Sometimes you can watch a three hour movie and by the time it ends, you don’t even realize how much time has passed. Other times you can watch a two hour movie and after the first fifteen minutes, you’d think three hours have gone by. The reason why some movies drag and some movies rush on by is partly because of the way the movie tells the story.
In a good movie, the story details seem trivial and innocent, but later you realize those details all make sense somehow. That’s because good movies constantly set up future events and then pay them off later. In “Back to the Future,” Marty meets his girlfriend at school, explains how he doesn’t think he’s good enough to be a musician, and then watches his parents being bullied by Biff. Later we learn the significance behind those details as we see that his dad also didn’t think he was good enough to be a writer and let himself be bullied by Biff in school. Every seemingly trivial detail in “Back to the Future” actually plays a crucial role so nothing we see only appears once.
Instead we see a detail, forget about it, then later see how that detail pays off in the future. For example, in “Back to the Future,” Marty gets a flyer raising money to save the clock tower that got struck by lightning at a certain time that stopped it forever. Later when Marty’s trapped in the past and needs a massive power source, he remembers this clock tower flyer so he knows the exact time lightning will strike. Suddenly, both the earlier scene and the later scene are imbued with special significance.
Now compare this with the scenes in “Godzilla.” In the beginning, a man watches his wife die. That seems important, but then none of that information is ever used again. Not only does this waste the potential of this beginning scene, but later parts of the movie have to create new characters and events to fill the time. So instead of seeing one movie that sets up and pays off information, “Godzilla” makes us feel like we’re constantly watching a parade of new information to the point where every scene detail appears once and then gets tossed aside to start all over again.
This start and stop story flow never engages our attention because just as we’re getting engaged with one detail, that detail never appears again and new information appears to take its place. As a result, so many scenes in “Godzilla” just drag with no sense of relying on past details and no sense of even basic story telling techniques that create a goal, a problem, and multiple solutions that the characters try to overcome that problem.
In “A Clockwork Orange,” the beginning shows the hero leading his gang on a rampage throughout town. First they beat up a bum, then they get into a fight with a rival gang. Finally they break into a home and rape the man’s wife. Later the hero is forced to revisit those same scenes as the bums beat him up and his old gang members arrive as policemen to beat him up. Staggering for help, the hero wanders into the same home where he raped a man’s wife in front of him. Not only are these early scenes interesting in themselves, but when they’re repeated again in a different way, their earlier significance becomes apparent and the later scenes become even more charged with importance.
Back in the world of mediocrity, watch how the scenes in “Godzilla” appear once and never play any significant role ever again, like disposable tissue. In the beginning there’s a man whose wife dies in a nuclear power plant accident. Fifteen years later, this man is obsessed with finding the truth. Just as we start to sympathize with this character, he dies and his son becomes the focus. Huh?
“Godzilla” basically wastes the first fifteen minutes getting us to sympathize with one character only to get rid of him and replace him with a new character. Now everything we saw in those first fifteen minutes play no role in the rest of the movie. This basically wastes the earlier scenes and forces the later scenes to start from scratch, which means there’s little room for any type of character development whatsoever.
Another wasted opportunity in “Godzilla” occurs when the hero saves a little boy who has been separated from his parents in an airport train. As soon as this boy is reunited with his parents, we never see him again and it plays no major role in the rest of the movie except to hint that the hero also needs to get back with his family.
In good movies, we see a scene that’s interesting. Then later we see a new scene that pays off information we learned in that earlier scene.
In bad movies, we see a scene that may be interesting. Then we see a new scene that has nothing to do with the earlier scenes. Then we see yet another scene that has nothing to do with either of those previous scenes. When writing a screenplay, always set up your story and then pay off those set ups later.
In the end of “Godzilla,” the hero sees that the monsters have laid eggs. So he bashes some broken gas pipes and causes a huge explosion. Unfortunately, there’s no set up about the danger of the leaking gas so when the hero uses the gas to cause an explosion, it just comes out of nowhere and doesn’t give us any time to appreciate what he’s done before the movie rushes off to another scene that has no connection with any of the previous scenes.
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we learn early on that Indiana Jones hates snakes. Then in a later scene, that set up is paid off when Indiana Jones gets trapped in a tomb filled with poisonous snakes. Not only is being trapped bad enough, and being trapped with poisonous snakes even worse, but we already know that he hates snakes so this makes his plight far tougher and way more significant than if we didn’t know he was afraid of snakes. Just by setting up this information and paying it off later makes that scene far more interesting.
Slow, mediocre movies fail to constantly set up details and pay them off. Watch any good movie and you’ll see this constant set up and pay off in every scene. In “Skyfall,” James Bond gets a gun that will only fire when it detects his fingerprints. When a villain takes this gun away from James Bond and tries to shoot him, James Bond escapes because the gun won’t shoot in somebody else’s hands.
Now what if it was an ordinary gun and James Bond just escaped because the villain couldn’t fire the gun? Then it would feel contrived and much less satisfying.
Watch great movies like “Back to the Future” or “A Clockwork Orange” and you’ll see that the early scenes set up the later scenes that pay off in the end. Then watch “Godzilla” and notice that it has far fewer set ups and as a result, far fewer pay offs. Practically every scene in “Godzilla” feels like we’re seeing a different movie for the first time, so we’re far less engaged and interested in the overall story.
Set ups and pay offs are the key to grabbing and then holding an audience’s attention. The more tightly entwined your story is with your earlier scenes, the more interesting your story will be.