Setup, Conflict, and Payoff: Your new Beginning, Middle, and End

I’m starting to think that the middle part of a story isn’t as significant, in terms of audience satisfaction, as maybe we make it out to be. It’s all about the Setup and the Payoff. In between, the Conflict must be what delays achieving the Payoff. That isn’t to say that the meat of the story is put together isn’t important, but that in order for the story to feel “worthwhile,” the Setup and Payoff must feel like bookends to the journey in between.

The Setup
This is the part of the story when we mark what the narrative is about. We set up the moral, the goal, the desire, the warning.

The Payoff
This must be relative to the Setup. It must address that key point in either a positive (fulfillment) or negative (tragic) way.

The Conflicts
Some are more predictable than others. There is a balance between good predictable and bad predictable- it feels safe (“I knew it!” Delight from the audience) or it feels boring (“Gee, I never would have guessed,” sarcastic response). Sometimes we get satisfaction from a mild sort of mini-tragedy halfway through (the “All is Lost” moment- but this is not true trajedy) where the dramatic irony sets up it’s own sort of setup and payoff, and sometimes we love the tension of a completely unexpected twist.
The structure of the Conflicts defines the genre more than anything. The structure of a RomCom is different to a soap or a drama or even a straight Romance. At this point, I’m toying with calling a “Hollywood Blockbuster” a genre: Blake Snyder’s beats are not the same as the Hero’s Journey, or one of Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

Like a good essay or academic paper, whatever the structure of the Conflict, the story will remain unsatisfying if the Payoff does not match the Setup. You just get bonus points if the structure matches the genre!

…or do you…?
(Experimental Film/Game/Novel, anyone?)

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