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How HOME ALONE Nails Set Up / Pay Off And How You Can Too

All About Home Alone (1990)

The original Home Alone is a stone-cold classic. I was a child when it first came out and as the member of a gigantic, dysfunctional family myself I loved it right from the off. It launched Macaulay Culkin’s career as probably the biggest child star in the world back then. Though his career didn’t have the kind of longevity most of us expected, Kieran Culkin (Fuller McCallister) has proved his acting chops ever since.

Combining cartoon-like Tom & Jerry style violence with a Christmas story about a kid fighting off burglars seems an unlikely pairing. Yet even though it came out over thirty years ago now, it remains remarkably ‘current’ overall (bar some misgivings over tech advances and social/parenting changes, see post below).

One of the reasons Home Alone remains current is its uber-lean plotting. There’s barely a thing in there that doesn’t need to be. We can see this in its set ups and pay offs, two things spec screenwriters consistently underestimate.

I will put Act One – aka ‘the set up’ under the microscope in this post … and reveal how each pay off works later in the film. I will also detail the key takeaways writers can garner. Ready? Then let’s go …!!!

Act One

FYI, the set ups in blue are paid off within just a few scenes and/or the Act itself. The set ups in red are longer-reaching in the narrative and paid off in Act 2 and Act 3. 

  • OPENS ON the McCallister house at Christmas. It’s super opulent and fancy.
  • Kids running everywhere. INTRO Harry the burglar, dressed as a police officer (we don’t know he’s a burglar yet).
  • INTRO Kevin’s Mom on the phone, packing for their holiday to France. Our protagonist Kevin is introduced next.
  • Kevin complains his Uncle Frank won’t let him watch a video. 
  • INTRO Dad. He’s talking about electronics. This sets up his mistake unplugging stuff they will need.
  • Dad tells Kevin to pick up all his micro machines (very popular 90s toys) before someone ‘falls over and breaks their neck’. 
  • Mum and Dad talk with Kevin and it’s set up that Kevin is both precocious and very interested in dangerous tools like glue guns.
  • ‘Kevin is helpless’ – Siblings & Cousins versus Kevin # 1.  Everyone is mean to him about packing his suitcase.
  • ‘Fuller will wet the bed’. Siblings and cousins versus Kevin # 2. Kevin declares he would rather live alone.
  • Big Bad Buzz – INTRO Buzz, Kevin’s older brother who is set up as antagonist. ‘I wouldn’t let you sleep in my room if you were growing on my ass!’ INTRO Buzz’s spider. 
  • Old Shovel ‘Murderer’ – INTRO Old Man Marley, set up as a (misunderstood) antagonist. Kevin and his brothers find him threatening and weird. Buzz claims Marley killed his family.
  • Pizzas arrive. Pizza man knocks over the statue outside the front door. He joins Harry in the McCallister hall who has still not got to talk to any grown-ups in the house.
  • INTRO Uncle Frank who avoids paying for the pizzas. Dad finally sees the ‘police’ and inadvertently tells Harry all their burglar precautions.
  • Buzz has eaten all of the cheese pizza. Fuller the bed-wetter is drinking Pepsi. He grins at Kevin. Buzz pretends to barf the pizza up for Kevin. Kevin sees red.

Approx 10 mins in: FIGHT!!!

  • Kevin attacks Buzz. Milk and then cola spills everywhere, ruining the passports and tickets. More bedlam. Kevin’s ticket is inadvertently thrown in the bin.
  • Uncle Frank: ‘Look what you did, you little jerk!’ Everyone versus Kevin # 3.
  • Mom sends Kevin upstairs. He won’t go, so she takes him. On the way Mom sees Harry the fake police officer in the hallway. Kevin sees Harry’s gold tooth. 
  • Mom reveals Kevin has to sleep on the third floor. Kevin complains about having to sleep with Fuller, so Mom says she will put him somewhere else.
  • Kevin tells his mother families suck and he wants to be left alone FOREVER.
  • Mom: ‘You’ll feel pretty sad if you woke up tomorrow and didn’t have a family.’ Kevin: ‘No I wouldn’t.’
  • Kevin’s wish: ‘I wish they would all just disappear.’ 
  • A tree takes out the phone lines in the night and kills the radio alarm.
  • The airport transport people arrive; no one in the house is awake.
  • Everyone FREAKS OUT. Bedlam again as everyone rushes around to get ready in time. Kevin is conspicuous by his absence. 
  • INTRO to a NEIGHBOUR’S BOY about Kevin’s age. He randomly turns up asking annoying questions in the melee.
  • Mom asks one of the older kids HEATHER to do a headcount. Heather counts the McCallister kids and accidentally counts Kevin when Buzz is silly, distracting her.
  • One of the phone engineers tells Mom the phones are out. She doesn’t care right now, it’s not like she will need them.
  • They rush through the airport and security and JUST make the plane.
  • The adults settle into first class, the kids ensconced in coach. Mom: ‘I hope we didn’t forget anything.’ 
  • Kevin is still at home in his PJs. He’s unaware his family has gone without him.
  • Mom worries about the kids being in coach. Dad says their kids have a lot more than they did, they’re fine.

Approx 20 minutes in: Kevin is literally home alone!

  • Kevin explores the house. Finds he is on his own.
  • Kevin goes down to the basement. He is scared of the furnace and runs back upstairs.
  • He runs outside and checks the garage. The cars are still there. He doesn’t realise airport transport picked his family up.
  • Kevin: ‘I made my family disappear.’ 
  • He seems sad, until he remembers how everyone was against him. Now he is delighted: ‘I made my family disappear!’ 
  • Kevin does whatever he likes at home. He goes through Buzz’s ‘private stuff’ and finds his firecrackers. 
  • Kevin finds Buzz’s BB gun and shoots at toys. Then he watches the gangster movie he was not allowed to while eating a huuuuuge amount of junk food. He gets freaked out by the killing and yells ‘Mom!’
  • On the plane, Mom wakes as if she heard Kevin. She tells Dad she has a terrible feeling they forgot something. Dad tells her it’s just because they had to leave in a hurry. Mom is not soothed. She goes through a list of stuff.
  • Dad: ‘I forgot to close the garage‘ (and he really did! We saw this when Kevin goes outside to check for cars).
  • Mom momentarily calms down, but then realises that is not the problem. Dad is confused: ‘What else could we be forgetting?’
  • That’s when Mum yells that iconic shriek: ‘KEVIN!!!!’ 

Act One finishes at approx 25 minutes in (not including credits sequence). WOW!

Here are all the RED points and where they pay off later …

  • Harry is casing the joint for when he’s a burglar with Marv. An ingeniously devilish plan!
  • We presume the movie Kevin says Uncle Frank won’t let him watch is the gangster movie ‘Angels with Filthy Souls‘: ‘Keep the change ya filthy animal!’ We see him watch it in Act 1 and then use it later in Act 2 against the pizza man, then Marv the second burglar.
  • These micro machine toys will be used against burglars Marv and Harry later. Kevin uses Buzz’s firecrackers to help with this.
  • Kevin’s prowess with guns and other dangerous items like glue guns is set up from the beginning. This is no ordinary child … BUT he is also still a child, hence the reminder about the scary furnace. In addition, Kevin will use the basement to get in and out of the house on the sly when fighting the burglars.
  • Kevin will recognise Harry by his gold tooth later in Act 2.
  • Doh! Mom will need those broken phones at the beginning of Act 2 when she realises they left Kevin behind. He doesn’t have a mobile!
  • Buzz’s spider will get out of its tank later in the film. It has the run of the house from then on. It will also help Kevin escape Marv the second burglar when he manages to grab him in the resolution.
  • Old Man Marley will help facilitate Kevin’s emotional realisation about his family in Act 2. He will also rescue Kevin in Act 3 from the burglars when they catch him at the Murphys’ home next door.

What Can Writers Learn?

i) Exposition needs to be seamless

Very often writers think exposition is a BAD thing because of the term ‘expositional dialogue’ … yet that just means ‘on-the-nose’ AKA ‘clunky, obvious set ups in dialogue’.

Exposition itself only refers to the background information needed to understand the story. This may be good, or bad, or neutral – basically execution-dependant. (Check out How Does Exposition Work? for more).

In contrast, Home Alone has superb dialogue because it gives us LOTS of information pertaining to character, plot and storyworld yet WITHOUT going overboard or making it clunky or obvious.

Check out the list above again, then watch Act One of Home Alone. Once you know it, you can see it … but you have to be aware of how the script is put together. That’s how good exposition works.

ii) Set ups adhere to genre conventions

Interestingly, in Home Alone we don’t meet our protagonist Kevin first. This honour goes to Harry, one of our double act of burglar antagonists.

Since Home Alone is essentially a comedy thriller / adventure romp, this makes sense. After all, in thrillers the protagonist is drawn into the antagonists’ ‘evil plan’ … so by virtue of being home alone, Kevin ends up in Harry and Marv’s sights.

But it’s important to note Harry and Marv are not the only antagonists in Home Alone.

From the beginning ALL the other characters are set up in opposition to Kevin, even his own mother!

There’s no doubt Kevin is an annoying brat, but he does make a good point that’s HIM who gets the blame for everything. This is provoked *and* engineered by older brother Buzz. (By the way, Uncle Frank calling Kevin a little jerk is totally out of order! If my adult brother called my child son that, he would get a bunch of fives. In fact, the way ALL the kids talk to one another is absolutely gross. The whole family is super-dysfunctional and needs therapy).

So writers need to think about genre conventions when thinking about set ups. Had Home Alone been anything other than a comedy thriller/ adventure, we would probably see Kevin first.

iii) You gotta pack it in!

NEWSFLASH: 20-25 minutes might ‘only’ be 20-25 pages in a screenplay, but it is a LONG time to ask for your target audience’s attention. Home Alone demonstrates how important it is for stories to hit the ground running.

Too often, the spec screenplays I read (and even novels too) ‘smell of set up’. In other words, it feels like the writer is saying …

“HERE are my characters, I am introducing you to them … and NOW five to six pages in, let the story begin!!” 

In contrast, Home Alone does not do this. Instead, we are literally PLUNGED into the story and must play catch up. We learn about the characters as they react to what is going on around them. Within five minutes we’ve …

  • Met both sides of the gigantic McCallister family
  • Worked out who the main characters are
  • Heard how Kevin is a precocious child
  • Discovered they’re all off on holiday for Christmas
  • Found out they are a deeply dysfunctional family with loads of in-fighting

I’ve written many, many times that character and plotting must go in hand in hand, plus I have also broken down LOTS of sitcoms on this blog.

If you find plotting difficult, check out The Foundations of Writing Craft. It’s a free online mini course from B2W.

You can also download the B2W Plotting worksheet to help you from the resources page on this blog, too. Here’s my breakdown of Home Alone using it, below. You can click on the pic to get your own copy of the worksheet too.

iv) Large Casts are an ILLUSION

Often movies only have 2-8 main roles in, yet Home Alone has The McCallisters, a HUGE family of 15 people at the offset. Then there’s Harry, Pizza Man, a neighbour’s kid, the airport guys, various people at the airport and Old Man Marley. How can audiences keep up??

It’s actually pretty simple … there’s not as many ‘main roles’ as you think! Home Alone demonstrates you can have a HUGE cast of people running about, but character role function is extremely important.

We know instinctively who the main characters are right from the offset. Put simply in this context …

Main characters = impact on the plot.

In Act One of Home Alone, we understand Kevin, his Mom and Buzz are the most important characters in the McCallister home. The reasons why are obvious: Kevin is the protagonist. Buzz is the antagonist, with Mom the latter’s unwitting accomplice.

As far as secondaries and peripherals are concerned, others that DO stuff and screw up are Dad, the cantankerous Uncle Frank, then Fuller, whose bed-wetting means Kevin ends up sleeping alone. (Presumably the McCallisters are not so neglectful they forget TWO children??).

There’s also Heather who miscounts the kids, plus the Neighbour’s kid who puts the spanner in the works.

Not including Harry, that’s 8 in Act One!

The rest of the characters may have some great zingers dialogue-wise, but they don’t impact on the plot.

Aaah but what about Harry and Marv???

It’s true, we don’t know upfront Harry is not whom he seems, but that’s okay. Very often antagonists will present as one thing in thrillers and adventures, only for it to be revealed later it’s a LIE.

However, we still need someone to pick up the reins of antagonist from the beginning. Kevin’s family – particularly Buzz – do this FOR Harry in the first instance.

I bet you’re surprised Marv the second burglar doesn’t appear here in Act One … I know I was! As one of my favourites, I would have bet real money Marv appeared sooner!

But again: that’s okay. As a secondary character, there’s no need to literally CROWBAR Marv in for the sake of it (see what I did there?? Marv does love crowbars after all).

v) “Why not just call the police?”

This is one of the top questions I have to ask writers when they write thrillers and adventures involving crime. The usual answer is ‘because then there would be no story’ – YIKES!

Home Alone demonstrates writers need to ensure the plot does not get derailed like this. The film not only handles this big issue superbly, it actually has its cake and eats it!

The storyworld of Home Alone is ‘hyper-real’ and absurd, but it is grounded in truth. The first course of action for any sensible parent would be to call the police, so Mom does. However, in keeping with the absurd storyworld, the police are not much help. They respond with all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense but eventually send a police officer round to check on Kevin.

Of course, by then Kevin has accidentally stolen a toothbrush from a general store. Like the eight-year-old child he is, he believes himself to be a wanted criminal.

This means that he hides from police just like he hides from Harry and Marv the burglars at the beginning of Act 2. Thinking he can’t go to the police, Kevin’s decision to take on the burglars himself makes more sense (at least to a kid).

vi) Writers need to keep up with the times

These days, Home Alone probably couldn’t work as it is because of mobile phones. My tween even calls me from the toilet! I doubt we would be able to get far without her.

In addition, house answering machines are no longer a ‘thing’. This means Marv would never hear the message from Dad at the Murphy’s next door. This enables the burglars to realise the house IS unoccupied apart from Kevin.

Also these days it’s unlikely parents would leave the headcount to another child (teenager or not). Social services would also likely be MUCH more interested in a lone child report from their parent! Even an absurdist storyworld would need to reflect this.

In short, writers need to reflect the context of the times they live in, via stuff like tech but also how authorities deal with emergencies **today** (even within the context of absurd, hyper-real storyworlds).

Concluding

Characterisation and plotting is inextricably linked … you literally can’t have one without the other.

Whilst all stories date, classic stories place character AND plot at the heart of everything they do. We can see this in action via the set ups and pay offs of Home Alone.

Now go watch it! If you’re a Disney+ subscriber, you should be able to find it on there.

Enjoy!

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