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: