Excerpt from Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay, Chapter 12: Scene Work:
“One could say that a screenplay is merely Setups and Payoffs, nothing more; I wouldn’t disagree. Often the strongest payoffs come in the third act and are set up in the first act.
A payoff is always best when WE get to recognize it, without it being explained to us. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Bride uses her hand technique to escape the buried coffin, which we just learned about in the flashback entitled, ‘The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei.’
In the climax of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice enters the home of Jame Gumb and sees the moth land on the chair. We now know she realizes she’s facing Buffalo Bill, the serial killer she’s been tracking for the entire film. Her knowledge has caught up to ours.
In Woody Allen’s Match Point, the protagonist goes hunting with a shotgun with his father-in-law in the first half of the story, and in Act Three he uses that shotgun for other purposes — shades of Chekhov, perhaps, who said, ‘If there’s a gun on the mantle in Act One, it must be fired in Act Three.”
Payoffs in comedies can be especially satisfying for the reader/audience. They can be clever or painfully obvious; it doesn’t matter as long as they’re hilarious.
One of my favorite Payoffs comes late in I Love You, Man when Peter (Paul Rudd) is at his lowest point. He’s lost his biggest real-estate client, Lou Ferrigno, to his rival agent, Tevin (Rob Huebel) and has “dumped” his friend Sidney (Jason Segel) after Peter’s fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones) finds out that Peter lent Sidney a large sum of money which Sidney never paid back.
Peter is driving when he discovers that Sidney has put up billboards using pictures he took of Peter. Peter’s face has been photoshopped into various scenarios, including James Bond and this, um, “big” personality…
Peter fumes, until he gets a call from Lou Ferrigno, and this is the Payoff: Lou loves the billboards and re-hires him to sell his house. The icing on the cake is that Sidney used the money he borrowed from Peter to make the billboards, thus saving his job and inspiring him to punch out his nemesis Tevin at the office. Peter realizes that Sidney had his back all along. Later, at the wedding, it’s Zooey who calls Sidney to come back and be Peter’s Best Man, thus giving her stamp of approval to Peter’s new best friend.
Speaking of married couples, here’s my favorite scene from the movie, which I find hilarious and my wife finds absolutely annoying…
I love you, honey!
Good Luck and Happy Writing,
Related: Raiders of the Lost Ark Story Map
Related: Meet The Parents Story Map