I admittedly apologize for all the quotes, metaphors, and analogies, but it’s the best way to explain set-ups and pay-offs.
Vladmir Propp described narrative as: lack, lack liquidated. Or, alternatively, Kurt Vonnegut described the idea of “the hole”: somebody’s in trouble and keeps digging themselves in deeper. Joseph Campbell built a huge flowchart describing this process in stories ranging (with some stretching) to the “narratives arcs” of Jesus Christ and Cinderella, and were used as the template for the heroic epic adventures of Luke Skywalker, Neo, and Harry Potter.
We filmgoers go to the movies (as readers read, or theatergoers go to plays) with an expectation: we want to get something out of it. What is that something, exactly? It can vary. A fright, a laugh, a tear, whatever. In any event, it is something, and, whether you are immediately aware of it or not (and if you plan to write, you’d best get aware of it real fast) a successful film makes a narrative contract between viewer and media: you are going to receive X, and you are going to receive X in a way you do not expect. And who’s job is it to make sure X is received and it remains unseen? That falls to you, the ever-suffering writer.
Russian playwright Anton Chekov said, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." What Chekov is describing is what screenwriters call set-ups and pay-offs.
Set-ups and pay-offs are lack and the liquidation of lack. They are jokes and punchlines. They are tragic bits of foreshadowing. They are what is expected and what is given in an unexpected way.
Unexpected is important here. If your viewer gets what he is expected in an expected way, he is bored. Despite having been given what he is promised, he is disappointed. How you wrap your present is just as important as what you’re presenting.
Think of a magician, who you expect to do something magical. While you are watching his performance, he performs a bit of unexpected legerdemain that . You are the magician here. And what magicians do to do their tricks is not just sleight of hand, but misdirection. You draw the audience’s eye to something else, so you they aren’t paying close attention to your hands. Maybe a flourish with your arms, or brushing your sleeves, or whatever.
One of the best examples of set-ups and pay-offs I can think of is the first Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985.) My favorite example of a good set-up and pay-off is the business with the clock tower. In the set-up scene, Marty and Jennifer are trying to set up their date in the cabin. There’s a woman handing out flyers regarding saving the clock tower, which Jennifer uses to write her number on. We aren’t interested in the old lady or the clock tower, we’re interested in Marty and Jennifer’s interactions (watching where we’re supposed to.) Later, as Marty’s trying to figure out a way to fix his time machine so he can return to 1985, he looks at the other side of the flyer Jennifer wrote her number on, and suddenly we all remember about the clock tower.
The movie has a lot of other great set-up’s and pay-off’s as well, but that’s an excellent example. Another is Marty’s love of rock and roll, he’s first denied at the battle of the bands audition (which also shows he’s a pretty smokin’ guitarist,) but then when he travels back in time, he gets to play on that same stage, wow the audience, and influence Chuck Berry (via his cousin, Marvin Berry.) There are plenty more, too.
So, how do you make set-up’s and pay-off’s? Two ways. While I’m writing, I usually come up with the pay-off first, and then figure out how to do the set-up, which is kind of a backwards way of doing it, but effective. Say, for example, to use the Chekov gun analogy, if somebody’s supposed to get shot, I’ll go back and set up a gun earlier in the script (as far apart as I can feasibly allow so the audience isn’t thinking about that gun.)
A set-up or pay-off can come out of nowhere without the other, but this is jarring and can alternatively shock and confuse your audience or produce a comedic effect. For example, although I love this movie, in the campy Adam West Batman film (dir. Neil Hefti, 1966,) Batman produces his infamous Bat Shark Repellant Spray. This is absurd (and within the show’s goals of high camp,) but had this been one of the more recent Chris Nolan Batman films, he should have had a scene where Batman was studying animal repellants (and Alfred chiding him for him paranoid and overly prepared.) When he runs into a shark in the end of the second act…boom. Bat Shark Repellant. And then it’s alright. We as the audience got a set-up, and a pay-off, instead of just a pay-off.
Having just a set-up can create a sense of lack that remains unfulfilled. You expectedly await the gag to come, and you wait, and wait, and wait... It’s like those cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck where Daffy rigs the xylophone to explode when a certain note is paid. Bugs keeps missing that one note. We as the audience, although not necessarily desiring Bugs Bunny to explode, want to see a KABOOM. Daffy gets just as frustrated and shows him how to play it, and we get our earth-shattering kaboom.
Or, alternatively, the “shave and a haircut” knock from Who Framed Roger Rabbit we, like Roger, are dying to hear the last two notes. Dun dunna dun dun… “Shave and a haircut…”
So, make sure to include set-ups and pay-offs in your film, regardless of genre, and you’ll have you audience laughing, crying, screaming, or whatever they asked for.
Next week, we’ll discuss pacing. Good writing!