If you’ve read a book where the ending or big dramatic twist is the culmination of all the clues, moments, or hints in the book, then you’ve encountered The Payoff.
The MC finally getting what they want. The villain losing (or winning). The end of a war.
The start of a love story. The payoff could be any of these things and more.
It’s the little plots tied up throughout, the one huge victory in the final pages. It’s satisfaction for both the reader and writer and closure for all that’s gone before it. If that sounds like something you want to feature in your books (and why wouldn’t you?), here are five tips for what to include in your payoff.
The Payoff… Needs To Build
If you want to avoid a twist reveal coming out of nowhere (the worst) or leave readers feeling like the answer they waited 300 pages for was tacked on in the final chapter, you need build up. Clues, foreshadowing, hints dropped along the way that builds suspicion and tension.
You want the murderer to be the unsettling neighbor introduced early on, the one who inserts themselves into the investigation (thanks, years of watching Criminal Minds!) and lies about his relationship with the victim. His alibi looks solid then falls apart, his lies holding truth until they don’t. He brings a “is it or isn’t it?” cat-and-mouse game to the pages, arising and dashing your suspicions until the last nail-biting reveal. It’s a much better payoff than finding out the murderer was the waiter mentioned once in chapter six who served the victim coffee that one time, or some random character mentioned for the first time five pages before the climax. There’s no payoff in that. Build it up, pay it off.
The Payoff… Should Be All Fire, No Smoke
Imagine using half your book to tease a character as unbeatable, requiring the heroes to wage a war so epic there’s no way there won’t be serious, soul-crushing losses, and then have the final battle over within one page (or even worse, off page) with none of the maiming or devastation you’d been teased with since the opening paragraph. It’s just smoke when there’s no fire, and your payoff requires the opposite of that. If you promise a battle to end all battles or foreshadow the loss of characters the reader cares about (not the random character introduced just to be killed off), follow through. Light the story on fire and watch it burn.
The Payoff… Needs To Linger
The romance you’ve been building since the MC’s crossed paths, that tension you weaved around them with every dialogue exchange and stolen glance not only needs a decent payoff, but one that lingers. Readers don’t want to wait half a book or series for two characters to finally get together, only to have that moment over and done in one sentence. Give the readers time to process, time to rejoice, time to deal with the outcome of said payoff. Let them linger in that moment and give it the detail and attention it deserves.
The Payoff… Is Not To Be Overused
For a payoff to work it needs to be made up of little payoffs leading to a big payoff, i.e. in a detective story when small clues are gathered leading to the bigger mystery being solved.
These payoffs shouldn’t be overused, such as putting one in every single chapter, or the big ones repeated. If your payoff centers around the shocking death of a beloved character, imagine how disappointing (and predictable) it would be if you gave three other characters the same payoff fate. Now that first death, the one that could have been game-changing, is just the start of a tired storyline. Don’t overuse or repeat your payoffs. Use them sparingly and harvest them for every ounce of emotional impact.
The Payoff… Is Subtle
The big payoff might be earth-shattering for your story or characters, but the little payoffs or the set-ups leading to it don’t have to be. Sometimes, it’s better that it’s not.
For example, that necklace given to the MC as a birthday present was a touching moment in chapter three. By chapter twenty we learn the ornate decorative pattern on the family heirloom is the key to unlocking an ancient language. Hide your set-ups in plain sight, mix them up with other details that aren’t little payoffs so the reader doesn’t know what to expect. That doll found in a dusty box in the attic could be the clue to a mystery or just a doll. Keep your set-ups subtle and the reader guessing which hint, event, or item given to your characters means something. It’ll make the big payoff that much sweeter.
And sweeter is what you want. Devastation is what you want. What you want is the “Yes, I knew it!” moments instead of the “What? How/when/why did that even happen?” Master these tips and deliver those moments to your readers. It’ll give your payoff the payoff it deserves.
— K.M. Allan