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Writing Set Up And Pay Off – writing tips

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I’ll be writing about the video How to do set up and pay off. Writing tips. SPOILERS – The Matrix, Harry Potter, Avengers: End Game from the Writing Advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

We were asked a question on Facebook by LR Jones, who wanted to know about set up and pay off in stories, examples of it being done well, and how to write it in your own stories.

The concept of “set up and pay off” can be applied to different things, and interpreted in different ways.

Set up and pay off can be delivered by the means of a question that is posed to the audience, and the characters, in the story, that you are then promised an answer to during the course of that story.

In The Matrix, the writers put The Oracle in the middle of the story. The Oracle is the woman who all the characters go to see, and she gives them all a nugget of information, a piece of advice, and this leads to a lot of pay off in the last 20-30 minutes of the film. The Oracle poses a series of questions:

  1. Is Neo “The One?”
  2. Will Morpheus find “The One?”
  3. What did The Oracle tell Trinity?
  4. Can we trust The Oracle?

Those questions are set up and then answered really spectacularly at the end of the film. So essentially, the set up and pay off demonstrated by these questions in The Matrix boils down to intrigue. The mystery of what’s going on, followed by a really good explanation at the end.

Set up and pay off can also be rewarding your viewer or reader by taking something small that they might easily not have noticed in the beginning of the story, and making it relevant at the end. It’s almost like a series of hints throughout the story, telling you what the conclusion to that story will be. So when you look back over the story, you can see that the writer has been guiding you from the beginning.

For instance, all throughout Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone you’re being given hints that Professor Quirrell is the villain. The story is set up to make you believe that Snape is the one who wants to get the stone out from underneath Fluffy, and that its Snape who is plotting against Harry and wants to kill him, but when you look back over the story, there’s lots of hints about Quirrell, and every time it’s suggested that Snape is doing something bad, Quirrell is present.

Quirrel wears his strange smelling turban, when Harry overhears Snape talking about the philosopher’s stone in the Forbidden Forest, it’s Qurirell that Snape is talking to, and when Hermione sets Snape’s robes on fire because she think he’s cursing Harry during the quidditch match, he knocks Quirrell over. Every time they stop Snape from doing something, then inadvertently stop Quirrell.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that Snape is too obvious of a villain, and you might be more sensitive to the hints that the book is guiding you to the fact it’s Quirrell from the beginning. At the end of the book, when the explanation is given and all the hints are connected together, it is very satisfying.

In Avengers: End Game, there is so much pay off for set up that was done over all of the previous films. At Tony Stark’s funeral, they lay a wreath with the Iron Man Arc Reactor that Peppa Potts had mounted with “proof that Tony Stark has a heart.” During the fight scene, you have “Instant Kill Mode” from Spider-Man: Home Coming, The Wasp saying “Cap” in reference to her teasing Ant-Man in the Ant-Man movie, Falcon says “on your left” to Captain America when he comes through the portal in reference to the Captain America movie.

If you have been paying attention to the earlier films, Avengers: End Game is a pay off overload, constantly rewarding the audience for remembering the references.

The set up and pay off style of asking questions and answering them can intermingle with the hints that reward an audience for paying attention. For instance, JK Rowling is posing the question of who is actually working against Harry. Snape is set up as a foil for Quirrell, seemingly an obvious bad guy, but the pay off is learning the answer to the question is actually Quirrell.

When I set out to write good set up and pay off in my stories, my focus will be on making sure that anything that is done or used, or relevant in any way, in the end of your story, is relevant for a different reason earlier in the story. For instance, if I want to use something significant such as a weapon to defeat the enemy, or the thing they use to accomplish their dream, at the end of the story, it’s in the beginning of the story too.

What you can do through editing, when you’ve written your end and realised what it is you’ll need, is to go back and insert your Narrative Triplets, forshadowing, and hints and clues about what will be important at the end. Make it significant and relevant to the story, but they don’t distract from the story. The set up will be relevant to the story in and of itself, so it doesn’t stick out as an obvious plant that has no other place in the story and doesn’t serve the story beyond being useful to have around in the end.

When constructed well, the set up and pay off in your story can be incredibly satisfying for your audience. Making your book or film satisfying is very important and means you audience will have enjoyed themselves, so it’s worth doing and it’s worth doing well.

I’ll do further examples of set up and pay off and the different ways you can put it into your story in future. The more you see it, the more you understand it, the better you’ll be at doing it in your own writing.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll be releasing a piece of writing advice every day to help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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1 thought on “Writing Set Up And Pay Off – writing tips

Writing Set Up and Pay Off – DIE HARD edition – JJ Barnes 9th January 2020 at 3:42 pm

[…] written about set up and pay off in a previous blog, but this time I’m covering it again using examples specifically from the […]


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