Just like a good joke, I find the best writing often relies on a set-up/punchline/callback structure. You introduce an important element into a story (normally pretty early on, but not necessarily always), then you pay it off later. Sometimes, the element will even come back at an unexpected time or in an unexpected way.

There is a scene in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang that pokes fun at the expectation for this structure. There is a scene where the narrator of the film, Robert Downey Jr.’s Harry Lockhart, says, “That is a terrible scene. It’s like, ‘Why was that even in the movie? Gee, you think it’ll come back later, maybe?'” in reference to a scene where him and another character have a banal conversation about being night-owls. The scene never does come back to mean anything important, unless I missed something (which is entirely possible).

While Shane Black calls attention to it and somewhat subverts the method, it stands as a good example of a tried-and-true way to write. Audiences, readers, expect things to happen purposefully within a movie. It helps them to suspend their disbelief if it seems like they are in the hands of a creator they can trust. True, oftentimes these things are nothing more than MacGuffins (the letters of transit from Casablanca, for example) but they don’t have to be. It can be a fear that a character mentions in passing in the beginning of a story that manifests itself in the climax. Gattaca has a similar set-up/punchline wherein Ethan Hawkes character, Vincent Freeman, races his genetically-altered brother in a lake. Growing up Vincent could never beat his brother because of the genetic superiority his brother had, but towards the climax, after Vincent has done everything he can to raise himself to the level of those who are genetically altered, he finally defeats his brother and actually has to save his life. This signals the viewer that Vincent is ready to take a shuttle into the solar system and will likely succeed.

In my own writing I like to tie things together as circular as I can. If a dramatic element, MacGuffin, or unique character trait is introduced in Act I, I try very hard to make sure it pays off in Act II or Act III. Personally, I don’t think it’s ever good to leave an audience with too many loose ends (unless part of a grander scheme) or questions. It takes away from the enjoyment of the story and the digestion of the themes. With Granted the ending was purposefully very ambiguous (hell, the story was ambiguous) and I often felt that it led to our audiences leaving with a sour taste in their mouths. It also led to them asking the wrong questions. They became so focused on the Room and the mystery aspects of the story (which were never explained – partly because I didn’t want them to be distracting from the main story) they completely ignored the themes of loss and selfishness that the story was actually hinting at. There wasn’t enough resolution for the major story components introduced early on for the audience to grasp onto what I felt should be the correct things. Of course, this was far from the only problem with Granted and why the audience latched onto the ideas they did as opposed to the ones I wanted them to (hint – the mystery of the Room ended up being far more interesting than the characters and their struggles).

This is all just something to keep in mind when reading/watching/absorbing stories through osmosis. Why is a certain story element being introduced? Does it add tension? Background? How does it play into the story as a whole? So on and so forth.

I think it leads to a deeper appreciation of not only story, but the writer and their skill in general. This, by my estimation, is something that is needed as writer’s are under-appreciated.

Now get off my lawn you ungrateful kids.