The Rule of Three

What makes a bad movie is when something appears out of nowhere to help the hero. It’s okay to have something appear out of nowhere to hurt or obstruct the hero, but something can’t pop up for no reason to help the hero. When that happens, the story feels much weaker and phony as a result.

That’s why you always need to set up events earlier so when they do occur to help the hero, they feel natural and logical .You need to set up this information two times and then pay it off in the third appearance. In “Django: Unchained,” the use of a gun hidden in the sleeve that can pop out is set up twice. First, the mentor (a German bounty hunter) uses this trick gun to shoot and kill a sheriff who is actually a wanted man.

Second, Django uses this same trick gun later when he finds two men who are wanted by the bounty hunter. Django walks up to one of these men and shoots him in the heart using the trick gun. At this point, the trick gun up the sleeve has been subtly planted in our memories so when the German bounty hunter uses it for a third time to kill the owner of a brutal plantation called Candieland, the sudden appearance of this trick gun surprises us but feels logically satisfying at the same time.

Most people forgot about this trick gun despite having seen it twice, but when it appears again for the payoff, everyone remembers it. That’s what makes an event memorable and satisfying.

Think of bad movies where something happens for no apparent reason. That creates an unsatisfying result because now something out of the blue helped the hero for no logical reason. This occurs in “Mockingjay, Part 2” when Katniss and her friends get costumes from a character known as Tigress. Nowhere earlier in the movie is Tigress’s existence even mentioned so when Katniss suddenly gets Tigress’s help, it feels less satisfying and forced.

This unsatisfying feeling also appears when one of Katniss’s companions, a man who has had his tongue cut out by the Capital forces, suddenly reveals that he knows the underground passes of the city. Of course, this information is simply following the novel, but that shows how following a novel’s plot doesn’t always create a satisfying movie when events aren’t properly set up.

For anything important, set it up first and then pay it off. If something’s really important, set it up, remind the audience of this set up a second time, and then pay it off like the trick gun up the sleeve in “Django: Unchained.”

Set ups are crucial in making a story feel natural and inevitable. Without set ups, something popping out of nowhere will always feel fake and destroy the story.

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