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Monday, August 8, 2022

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setups, Payoffs, Connections

In order to write a strong story, it's helpful to know and utilize the principles of plot. So far, we have covered the primary, secondary, and tertiary principles. While not every likable story has a powerful riveting plot (some may emphasize character or theme more), with these elements you can create a solid one and strengthen it.

As a brief review, here are the components we've covered thus far.

Primary Principles:

1. Goal

The protagonist has a goal; this can come from an abstract want, but the goal must be concrete and measurable. If there is no goal, there is no clear context for the plot--the audience can't measure what is a success or what is a failure.

2. Antagonist

While there may be a primary antagonist in the story, an antagonistic force is anything that is opposing the goal. It's in the way of the protagonist's success. Most stories will have multiple and even temporary antagonistic forces.

3. Conflict

The protagonist and antagonist can't both succeed in any foreseeable way. They are in opposition to each other, and this will create conflict, as they each pursue their desires.

4. Consequences

Consequences give plot a sense of cause and effect. What happens with conflict doesn't matter unless it changes or influences what happens next. We can project cause and effect forward to create stakes. The consequences that actually take place, we call ramifications. 

Secondary Principles:

5. Progress

Within the protagonist's goal, will be smaller goals. And as these smaller goals are met, this creates a sense of progress. The audience sees the protagonist getting closer to the big goal. 

6. Setbacks

The opposite of progress is a setback. This happens when an antagonistic force blocks a protagonist or pushes a protagonist further away from getting the goal. 

7. Costs

As the protagonist pursues the goal and engages antagonistic forces, they will have to pay costs. The pursuit may cost them physical or mental health, it may cost them time, it may cost money, or any other kind of resource. This puts more accountability and responsibility on the protagonist. 

8. Turning Points

The plot follows a cause-and-effect trajectory, because of the consequences. A turning point turns the trajectory of the plot onto a new path. This turn can happen through revelation (information) or an action (event).

Tertiary Principles:

9. Plans

After having a goal, the protagonist should have a plan of how to obtain that goal. Plans are the bridge between goal and progress and help reinforce each. As the protagonist makes a plan, it reinforces their desire for the goal; it also strengthens the audience's ability to measure progress.

10. Gaps

The gap is the space between what the character expects to happen and what actually does happen. Any action a character takes, carries an expectation. However, reality may deliver something better, worse, or different than expected. This can be used to create escalation and turning points.

11. Crises

A crisis happens when a character is "backed into a corner" and forced to make a choice between two or more paths (cause-and-effect trajectories). Each option has meaningful stakes and promises significant costs. The character's choice creates a turning point, and often can't be easily undone.

The quaternary principles of plot include setups, payoffs, and connections. 

Why Are the Quaternary Principles "Setups, Payoffs, Connections"?

A plot is stronger when it has a sense of cohesion. Random events and character reactions rarely make a strong plot. For a story to be satisfying, the audience wants it to feel logical. They want it to feel whole, where each piece matters (generally speaking). While a sense of cause and effect helps create cohesion, we can strengthen cohesion by utilizing setups, payoffs, and connections.

Now admittedly, some stories are about the lack of logic and cohesion, and it's okay for those stories to exist, but their plots can often feel . . . plotless, and leave audiences wanting.

To further strengthen plot, look at adding these three elements.

They will help reinforce the consequences--the cause and effect.

But really, they are broader than that, and broader than most of the principles I've covered.

So while one may argue that a goal or plan can fit in "setup" and consequences can be a type of "payoff," it's probably best to view these more as simply tools to strengthen cohesion.

Setups and Payoffs

Because these two are so closely linked, I want to first talk about them together.

If you've been in the writing world for a while, you've probably heard of Chekhov's gun.

Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story writer, and in several of his letters, he wrote about the importance of paying off what is set up, using a gun as an example. 

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

- Anton Chekhov

In another mention of the gun, he also added, "It's wrong to make promises you don't intend to keep."

Showing the gun on the wall is the setup.

Showing the gun going off is the payoff.

However, this can start to get tricky, because there are different types of setups, and I just wanted to use that as an example of the pair.

Setups Prepare the Reader

I debated on the term to use for this element, but ultimately decided "setup" was the broadest and most inclusive. The setup is the first part of this connection--the information, the clue, the hint, the plant, the display, the suggestion.

But there are different types.

One type of setup is a promise. Chekhov's gun is really about delivering what you promised the audience. This is often plot driven. If we show a character loading a gun and saying, "I'm gonna shoot that imbecile." We've promised the audience that the gun will go off. (And obviously for this plot series, we are more focused on the plot promises.)

Nonetheless, some promises aren't plot related. For example, a trailer for a romcom promises romance and comedy. If you show up to the movie, and it's actually a thriller, you'll feel cheated, because it's not what was promised. So even something like the genre your cover, title, and back cover copy suggests, can be a promise.

Promises work by setting up expectations that the audience then waits (consciously or subconsciously) to have fulfilled. One of the advantages of promises is that they hook the audience. I will want to stick around to see the gun go off, or I will want to go to the theater to watch the romcom. 

Readers want to see when and how the promise will be fulfilled. If it's not fulfilled at all, then we have a potential problem: a broken promise.

Another type of setup is foreshadowing. This is often more subtle and a bit vaguer than a promise. The author drops hints about what will come later in the story. Personally, I like K. M. Weiland's perspective on foreshadowing.

"[Foreshadowing] prepares readers for what will happen later in the story."

She goes on to say that this may seem counterintuitive. After all, don't we want to leave the audience in the dark so as to not spoil the story? Don't they want to figure out things on their own?

Well, they can't "figure out" anything if you don't give them anything to work with.

Which is why I so like Weiland's use of the word "prepare." We aren't spoiling or advertising the payoff. We are preparing the audience for it, by hinting that it could happen, that something is possible. It's a potential reality.

Audiences don't want to be completely blindsided by an element. Imagine reading a seemingly realistic story and then in the second half, out of nowhere, a character saves someone important from drowning using magic. Because there was no foreshadowing, the audience is unprepared for this. They feel cheated, because they didn't know magic even existed in this story. They weren't given any indications of the possibility. A lack of foreshadowing can also lead to things feeling like a deus ex machina, or even like the author just made them up on the spot, threw them in, and didn't bother to go back and revise the earlier parts of the story.

This can make the author come across as untrustworthy.

The audience wants to be somewhat prepared, even with twists. Actually, especially for twists. If the twist has no foreshadowing, this usually leaves audiences upset, since it came out of leftfield (and one may argue, in such a case, is it even a real twist?)

Usually the most satisfying surprises and twists have some foreshadowing--even if it was so subtle, the audience practically missed it, or at least, forgot about it.

Now, where foreshadowing ends and promises begin, can be a little blurry if you get too nit-picky. But for some sense of each, Reedsy explains it this way:

"Chekhov’s Gun refers to the unspoken agreement that a writer won’t make 'false promises' to a reader by introducing elements that are unexplained. In other words, if you draw attention to something, you will eventually reveal why it's worth noticing.

"Foreshadowing takes place when a writer drops hints that the reader will probably overlook until the moment that all of the details come together."

I think this can be more of a spectrum, so I wouldn't get too hung up on exactness. Nonetheless, these are both terms used in the industry, so it's helpful to know they are both types of setups.

Another type is, arguably, stakes themselves.

Stakes work by projecting a cause-and-effect trajectory forward, which means they also set up and prepare the audience for what could happen. 

Stakes and promises are more closely linked to setting up expectations. With foreshadowing, it's often possible that the audience may not even recall or "see" the foreshadowing until after the payoff.

The more focus you spend on the setup, the more important the audience expects it to be, generally speaking. So don't make a big show about a gun getting loaded if it's inconsequential. . . . unless the point is to misdirect the audience.

Setups can be direct or indirect, but we don't want them to feel heavy-handed. This has been called "telegraphing." If setups telegraph the payoffs, then the story can become too predictable, eliciting eye rolls instead of epiphanies.

Deliver the Payoffs

After you've put in the setups, you need to eventually follow up with payoffs.

The payoff is the delivery. 

If you showed us the gun being loaded, you now need to show us that it goes off.

If you said in your stakes that "If X happens, then Y will happen," you need to show Y happening.

If you foreshadowed that magic is possible, now is your chance to use magic.

If you've done your setups right, then theoretically, the payoff should work fine by simply delivering what you set up.

However, you don't always have to.

When we talked about the tertiary principles, we talked about gaps--that space between what is expected to happen, and what actually does happen. 

In a sense, you can create a gap between certain kinds of setups and payoffs.

For example, if we show a character loading a gun and saying, "I'm gonna shoot that imbecile," we've (likely) created an expectation that that is exactly what will happen. However, if instead, the scene turns so that the character is the imbecile getting shot with his own gun, then that creates a sort of gap. One that still has a payoff because it delivers on the promise that a gun will go off (and, arguably, an imbecile will get shot).

Now, again, because writing terminology isn't perfect, things can definitely get blurry and bleed together, so try not to think too hard about it.

But you basically have the same options I've talked about before: 

- You can deliver exactly what is expected

- You can deliver something worse than expected

- You can deliver something better than expected

- You can deliver something completely different, and therefore more surprising, than what is expected

And you may be playing more with the audience's expectations than the character's. But let's not make our heads spin by getting too detailed about this. 

The point is that this is called a payoff--so it should be a satisfying follow-up to what was set up.

This usually means . . . 

1. If you've set something up, you can't deliver nothing.

2. If you deliver something different than what was set up, it needs to be at least as effective.

Like all rules, these can be broken at the right time in the right way. For example, one may deliver nothing to lure the audience into a particular state before following up with a bigger something. But then this sort of thing bleeds into the concept of misdirection--where we are intentionally misleading the audience, but to good effect.

The payoff for foreshadowing is, generally, pretty simple, in my opinion. This is because often the foreshadowing was put in, in order to make the payoff work, period. If I want my character to magically save someone from drowning, I need to mention the possibility of magic earlier.

In contrast, many writers set up expectations along the way (sometimes as hooks), without having figured out how to deliver on them.

Whether you came up with the setup or payoff first, doesn't matter a whole lot, as long as both appear appropriately in the story by the time it gets published. 

You may well start writing a story, and only later get a great payoff idea, based on what you had seemingly, naturally foreshadowed.

There is more than one way to arrive at the finished product of these elements. The point is that you revise until you do arrive.

In any case, proper setups and payoffs strengthen the logic, cohesion, and cause and effect of a plot.

Make Connections

Best-selling author Brandon Sanderson is known for his magic systems. And not only is he great at writing magic systems, but he's also great at teaching them, and has put together three "laws" for writing magic systems.

. . . What does this have to do with plot?

I've found (and so has Sanderson) that these laws can be applied to more than just magic systems when it comes to storytelling. And I think one of them works as a nice principle to keep in mind when plotting. 

Sanderson's Third Law for magic systems is, expand what you already have, before adding something new.

Now, to some degree, in some sense, with plotting, we are adding things that are new. But what Sanderson really means is, we should first consider working with what we already have in play, before throwing in another unrelated concept, and trying to get it to work. (I will note that I am not perfectly applying the Third Law to plot, but you can read Sanderson's actual explanation of the law here.)

Sometimes writers who struggle to progress plot, start trying to make it more interesting by actually adding more and more and more plotlines or concepts. Instead of adding something new or something random, brainstorm something that connects to what you already have.

One way to do this is by following cause-and-effect trajectories. Follow different trajectories outward to come up with relevant plot material.

You can also look at connecting what you already have to further strengthen cohesion. If you do have a lot of different things going on, try to find ways to link them to make them more satisfying. If you have four different plotlines, look at making them intercept (hint: this should often happen at the climax for maximum impact). How can they relate to and influence each other?

Typically human beings find pleasure in connections, which can make a story feel more "whole," "complete," or "right." 

This can happen with even seemingly inconsequential things . . . 

. . . which takes us right back to setups and payoffs. 

They connect to each other.

And when we experience a story where everything (well "everything") connects to something else--serves a purpose--we let out a contented sigh.

Truth be told, I think there is something deeper to all this, that on some human level, we all yearn for everything to connect, for everything to have a purpose, to feel that there is a sense of logic and order in the universe.

Perhaps it is just human nature.

But if you can connect things in your plot, do. It's usually better for it.

That is . . . assuming it doesn't start to sound too formulaic and on-the-nose . . . 

Keeping a Balance

It's possible to handle setups, payoffs, and connections wrong, poorly, or to overuse them. 

If this happens, it can make the story feel inauthentic or superficial

Chekhov said, "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story."

In other words, anything that doesn't connect to something more.

Are we really meant to adhere to this exactly?

Probably not. In fact, Ernest Hemingway made fun of this claim and enjoyed throwing in inconsequential details. 

Any virtue taken to an extreme can become a vice.

And if you find that your story is feeling too connected, too formulaic, or the like, you can often get rid of that feeling by removing some sense of cohesion. Maybe not everything has to have a purpose. Maybe you can showcase something that ends up not being very important. Or maybe you get rid of a connection across plotlines. Maybe you do throw in something unrelated.

Stories like this often feel more "organic." After all, in real life, not everything seems to connect perfectly, lead to other outcomes, or have some purpose. Some element of life is just random.

With that said, generally speaking, a story with great cohesion, is going to be more effective than a story without it. 

As always, use good judgment, my friends. 

Now go plot!

Continue to the quinary principles of plot -->

Articles in This Series

What Plot is NOT (How NOT to Fix Your Story's Plot!)

The Primary Principles of Plot: Goal, Antagonist, Conflict, Consequences

The Secondary Principles of Plot: Progress, Setbacks, Costs, Turning Points

The Tertiary Principles of Plot: Plans, Gaps, Crises

The Quaternary Principles of Plot: Setup, Payoffs, Connections

The Quinary Principles of Plot: Reveals & Twists


  1. Jennifer RaudenbushAugust 8, 2022 at 7:56 AM

    I just wanted to say thank you for this excellent series!

  2. I second what Jennifer said: This series is quite thorough and I appreciate the time you've taken to share your expertise with others. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Dana. And thanks for commenting. It has been quite the journey to put together.


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