story structure

Set the Table, Clear the Table

I have a particular fascination with the title sequence for Chef’s Table and certain scenes in Downton Abbey: I like to watch how the silverware, glasses, and plates get arranged. It seems weird, but I find something very soothing in watching linen unfurl and different things finding “their” space on the table with a precise intention and deliberate effort.

Maybe this is because I very seldom keep things that organized for long. I make the bed, and then dump things onto it. I swear that this time I’m going to not pile things on the shelf next to the desk, and then about a day later, I’m rooting through a pile of notebooks trying to find the one I want.

This is frustrating for me, and probably ten times moreso for the people who’ve ever lived with me, cleaned up after or around me, or generally wanted me to live in a better way.

The point I’m making is that part of organization is understanding the two bookends of it. You have to set the table before you can eat the meal, and you have to clear the table so you prepare for the next meal.

Today we’re going to talk about setups and payoffs as structural elements in story.

What Is A Setup?

A setup is any piece of information that creates an opportunity to be acted upon later. That piece of information might be a single word (like “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane), or a scene (like the discovery of the clue in any police procedural) or anything in between. Setups can function for plots just as easily as they can for arcs or worldbuilding. They can go anywhere in storycraft, but they will always have some rules in order to be considered functional or satisfying.

A. The setup must be paid off using information known or discovered just prior to the moment of the payoff itself.
B. The purpose of the setup is to add information of merit to what’s already known or assumed to be known.
C. The setup never contradicts its own setting up without sacrificing credulity or tone.
D. The setup must have a payoff of at least equal scope or fit into a greater picture to be revealed.

Let’s go through these one at a time.

The setup must be paid off using information known or discovered just prior to the moment of the payoff itself. If you’re trying to figure out who stole the priceless diamond, you have all the story events you know prior to the moment you’re in currently (where you’re in the middle of figuring out who did it) to help you uncover the thief. You can’t count the act of you figuring it out as part of the solution itself, because the process of something is itself not the solution (yes, exceptions exist, but for the vast majority, we’re safe in saying this).

If that was a little abstract, try this: 4 is the answer to 2 + 2. Adding two and two together will give you four, but the answer to two plus two is not the phrase “two plus two.”

In our diamond example, you figuring it out is 2 + 2 and the thief is 4, we want to get to 4.

Why make that distinction? Because it tells us that payoffs don’t have to immediately follow the setup if we don’t want it to. So long as I at some point get to 4, I can take my sweet time getting through 2 + 2, because I have the entirety of the story to discover both 2s and that I have to add them together. Likewise, I’m not going to get my 4 without understanding that the 4 is the end result of the effort, and I can only reach that end through my being able to have all the pieces in front of me. (Note: Yes, I know this is subverted beautifully in Arrival, but that’s not always going to be the case in every story)

If I reach my conclusion in some other way that is only suddenly revealed AFTER I’m supposed to have done it (like if someone tells me the who the thief is well after I’ve been trying to figure it out), then the whole effort put in to figure it out is wasted. Why did you just spend 85000 words to figure out that Erin did it when you have Terry just breeze in and undercut all the tension at word 85001?

If you’re looking to satisfy an audience, then they have to be aware of the setup, see how it fits into context, and have it paid off with what’s already known. Don’t think you’re scoring “clever” points because the payoff is out of the ordinary that cheapens the audience’s efforts to pay attention.

The purpose of the setup is to add information of merit to what’s already known or assumed to be known. “Information of merit” is information that makes a difference to the audience. It helps clarify what’s already known or it introduces information that will fit into context in the near future. It’s not just there to be there, and it’s not incidental. This helps to answer the question of ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and helps cement existing context into place. It doesn’t come out of left field, it doesn’t stick out against all the other context you’ve established, and the information gives us something new to add to what we already know.

Oh, you’re telling me that the Jess wishes John would moping about snow because she wants him to learn to appreciate things, it’s part of her nature and revealing that to an audience gives them insight into who she is and what their relationship is like. You’re not just telling me that because you wrote really zippy dialogue for each of them to say because every time you read it you laugh at your own snow pun. A setup that offers no additional insight or contribution to some element of story or the shading and coloring of other elements of story is something that can be flagged for removal.

Hold up. Pump the brakes. Let me make one thing super clear – this is NOT me saying that stories need to be streamlined anorexic skeletons that only have the barest of linear structures because all the other stuff is “skippable” or “junk” or “uninteresting” (insert your own bullshit word there). This is me saying that development must be purposeful. If it goes on the page, do something with it.

The setup never contradicts its own setting up without sacrificing credulity or tone. When you’re establishing something, let’s say you’re setting up that two characters had a previous relationship and one of them has carried regrets about it for years, that previous relationship’s existence cannot detract from the fact that you’re bringing it up. Again, development is purposeful, so if you’re going to connect the characters this way and include the regret aspect of it, if you want the regrets to mean something and carry some weight, the effect of the regret has to put some torque or strain on the character(s). If there are regrets, but they don’t have any weight, or if they never come up, are they really there in the first place, let alone do they matter?

Now if the credibility of the setup doesn’t matter, let’s say you’re writing comedy, you can toss this out the window. In something like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, there’s the garbage-can-in-the-jail moment where Ted says to remember to rig a garbage can and then we know he did because the garbage can falls on the guy. The character-in-peril moment is made into a joke because the setup (remember the garbage can) goes against what it’s setting up (we don’t see this have any impact on the story, we don’t see this create any paradox, we just see the end result of whammo, trash can).

The setup must have a payoff of at least equal scope or fit into a greater picture to be revealed. Think about a slot machine. You put in 1 token let’s say, and when you win, you never get anything smaller than 1 token back. You don’t “win” by putting in one, then getting one-third. The payoff and the setup have to be of at least the same scope or the payoff has to be greater than the setup in order to feel satisfying.

You’ve got the superspy fighting the villain on the rooftop as the bomb ticks down. The setup is that ticking clock, where the presumed failing outcome (what if the superspy loses) is that the bomb goes off and everyone dies. The payoff to the ticking clock has to be proportional to its existence. As you increase the scene’s tension (the clock is ticking), the urgency to not fail increases. If you set up this bomb with like a three day timer and the hero gets to fighting the villain with like 31 hours left, you’re suggesting that this fight is going to take 31 hours in order to have that “will it or won’t it go off” feel appropriately tense.

The reason why a payoff has to be at least as big as the setup is so that the audience can connect with it and then root for the payoff to end satisfactorily. Too small a payoff and the audience will wonder why we were supposed to care so much (and its related question, “Did I just waste my time?”). Too large a payoff and we’ll feel like we’re missing something.

Earning Your Payoffs

A payoff is any resolution of something set up. This is referred to in a lot of different ways: “closing the loop” “finding the pair/mate” “delivering on it”, but it all means the same thing – the tension or idea presented by the setup is concluded in a way that the audience can place it into context.

Like setups, there are also rules to follow:

A. The payoff has to follow the established rules of the world and situation it exists in
B. The payoff must be clear in at least one context or to one element of the story.
C. The payoff is always earned.
D. The payoff must be of at least equal scope to its corresponding setup.

The payoff has to follow the established rules of the world and situation it exists in. If you’ve set up that we need to find the corrupt politician’s emails that exist only on this one server kept in the secret basement of an Arby’s, then we’re going to deliver on that set up by dealing with the server in that Arby’s probably via hacking (since it makes sense relative to servers) and not via using an elaborate series of balloons and magic Vallhund (google it) smiles.

Payoffs serve two functions – to explain things that need explaining, and to create a context for the explained material alongside all the previously explained material. A payoff that comes out of the blue because it gets explained in incredulous ways is not satisfying. (See the post-patronus hippogriff scene in Azkaban, it remains a splinter under my skin).

The payoff must be clear in at least one context or to one element of the story. It’s not a payoff if it doesn’t resolve anything (it’s just another setup). Long form series are rife with them – The Sopranos have a guy wandering the Pine Barrens, Game of Thrones has giant dragon chains, Star Trek has Kirk’s eyeglasses. A lot of “media criticism” is made out of highlighting them, which is atrocious and teaches us nothing, because a thing’s existence isn’t the problem, it’s what is or isn’t done with the thing – the squandered potential of it.

A payoff can serve multiple setups, as in the case of plot or climax resolution where killing the badguy settles the questions: “what’s gonna happen to the badguy” and “will the good guys survive?” But not all payoffs need to be multipurpose as too often this can feel rushed or lumpy (that’s not a great word but I don’t know how else to describe the globular nature of things just mashed together into a knot of scene and story), which results in unsatisfying storytelling.

The payoff is always earned. The satisfaction of the payoff comes in knowing that the character(s) faced some kind of challenge or difficulty in getting it. While the payoff accomplishes something material to the story, it carries an emotional and psychological weight that we don’t need handed to us, because we enjoy the responsibility and sometimes challenge of going through the story to earn it along with the characters.  Delivering us the payoff tells the audience you either thought them too stupid to “get it” or that it doesn’t matter ultimately if they worked for it or not, so instead of being stupid, you don’t respect their effort.

The payoff must be of at least equal scope to its corresponding setup. As before, the parity between the two adds to the sense of value for them both.

Placing This In Story

There are two ways to handle setups and payoffs: you can deliver on them as-is/as-expected or subvert them. You’ve got to understand the utility of both to really know how to construct setups and payoffs that’ll best fit your story.

Delivering as-is means the audience gets the intended reward for the intended work at the intended time. The story where Bruce Willis kills a guy for selling his daughter an ugly hat in a linear A went to B went to C progression makes sure the audience feels a certain way at a specific time and the story is devoid of confusion and nuance because really it’s just the story of Willis shooting people to collect a paycheck. Expecting certain moments and certain feelings and getting them feels satisfying.  The majority of setups and payoffs are delivered as-is because they’re cumulative effect helps present the story in the way its meant.

Subverting the expectation means taking the as-is and altering it either in execution or delivery. Your big “Bruce Willis has been bald this entire time” twist suddenly colors the entire story and brings the tale of haberdashery and petulance to a satisfying conclusion but not because it was directly linear, but the twist helps frame the linear material into a different and deeper way.

Think of it this way: Subversion adds depth because it counts on the as-is to do its job.

This is why you can’t do a story that’s only twists, because then you have no stable base to build from (assuming you want to preserve tone and credulity). The most recent twist always takes the most spotlight, so if you stack three twists atop one another, you’d be reducing the impact of the first two.

Subversion works when you let one element become the frame or lens for all the other not-subverted pieces (egads! that’s his cousin!) or when the subverted payoff or setup helps focus attention on a different take on existing material (as in that’s his cousin, but instead of being creepy, it’s aromantic).

Whether this overall means you delay the payoff or present it in a way that’s not expected is up to you. Whether you present the setup without the elements you think we’re used to seeing (the damsel in distress is suddenly Chris Pine) or not is up to you.

But be deliberate. Plan this out. Don’t think that you’ve got to have a twist just because “it’ll sell” or “go over better.” Setups and payoffs help cement legacy content and establish story mythology and world building, this isn’t something to slapdash through.

Do you have a favorite twist? What was one that you tried and failed? How could you have rehabbed it and saved it? Tell me below in the comments.


Happy writing

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, by request, dissect writing, 1 comment