First of all, let me say that I am working on my kids pirate novel and it’s about halfway done and I hope I can sell the thing when I’m done. If you know anybody in kids book land, please do let me know. And, if it fails to sell, I am at least having fun writing it. Which is more than I can say for a lot of the stuff I’ve worked on lately…
Let’s talk Set Up and Pay Off for a moment or two. Or, I’ll talk and you’ll listen, as that’s sort of the way this blog thing works. You can comment, and that makes it a lot more like a conversation instead of pontificating.
You can’t just have stuff happen in your script because you want it to. Doesn’t work that way. Right when the hero needs the Magic Elixir, it can’t be in the beside table drawer. Or when she needs a gun, it can’t be in the bedside table drawer. Or Viagra. It can’t just be there when you need it… it has to be set up. Put there earlier, so when it’s there, we buy it.
Setting stuff up can be easy or it can be complicated. It needs to have been long enough ago so we can forget about it before the pay off arrives.
Look to my book for a complicated set up, the one at the end of THE APARTMENT, with the gun and the bottle of Champagne. Today, this day of Laboring, I’m going to talk about the best set up in PULP FICTION, and one of the best ones, ever.
Toward the end of the movie (the pay off) there is nice sweet hero Butch Coolidge, a down and out boxer with a cute French girlfriend. Earlier in the story, he refused to throw a fight he’d been paid to throw, and so he knows Marcellus Wallace (one of the better Bad Guys of late) is going to have him killed. Or chopped into little pieces and then killed. Marcellus is angry. He goes so far as to put this anger into words. “I’m prepared to scour the Earth for that motherfucker. If Butch goes to Indochina, I want a nigger waiting in a bowl of rice ready to pop a cap in his ass.”
And Butch KNOWS THIS like I know the sun will come up this morning. So, he gets his cute French girlfriend and they hightail it away from their crummy apartment. Zoom off in the sunset on their cool motorcycle to a cheap hotel room and a lifetime of safety and wonderful sex. No more worries about getting killed.
Butch is a smart guy and he knows how to stay out of trouble, right?
But wait… what does Butch the Smart Guy then do? He GOES BACK TO HIS APARTMENT. He KNOWS he faces certain death if he goes back to the apartment, but back to the apartment he goes.
Because for the story to work out, Butch has to kill Vincent and Jules, and he has to find them at his apartment, cause that’s the place their paths would most logically cross.
So why does he go back to the apartment? Because he is compelled to, even though he knows he’s facing an array of well placed 9mm slugs. So, why is he compelled to make a decision all of us would regard as stupid…
Because the writer compelled him to with a brilliant set up scene. It happened way earlier, and it showed a young boy Butch with a Vietnam war buddy of his dead father’s. The war buddy has his father’s watch, and he gives it to young boy Butch with the following speech.
The way your dad looked at it, this watch was your birthright. He’d be damned if any slopes gonna put their greasy yellow hands on his boy’s birthright, so he hid it, in the one place he knew he could hide something: his ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
Late in the story, when Butch tells his cute French girlfriend he’s going back to the apartment to get the watch, you totally buy it!
Nicely done, Mr. Tarantino. Loved BASTERDS, by the way.