What is emotional payoff?
Emotional payoff in a novel is when act one of a book, or several installments in a series, sets up a moment of emotional reward, catharsis, or accomplishment for the protagonist(s). Often this takes the form of finally achieving something they’ve long desired, being praised by an important family member or mentor, rejecting a damaging influence in their life, or something similar. The emotional payoff is a huge part of a heroes journey trope–the reward that explains why this person has gone through so much.
Done Well vs. Done Wrong
There’s a big difference between something that has emotional impact and a moment with emotional payoff. The impact of a tragic death, for example, might be more about the shock or the violence in the action. Without a story arc that brought readers closer to the deceased character, the death may fall flat. Additionally, a lot of things done for shock value contribute little to nothing to the plot. If the goal is simply to surprise the readers with a “gotcha!” moment, that moment doesn’t have a lot of worth to the story itself. Alternately, emotional payoff can be incorporated into a shocking moment. A death that’s been heavily foreshadowed, that the protagonist has done everything in their power to prevent, can still be immensely heartbreaking even if the readers saw it coming. Or the emotional payoff may be a triumphant moment where a last minute hero saves the day, but the moment feels earned because of the story that it took to get there.
In a series vs. in a stand alone
The difference between shock value and emotional payoff in a novel really does depend on its context as either a stand alone or a series. A series can get away with shocking moments that don’t payoff if they are resolved in the subsequent installments. Additionally, a series has the opportunity to build longer story arcs for greater moments of emotional payoff during later installments. The bones of a character’s story can be laid out in the first novel, left to ferment for a few books, and then brought back for a shocking and emotionally satisfying moment. A stand alone novel faces more challenges in that things need to be resolved at a faster pace, leaving less time to properly introduce all of the elements. Shock value can work quite well in a stand alone, so long as the context is sufficient, while emotional payoff needs to match the level of intensity of the rest of the novel. A stand alone in which tragedy is the core of the story can’t end on a fairy tale beautiful ending (unless of course it is making a point that serves as payoff for themes within the novel itself).
I think that all readers love some good emotional payoff. We all want to be able to feel the emotions our favorite characters are experiencing, and we want to celebrate their triumphs. The best books for myself are the ones where I experience intense emotions or spend a lot of time reflecting on. Finishing a book and needing to really think about and process what happened to the characters and within the plot is what I am constantly striving for when reading new books and new authors. I think emotional payoff is ultimately what we as readers are always seeking, regardless of the intensity of that payoff that we prefer.