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.
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