From ‘The Road from Setup to Payoff’ by Karen Barr, (Writers Village University, MFA 250-261 Story Focus series based on the book by Lisa Cron)
One of our most hardwired expectations is that anything that reads like the beginning of a new pattern—that is a setup—will in fact, be a setup, with a corresponding payoff.
A setup is a fact, an act, a person, an event—something that implies future action. (It is) a piece of information the reader needs well in advance of the payoff so the payoff will be believable.
To the reader, everything in a story is either a setup, a payoff, or the road in between.
Setups, when done well, read like fate.
From the student’s private notes.
Setups contain both clues and red herrings.
It was a dark and stormy night
A diversity (clue or red herring) gothic screenplay
the Countess von Ravensblakk (East European) – Weird Owner
Growly (English, of course) – the Butler
Norbert E. Temple (American) – Architect
Burly Dwarf (Caucasian) – Camera Man
Tyke Mison (black) – Director
Producer (race: none of the above) – in wheelchair
Woman (none of the above and different from the Producer) – in Red-high-heels
Gorilla (Africa) – in frock coat
Thin man who looks like David Niven (obvious) – Thin man who looks like David Niven
It is a dark and stormy night.
The rain falls in torrents except when a violent gust of wind hurls it in face-stinging spray.
Lightning flashes, illuminating a man’s face in the attic window of a turreted mansion built in American Gothic style for Malcolm Nudgeridge III by the Chicago architect Norbert E. Temple.
It is the last mansion Temple built before his sudden disappearance.
Someone’s hiding or imprisoned.
Lightning flashes again.
This time it illuminates the wrinkled face of an elderly woman with disordered grey hair, peering out of a ground floor window.
‘I am the Countess von Ravensblakk,’ she says, as if to remind herself.
Is that her real name?
Behind the woman, a growly voice says, ‘I hear the car, Modom.’
‘Madam, Growly!’ the elderly woman snarls. ‘I said you were to call me Madam not Modom.’
If there’s a butler, he must have done it (or not).
And, what is their relationship?
Did the butler help her kill the Count von Ravensblakk—if indeed he is dead?
Lightning flashes yet again.
The face in the attic has disappeared.
It must be found.
Lightning makes sparks fly off the gleaming mirror-surface of a crimson limousine, its headlights almost drowned by the pouring rain.
Have they lost their way?
Who are ‘they’?
The limousine halts at the bottom of the front steps in a shrieking peacock’s tail of skidded gravel, its headlights flashing like disco lights.
Above the sound of a loudspeaker playing punk, a voice shouts ‘We’re here.’
They have not lost their way.
‘We can hear and see that,’ rasps Modom’s raspy voice.
[‘Madam,’ Modom reminds the author in a voice full of menace. ‘Call me ”Madam’ or you may not tell my story.’]
Is the author a character in this drama?
Madam complains to Growly, ‘What I only have to do to keep this old mansion that has been in my family for centuries repaired, Growly!’
The Countess yearns to keep the mansion.
‘Decades, perhaps, Modom. Not Centuries,’ Growly growls.
Does the butler know all the family secrets?
Growly opens the front door warily and wearily. He presses the releaser-button of a black umbrella eight feet in diameter as he thrusts it out of the doorway. The umbrella bursts open, sounding like a gunshot.
A thin man with a fine-line moustache—
Someone’s gotta look like David Niven—
But is he a good guy or a bad guy as well as a smooth guy?
—has a foot out of the door of the limousine. He hears a gunshot and, fast as a bullet, retreats his foot and slams the door. It too sounds like a gunshot.
Growly raises the hand that doesn’t hold the umbrella.
[Author. This could go on at least three times, to suit the director.]
At last the foot belonging to the man who looks like David Niven touches the ground and he steps out of the limousine. A rainbow coloured golf umbrella with the name of a famous golf course on it thrusts out of the passenger door like a sword and opens in a flash with a menacing click-whoosh and the opening notes of the Ride of the Valkyries (by Wagner).
This umbrella does not hide a sword, but Growly’s may, or it may hide something worse.
Growly peers to see who else is in the limo.
As the disco lights refract from the sheets of solid rain, Growly’s gaze cannot penetrate the limo windows.
‘Where’s the money?’ Growly shouts at the thin man. ‘No entry without money.’
‘You are vulgaire, Growly,’ the Countess von Ravensblakk says, sighs, and then hisses, ‘But unfortunately you are necessaire.’
She is French? She is Russian? She is …?
[Author. This is not My Fair Lady.]
In the dim flickering candlelight coming from within the mansion, the thin man sees a blunderbuss in Growly’s hands. Growly has transformed his umbrella with one click—a silent one this time.
By Chekhov’s Law, the gun must be fired before the end of the drama.
The thin man holds his hands up above his head. In each is a pale green money bag labeled with a $ sign in deeper green.
‘Bring them here. Put them down,’ Growly growls.
Are the notes numbered? Is there a microchip in each bag?
The thin man wades through the turbulent streams that are now removing the gravel from the gravel path and carrying it downstream.
The mansion stands on a hill.
[Author. ‘Removing’ is irony: streams cannot remove. Hence it is a metaphor. Also, it is sinister: gangsters remove their enemies. See Lesson on Subtext.]
He mounts the stairs to the wooden front door which has been blackened to prove its great age.
He places the moneybags just within the doorway.
Growly kicks them further inside and shuts the door with the kind of thud that shows it is not real oak.
Is it a real mansion?
The thin man’s moustache twitches nervously as he strokes a hard L-shaped outline in his jacket pocket.
Is he armed?
Is it a gun?
Is it a real gun?
What else could a hard L-shaped outline in a man’s jacket be?
Growly opens the door. ‘You get thirty minutes,’ he says. ‘Not a second more.’
What’s the deal?
‘All the way to the attic?’ The thin man asks.
‘All the way,’ Growly says, ‘but don’t force open locked doors.’
Someone or something is hidden behind a locked door.
‘Cameras,’ the thin man shouts. ‘Action.’
Have they hired the mansion as a film set?
The various doors of the limousine burst open.
Burly Dwarf, the cameraman, bounces out in his unique burly fashion. His clothes are burly too.
Tyke Mison, the director leaps out athletically. He has an uncanny resemblance to a famous boxer.
The producer rolls out in an orange wheelchair which has its own umbrella.
Is it a real umbrella?
‘We’ve observed diversity,’ the thin man shouts as he leads the way into the mansion.
Diversity takes its rightful place.
[Author: They won’t film anything unless there’s diversity these days.]
‘No you haven’t.’ Countess von Ravensblakk says. ‘Where’s the real woman?’ Her voice is so cold it turns the rain to sleet.
Diversity doesn’t take its rightful place.
Plus, she is a dangerous woman.
‘I had my sex changed,’ Tyke Mison shouts as he and the film crew push past Countess von Ravensblakk. ‘I’m an ex-broad.’
No one is who they seem to be.
The Woman in Red high heels and the Gorilla in a frock coat emerge from the limousine and run in to the mansion.
‘I am a lesbian,’ the woman shouts.
‘I am not,’ the Gorilla shouts gayly.
The Gorilla is not what he seems to be.
The wheelchair rolls up the stairs, two at a time.
‘You have already used five minutes,’ A metallic voice announces.
Is this an electronically controlled mansion?
Are there traps, like collapsing staircases? Doors that open to a five-story drop?
Who is the Woman in the Red High Heels?
What colour is the Gorilla’s frock?
[Author’s personal reminder. Ooops. This belongs in the Lesson in Description. Take out.]
Growly throws open the door to a bedroom dense with spiderwebs.
The door comes off its hinges and flies across the room.
The film crew rushes in.
They haven’t noticed the flying door.
The Gorilla in a frock coat runs a bath for the Woman in Red High Heels.
The bath runs over.
Fulfilling the contract. Oops, this should be in the lesson on Your deal with the Reader.
‘You’ve had 23 minutes,’ the metallic voice computer-speaks. ‘Only seven to go.’
What will happen to them in seven minutes time?
‘The attic! The attic!’ yells the man in the wheelchair. He leaps out of it and bounds up the stairs at least three at a time.
He doesn’t need his wheelchair.
He, too, isn’t who he seems to be.
The wheelchair follows him.
The wheelchair isn’t what it seems to be either.
And don’t forget the face in the attic.
Countess von Ravensblakk and Growly slip into an elevator concealed in a pot holding an immense potted cycad, a direct sibling of the Encephalartos altensteninii cycad collected in the early 1770s from the Eastern Cape in South Africa by Kew's first plant hunter, Frances Masson, that grows in Kew Garden’s Palm Mansion.
No one notices.
The baddies are on the way.
‘At last, the attic,’ the Thin Man says, reaching a locked door at the top of five flights of stairs. ‘Now let’s find Temple. We’ve searched the other thirty-five rooms. He must be in the attic.’
Remember the disappearance of Temple?
‘I’m here. I’m here.’ A man’s voice comes from behind a double-lined maroon velvet curtain.
[Author. He is not the Wizard of Oz.]
The Gorilla tears down the curtain.
Behind it is a door.
‘Oak,’ Tike Myson, the ex-broad, says. ‘At least a hundred years old. And the tree it came from was two centuries old and a hundred feet in diameter. I know because my grandmother was a maidservant in this mansion when I was a girl.’
Myson punches the door. The lock explodes with a firework display.
The door and the lock are props made of cardboard.
The team surges into the room.
A skeleton with a microphone in its hand stands dead-still on a black marble plinth.
On the plinth is a bronze plaque with TEMPLE engraved into it.
Payoff, payoff, payoff. Ooops. I’m not supposed to tell you this.
The film crew dash up to it.
Behind them a metal door slides across, screeching like claws scratching down hard on a very long black slate blackboard or the scream of a frightened ghost.
‘Gotta keep a legend alive,’ rasps the Countess von Ravensblakk to Growly in her nasty raspy voice. ‘Next appointment in a month.’
Real Gothic baddies.
Potential sequel: Will the next limousine contain more suckers or will they catch out the Countess and Growly?
(Author: This is not important as long as the audience is having fun. Chances are they won’t understand anyway. Keep ’em laughing. Keep ’em wondering. Keep ‘em confused)
‘What shall I do with the car, Modom,’ Growly says.
‘Madam,’ Countess von Ravensblakk snarls. ‘I said you were to call me Madam, not Modom.’
Thank you, Growly.’
The rain stops. The disco lights make sensual patterns against the ancient forest that surrounds the mansion.
Countess von Ravensblakk rips off her grey wig and shakes out her floor-length raven-black hair.
‘The rain’s stopped. The disco lights make me wild,’ she growls in a husky voice.
She rips off her mask.
Ah, she’s the famous actress, Carion M’rane
She rips open the Velcro on her old-fashioned clothes, revealing …
[The author will leave that to the reader’s imagination …]
‘The music’s groovy, Growly,’ she growls – no, she snarls– no, she’s trying to purr. ‘Let’s have a party.’
The actress who played the Countess von Ravensblakk grabs a mike and sings, ‘Send to the store. Let’s buy some more. Let’s have a party tonight.’
Growly rips off his wig, eyebrows, over-clothes …
An Elvis impersonator or the real Elvis?
The man who played Growly bows.
‘Before we rock,’ the woman who was the Countess von Ravensblakk says, ‘roll the limo into the lake with all the others, will ya, Growly.’
It turns out his real name is Growly and he is a famous magician playing his first role in cinema.
The Student will now read through this story marking all the setups and payoffs.
The student will mark clues and red herrings.
All students will hand in their coursework by
The student would have been grateful to the teacher for encouragement, intelligent suggestions, and especially for recognising that there was a story worth telling, but this is authentic gothic horror.
Teacher: I could not allow my best student to survive.
OR NOT QUITE
About the teacher
Teacher: Karen’s short stories have appeared in various online literary magazines in the U.S. and the UK.
Student: Please name at least 3. Teachers must inspire students. Teachers need not be modest and may boast
Teacher: But the teacher has less publishing experience than the student.
Student: is not convinced. Never mind. Flattery will get you everywhere.
Teacher: Karen has developed a number of MFA courses and classes for Writer’s Village University where she is currently working on her 3-year MFA and serves as Administrative Assistant and Staff Adviser.
Student: (silent in awe).
About the Student
Joy Manné’s flash fiction flashes in print (Lakeview Literary, 100 Voices, Sleep is a Beautiful Colour, the UK National Flash Fiction Day collection 2017) and online (Pygmy Giant, Cafe Aphra, Chicago Literati). Joy won the Writer’s Forum first Flash Fiction competition and the Geneva Writers Group 2015 prize for Memoir.
PS. Teacher says I’m an experimental writer but I’m just another eccentric English woman and of an unrestrained age.