“Setups and Payoffs” by Joan Y. Edwards
I’ve read a number of books and taken courses about novel writing and screenwriting. They all mention the importance of setups and payoffs in novels and movies. So just what is a setup and how do you make it pay off? We know what it feels like when someone sets us up for defeat in real life.
In the dictionary, a setup is when the author uses a symbol, an event, or a prop to signify something that’s about to happen in the main character’s life…a symbol of the past that may change in the future to give hope or cause defeat. Setups are significant to the main character’s current bad situation or responsible for helping them rise above the problem.
Here’s something I learned from reading Chris Soth’s Million Dollar Screenwriting – The Mini Movie Method. In your book or movie script, you want your characters to go from fear to hope…from hope to fear…from fear to hope, etc. When your character’s situation goes from fear to hope, the reader sighs with satisfaction. When the plot goes from hope to fear, the readers feel tension and are afraid for your main character. They relate to the emotions of the main character.
So when you as the author mention things, are they symbols of past defeat or the hope for future success? Will these situations be overcome? Will the main character defeat fear in the final hour of the story? How? Will these set-ups play a part in it? What will have to change before the main character defeats the enemy? Set it up.
Setups and payoffs are essential to all stories. They pull readers in and set them up for a change of emotions. A change of feelings in the story.
Setups may scare us. Danger for the main character from the past, the present, or the future. Setups create or set up a mood and build up a desired emotion.
Payoffs ease your mind. Payoffs may be payback time for the bad guy. Payoffs may be when the main character wins at something or has a small success.
Possible things to use as set-ups to add fear or hope to your story.
If a doll that Jane had in 5th grade isn’t significant for the story, don’t mention it. Everything and everyone mentioned in a story has to have significance to the story. If a character, prop, or event has no significance to your plot or character formation, cut it out.
In the movie, Better Off Dead, with John Cusack as Lane Meyer, is about a teenage boy who’s devastated because his girlfriend dumps him. The paperboy comes to collect the $2.00 for the subscription to the paper. However, Lane’s parents aren’t home and he doesn’t have any money. The paperboy creates a lot of havoc every day because he throws the paper and it breaks a window in the garage door. So if the truth was known, the paperboy might owe them more money than the two dollars. This is a set up for the paperboy to ride on his bike and follow the lead character everywhere saying, “I want my two dollars.” Without that one scene where they show that the main character doesn’t have the money, we wouldn’t understand the humor in “I want my two dollars.
In Shawshank Redemption at the beginning they set up the Bible as being important to Andy. At the end we find out that one of the reasons, the Bible is so important to him is that it contains a hammer with which he will dig his way out of prison. It sets up that the men in the prison are important to Andy and for that reason he goes out on a limb to play music for them over the P.A. system and doesn’t care what repercussions happen to him as a result. He gets them a library so they can learn. It’s so clever when the story tells about how Andy invented a character to doctor up the books for the head of the prison to make a bunch of money illegally. A fictional character…the big payoff at the end is that Andy uses that made up character for his identity when he escapes. Great setups and payoffs throughout this movie.
Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox has many setups and payoffs. Marty McFly sees how pathetic his father is and how Biff Tannen bullies his father. At the end of the movie, payoff is that going back to the past, changed the present condition of his family. Biff is no longer able to bully, Marty’s father. Lane’s town is restoring the clock tower from the damage of the lightning strike in 1955. Aha, that’s the year the Doc Brown’s time machine gets stuck. So many details from the present are shown in the past and vice versa. It’s fun and fascinating to watch…very satisfying to see the great payoffs.
I hope my explanation helps you understand how to use setups and payoffs to create and release tension in your stories. If not, I believe reading the resources listed below will help you get the idea embedded in your mind so that you can use it to make your story better by keeping your readers on the edge of their seats. I listed the resources beginning with the ones I found most useful. All of them were useful.
Look at your favorite book or movie, one you’ve read or watched many times. What are the significant setups and payoffs you remember from it? Things that scared you and things that eased your mind. Please share.
Resources in the order I found them useful. The most useful is at the beginning.
- Copyblogger. “Open Loops:” https://www.copyblogger.com/open-loops-2/ Use the Movie Up
- Save the Cat. “Examples of Great Set-ups and How They Pay Off:” http://www.savethecat.com/tools/examples-of-great-set-ups-and-how-they-pay-off
- Writer with Tools. “Setups and Payoffs: What are they?” http://writeswithtools.com/2015/04/13/setups-and-payoffs-what-are-they/
- Copyblogger. “The Blockbuster Secret to Seducing Your Audience:” https://www.copyblogger.com/open-loops/
- The 15 Minute Movie Method. “Setups and Payoffs:” http://15minutemoviemethod.com/setups-and-payoffs
- Elizabeth Amy Hajek. Elenatintil Blog. “Fast Writing: Tracking Set-ups and Pay-offs:” http://elenatintil.blogspot.com/2017/06/writing-set-ups-and-pay-offs.html
- Actionromanceintrigue. “Screenwriting setups and payoffs are best as cause and effect:” https://actionromanceintrigue.com/screenwriting-setups-payoffs-cause-and-effect/
- Back to the Future wiki. “Setup and Payoff:” http://backtothefuture.wikia.com/wiki/Setup_and_payoff
- LinkedIn Learning. video. Writing: The Craft of Story. “Story check (Setups, payoffs, and the clues in between):” https://www.linkedin.com/learning/writing-the-craft-of-story/story-check-setups-payoffs-and-the-clues-in-between
- Reddit. “What are some of your favorite setups and payoffs?” https://www.reddit.com/r/Screenwriting/comments/2nrz71/what_are_some_of_your_favorite_setups_and_payoffs/
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9 thoughts on “Setups and Payoffs”
Some movies seem to be missing something–maybe this is the something.
ANOTHER GOOD post. thanks, Joan
Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked it.
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PS Sharing it with my current writing class!
Thanks for writing. I’m excited that you’re sharing it with your present writing class! Thanks for doing that!
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Great, informative post, Joan! Matt and my first date was to see BETTER OFF DEAD and we often quote the “I want my two dollars” line 😊
Thanks for writing. I’m glad that you and Matt often quote, “I want my two dollars!” It makes me laugh to think of that movie, especially that one refrain.” Once they set it up to come up at odd moments, you just waited for it to appear. Love you.
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Love you too 💗
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