Setup and Payoff

AKA, the new buzzwords in entertainment criticism, mostly directed toward writers and screenwriters who don’t show setup and payoff.

But there’s some sense behind the buzzwords, and since I’ve hit a spot where I’m unsuccessfully trying to make setup and payoff workable and natural, I’m going to ramble about it, and you can’t stop me. Mwahaha.

Setup and payoff refers to the chain of events in a story (the setup) that leads to a conclusion (the payoff). They go together because having a chain of events that leads nowhere is unsatisfying to the reader, as is a conclusion that comes out of nowhere. It’s mostly consistency plus foreshadowing, for people who don’t want to say that many syllables- maybe they think it’ll melt their brains?- or the brains of whoever hears/sees them?

Actions should lead to logical consequences, in story and in real life. Sometimes they don’t, in real life, but a story that divorces action from consequence is unsatisfying to the reader. Even when the hero is avoiding negative consequences, and you’d think the reader would be happy to see the hero come out on top despite making a mistake, there’s something hollow about that kind of victory.

(This is where the ‘murder your darlings’ advice comes from; if a character is making stupid decisions, have the courage to give them logically bad consequences; don’t shy away from it because you like the character.)

And sometimes the setup and payoff can be fun or small events; it doesn’t have to refer to the entire story. Take an example from the Lord of the Rings books. Bill the pony is introduced as the hobbits go through Bree for the first time; he becomes a valued member of their little company; he goes missing halfway through FotR; he finds his way to safety off-page; he is reunited with the hobbits at the end of RotK. It’s a tiny series of events, and amounts to a page or two of text, but it completes the character arc, and the reader can be satisfied that Bill got a happy ending, instead of wondering what happened after the Fellowship was forced to set him loose.

The trouble with small setups and payoffs is that you, the author, can easily lose track of them if the WIP is a long one or you’re working intermittently on it. I’m doing that right now, where, because the setup moments are background events in a larger scene, it’s easy to accidentally edit them out, then reread and go, ‘oh, crap, what happened to X setup?’

This is why I save everything. Which is its own set of problems, but at least I have the option of rediscovering my missing plot threads.

What about twists, you say? Surely there’s room to turn a story on its head, and keep the reader guessing?

Sure. Every good mystery does that. But the trick of a mystery is that, once you know the ending, you can reread the story and see the clues leading up to the ending, clues that your mind skipped over during the initial reading, thinking they were unimportant. It’s a very rare story that can foreshadow events, then throw all that foreshadowing out, and still make sense to the reader; 99% of the time, you have to have some threads (setup) the reader can follow all the way through the story (to the payoff), even if they don’t notice them on the first go-round. Georgette Heyer falls down in this way, even though she’s otherwise one of my favorite authors. Her contemporary- for the time- mysteries tend to go through a bunch of red herrings, then reveal that the murderer is a background character whose motives are nonexistent until the explanation in the final chapter. There’s no indication that the person was capable of killing or had a reason to do it, then bam!- they’re revealed as the murderer. The setup didn’t match the payoff. Even after rereading the book, I was completely baffled how she’d gotten from A to B; the necessary information wasn’t revealed until the climax or sometimes after it. Only a tiny subset of readers will put up with that.

And now I find myself at the end of this post with no payoff.


Well, I did say I was having trouble with the concept.

12 thoughts on “Setup and Payoff

        1. Oh dear yes. A pre-reader had a totally different reaction to a character than I was expecting, and it completely changed the tone of the story, and that character’s role in the rest of the series. But his take was better, because he saw what I, the mere author, had missed.

  1. No sh-t it happens in real life. There are never any consequences for the unconscionable and illegal actions of our Political Class.
    Only idiots believe they know how other people should live their lives. The stupider they are, the more blindly they believe it.

  2. In screenwriting terms, “set up” and “pay off” is less about consequences, as such, than about building the story so that what happens later on is justified by what came before (which, yes, is saying the same thing backwards, but story structure in screenplays is tight [or should be, let’s not talk about the current state of screenwriting], and so when you’re building it, you often have to go back and put in the set ups after you’ve figured out what you want the pay offs to be), rather than having things happen arbitrarily.

    One classic example is Aliens. The payoff at the end is Ripley getting into a kickass fight with the Queen Alien, evening the odds by using a cargo loader that’s essentially a mech suit, but for dock workers. This was brilliantly set up throughout the script, in a way that is neither forced nor obvious. Ripley doesn’t just randomly know how to run the cargo loader. At the beginning of the script, she’s been in suspended animation for 57 years, everybody she knows is dead (including her daughter, in the script and the extended cut of the movie), and she takes a job on the docks just to have something to do, and a way to pay the bills. Then, as the Marines start getting prepped for the mission, Ripley is feeling useless, asks if there’s anything she can do, and demonstrates that she knows how to run the cargo loader, so she can actually help out. Both of these scenes are absolutely natural in the story, showing the audience where Ripley is emotionally, and also setting up that she knows how to use the thing she will use in the climax. If Aliens were a less great script, then it would show her competence with the loader, without having the in-scene justifications for showing it, but at least establishing her knowledge. (The Roger Corman-produced knockoff Carnosaur 2 uses the same basic plot, and does exactly this, establishing a character knows how to use a piece of equipment, without it communicating much about the character himself.) And if it were a trash script, she would just magically know how to use the thing that had to be used at the end, without explanation.

    Come to think of it, all of this is why there is the old screenwriting saying “If you have a problem in the third act [i.e., the ending], you actually have a problem in the first act.”

    1. Chuckle Chuckle

      I hated the scene in the movie E.T where the kid’s bicycle was made to fly by ET, but I would have really hated the movie if ET had made all of the kids’ bicycles to fly (later in the movie) if the movie makers hadn’t had that earlier scene.

      Note, I hated the earlier scene because if ET could lift & fly a kid’s bicycle, he should have been able to lift himself (or lift himself on some object) and made it back to his spaceship earlier in the movie. But then, it wouldn’t been much of a movie if ET made it back to his spaceship. 😉

      1. Spielberg does set ups and payoffs almost by instinct.

        Tom Stoppard remarked about working with him on Empire of the Sun, Spielberg insisted on a scene early on where Jamie (young Christian Bale) treats a servant absolutely abominably, being a privileged, entitled little git. Stoppard tried to convince Spielberg that it would turn the audience completely against the main character, but Spielberg shot it. And Stoppard only realized at a first screening that the director had been right. Jamie’s being a little shit paid off when that same servant woman, after the Japanese have invaded and Jamie is looking desperately for his lost parents, slaps him upside the head and walks away without helping.

        But yes, I’ll grant you that E.T. really isn’t the best example in his ouevre.

        1. It’s easy to find flaws in the story-telling of E.T. but it held my attention when I viewed it.

          I’d not watch it again, but I’m not ashamed of watching it. [Smile]

          1. It works on an emotional level, which is the most important one for movies to work on. As John Hill, the screenwriter on Quigley Down Under, says: “We don’t write motion pictures, we write emotion pictures.”

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