The Importance of Setting Up Payoffs in a Scene

Imagine watching a scene between two people arguing. That by itself is mildly interesting. Then one character mentions the other character’s mother and the second character gets mad.

Is this interesting? Not really because we don’t understand why this second character would get mad at this mention of their mother.

Now consider the same two characters talking and one mentions how the other characters mother died in a tragic accident. Then these two characters argue and the first character suddenly mentions that they know how this mother died. It wasn’t just an accident, but the other character’s fault. Now we understand why this second character is mad.

That’s the concept behind setups and payoffs. Before any information can be meaningful to the audience, we must learn about it first. Then that information suddenly becomes far more important later in the story.

Yet so many movies fail to set up information and just dump information on us, expecting us to understand its significance right away. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” does this far too often. Strangely, this is a well-reviewed movie, yet all the characters are constantly bringing up information that they respond to, but since this information is never set up earlier, we have no idea why these characters are responding so emotionally to this newly revealed information.

That’s not drama. That’s just poor screenwriting.

No amount of A-list acting is going to fix this structural flaw in the screenplay. No amount of directing can cover up this glaring problem either.

Every emotional moment in great movies are set up ahead of time. That’s what makes these emotional moments so memorable.

In “Casablanca” when Rick lets Ilsa go with her husband, that moment was set up earlier by Rick’s love for Ilsa. The question was only whether Rick would be selfish (keep Ilsa for himself) or selfless (let Ilsa escape with her husband to help fight the Nazis).

We had earlier seen Rick’s love for Ilsa in a flashback and we had also seen Rick’s cynicism based on the flashback as well. Now the final emotional moment occurs when we learn what Rick has decided to do.

The best emotional moments occur when a character is caught in a tug of war between two conflicting ideas. Then we finally see what the character will do in a moment of crisis.

In “Legally Blonde,” Elle is always inching forward towards becoming a strong woman, but she’s also clinging to her belief that she needs a man. Only in the end when she’s in the courtroom and wins her case does she finally demonstrate to herself that she’s a strong woman.

Yet both possibilities are constantly set up to put this emotional moment in doubt. Elle keeps trying to win the approval of men but she’s also growing stronger as a woman at the same time.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” simply keeps dumping new information about the characters and expecting us to react just as much as the characters do. Yet we don’t understand the importance of this information so the emotional moment falls flat.

Don’t make the mistake of “Bodies Bodies Bodies.” Set up all emotional moments ahead of time and you’ll likely write a better screenplay.

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