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Set up and Pay off


Demented

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If there is anything I've learned in my time researching writing techniques and how different authors tackled their writing styles, it's this very simple concept that seemed to always come back to the forefront. The idea that if you set something up, you need to have at least one payoff for it. This is broader than just if you have a beginning you need to have an ending, or if you show a gun in the first act you need to use it by the third act. Every element you introduce into your story should be put in there with a payoff in mind. I think using this kind of thinking has helped me get through more writers block than anything else over the years. 

A setup in the way I see things is any element you introduce into a story. 

Lets say we have a character. He's in his mid twenties, an alcoholic, working a dead end job, and is just having a rough time at life in general. There is a lot in what I just said that set up things that I can pay off later in the story. That pay off doesn't have to happen in the characters future either. That payoff can come in the form of backstory, characters from his past, how his apartment looks, whatever. Any element that is birthed from the details you initially provided with that description pays off your set ups. Maybe we learn why he's already an alcoholic, or how he feels about being one, maybe he really wants to change his life but he's been stuck in such a rut he doesn't see a way out of it. You can further pay off that idea by showing his apartment strewn with empty bottles that he hasn't bothered to throw out, late bills piling up on his table that he doesn't want to look at, maybe angry people banging on his door that he owes money too. Not only are those descriptive elements payoffs, they are potential plot threads you can expound upon in the story. 

Each payoff to the initial setups can cascade into being their own setups and organically grow into a plot. By asking what the character really wants to be if he wasn't in this situation, you can have a payoff of opportunity for him to start changing his living conditions. Maybe he has this guy he really wants to date, but he doesn't want to drag him into the slovenly depressed lifestyle he finds himself in. Maybe him wanting to actually make something of himself encourages him to reach out to people who can support him into a new life. You can build a whole lot of hi-jinks into this, making it as dramatic or even as comedic as possible. Maybe he's got this friend who he asked to help him stop drinking, and that friend has taken his new duty in life to a damn near comical degree, crusading against every bottle that should dare touch his hand or mouth. He pops out of nowhere like a ninja to deal devastating death to Budweiser cans everywhere. Or maybe it's family who is trying to give him a second chance and it gets really dramatic cause he starts slipping back into drinking after something stressful in the story happens. 

I find this way of thinking about things really helps to bust through writers block. When you're stuck just ask yourself 'what have I set up in the story so far? what kind of payoff can I employ from the elements I already have to push this story into a direction I want.' Once you start thinking about it and asking questions about the elements you've introduced into the story, ideas will start to popcorn up for you pretty quick, at least in my experience they do. It's all about asking questions of your story elements and using improvisation to find the answers to those questions that'll lead to the continuation and ultimate conclusion of your story. 

Do you use this kind of method in your writing? Would you use it if you haven't before? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.  

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On 11/23/2020 at 6:12 AM, Demented said:

A setup in the way I see things is any element you introduce into a story. 

I'd argue more that it would be any element you introduce into a story and spent some time on.  Unless you are writing a mystery story of some sort and are seeding the story with your rope, wrench, lead pipe, candlestick and have Professor Plum hanging out in your library.

canada lol GIF

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  I do agree though that anything you are investing time in (versus a throw away mention of something) should have a pay off

I'd also argue that it depends on which type of story you are writing. (M.I.C.E. - Milieu, Idea, Character, Event).  If you are writing a primarily Milieu story, then spending gratuitous amounts of time world building for the sake of world building is par for the course.  (Hello pages and pages of songs in Lord of the Rings)

Quote

http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/Workshop-stuff/MICE-Quotient.htm


MILIEU: A milieu story concerns the world surrounding the characters you create.

IDEA: An idea story concerns the information you intend the reader to uncover or learn as they read your story.

CHARACTER: A character story concerns the nature of at least one of the characters in your story. Specifically, what this character does and why they do it.

EVENT: An event story concerns what happens and why it happens.

Probably a long winded way of saying yes, mostly. ;)

 

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On 11/25/2020 at 12:35 PM, Myr said:

I'd argue more that it would be any element you introduce into a story and spent some time on.  Unless you are writing a mystery story of some sort and are seeding the story with your rope, wrench, lead pipe, candlestick and have Professor Plum hanging out in your library.

canada lol GIF

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  I do agree though that anything you are investing time in (versus a throw away mention of something) should have a pay off

I'd also argue that it depends on which type of story you are writing. (M.I.C.E. - Milieu, Idea, Character, Event).  If you are writing a primarily Milieu story, then spending gratuitous amounts of time world building for the sake of world building is par for the course.  (Hello pages and pages of songs in Lord of the Rings)

Probably a long winded way of saying yes, mostly. ;)

 

I actually stumbled upon the MICE Quotient while plowing through a lecture series by Brandon Sanderson that was relatively recent. He had a guest speaker in one of the videos that talked about it. I've found it's super useful with figuring out what a scene's purpose is in the greater story and what the goals are of that specific scene. 

I think you're right about adding that caveat about narrowing the set up and pay off requirements to elements you're investing time in with the story. That said, the proverbial cigar can say a lot about a character depending on how you use it. What KIND of cigar is the character smoking? How long have they been smoking them? Has it changed their voice any? What is the setting they are in opinions on smoking? What is the characters opinion on their own smoking habit if they even have one in the first place? 

There's a lot you can play around with and make payoffs for later with something as simple as a cigar. 

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Ironically, in my latest story, I mentioned this concept of setup and payoff.

I consider this to be part an allusion to Anton Chekhov and his famous gun.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov's_gun

Not every aspect has to be directly referred to or used directly within a story, but if you mention it, then you need to think about how it works with the characters in context. Literally firing the gun is not always needed, but it does need to be used in some way to make sure the mention of it can further the plot.

Of course, Chekhov's gun principle may be circumvented in certain stories without penalty. Set-up without payoff is possible, when you intend to leave an unknown and mysterious plot hanging thread for future stories, for example, in Netflix's series You, the main character Joe mentioned his ex-girlfriend Candace in Season 1, but become a main focus in Season 2 story-lines. That's a long game set-up of character that becomes relevant only later to the plot.

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