The Importance of the Setup

Every story needs its information set up ahead of time before being used. This set up prepares the audience for what’s about to come. For example, in “Crazy Rich Asians,” the hero (an Asian economics professor) teaches her class how to win at poker by bluffing the other player. Later this skill of the hero’s will be used when she confronts the villain at the end.

In “Thelma and Louise,” Thelma and Louise are going on a trip together and Thelma takes a gun and puts it in her purse. Later that gun is used by Louise to shoot a man trying to rape Thelma.

Now what would happen if we ignored the setup? In “Crazy Rich Asians,” the hero would confront the villain at the end and beat her at mahjong, but it wouldn’t make sense since we would never have seen her do this before. In “Thelma and Louise,” Louise would suddenly have a gun and shoot Thelma’s rapist, but we wouldn’t know where she got the gun so this impact of this scene would be confused and diluted.

The lesson is that before you show any important scene, you have to set it up before hand.

“Skyscraper” is a perfect case of how it uses setups yet also ignores them. The basic idea is that a security expert is hired to verify security on the world’s tallest skyscraper. In an early scene, the hero learns about a unique room that creates optical illusions. In the end, the hero uses this unique room to hide from the villain and his henchmen, and kill them one by one.

Yet where “Skyscraper” fails completely is setting up the plot involving the villain. The entire motivation of all the villains comes out of nowhere before that particular villain disappears for good with no explanation on why they did what they did. In one example, a man who worked with the hero in the past in the military suddenly betrays the hero, yet we never know why. This revelation comes out of nowhere just to advance the plot, but makes zero sense.

Later the villain explains why he set the skyscraper on fire, yet there was no hint of who this villain was ahead of time and why he wants revenge against the man who owns the skyscraper.

The man who owns the skyscraper has two trusted associated with him, yet one of those associates turns out to be secretly working for the villain. Why? There’s no explanation, and this particular villain winds up dying nearly as soon as he’s introduced, which makes his death sudden and meaningless.

The lack of setups destroys credibility and believability in any story. Watch any good or mediocre movie and you’ll see that it fails precisely because it fails to setup information ahead of time, which leads to a confused and weak story.

Always make sure everything used in your story is setup ahead of time. A tightly focused story ignores all distractions and focuses on setups and payoffs of those setups. A weak story simply throws in lots of meaningless action (“Skyscraper”) just for visual thrills, which never works even though Hollywood keeps trying time and time again.

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