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09:33 am: Wright's Writing Corner: The Payload Moment

The raven Thought whispers
the secret of the Payload
Moment into Odin'sear

Payload:          Every scene/fight/sex scene should have some moment that moves the plot along or heightens      awareness, drawing the reader into something greater. Villains should reveal something important during a fight, and romantic partners should learn more about each other or reveal secrets. 

                      Also, every character should have at least one paragraph/scene where they reveal their inner motivation.


Payload. Probably the most important concept in these Writing Tips. If I had to rank them from most important to least important, this one would be number one.


Payload as expressed above falls into two categories: scene payload and character payload. Today, I will talk about scene payload and save character payload for a later post.


The last couple of weeks we talked about romantic zing—that moment of heightened awareness of the relationship that gives the reader a jolt, such as a first kiss. In many ways, Payload is plot-related zing—that moment when the storyline intensifies and is raised to a higher level.



Sometimes the Payload moment is caused by the revelation of unexpected turns of the plot. Other times, it happens because the ideas in the story are suddenly revealed to be on a deeper level than it had previously touched. I will give an example of this:


Last night we were watching as show where the main character was about to be executed by a rival. At the very last minute, as the curved blade lowers to strike the head off the poor imprisoned lad, the rival was struck by lightning. A character who was watching was seriously impressed by this (and by the fact that the kid about to lose his head smiled the whole time). He became convinced that destiny wanted this boy to live.


What was so impressive about this scene was that destiny had never been mentioned in this show…and we were on episode 52. Adding the question of whether Heaven might be on the main character’s side gave a whole new dimension to the story. It suddenly seemed deeper, wider, more important than it had before.


That was the Payload moment, not only for that episode, but for the entire season.


(Kudos to anyone who can recognize the show from that description. )


As in the example above, the Payload is the thing in the scene that makes the scene come alive, that makes you sit up and say “Wow”, that makes the story intensify or deepen. It can be something related to the general universe, like Heaven is on your side, or a twist of the plot, a new revelation about the nature of the situation.


Most Payload moments are like zing, a tiny jolt like the kind you get when you touch a metal doorknob after walking on a carpet. John and I recently watched a movie where the payload moments were so powerful, they were like the thunderous retort of a full-strength lightning bolt. The movie was called The Five People You Meet In Heaven. I am going to use it below as an example, but PLEASE!!! If you think you might ever want to see this movie, skip this part of the article. The power of the story will be severely lessened if you already know what is coming.


Spoiler Alert


 The Five People You Meet In Heaven proposes the idea that when you die, before you get to go on to Heaven, you meet five people who show you what your life really meant, who explain the mysteries you never understood in your life. The particular story is about a amusement park maintenance man named Eddie who has lived and worked at this park his entire life, except for a stint in WWII. He had had plans, dreams, but when he came back from the war with his leg permanently damaged, those dreams slipped away from him.


Eddie dies (trying to save a little girl) and he meets his first person, a blue-skinned man who was a freak at the carnival that was included with the amusement park when Eddie was a kid. We already know enough about Eddie’s life to know that this person was someone he only knew in passing. Yet, for some reason, this guy, not his brother or his mother, is the guy who meets him first.

The blue gentleman fills Eddie in on the five people thing and they chat a bit. Then, casually, Eddie asks, “How did you die?”


“You killed me,” the man says.


You killed me.” With those words, suddenly everything changes. It is like being electrified. This blue man who meant nothing, a stranger chosen at random, is suddenly inexorably tied into Eddie’s life.


Eddie’s second person is his Captain from the war. They talk, they go over many things. What a good soldier Eddie was, what happened when their band of brothers got captured, the horrible way they were treated by their captors, how they escaped, how they burned the bamboo buildings they left behind, and the moment when Eddie’s leg got shot.


Finally, Eddie asks, “Why you, Captain, why are you the one here to talk to me?”


Because I’m the one who shot you.”


This is the one that really hit us like a thunderbolt. (Probably the same thunderbolt that saved the character from the show we saw last night.) Suddenly, everything changed, everything about Eddie’s life from that point on became different.


The captain goes on to explain why he did it. I will not tell you any more. If you have seen the movie, you know. If you have not, you should not have read this far anyway.


Spoiler End


Not ever Payload moment has to involve thunderbolts. But a good Payload moment will draw the reader further in to the story. They are the moments when the point of the whole thing becomes clear, the moment that rewards the reader for the effort made so far, the moment that draws the story together and makes it something more than an anecdote.


How do you create Payload moments? That is another issue entirely. One we can discuss next week.




[User Picture]
Date:June 9th, 2010 03:04 pm (UTC)
I do love those great "payload moments" in books and movies where suddenly you see the real stakes...and they're greater than you thought, but in an organic way. The best payload moments are those that at once surprise you and at the same time make you think, "That totally makes sense. Why didn't I see that?"

It's a twist, but not for twist's sake...a twist that works through slight of hand; by the author cleverly averting your eyes from all the clues until he pulls them together in one "aha!" moment.
[User Picture]
Date:June 9th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
An "aha!" moment is a good way of putting it.
[User Picture]
Date:June 9th, 2010 10:17 pm (UTC)


Whether a thunderbolt or not, the payload should be sufficient to justify the length of the scene. Spending twenty pages to tweek the circumstances is not enough.
[User Picture]
Date:June 9th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)

Re: thunderbolts

That's a good point, too.

The two are not necessarily related--length and punch--sometimes really short scenes are more powerful than long ones, but what this really means is: it's not a Payload minute unless it elevates the whole scene. If it's too small a revelation, it won't carry the scene.
Date:June 12th, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
One Piece!!! One of the best manga around. Good work on this writing series you've been doing.
Date:June 12th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:June 12th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
You got it! Wish I could send you a quarter (the prize John's father alway gave to those who got a question right.)

One-Piece...the real version with the thing the Americans took out put back in...is realy an excellent show.
Date:June 14th, 2010 07:12 pm (UTC)

One Piece

I agree. First, I should say that I actually really like a little goofiness and humor. Some of the jokes actually are funny on the show. My only problem with One Piece is that it stays a little too much on the goofy side sometimes. I haven't quite put my finger on what it is that irritates me slightly about it every now and then. It isn't even grotesqueness (e.g. some characters appearances), which I love sometimes.
The heroism and adventure depicted in the show actually is moving and exciting though. Keep watching. My favorite payload moment of the series is still yet to come. I don't want to put you onto it before it happens though, so I will inquire later to find out what you thought about it. It is, it seems to me, a hugely pro-life payload moment, and a genuine reason to give for a really intense fight. Anyway, it was moving to me.
I must recommend reading the written/drawn version though. The pacing always seems better there. I have seen some different animated shows where a scene that took about one page to be resolved in the book, took three episodes to be resolved in the show.
Also, I personally recommend Naruto as another story with some good things in it, but almost ruined in some places by the typical nature of those kinds of books. There is some unconscious(?) Christianity there, and in One-Piece, I think. I have written about that somewhere for my own amusement. If I post it on the net, I will let you know, if interested.

-Harrison Jones
[User Picture]
Date:June 14th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)

Re: One Piece

John watches Naruto and our friend Bill, who owns the One Piece, reads the manga, so I feel as if I participate in both vicariously.

I'll post as we continue. ;-)
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