Setups and Payoffs in Die Hard

Don't let any scene or moment in your screenplay go to waste. Big payoffs or special moments in the third act should be set up earlier.

Let's take a look at an example from the classic film Die Hard.

The Setup

In the first act, Ellis tells Holly to show John the new watch that the Nakatomi Corporation gave her. "It's a Rolex," he brags.

This brief moment accomplishes a few goals for writer Jeb Stuart:

  • Shows that Ellis is vain. He covets luxury status symbols.
  • Shows that Holly is valued by Nakatomi. This underscores the main relationship conflict: Holly left John in NYC to pursue her career in LA.
  • Sets up the famous ending: Hans Gruber's death.

The Payoff

In the climactic ending, Hans grabs Holly's watch as he hangs from the Nakatomi building. John frantically works to unclasp the watch before Hans can reach for his gun and shoot Holly.

At the last moment, John is successful. He unclasps the watch, saving Holly's life and sending Hans falling to his death.

Tracking Setups and Payoffs in Logline

Logline is built on flexible plain text, so tracking setups, payoffs, plot points, themes and just about anything else is simple.

In the sample script above, we use note elements to mark the setups and payoffs. You can use a similar system for tracking theme, character arcs, plot points or anything else you want to focus on as you structure your story.

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