I recently watched the movie Dark City, a mind-bending noir fantasy that I’ve been hearing about for years. There were parts of it that I really enjoyed, and parts that I thought didn’t work very well; in brief, the visuals were awesome and the ending didn’t work for me. There was one part, though, that I thought was an absolute home run: they presented an interesting mystery, and then when they revealed the answer it was even more bizarre and amazing than I had ever guessed. They made a promise to the viewer, and then they followed through with a stunning delivery.
Follow-through, in the sports world, is used when you swing something, like a golf club or a baseball bat. You hit something by pulling your club all the way back, then swinging it forward as fast as you can; many people have the natural tendency to stop their swing when the club hits the ball, but the more effective way is to keep swinging, bringing the club around in a full circle. This follow-through makes the ball go farther, and gives you more control over it.
In fiction, I think the same principle applies. Setting up a situation or a mystery is like swinging at a ball, and offering a weak payoff is only half a swing. To really follow through, you need to give the reader everything they expected, and then you need to keep swinging and give them even more. Let me illustrate by spoiling Dark City for everyone who hasn’t seen it: the movie begins by telling us that a dying alien race has begun experimenting on humans, which is a pretty big way to start, and you wonder where it’s going from there. As the story progresses we see the aliens kidnap some people, kill others, alter memories, and even alter reality, changing the size and shape of buildings and roads and anything else. We also realize that it’s always night, and no one has ever seen the sun or left the city; the roads just wind around each other, and the only train that ever leaves town is the express, which doesn’t seem to ever stop at a station you can reach. What could possibly be happening? How is the movie going to follow through on this mystery with something more interesting than we expect?
Three characters push past all of the boundaries to reach the edge of the city, which turns out to be a giant brick wall. They bash through it with hammers, desperate to learn the truth, and finally succeed in breaking open a hole–to nothing. One of the characters is pushed out in a fight and floats away, looking back at the city to see it floating in space–not on a planet, not in a spaceship, just floating by itself, with some clouds above it and a creepy alien machine growing out of the bottom. It answers the mystery perfectly, shows us something we’ve never seen before, and goes further than the audience ever expected. It’s one of the most stunning follow-throughs I’ve ever seen.