Tag Archives: set up and pay off

You Gotta Set Up the Magic Sword!

I told a client he needed to add a set up scene well before his big climax, where the Opponent is killed. To disguise his story point, I’ll tell you there is a stake driven in the ground that is part of the machinery for the fight to the finish. It gets pulled out during the fight, and voilà!, exeunt bad guy. I felt my client needed to set up the stake.

He emailed:

I try to avoid set up scenes, readers can figure it out.

EG, I could write a scene of the [let’s call it a tent!] tent being delivered — but it wouldn’t be a very interesting scene.

I emailed him back:

So, instead, you write a really interesting scene that your story needs, about something important, or take a scene you already have and combine it with the delivery so the scene is about the one important thing, set against the unimportant tent delivery scene… BUT, later, when you have totally forgotten about the stake, there it is right when needed.

The tent installation guy can be philosophical about women, which Franklin needs to hear or have a conversation about. Or weird in some fascinating way. He has an ass crack we see every time he bends to steady the stake that keeps falling over when he swings the sledgehammer to drive it in. He’s got a tattoo on his ass that Franklin tries to read without looking like a pervert. Or something.

Make the delivery guy unforgettable, and we’ll forget about the stake. We’ve sure never seen a waitress like this one, who was in HELL OR HIGH WATER. In the history of the movies, we’ve never seen anyone like her. In this case, the scene bonds the two men together, which (other than being funny) is probably the point to the scene.

I see this Magic Sword Problem a lot in clients’ scripts, especially about sword and sorcery. I do not know why that is. Drives me nuts.

What you have in your story, seems to me, is a magical sword lying on the ground. Right when your hero needs a way to defeat the uber bad guy, he reaches out and there it is! He picks up the exact magical sword he needs and uses it to slay his enemy.

It sort of just happens to be there, for no reason at all, right when he needs it. No reason it’s there other than to save him.

But, if you set up the magical sword far earlier in the story, in a way we completely forget about, when he reaches for it, it will be there and we won’t scream, “Holy fucking shit where did that fucking magic sword come from?!”

My favorite example of buried set up is from THE GAME, with Michael Douglas. At the end of act two, he is walking in a Mexican desert in a very nice linen suit, no shoes no socks. All he has is his Rolex watch. He has no money. He has nothing. All his bank accounts have been emptied and he is at a very low low point.

He hocks the watch, goes back to San Francisco, to their offices, where he filled out the forms and signed up for the game. That entire floor is empty. Oh hell. So now, he has no way to find the bad guys and get his money in his life back. He has nothing.

Except…

The one thing that he knows about the bad guys is where they eat lunch.

Way way earlier, he goes to their offices to fill out a big stack of forms that allow him to sign up for the game. Releases, etc. The forms, on a clipboard, are handed to him by the boss, who walked into the reception area carrying a sack of to-go Chinese food boxes and the clipboard.

The scene is about filling out the forms. That is why the scene exists. But, the hidden reason for the scene was to establish where the people get their takeout Chinese, to save the hero later.

The bag of takeout orders drips sauce on the forms, and the boss does a bit of a ballet swinging the bag out of the way, and makes a joke about it, “Man Lung, drippy as hell, but best Chinese in San Francisco.” You laugh and never notice the secret note being slipped under your door.

So, an hour and a half later, when he is waiting outside of Man Lung, we know where he got that crucial bit of information and you think, “Smart fella.”

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“Just in time delivery” is great in manufacturing. Sucks in storytelling.

This mostly happens where there is some kind of fantasy, a made-up world, sword and sorcery, where anything or anyone has a special power. I have no idea why this is. Just because you’re not writing sword and sorcery, however, doesn’t mean you’re not making the same mistake!

“Just in time manufacturing” means you don’t keep a pile of parts on your warehouse shelves waiting around to be used when called upon. When you’re running low, you ask the supplier to bring you more. The new stack of parts arrives the instant before you need them on your assembly line and you use them right then. Nothing is lying around taking up warehouse space when it is not needed.

It is also known as the Toyota production system because it was invented at Toyota.

This works great if you have a 50,000 square foot warehouse you are desperately trying not to lose money on. It doesn’t work in storytelling. Not at all.

The most common example is when there are special weapons or superpowers. When a character is in a pickle and is about to have his head chopped off by the Gorgon, he looks under the carpet and finds a magic sword and slices off the Gorgon’s head. The supersecret, fabulous thing was delivered to him just in the nick of time! Delivered by writer who did not have his act together.

You can’t gives the character the thing that he or she needs just as they need it. You cannot have a payoff with no setup. You have to gently set up the thing they need far in advance of their needing it, so when you do deliver it, the enraged audience does not scour the internet, looking for your home address.

This also works with characters. If suddenly towards the end of your story, during the incredibly tense riverfront standoff, the hero needs someone to be able to read lips, that character is magically sitting on the riverbank, reading a newspaper, waiting to be summoned at the climactic moment of the scene… to save the hero’s ass.

Little Mr. Lip Reader must be set up an hour earlier, so it is credible for him to be at the river, when he at last is needed.

A fabulously well done example of this is in Shane. You should have seen it, so I don’t care if I’m going to spoil the ending for you.

At the end, Shane, a retired gunfire is in a bar with the main bad guy and his hired gun, Wilson. There’s a shoot out. Shane kills Wilson and the boss. Shane is a very good shot. The entire conversation and shootout is witnessed by the little boy, on whose ranch Shane lives and works. As Shane is leaving the bar, the little boy looks up and sees a henchmen on the balcony, with a rifle aimed at Shane. The boy screams, “Shane! Look out!” Shane twirls around and shoots the guy.

It is totally, completely unbelievable that that little boy would be up this late at night, peeking under the door to the bar. But. The writer has to have him there to save Shane’s life. If the kid isn’t there, Shane dies, and there are no sequels and no merchandising.

So what did A.B. Guthrie, jr., the writer, do?

Working our way backwards, so that it is very clear the set up is set up correctly… Before the boy slides under the door to watch Shane talk to the bad guys…

Shane rides his horse across most of Wyoming. The boy runs after him. Shane rides and the boy follows, across what looks like ten to twenty miles of rugged Day For Night terrain.

Before that, at the ranch, Shane is on his horse riding towards town. The boy calls after him, “Shane, I’m sorry.” The boy’s mother tells him that Shane did not hear him. Now the boy has an excellent motivation to follow Shane across the Western landscape. He wants to apologize, but Shane didn’t hear him. What does the boy want to apologize for? It must be something extraordinarily powerful because it pushes him to run several miles after a man on a horse.

Before that, the boy is crouched down beside his mother and his returning-to-consciousness father, who’s lying in the dirt. The mother says, “you don’t hate Shane.”

Before that, Shane unties the father’s horse, slaps it and sends it away. As he’s walking past the boy, the child yells at him “you hit them with your gun! I hate you!” Shane has been idolized by the boy for most of the movie. “I hate you” is a terrible thing for Shane to hear.

Before that, Shane and the father get in an intense fistfight, ending with both of them leaning against a huge stump that they had pulled out of the ground together long before. It is a visual representation of their friendship. That closeness has been destroyed by the fistfight. The fistfight is so out of the ordinary, so strange, so horrible that all of the animals are jumping out of the corrals howling, screeching, and going crazy. The world is truly thrown out of joint by this horrific fight.

Before that, Shane tells the father he’s going into town to fight Wilson. The father feels it is his duty to go into town and fight for the honor of his farm. Shane knows that if the father faces Wilson, the father will die. But, because the father is a proud man he will not listen to reason. So, Shane has to fight him and eventually knock him out with his gun.

All of this setup, very carefully pieced together, exists only so we will not feel any kind of story bump when the boy saves Shane’s life at the end.

If you give a character a magic gizmo, you need to explain the rules of the gizmo as soon as it is introduced. Sort of like Q showing James Bond his gadgets. Q tells Bond all about them, so when they are used, nothing is a surprise.

What you cannot do, ever, is have the magic gizmo is appear out of the blue or suddenly do something we had no idea it was able to do… just in time for the hero or the bad guy or someone to use that hitherto un-set-up power.

This also applies to knowledge. Character traits. Special abilities that a person suddenly finds. But, at its lowest level (and the one that is easiest to spot) is the magic gizmo or talent arriving right when it is needed in the story. It has to be set up ahead of time, like in Shane.

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It’s Labor Day! I’m Laboring!

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.

CAPTAIN KOONS
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.

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