By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 31, 2012
One mistake that beginning writers often make is to forget about setups and payoffs. Sometimes they’ll have great setups but no payoffs. Other times they’ll invent a fantastic payoff, but fail utterly to set it up.
I used to make those mistakes all the time. I’d kick off Act One of a screenplay with all kinds of provocative premises. Then I’d forget about ’em and fizzle my way to a no-bang climax. Or I’d have a dynamite finish that fell unannounced out of the sky.
Think about a joke. It has two parts: a setup and a punch line.
A novel is no different, nor is a screenplay, a short story, an op-ed piece. Dance performances have setups and payoffs. So do songs and albums, video games, restaurant and office interiors, IPOs, legal briefs, even paintings (which you might think are static) have setups and payoffs.
Relationships have setups and payoffs; marriages, divorces, blow-ups, reconciliations. Wars have setups and payoffs. A bar mitzvah has a setup-and-payoff. So does a bris.
The movie that has the widest and most satisfying spectrum of setups and payoffs is, in my opinion, The Godfather. Think of all the mooks who got what was coming to them in the end: Barzini, Tessio, Moe Greene, Carlo, Paulie, Tattaglia, not to mention the earlier payoffs delivered upon Hollywood big shot Jack Woltz with the horse head in his bed—and Virgil Sollozzo and police captain McCluskey, gunned down by Michael in Louis’ Italian restaurant.
Sonny’s death was a payoff to the setup of his own hotheadedness, as even the Godfather’s near-assassination paid off his own carelessness in the wake of his rejection of Sollozzo’s “white powder” proposition.
The payoff for Michael (Al Pacino) could not have been more satisfying, as he becomes in the final scene “the Godfather.” And poor Kay, played by Diane Keaton, gets the door swung closed in her face, the payoff of the payoff.
A story, a startup, a piece of software is as satisfying as its payoffs. And the payoffs are only as good as the setups.
A great setup contains the seeds of its payoff. Consider Kay and Michael in the Godfather’s opening sequence, the wedding of Connie Corleone and Carlo Rizzi. Michael is a clean-cut Marine captain, Kay a stylish New England WASP. A beautiful couple. But when Michael recounts the story of his father and a certain famous bandleader …
Luca Brasi put a gun to his head and my father told him either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.
… we know this relationship is riding for a rocky finish.
That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.
Great payoffs surprise us. The setup makes us think the story is going in one direction, but when it pays off, there’s a twist. Who would’ve thought that the clean-cut Marine with the blonde girlfriend from New Hampshire would become the ruthless destroyer of the Five Families?
If the payoff is really good, we realize, in the end, that there was no surprise at all. What had seemed to be a turn of fate proves to be inevitable and, as we realize it, we receive the gift of insight. We should have seen it coming!
Sometimes, in the process of writing, it helps to start with the payoff. If we know where the story is going, we can work backwards. We ask ourselves, “What’s missing? What scene, what character, what backstory do we need to set up this payoff? How can we embed this final ‘reveal’ way back at the beginning?”
Robert McKee has an axiom, “The inciting incident determines the obligatory scene.” He means the setup must deliver a payoff—and the content of the payoff must be embedded in the setup.
If a priest, a rabbi and an alligator walk into a bar, the punch line better be about Dan Marino, Miami Beach or Gucci handbags.
If you’re struggling with a project and can’t figure out why, ask yourself about its setups and payoffs. When you read a book or watch a movie that really works, take note of what was set up and how it was paid off.