Setups and Payoffs: What are they?

Here’s how Robert McKee sums ’em up: 

“To set up means to layer in knowledge; to pay off means to close the gap by delivering that knowledge to the audience. When the gap between expectation and result propels the audience back through the story seeking answers, it can only find them if the writer has planted these insights in the work.”

Let’s dig deeper into what this all means, and how we can do it ourselves.

Setup: What is it?

Other words for “setup” include foreshadowing, plants, hints, clues, tells…

Sure, we could distinguish these terms, but, to me, the distinctions boil down to a matter of degree, as in, Where does the piece of information fall on the Reader Awareness Continuum, which ranges from Totally Obscured to “Look at Me! I’m Foreshadowing!”

Hitting all points on the awareness continuum is fine, great even; as Dwight Swain says, “You can be as crude or subtle as your story and your editor permit.”  But I don’t think it matters so much what we call each point on the continuum… it just matters that we hit each point (or not, whatever’s best for your story).

Anyway, here’s what the masters have to say about Setups (using its many synonyms):

Setup: Defined

“Foreshadowing is hinting at the action or obstacles to come,” says Les Edgerton.

Karl Iglesias agrees:  “Foreshadowing is … a hint of future danger or the promise of things to come through a twist, a clue, or character nuance.”

“The definition of foreshadowing,” says Larry Brooks, is “anything that links to, or reveals a glimpse or hint of a forthcoming story point or issue of characterization, but that is not yet recognized by the reader as a salient story point itself at the moment of its revelation.”

“Foreshadowing suggests, whispers, or plants information, and deepens the reader’s sense of anticipation by laying down traces of what will happen later in the story,” says Jessica Page Morrell.

“Foreshadowing lays the groundwork; it provides an early sign,” says William Noble.

“Planting means preparing the ground for something that comes later, usually to make the later action credible,” says Sol Stein.

“Foreshadowing legitimizes future events by planting early clues,” says Chris Roerden.

“I define foreshadowing as giving greater credibility to a character’s actions and abilities by laying the groundwork for them earlier in the [story],” says Michael Hauge.  “Foreshadowing is used to make the characters’ actions believable, and to prevent contrived solutions to the major obstacles the characters face.”

“Foreshadowing,” says Mr. McKee is “the arrangement of early events to prepare for later events.”

“To plant something means to stick that something into your story early in the game because you know you’re going to need it later,” says Mr. Swain.

And for James N. Frey, “Foreshadowing is the art of raising story questions. If the story questions are slight, the reader is mildly interested. If the story questions are great, the reader is gripped.”

When should you use setups?

1. To create credibility for future story events.

As Mr. Stein says, “Some obstacles need to be planted ahead of time so as not to seem arbitrary devices of the author.”

For example, setups can

  • lay the groundwork (and create reader anticipation) for major scenes
  • lay the groundwork for (and create reader curiosity about) withheld information or secrets you’ll eventually reveal
  • lead the reader and/or character astray so that you can create a twist (see below),
  • lay the groundwork for extreme weather or other “coincidences” that eventually affect the plot
  • basically bolster any event in your plot that, without setup, readers would roll their eyes at.

2. To bolster the credibility of your characters.

“There’s absolutely nothing your protagonist can’t do–be it fly, walk through walls, or recite the dictionary backward–provided you’ve foreshadowed this unusual talent long before it becomes the only way out of a sticky situation,” says Lisa Cron.

Karen S. Wiesner agrees. “For a character to succeed, you must set the stage from the beginning so your main character can believably use what’s in his bag of skills to rescue, escape, defeat, and fight (in whatever way makes sense in your story).”

“The same is true when you want your characters to deviate from the norm,” says Ms. Cron, be that society’s norm, a particular group’s norm, or the character’s personal norm. Your characters can deviate from those norms, but you should probably show why they choose to do so.

It’s also good to provide some set up for the Hero’s transformation (more next week).

3. To increase tension and suspense.

“For all its subtlety, foreshadowing serves a powerful purpose,” says Ms. Morrell.  “It makes the important moments in fiction more potent because of the anticipation that came before.”

4. To build the character arc.

Dilemma and character arc are another example of surprise coming from setup. The setup and expectation come from characterization, whereas the surprise and frustration derive from deep character,” says Jim Mercurio. “On one hand is what we expect based on characterization and pre-character-arc state, and on the other hand, frustration, surprise, and the growth associated with the character arc,” the ‘surprising’ choice made in the climax.

5. To tell jokes.

A joke is “a moment of humor in a longer piece of writing,” says Brad Schreiber.  “In joke writing, often the Rule of Threes is invoked. That is, setup, repetition, and joke.  In other words, here’s a situation, here’s more of the same, and now a twist.”

Doing jokes justice is beyond the scope of this post, but still… Jokes.  Something fun to think about.

6. To build unity into a story.

To do this, plant things that have thematic and symbolic relevance.

What kind of things?  Good question…

What do you use as setups?

As Mr. Swain says, “Planting is by no means limited to objects.”  Here are some examples from the masters of the kinds of things you can–and should–use as setup plants:

  • Secondary Characters
  • Unexplained Absences
  • Unexplained Presences
  • Actions
  • Physical Habits
  • Dialogue
  • Out-of-Place Remarks
  • Symbols
  • Objects
  • Misplaced Items
  • Weird Physical Reactions to Inanimate Objects
  • Places, Setting, Weather and Seasons
  • Mood
  • Description
  • Premonitions, Warnings
  • Secrets
  • Evidence, Weapons, Clues

“In fact, every choice you make–genre, setting, character, mood–foreshadows,” says Mr. McKee. “With each line of dialogue or image of action you guide the audience to anticipate certain possibilities, so that when events arrive, they somehow satisfy the expectations you’ve created.”

Setups: Things to Consider

1. To set up means to show.

Plant to a large degree means show.  It’s hard to plant something that can’t be seen or heard or whatever,”  says Mr. Swain. “You don’t make an issue of it, you understand; you simply make it obvious that it’s there.”

Mr. McKee agrees:  “Setups must be planted firmly enough so that when the audience’s mind hurls back, they’re remembered. If setups are too subtle, the audience will miss the point. If too heavy-handed, the audience will see the Turning Point coming a mile away.”

2. Setups need to make sense in the moment they are shown.

“’Hints’ and ‘tells’ need to stand out (and make sense) in their own right before the reveal,” says Ms. Cron.

Mr. McKee agrees: Setups “must be planted in such a way that when the audience first sees them, they have one meaning, but with a rush of insight, they take on a second, more important meaning.”

3. Setups should be doled out at a steady pace.

“There is nothing readers hate more than amazing story turns that aren’t adequately explained.  Or, on the other hand, require pages of explanation by some character at the end,” says James Scott Bell. “The best way to get the loose ends tied up is by layering in the answers as you move toward the end. That is, if you can avoid it, don’t wait until the last chapter to dump all the answers in one spot.”

4. And setups need to make sense in hindsight.

As Mr. Swain says, “When you plant something, … bear in mind that you’re obligated to pay off said plant.”

In other words, for the payoff to land with the reader, “there must have been a pattern of specific ‘hints’ or ‘tells’ along the way, alerting us that all was not as it seems, which the new twist now illuminates and explains,” says Ms. Cron.

“A big reveal is most effective when it provokes not only, ‘oh, wow!’ but also ‘Of course!'” says Donald Maass.  “Make readers kick themselves for not seeing, you sly dog.”

Speaking of payoffs…

Payoffs: What are they?

Other terms for “payoff” include reveals, discoveries, revelations, surprises, epiphanies, twists, reversals….

Here, I think there are some distinctions among the terms worth making because they allow us to consciously vary how payoffs are revealed to the reader and keep things interesting.  Can you mix and match techniques?  Sure, go for it.

1. Payoff:  The umbrella term for anything that has been set up and is now fully realized.

“Imagine a revelation as a hidden gem buried deep in your story,” says Ms. Morrell. “If you don’t have a murder investigation, the discovery of a valuable object, or a long-buried secret at the heart of your story, ask yourself if there is some valuable information that can be withheld for as long as possible.”

That said, before deciding to withhold information for a payoff, Ms. Cron would have you ask yourself “this crucial question:  What does holding back this information gain me, story-wise?  How does it make the story better?”

Raymond Obstfeld cautions that “(1) the longer you suspend the payoff, the greater the risk of losing reader interest; and (2) the longer you suspend the payoff, the more satisfying the payoff must be. There’s no magic formula for avoiding those dangers, but being aware of them and rereading suspense scenes with them in mind will help.”

And Mr. Iglesias notes “that although a setup can be cliched, its consequences or payoff should be unique enough to be surprising.”

2. Discovery:  A payoff that occurs when Hero finds new physical information through his own action.

“A discovery is an active process, meaning that it’s the hero who finds the information,” says Mr. Iglesias.

And, for a Discovery, that information is something the character can see, touch, hear, smell or taste.

3. Epiphany:  A payoff that occurs when Hero realizes a new informative insight through his own introspection.

“An epiphany,” says Ms. Morrell, is that “luminous moment when a character, usually the protagonist, realizes something she has not known previously.”

An epiphany, which Mr. Iglesias lumps with “discovery can occur when a significant fact dawns on a character–that moment of realization, the light bulb, the Eureka moment when the solution to the puzzle appears.”

According to Ms. Morrell, there are three parts to an epiphany:

  • The setup, which can vary in length, shows readers who the protagonist is before the epiphany.
  • The trigger is the catalyst that applies pressure to the protagonist’s old way of thinking and causes it to crumble. Triggers should be visual and easily imagined.
  • The realization, then, is when the protagonist consciously recognizes something she had not previously understood and, as a result, undergoes profound change.

4. Revelation:  A payoff that occurs when Hero receives new information, tangible or verbal, from another character.

“A revelation is revealed to the hero–a passive process where the hero learns the information from another source.  The hero is given that information,” says Mr. Iglesias.

Revelations should be used early in the story, limited to the first seventy-five percent, if not earlier, because they’re not nearly as satisfying as the hero earning the payoff himself.

5. Punchline:  A Payoff that’s funny.

“Remember, that, to be funny, the final line of the story or joke must be a surprise,” says Mel Helitzer.

“But the ne plus ultra of writing is not just ending with a laugh but topping one joke with another,” says Mr. Schreiber.  And each laugh is another payoff.

Yup: No Justice.  Maybe we’ll look at jokes more someday.

6. Twist:  Writer leads Reader to expect one thing and–PAYOFF!–it’s something different.

“By now, you should be aware that surprises come from the audience expecting one thing and the writer delivering another,” says Mr. Iglesias.  “This is done through setups and payoffs.”

“A twist can be defined as a surprise that is unanticipated but justifiable,” says Mr. Bell.  “That means the reader can’t see it coming, but once it does come it makes sense. At least, once all the information is revealed.”

For Ms. Cron, “A reveal [twist] is a fact that, when it finally comes to light, changes (and in so doing, explains) something–often, that something is ‘everything.’ A major reveal is the surprise near the end that twists the meaning of everything that came before it.”

Now, if you want to, you can pare off the Reversal, which is a specific kind of twist in which the writer leads the character and/or reader to believe one thing and–PAYOFF!–it’s actually the exact opposite.

And, of course, these aren’t the only kinds of payoffs; there are many more.  For example, there’s the kind of payoff where you set up a unique character ability and–PAYOFF!–the plot demands he use it.  This list is just a brainstorming starting point.

Creating Twists

“Surprises are not difficult to create,” says Mr. Stein. “Look at each important incident in your plot and see what you would normally expect to happen next. Then have the exact opposite happen.  At least half the time an idea will suggest itself that will surprise your characters as well as yourself.”

“Make a list of all the things a reader might expect to happen,” says Mr. Bell. “Playing off that list, what are some things that a reader would not anticipate? … Play around and you’ll come up with the new development you like best.  Make lists. That’s how you get material to choose from.”

I’ll let Mr. Bell further explain what he does with his lists:

 I do believe there are some things you can do that will help your own inner writer generate possible twists for the ending.

First, you probably already have an ending in mind. … And that’s okay. Keep writing.

But as you get closer to the end of your first draft, pause and come up with ten alternative endings. Yes, I said ten.

And I don’t mean take four weeks to do this. I should take less than thirty minutes.  Brainstorm. The quicker the better. Let yourself go, and don’t worry about justifying every one of them.

Once you’ve got your list, let your imagination cook the possibilities for a day or two.

Come back to your list and take the top four. Deepen them a little bit. Let them cook some more.

Finally, choose the one alternative ending that seems to work best as a twist–not an alternative ending at all, but an added surprise.

Figure out how to work that into your ending, and then go back into your novel and justify it somehow by planting little clues here and there.

There is your twist ending.

And here’s another approach:

“Subtleties and misdirection [come], not from obfuscation or vagueness, but from knowledge of the way we tend to think,” says Mr. Noble.

For example, let’s say that when X occurs people tend to think that Y must be true, but it’s possible that Z could be true instead.  To create a twist, we, as writers, manipulate this XYZ scenario as follows:

  1. We show X and
  2. we allow Y to float in the ether of possibility in the characters’ and readers’ minds–riddling it with doubt, maybe, but leaving it uncontradicted. Meanwhile,
  3. we set up Z (the payoff) using some of our setup methods (see above), and
  4. when the optimal moment in the story arises–BOOM!–we reveal Z using one of our payoff methods (also above).

Last Bits of Advice

Ms. Cron would have you keep in mind that if you’re going to twist the ending, “you must make sure that what your characters intend to do is plausible, even if you already know that something unforeseen will thwart them before they actually do it.”

Ms. Cron would also advise that, during revision, your look for “any inadvertent setups lurking in your story” and get rid of anything that “whispers, implies, or suggests ‘setup’ without actually meaning it.”

And last, remember that Setups and Payoffs can and should happen at the story level, the act/part/sequence level, and the scene level.

Top Five Books on Setups and Payoffs

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me

What about you?  What insights do you have into Setups and Payoffs?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up next, on Wednesday

We’ll look at how the masters use Setups and Payoffs.  See you then!


2 thoughts on “Setups and Payoffs: What are they?

  1. The book you have included, Emotional Impact, is one I’ve had on my Kindle forever and had totally forgotten about it. I’ve now opened it and discovered a treasure trove, as you’ve said. Thank you! I also have Swains fab book, and his student’s book Jack Bickham.Between those last two, I show don’t tell and writing for the reader totally clicked for me.


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