A Very Good Place To Start

The workshop I spent the most time in at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference (SBWC) was called Story Structure for all Genres. Playwright and author, Dale Griffiths Stamos, provides brief lecture and then conducts interview-style one-on-ones with each author, discussing their overall work.

I’m still very new to writing so it takes only the simplest of ideas to blow my mind. In this case, asking the simplest of questions: What *IS* writing? This answer surprised me by focusing on one way to think about the relationship between writer and reader:

  • Writing is about planting questions in the mind of the reader.
  • Successful writing is about answering those questions in a way that leaves the reader feeling fulfilled.
  • Setups must have payoffs.
  • The author must have the answer and give it to the reader.

And there it is. All writing can be boiled down to a good joke; A setup and a payoff. The trick as an author is to recognize which bit of what you wish to write belongs in each category.

  • If I have a cool idea, is it part of the setup (worldbuilding, for example) or the payoff (action)?
  • As I help my character fight for what they want, what actions are setup or payoff?

Stamos referred to the “Obligatory Scene.” This is the climax, the moment where the reader gets exactly what the writer has persuaded them they want. Again, I will believe anyone who tells me that this is the absolutely MOST basic of writing concepts, but I can also honestly say it is an idea I have never specifically considered.

I mean I *know* this as the reader, but as the writer…? Knowing what my obligatory scene(s) will be, feels like the reason I tend to write the beginning, the end, and then try to figure out the middle.

When I think about each thing I write, from now until my forever runs out, I’ll be asking myself:

  • What questions are you setting up?
  • What will the payoff be?

So watch me try it for this blog post. [Deep Breath] The setup is on the left, the payoff in ( ):

  • Hey, wanna know what I learned? (Writing is setups and payoffs)
  • How did I learn it? (Via lecture and interview during class)
  • Why is it important? (Provides an interesting new method for testing writing structure)
  • What has changed? (Can be used consistently as an exercise in increasingly intentional crafting of content)

WHEW! Well, that was good practice, now I think I’ll go try it with the treatment I’m writing for an upcoming mystery series.

I’d love to hear what you think about this idea and how you use it in your pre-writing and/or planning and outlining.


What do you think?