Screenwriting setups and payoffs are best as cause and effect

Invariably the best and most entertaining films are dense with clever-yet-subtle setups and payoffs, and “War Games is a great case study in this respect because many of its payoffs not only are setups for more payoffs, but shift the plot in new entertaining directions. What results is a classic cause-and-effect structure that seamlessly propels the plot forward, which makes “War Games,” starring Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy and Dabney Coleman, a great example of taut, entertaining screenwriting.

Setups, payoffs, cause and effect
Your favorite films have great setups and payoffs:

  • “Casablanca:” Rick’s rebellious past, revealed casually by Major Strassa in the cafe, pays off in the airport scene.
  • “The Shawshank Redemption:” Andy Dufresne’s faux interest in geology and his request for a rock hammer pays off when his escape is revealed.
  • “Monster’s Inc:” Boo’s giggling blows every fuse in an apartment building, which pays off, exponentially, at the end.

Note how each setup not only is relatively subtle in the context of the whole story, but how each setup leads to a payoff that also affects the plot. The best setups pay off more than just laughs, they shift the plot in new, entertaining directions.

SPOILER ALERT: “War Games” and Twilight Zone’s “To Serve Man” plot points revealed.

Key setups in “War Games” and their payoffs
Sequences are a collection of related scenes that ideally build to a climax and send the plot in a new, unexpected direction, and if you consider “War Games” by sequence the relationship between the setups and payoffs as cause and effect are evident:

  • Computer nerd wants to hack into gaming company to master yet-to-be-released arcade game and inadvertantly hacks into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) network and initiates global thermonuclear war simulation.
  • Federal agents track and arrest computer nerd and are convinced he’s a Soviet spy.
  • Computer nerd realizes NORAD computer is playing thermonuclear war game for real — it is literally counting down to an actual launch of the entire U.S. nuclear missile arsenal — and the nerd discovers its software engineer is still alive.
  • Computer nerd cleverly escapes captivity and tracks down software engineer.
  • Software engineer is fatalistic and has no interest in helping computer nerd stop the computer from playing its “game.”
  • Fatalistic software engineer has change of heart and takes computer nerd back to NORAD in effort to stop the computer from launching nuclear missiles.
  • As the computer is seconds away from “learning” the launch codes, the computer nerd diverts the computer’s processing task to play Tic-tac-toe, thus “teaching” the computer some games cannot be won.

How setups and payoffs provide depth of plot
The strength of the “War Games” structure is not in its complexity. In fact, a complex structure can undermine a good story. What you really want is depth, and the multiple setups and payoffs in “War Games” provide just that. Consider the numerous setups in the film’s first act:

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  • During a surprise drill, a U.S. soldier is reluctant to execute a nuclear missile launch.
  • David (Matthew Broderick) is a skilled arcade game player.
  • David’s classroom misbehavior regularly results in teachers sending him to the principal’s office.
  • David’s home computer setup is well advanced for its time and can only belong to a truly skilled nerd.
  • David tries to impress Ally Sheedy’s character by hacking into the school computer and changing a grade on her report card, and then he hacks into an airline computer to book a flight to Paris.
  • David’s dog Beau gets into the garbage.
  • David sees an advertisement for a gaming company, Protovision, and tries to hack into their mainframe to steal the computer code of their yet-to-be-released game.
  • David mistakes the NORAD computer for Protovision, but he can’t log in.
  • David’s hacker friends tell him to log in via a “back door” — a security hole known only to the software engineer who designed the program.
  • David discovers the software engineer’s identity, researches him, and deduces “Joshua” is the secret back door login.
  • David successfully logs in and initiates a “game” of Thermonuclear war.

None of these setups are complex but they all serve the story in terms of plot, character and theme; they are weighty story beats that pay off throughout the film and affect the plot all along the way. No story beat is wasted; every beat exists for a reason.

Misleading setups that reveal big payoffs
In The Twilight Zone‘s classic “To Serve Man” episode, seemingly benevolent extraterrestrial aliens arrive on Earth, solve humanity’s woes, and offer free spaceship travel to their home planet, an alleged paradise. After a press conference one of the aliens inadvertanly leaves behind a book, written in their native language, but governemnt cryptographers are only able to decode the title, “To Serve Man.” Since the aliens are making the world better a better place, the decoders stop working — except for one, who ultimately discovers “To Serve Man” is a cook book, and the aliens merely are fattening everybody up.

Consider the setups and reveals in your story: do they also serve the cause-and-effect beats that move your plot forward, increasing the tension along the way? Taking this broad view of your story will help you identify and fill in plot holes that will improve your story.

4 thoughts on “Screenwriting setups and payoffs are best as cause and effect”

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