Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Plants and Payoffs

As I continue to fill in the gaps in these posts!

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal, Plant/Reveal, Setup/Payoff, and sometimes FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle).

On the most basic level, a plant is showing the gun in the first act if you’re going to use it in the third act. But plants can be much more than that, and serve many different story functions.

A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit - to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny. Of course it’s also a suspense builder in this case – the descent into the tomb is that much more scary because we’re feeling Indy’s revulsion.

Any film of Spielberg’s is going to be filled with plants and payoffs, so you can’t go wrong having a Spielberg marathon to get familiar with the technique. In E.T., E.T. heals the potted marigolds early on, and then we see the marigolds slowly dying as E.T. gets sick. Then in the “visit to death’ scene, when E.T. has died, the marigolds start to bloom again and we realize E.T. is alive in there. Of course the reading of “Clap if you believe in fairies” scene of Peter Pan is a plant for the resurrection of E.T., too.

In POLTERGEIST, the hideous clown and the twisted tree are set up as the children’s fears, which provide terrific scares when the house starts to come alive. The little funeral for the bird, and the desecration of that little grave that happens when the bulldozers start digging the pool, is a set up for the payoff that the developers put the housing development on top of a cemetery. It introduces a thematic concept and supernatural explanation without announcing that that’s what it’s doing.

In JAWS, when Sheriff Brody first gets on board the boat, he accidentally pulls a rope that makes the oxygen tanks tumble to the deck, and Quint and Hooper freak out because the tanks could have blown up the ship. It looks like just a moment showing how out of place Brody is on the boat, but actually it’s a set up for how he will kill the shark in the end. Again – the plant is cleverly hidden, so we virtually forget about it until that “Aha!” moment when Brody brilliantly decides to use the tank to try to kill the shark.
It’s that recognition, the fact that you understand what he’s up to, that makes the audience feel they’re IN on the action and not just watching.

Plants are often used to set up a weakness of the hero/ine that will be tested, usually in the final battle. In the training sequence of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of spiritual transcendence – it’s not just a victory in battle, but a true character change as well.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Johnny attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting. And on the way to that big payoff, there’s a kind of suspense every time they dance: “Will they get the lift this time?”

Plants and payoffs can be used to great effect to define a subplot. Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: In a two-second shot, a few sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up before she is kidnapped. Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus driving the killer into a bigger frenzy). It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a character in its own right. (Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you can cram into it). And of course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

Plants can be used on a very small level, to create suspense or comic effect: for example, in TERMINATOR, we see early on that Sarah Connor has a pet iguana that is always getting loose, and later that iguana provides a big scare at a crucial moment when it drops onto Bess Motta’s head in the kitchen at night.

Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, uses a number of plants in the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. The build up and plants work for both suspense and comic effect, and Penelope completely delivers on her introduction. I was sure she’d get an Oscar nomination for that one! I want to point out that this is a great way to create a larger-than-life character.

But plants can be used in a much bigger way to convey theme as well. In WITNESS, we see the Amish community working together to build a barn – their whole way of life is community. We’ve also seen their absolute commitment to non-violence. And we see both these themes and values in action at the powerful climax, when the whole community surrounds the bad guy, and without lifting a hand against him, keeps him subdued as he sinks into a silo of grain (and that grain has been set up as a symbol for the community in the opening image of the film).

A classic example of a more intricate plant/payoff is (are) the letters of transit in CASABLANCA (here serving a dual function as MacGuffin – the object that everyone wants). The thief Ugarto has stolen letters of transit signed by Charles DeGaulle which will allow two people safe passage out of Casablanca (let’s just overlook the hole, there, that the Nazis aren’t about to let anyone do anything they don’t want them to do… it works for the purposes of the movie). Ugarto is killed for the letters, but has stashed them with Rick for safekeeping. Those letters of transit are what Ilsa wants, to get her husband safely out of Casablanca, and Rick first toys with her about them, then wants to use them for himself and Ilsa, and finally uses them to get Ilsa and her husband out.

But CASABLANCA has an even more classic plant/payoff: the line “Round up the usual suspects,” a gambit Captain Renault uses in the climax to save the day.

The story goes that the screenwriters, the Epstein brothers, were banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out a believable way to get Rick off the hook for the murder of Nazi Colonel Strasser at the end, and then one day they were driving over Mulholland to a meeting and both turned to each other in the same moment and exclaimed, “Round up the usual suspects!!!!”

This story illustrates an important point – plants and payoffs are often painstakingly engineered, and deliberately woven into the plotline for maximum effect. Once you’ve written your first draft, you can start looking for what your subconscious has already set up and engineer the payoffs – or reverse engineer a set up to make a payoff play.

I want to take a look at the way a particular setup and payoff is used in the movie JERRY MAGUIRE, by the brilliant Cameron Crowe.

Sports agent Jerry has a crisis moment early in the movie that starts his journey toward wholeness: he visits a client in the hospital after he’s had his fourth concussion on the field (football, I think…), and the client’s young son confronts Jerry and says someone has to make his dad stop playing. Jerry blows him off with a platitude and the kid bursts into tears and tells him to fuck himself.

That incident makes Jerry realize he hates himself and his life and inspires him to write a mission statement about how agents should really be acting, which gets him fired and starts his journey.

Jerry is left with only one C list client, Rod, who decides to be loyal and stick with him. And early on Rod and his wife make the decision not to accept a terrible contract renewal so they can hold out for a real contract, which they are trusting Jerry to get for them. Jerry is worried and tells them that this is a huge risk to Rod, because if he gets injured there will be no insurance. So RISK OF INJURY is set up as a big FEAR for Jerry, Rod, his wife, and us, the audience.

We are reminded of this fear when Rod signs a football for a man in a wheelchair – it’s a visual representation of what could happen to him.

And then in the climactic game, what happens? Rod takes a huge hit and is knocked out – while he is still not under contract. It’s our greatest fear manifest, and plays for maximum emotional impact because it has been set up and spelled out so clearly, all along.

And the twist is, that injury and Rod’s recovery on the field, and his bonding with the stadium audience in that moment, is what gets him the contract he’s been looking for all along.

This is a great example of how plants can not only pay off for emotional effect, but can become an integral part of the structure of a story.

Again, plants and payoffs are often developed in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff.

So, please – any great examples for us?


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

What Makes a Great Villain?


Anonymous said...

J.K. Rowling does a brilliant job of this in the Harry Potter books.

Admittedly, it's never subtle, but it works.

Since spoilers are evil, I'll be vague: In Goblet of Fire, Rowling spends at least one chapter establishing a plot device, then she gives the readers several hundred pages to forget it. Until the end of the book, when it comes into play again. There's no explanation needed. It's just a one-two punch of surprise followed by instant recognition.

Science Fiction-mystery writer Jack McDevitt also uses the set-up/payoff to great effect, though more subtly than Rowling.

Typically, it's a character's comment or passion that resurfaces later in an "a ha!" moment during the climax.

Thanks for the great posts, Alexandra.

- Joe

Gayle Carline said...

I think the visual media tends to do a better job with this, generally, than books. Frequently, by the time I get to the use of the plant in a book, I've forgotten about its significance because the author has let too much time elapse before calling it out again, so I have to leaf backwards to remind myself.

Oddly, the one movie example that comes to mind is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There is a quick gag early on about the disappearing/reappearing ink Marvin Acme has invented. It was great fun at the end to watch Roger pull his love letter to Jessica out of his pocket and suddenly realize where Acme's will had been all the time - written in his disappearing/reappearing ink.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Joe, I have to admit I have STILL not gotten to GOBLET OF FIRE, but now you've got me rabid to read it and see what you're talking about!

Sounds like a perfect example, thank you!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, yeah, great example from ROGER RABBIT, Gayle!!

I suspect that when you're finding yourself flipping back through a novel to find a plant, then that author maybe has not streamlined the book well enough. That's a pet peeve of mine, really. Plants need to be subtle, but memorable.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I'm not sure if this counts, but...

In the beginning of DIE HARD, John is told to take off his socks and shoes and make fists of his toes. He does that in his wife's office, and we think his look of pleasure is the payoff.

Then when Hans says, "Shoot out the glass," that payoff is topped.

BT said...

I've got two for you - one movie and one print.

I'll use Somewhere in Time again - the coin which kills the whole thing is painstakingly pointed out early on. Reeves goes through his pockets (after being told by the professor and after reading his book) to remove all traces of the current day. He goes back in time and on that fateful morning when Seymour makes rude comments about his clothes, he points out all the good bits, including this handy coin pocket which contains a single coin from the future and destroys everything. There are plenty of other plants in the film as well, which I guess is a little easier to do with a time parody: The photo and the question, "I wonder why she smiles like that" (or words to that affect), the pocket watch, even the musical score is planted and then paid off later.

As for print - I've just finished reading and reviewing a new book by Christopher Rides, an Australian author. It's called The Schumann Frequency. It's also about time travel and therefore has some wonderful plants that are portrayed in the future and then we learn about them in the past. My favourite was a coin (seems to have been a favourite for plants in this type of movie) the main character received from his grandfather. They called it a fate coin. It was normal on one side but badly damaged on the other. He flipped each time he had a big decision to make - like, should he go through with the experiment to go back in time. When he does goes back, he picks up a similar coin when a shyster drops it in the street. During one scene our hero gets shot, but the coin changes the bullets path, and saves the main character. It has changed his fate and we learn how the coin got damaged in the first place. But later still he has to go back to his own time after falling in love. He gives the coin to his love interest to remind her of him. She has unknowingly become pregnant during their brief tryst and she is now carrying his grandfather who will eventually give the coin back to him.

It's enough to mess with your head, but plants and payoffs seem abundant in time parodys.

I'm also happy you made the point of foreshadowing being a little different. I totally agree. Plants and pay off tend to be object orientated whereas foreshadowing is much more emotional in my opinion. It may take the clever positioning of something to produce the emotional effect, but plants can have no foreshadowing attached at all, just an interesting, comedic, or poignant moment which has no bearing on the central theme. Foreshadowing tends to be subtle clues leading up to main plot points, theme revelations, or huge character moments which have a major impact on the overall story.

Any chance of a separate post dealing only with foreshadowing? Great foreshadowing, builds great tension - very much like I read recently in a book called The Harrowing ;c)

Enough from me I think - this comment is fast becoming as long as the post!

Jake Nantz said...

I was back at the library tonight, this time for a presentation on Short Fiction by Sarah Shaber and Brynn Bonner. At one point they began to talk about plotting vs. "just writing" and mentioned a very good friend of theirs who was a screenwriter, and goes into "all this detail" in her plot diagramming, as they described it. I spoke to them for a moment after the presentation and they had wonderful things to say about you.

Anyway, to the post (which is wonderful, as always):
A curious SPOILER in Lucky Number Slevin...we see a lot of Slevin Kelevra's past, as well as the past of Mr. Goodkat the hitman. But, some pieces of the past are in black and white, and some in color...because only the ones in color happened. The black-and-white pieces are visual representations of lies being told by a character.

Another is Jeffery Deaver's THE COLD MOON. Still the best "holy shit, are you kidding???" moment I've ever had with a book, and it's not even one of the BIG twists. I don't want to ruin it, so let's just say you find out something about Vincent's sister that I, well, N-E-V-E-R saw coming, because the setup was so obvious it was like hiding it in plain sight.

And a good SPOILER I always liked that you'd have to be a gun & dog lover to get was in SHOOTER (from Stephen Hunter's POINT OF IMPACT). When Gunnery Sergeant Bob Lee Swagger is packing up to leave his ranch, we see him carefully putting his sniper rifles away with care, presumably after cleaning them or something. We also see how much he cares for his Golden Retriever (his best and only companion). Later, when he's being framed and on the run, he knows who set him up and he's going to go after them. When asked why he doesn't just keep running, he says, "Weren't you listening? They killed my dog." Then, when he's captured by the law and given a chance to prove his innocence, he loads his weapon (that was confiscated after it was 'used' to kill a man) and tries to fire it at his accuser. The rifle won't fire, because he filed down the firing pins on all of his rifles before he left home, which means his rifle couldn't have fired the shot, because it won't fire at all.

Just a couple of my ideas, I hope they're good examples.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

In BACK TO THE FUTURE, every frame for the first 3/4 of the movie is a plant. :)

(I forgot about that until BT mentioned time travel stories.)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

First, YES, Stephen, BACK TO THE FUTURE. Textbook on plants and payoffs! I can't believe I left that one out - I know I talked about it before. Will have to revise this post.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Great examples from Jake and B.T.

Jake,you've just talked me into LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN - very interesting device you describe.

Yeah, B.T. coins really do figure prominently in time travel movies - but it's the date thing, right?

Newspapers, too.

A post just on foreshadowing would be good. I'll have to compile some examples. There's a lot of crossover between plants and foreshadowing.

Fran Friel said...

Alex - Excellent blog. I'll be sharing it widely. You're a born teacher, woman, and I love the way you think. If I ever establish a writing program, you'll be on my list of instructors to pursue.


Hugs from CT,

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Fran, how great to see you here! I'm glad it's all resonating with you. Hope you jump in and comment.

Anonymous said...

Plants and Payoffs are my favorite parts of movies/TV shows/books, although I must admit that I notice them more in movies and TV shows. (Maybe I'm just not reading the right books.)

I think the writers of LOST have nailed this technique (along with so many others).

Brian G Ross said...

Great post, Alexandra!

This device can be a tough one. A good director/writer will know what is too much and what not to do, but often the technique sticks out like the proverbial thumb and you come away feeling as if you are being treated like a kid.

Still, a worthy feather to put in your cap.

Cool blog!


Holly Y said...

There's a name for this?!? I admit, I love this sort of thing.

Spoiler: My favorite was in the 2nd Harry Potter book (maybe the one mentioned above?)when Harry and his friend take the family car to get to school and the car takes over and climbs a tree. Later, when the kids face spiders with no way out, here comes the car like the cavalry. I laughed out loud for a long dang time.

And of course Indy's snakes, always a favorite.

Thanks for this explanation.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hmm, Brian G. Ross... anyone who lists BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE as one of his top... not even ten, more like seven, movies... I would say is a total addict for plants and payoffs.

Cautionary words be damned. You don't fool me for a second. ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Holly, yes, that was a delicious one in the Harry Potter series.

And yes, isn't it nice to have a name for it? It's just easier to look for that way. Games need names.

Anonymous said...

one flew over the cukoo´s nest.
chiefs escape is a beutiful example of this, my personal favorite.

Professor Adams said...

Great blog. I teach screenwriting for college students, and really stress devices like this to my beginning class.

A great example, very on the nose, is the gun in Double Indemnity. Classic.

Great blog, keep it up!

Ben said...

As the Professor eluded to, Billy Wilder favored what I believe he once called the 'million dollar reveal.' Most of his films have a huge payoff, revealed visually, often around the midpoint.

My favorite is in The Apartment, when Baxter learns Ms. Kubilek is having an affair when she hands him the same compact mirror he found earlier in his apartment. She confided earlier that the broken glass reflects the way she feels, and at the moment Baxter realizes what is going on, he's looking at a fractured image of himself in the mirror. Cinema!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Both terrific examples, Professor and B., thank you!!

"The million dollar reveal." Brilliant.

Neil at masteredit.net said...

The movie Avatar has a lot of good plants payoffs. I think that is one reason why the film is doing so well.

My favorite is with the flying beast that only a five navi have ever ridden.

Anonymous said...

This is my first peak at your blog and I can't say "thanks" enough! I'm a newbie, aspiring, with an idea...and appreciate your insights on HOW to do plants. I mean, I always wondered, and get stuck in my writing because of it, do scriptwriters plan these twists and turns the connect things BEFORE they write? As they write? After they've got the basics in place? It's been intimidating me, but now I see i can write with some concept of structure, then give it those tweaks. Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post. As an aspiring scriptwriter, I've been a bit frozen in place by the daunting task of figuring out how to use plants: do I need to have them all worked out in my head beforehand? I'm not that complex a thinker to write good dialogue, etc with future plants all in mind. I'm glad to hear the seasoned pros often just write then polish by peppering with plants, etc, which is really the only way I think I could do it. Otherwise, it's too overwhelming. Thanks very much.