Setups and Payoffs: How the masters do it

We’re looking at Setups and Payoffs this week, and today I’ve got some examples from Harlan Coben’s No Second Chance, which we also looked at last week, and Lisa Unger’s Crazy Love You.

Spoiler Alert.

No Second Chance is about Dr. Seidman, who is shot in the opening scene.  When he comes to, he learns that his wife is dead and his six-month old daughter is missing and has been for twelve days; by the end of the story, she’s been missing two years.  The final Payoff, which tells us who really did it all, comes in the form of a Twist ending arrived at by way of Dr. Seidman having an Epiphany (which has three parts: Setup, Trigger, Realization).

By the time Dr. Seidman has his Epiphany, he’s already found his daughter. But…

It all started to go wrong again when I looked at the calendar. [This is the Trigger… which causes him to remember and work through The Setup:]

There were several things that gave me reason to pause. There was the question of leaks [Plant 1: Coben mentioned a leak or mole half a dozen times]. Rachel and I had thought that someone in either the FBI or police department had told Bacard and his people [the bad guys] what was happening. But that never fit in with my theory about Stacy [his sister] shooting Monica [his wife]. There was the fact that Monica was found with no clothes on [and yet unmolested, Plant 2]. I think I understood why now, but the thing is, Stacy wouldn’t have.

But the main catalyst occurred, I think, when I looked at the calendar and realized that today was Wednesday. [Repeated reference to, and further detailing of, The Trigger.]

The shootings and original abduction had taken place on a Wednesday. Of course, there had been plenty of Wednesdays in the past eighteen months. The day of the week was a pretty innocuous thing. But this time, after we had learned so much, after my brain had digested all the fresh data, something meshed. All those little questions and doubts, all those idiosyncrasies, all those moments I took for granted and never really examined . . . they all shifted a little. And what I saw was even worse than what I had originally imagined.

I was back in Kasselton now–at my house, where it had all started. I called Tickner for confirmation.   …

“Who was shot with my gun–me or Monica?” [Plant 3: two guns were used, and one was Dr. Seidman’s, which was kept in a locked box.]   …

“Your wife was.”

When I heard the car pull up outside, I put the receiver back in the cradle. Lenny turned the knob and opened the door. He didn’t knock. After all, Lenny never knocked, right? [Plant 4: Coben mentions Lenny coming in to Dr. Seidman’s house like he owns the place three or four times throughout the story.]

I was sitting on the couch. The house was still, all the ghosts sleeping now. He had a Slurpee in either hand and a broad smile. … When Lenny saw my face, his smile faded away.

“We were supposed to play racquetball that morning, Lenny. Remember?” [The Realization]

And the Epiphany continues from there:  Dr. Seidman reviews the evidence in light of his realization and comes up with a new theory–the truth–that Monica, his wife, shot him, and that his lawyer and friend since childhood, Lenny, got Dr. Seidman’s gun out of the box and shot Monica after he, Lenny, came into the house without knocking and caught Monica shooting Dr. Seidman, whom he was meeting to play racquetball.  Thinking they were both dead, Lenny took the daughter and gave her to the bad guys, a former client, because, even though they were bad guys, Lenny knew they had the ability to quickly and quietly adopt the baby into a good family, which is what happened to her.

Other Setup Plants (and explanations) include:

  • Monica was found naked, but not sexually assaulted (because Lenny wanted to throw off the cops).
  • The window was broken, but Dr. Seidman didn’t recall hearing it (because Lenny broke it after the fact, again to make it look like a burglar and to throw off the cops).
  • Dr. Seidman’s old crazy classmate asked him an ominous question, which he repeated in his thoughts multiple times:  You know who shot you, don’t you? (Crazy classmate and Monica became friends, unbeknowst to Dr. Seidman, and crazy classmate knew Monica wasn’t happy.  For a while Dr. Seidman thought his sister shot him… then maybe his college girlfriend… but it was his wife.)
  • Monica hired a detective (because she thought Dr. Seidman was cheating on her with his college girlfriend, because College Girlfriend left a voice mail one night).  Detective got pictures of each of them walking into and out of Dr. Seidman’s hospital, though they were never captured on film together.
  • Lenny the Lawyer kept harping on Dr. Seidman to get his will in place (so that, in the event of the Seidmans’ deaths, their daughter would go to a good home of Dr. Seidman’s choice instead of to the nasty father-in-law by legal default.  Lenny the Lawyer knew Father-In-Law would get custody, which is why he took the baby before the bad scenario could play out.)

This was a huge payoff, with tons of setup (I’m sure I missed some), but payoffs can be smaller and can come at anytime in a story.  Here is an early payoff in Crazy Love You:


But I do remember that I started to love my sister that day. And I knew that Mom was right; if I was nice to Ella, she’d adore me. She’d love me forever. Turns out we wouldn’t have that long.

 (emphasis mine) – pg 21

More setup:

I have always known my mother loved me. … You’ll think this is weird later, when you know more. But it’s true.

 – pg 30


“Where’s Ella?” I said ….

“She’s sleeping,” [Mom] said.

Through the window, I could see the television with the VCR sitting on top of it. It was just after five, according to the glowing green numbers of the digital clock. Ella should have been wailing for her bottle.

“Did you feed her?”

She stood up then, and put her hands on my shoulders. “Don’t worry about Ella,” she said. …

She put an arm around me…. “Come inside. It’s time for your bath.”

But then I heard that voice again….

Ian. And the voice was inside my head somehow, and outside, too, all around me. But my mother kept moving us inside. She opened the door.  She’s going to kill you.

That was the night my sister died. They called it crib death; that’s what they do in a town called The Hollows.

– pg 40-42

Well, that’s it for me.  What about you?  What are some of your favorite Setups and Payoffs? Tell us in the comments!


Setups and Payoffs in our own work?  We’ll give it a go.  See you then!

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