Mystery of the Missing Payoff

I write mysteries and romances. And as a pantser, I don’t plan my books. I just sit down with an idea, an image, a character or a bit of dialogue and start writing. In the nine books I’ve published, the payoff scene (my term), like every scene, flowed from the writing and required no planning or thought.

The Payoff?

For me the payoff scene is the point of the book, the goal.

In a mystery, the payoff scene comes when the detective (amateur or professional) who has been collecting data, interviewing suspects and fighting the forces (police, higher-ups, the media, etc.) working against her solving the crime, puts all the clues together and identifies then confronts/arrests the killer.

In a romance, it’s the point in the manuscript when the two lovers overcome the obstacles keeping them apart and acknowledge their love for each other, or that they’re ready for a relationship, and make love. Depending on the author and the type of book, the love scene might be fade to black or a graphic description of what takes place.

So why am I talking about this?

Ninety-five thousand words into my tenth book I realized I was spinning my wheels. Somehow I’d missed the payoff scene.  

I was perplexed.

Unlike my previous nine books, the ending chapter came to me just as I started writing, so I wrote it. And while I filled in the other ninety thousand plus words, I had that ending in mind. It was my target. 

For almost two months I kept trying to write the payoff right before that last scene and I couldn’t do it. I went back to the beginning and read through the whole story trying to figure out the problem.

Then I woke one morning with the answer. The scene didn’t belong there. I had put the pieces in place and built the tension for the payoff six chapters before the ending chapter but my pantser brain was focused on the ending so I’d let the tension dribble out and continued writing. 

I’d already set it up, I just had to let the payoff happen.

Fixing it wasn’t just a matter of rewriting the one chapter, though. I had to rewrite parts of chapters leading up to the payoff and rearrange, rewrite and delete parts of the six chapters involved. But finally I have the payoff. And a better book.

Authors, have you let yourself go off track in your writing? And what strategies have you used to get back on track?

Catherine Maiorisi

Catherine Maiorisi is the author of the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery series featuring Corelli and her partner Detective P.J. Parker–two tough women, fighting each other while solving high profile crimes. A Matter of BloodThe Blood Runs ColdA Message in Blood, and Legacy in the Blood are all available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks narrated by Abby Craden.  

In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.


  1. Such are the perils of being a pantser, Catherine. As a fellow pantser, I feel your pain. But it’s worth the excitement I feel while writing as I let the characters loose, so an occasional setback is worth it . I love knowing I’m not the only one.

  2. Michele, it is worth the excitement of discovering the story as I write it. BUT, this has never happened before and it’s been difficult. Now that I’ve figured it out and fixed it I can begin to eliminate the10,000 words that aren’t needed to tell the story.

  3. I tend to write a lot of drafts, so I think of myself as someone who writes very long outlines, or very short preliminary novels, and I’m constantly switching things around, up until about the 11th draft. So usually if I’m missing a scene, I can figure that out fairly early on, but it still takes me forever to get it all right.

    1. Yes. these scenes are important. It wasn’t a matter of not wanting to write it. It was trying to write it in the wrong place so that the tension and the atmosphere required to make it work just weren’t there.

      How could I write ninety-six thousand words and just have the book trickle out?

  4. Susan, my goal when I sit down and start writing is the first draft which I then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until it’s as good as I can make it. But until this manuscript, every first draft, no matter how “shitty,” has contained the complete story. I’ve never missed a crucial scene before. That and the fact that it took me so long to diagnose the problem really threw me.

  5. Catherine, I know that feeling when you see the ending in sight but it’s dragging to get there. I write with the end decided, not in terms of action but in terms of who did it and why. I only outline a bit of the opening and then take off, and it’s the opening that often changes the most. Then I build in other suspects and action to get there. It’s tantalizing at some points to hurry up that process, isn’t it?

  6. You know, Marnie, that might have been what happened. The book was much longer than it should be and maybe in my rush to get to the end I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I had missed the opportunity for the payoff scene. Something to think about for the next book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *