the ending next before reading on.

Sometimes a story is good enough to carry me all the way through, but often not, especially when I'm in my "editor" mode.

Peter Dudley said...

This is an excellent description of what I've learned over the years. While there may be more room in the first chapter of a novel, it's really not much, and the setup has to be on that first page.