… artifice must be reserved for matters outside the [story]…[Therefore] there should be nothing improbable among the actual incidents. If it be unavoidable, however, [improbable incidents] should be outside the [story] … — Aristotle
I often use the term plot coupon when describing how many novels are written. I want to explore what I mean by a plot coupon and how it’s a common writing anti-pattern in fiction. This realization isn’t new to me, classicists Nick Lowe wrote about it back in 1986, and over 30 years later, not much has changed.
The difference between setup and payoff is the difference between Space Balls and any of the That Movie franchise. The setup, Rick Moranis walks into the space station trying to look intimidating. The payoff, he rips his mask off and says, “I can’t breath in that thing.”
Meanwhile, That Movie franchise of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer just simply points to something in another movie and says, “Hey, do you remember that thing? The expectation is you’ll go, “OMG, THAT THING! I LOVE THAT THING! THAT’S HILARIOUS!” There is no setup, the payoff is just that you’ll recognize something because it existed in another movie.
Whenever I write about a novel using plot coupons, I mean the same thing. The action that occurs has not been set up with anything, it goes strictly to payoff. Let’s look at a setup and payoff in an action setting.
Setup and Payoff
The story begins in the summer of 1547 at St. Germaine. The ruler at this time is King Francis I of France. The Duchesse d’Estampes, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, was the mistress of the King. However, Diane de Poitiers was the King’s favorite.
The two of them exchanged barbs with each other, with Anne mocking Diane because she was 20 years the elder of the prince and started sleeping with him.
Diane wanted revenge, and since she couldn’t do this directly, she decided to use the prince to spread rumors about Anne’s friend and brother-in-law, M. de Jarnac or Guy Chabot. The rumor was that Chabot was sleeping with his stepmother, who provided for most of Chabot’s extravagant lifestyle.
Chabot publically denounced these rumors. He couldn’t call out the Prince or Diane. Instead, Francois de Vivonne, a veteran soldier with a reputation as a both a bully and an expert wrestler and rapier duelist, friend and brother-in-law of Diane, claimed that he heard the words straight from Chabot. He asked for a duel with Chabot to prove the truth of his claims against him. But the King wouldn’t allow it, so the issue remained on the back-burner.
King Francis died and his son Henry II kept Diane. Diane went on a purge of all the people who made fun of her, including banishing her rival Anne to Brittanny under the threat of heresy and treason. Anne’s friends spared her death by bribing the House of Guise, (Francis Guise in particular).
This infuriated Diane, so she turned back to the issue of getting Chabot killed in a tournament. Just three weeks after becoming King, Henry summoned Guy Chabot using the secretary of state to summon him. He was given three months time to meet Francois in judicial combat.
Judicial combat had fallen out of favor in France, the rules stating that the combat must go on to either death or submission, and in the case of submission, the loser was at the mercy of the victor. The winner usually killed the loser. The loser was also not granted rights to burial in consecrated ground, on the idea that judicial combat was the intercession of divinity. The fates determined who won, so the loser is automatically tainted.
In contrast to Francois, Chabot was considered a weakling and a dandy. Francois had killed numerous opponents in duels, while there is no record of Chabot ever having engaged in one. The two of them also spent time together on the battlefield, and it was rumored that Chabot was terrified of Francois.
So despite the religious overtones, everyone expected Chabot to be executed. Francois certainly expected this. Francois decided to spend his time holding lavish banquets and parties, while Chabot went around visiting monasteries and praying. But Chabot did more than that.
He recruited the best swordsman in all of Italy, named Captain Caizo. Caizo was a sharp instructor, and noted several things that would help Chabot.
The first was that while while Francois was physically stronger, he had suffered a serious wound to one of his arms during the siege of Conis, in Piedmont. This meant that while he could fight well with a single-handed weapon like a dagger, rapier, or sword, he would have far greater difficulty if he had to wield a sword and shield or a two-handed weapon.
Second, this meant that the longer the fight went on, the more it would favor Chabot. Most people fought with no armor on, but Caizo recommended that armor be worn in order to draw the fight out.
Third, the injury on one side of Francois meant that he’d be vulnerable on that side. The rules for judicial combat stated that the challenged could pick which weapons would be used for the fight, so Chabot picked over 30 weapons that could potentially be used at the duel to keep Francois from guessing which one would actually be used. He didn’t have to actually declare which weapons would be used until the day of combat.
Fourth, he should utilize long steel gauntlets that would prevent Francois from being able to grab him and use his superior wrestling skills to gut him. This was also why he wanted long weapons vs. short ones, the further apart they were, the less likely wrestling could enter into the equation.
On the day of combat, the final outfit was a full coat of mail, a two-edged sword not used in France and Italy but still in fashion in Switzerland, two daggers, one on the thigh and one in the boot, and a large polished steel shield and a pair of long iron gloves. Francois objected to this, largely because he expected the weak Chabot to go for the lightest armor possible. Instead, he went for the largest and heaviest armor possible that was not even used, negating many of Francois’ advantages. The large shield would force him to lose mobility in his arm, the long, inflexible gauntlets would prevent him from using his superior wrestling skills.
When they realized what was going on, Francois and his sponsors vigorously objected. The debate went up to Anne de Montmorency, acting as constable. (Anne is a male, btw.) Montmorency had originally been promised the post of colonel-general by the late King, which he then promised to give to his nephew. But Diane hated his nephew, and she persuaded the new king to give the position to someone else, and Francois was the person who seemed most likely to get it, particularly if he could beat Chabot. So Montmorency sided with Chabot and ruled that the choice of weapons and armor would be suitable.
Chabot had one other trick up his sleeve. Knowing the weaknesses of the armor and Francois, the trainer Caizo recommended that he strike behind the knee when Francois extended himself. A good reenactment of the fight can be seen here:
Chabot took out the knee of Francois, and asked the King to accept this as proof of defeat. The King wouldn’t acknowledge it and Francois wouldn’t yield. He couldn’t kill the King’s champion in front of the King, that would be an act of royal suicide.
He tried multiple times to show the King that Francois couldn’t continue combat, but King Henry refused to acknowledge it. Chabot looked at Diane and said, “Ah, madame, you told me how it would be. It is as you said.”
This caused shock throughout the crowd, and Henry decided to accept the defeat of Francois. Francois was carried out on a stretcher, and while recovering, asked multiple times to see the King. The King wouldn’t acknowledge him. Francois tore the bandage off his leg and bled himself to death. The Council of Trent forbade further judicial combats.
So let’s look at setups and payoffs:
- Two powerful women, Diane and Anne, lovers of the current King, are trading insults at each other in court.
- One, Diane, decides she is going to get revenge by proxy by utilizing the prince.
- Her brother-in-law Francois decides to be the agent of that revenge, in hopes of securing a post as colonel-general.
- He challenges the brother-in-law of Anne, Chabot, to a duel after stating that Chabot told him that he is sleeping with his step-mother.
- The King dies, placing the prince on the throne.
- While waiting for the duel, Francois spends his time loafing around, feasting, and boasting about his impending success.
- Meanwhile, Chabot has hired the best trainer he can find and devises a strategy to neutralize Francois’ numerous battlefield advantages.
- Chabot’s tactics almost fail, but the constable Diane is conspiring against gives the final ruling on the allowed battle uniform, giving Chabot an edge.
- Chabot defeats Francois, who then commits suicide in shame.
There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between everything that happens. This is the setup and payoff. Let’s see a plot coupon in action.
Behold, the plot coupon
As I pulled my scythe off my shoulder and settled into a fighting stance, a thought struck me. When I’d used my scythe on my rogue, I’d had a skill called Blade Rush. Basically, I pointed one hand at the enemy while gripping the scythe high over my head and rushing forward. With every step I took, power would get concentrated in the weapon causing it to all get unleashed in a massive swing. It was sort of a bad skill because it left you totally open to attack while doing it, but I’d used it a lot as an opener on both raid bosses and normal monsters because they weren’t attacking me when combat began. “I wonder if it would work here?” I said allowed, half hoping my absent handler might pop in, but when he didn’t, I decided to go for it. After all, what was the harm in trying?
I dropped my scythe into the position it’d been in when I played Titan Gate and visualized the technique. I’d done it a bazillion times, so it wasn’t hard to see it in my mind’s eye. As I held the attack in my mind, I rushed forward. Electric sparks danced across the surface of the blade, throwing arcs of blue light into the air as I sprinted through the mud and reared back with my scythe. As I reached the closest kobold, I brought the blade around in one huge movement like I was cutting down wheat in Harvest Moon. Only instead of aiming low to the ground, I aimed at the thing’s neck. The blade whipped around in a flurry of blue light and struck the kobold dead on the back of the neck with a horrid wet thwap.
The creature didn’t even have time to look at me before it vanished into a flurry of shards, dropping a gnarled wooden club and a tattered green robe to the muddy ground. Three Rhuvians were deposited in my inventory and my level shot up by ten percent, which was as much as I’d gotten from all the scarecrows. Yep, definitely not going back there. “You have gain a new skill,” my HUD whispered seductively in Elizabeth Hurley’s voice. “You can now perform the Blade Rush technique. It is currently level one with one percent experience.”
Cipriano, J.A. (2017-01-10). Soulstone: Awakening: A LitRPG novel (World of Ruul Book 1) (Kindle Locations 1087-1102). Kindle Edition.
What’s the setup? He played some other game and he’s going to attempt to use that skill in this game. What’s the payoff? He’s now able to use that skill.
Why would a skill from one game automatically transfer into another one? Because the plot needs this to happen. This is what a plot coupon is, the setup does not naturally lead to the payoff. We are told nowhere in the previous series of events that you can automatically transfer skills from one game into another, so this happens out of nowhere.
If something happens in a novel that has not been explained to the readers for the sake of continuing the plot, you have activated a plot coupon.
The plot token occurs when a person receives an item or object strictly so they can redeem the item at some later point. The key feature of a plot token is that the use of the item is not explained and its power can only be tapped at a time convenient for the plot’s progression. As such, they are also called “plot vouchers”.
A Plot Voucher is one of those useful items that is presented to the hero at the start of his adventure with a purpose totally unspecified, that turns out at an arbitrary point later in the story to be exactly what’s needed to get him out of a sticky and otherwise unresolvable situation. (“This voucher valid for one  awkward scrape. Not transferable.” Young Dirk stared at the object in bewilderment. “But what does it do?”, he asked, putting it reluctantly away in his pouch. “Ah,” said the old sage, “I am not at liberty to tell you that. But when the time comes, you will know its purpose.”) — Nick Lowe, The Well-Tempered Plot Device
Just because an item is picked up at point A and used at point B does not make it an automatic plot token. After all, if someone picks up food at point A and then gives it to an animal at point B, this isn’t a plot token. We know what food is used for, it makes sense.
A plot token occurs in the same context as a plot coupon. It’s payoff that hasn’t been set up. I can’t remember the exact novel, but in it, the protagonist finds a ring with no description. He then goes into a cave. In that cave, he finds an exact place to place the ring that triggers the next piece of the plot.
- How did he know to go to that cave?
- How did he know to use that ring right there?
The item has not been set up, i.e. “Go to this cave and use this ring in there.”
This is like Roger Ebert’s Fallacy of the Predictable Tree. This occurs in a movie when the good guy is able to exactly predict every move the bad guy is going to make, the example being from Rambo where he knows exactly which tree in an entire forest to wait on top of before a law enforcement officer goes underneath it.
Likewise, some mysterious force knows exactly the item required to win at some random point in a story. This is convenient, but not good writing.
What about setup with no payoff?
I’m not aware of there actually being a name for this, but this is usually what people mean when they say a novel meanders. Conversations that don’t add anything or payoff bloat up the novel.
A novel should have an appropriate setup to have a meaningful payoff. When you attempt to circumvent this to have things happen, you end up with plot coupons and tokens.