As a screenwriter, don’t limit yourself to watching only movies from your own country. For many Americans, that means only watching American movies but movies from other countries can be just as amazing and interesting. One of the latest South Korean films is called “Parasite.”
If you watch the trailer, you’ll likely have no idea what this movie is about, and that’s on purpose to avoid giving away details. If you ever saw “The Crying Game,” that movie came with a sudden twist where the hero discovers that the woman he loves is actually a man. “Parasite” is a similar type of movie that’s full of twists that should be experienced without foreknowledge.
The main strength of “Parasite” is the way it deftly sets up everything in advance. What most novice screenwriters do is they write a scene that does nothing more than advance the plot. That type of scene is mostly boring because it lacks mystery and depth. When we watch a scene, we expect the following:
- Conflict – who wins?
- Setups – what’s foreshadowed?
- Payoffs – what happens that was foreshadowed earlier?
There’s a simple scene in “Parasite” where a girl is pretending to be an art teacher and is being interviewed by a mother who wants to know the girl’s qualifications. So the conflict is whether the girl will successfully con her way past the mother’s suspicions that she may or may not be qualified.
During this back and forth conversation where the girl’s deception is at risk of being revealed, the girl mentions that the mother’s son is expressing himself through his art and his art reveals a traumatic experience when he was younger. At this innocent comment, the mother is shocked. Then the scene quickly ends and we’re left wondering what shocked the mother so much. That’s a setup.
Later we learn exactly what shocked the mother in a scene that pays off this earlier setup. Essentially, you can divide a screenplay into four major parts like this:
- Act I – introduces the main characters and their motives while setting up future scenes
- Act IIa – provides more setups for future scenes
- Act IIb – starts paying off earlier setups
- Act III – completely resolves earlier setups
So the first half of a movie should be loaded with setups. Then the second half of the movie should pay off those setups.
In “Parasite,” the setup scene where the mother is shocked that the girl knows that her son went through a traumatic experience occurs in Act IIa. Then the payoff occurs in Act IIb.
Another setup in “Parasite” occurs in Act I when a girl forges a college degree for her brother. This reveals her talent for fooling people, which pays off later in Act IIa when she fakes her own college degree and lies about her credentials as an art instructor.
As a general rule, setups should occur in one Act and payoffs should appear in the following Act such as setting up information in Act I and paying off that information in Act IIa. If the distance between a setup and payoff is too great, then audiences could forget about it.
Watch “Parasite” and you’ll understand why the trailer refuses to reveal details of what the story is about. The less you know about “Parasite” before watching it, the more intriguing the story will be. “Parasite” is a great movie to watch to learn all about setups and payoffs, and how Act IIa ends when the hero reaches his or her goal, and suddenly life takes a horrible turn for the worst in Act IIb.
Another key to look for in “Parasite” (or any good movie) is how Act IIa is full of deception that gradually turns into a problem in Act IIb.
Deception, setups, and payoffs are the heart of good story telling. Watch “Parasite” and you’ll see for yourself.