Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

February 09, 2008

Payoffs That Go Pfffffft

By now it's clear that I really care about setups 'n' payoffs. When they feel natural, or surprising (or the movie's having fun with them, as in the case of that last post) they elevate the movie into magical territory. You feel you can just relax and let the story do what it's going to do, because hey, the story knows best.

And then there's the problematic payoff. The payoff that's so forced you're ripped out of the experience and are suddenly sitting in the theatre saying Oh, right. That pays off that earlier moment. I see what you did there...

...or worse, you're reminded that what you're seeing is a payoff for an earlier setup. Such was the case in The Golden Compass.

I don't want to get into too big a debate about this movie. I'm a huge fan of Philip Pullman's books, and of Chris Weitz, too... just not together, I guess. But let me say this one small thing: never, ever, foreshadow a payoff! There's a moment in Compass in which Lyra asks Pan if he remembers 'that thing Mrs. Coulter said about the king of the ice bears' -- how the bear wishes he were human. We then proceed to see Lyra make a plan based on this information.

Don't know about you, but when she says that, my instinct is -- You ought to remember it, that was a mere half an hour ago!

Because here's the problem: time is passing for the characters. They're on a journey, maybe even a long one. Me? I just saw that scene! Let her act on the information rather than talking about it. I'd argue the scene in which Lyra proposes she becomes the king's daemon would have been far better without the preamble.

Even if you're worried about kids in the audience forgetting, for crying out loud, just show us the bear king's foible. Don't have the character say it out loud. If you just show us, and we see Lyra act on the information, we'll feel smart, remembering the information spoken aloud earlier. If you just tell us a payoff is coming, we'll sit there and watch your cool CG polar bear while planning what to have for dinner.

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