S2_E37. Unlocking the Secret of How to Write Great Setups and Payoffs
One of the best things I ever learned in terms of setups and payoffs is how to make a setup ne barely noticeable. A truly good setup is something that the audience shouldn't be aware of, let alone expect a payoff to come from it. The problem is that audiences today are so sophisticated that they see them coming 1000 miles away. They know when they've been set up. And when an audience member knows they've been set up in either a novel or a movie, they wait for it to come back into play. They expect you to do something with it later, which diminishes their delight and surprise. So how do you fool your audience? How do you truly set them up without them knowing it? This entire episode is dedicated to the answer to this question, which is possibly the best trick I've ever learned as a writer.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
the Secret of How to Write Great Set-ups and Pay-offs
Published May 12, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: For the last two weeks, we've been in a series about aha moments that I have had as a screenwriter primarily, or as a writer in general, because some of these apply to when I've tried my hand at novel writing. However, all of them apply to writers of both types. So, I'm hoping by sharing some of the aha moments I've had over the course of my career, that it's going to help you, that it's going to give you some shortcuts, that you can learn some of these things more quickly, and that it's basically inspiring, and all those good things.
PRESENTATION: So today, I'm going to talk to you about one of the best things I ever learned in terms of setups and payoffs. So today is tip number five. And this is one of the best tips that I can give you. Truly, this is worth its weight in gold. If you learn this principle, it is truly life changing in terms of what you can do in your story. Because one of the most important things in story is to be able to do setups and payoffs. Setups and payoffs. It's just a critical skill in terms of telling a story. And the problem is, is that a setup needs to be a barely noticeable clue. It's something that the audience shouldn't expect. And the problem is, the audience is so sophisticated today that they see them coming 1000 miles away. They know when they've been set up. And what happens when an audience member has been set up, whether they're reading a novel or watching a movie, is they then put that away. They shelve that thing that is the setup, and they wait for it to come back into play. Right, exactly, Lulu.
The audience shelves that information, but they hold on to it, waiting for it to come back into play. They expect you to do something with it later.
So, how do you fool your audience? How do you do an invisible setup so the audience doesn't know they've been set up? Because part of the key of good setups and payoffs is to surprise and delight your audience. They shouldn't see it coming. If they see it coming, you have failed to do a good setup and pay off. How do you do that, especially when the audience is so sophisticated?
Well, that's what I'm going to teach you today. This is the best skill you may ever possibly learn as a writer. I'm serious. It's that great. And it's simple. That's what I love about this. It's simple, simple, simple. And here's how you do it.
KEY PRINCIPLE: When you have a setup, when you have something that specifically is important to the story itself that's going to come back into play later on in the story, the way that you make it invisible is you make sure that it accomplishes something emotionally at the time that you use it.
So, for example, let's say you have a character who, later in the story, is going to need to be able to pick the lock of the jail cell with their mother's brooch. Because inside their mother's brooch that they wear, there's a secret compartment with the right sort of thing or whatever. Okay, so you want to use that at some point your story. But if you bring that out now, and you just show that this brooch has a secret compartment that nobody knows that blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, then they go, "Oh, they're gonna use that at some point in the story." Unless when you reveal those things, you have the character use it right then and it accomplishes something emotionally, it successfully accomplishes a goal. And now we feel like it has served its purpose.
See, that's the key: it needs to have served its purpose, and then we no longer expect it to come back into play.
So, I don't know if that's very good example. But I'm going to describe to you a perfect setup and payoff scenario. One of the best examples that I know of of good setups and payoffs is in the film Aliens. It's just brilliant. And so here's what happens. At the start of Aliens, you have the character of Ripley played by the wonderful Sigourney Weaver. She has been the sole survivor of this encounter with an alien in the first movie. She and a cat that she saved in the first movie, they've survived, and at the start of aliens, we find out that they don't believe her that the powers that be that she reported this incident to sort of dismissed her. And in fact, she's been marginalized. And she suffers from PTSD. And so she struggled to maintain her job, she's been demoted, she's no longer captain, that sort of thing. Well, what happens is, the powers that be put a colony on that same planet where the alien is, and don't you know it, they've lost contact with the colonists. So now they're like, "Oh, well, maybe Ripley was right." So now they go to her and ask her to basically participate in this marine op as an advisor, and go back to that planet, since she's the only one who has any first hand knowledge of the creature that resides there.
And in the conversation that the gentleman from the company is having with her, Well, okay, let me go back. So a company man is meeting with Ripley, trying to persuade her to be part of this team, but nothing that he is saying is persuading her, nothing is convincing her that she ought to partake in what she knows to be a suicide mission. And then he brings up something, and it turns out, it is a really important setup for us. And the way he brings it up is as a manipulative tool. Because what he says is, "I understand that you work down at the docks now as a loader?" Which is a demotion for her, right? Because she used to be a captain. And Ripley gets defensive. "Yes. So?" "No, no, there's no shame in that. And I know it was the only thing you could get." And that gets Ripley's attention for the first time. And he says, "What if I can get your flight status reinstitute reinstituted," or whatever the case may be? He's used it as a manipulative tool.
So, see, because he's used it, we feel like the whole thing about the loader, we don't even really realize that it's a setup. We don't know that it's important in that moment. It was invisible to us.
Okay, cut to later in the film, where Ripley is now with all of these Marines, only she is out of sorts with them, right? She doesn't fit in, they call her Snow White. These are the tough Marines who fight and can do all these pull ups. And she seems really, really pure and Pollyanna by comparison. And so at one point, she comes to the guy in charge and says, "I feel like a third wheel around here. Is there anything I can do?" And the guy says, "I don't know. Is there anything you can do?" Which again, is a challenge, right? And there's a moment where Ripley pauses, and she says, "Well, I can use that loader over there." And the gentleman in charge looks at his buddy, like, right, and he says, "Well be my guest." So then Ripley goes, and she gets into the loader. And we really take our time, right, and she's putting on the machine. And we see how that works with the thumb and the this and that. And it's this machine, where when you get in it, you're like a Robocop super strong, you could do anything, you've got machine arms, and you can, you know, lift major, major tons of boxes and all those things. And so she does, she gets in the loader order, we take our time showing all of the bells and whistles of it, she picks up a big box and says, "Where do you want it?" At which point the guys laugh, "Ha ha ha." And she has successfully proven herself. She's been accepted. So it accomplishes a goal.
So again, we know the loader was a setup from before. And yet, we weren't expecting it to come back up. Because they had already paid it off. And now it comes back up. But we buy it because we were already set up for it. But notice it accomplishes a goal. It helps her to fit in, it gets her in, so it accomplishes something. And therefore, we feel like it's already been utilized. And we're not expecting it to come up again. It's a perfect, brilliant execution of a setup and a payoff.
And if that's the only way they would have used it in the story, we would have loved it. But that's not. In fact, they were so brilliant that it comes back into play one more time. And by the time it comes back into play, we've completely forgotten about it because it had already paid off emotionally. It had paid off emotionally by helping her fit in with the team, helping her earn her place of acceptance. So we let it go and we don't expect it to come up anymore. And that's why, when it does come up, we cheered.
So, if you're familiar with the movie Aliens, what happens is at the end, there are only a couple of people left alive, including her love interest, who's still on the ship. Ripley has blown up, has burned all of the eggs. It's basically mom versus mom because there's a little girl named Newt, who is a survivor on that planet that Ripley basically maternally takes it upon herself to protect. And so it's Mom versus mom, right? It's the alien queen bee versus Ripley. Who's going to win? And so Ripley has burned all of the eggs of the queen bee. And then she has escaped with Newt, with the droid, (not droid -- what is he? I can't remember -- the gentleman who is actually not human, who's not really a droid, but you know what I mean). And then also her love interest who's out cold on the ship, and she's telling the guy, "You did good, you did good." And then all of a sudden, pshhhh.... there's a splash. And it's acid from the blood of the queen bee, and she steps out. And now, "Oh, no," because they're off the planet now. They've flown back to the mothership, thinking that they have escaped, and yet she hitched a ride, and here she is. And now, how in the world is Ripley going to save the little girl? That's the question.
And of course, then we see the scene unfold, Ripley gets the little girl to safety (sort of) underneath these slats, where she's sort of hiding. And then Ripley runs off screen and manages to put down the barrier between her and the queen bee. And we're like, "Well, she's abandoning the little girl. What is she doing? What is she doing?" And then Ripley runs off. And now we're with the little girl who is just trying like a little rat to escape from the queen bee who's trying to get to her and keeps lifting up these things. And about the time that the little girl is screaming bloody murder, the door comes up, and then poo, poo, poo poo, Ripley comes out in the loader. And you know,the line that she says -- everybody does -- and it's wonderful. And everybody cheered in the theater. I mean, cheered in the theater. That doesn't happen very often. But it was wonderful. And it's all because we'd forgotten about that little setup, because it had already played a role, it had already been utilized, and therefore we did not expect it to come back into play.
CONCLUSION: That's how you do a good setup and pay off. Make sure when you use it, that you use it, and that it accomplishes something emotionally for the character, and then the audience won't be waiting for it to come back into play. That's how you make them invisible.
CALL TO ACTION: I hope that that has been helpful for you. For more tips like this, check out the storytellers mission podcast or our website. And if you are a screenwriter, check out our class, formatting as an art form. It is, in my humble opinion, the best class on screenwriting available.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to the storytellers mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.