Sticking the Landing
19 May 2019
Today, I want to talk about sticking the landing. This post has been on my mind since seeing all of the vague comments on Twitter from people last week watching Game of Thrones. Now, I haven’t read the books or watched any of the TV show, so I can’t speak to whether they did or didn’t stick the landing this season. This post is also going up on what I think is the season finale, so the timing is appropriate.
Sticking the landing is really just executing the payoff of a setup/payoff well, of making the ending of a narrative satisfying. It’s not always easy to do because you can’t make everyone happy all of the time, but it’s usually possible to satisfy enough of your audience that most would agree you’ve stuck the landing.
I wanted to highlight a recent example that I think did stick the landing and walk through why I think it works. For those that don’t know, Brian Patterson draws a webcomic over at d20monkey.com, and he recently posted three comics that I think illustrate the way a writer should create and execute the setup/payoff cycle.
Setup Part 1
Read here first. Sam and Amy have been dating for a bit in the comics, and they’re an adorable couple. Their nerdiness and weirdness complement each other in a beautiful way, and this first scene sets up something that we as readers don’t want to see happen. This looks like a Dear John letter.
Setup Part 2
Read here first. This first panel is doing several things. One, we’ve got grayscale instead of the dark color palette we had from the previous strip. The dark thoughts around Sam’s head are a cacophony of voices, and they deal with various issues that Sam has had over the course of the comic (his relationship with his brother, his erroneous belief that Amy is too good for him, etc.). We’ve got lots of callbacks here, but even if you haven’t been reading the comic for long, these thoughts still resonate.
The next thing that happens is a bit of comic relief to cut the tension just a bit (and pay some fanservice to those of us who’ve missed Emma the cat). Now, this was a risky gambit, but it pays off because Emma also provides even more catalyst to drive the story forward to the next strip, which is…
Read here for the payoff. Brian nails the landing here. Everything is fine between Sam and Amy, and she even knows him well enough to address some of the dark thoughts he had in panel 1 of the last strip. Now, this would be satisfying without the next two things I’m going to mention, but we the readers get even more. One, we get some setup on the fact that Charles will be in the next couple of strips. And two, we get some heavy foreshadowing that Sam will likely be in therapy/counseling sometime in the near future.
This is how you do it, people. Stay true to the characters, set up the scenario, and pay it off while also setting more up for later.