Setups & Payoffs

Setups and payoffs are crucial tools for a filmmaker. 

They help your film feel fluid. Have you ever watched a movie that felt a little disjointed? More episodic than a cohesive story? Setups and payoffs can be a glue that helps your scenes stick together.

Setups and Payoffs also keep your audience closely involved in your story. They make your audience feel smart. Feel rewarded. Think back to a time when you “figured something out” in a movie. How’d that make you feel? Good right?

You need to give your audience this same experience.

Setups help your audience feel smart. Feel rewarded.

There are two main types of setups:

1) Imperative

2) Just for Fun


Imperative setups are required for something later in your film to make sense. Want your hero to pull open a drawer and find a gun at the end? You’d better set that up at the beginning. Otherwise, your audience is going to call foul.

But here’s the trick: Setups must be entertaining, not exposition

You can’t throw in setups that don’t provide story or character value. Meaning, if you took away the payoff, the setup should still stand on its own. 

Chief Brody ends up shooting the oxygen tank to kill the shark | Image Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Example from Jaws:

Chief Brody kills the shark by shooting a scuba tank that explodes, right?

We buy this because earlier in the film, Hooper freaks out when they drop one of his scuba tanks. He rants about how they’re highly pressurized and dangerous. So later when we see the tank explode, we just accept it. 

The setup worked as a stand alone event because there was conflict between Hooper and Quint, the captain of the boat. Quint thought Hooper’s tech stuff was dumb and useless. So when the scuba tank isn’t treated with respect, it’s natural for Hooper to lose it.

You can’t throw in setups that don’t provide story or character value. A setup must stand on it’s own.

And the beauty of this entire setup in Jaws? In real life scuba tanks can’t explode if you shoot them. Spielberg (or the writer) knew they had to set this up or the entire ending of Jaws wasn’t gonna work. 

Yikes, right? If nothing else shows the power of a setup, this does.

Just For Fun

So what’s an example of a just for fun setup?

An excellent one is found in Cast Away. Chuck Noland has a tooth issue at the beginning of the film, and this has a massive payoff later when he’s stuck on an island and has to play dentist all on his own. This didn’t change the story in any way, but it added drama that I guarantee made every audience member squirm.

Grant’s struggle with the seat belts is a setup for Nature Finds A Way | Image Copyright Universal Studios

Another fun setup and payoff is found in Jurassic Park. When they’re in the helicopter Dr. Grant can’t find the correct ends for his seat belt, so he takes two female ends and ties them together. 

This worked independently because it fit his personality. He hated technology and gadgets. He lives in the past, not the present. Anything modern just doesn’t work for him. So this was a comedic character moment. 

However, it’s an incredible setup for the end of the film when they realize nature would find a way, and babies were born even though all of the dinosaurs on the island were bred as females.

This setup wasn’t required for the ending to make sense. But it was a fun setup for those audience members who were paying attention.

Cast Away Setup & Payoff | Image Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

My All Time Favorite Setup

My absolute favorite setup is also found in Cast Away. If you haven’t watched the movie, I’m not going to ruin the setup and payoff for you. But it’s subtle and incredible because it makes you as an audience member feel really, really smart when you figure it out.

This was a gem that Robert Zemeckis put in his film for audience members who were really paying attention to the story. I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with angel wings.