On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast

Properly balancing buildup, payoff, and contrast is vitally important to keeping a story interesting and satisfying. With inadequate buildup to a discovery or climax, the payoff won't feel rewarding. If the payoff is unimpressive, the whole thing will feel like a ripoff. Without contrast, things that should have been attention-grabbing, awe-inspiring, or shocking will feel routine and monotonous. So, here are some tips on managing these things.

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Building up suspense and tension to create a more rewarding story

Imagine the difference between taking a drink of a thirst-quenching beverage of choice when you're a mite dryish compared to taking one when you're well and truly parched. In the latter case, whatever you're drinking inevitably tastes much better and feels much more rewarding. The same basic principle applies to fiction - when people are thirsty for resolution or reward, it's a lot more satisfying and refreshing when it happens. Ways to get your audience thirsty include:

Providing your characters with legitimate obstacles to overcome before they get their rewards. Whether it's finding treasure, uncovering mysteries, finding romantic partners, getting new powers, stopping villains, anything. The old adage that you'll appreciate things you worked for more than things you didn't is completely true, and as audiences are (hopefully) identifying themselves with your characters and feeling sympathy for their struggles, they'll also feel a sense of reward and achievement when something finally comes of their efforts - or at the very least feel that the climax made the rest of the story worth sitting through!

Putting your characters into situational difficulties that make life unpleasant, then giving them a release. This is a great way to give people a cathartic experience. For example, if we see a character who has been bullied or bothered by someone for page after page, chapter after chapter finally snark off or give the bully a good punch, it's satisfying to watch because we finally get release for the frustration we've been building up ourselves - which we would not get if the character just ran around punching random jerks with no buildup. If your character ever does punch random jerks because it's part of what kind of person your character is, that's all right - just keep in mind that not going to be an especially emotional experience - perhaps mildly satisfying (if the audience believes the people getting punched deserved it), but not the big "AWW YES!!!" moment the former example would be.

Dropping hints and clues. Are you planning on making a big reveal somewhere? By dropping hints and clues beforehand you can build up your audience's curiosity - then when you actually make the reveal, they'll have the satisfaction of having their curiosity sated.

Rewarding your audiences with good payoffs

A payoff is any type of plot event that gives the audience a sense of satisfaction, reward, or progress. They can take many forms, many of which boil down to progress, completion, justice, or relief for one or more of the characters. It can be the moment a bully falls into a mud puddle. It might be when the treasure map is found, or when an important clue is discovered. It can be the moment when a couple kisses for the first time. It could be a moment of people reconciling or people seeing each other after long periods of separation.

Payoff can also be something "negative." It might be seeing a character grieve over a personal loss. It could be seeing a character die - even a character we loved - in a dramatic way. It could be seeing a predicted disaster play out or watching the giant monster everyone's been talking about finally wreck the city. This is not to say your audience will necessarily be taking some sort of sadistic pleasure in these events, but rather that the catharsis they get can provide a sort of reward.

Of course, it isn't just what the payoffs are that make them rewarding; it's also how they're used. A good payoff usually has most of the following qualities:

It has buildup. As discussed in the previous section, people will feel more rewarded when something happens if the story has them anticipating and wanting it beforehand. A payoff that doesn't have buildup will at best provoke a weak emotional response and at worst leave audiences feeling like the whole thing came out of nowhere and/or that it was unnecessarily tacked on.

It's as least as awesome and dramatic as the buildup implies it will be. For example, if you have your characters talking about how an epic battle between good and evil is going to happen, you'd better believe your audience doesn't want to see anything less than an epic battle between good and evil - with real fights, real losses, and the whole nine yards. If you spend several episodes hinting that a character once did something soul-scarringly heinous at one point, people will be disappointed to find out that the character was actually a completely innocent party.

The audience has time to savor it. Rush over a payoff (particularly if it's a big world/life-changing event or concerns something the characters care deeply about!), and you're potentially denying your audience an emotionally-impactful moment and/or denying them a release for the pent-up emotions they have. Give the audience time to feel the joy, excitement, grief, awe, etc. of the moment - don't just give it a few lines or a few seconds of screentime and then call it a day!

It makes the effort worthwhile. Unless it's a plot point that the characters' efforts were a waste, the payoff should make what they go through feel worth it. If a protagonist risks life and limb, puts friendships on the line, and nearly has a mental breakdown in a plot arc that culminates in learning something that could have been Googled in five minutes, audiences are probably going to feel shortchanged. If you spend several years showing characters making googly eyes at each other, leaning into each other's spaces, and dropping everything to rescue each other, you'd better not have it all end up in a joke about how they're not really in love and then try to imply that anyone who thinks they are is a dingbat who reads too much into things.

It involves something the audience cares about. For example, if the audience doesn't care about the characters who are falling in love, they aren't going to care if/when they finally kiss, either. So even if you depict the kiss itself with just the right amount of sensuality or tenderness or whatever emotion you wish to evoke, people won't feel any particular sense of reward or satisfaction if they aren't rooting for the people doing it.

Now, a good story is usually full of smaller payoffs that lead up to one big payoff at the end. For example, the detective in a mystery story gathers clues (small payoffs) that lead up to the discovery and capture of the perpetrator (the big payoff). In a romance story, small payoffs might be the characters meeting, their first date, their first kiss, and so on - which all leads up to the big payoff of the characters getting together for good.

You don't want to oversaturate your story with payoffs (especially if they serve no purpose to the plot), but as a general rule if you have your characters running around for chapters or episodes on end without making any kind of real headway or doing anything particularly exciting, people are going to get bored wondering when or if anything is actually going to happen. Take too long to get around to it, and they'll leave your story in search of something better. (And if your story is released in periodical installments - for example, weekly episodes or updates - it's usually not a bad idea to aim for your protagonists visibly getting something good or worthwhile done in most of them. You don't want your audience to feel like they've been waiting on pins and needles for nothing!)

Using contrast to avoid numbing or jading your audience

Some writers seem to be under the impression that if something was dramatic or impressive once, then using it over and over again is a surefire way to keep their stories dramatic and impressive. However, it doesn't work that way - in fact, it's quite the opposite. For something to keep on having dramatic impact, care must be taken that it's not overused lest it loses dramatic impact and becomes mundane or meaningless.

For example, if your protagonist encounters something that should be "impossible" once or very rarely, then you're going to have people's attention when your protagonist points out that something that ought to be impossible is happening because it's a rare event. But if your protagonist declares things to be "impossible" every other week, then "impossible" becomes the new normal and thus ceases to be particularly impressive or intriguing when used.

Giving a character new powers or increasing that character's power strength now and then over the course of a long-running story or series can get people's attention, but if you make a regular habit of it, it'll come off as a cheap gimmick, plus you'll likely end up with a severely OP character. If you really want to keep things interesting, aim to have your characters fight smarter, not harder, and save those power upgrades for rare occasions - and then when you do dole them out, try to use them to take the plot in directions that would have been impossible before.

Killing off an important or major character once in a blue moon can surprise your audience and trigger strong emotions, but if you make a habit of doing it then people will come to expect it. Now, this probably won't be a problem in genres where high death counts (EG, horror, suspense, and war fiction) are more or less standard, but otherwise, you might run into problems. Once the audience expects the characters to die, nobody is going to be too shocked when the next character bites it, and that means a weaker dramatic impact than otherwise. Some people might even start emotionally detaching themselves from the characters so they won't feel hurt or angry when the inevitable happens. Others may just quit watching/reading altogether to spare themselves the agony down the road. So think carefully before killing your main characters off willy-nilly, because depending on what you're trying to achieve with your story you might not be doing it any favors.

And while making characters work and suffer to reach their goals can make a story ultimately more satisfying than letting your characters ease through everything, putting characters through too many obstacles and hardships can hurt your story. If it basically boils down to a saga of bad things happening to characters who rarely (if ever) get anything worthwhile or interesting done, people might just find it so obnoxiously dreary that they abandon it - most people don't want to sit through a story that leaves them with mostly negative feelings or leaves them feeling emotionally drained. Or they might just grow indifferent to the sufferings of the characters - in which case there are good odds they'll abandon the story out of boredom.

Also, if you decide to mess around with your audience by, say, doing something bad to your characters immediately after giving them happiness, they'll eventually start expecting that if you make a habit of it. What's more, you'll turn what might otherwise be positive moments into moments of dread and fear, thus spoiling your ability to make your audience feel happiness or relief.

So when it comes to anything in your story that you want your audience to have a strong emotional reaction to or to take special notice of, make sure you use it in moderation - or else it will soon lose its effectiveness. Think about the stories you've seen and enjoyed, and consider how they balanced the positive and the negative. Ask yourself what really impressed you and/or made an impact on you, and why. Ask yourself what made you care about what was going on, and what made you want to see the characters succeed. Apply to your work accordingly.

So, in summary!

Also, you might be interested in:

On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
On Plot Structure & Plotting
Plot & Story Development Questions
Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings: A Few Pointers
On Showing vs. Telling
Stuff You Should Cut From Your Story
The Worst & Most Frustrating Ways To Kill Off Main Characters
Changing Alignments, Allegiances, & Loyalties More Believably
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Dramatic Hyperinflation: Why It's A Problem, And How To Avoid It

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