Setup Categories: Back to the Future

I’ve been realizing, it’s fine to say that better movies tend to have a lot of setups and payoffs built in, but not all setups and payoffs are created equal. For example, the setup and payoff of the “Mayor Goldie Wilson” joke is fantastic and one of my favorite moments in the movie, but it serves a very different story service than, say, Marty telling Jennifer that his mother was, “born a nun” or the introduction of the “Save the Clock-tower!” paper. The Mayor Goldie Wilson setup and payoff is mostly there for laughs; Marty’s misconception of his mom provides room for character arcs for both of them and the “Save the clock-tower!” paper is one of the major drivers of the plot in the latter half of the movie.

Once I noticed that, I divided up the setups of Back to the Future into four categories: Joke, Main Character’s Desire (Marty), Other Character Development, and Plot Development/Exposition.

Here’s what that looks like with all the setups categorized (click for bigger version):


I was surprised to see how many setups and payoffs exist basically for the sole purpose of making the audience laugh. Marty’s main character motivation comes from three main things: 1. his music, 2. wanting a cool car and 3. wanting to be with Jennifer. You could even boil them down a bit further to two main things: 1. social status and 2. being with Jennifer. Maybe that ‘s why it works so well to have the last two thing that are paid off be 1. getting the truck and 2. (almost) kissing Jennifer.

This also illustrates how much time the movie puts into Lorraine, George and Biff’s character development. All three of them have very full arcs that make them end up as opposite of whatever they were in the beginning. Great storytelling! Also, this movie is an excellent example of how to teach your audience what they need to know before they need to know it. We learn about lightening hitting the clock-tower ages before that information becomes important and it’s quite a while before we actually use that information at the end of the movie. This gives it a nice “full” feeling and negates any potential feelings that the movie just pulled the ending out of its hat because it didn’t know what to do. We don’t feel cheated because the movie is structured around educating us that this is where it’s going.

Here’s the setups for Back to the Future in the order they appear in the film and color coded to show their dramatic purpose in the story.


The movie keeps you on your toes as to which information will have which kind of payoff. We don’t know how a lot of things will come back, so the movie keeps constantly delighting the audience by surprising them as to how they do come back. Plus, this movie strikes a nice balance between lighthearted, silly jokes (Uncle “jailbird” Joey) and very serious, emotional points (Doc being “killed”). This provide an adequate amount of emotional depth to be satisfying without overwhelming the audience.

Here’s the main setups and payoffs chart for this movie, for perspective:



Positives and Negatives: Apollo 13

Trying something new this week! Here’s the setups and payoffs from Apollo 13, but categorized into positives and negatives. A few of them were pretty hard to categorize and with those I just went with my gut, but really this is an experiment in trying to work out a theory that in order for a thing to be a setup and payoff, one has to be a positive and one has to be a negative.

Here is that for this movie:


If nothing else, this helps me to illustrate why this feels like such a neutral story. Back to the Future, on the other hand, is about mostly negatives turning into positives, which is what makes it a feel good movie. Apollo 13 is great, but people don’t tend to feel dramatically uplifted — glad to be alive, maybe, but not super pumped the way they do after Star Wars or Toy Story or something like that. This is more like Contagion, we’re just glad people managed to live ’til the end of the movie.

Here’s the setups and payoffs for Apollo 13, in case you wanted to compare charts:


Whelp, there you go. Let me know what you think.


Setups and Payoffs: The Incredibles

Buh-duh-buh-buh-DAAA! BAAAAH!

This week we’ve got The Incredibles! Yay! This movie works wonderfully for just about everyone and it’s easy to see why in this chart. Not a scene wasted, everyone — even the baby, has a story that arcs beautifully. The bad guy was a creation of the good guy because of the good guy’s main flaw that, in the end, he learns to overcome! Wow! And the music is pretty good, too.

See for yourself:

(Click for a bigger version.)



Setups and Payoffs: Apollo 13

This movie sets ’em up and pays ’em off. Rapidly.

It goes:

00:00 Setup ——– Payoff (time of payoff moment) [time elapsed since setup moment]

Also: Act # break (time of act break) [length of act]


I love the shape that this one has. So angular. It’s amazing the different shapes the setups and payoffs charts have when you compare one to the other. Contagion is much more curvy and back the future looks very balanced, whereas Back to the Future has one setup right after another marching right up to the first act break and a few sprinkled thereafter.

I was surprised at how many there were in this one. Before I select a movie for this process, I try to think of one or two setups and payoffs to get me started. For this one the “thumb covers moon”, “thumb covers earth” reversal sprang to mind. I had no idea that there was the: “Jim says he’s retiring because he has 1. a good ship 2. the best crew and 3. going to walk on the moon — Jim retires even though 1. his ship broke 2. the crew got split up and 3. he never got to walk on the moon.” That’s the real heart of the story. Everything works to frame those three things. That’s good story telling!

‘Til next time. Also, what are some movies you think have a lot of good setups and payoffs? I’m looking for ideas.

Setups and Payoffs: Contagion

Here’s another Setups and Payoffs chart.

This time we’re looking at perhaps my favorite movie of 2011 — Contagion! I fell in love with this movie right away. It’s got great actors, a rollicking high concept and a near perfect story. The only major payoff it’s missing is Leonora the WHO worker going back to her former kidnappers and warn them that the vaccines they received are fake. But, that’s a small problem in an otherwise well crafted story. Here’s what it looks like:

Again, it goes:

00:00 Setup ——– Payoff (time of payoff moment) [time elapsed since setup moment]

Also: Act # break (time of act break) [length of act]


Pretty strong.

Maybe not as tight as Back to the Future (which has a setup about every thirty seconds for the whole first act and then a few after that) but not bad either. Interestingly, Contagion continues setting things up through about the first half of the movie, even after it’s started paying various things off. Maybe they have to continue plodding away at setting various bits up because they have so many different characters with their own story lines; it takes a long time to really get everybody’s story moving. It would be interesting separate this out by different characters and see what the shapes of the individual stories look like.