You know that moment in a movie or book, right in the climax, where something that’s been set up earlier, explodes in your chest? You suddenly have a new insight or understanding or realization about the characters in the story, and by association, the world around you?
As writers, one of our goals is to get the reader to a place of catharsis. In Greek, the word catharsis means to vomit. And in writing, this is the moment we want to build to, where the audience or reader is able to PURGE all the emotions that have built up over the course of the story.
This is the moment of true release—where our hero dies by sacrificing himself, or when the heroine, who has been searching for true love, finally kisses the man of her dreams, or where the boy who has dreamed of being a soccer star, despite his physical challenges, kicks the winning goal. It’s the moment when the cop finds out who the killer is and blows his head off.
This is the pay off moment. The reason the reader came to the book in the first place, or the moviegoer paid his/her twelve bucks. It’s the moment where they achieve satisfaction.
So how do we, as writers, plant the seed for this to happen, and make the payoff truly bloom?
Here are some tips…
The set up should involve the character’s goal. You reveal something they long for, but it feels impossible. Better if it seems like a throwaway piece of exposition. It seems small, but then later, becomes huge in the climax, as the character achieves it.
The set up has to be subtle. Again, make this information seem unimportant. The reader takes it in, files it away, but doesn’t really notice. You slip the seed in the soil. That’s it. It’s quiet, under the radar. You’re a night farmer.
The seed has to be planted deep. It can’t be a trivial seed and simply have to do with completing a task (for example, “I want to climb Mount Everest!”) It has to be primal and profound, and be related to an emotional need (“I want to climb Mount Everest to prove to my father I’m worthy of his love.”)
It involves a three-step process. The seed needs to be planted in the beginning of your story, watered in the middle, and bloom at the end.
The payoff has to take the reader/viewer by surprise. We can’t see it coming. The flower needs to slam up out of the soil, making us gasp.
As a reader or viewer, you’re familiar with the “garden variety” planting of this type of seed. Someone says to the hero (in a loud bald manner,) “You will never be able to vanquish that dragon because you don’t believe in yourself!” (set up) Then we see the hero try to vanquish the dragon, but chicken out because she lacks self confidence (development.) The pay off is that she faces the dragon one last time, only this time believes in herself and kills the nasty creature (payoff.) I’m not saying don’t do this. I’m just saying there’s a difference between planting weeds and planting ORCHIDS.
Here’s an example of an orchid planting.
Ever seen the film CAPOTE? It’s based on the true-life story of Truman Capote’s writing of the non-fiction classic In Cold Blood. As a writer for The New Yorker magazine, Capote became fascinated by the murder of the Clutter family on an isolated farm in Kansas in 1959. Someone broke into the house one night and brutally killed the mother, father, teenaged son and daughter. The murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were quickly caught, and Capote attempted to befriend Smith in order to understand his motives.
Early in the film, Capote offhandedly jokes with his lover that he’s been reading Smith’s journals, and that Smith has written an entire speech should he ever win an award. It starts with the words, “I can’t think of what I was going to say, for the life of me…” They laugh. (This is the set up.)
The development, or second beat, comes a bit later, when Smith and Hickock are convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The idea of Smith ever winning an award is now even more ludicrous.
The pay off comes in the climax. Smith is about to be hanged. He asks if any of his family is there and he’s told no. With Capote and several other witnesses watching, he slowly walks the steps to the gallows. The executioner asks him if he has any final words. Smith stammers for a moment, then heartbroken, says, “I can’t think of what I was going to say for the life of me…”
In that moment, the movie cracks wide open, as we, the audience, realize Smith is not a monster, but a human being, who like us, has sought love in the only way he understands.
Let’s just say that when the movie gallows floor dropped on Perry Smith, I was purging hysterically. I was weeping for the fact that no one cared about him, I was sobbing because even in the moment of his execution he was still trying to get love, and finally, I was crying with relief that the man who had so brutally murdered an innocent family was now dead.
Holy crap. That is one sneaky, brilliant and amazing flower.
Take action! Do you have a seed that you set up, develop and pay off in the climax of your book or movie? Is it subtle, is it deep, does it grab the reader or audience by surprise and make them feel as though they themselves are realizing something important and profound?
Plant those seeds. Water them in the middle of the story. Watch them bloom in the climax.