Written in September 2016.
In several writing classes I have taken thus far, the idea of ‘payoff’ has been discussed thoroughly and in many different ways. In my understanding of it, it has come to mean not necessarily giving an expected ending but not deviating from the story’s innate trajectory. I find different yet similar payoffs in “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty and “Exodus” by James Baldwin that helped me realize what kind of payoffs I want to provide not only to the reader but also to myself in my writing.
Welty’s story opens with description of the main character, Phoenix, and the beginning of her journey to town yet ends with the image of Phoenix leaving the town. Despite this vague description, a lot happens in between in terms of plot, dialogue, and description in which Phoenix is slowly built in front of the reader’s eyes before we reach the point of no return. At first glance, I found the climactic reveal of Phoenix’s grandson being dead as a complete surprise, a jolt in the story, but when I looked at it again I realized this was the payoff the story was striving toward: without this moment, Phoenix’s arc is not complete, and our knowledge of Phoenix remains incomplete also: “Yes. Swallowed lye. when was it?—January—two-three years ago—” (Welty 287) creates a depth to Phoenix that changes the way we have seen every action and utterance from her. Our slow realization mirrors Phoenix’s in realizing why she came to town at all, yet she remains unseeing of the true circumstances around her visit. For the reader, this realization comes to a head when Phoenix opens up with a big monologue of sorts:
“My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself…We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last…I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time…” (Welty 288).
This moment is the slow descent into the reader understanding that Phoenix, even how brave she has been throughout the story and her journey, is still human, has her flaw where she does not acknowledge what is perhaps the truth that everyone else knows about her grandson. The payoff in this moment is bittersweet; it does not send the reader off into Phoenix’s happy ending, but it does help us relate to her on both a sympathetic and empathetic level. Without Welty including these two specific moments, this would be a completely different story with a different or perhaps no payoff moment.
James Baldwin’s payoff in his short story “Exodus” differs in its culminating circumstances yet provides that seem bittersweet yet satisfying feeling that Welty’s “A Worn Path” does. His story is split into two parts: first with Florence reflecting on her mother’s past and second with Florence’s actual act of leaving. For the reader, throughout the whole story we understand that Florence will be leaving home, yet the unspoken words between Florence, her mother, and her brother Gabriel are what keeps us rooted to the moment and invested in Florence’s journey from her initial, formal announcement to her mother—“Ma…I’m going. I’m a-going in the morning” (Baldwin 4)—to her mother “grant[ing] Florence the victory—with a promptness which had the effect of making Florence, however dimly and unwillingly, wonder if her victory was real” (Baldwin 6). What transpires in between though, the moment of payoff, is when Florence “look[s] away from her mother…catching her breath, looking outward through the small, cracked window” where “outside, beyond the slowly rising mist, and farther off than her eyes [can] see, her life await[s] her” (Baldwin 6). This moment astronomically alters how the reader approaches the story from then on because now we as the reader have a way to connect to Florence. Even if we do not agree with her actions, this moment defines why she is leaving her mother and her brother, what draws her to the outside world is perhaps to escape but mostly to live the life she wants to live, a very human cause that is not necessarily surprising but satisfies the reader all the same.
In thinking about the similarities between Welty and Baldwin’s payoffs, I cannot help but think the real reason humans desire payoff is not to have the easy ending but to have the simple ending, the ending that must transpire organically from the events of the story and the journeys of the character or characters. Payoff is not to sedate the reader or the audience in a work of fiction or a play but rather to revitalize them, to get them to think about their own humanity. We often forget, in light of our technological advances, that we are creatures too, who ultimately want the same, simple things: food, shelter, water, safety, and of course, love. Phoenix loves her grandson so much that she refuses to see him as anything but alive; Florence loves her family but understands to stay with them is to ignore her own basic needs and her own desire to go off, even if that means looking back on this moment and feeling something differently on her deathbed than when she first left. These payoffs remind us of our own individual humanity and how that fits in with the rest of our fellow humans.
In thinking about my own personal writing, I feel as though I have overlooked payoff and shrugged it off, thinking it meant something else. As I grow as a writer, I’m beginning to see that payoff means asking the difficult questions and still having the reader or the audience feel satisfied at the conclusion of the story, regardless if the story ends happily or tragically. I oftentimes go immediately for the kill—literally—with characters instead of seeing them develop to their own innate endings. More and more with my most recent writing, I feel as though I am finally allowing the story the payoff it is asking for, rather than forcing it.