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Plants and Payoffs


I see way too many plants in that picture.

Similarly, I see too many plants in movies and shows-- including stories I love.

First, to get everyone caught up, plants (in the storytelling sense) are details that don't seem to matter at first. Later in the story, the "plant" will be referenced again, now in a new light-- called the "payoff." These can be big or little, dialogue or actions or props.

They're also probably the greatest tool in movie writing.

"Back to the Future" is packed full of these. In some small details, Marty's uncle is in jail in 1985, but in 1955 (as a baby), "Uncle Joey" loves staying in his crib-- "Better get used to these bars, kid." Marty's brother goes from a fast food uniform to a business suit between the beginning to the ending.

In "Independence Day," David wants to save the world through recycling and later he recycles alien code to save the world-- also recycles a Pepsi can after proving a point. Hiller wants to go to space via NASA and then gets sent to space on the final mission.

Agent Smith keeps deadnaming Neo in "The Matrix" to set-up Neo's pre-mortem one-liner on the subway tracks. John McClane tries to make fists with his toes in "Die Hard."

It's not complicated, but here's my lesson. A plant can't look like a plant.

If a character says, "Oh that's grandpa's gun above the fireplace," the audience will likely recognize it's a plant -- maybe the most famous plant of all time. The audience will expect (even only subconsciously) that eventually that gun will come back into the movie.

In Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer," Strauss references/sees the Einstein-Oppenheimer discussion three times, always asking "what did those men talk about?" This is a plant and a rather obvious one. It's almost a sub-mystery to the movie and kinda an obvious answer. They're two scientists with a shared history around the atomic bomb in a movie about the atomic bomb... they're probably talking about the atomic bomb. In the end, we finally get the payoff: they were talking about the atomic bomb.

Contrast that plant/payoff with two scenes in "Hocus Pocus 2." In act one, the witches try to find brooms to fly away on, but struggle. They instead find a mop, a wet-dry swiffer, and two Roombas. The witch with two Roombas (Mary Sanderson, I think) has to fly off-balance, like someone trying hovering ice skates for the first time. It's a joke on modern cleaning (Roombas replacing brooms) and funny visual. Solid joke. Thirty minutes later, the witches are trapped by a ring of salt and are only saved when the two Roombas return, recognize the salt on the ground, and start cleaning -- freeing the witches. This payoff is satisfying because it's less expected than an explicit set, but still doesn't introduce anything new to the plot in the third act.

(Fwiw, I'm not saying Hocus Pocus 2 is better than Oppenheimer. I just liked the contrast.)

This relates to my blog posts on twists a lot because clues work whether explicit or not, but they're more fun when they're not. Most writers know enough to bury clues for their big twists, but often forget to bury clues for the little twists.

And how do you bury clues? Make the clues themselves entertaining parts to the story. I know "Signs" is a polarizing movie, but one of the clues was the wife's dying words, "Swing away." While that pays off as important advice later, it also connected Merrill as a baseball player to Rev. Hess losing his faith in God, finding that last moments in life can be utterly meaningless. This plant gave some backstory exposition, but, more importantly, gave us a theme and conflicting viewpoint (i.e. life is random, life has coincidences, or life is directed by a higher power). "Signs" might have turned people away from its conclusions and xeno-bio-technology, but the plant/payoff aim was correct.

While I can't immediately think of someone using a literal plant as a plant in a story, Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" hides a plant while condemning them. Frustrated by Hollywood cliches, the character Kaufman says he doesn't want sex, guns, car chases, life lessons, etc. in his story-- which is exactly what all happens in the third act. Fortunately, because "Adaptation" didn't need to end that way and still could have been a great movie, the plant was successfully buried in my mind.

In short, a plant shouldn't be recognized as a plant until after the payoff. The plant is a set-up to a joke that we didn't know was being told.

Lastly, I want to take pressure out my newer writers out there. This is some advanced-level writing tips because while plants and payoffs are wonderful tools and necessary for a great script, I wouldn't sweat it on a first draft. A lot of these details get added on subsequent drafts, after the story is really hammered down. It's also something professionals can nail one time, then whiff on later scripts.

Now here are some well-hidden plants!
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