Good pay offs are like that example that people use – if you can only see the toe nail on an elephant’s foot, how can you tell it’s an elephant? You probably can’t, but when the reader looks back from the full picture, the toe nail is there in full view – obviously a missed clue. For me there is nothing more wonderful than a really good pay off in either the characters or plots of a book.
So often the endings of books kind of drizzle off into after thoughts, almost as if the writer couldn’t think of anything more to say and just stopped writing. Once in awhile, good authors have endings with twisted and marvelous pay offs. Those endings stick with me for years. I was so inspired by the pay off at the end of “The Boys From Brazil” by Ira Levin that I actually shouted when I read it. I used it as a model for the end of my own book “Tranquility Initiative,” which will soon be released. It’s one of those wonderful, totally unexpected endings that leave you with a sense of dread. Indeed the whole book in “The Boys From Brazil” is the set up. It’s a marvelous read and I won’t spoil the pay off for you.
Elizabeth George, is a complete treat of a writer from a great many directions not only her great and many startling pay offs but her use of the English language make reading her mysteries something to look forward to. Many writers are quite simple in their English, not Elizabeth George. I would say that her gorgeous use of language is wasted on a mystery, but it’s not wasted at all. It makes the reading wonderful. Beside the pure joy of the read, she sets up all kinds of clues like bread crumbs throughout her books and the pay offs are amazing.
J.K. Rowling is the quintessential pay off queen. Elephant toes that constantly mislead Harry and the reader litter her landscape. Like Hermione catching and stopping Snape in his perceived attempts to curse Harry off his broomstick in book one, which is constantly used by Harry as a reason to mistrust Snape, gets paid off in Snape’s memory in book seven which we hear Dumbledore ask him to keep an eye on Quirrell – who it turns out was the one making the curse. Indeed book seven is replete with pay offs. It is an amazing example of how, when you only have some of the information, you can jump to erroneous conclusions. In Harry Potter there are long term – full-series pay offs, book-length pay offs and chapter-length pay offs.
Set ups and pay offs are marvelous conversation pieces for term papers. Did the writer confuse the reader with a set up? Was the set up noticeable at the time or only in retrospect? What had to happen for the reader to understand the pay off? Did the writer set it up and hide it well? Did the pay off use a play on words so that it was not only exciting and informative, but clever?
J. K. Rowling’s use of Rita Skeeter as an animagus (a witch or wizard that can turn into an animal or in this case a bug) gave “bugging” new meaning when Hermione finally figured out she was turning into a beetle in order to gather information at Hogwarts. Despite the many clues, including Harry talking about the possibility Skeeter bugging Hogwarts, and Hermione insisting that electronic devices would never work in the castle – which actually gave her the clue she needed – the beetle-bugging solution to how Skeeter could possibly have access to some of the information she wrote about came as a complete surprise to this reader.
Set ups and pay offs are a good reason for outlining. It’s easier to write good set ups and pay offs in the planning stage than to have to search back through a 300 page book to find the places to insert set ups when you come up with a wonderful pay off at the end of the book. And of course it can be done – it’s even been done by me from time to time.