The Payoff

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

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39 thoughts on “The Payoff

  1. For me it helps that I read a lot and I’ve watched a lot of movies.

    I’ll think of things that I liked and things I didn’t. When I write, those examples come to mind and stay with me. I remind myself of things to avoid but most of all I’ll study why I enjoyed certain things. Why did I smile when they finally hooked up at the end? What did they do in those earlier chapters that made me care?

    It’s the little things, isn’t it. But those little things build. And like you said it’s all about the payoff.

    Thanks. Lots of good stuff here.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Got to love a good movie payoff but unlike a book where time is no factor, we often get caught into the whole “yeah right as if you would say I love you that early on” moment like the one we had watching a Christmas movie on Netflix the other night

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ruth Miranda

    the only time I think I’ve used payoffs – and done it well – is in my first novel, because being a mystery novel, well, I kind of needed to, right?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great–and here’s where I think literary novelists can really use some cues from genre novel payoffs. Every reader wants a payoff. Pretty language and fleshed-out human characters are wonderful; but we all want that feeling of resolution at the end!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. On the one hand, yeah. BAM. The orchestra on the beach, passion or the jail door slams or the police leave just before the sheetrock repair guy shows to patch the bullet holes or the serpent gasps it’s last. A lot of B Noirs pulled this off. Sexual tension and BAM the murderer is caught, lets go get married or the dying girl shoots Mitchum clinging to a fence. Ta Da! But consider the pulp formulas. Often more slice of life or stream of consciousness. MacDonald could do it either way. James M Cain was more about getty you dirty for 200 pages than slapping you with an ending. Elmore Leonard? Good guys and bad guys and guys you don’t know which, he can drop that in paragraph, and somebody asks somebody else if they’ve had dinner.
    i write modern fairy tales. So to me the run off to Connecticut and get married works. As does the entire format of something like “Captain Blood” only today we need to see what the Princess is doing while the pirate sails the seas. They defeat the bad guys, escape the clutches of the lusty Mayor and it’s into the sunset.
    I recently read a book that got good press when published. I found it disappointing, but that’s another thing. There were so many loose ends that never got tied up and the ending was one of those “She got in her car and I never saw her again” things. So to me, whatever you come up with, please, don’t do that! “Shane” riding in tot mountains leaving a trail of bad guys, okay. Harry Potter carrying his (girl)friend, both covered in dead dragon slime, Luke blowing up the Death Star…Okay. About that “La La Land” ending? What a perfect fairy tale and they blew it. That’s like a band raving up the end of a song, kicking it hard and the drummer quits, walks off the stage. Errrrrrrrrrrk….boing…..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is exactly what I’ve loved about Terry Pratchett’s books. They start out scattered and it is hard to figure out what is going on. But the threads all come wondrously together at the end. However, his final few books we not as good in this regard, with the payoff being more smoke than fire, as you say.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this. I am writing the climax of my book at the moment, and I need to ‘linger’, give the readers something to champion, because I am about to burst everyone’s bubble and my MC is about to behave very badly. I want to set up the stakes. This is a timely post on how to do that effectively. Thank you (again).

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  8. What’s that quote about showing a gun and having it go off? That’s what the tip about subtlety reminded me of! This was a great post. 🙂 The ending of a book usually has the biggest influence on my opinion of it, because it’s the last thing I remember.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Madeline. Yes, I’ve heard that quote too. Something about if there’s a gun in the first act, it needs to go off in the third. Perfect example of a good payoff. Don’t show/introduce something major if you’re not going to use it 😊.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Another great post!! The problem though with a lot of these leads are, they become too predictable, a man reserved about why he is visiting a place with an old photo (A loved one is dead) The hidden key in a bracelet/necklace etc – overplayed. The neighbour that really turns into the over-interested psycho lol. But there are many great ones that are fresh and really drag you in. 😀

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  11. Subtle and on fire, I like that! I’m also a sucker for payoffs, especially of the kind that works on emotions and keeps paying off for repeated readings. The reason why I love Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, I guess. 😀

    Oh, and hi! Hopped over from Bryan’s blog, this was a nice post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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