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.

Setups and Payoffs: Back to the Future

Setups and payoffs in Back to the Future, just in case you didn’t fully appreciate the genius of this movie. There were way more than I expected there to be! Nearly one every thirty seconds for the first act of the movie. This version doesn’t even have all of them in it, but it has most. I’ve since changed the time of the 2/3 act break, but only by a few minutes.

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]


One of the most striking things about this chart is that there are almost no scenes without a payoff or a setup. This is what makes the movie feel like it moves forward at such a brisk pace. You’re constantly being stimulated by either a setup or a payoff which keeps you involved emotionally in the characters.

Scenes that contain neither a long term setup nor a payoff:

1. Marty convincing Doc he’s from the future – unless you count the first introduction of the picture

2. Marty showing Doc the DeLorean – unless you count the follow up of Marty retelling Doc the story of how he invented time travel

3. Marty following George home (when Marty gets the idea to do the Darth Vader thing)

4. Marty being locked in the trunk of the car (except that it’s a setup for Marty playing at the band)

5. Lorraine, George and Marty in the stairwell (The “don’t yell at your future kid for setting fire to the living room rug” thing should have been a setup from the beginning of the movie. Harrumph. Like maybe, “Hey, if your future son wants to take his girlfriend out to the lake for the weekend, just let him.”)

All in all, pretty strong. Wonder why movies don’t do this more consciously these days?