Have you ever been left hanging—with the expectation that something is going to happen—and then it never does?
Irritating, isn’t it?
My husband has a habit of beginning a sentence, leading me a ways down a conversational path, and then suspending me over a cliff, waiting for him to finish the question or the point he was making. Sometimes it’s a long wait. He’s raised a little flag in my head that waves until I find closure and until then, I’m unsettled, feeling like something’s missing.
As a writer, I’m very aware of this natural human tendency in my readers.
If I introduce a gun into my story, I’ve just raised reader expectation that, at some point, that gun is going to come into play. If I create a character who has a fear of birds, then I’d better deliver up a scene in which she has to face that fear at some critical moment. I know that everything I put into a story must be an essential part of that story because readers will assume it is and if I lead them down a path and suspend them over a cliff…well, cliffhangers are only satisfying if there’s an eventual resolution.
As readers, we look for patterns. We’re trying to order and make sense out of what we read, even if on a subconscious level. We may think we’re indulging in a frivolous read for sheer entertainment value, but we always read to learn. Our brain craves story, eats it up, gains nourishment by it, and is continually on the lookout for the payoff.
There always has to be a payoff.
Everything I’ve set up in my story must eventually score a payoff or I’ve disappointed my reader, left them hanging. On the flipside, every payoff I deliver must have been set up early in the story. I can’t just slide it in at the end and expect readers to buy it. That would be cheating in the worst way. Not only is it sloppy storytelling, but I would have cheated my readers out of the buildup of tension and expectancy that arises when they recognize a setup.
As a writer of mystery and suspense, this is one of my big challenges. Every time I weave a setup into my story, I feel like I’m blaring a big horn and waving a sign that says CLUE. My inclination is to disguise the setup, hide it in plain sight, so at the end of the book the reader can go back and say, “Ah, yes, I should have seen that.”
But I’m learning that’s not the way to give my readers the best experience. A great deal of the satisfaction we get from reading—particularly mystery and suspense stories—is in spotting the clues and connecting the dots. If I hide the clues too well, I deprive my readers of that pleasure. On the other hand, if I make them too obvious, I insult my reader’s intelligence—and believe me, dear readers, I would never want to do that. It’s a tough balancing act.
It’s all about the payoff, baby.
Isn’t that what we’re in it for? Why do we diet and exercise? For the payoff. Why do we study and sacrifice? For the payoff. Why do we immerse ourselves in a good book? For the payoff. It is my goal and my challenge to write stories to delight my readers and deliver what they really want—payoff.
What books or stories have you read that delivered a really satisfying payoff? Please share your favorites and let others in on the experience.