Working the Payoff

Every story eventually comes to a conclusion, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that conclusion satisfies both the needs of the story and the desires of the reader. The story needs a conclusion that ties up all of the loose plot threads and ensures that every character has been through a complete arc. These technical details are important to the reader, but only at the basic level. The reader knows they are important to the story, but he is much less interested in the fact that the conclusion to every plot point and character arc exists than in how that point is concluded. The reader doesn’t just want a conclusion to the story; the reader wants a satisfying payoff.

What does a satisfying payoff look like? In its simplest format, the punishment must fit the crime. In primetime crime drama, the portion of the show that gives the procedural its weight comes from discovering information about the victim. The real crime in the story, as far as the reader is concerned, isn’t the actual law breaking – the details of which most readers have limited experience if any all. For the reader, the real crime is the frustration of the victim and those who care about the victim. These characters had hopes and dreams which the criminal stole from them in one way or another. While the resolution of the story may see the criminal brought to justice and the resources of the victim restored (if possible), the real payoff comes from making the criminal suffer in the same way as the victim.

Once again, the details of the suffering are not as important as the emotional effect of the suffering on the character. The physical action of the crime, even violent, intimate crime like murder and rape, is entirely secondary to the fact that the victim was rendered powerless, made to be subject to another’s incompassionate whim, and had their hopes and dreams destroyed. While it may be appropriate for the murderer to be killed, the death of the criminal means less than the removal of his power, the thwarting of his desires, and subjecting him to the power of the law.

More personal and less violent stories usually have less personal and more destructive antagonists. In a romantic drama, the heroine is often thwarted in her desire for a fulfilling life by the impersonal and utterly implacable hand of fate. There is no embodiment for the writer to punish. The heroine must simply overcome and endure. Even when the heroine’s will is thwarted by the (obviously unworthy) designs of a rival for the object of her affections, the reader is seldom interested in shooting the rival in the face as a means of reuniting the star-crossed lovers. The reader’s payoff doesn’t even always come from the heroine winning the love of her beau; romance stories aren’t actually about romance, they’re about fulfillment.

At the end of the romance story, the heroine has to do more than simply land her lover. The heroine must be happy with how things have turned out. Usually, this story ends with a baby and a “happily ever after”, but this is only one way to create fulfillment. One of the reasons that Romeo & Juliet works even though everyone dies (uh, spoiler alert for, you know, a 500 year-old play….) is not because the two lovers sacrifice their lives for the sake of love. The suicide pact is incidental to the play. The play works because in the wake of the lovers’ deaths, the two families put aside their differences to make peace. This denouement is the payoff for everything that Romeo and Juliet gave up in order to be together. It gives meaning and weight to their deaths. The love the two young people bore for each other finds fulfillment in the peace between the Montagues and Capulets.

At the end of the story, the reader doesn’t just want to know how things ended. The reader wants to be rewarded for investing his time in reading the story. The reader wants to know that the story meant something, that the moral right has been observed, and that the characters have had a fulfilling life. This is the payoff, and the writer needs to work towards this goal at every point in the story.

Loose Threads

As the main story draws to a close, the writer faces the unenviable task of gathering up the loose ends of the plot and character arcs and tieing them neatly together. As your novel draws to a close, the reader wants to feel a sense of completion, like he’s not missing any parts of the story. The writer needs to identify plot hoots and character points, making sure that each of them is resolved. In a perfect novel, the two will work together to form a single inevitable conclusion.

When the reader looks for the hallmarks of a completed novel, he’s not worried so much about having every single detail of every single event. The reader’s imagination will fill in many of the points left out by the writer, creating a sense of involvement and investiture in the story. The reader is concerned about picking up dropped plot and character hooks; the writer should be concerned with identifying those dropped hooks and carefully extracting them.

Identification of loose hooks is really the key. Character hooks remain unresolved when the reader recognizes an aspect of the character that is deficient, that aspect is provided with the means and motivation to change within the story, but the character never revisits this aspect to determine if it will change or remain the same. Either resolution is acceptable, as long as it makes sense within the context of the character and the decision is firmly enacted. Character hooks also remain unresolved when a key aspect of the character is mentioned but never demonstrated. When a character is strongly identified by himself or others with a certain trait, that trait needs to be demonstrated in action.

Plot hooks remain unresolved when an action that was begun earlier in the story fails to reach its logical conclusion. The aphorism “Chekhov’s gun” embodies his (Anton Chekhov’s) advice that one should not should show a loaded gun in act one, unless one intends to fire it later in the play. The aphorism was perhaps meant to address the correct use of foreshadowing, but has since come to represent any kind of plot hole. The writer faces the task of firing every gun that has been shown earlier in the story. Loose plot hooks may be identified by noting any singular instance of action or mention of an object. If that action or object is significant to the plot, it must be revisited at least once in order to demonstrate how the action is played out or the object is used.

Tieing up loose ends, firing all of your guns, is a key component of circular storytelling. Written stories are necessarily about resolution, as the writer has a finite amount of space in which to tell a story, and the reader a finite amount of time in which to consume it. Not every story needs to come to a final, unalterable ending; the phrase “To be continued…” is a key element of serial fiction. The reader needs to feel like the writer has treated him fairly, done right by the characters, and cleaned up his loose plot threads. Stories and characters live on the mind of the reader long after the last page of the novel has been turned; he just needs enough closure to the current story to imagine the rest.

Changing Shoes

The writer of a novel must be able to effectively portray a broad range of characters, differentiating between how they speak, how they act, and how they think. Some of these, perhaps most of these, will necessarily be of a type utterly foreign to the natural mindset of the writer. The writer has many tools with which to portray characters; one of the most common and effective involves assuming the role of a central POV character during a scene.

Assuming a POV role allows the writer to get personal with not only the character portrayal and reaction, but also the perception of the scene. Getting into a character’s shoes affords the writer access to his thoughts and the ability to share those thoughts and motivations with the reader. The reader gets to be up close and personal with the character, understanding how the character perceives the world around him and empathizing with the character’s reactions. The writer gets to explore the character’s motivations and discover how those motivations interact with the larger world of the story. This technique both advances the growth of the character during the story and increases the emotional investment of the reader.

The most important challenge for the writer is “changing their character shoes” in such a way that each character is handled in a unique way. This kind of differentiation begins with the vocabulary used when assuming a POV, matching it to not only the perception of the characer but to their frame of reference and method of expression. In the Hunger Games stories, the stylist Cinna perceives even their political situation through the lens of fashion, and expresses himself with clothing choices and fashion references. In the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits relate their adventures to Shire life, and most especially to food.

Writers handling multiple POV changes within a novel must deal with knowledge bleed-through, avoiding the tendency to have all characters react as if they had perfect knowledge of the situation. Much of characterization results from mistakes that seemed at the time to be the best choice possible. On the extreme opposite of this tendency, weakly portrayed characters blithely ignore relevant information when making their life choices. The writer must be able to decide how much information a given characer possesses, and then use that information in the most accurate way possible.

When a writer has trouble distinguishing character voices in the story, an intense POV scene may not be the best choice for narrative. This difficulty often manifests in uniform dialog or undifferentiated behavior patterns. The dialog in Joss Whedon’s series “Firefly” is clever and snappy, but characters all tend to speak in the same meter and with the same vocabulary. Teleplays have a visual characterization advantage over printed stories; the same exchanges on the printed page would be difficult for the reader to follow, as speakers would tend to blur together. In this case, a more nuetral narrator benefits the clarity of the story.

When changing character shoes, the writer must not only assume a new vocabulary, a new frame of reference, and a new perception of the world, the writer must also assume new physical behaviors. Incidental actions and habitual motions form an important part of a character, and can help differentiate between characters who possess otherwise similar outlooks and educations. Value systems form a link in this chain as well, not only ethically but with regards to the physical handling of objects in the scene.

Written characters can be unique or common, memorable or forgettable. The most important aspect of handling any character is consistency; as long as a character behaves the same way from scene to scene, the reader will forgive a multitude of both story and character errors.

Chasing the Plot Wagon

Storytelling games such as computer and pen-and-paper role playing games (RPGs) rely on a story structure that funnels the characters along a single line of action. The characters must go to this inn, must speak to this barkeep, and must slay this dragon before the action can progress any farther. This tendency is occasionally disparagingly known as the “plot wagon”, or a means to get the characters from one plot point to another without diverging or chasing rabbit trails along the way. It makes for streamlined storytelling, but can seem very contrived if not handled correctly.

Every plot twist leading to the conclusion of the story must be seen as inevitable by the reader. Only when the reader is convinced that this story could not have possibly happened any other way may a plot be truly effective. This means systematcally erasing rabbit trails and divergent plot branches from the character’s list of options. Often, this means allowing the character to play out these departures from the main plot in order to emphasize the necessity of following the central story. This divergence is acceptable as long as it doesn’t damage the pacing of the story.

There are a few ways in which this plays out in popular genre fiction. In many action novels, the must be a reason the hero can’t just shoot the bad guy and call it a day. In romance, the must be a reason the heroine doesn’t simply embrace her leading man from the very beginning. In a mystery, there must be a reason that the police don’t see the same evidence as the detective and make an immediate arrest. Most important of all, these reasons must be compelling. The reader must side with the action hero in not shooting the bad guy. He must empathize with the heroine in her suffering for unattainable love. He must be as baffled as the police as to the identity of the criminal. If the reader grows frustrated with the behavior of the characters and sees a simpler solution to their dilemma, he will quickly lose interest in the story.

The plot wagon is all about the journey. The story will eventually end. The reader must have enjoyed the trip for the story to have been successful. At every crossroads, the reader is asking the character, “Is there any other choice you can make that would be better?” The writer had better be asking that same question, and if he can come up with a good answer, chase it. The plot wagon will trundle on with or without the characters. The reader won’t mind diverging every now and then if it means an interesting plot point or character moment, but each of those rabbit trails needs to feed back to the main road, or the reader will feel cheated out of the story that has occurred along the way.

The Slave of Duty

Internal conflict within the plot comes from diametrically opposing forces influencing a character’s choices. These forces are: what the character desires to do, what others desire the character to do, what is morally right to do, and the action ultimately taken. In a perfect, conflict-free world all of these choices would be identical and characters would make the right choices every time. This might lead to a harmonious world, but it makes for pretty poor drama. Drama results from the effort to bring these forces into alignment.

In “The Pirates of Penzance”, Frederic describes himself as “the slave of duty”. The story results from Frederic’s choice to act according to the wishes of others (the dictates of duty) even when those actions run contrary to both his own desires and his conscience (the moral right). Frederic acts according to the moral right, which is already in line with his desires. Conflict enters when the dictates of duty pressure him to act differently from both his conscience and his own desires. Frederic’s quest to resolve his internal conflict forms the basis for one of the most successful comedies of all time.

At the beginning of a story, these four things are out of line. Good conflict happens when the character’s choice increases the imbalance between them. As one or another of these forces becomes more important to the character, he will base his choices more strongly on that motivation. These choices form a character’s journey and chart his growth through the story. “The Pirates of Penzance” exmplifies this journey is three different types.

The Pirate King acts according to his own desires. He is essentially a selfish and prideful character who pressures others into conforming to his will. He experiences internal conflict because he knows that he acts against both his duty to the Queen and the moral right. He attempts to reconcile these differences by being a tender-hearted pirate who never attacks those weaker than himself and shows mercy to orphans. In his character journey, the Pirate King learns to act according to his duty as a nobleman and to do the right thing for its own sake, which ultimately leads to his confession and reform.

Frederic subjects his own desires in favor of performing his duty as an apprentice pirate, even though he knows it’s morally wrong to do so. Because Frederic allows others to define his duty and acts according to their direction, he constantly experiences a state of emotional turmoil. Only when Frederic’s duty is clarified as being to the Queen and to the moral right is he able to resolve the conflict within himself and earn the love of Mabel.

Major-General Stanley is in complete possession of his faculties. He knows right from wrong. He is clear on his duty to the Queen and to his daughters, and his responsibilities as a Major-General. He desires to perform each of these roles to the best of his abilities. Stanley experiences internal conflict when he claims to be an orphan-boy in order to escape the pirates. This deception causes him a great deal of distress until it is uncovered at the end of the play and Stanley is able to make things right.

Being a comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance” takes these character archetypes and journeys to an extreme expression of their execution. It is useful as a study in the basic types of internal conflict. One might even say it is the very model of the modern character-general.

Climbing the Plot Tree

Conflict drives the action in your story and makes the reader care about your characters, their failures, and their triumphs. Your plot may be thought of as a tree. The characters are trying to reach the top of the tree. Conflict determines which branches they climb on the way to the top. Conflict in a story comes from two sources, internal and external.

Internal conflict originates from within a character. It stems from the decisions he makes and how he feels about his choices. A character’s internal conflict drives him to choose one course of action over another. Internal conflict causes a character to choose different branches of the plot tree based on how he feels about following that course. Branches may be chosen because they look more stable and attractive, or because of the view they offer of the landscape. Internal conflict causes characters to climb the plot tree while focusing on themselves, how choices will affect them personally, and what things seem more attractive at any given time. This character is less concerned with getting to the top of the tree than with carefully choosing his own path.

External conflict gets the character to the top of the plot tree by the most secure means possible. Branches of the tree are chosen based on their inherent stability, ease of access, or perceived danger. External conflict comes from branches that are rotten inside, too small to bear the weight of the character, or blocked from the top by larger branches. Forces completely outside the tree may drive character choices, as if someone were standing at the base and throwing stones at the character. The character following a path of external conflict is less concerned with choosing branches based on how they make him feel and more concerned with the ability of the branch to bear the weight of the story.

The journey of the character through the plot tree is seldom going to follow only one course or the other. Ideally, characters should complete their journey of self-discovery while navigating the plot along those lines that make the best story choices. The goal is to get to the top of the plot tree, and make the climb and interesting one.

Timeline Perception

Pacing in a novel involves more than just the frequency of events; novel pacing includes structuring the scenes so that the reader maintains an internal timeline of events corresponding to their place in the story and presentation in the text. Events in a story may occur concurrently or consecutively, but may only be presented consecutively. The reader forms an impression of event sequence based on presentation, and the writer controls this impression through scene breaks and chapter structure.

 

As a kind of “default”, the reader will perceive events in the novel to occur more or less in the order they are presented. Flashbacks and other devices that present scenes out of order in the story should be clearly set apart so that the reader places them properly within the story. The reader perceives time to pass while scenes take place; more importantly the reader perceives that time passes within the larger story while a scene takes place.

 

Chapters and scenes occasionally end on a cliffhanger or on another dramatic moment. This device uses another scene to interrupt the action and increase the dramatic tension; it is often meant to return the reader exactly to the moment in time from which he departed. This can be effective as long as the reader understands what is happening, and can place the interrupting scene into an appropriate context.

 

For flashbacks and other events that occur out of sequence with the main story, the reader can be returned to exactly the breaking point without disrupting his perceived timeline of events. Because the interrupting scene takes place in a separate time, the reader can return to the action and resume the correct event context. When the interrupting event occurs in a different place but at or near the same time, the reader will perceive time to pass at the point of the cliffhanger while the new scene takes place. When the writer returns to the action at the same point he left, the reader perceives his timeline of events to be interrupted, leading to a disjointed reading experience.

 

A common way of dealing with this interruption of the reader’s timeline is to set the interrupting scene so completely in the past or future that the reader makes a perceived break from the current action. Another common way of dealing with timeline perception is to have the interrupting scene return the reader to the present action by having the seqeuence of events lead into the point in time. The two scenes converge into one, and the action resumes at the point fo interruption, taking the new information into account.

 

Constructing scenes so that action in another location takes place during naturally occuring breaks in the story allows the reader to feel that time is passing in the larger story while events continue to occur in the world around them. This allows the reader to feel like the story hasn’t been constructed solely for his own benefit, that the story has a larger context and feel, and that he is participating in something larger than merely the central characters. Careful attention to the reader’s perceived timeline creates a smooth and desirable reading experience.