Think of plot as set-up, build-up, pay-off

One way to think of a story’s plot is in three parts – the set-up, the build-up and the pay-off.

The set-up is like the inciting incident. In addition to introducing the main character and the setting, the set-up also establishes the main conflict that our protagonist must overcome. There must be something at stake for the main character, a reason why he must deal with this challenge.

The build-up by and large is the rising action in which the main character attempts to resolve the conflict. It is the bulk of the story. The situation should grow increasingly more tense and dire for our protagonist. The entire build-up must point toward the how the main character will overcome the challenge placed before him.

The pay-off by and large is the story’s climax, in which the tension is relieved when the main character resolves the conflict. For the reader, some pay-off typically is necessary because without it the build-up was pointless (Though thematically the author might decide to have the main character fail just to make a statement about an idea or issue; this often occurs in dystopian novels.). The falling action and denouement can be lumped into the pay-off as they tie up loose ends in the story (providing minor pay-offs) and end the tale on a hopeful note.

A rule of storytelling is the larger the build-up, the greater the pay-off must be. That is, the story’s conflict can’t be resolved too easily but must be done with more tension than seen so far in the tale. In short, the greater the danger to the main character, the greater the risk he must take to resolve the conflict.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.