By Michael Schilf
The Script Lab
“Rosebud!” The famous, first murmured word from Orson Welles’ 1941 cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane, is a plant, only to be paid off at the end of the film when it is revealed to the audience that the enigmatic “Rosebud” was the name of Mr. Kane’s childhood sled.
Or take Chinatown, in the climatic reversal scene in the third act where Gittes has come to Mrs. Mulwray’s home with evidence — her late husband Hollis Mulwray’s glasses and an earlier plant — that Gittes believes proves Evelyn’s guilt in the murder. But after discovering Katherine is both Evelyn’s sister and daughter and deciding now to help Evelyn evade the police, Evelyn pays off the glasses when she explains that “Those didn’t belong to Hollis” because “He didn’t wear bifocals.”
The above examples are classic, but every film incorporates planting and payoff: a device by which a motif, a line of dialogue, a gesture, behavioral mannerism, costume, prop or any combination of these is introduced into a story and then often repeated as the story progresses, until in the changed circumstances toward the resolution, the planted information assumes a new meaning and literally “pays off”.
But not every plant and payoff is required to carry as much emotional weight as “Rosebud” or Hollis’s glasses. Some plants and payoffs are simple, and only reveal a character trait, often being wrapped up within a single scene or within the same sequence. Other plants and payoffs are paramount to moving the story forward. But all plants and payoffs - if done properly - do involve the audience, connecting with them and making them active participants and not just passive observers. Let the audience add it up, and they’ll love you for it.
Planting and Payoff: A Case Study - Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
To illustrate, let’s take a look at the film-noir drama Sweet Smell of Success, written by Ernest Lehman (from his novella) and Clifford Odets. Below are two examples to get you started, but the best education is to watch the film — or any film — with pen and paper in hand, looking specifically for the execution of planting and payoff.
- A. The Plant: In the first sequence of Act One, Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) is about to leave his office when his secretary says, “Take your topcoat.” Sydney replies, “And leave a tip in every hat check room in town.”
- B. The Payoff: Later in sequence two, Sydney and J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) exit the restaurant. J.J. gets his coat from the checkroom and gives a tip. Sydney tries to walk out without J.J. noticing that he doesn’t have a coat. J.J. recognizes this and makes a snide comment about Sydney trying to save tips again.
- Note: This is an example of an economical plant completed before the end of Act One. It has no bearing upon the story — clearly does not move it forward — however, it does reveal an element of Sydney’s character as it’s clear this is something Sydney has done multiple times before.
- A. The Plant: In Act Two, right after the midpoint, Sydney sneaks his way into viewing the proofs of J.J.’s column in advance for that afternoon’s paper. There’s a plug for a “funny man” comic, Herbie Temple, performing at the Palace Theatre.
- B. The Payoff #1/The New Plant: Seeing an opportunity to make a “fast buck”, Sidney immediately heads over to the Palace Theatre and introduces himself to Herbie Temple, where he makes a fake phone call to J.J., pretending to tell J.J. what to write about Herby Temple, but he’s only repeating what was the already written (just not published), and since he’s purposefully within ear shot of Herbie, Sydney hopes that when Herbie reads the column later that day, he will be impressed with the power of that phone call and want to hire Sydney to be his future press agent.
- C. The Payoff #2: Later in Act Three, however, Sydney is celebrating at the bar “toasting his favorite new perfume. Success!” when Herbie Temple walks in and acknowledges himself from the article. Herbie tells Sydney that he has talked it over with his manager, and they decided to go with Sydney. But Sydney — now flying high with his new future column deal with J.J. — thinks of himself as too big to even consider the account and condescendingly blows the old comic off.
- Note: Here is an excellent example of a three-part plant/payoff turned plant/payoff. A is the plant to the payoff in B, and B then becomes the plant for the payoff in C.
Incorporating planting and payoff is a key ingredient to a good script: future & advertising, mystery & suspense, delay & revelation, and preparation & aftermath are all tricks of the trade that use planting and payoff to help create a strong audience connection. And the audience is everything. It’s why you write the script in the first place, and as the screenwriter, it’s your job to make sure you do whatever possible to help the audience become invested in the story by making them feel smart, anticipating, reaching conclusions, and adding it up.
When planting and payoff is used correctly, the audience doesn’t even realize that they are working it out, but they are. No longer are they passive passengers. When you allow your audience to add up two plus two, they will love you for it - because you create a situation for them to become connected and intimately involved.
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