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Setup & Payoffs in Mean Girls

Setup and Payoffs in Mean Girls

We’re going to do something a little different today with Mean Girls instead of the normal Screenplay vs Film analysis. You see, normally for Screenplay vs Film posts, I choose a movie that I think aspiring screenwriters would be interested in learning from…as well as something I know I wouldn’t mind watching again. Then I track down its corresponding screenplay, examine the differences, and share with you all the screenwriting tips that I learned.

But Mean Girls wasn’t so nice to me. Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun. There weren’t any significant changes between the screenplay and film versions of Mean Girls, at least not with the only screenplay draft I was able to find. There was a dyslexic joke about Amanda Seyfried’s character that was dropped. There was a student with real drug problems named Barry who was eliminated. And Regina was pushing to have Spring Fling on a boat. You’re probably thinking, so what? My sentiments too.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Mean Girls was written by Tina Fey, who’s seriously smart and funny. A lot of times I find that comedies written by comedians have great gags but poor structure. Not so with Mean Girls. Although there was some scene reshuffling, most of the movie happens the way it was written in the screenplay. And 85% of the witty dialogue was verbatim from Fey’s draft…so there wasn’t a lot of discrepancy for me to analyze.

Screenwriter Tina Fey

Screenwriting All-Star Tina Fey

Because Tina Fey wrote such a strong comedy with few changes from screenplay to screen, I have to do something a little different with Mean Girls. Instead of doing screenplay vs film analysis, I’m going to analyze one screenwriting device that it pulled off amazingly well–the art of setup and payoffs. Having your setup pay off in your screenplay is a tricky skill to master, so if you want to know more, read on:

An Intro to Setups and Payoffs

We’re all familiar with the basic concept of setup and payoffs: early on in your screenplay, you set up some detail/scenario that may seem irrelevant, but later on will yield a result that hopefully your audience wasn’t anticipating (the payoff). The separation in time & space is important, because if you set something up and the result happens right away, you’ve left the realm of setups and payoffs…and entered the realm of cause & effect (also important). If you’d like to study a screenplay/movie that aces both, then make sure to watch Back to the Future.

This is also why traditionally, all your setups should occur in Act One and during the first half of Act Two, while the payoffs occur after the midpoint of your screenplay.

If you think about it, it makes sense: your midpoint functions as a fulcrum that takes your second act in a new direction. As your characters enter this new stage of your story, setups concerning each of them are going to go into new directions too, producing the payoff.

This is especially true of screenplays whose purpose is to show the main character undergoing a transformation. In your first act, you’ll show what he’s like in the present (the setup). During the second act, he’ll overcome obstacles that will fundamentally change him. Showing these changes will be a key part of your third act (the payoff).

This may seem super-obvious and something you’ve absorbed from watching hundreds of movies, but I find that it’s helpful to identify such screenwriting conventions. When you’re consciously aware of them, it’s much easier to put a finger on what might be missing in your screenplay when you’re in the revising stage.

This particular kind of screenplay setup is what screenwriting guru Blake Snyder refers to as the six things that need fixing in his book Save the Cat. According to him, you must “show the audience what is missing in the hero’s life. Like little time bombs, these Six Things That Need Fixing, these character tics and flaws, will be exploded later in the script, turned on their heads and cured. They will become running gags and call-backs.” Although he says that these six things (an arbitrary number; five or seven would work too) should be woven into the first ten pages of your screenplay, I’d argue that you can even set them up later in your first Act.

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat

Save the Cat - it's a popular screenwriting guide for a reason

The Structure of Mean Girls

As I mentioned earlier, setups normally occur during the first half of your screenplay while their payoffs occur after your midpoint. In order to understand the setups and payoffs in Mean Girls, it’s important to identify three key plot points: the first Act break, the midpoint, and the second Act break. As you’ll discover when watching the movie, all the setups occur before the midpoint while the payoffs occur afterwards.

  • First Act Break: Cady sees Regina kissing Aaron, Cady’s love interest, at his Halloween party and vows revenge.
  • Midpoint: After dabbling in the world of the Plastics, Cady has officially become one of them.
  • Second Act Break: Hoping to lure Aaron to her lair, Cady throws a party at her house. But she drinks too much alcohol and ends up throwing up on him. He accuses her of being a Regina clone. He’s not the only one–Cady’s friend Janice accuses her of being a real Plastic.

(If you want to know more about screenplay structure, check out How to Write a Script Outline: the 8 Major Plot Points and 8 Major Plot Points: Examples from Lord of the Rings.)

Cady and co in slutty party outfits

Cady, Cady, where did your innocence go?

On a side note, a lot of screenplays are bookended–the last few scenes mirror the beginning scenes in some way. Tina Fey did something a little different, and instead, bookended the second Act.

The beginning of Act Two starts with a innocent Cady dressing up as a zombie ex-wife for a Halloween party and ends with a very slutty and manipulative Cady throwing a house party. Bookending your screenplay or your second act can be a nice touch–I’m definitely a fan! But if you’re not careful, it can come across as cheesy, so don’t be too heavy handed.

And now for some examples:

Setup & Payoff #1: The Burn Book

Setup: Cady, now tentatively embraced by the Plastics, visits the Queen Bee’s mansion. There, Cady learns more about the rules of Girl World–that you’re supposed to criticize yourself when you look in the mirror, for example. They also show her the Burn Book, where they write nasty things about the other girls in their grade. Alone, without further development, it’d be just another example of their frivolity and viciousness, but…

Payoff: Regina writes nasty stuff about herself in the Burn Book, thereby setting up Cady as its prime author. When Regina distributes copies of its pages throughout the school, not only do the girls turn into jungle cats…but they all hate Cady, and thus, Regina’s revenge is complete.

Setup & Payoff #2: Ms Norbury is a pusher

Note: while this setup and payoff is connected to the Burn Book, it’s not quite the same.

Setup: Trying to bond with her new student, Ms Norbury shares too much personal information–she’s divorced because she’s such a “pusher.” She pushed her husband into law school, she pushed herself into three jobs, and now she’s going to push Cady into doing better in her class.

Development: After pretending to be bad at math in order to get Aaron to tutor her, Cady’s failing. Instead of examining her behavior, she blames Ms Norbury. In anger, she writes that Ms Norbury is a drug pusher in the Burn Book.

Ms Norbury and the Burn Book

According to the little pink tome, Ms Norbury is a pusher

Second development: When the Burn Book goes public, Ms Norbury conducts an afternoon workshop for the girls. She asks Cady if there’s anything she’d like to confess to…but Cady stays mum.

Payoff: When Ms Norbury faces a police investigation, Cady finally owns to writing the drug lie in the Burn Book–in front of her crush, Aaron. This act marks her cycle of amends, and her transformation from Plastic back into a real girl.

Another note: this setup and payoff occurs in four parts instead of two because of the additional developments. It’s not essential to have scenes which develop your setup, but if your setup becomes a key component of your plot, developing upon it might be necessary.

Final thoughts on Mean Girls

This post is already plenty long, so I’ll describe more examples of setups and payoffs in Mean Girls in tomorrow’s post.

{ 2 comments… read them below or season this blog with your own opinion! }

Kim August 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm

You missed the “big yellow school bus”! If you watch it closely, Cady – in her narration – keeps repeating that something hits her like a big yellow bus. And then Bam! Regina gets hit by a big yellow school bus but it feels realistic because it was being set up all along

Reply

scribemeetsworld August 21, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Hi Kim,

That’s a good one! It’s actually included in Part Two of this post which you can find here, proving once again how skilled a writer Tina Fey really is.

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