You could say this is the point of reading a story or watching a film. It is not necessarily the climax or resolution of the story, though often it is. It is the emotional feeling that the reader experiences in return for investing in the story. Audiences don’t necessarily understand this. When you ask them why they liked a film or what the film was about, the answer is almost never the emotional pay-off.
Below will be my analysis identifying the emotional pay-off of several books I’ve read or films I’ve watched. I suppose there will be spoilers.
One thing I’ve noticed from this analysis is that popular fiction has emotional pay-off, and “literature” mostly does not. In this light, a number of works of speculative fiction might qualify as “literature”.
Piranesi: The story is a puzzle, the sort of mystery where the reader gradually learns more about what is going on. The emotional pay-off comes from filling in the blanks, trying to guess more, and finally having all of the blanks filled in.
All the Light We Cannot See: I’m going to say that the emotional pay-off comes from experiencing the characters and their growth. The outcome of the story is basically inevitable and not very surprising, but we get to experience the goodness of several characters.
Fortunately, the Milk: It’s children’s comedy, and the pay-off is getting to see all these ridiculous ideas come to life. (I highly recommend the audio book read by Neil Gaiman himself.)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: I didn’t experience a big emotional pay-off from this one. I felt the ups and downs of the characters, and it was interesting to glimpse the lives of poor people in that time and place. I suppose the emotional pay-off was supposed to be one of those two.
The Skylark of Space: This was published in 1928, and I suppose at the time the emotional pay-off was supposed to be seeing how the scientific innovations that were coming over the horizon could be applied and change the lives of those using them. Reading it in 2020, ninety-two years after it was published, was an amusing experience because of how far we have come scientifically since 1928, and how mistaken and naive those suppositions seem to be today.
Steppenwolf: Again, not a big emotional pay-off. It was largely a philosophical work, and it makes you think about the competing forces that make up human personality. If there was an emotional pay-off, it was one of introspection.
Children of Blood and Bone: Not much emotional pay-off. It was rather sad, really. It is meant as a metaphor for the oppression and violence that black people suffer in America, and there’s just no happy ending there.
Where the Crawdads Sing: The story is partly framed as a murder mystery, but it isn’t really in that genre and doesn’t have that kind of pay-off. The emotional pay-off is really in watching the main character grow from being a kind young girl to a confident, independent, and accomplished woman. I can also see how there would be additional satisfaction for women from seeing a character who doesn’t have to live under the shadow of a man to define herself. There’s also a certain amount of vindication for life lived outside of the hustle and bustle of modern civilization. (I’m looking forward to watching the film staring Daisy Edgar-Jones.)
The Calculating Stars: In this one, the primary pay-off is a female protagonist who withstands all of the sexism of a 1950s (?) space agency and succeeds, is recognized for her competence, etc.
Shogun: Multiple sources of pay-off here. One is that we take pride in the success of the protagonist, who seems to excel at everything he puts his mind to. The immersion in this period of culture is so well done that we get some emotional pay-off from that, as well. Finally, we come to take pride in the strategic brilliance of another key character (Toranaga).
Spinning Silver: I am beginning to see a pattern. The main emotional pay-off comes from the protagonist excelling, rather persistently accomplishing the impossible. Secondarily, it is a love story, of sorts. (Although, I have to say I’m conflicted about romances involving semi-toxic men, and surprised that they are written by women.)
Magic for Liars: This was actually a more classic murder mystery, in a more modern sort of Hogwart’s. One pay-off was in solving the mystery, although in this case is was a bit of a cop-out let-down. Another was a fair amount of introspective growth, or perhaps not so much growth as healing.
Head On: A murder mystery, but also quite a bit of action. So part of the emotional pay-off was solving the mystery, but much of the pay-off comes from experiencing the tension of all the action.
A Memory Called Empire: A space opera murder mystery. Pay-off comes from solving the mystery, and perhaps in being brilliant about investigating the mystery. Pay-off also comes from immersing oneself in the technology and its cultural implications.
Hunger Makes the Wolf: Pay-off from multiple kinds of character growth: learning about her magic, learning how to be a leader, and we experience pride from her success at both.
Wolves Eat Dogs: (To represent many of the hard-boiled detective novels I read.) A murder mystery, and there is some pay-off in solving it. However, Arkady Renko has a very cynical view of his world, and of himself, which gives a sort of emotional pay-off in confirming the awful things we feel about the world. He also has kind of a death wish, and there’s a certain thrill in waiting to see if he will make it.
The Martian: The pay-off here is watching someone science his way out of a series of problems that make up one whole bad situation. There’s not much character growth here, nor much feeling of inadequacy. The story itself is more mental and logical with very little emotion or drama. So the emotional pay-off comes from the excitement of seeing logic and science doing near magical things.
Ethan of Athos: Spy and political intrigue on a space station. There are mysteries to solve, and both the investigation and the solution have pay-offs. There’s pay-off from out-smarting the bad guys. There’s also a fun mix of comedy and flirtatiousness. There is character growth, but not in a way that provided much pay-off.
On Basilisk Station: The pay-off here is as obvious as being hit in the head with a brick, and it’s quite formulaic throughout the series. The protagonist (whose name is literally “Honor”) stubbornly does the right thing always, even when it costs her personally, which it always does, but in the end she succeeds because of her competence and having done the right thing, and she earns respect and is publicly lauded.
Foreigner: The protagonist is competent at what he does, which is mainly negotiation and politics. He is surround by people who are competent at what they do, which is mainly security. The pay-off comes from seeing everyone excelling and earning respect. There’s something extra, something more than pride, in the pay-off of seeing the security people succeed; there is an emotional sense of safety. This is a long series, and the pay-off is the same throughout, but it is not formulaic; it’s just the same characters we love excelling in a series of situations.
“Fight Club“: There’s a certain amount of emotional pay-off that comes from expanding our view of the world. However, there’s also a certain joy that comes from the plot twists, especially the big one.
Mistborn: The Final Empire: I think Brandon Sanderson might be the master of plot twists. The whole trilogy is just full of them, big ones, all baked in from the very beginning. Beyond that, there is the usual pay-off from character growth and success.
Ready Player One: There is a mystery or a puzzle to be solved here, and there is pay-off in that. There is pay-off in character growth. However, there is definitely another kind of emotional pay-off that comes from nostalgia, and this book is loaded with nostalgia for a certain generation (the film, not so much).
“Skyfall“: I am going to make a distinction here between the older films and the newer ones. There is emotional pay-off in watching the protagonist’s competence. In the more recent films, this is heightened by his own self-doubts. He is a character who can struggle with his weaknesses, yet be competent at other things. The older films just do not touch me at an emotional level. They are entertaining: for the action, watching this impossible person navigate his world, and for the spy intrigue. However, they didn’t really have much emotional pay-off.
Rendezvous with Rama: The emotional pay-off, if it can be said to be emotional, comes from unveiling a portrayal of a fascinating scientific concept. The story around it is just sufficient to call it fiction, and it’s not very appealing as a story. The anxiety of the characters and their risks and obstacles isn’t really felt, and there’s no character growth at all. This is typical of much “Golden Age” science-fiction.
Dead Witch Walking: There’s a lot here, and in the whole series. Personal growth, success, and earned respect of the protagonist. There’s a direct emotional pay-off from sharing the interpersonal experience of her relationships. There’s some pay-off that comes from revealing a world full of magic and magical creatures. The protagonist is a strong female character with a very accessible internal voice, and there’s something comforting and normalizing about living her life with her.
“The Nice Guys“: This was basically a buddy film, and there was emotional pay-off in watching the two men bond and learn to trust each other.
“Thor: Ragnarok“: A lot of the pay-off here comes from seeing more of the characters we already love. Oddly enough, this includes Jeff Goldblum.
“Star Wars“: (This really goes for all of them, except maybe “Revenge of the Sith”.) Despite what has been said about the resonance of stories about knights and so forth, the emotional pay-off in these films is just character growth. Luke, Anakin, or Rey start out as a lowly moisture farmer, slave, or salvage collector, then they learn about the force and begin to feel confident about their abilities, and in the end, they save the day and earn respect.
Deacon King Kong: The emotional pay-off is small. We come to know several characters, and then we derive some satisfaction from seeing how they come together. The value of the novel has more to do with the picture it paints about life among African-Americans in the projects of 1960s Brooklyn.
The Naive and Sentimental Lover: No emotional pay-off (for me). I’m not even sure I can describe the value of the novel. I didn’t like the characters and I didn’t get anything out of the story. However, the author’s voice was somehow rather amazing at times. I can’t even say that the author was trying to convey any particular point, yet the prose was somehow profound.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Another story with no emotional pay-off. I didn’t really like the characters. However, it had much to say about sexual attraction, relationships, love, and so forth. It must have been ground-breaking at the time, and probably controversial.
The Left Hand of Darkness: Another with no emotional pay-off. The story wasn’t quite metaphorical, but let’s call it nearly a parable. It had much to say about gender, cultural differences, and perhaps a little about socialism.
Doctor Zhivago: I haven’t read enough Russian literature to say so confidently, but emotional pay-off in Russian fiction is probably a post-soviet import.