Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Making your setup pay off

Note: I had originally wanted to cover this topic with Ink Exchange, but I later decided that Brave fit the bill far better—and considering its popularity, it would make a lot more sense to the readers. I’ll be avoiding specific spoilers, this is about the movie as a whole, so some spoilers are unavoidable.

If you’ve been writing for more than a week, you’ve probably heard the holy mantra of writers: Show, Don’t Tell. We’ve beaten this dead horse into a puree. But as much attention as this advice gives to characterization and atmosphere, it often doesn’t get extended to cover plot—mostly because when you’re talking about plot, we call it setup and payoff.

Brave got a lot of hype in the months before its release. A lot of people were seriously excited to see it, especially after such Pixar masterpieces as Up and Toy Story 3.  But while the movie itself was fun, it fell so dramatically short of the expectation that it turned off a lot of would-be fans.

We were told: “If you could change your fate, would you?” 
But actually: Spoiler: this movie never even broaches the subject of fate and destiny, except for a few shoehorned lines. Merida isn’t fighting her destiny. She’s fighting an arranged marriage, societal norms, and an uncommunicative mother. The difference between those two conflicts is the difference between Oedipus-style epic fantasy and chick lit—and while this movie was advertised as the former, it ended up far closer to the latter.

We were told: Though she didn’t realize it, we were given one HUGE price tag for Merida’s freedom: if she didn’t marry, the three clans would go to war. The three clan leaders, despite their goofiness, were indicated to be violent and vengeful men who would sunder the kingdom for their pride.
But actually: When they got down to it, the declaration of war was more silly than serious. We got more actual fighting during the song-and-dance routine than we did after war was declared.

We were told: Mor’Du the Demon Bear cast a shadow over the entire movie. We got parallels to the present situation, hints, prophetic visions, even a song about his ferocity and nastiness.
But actually: He got three scenes. Just three. And as epic as the climax was, it actually didn’t live up to the massive mythos that had been built up around this character. As frightening as he was on screen, in the end he was nothing but a big bear.

This problem can be hard to identify without outside help. As the author, you know what’s going to happen, and so it seems like everything is pointing in the right direction. I’d recommend showing your work to a beta reader and finding out what they expected to happen as they read. It’s a good way to see what you’re building up to, and whether how it measures up to what you actually wrote.

If you’ve got a setup with a flat payoff, I’d recommend one of two solutions: either beef up the payoff, or cut down the build-up to more accurately reflect what’s coming. Don’t tell us about the amazing hero or the nasty villain or the horrific apocalypse: let us see it for ourselves.

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