Writing Fiction: Make the Payoff Worth the Wait

Writing Fiction: Make the Payoff Worth the Wait

Growing up, my mother had a habit of getting the biggest kick out of a funny story halfway through sharing it.  With tears streaming down her face and completely breathless she’d try to finish it, but simply couldn’t—it was just that funny. We’d all wait patiently because everyone wanted to be a part of a good, rolling-on-the-floor-can’t-catch-my-breath kind of story. We got the first part and surly the ending would have us in the same state as she. And finally she’d pull he self together long enough to finish it. There it was. We’d waited for her to get to the rolling-on-the-floor-can’t-catch-my-breath part. But something was wrong. We weren’t laughing. What should have been the funniest part wasn’t all that funny. The pay-off, the moment we’d waited for was…not worth the wait.

And then again, perhaps it was the build-up. Perhaps that had been too much because often the stories were at the least mildly amusing. If she’d simply chuckled or giggled or smiled broadly we probably would have enjoyed the fact that it was kind of funny. But as a kid, it felt like a setup as if she’d led us to believe, by her gut-wrenching laughter that the story had more meat than it actually did.

And it happens often in fiction writing and movies. How many times have we read a story or watched a movie and the stakes were so high for the protagonist until we were sitting with fists clenched and eyes widened wondering what would happen next? How in the heck was she going to get out of this? And that’s a good thing. It is the hope of all of us that we will engage at such a high level the reader or viewer will forget that these are fictional characters and that their suspension of disbelief will be at its height. But it’s a serious thing to take a reader to the top of a cliff and then…then…the ascension is only a two-foot drop. When a reader trusts us with his time, energy and efforts it is important to engage until the end and make the payoff worth it.

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One approach I have tried to use is to visualize the end of a conflict—exactly how does this turn out? And then I work backward, building from that pivotal moment. This is something you can do with each conflict all the way through the major one near the end.

The first time I saw The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith, I remember halfway through thinking, “Will this guy ever catch a break?” It seemed that scene after scene was nothing but pure struggle and heartache. But at the end when his Gardner gets the intern stockbroker position out of a plethora of applicants you rejoice with him and feel pure elation. This position, this payoff was worth it the wait. This job will take him places he’d only dreamed about. It was difficult to obtain and highly unlikely. And now standing there at the top possessing a position coveted by so many is a payoff worth the wait for him–and for us.

It the payoff isn’t sufficient perhaps you will need to rethink whether the story is worth telling—at this point. Maybe, just maybe a bigger payoff is lurking around the corner.

 

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