Hook, Build, Payoff

After we’ve laid out the global elements of our Story at the top of our Foolscap Global Story Grid, we need to nail down the actual major movements. So you’ll see that the final three quarters of our Foolscap is dedicated to mapping out the Beginning, Middle and End of our Story.

Boiling your pile of 400 pages down to BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END and setting aside all of the other pieces in your Story is the single best advice I could give anyone. Remember, Stories are conceptually simple things…

A storyteller hooks us: Once upon a time, there were three bad children…one day, on their morning walk, a wolf captures them and takes them to his lair…

And then we get a middle build that raises the stakes: the wolf tasks the three children to lure their kingdom’s only source of food to slaughterwhile they “help” the wolf, the three bad children make a dastardly plan that only wicked children could devise.

Lastly, we get an ending payoff that is both surprising and inevitable: after the children trick the wolf and lead him to his death, his fur fades away, his snout shortens and he is revealed as their long lost father the King. The King awakes and tells them of the spell he’d been put under by an evil housemaid and of how that spell could only be broken by his children. With the return of their father, the children are no longer bad and the family is restored to order.

It’s very useful to remember that the BEGINNING is all about HOOKING your reader…getting them so deeply curious and involved in the Story that there is no way they’ll abandon it until they know how it turns out. The Middle is about BUILDING progressive complications that bring the stress and pressure down so hard on your lead character/s that they are forced to take huge risks so that they can return to “normal.” The ENDING is the big PAYOFF, when the promises you’ve made from your HOOK get satisfied in completely unique and unexpected ways.

STORY distilled is…HOOK, BUILD, PAYOFF. That’s it.

The beginning hook of our little story above would be the introduction of three bad children (why are they bad?) who get abducted by a wolf on their morning walk. The appearance of the wolf is the inciting incident that leads to a crisis…to refuse the wolf could end in death for the three children, to abide the wolf’s request could result in worse for the whole community. So the children need to make a “best bad choice” decision.

The middle build would be the wolf and children’s preparations for the slaughter of the kingdom’s animals all the while having the children set up the betrayal of the wolf.

The ending paying is the revelation that the wolf was their father under a terrible spell. Once his evil persona has been destroyed through the efforts of his “bad/disobedient” children, he is restored to his normal self. He’s now capable of providing for his brood, knowing that his children are resourceful. The Ending provides the answer to the beginning hook, Why are the children bad? They’ve lost their father and without one they do not fit in with polite society, which is a very good thing when they meet up with a wolf. And it resolves their true selves. They are not really “bad” or they would have did the wolf’s dirty work, slaughtered the kingdom’s food sources and then lived with the evil wolf doing evil things in perpetuity.

Once their father has returned to his normal self at the end of the story, the world is restored to order.

The more time you invest on your global hook, build and payoff, the better your story will be. You’ll see that I’ve listed five scenes in each section of our Foolscap Global Story Grid for each of these three crucial components along with places to designate the external and internal value shifts for each scene.

Next we’ll take a look at those crucial constituent parts of the Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


12 comments on “Hook, Build, Payoff

  1. Takes deep knowledge to state the complex succinctly. Another classic post.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Story distilled to its essence – thanks for another great post!

  3. Jack Price says:

    And then they kill the evil housemaid,don’t they? I love this series and look forward to each installment like … well, like Christmas.

  4. Morgyn says:

    Facepalm! Dear Shawn, when is this book going to in our hands? Very, merry, impatient Happy Holidays to you!

  5. Janet says:

    Shawn, thanks for this wonderful blog. Each post has so many great inside tips and advice to storytellers. Have a wonderful holiday season.

  6. Pete says:

    Hey Shawn, Great stuff! Really enjoy the blog. Happy Holidays and thanks for sharing!

  7. A structure that is as innate as life itself, yet we often forget as adults. Thanks Shawn!

  8. My mind is about to explode, but I think that this is a good thing.

  9. Aaron says:

    Hi Shawn,
    I have a question about the beginning hook because the term seems to be used in two different ways. Is it just the opening section where the writer establishes the story and its conflicts (i.e. the first 25% of the narrative) or is it more specific than that, with the hook being a discrete query that is left hanging until the story’s resolution (e.g. why are the children bad?)?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Aaron,
      The Beginning hook is the mechanism that launches the story until a climactic moment when the story turns and complicates in ways that require a global shift in the direction…transitioning into the Middle Build. For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, the beginning hook ends when evidence arises that Buffalo Bill is killing again and Starling moves from a trainee to Jack Crawford’s assistant.

      1. Aaron says:


  10. Geetanjali says:

    Great post! Slowly going through the series – actually finding it easier to read in this format than the book. I love the idea of the book, but to be honest, it is a little dense and slow going – so much to learn and un-learn. Thanks for this though!

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