Set up & Pay Off:

Creating more emotional impact in your story

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Frodo, on the lip of mount doom, succumbing to the evil of the ring. The old man in Up, throwing his wife’s chair out of the house to make it lighter. Coming up with that one great scene, that one line, that will have a huge emotional impact on your reader can make your novel memorable when others fade from the mind—but how do you do it?

I don’t know that this applies to every memorable story moment, but one thing I’ve learned in my own writing is that the emotional impact of any given moment usually depends on how much set up I’ve done for that moment in the earlier part of the story. If we hadn’t seen him relentlessly pursuing Scarlet for the last three hours, we wouldn’t care about Rhett’s new-found indifference. If Frodo hadn’t been fighting the seductive power of the ring from the beginning of book one, his final fall wouldn’t mean much. And that old man in Up sacrificed everything to get his house to Paradise Falls—and when he abandons it to save Russell, he’s not only choosing a boy over a house, but the future over the past, and life over death. (Up is one of the all time great stories—if you haven’t seen it, do. It’s not just for kids. In fact, sometimes I think it’s wasted on kids!)

Or to come at this kind of structure from the other direction, in my own writing I’ve found that when something in my climax, a ringing sentence or the protagonist’s agonizing decision, isn’t having enough impact on my critique group, the fix isn’t usually to rewrite that line or scene—it’s to go back through the early part of the story and add more places where the character struggles with that conflict. I usually start by thinking that I need to add several repeats of whatever it is that sets up that moment, and then I’ll rewrite the crucial scene, to make it more eloquent, more detailed, more vivid, etc. But once I’ve added the set up scenes, when I get to the final scene where they pay off, I frequently find that what I’ve already written now does exactly what I wanted it to do—I don’t need to change a thing.

In fact, creating the set up for the emotional effects you’ll produce the end of the story is one of the main functions of the middle-story action. And this doesn’t just apply to deep emotional struggles, either. Running gags get funnier every time you repeat them. And every other emotion that surrounds them deepens, too. Remember the Janet Evanovich book where Stepanie loses car after car after car? Ranger’s quiet “Babe” held more meaning each time he said it.

The simple truth is that the more set up you create for your emotional effects, the stronger they get. The less set up you do, the weaker they are—no matter how eloquent your writing is when you finally get there. What happens in the climax matters, no question—but it’s the struggle we watched the characters to through to get to the climax that makes what happens there matter. And if you do enough set up for your own emotional effects, then maybe you can make your readers give a lot more than just “a damn.”

Fall 2010

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