Smarter Story Structure (online course)

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With my online course, Smarter Story Structure, you’ll learn practical tips for overcoming plot problems like these in your screenplay or novel:

  • the story starts too slowly (according to a Goodreads survey, 46.4% of readers abandon novels for this reason)
  • the story doesn’t get going until halfway through (this happened in almost a quarter of scripts read by a studio reader in a year)
  • the middle “runs out of gas” (even John Grisham admits this is a tricky issue)
  • the climax doesn’t deliver fireworks, merely sparklers
  • the story is the right length…but isn’t a good read (uh-oh)

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Setup & Payoffs in Mean Girls (Part 2)

Setups and payoffs in MEAN GIRLS

As promised, here are more examples of setups and payoffs in the teen comedy Mean Girls. If you’d like an overview of this screenwriting technique, plus a few more examples from the hit movie, check out yesterday’s post: Setup & Payoffs in Mean Girls (Part 1).

And now for today’s screenplay examples:

Setup & Payoff #3: The Rules

Setup: When the Plastics invite Cady to sit with them every day that week, they give her the 411 on their rules.

Payoff: The rules make for a fantastic witty scene, but when Janice and Cady’s plan to overthrow Regina is successful, it becomes something more. Now bestowed with a bigger bottom, Regina is forced to wear sweats on Monday. When Gretchen and Amanda Seyfried’s characters tell her it’s against the rules, she says “it’s the only thing that fits me.” I love her delivery of that line–it makes her villainness a hundred times more complex.

But her earnestness doesn’t do a thing for the other Plastics–those are the rules and Regina can’t sit with them anymore. After they oust Regina, they look to Cady as their new Queen–a crucial plot development cleverly set up several scenes before. Tina Fey could’ve written Cady’s “coronation” in several other ways. Choosing to do so as a payoff on an earlier scene is one reason why her screenplay stands out.

Setup & Payoff #4: The Kalteen bars

Setup: We’re first introduced to the Kalteen bars when Janice and Damian visit Cady’s house. Being nosey parkers, they discover the bars, and Cady explains that her mom would give them to starving African kids to gain weight.

Development: Cady vows revenge on Regina. Part of her plan is to destroy Regina’s “hot body,” so she cons Regina into believing that Kalteen bars help girls lose weight. Throughout the second half of the second Act, we’ll see Regina chowing down on the bars, totally clueless about her imminent demise.

Payoff: Because of the bars, Regina gains weight and has to wear sweatpants to school…which leads to her ousting by the Plastics as described above…and creates a void for a new Queen Bee to fill. Hello, Cady.

Reversal: Regina learns what Kalteen bars really do and realizes what a backstabbing bitch Cady was. She executes her own revenge with the Burn Book, ending Cady’s short-lived reign as Queen of the Plastics.

Setup & Payoff #5: Spring Fling

Setup: When Cady befriends Janice and Damian, they give her the skinny on their high school–including info on Spring Fling elections. Janice could care less about the dance, but Damian would love to have power on the Student Activities Committee by becoming Spring Fling King.

Development: Nominations for Spring Fling court are announced. Regina is elected, naturally. Damian rigged the vote so that Janice and Gretchen were nominated. Gretchen’s nomination would mess with her friendship with Regina, all part of the plan. Cady too is also nominated, but not because of rigging–showing that Cady has ascended the popularity ladder at North Shore High.

Payoff: At Spring Fling, Cady’s nominated to be Spring Fling Queen. In her acceptance speech, she shares what she learned during her second act journey with everyone else, marking her growth. She also finally gets to kiss Aaron.

Most teen movies end with prom. Kudos go to Fey for changing prom to the Spring Fling. She also took away some of the cliché factor by linking Spring Fling King and Queen to chair of the Student Activities Committee, something Damian’s heavily invested in, which was nicely setup early on.

Sometimes, the setting of your climax and resolution don’t require any setup. But if they do, follow Mean Girls’s model and weave references to it throughout your story. Then, when it finally makes its Third Act appearance, it won’t seem out of the blue to your audience.

Setup & Payoff #6: Mathletes

Setup: When Cady is a new student, both Kevin Gnapoor and Ms Norbury invite her to join the Mathletes. She says she probably will, although the Plastics (and Janice and Damian) warn her it’s social suicide. Without further development, Mathletes would just be a punchline, but…

Development: Cady ditches the first Mathlete meeting in order to prepare for Aaron’s Halloween party, showing how she’s repressing her true intelligence and personality in order to be popular and a jock’s girlfriend.

Payoff: In order to earn extra credit in Ms Norbury’s class, Cady has to participate in the Mathlete State Championships. Thanks to her, they win (and score varsity jackets with leather sleeves). During the contest, Cady experiences a major epiphany. Making fun of another girl won’t make her prettier or smarter. It’s just mean. It’s a nice after-school special moment which also highlights Cady’s return to her true, non-plastic self.

Setup & Payoff #7: The bus

Setup: At the very beginning of Mean Girls, Cady’s parents see her off on her first day of regular school. As she crosses the street, she almost gets hit by a school bus.

Payoff: At the end of the movie, Cady chases Regina, trying to apologize for all the backstabbing and manipulation she’s done. Regina doesn’t accept her apology, rushes into the road–and gets hit by a bus. Some students even believe that Cady pushed her into the street.

I thought taking Regina down with a bus accident was a peculiar choice, and I’m not sure what motivated that screenwriting decision. It was a big shock to me–and if it hadn’t been setup earlier, would have made me disengage completely from the movie because it was so unrealistic.

If you have a scene whose shock level is on par with Regina’s bus accident, try to set it up at the beginning of your screenplay. You don’t have to devote a lot of space to it — just something quick and subtle. If there’s enough time between the setup and payoff scenes, your audience will be still be surprised when the shocker occurs–instead of feeling alienated and cheated.

Setup & Payoff #8: Girls Gone Wild

The comparison between teenage students and wild African animals was an apt one, producing humorous elements which paired nicely with the snappy dialogue. But if the comparison wasn’t set up early on, the final “jungle scene” would’ve come out of nowhere…kind of like song and dance sequences in Bollywood movies.

Setup: At the mall, Cady notices that teenagers were congregating around a fountain the way animals gather around a watering hole in the African jungle. Cady’s like an anthropologist, observing these animals in their natural habitat.

Development: After Regina’s stolen Aaron back, she flaunts the relationship in front of Cady. Cady imagines how this would be handled in the jungle–she pounces on Regina, while the other students in the cafeteria imitate wild animals.

Payoff: When copies of the Burn Book are distributed throughout the school, the girls literally turn into savage animals, revealing the consequences of letting female aggression and manipulation run unchecked.

Final thoughts on Mean Girls

I hope these examples from Mean Girls enhanced your understanding of setups and payoffs. If you analyze these examples, you’ll notice that the payoffs often accomplish multiple story objectives and that each setup and payoff unit are connected to each other. This made the screenplay really cohesive and is what gives Mean Girls an edge over your standard teen movie fare.

But of course setups and payoffs aren’t limited to teen movies. So tell me, what are your favorite examples of setups and payoffs?

Varsity letter by Kate Haskell

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