Coverage Chronicles -- April 2014 -- Screenplay Solutions: Setups and Payoffs

There are some scripting tricks you won’t find in the screenwriting books.  Here are three things I learned about setups and payoffs after years of writing and reading others’ work.

Expanding Your Setups

Are readers not getting your big payoff?  That can be really frustrating.  I’ve seen it happen many times.  A writer believes a huge payoff moment is built into Act 3, but nobody seems to respond to it.

The problem may be in the setup.  Often when this happens, when people aren’t “getting” a writer’s big payoff moment, I look back at the setup, and the issue is this: 

The setup consists of a single moment or line of dialogue.  Even if that single line is well written, that may not be enough to stick in the minds of your readers. 

If people aren’t getting your payoff, try using an entire scene instead of a single moment to set the payoff up.  Readers rarely forget whole scenes, but they often forget single lines – or worse, miss them entirely.  Build a strong full-scene foundation for your set-up, and you’ll see those Act 3 payoffs paying off.

Payoffs Don’t Have To Take Place In Act 3

Yes, payoffs work very well in the climactic moments of a story, and that’s where many well-seeded payoffs will have the greatest impact.  But you don’t have to wait until the end of a story to pay off a good setup.  It can happen just about anywhere. 

One caveat on this:  Placing a setup and its payoff too close together can hurt your script.  It can feel poorly paced and contrived.  How close can they be?  Good writers have a feel for it.  A rule of thumb:  Enough “script time” should pass so that the setup, while remembered, is no longer fresh in your reader’s mind.

The Setup/Payoff Web

A really smart producer, one of the brightest, most story-savvy individuals I ever worked with, taught me this about setups and payoffs: 

She taught me that, ideally, your whole story should be made up of setups and payoffs.  This forms a web of interconnecting moments that give a script momentum and coherence.

Some new writers imagine a single setup leading to a single climactic payoff.  Seasoned writers imagine the power of two, three or four well-orchestrated setup-payoff combinations.  The expert producer I mentioned above imagines dozens of interconnecting moments laced into a truly professional, engaging screenplay.  The more we can push toward that ideal, the better our writing will be.