Once upon a time, there was a self-publishing podcast from which sprung the Facebook group The Smarter Artist. To create a platform where indie-writers could meet like-minded editors, a bunch of editors within this group of writers created the spin-off group The Smarter Artist Editors. Long story short, a dedicated few started a weekly thread sharing editing tips with the community, and we’re now ready to share these tips with the world.
Today, I’m sharing a tip from Emily Deady. Emily is a freelance editor who loves fantasy and historical fiction, especially if it involves a good romance.
My current developmental editing obsession is refining the setup payoff moments to keep the reader turning pages.
J.K. Rowling is a master of this, both in her overall plots and in her granular scene development. In the first Harry Potter book, the most satisfactory payoff is when Gryffindor wins the house cup at the end. Thanks to her extensive setup, this emotional close is poignant.
What fascinates me even more, though, is applying this on a granular level. In the early chapters of Half Blood Prince, Harry arrives at the burrow, interrupting a conversation between Tonks and Mrs. Weasley. Tonks is upset about something, but immediately rushes away. This leaves an open question in the mind of the reader, who then pays rapt attention as Harry and Mrs. Weasley have an important conversation containing key exposition. After which, the question about Tonks is answered so the reader is rewarded for their attention. Soon after, Hermione and Ginny walk into the room making fun of an unnamed ‘her’. Again, the characters catch up with the news over the summer, revealing some key exposition. While Harry, in the back of his head is trying to figure out who they were making fun of, which is revealed a few pages later. This keeps the reader engaged because there is always something happening right now that needs to be uncovered.
I’ve been thinking about these tiny setup/payoff moments. It’s so much easier to focus on the big reveal at the end (which yes, should be compelling and setup etc.) but it’s the chapter to chapter moments that make the reader feel smart and engaged. How can we better apply this to our manuscripts?
Here’s a few places to start:
- Look for areas that have a direct ‘because’ explanation. “Mary shuddered because she was afraid of heights.” Can you set up the fear of heights in advance so the audience is already teetering with Mary as she looks over the edge? “Mary shuddered as the vertigo sank in.”
- Comb through your exposition: Can you pull a J.K. Rowling and leave an unopened thread at the beginning of the scene to keep the reader engaged? Just don’t forget to tie it up shortly after.
- Comb through your exposition again. Can you withhold information and build it up with clues until the last possible moment? Say you have two characters sharing facts about the villain before a big showdown. “Don’t forget, he can read minds.” Instead, can you leave subtle clues so that the main character doesn’t discover it until the climactic moment of their battle. Then he (along with the reader) suddenly puts the pieces together and realizes he is in big trouble.
- What is the emotional catharsis moment at the end? This is often not the same as the climax of the plot. Have you properly set up the emotional weight of that moment so that the audience feels it as keenly as the hero?