Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing

Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing

I have good news and I have bad news. Let’s assume you have a killer story idea. It offers unique plot developments and totally unexpected plot twists. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these deliciously original plot elements just aren’t going to end up working out for your readers. Why? For one simple reason: they don’t include proper story foreshadowing.

Story Foreshadowing, Pt. 2: The Payoff

Nope, that “Pt. 2” isn’t a typo.

When we think of awesome plot developments, sometimes that’s as far as we think. After all, the development, the happening of the event, the scene in which it actually takes place, that’s the whole point of the story. That’s where our energy and focus tends to flow.

When speaking of story foreshadowing, this is what’s known as the payoff. But the payoff is only half of a very important equation in foreshadowing.

If you have something worth foreshadowing, it must be foreshadowed.

Story Foreshadowing, Pt. 1: The Setup

That’s where the setup comes into play. Obviously, this is “Pt. 1” of the equation, since it must take place prior to the payoff. The payoff is where all the fireworks go off, but the setup is what makes it work.

The setup is the foreshadowing itself. It’s created by the clues, the tone, and the framing introduced in the early part of your story—especially the First Act. It doesn’t prepare readers for the specifics of what will happen later (’cuz spoilers!). Rather, its chief job is to prepare readers for the fact that a particular brand of something will happen later on.

Warning! This is What Happens When Your Payoff Has No Setup

Setup is the advertisement for the big show at the end of your story. If readers don’t see the advertisement, how will they know there’s even going to be a show?

Take this for an example: I recently watched a movie, the two halves of which felt like completely different stories. The first half was, frankly, dull. It hit every cliché in the book and had me anticipating an equally clichéd ending—to the point I almost turned it off.

Then the second half hit with a whirlwind of surprises. The story veered into a totally different direction, time-jumped about twenty years, and ended up presenting some very interesting scenarios and themes.

The payoff was awesome. The setup? Not so much.

Two problems resulted from this:

1. Since it gave no hint of its awesome second-half potential, the first half gave me no incentive to keep watching. Readers are even less patient than viewers, and as writers, we can never assume our readers will hang with us for fully half the story until we finally get to the good stuff.

2. Even the dramatically better second half couldn’t save the overall story, due to the simple fact that its poor setup left it feeling fragmented, incohesive, and less than resonant.

There’s no reason this has to happen in your story. If you have an awesome payoff in the second half of the story (and rah-rah to you if you do!), then make sure you’re setting it up with equal care in the first half. You’ll not only keep your readers’ attention riveted throughout, you’ll also get twice the bang for your buck out of your payoff!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What elements in your work-in-progress’s second half need story foreshadowing? Have you already set it up? Tell me in the comments!

Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Especially important in series, I expect? The fantasy novel I’m working on at the moment is the first in what may turn out to be a series of four and I’m having to think very hard about where to drop hints & clues for the Big Magic Stuff to come in the later books so they don’t feel completely disjointed & unrelated to the first. But of course, if I’m lucky enough to get a publishing deal, once the first book is out there there’s no way of going back to add in details I forgot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Foreshadowing gets tricky in series, since, as you’re discovering, you have to clearly distinguish, for readers, which clues are going to be paid off in *this* book and which will be paid off in the last book. We want readers to understand the continuing progression of the story without feeling that any individual book in the series left too many loose ends.

      The key here is to differentiate between the arc of the individual book and the arc of the series. Everything that happens in the end of the individual book must be foreshadowed, and everything pertaining to the individual arc that *is* foreshadowed must be paid off within that same book.

    • If you want to have something pay off over the course of the series, may I suggest checking KM’s archives on outlining? A multi-book mystery definitely can’t be pantsed. I was convinced of this when I learned of Rowling’s use of the “chiasmic structure” of the Potter books (I won’t spoil anything):

      1) In book 1 we’re introduced to a fun, yet seemingly innocuous object. In book 7 we learn of Hallows and that the object in question is a hallow.

      2) In book 2 we’re introduced to a dangerous object. In book 6 we learn of Horcruxes and that the object in question was a horcrux.

      3) In book 3 we fear a vicious killer has escaped Azkaban. In the end, a guilty person is spared. In book 5, a vicious killer really *does* escape Azkaban. In the end, an innocent person is killed.

      4) Book 4 is the turning point.

      All of those people / things played significant enough roles in those stories so they were right on stage, and well known to the reader. No one would complain they weren’t set-up for their respective reveals.

      I’ve always been a hybrid pantser / planner. I sympathize with the fear of needing to go back to the first book; that was why I decided from the get-go not to try and publish my trilogy before finishing all the books. But I also realized that part of this was because I hadn’t done enough planning for my own satisfaction. KM also has posts on story structure that you might adapt for your purpose. They might help with your planning. Good luck!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Thanks for spelling this out! Chiastic structure is something I’m just now getting into.

        • I look forward to your posts on it, if you do them! I want to try and use that structure, too. It’ll be a mountain for me, but I want to climb it.

  2. Hello all,

    This sounds like the build up of anticipation and plot development as discussed in a previous post. The book I’m reading now has a nice setup that fully plays into the story. This is in the first 20% of the book so it’s nice to see it in action!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Foreshadowing doesn’t, of course, happen exclusively in the first 25% (the First Act), but this is where the bulk of the *most important* foreshadowing needs to take place to set up the rest of the story.

      • Good to know. So it sounds like it can extend much deeper into the story than I thought. Interesting. Reading about it is fun but I’m sure skillfully weaving it into the story is much harder.



  3. The tricky part, I think, is foreshadowing enough to leave the clues but not going too far. Oh course, no matter how it’s done, some will pickup up on it right away and “just know” while others will miss it entirely. Oo, tricky I tell ya.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is tricky, and it’s important to realize you can’t “fool all the people all the time.” You will always have readers who read the signs and see what’s coming, which adds the extra layer to your job of making certain the foreshadowing (and particularly misdirection) doesn’t feel gimmicky to them.

  4. Good and important reminder! Do you have any guidance (maybe previous posts) about effective foreshadowing techniques?

  5. Katie, I don’t know how you do it, but every time I need to know something about my project, you blog exactly what I need to know.

    I’m going to write the last chapter in my second project today. As I read your blog, my mind is going over the exciting events in the story. There are a few that could use better foreshadowing, some that I have to include foreshadowing. Oops. Did I really admit that?

    A million thank yous to you Katie.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Congrats on finishing your draft! It’s true that sometimes (even with an outline) we don’t always know *which* events will need foreshadowing during the first draft. Once we’ve completed the story, we can see the big picture and do a more specific job of properly foreshadowing important elements.

  6. Foreshadowing is hard. You run the risk of either not giving enough and the payoff coming off as unrealistic, or totally out of the blue. Or you run the risk of the outcome being to obvious and insulting your readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s definitely a balance, and something you have to adjust and readjust over the course of your drafts. I prefer to layer it on thick in the first draft, then pare back to only the best clues.

  7. Once again, great article. In the midst of another edit and will be sure to watch out of the right amount of foreshadowing. I feel like Goldilocks – we writers have to get it “JUST RIGHT.” Thanks for all the excellent advice.

  8. I love this! Creating foreshadowing is one of my most favorite things. Thanks to knowing this stuff, I was able to do some really clever set ups/payoffs in my novel, SoundCheck.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My favorite thing about foreshadowing is when your brain goes and seeds some awesome foreshadowing for an event you didn’t even consciously know was going to happen yet. Mind-blowing!

  9. Yeah… the payoff in my story involves the protagonist resurfacing as a baby in his next life — a reincarnation. (this is a work of humour, so we’re not taking this too seriously.) And yet I have to somehow pave the way for this esoteric event. Wish me luck.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’d be interested in how you’re setting that up. :p

      • My protagonist, Conrad, says more than once how he wished he’d had a father like X. (Even though X is younger than Conrad.) it is X who ‘adopts’ this newly minted child in the story’s resolution. Also, Conrad has morbid tendencies, and has, been contemplating suicide as an honorable means to amend his failures as a husband and father. He exhausts himself trying to do the right thing in this lifetime, then gives up. But when a natural death presents itself, Conrad accepts with all the faith of an improv artist who embraces the absurd without prevarication. I just bet you want to read this, now!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Sometimes misdirection is one of the best tools of foreshadowing–something I’m going to talk about in a future post.

  10. Betsey Riedl says

    In my WIP, the antagonist gets away with murdering the protagonist. Literally. So in the first half, she tells the protagonist something like “I’m going to figure out what’s going on, and when I do, I won’t be held accountable.” She also shoots one of her beloved dogs in front of the protagonist’s ‘mentor/sidekick’. I’m want to work in a third clue. I think one of the best foreshadowing jobs was done by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. Lennie kills a mouse, then a puppy then -wait for it – a woman. There is also the tale of what happened in the town of Weed, when Lennie grabbed a woman’s red dress and got too scared to let go when she started shrieking. Great foreshadowing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree! Steinbeck’s a brilliant example of foreshadowing and setup.

      • Betsey Riedl says

        I saw the movie Rikki and the Flash last night. I knew going into it that it was fluff, but I was in the mood and I like Meryl Streep. All SET UP and NO Payoff. I was more than disappointed. I kept asking myself why I was watching it. I guess I was waiting for payoff. And I guess Meryl Streep can’t do fluff.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yeah, all setup and no payoff is always more disappointing than lots of payoff with no setup. At least with the latter, something is happening!

  11. Enjoyed this useful article!

    I’m reminded of The Shining, and especially the hotel manager’s conversation with Jack Torrence regarding the previous caretaker’s fate. It somehow renders Jack’s eventual fate more believable.

    Stephen King is a master of making things plausible by subtle foreshadowing techniques.

    Thanks for the article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly! How would that story have worked if there’d been zero hint of a haunting previously? Or if the haunting had been hinted at–but never paid off?

  12. While I had elements of foreshadowing in my first few drafts of my manuscript I know I didn’t have enough. Now on my ten thousandth rewrite, I’ve restructured things to move along faster (my first doorway of no return was clear at the back of the house) and have looked at ways to massage in hints (foreshadowing) of what’s to come. Like an earlier poster, I have stumbled across some of the same challenges as I too am writing a trilogy, thus, loose ends have to not be loose and have to represent something of a whole within the story itself.

    I think my biggest challenge is similar to what others have encountered and that is, when is foreshadowing subtle and when are you hitting the reader on the head. I’ve found the best tool for seeing what works is a critique group however, it’s hard to get feedback on something as subtle as foreshadowing since often what is being critiqued is a mere microcosm of the whole beast.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes, the best kind of foreshadowing *is* so subtle that readers may not consciously grasp it the first time around, but once they reach the payoff, it all makes sense in retrospect.

      • A great example is talking about something seemingly unrelated, [it’s super hard to kill people with this superpower] then give the payoff. [this person thought dead for most of the book is actually alive. Of course we should know she had those powers before the payoff.]
        Idea for example came from Brandon Sanderson.

  13. K.M.,

    Do you foreshadow for every scene?

    Ruben ,antagonist and villain fights with Leilani will become a goddess at the end of book 3. Leilani will also have to fight him physically and well as using her powers. She gets a second staff which enhances her powers and well as now ones. Leilani only do gymnastic like moves back-flips. Leilani’s goddess title is goddess of the serene waters.


  14. I have a kidnapped character who needs to keep reminding herself her mother won’t rescue her; she put her to that situation in the first place, and later a different character, the other POV, ends up freeing her. Is that sufficient foreshadowing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As stated here, the two ideas seem disconnected, but they could easily be connected if the hints are there throughout. If we see the alternate POV coming for the kidnapped character, then that is foreshadowing.

  15. Jonathan McCary says

    Thank you for the post! I was watching this video essay about a set up technique in the TV show LOST and it reminded me of this post here.


  1. […] Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing K M Weiland […]

  2. […] Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing – Helping Writers Be… […]

  3. […] Source: Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing – Helping Writers Be… […]

  4. […] Setup and Payoff: The Two Equally Important Halves of Story Foreshadowing […]

  5. […] Set up and pay off, the two equally important halves of foreshadowing. K.M. Weiland. […]

  6. […] issues aside, writers also have to perfect the details in their work. K.M. Weiland discusses setup and payoff as two equally important elements of foreshadowing, Dawn Field shares 7 ways to help you be precise in your writing, and September C. Fawkes describes […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.