“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” – Anton Chekhov
Set-ups and pay-offs are invaluable tools that you can use in a variety of ways in your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, a screenplay, a play, a TV script, or a short film, the use of set-ups and pay-offs can help add suspense and increase tension in your writing.
The quote above, attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov makes the pint clear: if you introduce it as important, you should use it by the story’s end. Think about all the movie, TV shows, plays, and novels you’ve read where some weapon, potion, device, or other object or person is introduced or mentioned. The writer has now piqued your interest and you keep reading or watching to see how the item or person is utilized later in the story.
If you give Captain America his shield, he better use it at some point in the story. If Lex Luthor has Kryptonite and knows it can weaken Superman, he better darn well try and use it against him to show its power. If Q gives James Bond gadgets, weapons, and a car at the beginning of his mission, we better see all of those things in action throughout the story.
It’s what we as an audience subconsciously expect: if you show or tell us about it, it better be used later.
The Melissa McCarthy movie, Spy, does an excellent job setting up items in the first act that are later used effectively and comedically throughout the film.
How disappointing is it when something is brought up once in a story and you’re excited to see what the writer does with it later and it never comes up again. If you as the writer take the time to include it in the work, respect your reader and give them the pay-off they deserve.
Set-ups and pay-offs aren’t just for objects, of course, it’s also the basis of a lot of comedy. Sitcoms use this method of joke telling with one character saying a “straight line” (the set-up) to one character and the other replying with a one-liner (the pay-off) that gets the laugh. Watch any multi-camera sitcom with a studio audience (Big Bang Theory, Married …with Children, I Love Lucy) and this is the basic structure of the majority of jokes. Why? Because it works.
A more nuanced use of the set-up/pay-off structure is the HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Here is a show that will set up jokes at the beginning of the episode or the beginning of the season and pay them off by the end of either. It’s brilliant storytelling that uses the same structure in a more evolved way.
One of my favorite novels that shows this structure at work is Stephen King’s Needful Things. King weaves dozens of threads throughout the story with items and events that are set-up early in the novel only to be paid-off brilliantly by the novel’s end. It’s also a really great read!
It should be noted that you can have multiple moments over the course of your story with set-ups and pay-offs. Don’t think they all have to be crammed into the first act. Spread them out in order to keep the audience engaged and looking for how things will be utilized later.
What are some examples you have of great set-ups and pay-offs in films, plays, TV shows, or books? Leave a comment and let me know!