Mad Max: Fury Road

For Writers

Setup and Payoff: Avoiding Audience Confusion

A masterful story is a lot of things. It carries plot, characterisation, tension, meaning, and absolutely, unequivocally does not make its audience go, “What? Where the fuck did that come from?”

The Sixth Sense
Not to be confused with, “What? Where the- oh. Ohhhhhhh!”

The WTF reaction from your audience is one of the fastest ways to get people to hate your story. There’s a reason people froth at the mouth when discussing the Deus ex Machina trope. People hate feeling left out of the loop.

The loop, in this case, being the Setup/Payoff cycle.

Before we get started I’m gonna do a quick primer on the terminology I’m using here.

Setup and Payoff is common parlance in screenwriting. When the story on the dissecting table is a novel or other work of literary fiction we often talk about foreshadowing. The concepts are similar, often used interchangeably, but I tend to delineate them like so:

Foreshadowing is the act of building anticipation or understanding of a particular scene in your story. It can be something concrete like a Chekov’s Gun or something more abstract like symbolising death with a murder of crows.

Game of Thrones
Oh, a stag and a direwolf killed each other, I wonder what that could mean…

There are a lot of different ways to foreshadow and not all of them are imperative to the understanding or enjoyment of the narrative. Some, like the direwolf scene in Game of Thrones, are just fun things you can notice on a re-watch.

The Setup/Payoff cycle, on the other hand, is an essential sequence without which the understanding and/or believability of a scene would be compromised. Among other things, it’s the way I mitigate what TV Tropes calls the Ass Pull – the feeling that something in your story came out of left field.

So you might say, Setup/Payoff cycles are an example of foreshadowing, but not all foreshadowing is a Setup/Payoff cycle.

The Anatomy of a Setup/Payoff Cycle

A typical Setup/Payoff cycle is comprised of three steps: Setup, Reminder, and Payoff.

To borrow an example from Thor: Ragnarok because it’s a gift of a movie and y’all should watch it:

  1. Setup: Valkyrie tells Thor and Banner that the ship they’re stealing is the Grandmaster’s pleasure craft.
  2. Reminder: Banner activates a small burst of fireworks when out-flying Topaz.
  3. Payoff:
Valkyrie entering the boss fight in Thor: Ragnarok
On her way to steal your girlfriend like

The Reminder is essentially tapping your audience on the shoulder so they don’t forget about the Setup. If your Setup and Payoff take place in quick succession, you probably won’t need the reminder.

A good example of this in play is during Mad Max: Fury Road (which is also a gift of a movie etc etc, thank you for coming to my Ted Talk):

  1. Setup: A war boy sprays his mouth with silver spray before throwing himself to his death in a kamikaze attack.
  2. Payoff: Nux sprays his own mouth which spurs Max into desperate action to stop Nux killing them both.

This scene:

War boy leaping from the War Rig in Mad Max: Fury Road

Is essential for the audience to understand this scene:

Nux spraying the silver spray in Mad Max: Fury Road

And because the two scenes happen in quick succession, the audience doesn’t need the extra reminder of the meaning behind the silver spray.

Conversely, if a Setup and Payoff are super removed from each other, your narrative might require more reminders.

In the Harry Potter series, readers are reminded about Harry’s scar multiple times leading up to its reveal as the link between Harry and Voldemort. If Harry’s scar had been a throw-away descriptor in the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone only to pop back up as a major plot point, it would have been WTF reactions all ’round.

How to Avoid the WTF Reaction

If your audience feels clocked in the side of the head by a Payoff, it’s likely because you haven’t set it up properly. Here’re a few questions to ask yourself to diagnose the problem:

Does Your Payoff Have a Setup?

Dangling Payoffs are a bad time, my friend. At best your story seems sloppy. At worst you have a Deus ex Machina on your hands, and we’ve already established how much everyone loves those.

Does Your Payoff Have a Reminder?

If you have a perfectly good Setup but your audience is still wondering what the fuck is going on, you should look at adding a Reminder to the mix. Audience still baffled? Add another one.

There’s no hard and fast rule dictating the number of reminders your story should have. The key is to find the right balance of audience expectation – enough that they’re not blind-sided by your Payoff but not so much they feel like they’re being talked down to.

Where Are Your Reminders?

If you’re positive you’ve hit Reminder saturation but still find yourself fielding WTF reactions then take a look at where your Reminders are. Spoilers: it’s not necessarily in your best interest to space them out evenly between your Setup and Payoff.

Take note of where your audience’s attention is likely to break. A movie is likely to be watched through in one go but most novels are intended to be put down and picked back up a few times. TV shows, too, have natural breaks between episodes.

Different mediums will lend themselves to different breaks in audience attention. If your Setup, Reminder/s and Payoff are separated by one or more of those breaks, consider moving them.

Setup, Reminder, Payoff

Remember, a Payoff is only as good as its Setup. Your Payoff may be the word of God itself, but if you’ve neglected the Setup, you’re just gonna end up with a bunch of pissed off readers wondering where the fuck these angels came from.

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