The Ending Payoff Story Grid

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At long last, we come to the Ending Payoff of the novel.

But Before I jump into it, I’m pleased to report that dedicated Story Grid Story Nerd Joel Canfield has created a forum for all of us to share Story Questions, Ideas etc.  I’m just one guy, so it’s fantastic that Joel is opening up this easy to access place for us to hang out in if we get stuck.  You can access it here, and we’ll put up a widget beneath the sign up sheet too.  Back to the regularly scheduled program…

Whether or not the book “works” will all come down to the Ending Payoff. Just about any gaffe (with the exception of the Inciting Incident) in the Beginning Hook or Middle Build can be made up in the Ending Payoff. And obviously, no matter how great your Beginning Hook or Middle Build is, if the ending fizzles, you will not have a Story that compels readers to tell one another about it.

Using our Foolscap Global Story Grid and our Story Grid Spreadsheet, I’ll do the exact same thing we did for the Beginning Hook and Middle Build of the book for the Ending Payoff. I’ll boil down each scene event that I’ve written on my Story Grid Spreadsheet to the shortest possible phrase or sentence that tells us what’s happened. I’ll then write down the event above or below the horizontal line to designate the value shift of that particular scene. So if the scene moves from a positive to a negative value charge, I will put the label for that scene beneath the x-axis. If the scene moves from a negative to a positive charge, I will put the label for that scene above the x-axis.

I’ll track the movement of the “Life” and “Worldview” values in the y-axis too. The “Life” value will grow ever more positive as the FBI, and by association Starling, gets closer to identifying and capturing Buffalo Bill. There will be a big dip in the penultimate end to reflect the false ending in the book and then it will end in the positive and linger at the very, very end in the negative. Let’s not forget that an even worse killer than Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter, is at large now.

As for the “Worldview” value, it will fall into disillusion from the very start of the Ending Payoff. Starling no longer has confidence in the FBI and by necessity has chosen to go it alone. At the end of the novel, in the resolution chapters after the death of Buffalo Bill, Starling’s worldview settles in to rest in the negative.

The Ending Payoff of The Silence of the Lambs

The Ending Payoff of The Silence of the Lambs


Scene 52 (chapter 49) is the Inciting Incident of the Ending Payoff. Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) moves forward with his plans to harvest the hide of Catherine Martin. Harris writes it from Gumb’s point of view. Scene 52 (chapter 49) is all about establishing Gumb’s state of mind and how he actually does what it is he does… the technical aspects of creating a woman suit. As it is so clinical, the impact on the reader is chilling. This guy has not one reservation about killing a woman and cutting off her skin. She may as well be a tree he’d like to strip of bark.

Following up on Lecter’s clue from the case file that Buffalo Bill’s pattern of abduction is desperately random and that his causal being is to covet what he sees, scene 53 (chapter 50) shows us Starling’s investigation into the life of Buffalo Bill’s very first victim, Frederica Bimmel. She goes to Bimmel’s room to suss out any clues about what men she may have known before her death. Her theory, based on Lecter’s suggestion, is that whoever killed Bimmel was around her for some time…so much so that he coveted her skin.

Scene 54 (chapter 51) sets up the required False Ending convention of the thriller.

Crawford finally hears from the doctors at Johns Hopkins about the man who was turned down for a sex change operation. They give Crawford Buffalo Bill’s real name, Jame Gumb. The reader knows that Crawford now has the right guy, but Starling does not. Giving the reader more information than the protagonist is a great way of ratcheting up narrative drive. Harris is a master at this.

Back to Starling in scene 55 (chapter 52). She’s figured out that Buffalo Bill is a tailor. Obviously, if he is making a “woman suit,” he knows how to sew. She recalls Lecter asking her if she knew how to sew too, which only confirms her conclusions.

In scene 56 (chapter 53), Starling tells the FBI’s switchboard operator about her findings. But he’s not all that interested. The operator tells Starling that they’ve tracked down Buffalo Bill and that the Hostage Rescue Team is on the way to break down his door and catch him red-handed. This information raises the irreconcilable goods crisis of the Ending Payoff.

Should Starling abort the rest of her investigation in Belvedere, Ohio? Or should she carry on? What’s the point really? She’s not going to be the big hero and obviously she’s been misled. If she heads back to Quantico now, she may even save her spot in the trainee program. That would be good for her. But if she continues it could be good for the case.

But Lecter’s influence keeps her on course. Starling considers the fact that if they get Buffalo Bill in handcuffs, they will need a ton of evidence to convict him. And besides, she’s moved beyond her own inner trauma after her head-shrinking session with Lecter back before he escaped. She no longer operates under illusions. So she reminds herself of what she’s supposed to do, what her gifts are as a human being and how she can use them to help others—Jame Gumb will be arrested. The FBI will have to make the case that he’s the killer of Bimmel. Her investigation will help. So the Bimmel father would at least know what happened to his daughter and who was responsible.

“Her job, her duty, was to think about Fredrica and how Gumb might have gotten her. A criminal prosecution of Buffalo Bill would require all the facts. Think about Fredrica, stuck here all her young life. Where would she look for the exit? Did her longings resonate with Buffalo Bill’s? Did that draw them together? Awful thought, that he might have understood her out of his own experience, empathized even, and still helped himself to her skin.

In scene 57 (chapter 54) Starling chooses to continue her investigation and talks with a friend of Frederica’s who works at a bank. She gives Starling the information that will lead her to Gumb’s house.

In scene 58 (chapter 55) the Hostage Rescue team breaks down the wrong guy’s door. Here is our obligatory false ending scene. Simply brilliant and totally believable knowing what we know about the FBI now.

In scene 59 (chapter 56), Gumb resolves to kill Martin even if it threatens his dog Precious. He puts on his robe to begin the process. He’s going to use infrared goggles and take a headshot in the dark to kill Martin so that he doesn’t accidentally ruin her torso skin. But then Starling arrives at his back door and we’ve now reached the climax of the entire novel.

The hero at the mercy of the villain scene is the most important scene in a thriller and Harris delivers his in a HUGE way.

After much toing and froing, Gumb has turned off the lights in the basement and is moving around with his night vision goggles. He’s enjoying watching Starling struggle to find her way. But just as he’s about to shoot her, Starling smells something.

Heavy in her nostrils the smell of the goat.

The smell is the same one that Lecter told her schizophrenics emit…Buffalo Bill is a schizophrenic. Starling then hears the snick of his gun. She turns to the noise, fires and expertly kills him.

Great climax! Over the moon great. The set up for it probably took a ridiculous amount of thinking and work, but what a payoff!

Starling remembered the goat smell that Lecter had warned her about back in Baltimore, which told her that Gumb was in the room even though she couldn’t see him.

She was blind until Lecter taught her to “see” with her nose!

Not just her nose, but her ears too!

Starling was prepared for him to shoot her so she was attuned to the noise of the cocking of a gun. She knows that noise because she’s an expert shooter herself. See the great stuff at the very beginning of the novel when we see Starling as ace of her shooting class! Harris set up her expertise long ago in the Beginning Hook of the book.

She trusts her instincts and senses and kills Gumb before he can kill her.

This scene also mirrors the death of her father who was murdered in darkness when he confronted a criminal. Thematically, she’s won back the family honor by facing down the same circumstance as her father and triumphing. Justice has been restored.

Starling’s life is now at equilibrium. She’s seriously changed, though.

Her object of desire (being an FBI agent) is no longer the magical trophy that will bring her inner peace. But she also understands that defending the weak is her destiny…it’s what she needs to do to dissipate her anger.

The remaining scenes resolve the novel. They bring down the fever of the reader in a very believable and compelling way.

Starling even gets a little love from the FBI.

They haven’t washed her out of Academy. Instead she’s given a couple of extra days to pass her exams and her friend Ardelia Mapp as tutor. She passes. And she resolves her romance with the nerdy scientist at the Smithsonian too. She goes away for the weekend with him.

While Starling’s found a modicum of peace, leaving the reader satisfied, Harris also leaves the ending open. Hannibal Lecter is still on the loose. One killer may be dead, but an ever more dangerous one is now loose.

Irony anyone?

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.



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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.