4 setup & payoff techniques that will make your story unforgettable
A red car drives up, the mp3 player is turned on, playing Bellbottoms by THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION.
Four characters with dark sunglasses stare at each other. Three dismount and we are left with Baby Driver and his hilarious performance, before being swept away into one of the most extraordinary car chase scenes in movie history.
If you are one of those who hasn’t seen the Baby Driver 6-minute opening scene, stop and watch it now:
Curiously, this beautifully orchestrated action scene is not what makes the film. It’s the unexpected moments that make you sit at the edge of your seat for nearly 2 hours. Twists you would not anticipate.
The plot of Baby Driver is completely unpredictable. You are misled most of the time.
But why is the plot still believable and satisfying?
Let’s look at Edgar Wright’s 4 setup and payoff techniques that storytellers can learn a lot from.
ATTENTION! It’s nearly impossible to talk about payoffs without spoiling the film, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to watch it first, because there are spoilers ahead!
Still, you can read only the Takeaway sections for the practical lessons without risking any spoilers.
1. Baby & the mentor
Doc promises Baby that this will be his last job to pay back his debts.
Somewhere close to the end of the first Act, he holds this promise, which is something you would not predict, and your gut feeling tells you that something is shady about it.
When later, Doc doesn’t keep his promise, the relationship between Baby and Doc takes a strange turn.
Baby quotes Monsters Inc., saying: “You and I are a team. Nothing is more important than our friendship.” But you don’t believe him because everything about the situation tells you that Baby is pressured to say those words. They sound ironic. Fake. What friendship could Baby even talk about if he is so inferior?
Only in the end, when Baby returns to ask Doc for help, we realize that he has been serious about it. He considers Doc his friend and vice versa. We are misled to consider doc the main opponent when in truth he is his best friend, a friend who even sacrifices his life.
How does this work?
The unlikely friendship is foreshadowed with this very quote, and as the quote is repeated later, it’s filled with a new meaning.
How do you create a twist that is both unpredictable but probable? – Create an ambiguous relationship.
In archetypical forms, this is also called “The Shapeshifter”, a character who “serves the dramatic function of bringing doubt and suspense into the story” (Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey). The typical use includes a romantic interest that shifts from being a passionate lover to a hateful shrew or a villain who masks himself as a helper only to reveal his true nature.
But as it is “one of the most flexible archetypes”, try to find ways of using it in unusual ways. Edgar Wright turned it the other way round, shifting the villain to be the mentor.
To make the shift believable, you have to use at least one moment where it is foreshadowed. But make sure that in this very moment, your audience won’t fully understand the foreshadowing because of the circumstances or missing information. Only in the end, where the shift happens, can you reveal this moment in a different light and thus create the aha-experience.
2. Baby and the bad guys
But who exactly is the villain of the story?
Edgar Wright combines different techniques.
The first technique we talked about before, where he turns the main villain into the mentor who sacrifices his life.
The second worst opponent is clearly Bats, a crazy criminal who from the first moment on targets Baby, unable to understand his kind nature and love for music. We think he will be our biggest problem when – Baby suddenly kills him right at the beginning of the third act!
This killing works so perfectly because it is set up by Baby constantly staring at the truck in front of him, contemplating. But Bats, the seemingly most threatening villain, wouldn’t die this fast, would he? What an unexpected twist!
Then, there is Buddy. Also a criminal, but he seems more like a friend. He tries to understand Baby, protect him and share his love for music. It is he who turns out to be the worst and main villain.
How does it work? Because on several prior occasions, Wright made clear how mad this guy can become if something ever happens to his beloved Darling. As soon as she is killed, he turns into a monster.
Don’t make your story just about the conflict between good and evil, the hero and one villain. Instead, use the “4 corner opposition” described by John Truby in The Anatomy of Story.
Here is a great way it is explained in “Batman Begins”:
And while Nolan used one of the three opponents in every single act, Wright switched the role of the opponents in the third act completely.
Think of ways to create a strong 4 corner opposition for your story and bring in an unexpected twist.
While doing so, never forget the setup to make the twist believable. Make sure that you hint towards what could happen, as improbable as it might seem at first.
3. The Ending
When Buddy, the most dangerous villain, is finally defeated in the climax of the story, and Baby wakes up on a beautiful country road, listening to a song with Debora, it seems like a fairytale ending. Except that it’s not.
Police block the road ahead, and instead of trying to escape yet again, Baby suddenly decides to surrender. This is also still not the ending.
Because now, it’s time for the last payoff. All those simple nice moments where Baby helped the people around him during the robberies – a lady he warned not to enter the building, another lady whose bag he returned and apologized – had a function beyond mere acts of kindness to show Baby’s character. They were all set-ups. All those people testified in court to defend Baby, thus enabling a mild penalty for him.
When he is finally paroled after five years in prison and is free to live his life, this makes for an even better, unexpected ending.
This is one of the techniques that James Patterson explained in his class: in terms of ending, think about everything that could happen, and pick the most outrageous one that makes sense.
“Outrageous” meaning not what the audience would typically expect.
In order for it to still make sense, there has to be a setup. And the most beautiful setup moments are those not recognized as such because they serve more than one purpose.
Here, Wright used them to both reveal Baby’s character as well as set up the ending beautifully, placing bits and chunks throughout the story.
To add to the unexpected, make sure to mislead the audience, making them assume for a moment that this might be how the story could end before you throw in yet another twist.
4. One great theme
Music. This is what connects all the dots of the story.
The music connects Baby and Debora, makes his character unique and special, it flows throughout the whole movie and is even traced back to his Ghost – the terrible accident where he lost his mother.
According to the stunt supervisor, the gunfights were the hardest to shoot, because every gunshot had to correspond to the music of the scene. Every step had to be on time, every line had to be the same.
Find one theme to make your story special, and use it to the maximum.
We all have influences like Wright was influenced by “the Holy Trinity of 90s heist movies”: Heat, Point Break, and Reservoir Dogs. But he was not copying. Instead, he used elements of those movies and brought something unique to the table, combining heist movies with an extraordinary love for music. This is what original story writing ideas truly are: unusual combinations.
So whatever genre you are writing in – sci-fi, comedy, romance, thriller – and whoever your influences, make sure you always include an unexpected theme that makes your story differ from the others.
Baby Driver is a great piece of storytelling we can learn a lot from. Especially when it comes to the art of setup and payoff.
Here is a recap of the four techniques you can apply in your own story.
Visit movie theatres more often and watch the films mindfully, noticing what you can learn from the stories, whether bad or good. If you want to learn simple techniques that will take your movie watching skills to the next level, download this stylish exercise workbook.