Friday, June 28, 2019

The Payoff

If I gave you the opportunity to read a story about my dinner last night, what would you want from the story? Information about my diet and why I go with chicken when I cook at home? Sure - that could be interesting. How I match vegetables with my main course? That might be in there, but I don't really obsess about that. The secret to my Szechwan sauce? No - that dies with me. There are a lot of things you would expect in a story about dinner, the one thing you would demand as a reader is the payoff.

Simply put, the payoff is the big reveal that makes the story stick after the reader is done. It's the insight that goes beyond a simple listing of events. Yes, a story doesn't have to be anything more than a narrative about one or more things or events. Along that line, dinner doesn't have to be anything more than a meal that provides nourishment. However, when I make dinner that I want to discuss, it's not just nourishment, it's sauteed baby vegetables, a spiced brown rice, and Szechwan chicken where I add just a touch of... actually, not this time. And when I write a story, it needs a payoff.

Stories have a wide variety of options for that big payoff, but they all center around change. In the simplest of stories, we read about someone who has an experience that changes their world. A common, effective story is someone writing about their pet. The pet shows up and changes them. They fall in love with it, they are amazed with all the cute things it does, or just how it becomes a part of their life. The payoff is seeing how that person is changed by the pet. The greater the change during the story, the greater the payoff. With the pet story, well, when that pet dies, the change is that much stronger. It's not a happy event, but it's a powerful shift and a bigger payoff.

In short stories, we usually focus on one facet of the character's story, and how the world changes in that one regard. The two most common story drivers are the world changing the character, and the character changing the world. These can actually be the same event, just written from one perspective or the other. Take the pet example - the story about how a pet changes someone's life is "world changes person," while the other version can focus on the person deciding to adopt a pet. Same story, different perspective, but they both require change in the payoff.

As stories grow in size, the payoff can become more elaborate, the journey far more intricate. We expand from that simple focus and turn it into an adventure. We still demand a payoff at the end, but we can now venture into plenty of new frontiers on our way to that moment. This also provides the opportunity to move the story further away from the expected payoff, so when everything comes back to that moment, the change is greater, the payoff that much bigger.

In my little story about dinner, it could be expanded to show how the preparation wasn't going well, threatening the entire meal situation. The vegetables are kind of weak. Every time I turn my head, the cat is going after the chicken. What is that floating in my olive oil? As I prepare my Szechwan sauce, I can't find the... nope. Problems and obstacles are getting in the way at every turn, and I am tempted to just call it all off and grab the take-out menu. World affects character format, adventure leads away from payoff, so when it all comes together and I am enjoying my dinner, the reader is pleased.

Same story, but character affects world, could have me in my kitchen, years ago, with a goal in mind: homemade Szechwan chicken. My skills are minimal, my talent in the kitchen limited to instant oatmeal. Mistakes are abundant, along with plenty of wok fires and singed eyebrows. The goal seems farther away after every disaster, the will weakening. But then I find a copy of Cooking Basics For Dummies, and everything changes. I realize my mistakes and find the inspiration I need. I grow as a cook, I reach my goal, and the reader gets the payoff.

The payoff is always up to the writer, and it can be happy, sad, surprising, informative, or just plain old honesty, but it has to be there. At that point, the reader tucks that story into their memory and saves it for later. Without it, the story just fades.

And as for the payoff of this post, the secret ingredient to my Szechwan Chicken is... oops, that's my word count.

3 comments:

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  2. Were you blog-bombed by Ed?

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