The movie A Quiet Place, has been an unexpected success, far surpassing analyst expectations to become one of the most profitable movies in years. The reason is because it’s good. And I think the reason it’s good is thanks to it’s superb usage of setups and payoffs. Most movies go wrong when payoffs occur without being setup or setups occur without ever being paid off.
Some setups are explicit others are implicit, both excel when they make us think the story is going in one direction, but when it pays off, there’s a twist.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the setups and payoffs from A Quite Place:
Explicit setup: While taking the laundry up the stairs, the wife accidentally pulls a nail up on the stairs. We have become hyper-aware of the setup and expect that the nail is going to be stepped on, the only question is when.
Imagine watching that nail be pulled up and then never have a character step on it throughout the rest of the movie. Or imagine a scene where the character goes down the stairs and accidentally steps on a nail we the audience didn’t know existed. In the former we’re confused, in the later we don’t believe it.
With the way it actually plays out, the setup builds great tension as we all cringe as the character steps down the stairs slowly – and as a twist, it happens at a worst possible time — when she’s going into labor!
Implicit setup: The husband tries again and again to repair his deaf daughter’s hearing implant. As we watch this unfold we could just understand the scene to show the father’s love for his daughter and their turbulent relationship, so it’s not such an explicit set up. Then we’re delighted to discover that thanks to his tinkering, he inadvertently created a device that exploits the monster’s weakness.
To our excitement we realize, in the end, that there was no surprise at all. What had seemed to be a turn of fate proves to be inevitable and, as we realize it, we receive the gift of insight. We should have seen it coming!
I think this is what David Fincher means in this short clip when he says that the best cinematic stories have an ending that has an inevitability to it.
Why do setups and payoff matter so much for a movie to be enjoyable?
The human condition is one where there is way too much information out there and we are woefully ill equipped to make sense of it all — but that doesn’t stop us from trying. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, we look at sequences of events and weave explanations into them, creating narratives that link the different inputs together and ignore the facts that do not fit in the story.
Psychologists call this tendency the narrative bias: “the tendency to interpret information as being part of a larger story or pattern, regardless of whether the facts actually support the full narrative.”
Life is stubbornly devoid of clean-cut setups and payoffs but for the couple of hours that we’re in the theater we can imagine a world in which they are clear, everything happens for a reason, the universe isn’t random and it feels so good to vicariously see cause and effect play out for the characters on the screen.
We essentially are paying filmmakers to exploit this psychological vulnerability of ours and when they don’t do it right we get pissed — the story is not therapeutic or encouraging, instead it just reminds us of the problem of real life — it’s random.