“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” –Anton Chekhov
Too often a piece of writing is well-done in terms of character and language, but doesn’t feel complete. It offers no ah-hah moment. A writer can create ah-hah moments by foreshadowing what is to come. This is not plotting, but something more subtle in a story: the careful placement of events, character traits, propsthat hint or suggest the ending. Anton Chekhov, the Russian master of fiction, believed foreshadowing was essential to the structure of stories. Today this is often referred to as “setting-ups and paying-offs.”
For a story to have impact–and there are those who disagree– there has to be an element of suspense, a question regarding the outcome of the story. I want to anticipate an ending, but not know the ending. A story that throws an out-of-nowhere twist at the reader doesn’t work nor does one that telegraphs the ending. These “techniques” steal away suspense and ultimately, satisfaction of the reader.
Set-ups and pay-offs are what give the reader that ah-ha feeling at end of a story, and if done well, throughout a story. Did you ever see Die Hard, the first one? In that movie, in the very first scene, we know that Bruce Willis is afraid of flying. He’s on a plane, he looks nervous, and the man next to him notices. The audience notices too.
Bruce Willis is a fraidy cat. What kind of hero is he? What kind of man? How will he manage if things in this story get rough? This gives us a little doubt about him, right? And the outcome of the movie. We know he’s Bruce Willis, the action star, but we recognize too that he is human–like us. This revelation give us characterization, empathy (I’m afraid of flying too!) and tension, but it also does something else. It sets up the possibility that even though we know Bruce can’t fail, John McClane, his character, just might.
Back on the plane, the man next to Bruce/John tells him to think about taking his shoes off and squeezing the earth with his toes. This makes Mr. Fraid of Flying feel better and makes us smile. Like I said, this is a set up.
Later in the movie, after Bruce/John is safely on the ground again and changing his clothes at his wife’s office, he actually takes off his shoes and squeezes the rug and repeats what the man on the plane said. Something about sand in the toes, I think. We smile with the character. We may even squeeze our own toes. This is the first pay-off.
Then the shooting starts. Bruce/John is still in the bathroom changing. He peeks out the door when he hears gunfire and sees all bloody hell has broken loose. Grabs his gun, runs out. Remember he’s taken off his shoes. He is unprepared, but he’s a cop and he goes into cop-mode. Although he may be afraid to be 35,000 feet up in an airplane, he’s not afraid to jump into the fray on 30th floor of Nakatomi Plaza. Pay off #2.
There’s more. When Bruce/John is pursued and hides in a glass office, the bad guys notice his bare feet and shoot the glass. He has to race through shards to get away. His feet are cut and bloodied. He leaves a trail. He’s injured and his ability to succeed and survive comes into doubt. Third pay-off.
If I remember correctly, there are a couple more pay-offs to this bare-foot business, and that’s why this is a good example of how to a writer can take one idea and use it to create a setup-payoff thread. The reader or audience can remember back to through the story to the beginning and say, “Ahhhh.” And it builds with each pay-off until the end. Many stories will have many setup-payoff threads to create suspense and Chekhov’s-gun-on-the-wall logic. In Die Hard, although it is Bruce Willis playing the main character, we are not positive he’s going to win because he is outnumbered, outweaponed, and yes, has bloody feet. We have doubt. Which translates to tension. Which in turn creates suspense. This is why we go to movies and read books, to be on that edge.
Die Hard is a not-particularly-subtle action movie which makes it a perfect movie to learn about structure. Watch for set-ups and pay-offs in other movies too, movies that give you that “ah-hah” experience.
Much of this, I learned from Robert McKee’s Story. His book offers a terrific course on how structure works. Oh, and of course, from Chekov.
Gay Degani is the editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction is recently published or forthcoming in Every Day Fiction, The Battered Suitcase, Paradigm, and 10Flash.