Saturday, June 22, 2024

Unlocking the Secret of How to Write Great Set-ups and Pay-offs

by Zena Dell Lowe @ZenaDellLowe

Writing a compelling story often hinges on one critical element: the effective use of set-ups and pay-offs. This principle is a cornerstone of storytelling that can transform a good story into a great one. The challenge, however, is that modern audiences are incredibly savvy. They can spot a set-up from a mile away, and once they do, they file it away, waiting for the moment it will reappear. This anticipation can undermine the impact of your story. So, how do you create a set-up that the audience doesn’t see coming? How can you master set-ups and pay-offs in a way that allows you to surprise and delight your audience?

Remove the Expectation of a Payoff

As a writer, I’ve had my fair share of "aha" moments, but one of the most significant pertains to this very topic. In fact, it’s one of the best techniques I’ve ever learned when it comes to creating invisible set-ups that pay off in spectacular ways. Again, the problem is that most readers are so savvy that they know when something is a set-up, which means they’re already filing it away for later, expecting it to come into play. But what if you had a way to remove that expectation? What if the reader WASN’T waiting for that payoff to come into play, because in their minds, that set-up has already served a purpose? This is precisely the shift you have to make.

The key is to make the set-up accomplish something emotionally significant at the moment it’s introduced in the story.

For instance, imagine your character carries a lucky coin around that will ultimately be used in the story's climax to play a love song on a jukebox, convincing the girl to stay. You need to establish that the character has this lucky coin, but you don't want the reader to anticipate its significance too early. So, how do you achieve this? You make the coin accomplish something emotionally significant for the character at the moment it’s introduced. 

Picture this: your character nervously rolls the coin back and forth across his knuckles. It’s a habitual gesture, done absentmindedly. Suddenly, the girl notices. She smiles, clearly impressed by his dexterity. This small interaction gives your character a boost of confidence and inspiration, motivating him to overcome his fears and pursue her.

By doing this, the lucky coin has already played an important role in the character’s emotional journey. He transitions from a state of nervousness to one of determination and self-assurance. When the audience believes the set-up has already served its purpose, they won't be anticipating its return. This sets the stage for a powerful and surprising payoff later in the story.

Let’s illustrate this with another example. 

Imagine a character who needs to use their mother’s brooch to pick a lock later in the story. If you simply show the brooch’s secret compartment early on, the audience will anticipate its later use. Instead, reveal the brooch in a scene where the character uses it to achieve an immediate, emotionally resonant goal. Perhaps the brooch is used to fix a broken toy for a child, creating a touching moment. The audience sees the brooch serving its purpose in that scene and won’t be expecting it to return.

One of the Best Set-up and Pay-off Examples Ever

One of the best examples of brilliant set-ups and pay-offs is found in the film "Aliens." At the start of the movie, we see Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, dealing with the aftermath of her traumatic encounter with an alien. She’s been marginalized and demoted to working as a loader operator. This detail is revealed in a conversation with a company man who is trying to convince her to join a mission. The loader operation seems like a minor, almost throwaway detail used to manipulate Ripley into agreeing to the mission. It’s a set-up that immediately pays off, which is why the audience doesn’t realize its importance. 

Fast forward to a scene where Ripley, feeling out of place among the tough Marines, mentions she can operate a loader. She demonstrates her skills in a detailed sequence, which accomplishes an emotional goal: earning her acceptance among the team. At this point, the loader detail has paid off twice. First, it was used to manipulate Ripley into joining this mission, and now it’s been used to help Ripley fit in. The audience feels doubly satisfied. It’s paid off in full, so we don’t expect it to come into play again. In fact, we completely forget about it.

The genius of this set-up is revealed in the climax of the film. By then, we’ve completely forgotten about the loader. When Ripley confronts the alien queen and reappears in the loader to save the day, it’s an unexpected, thrilling moment. The audience cheers because the set-up was so cleverly masked. The loader had already served an emotional purpose earlier in the story—TWICE—making its return a delightful surprise.

Good Set-ups and Pay-offs Delight and Surprise Your Readers

This example from Aliens perfectly illustrates how to create invisible set-ups that pay off in impactful ways. By making the set-up serve an immediate emotional purpose, the audience is misled into thinking its role is complete. When it returns later, the surprise is both satisfying and exhilarating. 

To achieve this in your own writing, always look for ways to integrate set-ups into emotionally charged scenes. This technique not only disguises the set-up but also enriches your story by adding depth to the characters and their interactions. When the pay-off finally arrives, it feels natural and earned, making it all the more powerful.


Mastering the art of set-ups and pay-offs is a game-changer for any writer. By ensuring your set-ups accomplish something emotionally significant when first introduced, you can create surprises that your audience won’t see coming. This technique enhances the overall storytelling experience, making your narrative more engaging and memorable.

For more insights like this, be sure to check out The Storyteller’s Mission podcast on YouTube or on the podcast app of your choice. Also, don’t miss out on becoming a beta member of our new class, "Hollywood Story Structure Made Easy,” which is on sale for a limited time! Click here to learn more.


Zena has worked professionally in the entertainment industry for over 20 years as a writer, producer, director, actress, and story consultant. Zena also teaches advanced classes on writing all over the country. As a writer, Zena has won numerous awards for her work. She also has several feature film projects in development through her independent production company, Mission Ranch Films. In addition to her work as a filmmaker, Zena launched The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast designed to serve the whole artist, not just focus on craft. In 2021, Zena launched The Storyteller’s Mission Online Platform, where she offers advanced classes and other key services to writers. Zena loves story and loves to support storytellers. Her passion is to equip artists of all levels to achieve excellence at their craft, so that they will truly have everything they need to change the world for the better through story.

To find out more about Zena or her current courses and projects, check out her websites at WWW.MISSIONRANCHFILMS.COM and WWW.THESTORYTELLERSMISSION.COM


  1. James Scott Bll teaches about a Q-factor (taken from the James Bond movies). This is similar and takes it a step deeper. Thank you for the wonderful tip!

  2. This idea is similar to planting red herring and clues in a mystery. In one of my novels, I had my main MC have a conversation with a man at the library where she works. The conversation contains the key clue. But I don't want readers to notice it yet. So the MC focuses on another part of the conversation and follows up on it in another chapter. But it goes nowhere because it's a red herring. Then right before the end, maybe you'd call it the end of Act II, she recalls the conversation and homes in on the key clue. Thanks for describing this process in detail. You put into words what I know but hadn't understood it in such concrete terms. Great example!

  3. Thanks, Zena, for such a helpful blog post. You've got me thinking about how to use a set-up and pay-off in my WIP.