By David Landau
Originally published in Script magazine May/June 2005
Alfred Hitchcock said that if you show a gun in the first reel, it has to be used by the last reel. Hitchcock was describing set-up and payoff, a common device well-used in mysteries and thrillers but employable in almost any genre. After all, what is a joke other than a set-up with the punch line as the payoff?
Why use set-up and payoff? Have you ever heard people say, “Everything happens for a reason?” or “What goes around comes around?” There seems to be a universally shared belief within humans that there is some reason for things and that some justification can be found in almost anything. In other words, we have a belief in a kind of karmic set-up and payoff. When it’s placed in your screenplay, it feeds this universal hunger—and that means a sense of fullness and completion within your audience.
What is a set-up and a payoff in its simplest form?
A set-up is dropping in a piece of information, a prop or even a talent or knowledge possessed by a character which will come into play in a major way, having a dramatic effect on the story generally during the third act. If the payoff happens at the end of the third act, it’s a “twist ending.”
There can be several set-ups and payoffs throughout the story—ones that dramatically alter the story are called plot twists. Sometimes the plot twists arrive without a set-up, and these are generally twists that come out of the blue. Audiences call them “Where’d that come from?”
Poorly or not-set-up plot twists are generally not only considered unsatisfactory, but also downright irritating. But when these set-ups and payoffs are done correctly, audiences love the curves in the highway.
Let’s say that at the beginning of a story a character is trying to fix the banister which is loose at the top of the stairs. We know that by the end of the film, someone is going to lean on that banister and fall to his death. This will probably happen during a climactic fight scene with a bad guy. Another example of set-up is that a character needs work done on his car’s brakes. Obviously, at some point someone will race off in the car; and, lo and behold! the brakes won’t work.
If either of these examples has no set-up, if during the course of the story someone discovers that the car has no brakes, or the banister just gives way for no reason, the action would be unbelievable and coming out of left field.
The art of the set-up and the payoff is not to tip your hand too early or, even better, not at all. The set-up needs to be established in such a subtle way that when the payoff comes, the audience doesn’t expect it—but loves you for it.
Mysteries are generally very good at this use of setup and payoff. The clue to unravel the mystery is exposed early on, but soon so much information, so many motives and possibilities surface that the original clue is long overlooked and forgotten. If, however, the damning piece of evidence or information is not set up properly, the audience feels cheated. As a mystery writer, I know that my plots have been worked well when during the finale, the audience responds with a resounding, “Oh, of course. I should have thought of that!” The plots haven’t worked well when the audience responds, “What? Who would have thought of that?”
IN THE ZONE
Set-up and payoff are not exclusive to the mystery and thriller genre. Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone was famous for its set-up and payoff twist endings. In “One for the Angels,” Serling creates a character that is a sidewalk salesman who has led a humble and uneventful life until the day Death visits him and tells him that he must depart at midnight. The only way Lew Bookman can stay alive is to convince Death that he has some unfinished business, something important that he has yet to do to make his contribution to mankind. Lew, who gives away many of the toys he sells to the kids in the neighborhood, tells Death he has never made a really big pitch—a pitch for the angels. Death grants him his stay and elects to take someone else at midnight. A little girl from the neighborhood is hit by a car; and when Death comes to the tenement just before midnight, Lew greets him on the steps and begins to sell him a few ties—and other things, keeping Death from the little girl’s door by making one pitch after another. Of course, Death misses his midnight appointment; but Lew goes along willingly, having finally made that one great pitch: a pitch for the angels.
In this almost leisurely paced 30-minute TV episode, Serling sets up one payoff after another.
An example is when Death visits Lew, and the little girl stops by his apartment. Lew, not believing who Death is, introduces the girl to him. She can’t see him and thinks it’s a joke. Death states that only those who are to go with him can see him. Why throw this scene in? Because once the girl is hit by the car and Lew goes to her in the street, she asks Lew who the man in the dark suit is—and she points to Death.
This example illustrates the guideline that nothing should be placed in the script unless it has some kind of meaning, somehow furthering the characters or the story. The girl’s earlier visit appeared to be extraneous. We already knew Lew liked kids and saw him give toys to the girl and other kids on the street. So, why throw in her little visit? Why reveal that only those who are to go with Death can see him? Interesting, but unnecessary—unless it is all going to be used again, unless it is a set-up for something that will propel the story forward.
TWIST ENDING SET-UPS AND PAYOFFS
Perfect recent movie examples of excellent extended set-ups are The Others and The Sixth Sense, where the entire plot concept was built on the twist-ending payoff. In The Sixth Sense, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan revealed the twist ending within the first 10 minutes. We actually see Malcolm (Bruce Willis) killed. But then the film switches to Malcolm following and then talking to a boy with a deep psychological problem—he sees dead people. Shyamalan is careful and precise in the construction of every scene. No one except the boy ever talks to Malcolm. We never see anyone acknowledge Malcolm, even to the extent of opening a door for him. All the facts, all the clues have been given to us upfront and so obviously that we fail to see them. When it is finally revealed at the end of the film that Malcolm is dead himself, it comes as a shocking twist—but one the audience not only readily accepts but admires and adores.
COMEDY SET-UPS AND PAYOFFS
Artful set-up and payoff can enhance any genre, and don’t have to have twist endings. Two examples are My Cousin Vinny and Legally Blonde. In both of these comedies, one character’s superior knowledge about a subject is stated and restated, passed off as an amusing character trait. In Dale Launer’s My Cousin Vinny, Marisa Tomei won an Oscar® for her performance as the auto expert, gum-chewing, street-smart girlfriend. Her character rescues the protagonist’s legal case when he puts her on the stand after they’ve had a bad argument and she’s walking out on him. In her rage she points out what an idiot he is, and the prosecution, to assume that the getaway car could have been the one in question because the tires that left their mark at the scene of the crime couldn’t fit on that make and model car. The protagonist wins his case and wins back his gal, demonstrating to her that he does know how helpful and intelligent she is.
In Karen Lutz & Kirsten Smith’s Legally Blonde, the protagonist is a blonde sorority girl with expertise in cosmetics, clothing and hairdos—going to the salon regularly for solace and to render advice. While being perceived as vacant at the law firm at which she is interning, it is her knowledge of hairdos that trips up and exposes the lies of a fellow sorority sister on the witness stand, winning the case and proving herself more than a dumb blonde.
Perhaps part of our enjoyment of set-up and payoff is a desire to believe that things happen for a reason, that there is karma, that good things come to those who wait, and that what goes around does come around.
Set-up materials are woven into the early portions of the story, planted so that they may grow and blossom. They are often hidden by being utilized as characterization or business to cover dialogue sequences. The trick is making sure the dialogue sequence is interesting and important enough that the audience doesn’t concern itself with the fact that our character never finished fixing the banister. Otherwise, not only is the payoff predictable but also obvious and contrived.
THE ARISTOTLE CONNECTION
Aristotle says that everything in a dramatic story must be there for a reason. Everything else should be cut. Set-up material is material that should otherwise be cut. It is there for a reason but one that is not revealed until much later. Otherwise, the female character’s knowledge of cars or hairdos would have been extraneous. The fact that no one ever talked directly to the child’s shrink would be an unnatural flaw. The fact that only those who go with Death can see him would be a cute idea that didn’t pay off.
Perhaps we, as an audience, appreciate set-up and payoff so much because it is one of the great mysteries and pleasures of life. We never know how a connection will play out in our lives—what jobs we might get because of whom we once met a long time ago, or how a certain piece of knowledge we learned and thought was totally useless suddenly becomes advantageous—or at least makes us look smart—or whom we might meet as a result of meeting someone else. Isn’t it true that we like to feel that we are all connected? Isn’t everything really all connected in some way? Perhaps part of our enjoyment of set-up and payoff is a desire to believe that things happen for a reason, that there is karma, that good things come to those who wait, and that what goes around does come around.
Stories are a form of making a connection. What could be more fitting than making a story which illustrates making connections with creative set-ups and payoffs? So go, set up something and pay it off. Maybe your next screenplay will be the set-up that pays off big time.
DAVID LANDAU is a published, award-winning playwright whose work has been produced nationwide. He has written industrial videos and penned numerous screenplays—a few optioned, a few winners in competitions.
Get more advice on Set Up and Payoff in Richard Pepperman's book,
Setting Up Your Scenes: The Inner Workings of Great Films