Setup and payoff is a technique used in storytelling, particular in humor, in which a seemingly irrelevant detail or statement is “set up” early in the story, and has an importance that becomes very clear later (i.e. “pays off”) later. Back to the Future was praised as a film so tightly written that not a single line of dialogue has been wasted. Writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckisemployed the technique in the other parts of the trilogy, even to the extent of setting up a sequence in one film and having the payoff come later. One of the more visible examples began in Back to the Future Part II, when Jennifer Parker is in 2015 and hears an elderly Lorraine Baines McFly talk about how Marty’s life was ruined by “the accident with the Rolls-Royce”. Fans waited six months to see the payoff in Back to the Future Part III, as Marty decides not to race against his friend, watches the outcome, and tells Jennifer “I would have hit that Rolls-Royce!”.
Even before Marty and Doc are seen or heard, framed newspaper clippings show that Doc Brown once had a mansion and a large tract of land that were gone by 1985, but which Marty will see when he goes back to 1955; a dog food dish establishes that there is a dog named “Einstein”; a radiobroadcasts a commercial for Statler Toyota (the payoff being that in 1955, it was Statler Studebaker), and a television newscaster describes missing plutonium (paid off a minute later when Marty’s skateboard bumps into the box of plutonium) and the Libyans (seen later at the Twin Pines Mall) who claimed responsibility for the theft. In the first minute of his arrival at Doc’s house, Marty brings a skateboard and hooks up a guitar to an amplifier, demonstrating that he has skills that he will use later.
An early example occurred in the Back to the Future: The Game Episode 1 “It’s About Time” where Marty has a dream of the world’s first temporal displacement, which played out differently than he remembered. At first it seems like the dream is merely to foreshadow Marty finding Doc’s notebook, but it also foreshadowed Doc and Einstein’s disappearance at the end of “Get Tannen!”.
The Sixth Sense – This film is a masterpiece in suspense. And what I love about it (and what some don’t love about it) is that it was all handled so subtle, but led to a brilliant twist in the end. And the reason this film was the success it came to be was due to M. Night peppering the script with plants. So when audiences learned about the final twist, they wanted to go back, pay for another ticket, and see if he cheated us, or if we were given clues. Well, he didn’t cheat us. There are so many plants out there… most are subtle.
Sleepless in Seattle – The constant references to An Affair to Remember. Later on, we see the ending of this film mirror that of the iconic images of An Affair to Remember.
A set-up is defined here as a narrative event which has the following properties:
1. It provides information in the light of which some future event, which would otherwise have no particular significance for us, becomes charged with meaning.
2. It must make enough of an impression on us for it to be subject to recall when the time comes, though nothing prevents the filmmaker from reminding us of the information provided in the set-up, just before the pay-off is delivered.
3. It must not be recognizable as a set-up, which in turn means that it must be naturally rooted in the narrative, with its own justification for being there, and seemingly with no ulterior motive on the part of the filmmaker. If it is planted in so obvious a way that the public can spot it as a set-up, the figure is no more successful than a joke whose punch line you can see coming from a mile away.
4. It cannot be an entirely negative event. If it involves a defeat for the hero, it must have at its core some positive intention, some life- affirming or spiritually admirable quality.
A pay-off is defined here as a narrative event with the following properties:
1. It must be an emotionally rewarding and meaningful experience for the public, ideally providing a euphoric rush.
2. Its meaning is intelligible to us on the basis of the information provided in a previous event – the set-up; if it would be just as meaningful without a set-up, it is not a pay-off.
3. It therefore invariably involves an experience of recognition on the part of the public.
As you can see, I’m sure there are many more out there, especially in horror movies, but these are the best in my eyes…
Setup and payoff technique are terrific tools that you need to use must! 🙂
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