(Spoilers: Gravity, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Planting and payoff is a powerful tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox. Simply put, planting is setting up an object, idea, or piece of information early in the story (the plant) for use later (the payoff).
One big purpose of this tool 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, it seems too convenient. 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.
Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) offers us a good example of this. Early on, Ryan says she sees the Chinese space station, then corrects herself to say it’s the International Space Station. This subtly tells the audience that both space stations are in the area. This is particularly important for the Chinese station. After Ryan discovers she can’t reenter the atmosphere with the escape vehicle in the International Space Station, she makes a new plan to get to the Chinese station. It might seem awfully convenient that a second station is nearby if it hadn’t been established earlier.
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) provides a good example of this kind of set up. 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.
What’s great about this is how the writers hide the plant in another context. 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. We get the information we need, but aren’t tipped off that it will come into play later, which might make the ending feel predictable.
Or consider the payoff of Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan). Indy opens the Well of Souls and discovers it’s filled with snakes. He rolls over and says, “Snakes… why did it have to be snakes?” That’s only funny because way back in the beginning of the movie they planted his fear of snakes with the pet boa constrictor on the plane. Imagine if they hadn’t done that. Indy would have to say something like, “Snakes… I’m afraid of snakes.” It’s a small change, but it would weaken the joke and feel a little forced.
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.
You will place many of your plants 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.
You should also look for opportunities to use the things you’ve already introduced. For example in Gravity, Ryan uses a fire extinguisher to fight the fire in the International Space Station. That’s not really a plant – it’s a key part of a scene that’s dramatic in its own right. When she has to pull the fire extinguisher into the escape pod because it blocks the hatch, that is a plant. And it’s paid off later when she uses the extinguisher to propel her to the Chinese station. There’s an elegance to the multiple uses of that prop that makes the story feel organic and unified.
And ultimately that’s the most important reason for using planting and payoff. It helps binds the story together into a single narrative, rather than just a series of scenes.
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