Write Better Copy with Set-ups, Open Loops, and Emotional Payoffs

image of string of pearls

How is it possible that a string of fake pearls, purchased at Bergdorf Goodman for about $25, eventually sold at auction for $211,000?

Well, it certainly helps that Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy had worn this particular necklace in almost every historical photograph featuring herself and her husband President John F. Kennedy.

As Lynda Resnick, the woman who later bought the pearls interestingly said, the pearls had become “the icon of the icon.”

But they were still cheap baubles on a string, a handful of glass beads and nothing more.

Were they really worth that much just because Jackie had worn them?

The answer to this very important question lies in the set-up, the payoff, and the open loop.

How you set yourself up without knowing it

The events and drama associated with a place, day, or item inevitably mark that item with more
than symbolic significance.

Jackie’s style, her much-photographed life, and her presence as an icon in both our history and national psyche have all become associated with those pearls.

It’s also possible to do the same in your copywriting. You can set up an action, place, thing, or
event to carry its own emotional charge — and pay off your readers’ investment later by releasing that emotional charge for effect.

Naturally, it’s hard to orchestrate a Jackie Kennedy-level emotional investment. Historical events of that caliber don’t come around every day — and they’re often decades in the making.

But you don’t need history; you make the same emotional, irrational investments in events and things all the time.

And you’re willing to pay more to engage with them.

Here are two tangible examples:

  • Your wedding ring probably came with a price tag, a very solid market value. But would you really be willing to relinquish your wedding ring even if someone offered you double what it’s “worth”?
  • If you have an heirloom like a watch or a hunting rifle or a book that belonged to your grandfather, it’s likely you wouldn’t be willing to sell for anywhere near its objective worth or value.

The same applies for events that carry emotional investment.

When you celebrate birthdays, you’re willing to pay more money for food, presents, and outings than you would at other times even though that day is objectively no different than any other day of the year.

One of the reasons we’re willing to invest so much in these kinds of events and objects (financially and emotionally) is that returning to an already emotionally charged item, place, or day inevitably spotlights whatever has changed in your life from one experience to the next.

The payoff lies in being able to re-experience all the feelings that were initially set up when you first encountered that situation or that object.

It’s why you can’t help but reminisce over the last year as New Year’s Eve approaches, or why you get a little teary-eyed as you mark a new pencil etching of your kid’s height above the dozen others from the years before.

Set-ups and payoffs let you highlight change, transformation, and emotional attachment in ways that demand symbolic treatment.

The examples mentioned above happen more or less naturally. But it’s also possible to create the set-up of emotional attachment and recoup the payoff by capitalizing on that emotion.

One of the best and most relatable examples is film.

Movies are designed to give you an emotional set-up and then offer you a payoff — a release — of that emotional involvement so you feel satisfied by the entire experience.

Get your audience engaged in your payoff

Want to see the set-up and payoff in action? Let’s take a masterful example from Pixar’s film UP.

If you’ve never seen UP before, the opening 8-minute set-up is a masterful small film in itself, and well worth the time to see it. While you watch, try to identify as many emotional set-ups — events or objects that ask you to invest in them emotionally — and payoffs as you can.

Let’s take a look at some of the biggest set-ups and pay-offs at play (and let us know in the comments about any more you find):

  • The Set-up: Carl holding one blue balloon at the beginning of film. The single balloon becomes symbolic of being alone AND of his first meeting with Ellie.
  • The Payoff: The blue balloon symbol is repeated at Ellie’s funeral and in the scene showing Carl’s return home from the funeral: Carl is alone again, but the symbol is still heavy with Ellie’s presence.
  • The Set-up: Ellie floating a balloon tied to a short stick through Carl’s window after his accident. At that set-up, it was a play on that first balloon that Carl lost in the playhouse, and was already “paying off,” but this modified balloon was also being set-up for a later “pay-off”
  • The Payoff: Carl floating the same balloon-stick combo to Ellie while she was in the hospital.
  • The Set-up: Ellie’s Adventure Book shared with Carl as kids, initiating a bond between them.
  • The Payoff: Repeated symbol used by Carl as a revival of hope, particularly after Ellie’s heartbreaking news that she can’t have kids.
  • The Set-up: Cross your heart symbol, which represents the promise Carl and Ellie make as kids to go to Paradise Falls.
  • The Payoff: Same cross your heart symbol repeated between Carl and Ellie as young adults following the news that they can’t have children.
  • The Set-up: Mailbox hand print for Carl symbolizes his own unsure bumbling, along with Ellie’s artistic flair that manages to magically transmute the bumbling into a kind of harmony. In other words, the mailbox becomes symbolic of their relationship.
  • The Payoff: When the mailbox is knocked over by the construction machinery, a workman struggles with Carl to help fix it. Carl hits the workman over the head with his walker/cane to keep him from touching the mailbox – we are sympathetic to this unusual display of anger because we know the mailbox means more to him than the worker suspects.
  • The Set-up: Climbing the hill and picnicking is linked to imagination and adventurous daydreaming about the future.
  • The 1st Payoff: Climbing the hill is linked to adventurous day-dreaming about having a baby — a thwarted plan that leads to Carl’s proposal for visiting Paradise Falls, a trip that would “close the loop” on so many elements of this first 8 minutes of film.
  • The 2nd Payoff: Climbing the hill becomes the scene for Carl’s planned surprise announcement that the trip would finally take place, only to have the scene become tragic as Ellie collapses and has to be rushed to the hospital.

The payoffs for those set-ups don’t end at the conclusion of those 8 minutes, either.

Throughout the entire movie, the set-ups are revisited again and again, giving the audience a payoff on their emotional involvement every time.

That’s the open loop: leaving the set-up open to constant revisitation.

Clearly, the technique worked well for UP: it received rave reviews (many of them lauding that iconic 8-minute clip) and great box office numbers.

So how can you use the same techniques of set-up, payoff, and the open loop to get people to invest their emotions and their money in your own ventures?

Setting up your copywriting for a payoff

To create the same kind of set-up and payoff the movies do, you need to imbue your copywriting with emotion.

Here are a few of the most effective techniques for doing that:

1. Create an emotionally resonant before-and-after comparison.

We’re not talking about your standard rags-to-riches narrative.

The average spiel has no emotional resonance, no artistry in the telling. It’s usually just a straight-up, “I didn’t have two cents to rub together, and now I own three homes and a Porsche. And you can, too!”

That’s a cheap way of getting across the before-and-after set-up and payoff. There’s a much better way to accomplish this.

Use a symbolic place, person, event, or thing that’ll highlight the change in your fortunes a bit more elegantly.

Tell about the time your little sister gave you her old computer because you couldn’t afford a new one after yours crashed.

Then tell about the moment your phone rang as your sister called to thank you for the brand
new 17’ Macbook Pro you sent her. Tell us about the way your old computer still sits in a place of
pride as your “inspiration computer” that you use to write the really important projects.

If you want to make it real, give us a real object to feel emotionally attached to. Without giving us
that emotional involvement, we can’t feel the payoff when the turnaround happens.

2. Slip a (seemingly) throw-away detail into your opening to increase the symbolism of your closing image

Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz recently wrote a post on what to do when family or friends failed to take you seriously because you work from home.

Her audience is a huge crew of small-business owners. Some of them work from home,
some don’t, but most probably assumed that the term “work from home” encapsulated any
business that doesn’t have all the traditional accoutrements we tend to associate with “real”

“Work from home” could mean “having a one-person business that has an office away from home.”

It could mean “working on a laptop in a coffeeshop.”

It’s just a handy placeholder that lets her readership know she’s talking about them.

Then, the payoff.

At the end of the piece, Naomi used this immortal line: “You know who else works out of his home office? THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”

Booyah! A huge payoff that wouldn’t have happened if she had said “ittybiz owners”, as she often has for other posts.

“Work from home” seemed innocent enough, but her choice of powerful trigger words made the emotional payoff immense for a readership that needs to hear their work is valuable and worthy.

3. Use a created symbol as a key part of your narrative’s turning point, and repeat it as part of your call to action

Read the following invitation/sales letter (another marketing masterpiece penned by Roy H.
Williams) and ask yourself, why is the call to action so intriguingly compelling?

image of roy williams ad

  • How did Roy set up the use of Snapdragons and Rowdiness in the beginning of the letter?
  • How did he add emotional resonance to these things in the middle of the letter?
  • And what impact did that all have on the final call to action?

Drop your answers in the comments below. And this time, I won’t spoil your chance to shine by giving you my answers.

I’ll let you close the loop on this one.

About the Author: Jeff Sexton is a partner in the Wizard of Ads consulting firm, a well-known online copywriter and optimization expert, as well as a faculty member at Wizard Academy, where he co-teaches Persuasive Online Copywriting. You can find him online at www.jeffsextonwrites.com.

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Reader Comments (52)

  1. says

    This is very good stuff. It’s also very long, yet I don’t mind it. Kind of like reading long copy. Or for the literary mindset, War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged. If it engages the reader, you keep reading For the record, I once knew someone who spent 15 hours straight reading Atlas Shrugged

    I like how you cover in part 1 celebrities like Jackie. And you went on to give many examples of value added.

    Then you cover in part 2, one of my favorite topics – copywriting. And you keep the same handle intact – setup and payoff. Today’s post did pay off for me.


  2. says

    I’ve been waiting for this second installment Jeff, and you did not disappoint! This really resonated with me today. I drafted a guestpost this week that literally made me cry as I was writing it- and I feel like that emotion really strengthened the words I choose and overall story I told. Of course if it resonates with readers the way it did with me, then it is a win win, but bringing the emotion into it lit up my writing in a really exciting way for me.

    I love that you used UP as your example to illustrate the emotional set-up. I thought that movie was extremely well-done, and that first 8 minutes was fun, but heartbreaking at the same time.

    Roy’s invitation/sales letter was fascinating. I mean, who didn’t play out that scene of being a knight and killing a dragon when you were a kid? (I love watching my kids do it now.) Through his words, he brought that feeling of being rowdy through the symbolism of the snapdragon. Imagination and belief is all that is needed.

    So without doing any rowdy, suddenly you ARE rowdy. And once you start thinking like that, then it’s a small jump to want to take that to the next level- taking Roy up on his invitation.

    Very cool stuff- thanks Jeff!

  3. says


    Thanks for the comment. Made my day ; )

    One of my favorite Chesterton quotes goes like this:

    “Fairytales aren’t false for teaching us about dragons; they’re true for teaching us that dragons can be beaten.”

    I may not have gotten that exactly right, but you get the gist. Thought you’d enjoy it. Thanks again for the comment.

    – Jeff

  4. says

    That invitation is not an invitation. It’s a piece of history. If they don’t bury it, they break history and any chance of being wild they ever had. Once they bury it, the company is all pearls.

  5. says

    Really enjoyed the post! But it reminded me of something important…

    Back in university, i read a book called “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. It was a life-changing book, and it talked about the same open-loop structure you mentioned here.

    In a nutshell, the book shows you how recurring symbols, and motifs of life, are an inherent part of the human experience. Of human beauty. They’re objectively meaningless, but we -have to- place meaning in things when we seek a happy, meaningful life.

    Thank you for reminding me. I’ll be reading my “Unbearable Lightness of Being” tonight.

    – Chris

  6. says

    Believe it or not, I’ve never read that book – even as an English major! I’ll need to go seek it out, now. Thanks for the tip and the comment, Chris.

  7. says

    Great post! Up! is one of my favorite movies and my grandkids tease me about it all the time. You are right about the loops and the payoffs.

    Thank you.

  8. says

    Really enjoyed the post Jeff! I couldn’t believe there was so much packed into the story line of UP! But the opening makes me cry all the time. So it’s definitely working.

  9. Jonneke Grim says

    Wow, this is good. Gives me butterflies in my stomach AND scares me to death at the same time. How is my (B2B) blog every going to be this good… I hardly dare to start writing. Thank you, Jeff, you’ve really inspired me.

  10. says

    Great post, Jeff,

    It seems everyone posting here is so caught up with congratulatory emotions that they’ve forgotten to close the loop on the snapdragons for you. Your loop will be disconnected and lonely no more.

    Snapdragons and England. Roy linked them right away. It’s where snapdragons come from and grow wild. Then he made the connection to the children of England. This would be pretty meaningless without a contrast with their wild and rowdy neighbors in Italy and Spain. Oh, how they longed to be free and full of emotion! All they ate was dull fish and chips. All they saw was gray clouds and rain. He never says these things, but the brain knows it instinctively to be true when he says that “English kids were too young and timid…”

    Places, colors and shapes mentioned in writing always call to mind much more than the word. They bring up emotion.

    Now Roy does the real magic by imbuing those English children with imagination. If they couldn’t be wild, they would imagine themselves as dragon conquerors, going face to face with a malevolent foe. And to top it off, the historic significance of St. George killing the dragon makes it absolutely, beyond question truth. It’s historical fact that St. George killed the dragon. So children in England must have used snapdragons to be wild.

    So “do you want to be wild?” he asks. He makes you that shy, timid child of England when he says, “Those dragons belong to you.” and finally, “all the rowdy kids will be there.” He doesn’t say it, but it’s screaming, “Remember all those times when you were shy and timid?? Here’s a way to be wild!! You can do it!! It’s easy!! Throw these seeds in the ground as a reminder about the party!! You’ll be part of the rowdy kids!!”

    The incredibly powerful part is that all these things are underwater. He never says them. If he did, the spell would be broken. As they are, your right brain answers all these raised questions, and you make a decision unconsciously. It’s the secret of all great writers.

    Amazing illustration, Jeff. I hope your loop now has happiness,

    • says


      Thanks so much for closing that loop for us. And your analysis was dead on. Awesome unpacking of Roy’s artful invitation.

      – Jeff

    • says

      Kudos, Peter for the terrific analysis! Spot on.

      And thank you Jeff for a really insightful post on how to give your writing some emotional POW!

  11. says

    You’ve really hit the proverbial nail on the head. Embedding copy with emotionally resonant passages situates that copy squarely in a place for readers that leaves them a little more open or vulnerable to whatever is coming next. Tactical approach to copy writing.

  12. says

    I just subscribed to you today (having discovered you in Susan Getgood’s “Professional Blogging for Dummies” book), and already am receiving great advice and tutorship. I’m new at blogging (as you can see from my almost-ready blogsite) and writing is not within my comfort zone, although when I get on a roll, I’m really rollin’. I look forward to more insight, advice, and tools from you.

  13. says

    I’ve never seen the movie UP, but after almost being reduced to tears by that opening scene, it is definitely on my to-watch list!

    That was a great example of tying in emotional payoffs and great imagery. They set it up beautifully and then let the story tell itself out without the need for dialogue.

    This is definitely something I’ll be considering in future ventures!

  14. says

    I cannot help but note the poetic similarities between Roy’s “weeks from now” paragraph near the end and Shakespeare’s immortal St. Crispin’s Day speech, which to me are so obvious I must also think that they were intentional. Given that the invitation is clearly intended for a British audience, Roy likely intended that they would get the oblique reference, and make the final logical conclusion for themselves: Weeks from now, they will hold their manhoods cheap who were not at this party.

    • says


      Actually, the invitation was intended for a mid-West audience if memory serves, but your point is well taken. Literary allusions certainly fall into this category of writing technique, and the example from Shakespeare is especially telling because it extends the pay-off into the future as a goad to action, which is especially applicable to copywriting. Whether Roy intentionally echoed these things in the invitation I can’t say, but will be sure to ask him when I see him next week.

      – Jeff

  15. says

    Wow Jeff.

    You know what I like?
    You reminded me about a old sketch pad and charcoal pencils my dad gave me on my 9th birthday. I still remember his challenge to me, “Show me what you got”. For years I kept that sketch pad filled with my scribbles. It finally found its way to a closet or forgotten shelf and I lost track of it during high school. Maybe I thought it was baby stuff and I was subconsciously moving on.

    Just last night, I was struggling with a blog post. I gave up on it twice. I completely rewrote it once. I was actually afraid to publish it. Right before I was going to hit delete, my son came to me with his juice-box stained sketch pad. He had drawn “another” daddy picture and wanted me to put it up on on the fridge. Right there I remembered my dad’s challenge. “Show ’em what you got”. I turned back to the post, took a breath, and hit publish.

    How did I do? :)

    The best part is that I wouldn’t have understood how to use these memories in a way that made sense until this post. Thank you.

  16. says


    Wow! That was awesome. I was misty eyed at the end (until you let me in on the fact that you were consciously manipulating these symbols – lol). You rock!

    – Jeff

  17. says

    Jeff Sexton! Thanks for that Headlines Intensive Webinar. You and Brian did such a good job. I like this article too. It says a lot.

    Can I talk to the Senior Editor for a minute? I’ve caught a sentence that needs revising:

    “When you celebrate birthdays, you’re willing to pay money for food, presents, and outings than you would at other times even though that day is objectively no different than any other day of the year.”

    I think there needs to be a “more” in there somewhere.

  18. says


    Your use of Disney/Pixar’s UP to show how to get your audience invested in the emotional payoff of your writing was brilliant! For that alone I am going to be retweeting/facebooking this post. Nicely done sir.

  19. says

    I recall being in a branch of Habitat, the design store and seeing a red dustpan and brush. It looked more or less the same as a dustpan and brush from Woolworths, but it was invested with Habitat’s spirit.

    When someone buys a Habitat dustpan and brush, they see and feel ‘Habitat’ with each stroke of the bristles across the floor.

    If they have powerful personalities, they can buy a Woolworths dustpan and brush and breathe Habitat perfume into the brush with each stroke of the bristles across that same floor.

    The only set-ups we should fall for are the ones we respect. Love, caring, loyalty – those are the things that Carl and Ellie display. A cheap necklace on the other hand, is still a cheap necklace.

    • says

      Actually, David,

      There was an experiment a while back wherein the researchers bought a bunch of yard sale items and then assigned storytellers to craft stories around those items. Then they put them up for sale on eBay with the stories as descriptors. Except that they flat out TOLD people that the stories were fictional.

      Didn’t matter.

      The bids for the items were still out all proportion to the actual worth of the item and/or what was actually paid to acquire them. There are tons of little insights like that that show us how our minds and emotions REALLY work, instead of how they SHOULD work.

      As an individual, yes, please DO raise yourself to the level of should as much as possible. But as a marketer and copywriter, you need to deal with the reality of the way people actually ARE. You’re job is to give the truth the persuasive ring of truth when simply telling the truth isn’t enough. And you can’t do that by insisting that your prospective customers behave the way you think they ought to.

      – Jeff

  20. says

    A few points that became even clearer to me in this post:

    1) I’m more and more convinced that its the emotions that matter. As much as we may think logically making our point is important, it’s really not. I want those damn Snapdragons! I gotta remember I’m writing and presenting to emotions, not brains.

    2) Peter brought up how Roy doesn’t specifically ask for what he’s wanting. He spins this yarn so you near the end asking yourself “How do I get this? How do I get wild?” All he has to do is hint at the answer and we’ll eagerly follow.

    3) Can’t forget the seemingly irrelevant detail. We’ve all seen those movies where we can even pick up on a detail that we know, somehow, is gonna play a big role down the road. Sometimes this awareness actually motivates us to keep watching, keep reading. Like the guy in “The Lady in the Water” who only works out one arm, and it’s so much bigger than his other one. Seems stupid and useless, but it ends up saving the day (sorry for the spoiler).


  21. says

    Great post! I think that sometimes we get so comfortable in our fields, we forget the what we are writing is still new information to a lot of people. We have to approach our writing as if we didn’t have all the answers and are hearing about it for the first time. When you are excited about what you’re writing/talking about, it comes across to the reader and they are excited right there with you.

  22. Kriss says

    I was nodding all the way through till you quoted the bit about English kids not being rowdy or outgoing. As an English person, that simply doesn’t match my own experience and I stopped nodding and got annoyed. (To me that piece clearly was intended for an audience who believe the stereotype and accept it as largely true: it would jarr as much with other English people as it does with me.) So be careful how you use and abuse stereotypes.

    Great, thought provoking and imaginative article though – I really enjoyed it despite that.

    • says


      Thanks for the comment; I’m glad you liked the post.

      As for the stereotype of English kids, realize that in rhetoric a commonplace doesn’t have to be objectively true – it only has to be accepted and perceived as true by the audience. So a stereotype that’s accepted by your audience is both fair game and a useful jumping off point, rhetorically speaking. This may sound machiavellian but it’s how language works. So, yeah, the letter wouldn’t go over very well in the UK, but it worked great over here in the US of A, even for readers who, intellectually at least, knew that they were and are plenty of rowdy Britts to go round.

      – Jeff

  23. says

    Jeff, this is an excellent post! I really think this will change the way I write from now on. Indeed, giving your audience an emotional set-up they’ll surely not forget is something splendid! It will transform not just your readers but also the writer within you. This also reminded me of an excellent blogger I knew who’s very much gifted with the skill of awakening her readers’ emotions through her posts. Thanks for the inspiration!

  24. says


    Thanks so much for the comments. I’m thrilled you found this useful and inspiring. Best of luck applying the techniques.

    – Jeff

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