Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Buildup Versus Payoff

I touched on this subject in the last post, but I think it's important enough that it requires expansion.  Many writers spend all their time trying to build suspense and draw in the reader, but the final product amounts more to a fizzle than an explosion of great work.

I love the TV show Supernatural.  I'm a fanatic about it, and I never miss an episode.  One of the things I love about it is that it always resolves the larger story issues after no more than two seasons.  The original producer of the series, Eric Kripke, said that he wanted to keep the buildups he created to around a season and a half, or else the viewer would get more frustrated about resolution.  He stuck to this time and time again when he hinted about Sam's dark powers, released Lucifer from his cage, and introduced the Word of God tablets.  In each instance, although it took a few episodes, we always got resolution so there was a modicum of closure and we could move on to the next adventure.

Twin Peaks was just the opposite, and that was one of the reasons I gave up on it.  For the record, I felt Lost was the same way.  There was all this buildup, but nothing ever got resolved until the very end.  Viewers would come back each week hoping to see a plotline resolved, only to get more obfuscation from the writers.

Plus, the final payoff to this d...r...a...w...i...n...g



the plot

(The waves have to eventually get to shore)

almost never matched the anticipation.  Johnny Carson famously remarked that the longer you spend telling a joke, the bigger the payoff at the end has to be.  Neither of these shows, in my opinion, matched the end product to what the implied promise of excitement was during their run.

As writers, we have to remember this.  We should, indeed we have to, put an element of mystery into our work.  It draws in the reader and keeps them turning the page.  However, we need to remember that the mystery is in advancement of the story rather than the story itself.  Points must be resolved so the reader can move to the next part of the story, and we have to remember that these suspenseful components are only elements of a larger picture.  If you can't get past them, you risk losing readers when they move onto something that grants the closure a story should.

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