The payoff switcheroo

With two characters each approaching crisis in a story, you can increase impact by unexpectedly substituting a second character’s climax in the place that seems reserved for the first.

Building tension is the art of ratcheting up to a promised pay off. Because you’re necessarily teasing your audience by playing with their expectations, it’s often hard to maintain surprise. If you place a spy in an office with a USB key and set a security guard walking his way, the possible outcomes are pretty clear to the reader. There’s discovery, of course. There’s the likelyhood of the last minute escape (after the inevitable business with the download bar creeping along as the guard gets closer). There may be a sting in the tail, of course. Perhaps his antagonist watches him leave with tainted data.

You can confound expectations some of the time, but not most of it. This sense of inevitability is not a bad thing. Especially in genre literature, readers like to know that a character will likely get munched by the prowling monster. It’s not whether, it’s when and how. And you’ll never entirely escape that. A set up implies a pay off and that’s that.

It’s nice to add surprise to that mix where you can though. By using two characters, both with a payoff upcoming, you can induce shock by simple sleight of hand. Set up your first character, and then focus on the second. Bring the second character to the point of pay off. Then, at the very last moment, substitute the first character’s payoff for the second.

For this to work, you need two stories, (A and B) both hurtling towards their own pay offs. You need a sense that something is about to happen in each case. You set up Story A, then move to B. Through your focus you signal that the B story is the one about to hit a key climax.

Story A: Anna is unhappy with her job as a producer at a lifestyle media company. She has been hinting at a big private project that will change everything for her. One day soon she’ll have her own agency she says. She meets with a male acquaintance in a bar, complains and brags, and touts for investment. He’s almost convinced, but wants more proof. He needs a clincher.

Story B: Bob has been stealing from the same company. A private security officer has been tracking him, and catches him trying to sneak out of the building after hours with incriminating evidence. The detective draws a gun, and marches him back towards the communal office space. He’s going to cuff him to a desk and call the police. Bob is desperate. He can’t go to prison. There’s his sick wife and kidnapped daughter to consider. He looks for escape, but the detective’s weapon does not waver. Bob is seconds from ruin. Prompted by his captor, he opens the door.

Story A: Anna is projecting footage of the company’s boss, naked but for bra and panties as he enthusiastically whips a famously moral Christian politician. This was her ace in the hole, and she was about to sell it to a rival company for enough money to secure her future. She and her investor look round in guilty surprise as the door swings open.

Story B: Shocked, the security guard turns to his prisoner but Bob has recovered already and slipped away.

The surprise pay off adds to the shock value in the context of Story A. That Anna is going to do something subversive, and probably get caught, is not unexpected in itself. But because her discovery sits in the place reserved for a climax in Bob’s story, the surprise is enhanced.

The Story A pay off also provides a tension-ratcheting release for Story B. Even though this is not Bob’s pay off, it serves in its place, and therefore satisfies. At the same time, Bob’s reprieve is only temporary. The stakes are raised, and we’re off again on the way to his crisis.

If Anna’s discovery saved Bob, then it’s important to note that Bob’s near doom provoked Anna’s fall. This is a satisfying intermingling of stories, and can be used to help bind disparate elements together.

A real example
In a recent episode (series 6, episode 9) of Rescue Me, the long running firefighter drama, two stories vie with one another.

In Story A Damian, a young recruit, considers his future as a firefighter. He’s proved himself, but remains unsure the life is for him. He hands in his resignation, and then changes his mind and retrieves it.

Meanwhile, in Story B, and old hand, Lou, contemplates the end of his career. He’s been diagnosed with a chronic heart condition. He too approaches a manager, but feigns a memory lapse at the last moment.

The team are called to a fire at a joinery. In the warehouse, coffins are stacked up high. Wheezing and sweating, Lou can barely make it up the stairs, he looks in a bad way. He’s been warned this would happen.

On an upper floor, we see a circular saw embedded in a heavy bench. The firemen get the news that there is no water available. Lou can’t breathe, and against orders he breaks a window, letting in breathable air, but also feeding the fire.

As the flames rise and the building begins to collapse around them Lou and his companions cower, and look for their next move. The floor above them gives way, and we see the bench and circular saw fall. It looks like Lou’s number is up.

Then Damian appears in a doorway ahead of them to call the team back to the street. The circular saw falls onto him, its blade forced down by the weight of the bench above it.