Specs & The City: Plot Setup, Payoff, and ‘Jaws’

Almost nothing can kill my enjoyment of a script more than coincidence. These seemingly random occurrences (which usually take place in Act III) can pull a reader completely out of the story right at the moment when they should be the most invested. It also happens to be the sign of either a lazy writer, or contempt for your audience; neither of which bodes well in terms of getting your script sold. Luckily for everyone, there’s an extremely simple rule to keep you from veering into the chum-laden water of happenstance in your script.

Not an actual picture of Chekov.

Not an actual picture of Chekov.

You see, it’s all about the plot setup and payoff. You have to plant seeds early on so your audience doesn’t balk later on. Both aspects of the setup/payoff rule are equally important, but most writers tend to err on one side more than the other. They almost always manage to have the payoff, while forgetting to set it up. As usual, there’s someone who said it better than I ever could. This time, it’s Anton Chekov who said…

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

In a previous column, I talked about Dues Ex Machina and that concept, when you boil down, is simply the end result of a failure to do exactly what Chekov was talking about. You had your characters fire off a gun at a critical time – maybe, for example, to kill the serial killer who is chasing them – without taking the time to show it being hung on the wall earlier in your script.  That being said, it’s also important to note that it doesn’t always have to be quite so dramatic. Some setup/payoff scenarios are more character driven – a character hides a box of cigarettes early in a script and then in a later scene lies to their spouse about whether they’re still smoking. It’s not a life or death situation, but it establishes for the audience that this marriage has its secrets; this person isn’t always truthful.

Now, that example’s more than a little ham-fisted, so let’s take at a script that uses this technique with a little more panache. Let’s take a look at…

Setups, Payoffs, and ‘Jaws’

Smile you son of a...

Smile you son of a…

Spielberg’s tale of a mammoth shark that terrorizes a small New England town isn’t just the story of a big fish with a mighty appetite. It’s also about having the courage to do what’s right. To face your fears head-on and not back down when the going gets tough. Sheriff Brody is a man who thinks he’s in control of his universe with the film begins, though he quickly finds that to be a false assumption and, by the second half of Act Two, Brody fully embarks into the unknown when he boards to Orca with Quint and Hooper to hunt down the great white. Here’s a quick exchange early on in their voyage…

                                      QUINT
                              (to Brody)
                         Get a fresh barrel.

               Brody goes to unlash a fresh barrel, but can't figure out
               the knots. He finally tugs on a piece of rope, and it all
               comes loose... barrel, shark cage, and, most important,
               Hooper's tanks, clattering and rolling on the deck.

                                     HOOPER
                              (jumping up)
                         Watch it! Compressed air -- you screw
                         around with one of those and Boom!

The reason I love this example is that it works on two levels. First, it’s acting as the setup for the film’s climax – both that the rigging is now loose on the tanks, and the fact that they’re unstable and liable to explode if jostled around. With a tank lodged between its teeth, the shark is bearing down on Brody. He fires his rifle, eventually hitting the tank, and exploding the monster at the last moment. Without the earlier setup the climax would feel forced. What a monumental coincidence that this previously unmentioned tank got stuck in the shark’s maw.

And then this happened.

And then this happened.

The second reason to love this example is the smoothness of how the setup is worked in. It’s not thrown out there willy-nilly as a clunky piece of exposition. It doesn’t feel like a setup because it’s also offering a character moment for Brody. His struggle with the knots and the dropping of the tanks illustrates how uncomfortable Brody is. It shows the audience exactly how out of his depth he is while preparing us for the payoff during the climax.

Read through your script and look for these moments. Do you have a payoff with no setup? A setup with no payoff? If you have both, are the executed as deftly as the tank example from Jaws, or could it use some polishing? I bet you’ll be surprised by what you’ll find when you go back and read through with a critical eye for these important touches.

Now go get a bigger boat, and keep writing!

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