(SPOILERS: Jaws, The Matrix, Aliens, Vacation)
(SPOILERS: Jaws, The Matrix, Aliens, Vacation)
If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.
What Chekhov is talking about in the above quote is planting and payoff. It is a powerful tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox (though screenwriters are more likely to fail to plant something than to fail to pay something off.) Simply put, planting is setting up an object, idea, or piece of information early in the story for use later (the payoff).
Probably the primary reason to do this is to avoid the cheat of convenience. For example, if a woman has been chased into her attic by a serial killer and finds a loaded gun in an old suitcase, the audience will feel like the writer is cheating. But if five scenes earlier we saw the woman put the gun in the suitcase in the attic because it belonged to her deceased husband and she is afraid of it, we don’t bat an eye when she pulls it out with the killer closing in.
The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) offers us a simple example of this. We see during the training sequence early in Act Two that Tank can load knowledge quickly into Neo’s brain through his link to the Matrix. At this point in the story the skill provided is Kung Fu. However, this sets us up for later when Trinity needs to fly a helicopter. Tank loads that skill into her brain. If they hadn’t planted that technology, it would seem awfully convenient that Trinity happened to know how to fly helicopters.
Another use of planting is to set up information for the climactic scenes so you don’t have to stop the action to explain everything. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) gives us a good example of this. Somewhere about the middle of the movie Brody accidentally releases the rope holding the SCUBA tanks in place, causing them to roll across the boat’s deck. Hooper chastises him, warning him that the tanks contain pressurized air and can explode if punctured. This gives us the information we need for the big ending when Brody shoots a SCUBA tank in the shark’s mouth, causing it to explode and kill the beast.
Sometimes you want to make the plant obvious – like in Chekhov’s gun quote. This will create tension in the audience as they wait for the obvious plant to be paid off. For example in the comedy Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes) the Girl in the Ferrari character is planted several times. We just know sooner or later our hero Clark Griswold is going to end up in a compromising situation with her. And sure enough Clark gets caught skinny-dipping with her in a motel pool toward the end of the movie. How disappointing would it have been if they’d simply each gone their separate ways?
More often you’ll want to hide the plant in another context like they do in Jaws. The first scene with the SCUBA tanks is about Brody’s lack of experience on boats. It’s meant to show us how out of place he is. But the bit of info about the possibility of explosion is slyly slipped in there as well. This keeps the audience unaware of the machinations you're using to keep the story going. It all just feels natural.
Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) offers another great example. When the marines are preparing to land on the planet, there is a scene where Ripley wants to help out. When asked what she can do, she says she can operate a loader – a kind of large mechanical exoskeleton. The marine sergeant is skeptical, so Ripley climbs in and demonstrates her ability.
The main point of this scene is about Ripley trying to prove herself to the marines. She wants them to know she’s not some scared little girl. But it also serves to plant the loaders. It demonstrates how they operate and shows us that Ripley is highly skilled in using them. This is paid off at the end when Ripley appears in one of the loaders to face off against the queen alien. There is no need for any explanation – when we see her in that loader we all understand exactly what is about to happen. I remember the audience cheering that moment the first time I saw the movie.
Planting and payoff builds trust with the audience. If you do some early plants and pay them off quickly, the audience will come to believe they are in good hands. Then if something is not explained right away they will stay with the movie figuring it will undoubtedly be taken care of before the credits roll. Planting and payoff ties your story together and makes it feel cohesive and logical.
Planting is a tool most often used in the rewriting process. Often you don’t know what you need to plant until you write the scene with the payoff. As I write my first draft, I always keep a sheet for notes of things from earlier scenes I know I’ll want to go back and change in the second draft. That way I can keep moving forward rather than jumping back to older scenes. It is not uncommon for half the notes I make to be things I need to plant.