How to Create Effective Setups and Payoffs

Set-ups and payoffs create an engaging and satisfying experience for the audience by allowing them insight into the story as it unfolds. In a setup, knowledge is hinted at. In a payoff, the knowledge is revealed. Often, the setup leads the viewer down the wrong path, while the payoff leads the viewer to an “a-ha, now I know what that meant” moment.

A setup must be subtle enough that the audience doesn’t see what’s coming around the corner, but strong enough so that the audience can make the connection to the earlier clues when the reveal is delivered.

In The Sixth Sense, screenwriter/director M. Night Shyamalan provides plenty of clues (setup) to the ultimate reveal (payoff). Here are just a few from the film:

Setup: After the scene in which Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is shot, no other characters talk to him, engage with him, interact with him, or even acknowledge him – except for his young patient, Cole.
Where the set-up leads the viewer: Shyamalan deftly tells the story in such a way that most viewers do not even notice that no one interacts with Crowe.
Payoff: Crowe’s dead – no one can engage with him except Cole, who is capable of seeing dead people.

Setup: Crowe’s wife Anna is distressed, depressed, and distant – she behaves as if her husband doesn’t exist.

Where the set-up leads the viewer: It appears to the audience that Anna is upset because her husband is focused on his work and not paying enough attention to her.
Payoff: Crowe’s dead - his wife is sad and lonely because she misses her husband.
Setup: Whenever Crowe is in the presence of other characters they become cold.
Where the set-up leads the viewer: One of the “rules” of Shyamalan’s story is that people become cold when a ghost is present and since the story focuses on a kid who sees dead people, the audience assumes a ghost is lurking about.
Payoff: Crowe’s dead –characters become cold in his presence because he is the ghost in the scene.

Setup: Crowe travels everywhere by foot or bus
Where the set-up leads the viewer: Walking or taking public transit is pretty innocuous behavior – however, several other characters are shown driving cars (including Cole’s mom Lynn, Anna’s male admirer, and guests at Kyra Collins’s funeral), making it apparent that it is common-place for people to drive in this story. This is one of the points where, combined with the other clues, many viewers most likely began to unravel the mystery.
Payoff: Crowe’s dead – he can’t drive a car and is forced to accompany Cole to Collins’s funeral via bus.

A reveal is not a payoff unless it has been effectively setup.

Here are two steps to ensure you create effective setups and payoffs:

  1. Review the major reveals of your script. Are they payoffs? If not, create setups to deliver the payoff.
  2. Review the setups in your script. Do they each payoff? If not, either pay them off or eliminate them.

YOUR TURN: How are you using setups and payoffs in your screenplay to offer audience insight into the story?