Subtle Set-ups and Powerful Pay-offs

ACFWAdvice, Authors and writing, Friends of ACFW, tips, writing Leave a Comment

by Christine Sunderland

Life is a journey from choice to choice, an exercise of free will. When we choose, a genetic component changes, and we become slightly different people. We have chosen a direction that informs our genes and colors our future choices.

As readers we follow this journey in stories. We wonder where the choices will take us. But along the way we are given hints, and, indeed, the choices themselves are hints. So that by the end of the novel, the reader should not be entirely surprised by the destination, but maybe pleasantly surprised. The reader recognizes truth, foretold, a kind of prophecy.

These hints are what we call “set-ups.” They are like the clues in a mystery, but they also texture the story. Set-ups ask a quiet question, and with repetition along the way, the reader knows a pay-off may be coming. But what will the pay-off be? The reader must turn the pages to find the answers.

Pay-offs are also called “aha” moments in the story. Perhaps the reader learns that a detail of the character’s backstory explains or foreshadows the crisis, or a number of details combine to form the crisis. In my novel, Hana-lani, the definition of love weaves in and out of the narrative. Is the definition simply lust or is it sacrifice or is it something in between? When the crisis answers the question the reader exclaims, “Aha, it had to be that way. This explains it.” These moments can be satisfying ones for the reader.
Magdalene Mystery
In my recently released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, one of my protagonists has a strong desire to find truth, to define truth, to publicize truth. Midway through we learn why he is so committed, and we say, “Aha.”

In addition to character set-ups, plot set-ups are similar the clues in mysteries. Why does the author choose to dress the heroine in certain ways? Why does she refer to certain details again and again? These details become identifiers in the plot, may even drive the plot, and when the reader sees these details emerge later in a different setting, we say, “Aha.”

Every word counts, just as every minute of life counts. In real life we have many moments when sudden understanding opens a window. As children we study math, language, and science, and learning provides such moments. As adults we experience similar moments with more complex subjects – economics, politics, theology. All of these connections, these learning and turning points, are real-life “aha” moments, opening windows in our minds so that we can see out, see farther. They are paying off set-ups in our own journey.

So in writing novels, Christian authors are echoing a pattern of thought, a way of learning and thinking and problem-solving, a way given to us by God. We innately yearn to make sense of our world, and this impulse finds satisfaction in set-ups and pay-offs, both in reality and in fiction. Of course the ultimate pay-off is the gift of God himself, and we are led to him through the many set-ups in the world around us. The Christian novelist mirrors that action of searching and finding, creating a deeply satisfying journey for the reader.

In the Christian worldview, cause and effect are real, not random. Actions have consequences in and of themselves, but more importantly Christians are responsible for their actions to God and to their brothers and sisters. There will be a judgment, the ultimate pay-off; what we do, we believe, matters. Set-ups/pay-offs mirror this worldview, for in a novel details have meaning, just as the minutes of our days have meaning. These are powerful tools, encouraging the reader in this view of our world, supporting his belief if he is a believer, or leading him closer to belief, if he is not a believer, closer to experiencing a loving, reasonable God.

The Christian novelist has a great opportunity to set up a world that mirrors the real one. In so doing she gives the reader the greatest pay-off of all, that “aha” moment, the recognition of truth, the reflection of God.

Christine SunderlandChristine Sunderland is author of four award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, and Hana-lani, set in Hawaii (all OakTara). Her fifth novel, The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene, is set in Rome and Provence, has been recently released by OakTara. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union. Visit Christine at (website and blog) or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *