I'm going to come out and say it: I can't wait for Game of Thrones to end.
It's not that I don't love this show: I do. I love it with all my heart. You have no idea how satisfying it is, as the adult-ish version of a nerdy young kid, to see a DnD campaign writ large on the Home Box Office. I have enjoyed the ups and downs of my favorite characters, cried with their losses, and cheered their victories.
But I have also been stressed beyond imagining by plot-driven conveniences and stupidities. This season, more than any before, seemed to forget that story must be driven by characters. In a rush to get to the end of this damned show, the creators and showrunners sacrificed the suspension of disbelief, and the characterization to this point, for a few set-piece moments.
That said, I will one day own the box set and ever subsequent version released thereafter. This is a money factory, and I am but a poor consumer of their goods.
It got me thinking, watching the good-not-great finale. Game of Thrones has become a king (a mad king, but a king nonetheless) of the Set Up and Delivery. Granted, they play the long con with some of their punchlines, but these land more often than they fail. What do I mean? Let's take a look at two quick examples (not from GoT, because spoilers).
Set Up and Delivery
Set Up and Delivery is a simple concept. It is embodied easiest in Chekov's Gun. Anton Chekov wrote that "If you hang a rifle on the wall in scene one, it needs to go off in scene two or three."
TV and Film are visual mediums, meaning every image must transmit a piece of the story. A rifle on the wall is a Set Up, much like in a joke. If there is no payoff, then there was no reason for the Set Up. In fact, Chekov implies that to do so is to lie to your audience.
Now, that isn't to say you can never subvert expectations. Christopher Nolan does this all the time. But if you are just starting out as a writer or director, don't jump into the deep end of film making just yet.
Let's look at one of my favorite movies of all time--Shaun of the Dead--for an excellent example of Set Up and Delivery.
The first thing you need to understand is: Edgar Wright is kind of a genius. His films are so tight, so well-choreographed, that it almost feels like a dance. The writing, directing, and acting in Shaun of the Dead is pitch-perfect throughout, and it makes the whole thing look easy.
Case in point, the rifle over the bar.
Yeah, we're not even playing around this time. We're tackling Chekov's Gun with a freaking Chekov's Gun!
In the movie, the gang's pub of choice is the Winchester, so named for the Winchester repeating rifle hung over the bar. The rifle is referenced several times, often paired with the knowledge that the gun has been deactivated. While Nick Frost swears that a friend of his KNOWS the rifle is legit, he is rebuffed by the group for such beliefs.
When the shit hits the proverbial fan (zombies zombies zombies), our hero is thrown the rifle and told to shoot. "But it's deactivated!" He uses the rifle to batter a zombie into submission. In a calm between actions, Shaun turns to his friends to deliver a comment when BOOM! The rifle goes off! Now we're talking. A real weapon in the coming fight.
But this is a comedy, not an action movie. Nearly every shot Shaun takes misses wide. The only zombies he's able to kill are his former flatmate, a random monster, and (spoilers) his mum. When the forces of evil close in, the rifle is rendered practically useless. Shaun loses all his ammo to a fire in the bar.
The writer and director set up the rifle for us, letting us know it would come into play down the road. Then, when it finally got a chance to shine, they tricked us into thinking it was deactivated after all. The Set Up and Delivery were handled flawlessly, and the movie was all the better for it.
In a simpler demonstration, we can use Men in Black and the "little red button." In Act 2, we are introduced to a sexy black car with a shiny red button on the E-Break. We are told explicitly that we "never push the little red button."
Then, in Act 3, with lives on the line, we push that damned button. We push it hard.
In the same movie, we have a subversion of the norm with the Noisy Cricket. A tiny, emasculating weapon, and yet it is easily the most powerful gun seen.
I realize I'm getting a little away from my original promise of 2 examples, but there are just too many good ones to pass up.
Honey I Shrunk the Kids has the Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie come back in Act 2. The Last Starfighter has the Death Blossom. Indiana Jones has snakes. There are so many examples, it's nearly impossible to choose.
Hopefully this post has illuminated the concept of Chekov's Gun for you. On Thursday, we'll take a look at another fun concept in film making, and how you as the writer inform that decision.