Eventually, all suspense and tension must be released—since anticipation is the source of suspense and tension, it’s probably not fair to readers not to eventually satisfy that anticipation. Naturally, this will happen to some extent throughout the story as we build up anticipation for events along the way. But the overarching suspense of the story reaches its ultimate payoff in the last part of the story, in the final act.
In fact, Raymond Obstfeld refers to Act III as The Payoff in Fiction First Aid. Here, we have to satisfy all that suspense we’ve worked so hard to build—and that payoff had better be commensurate with the anticipation, or our readers will feel cheated.
Obstfeld says, “The key to a good payoff is not to give the reader what you think they want” (55). That’s not to say that the hero and heroine shouldn’t get together in a romance (they should), or that the hero can’t catch the villain in a thriller (he should). It does mean that giving the reader exactly what you promised all along and only that is not enough to reward the suspense you’ve created for that goal.
This is a common reason why we don’t like the way a book ends. I read a book last year where the entire book was about the heroine learning about others and herself—but at the end, she went back and did the same thing she’d been planning to all along (and it was rushed). All along, I was promised some revelatory, life-changing experience, but in the end, the character didn’t change.
After spending hundreds of pages with these characters being thwarted in their quests, yes, they have to see some measure of success in the end (unless this is a tragedy, I guess). But that hard-won success probably shouldn’t just be the exact thing they’ve looked for all along. Take Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy is reluctantly dragged into looking for the Holy Grail, which he doesn’t really believe exists. What does he find in the end? (Yeah, he finds the grail—but is that all?)
A good payoff is both unexpected in some way and commensurate with the suspense the author has created.
What do you think? How else do we see suspense in Act III?
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