How can screenwriters use plants and payoffs to enhance their screenplays?
Telling a story in screenplay format from the beginning, middle, to end isn’t enough. That’s not going to advance you in your screenwriting career.
Each screenplay that you write needs to read like an entertaining and well-constructed cinematic experience. And the best films utilize tools, techniques, devices, and tricks of the trade to accomplish that.
Some of the best techniques you can use are plants and payoffs.
Welcome to our ongoing series — Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs — where we highlight films within multiple genres and break down how they use plants and payoffs effectively.
Before we go into this installment’s featured example, let’s delve into what plants and payoffs are all about.
What Are Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs?
Plants and Payoffs are techniques in screenwriting that offer added depth and meaning to moments in a story. They help to engage the audience with a more satisfying viewing experience.
The roots of plants and payoffs — also known as Setup/Reveal, Plant/Reveal, Setup/Payoff — stem from foreshadowing, a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story.
The plant is part of the setup.
The payoff is a reveal (twists, turns, climax).
For screenwriters and filmmakers, it is a tool that not only enhances your scripts but makes the challenge of writing a compelling and engaging screenplay all the more fun — like spreading little Easter Eggs throughout your whole screenplay for readers and audiences to enjoy.
They can be significant, subtle, or add to the style of the writing. They can take a routine action, drama, or suspense sequence and create more memorable moments that audiences will take home with them and discuss in those “water cooler” sessions at work or online. They can set up a weakness in a hero, a scare within a horror flick, a laugh within a comedy, a clue in a mystery, or an answer to the problem within a drama.
And even more important — when written effectively — plants and their payoffs can legitimize the twists, turns, and surprise endings of your screenplays.
Okay, let’s discuss this installment’s example — Die Hard.
The Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs of Die Hard
Note: Beware of Spoilers.
Die Hard, written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, has stood the test of time as not only one of the best action films in cinematic history but also as one of the best scripts ever written.
The film debuted during the 1980s decade in which the action genre was at its highest demand. Action icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger (Commando) and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo) dominated the genre.
The action genre was pretty simplistic when it came to concept, character, and story. You had your nearly invincible hero, with a seemingly endless amount of ammunition and skills, facing a fairly typical villain that had somehow wronged the hero. This launched the hero on a mission of revenge, to rescue someone close to them, or to just solve that case that no one thought possible. The stories varied, but the results were the same. Bullets and fists would fly, and the bad guys would pay — with the hero coming out virtually unscathed.
Die Hard changed all of that, even though the bare bones of the concept, story, and character, don’t sound very different than something Arnold and Stallone would have starred in. We have a cop, terrorists, and many bullets. Sounds like an ‘80s action flick to the core.
But because the script was so well-written, we were offered another level of action hero. A hero that:
- Wasn’t invincible
- Had emotions
- Failed time and time again
This approach created multiple conflicts. And conflict is where you find the best writing. That s what is most engaging in a screenplay. Script readers and audiences love to see the hero go through as much conflict as possible.
The screenplay for Die Hard shined in that respect. And the way they utilized conflict so well was primarily by setting up plants and payoffs.
Fists With Your Toes
In the opening scene of the film, the fellow passenger sitting next to McClane on the plane tells him that the secret way to get rid of jet lag is to make fists with his toes while barefoot and walking on the carpet.
McClane is in an executive bathroom at Nakatomi Plaza taking the advice given to him on the plane. And it’s working.
Unfortunately, soon after, terrorists take over the building and McClane is forced to flee from the bathroom sans shoes.
When McClane takes out a henchman sent to hunt him down and kill him, he wisely sees if the terrorist’s shoes will suffice his need for protected feet. Sadly, the shoes are too small.
After villain Hans tries to pass himself off as a hostage after crossing paths with McClane, a gunfight ensues. During his brief time with McClane before the firefight, Hans saw that McClane was barefoot.
Jump forward to the middle of the firefight where they have McClane pinned down in an office with glass walls, Hans remembers McClane’s bare feet and tells his henchman to shoot the glass.
This causes additional conflict in the latter part of the second act. McClane is wounded.
It’s an excellent plant and payoff device that adds to the emotional and physical conflict within and outside of McClane. We differentiate McClane from characters like Matrix and Rambo, both of whom barely flinch when they’re cut or shot. McClane is now at his lowest point. He doesn’t think he’s going to make it. And the audience, in turn, is left wondering how he can possibly survive this ordeal.
Further Plants and Payoffs
Nakatomi Plaza as a location gave the screenwriters chances to introduce many plants and payoffs. The elevators, the parking garage, the lobby desk, the executive bathroom, Holly’s office (with the picture that she overturned early on), the staircase where Karl and McClane fight, etc. These are all brilliantly set up early with their own mini-payoffs.
One subtle but effective foreshadowing plant centers on the watch that Ellis so arrogantly points out to McClane. Ellis gave it to her as a gift. It plays a pivotal role in the narrative, leading to one of the greatest villain deaths in cinematic history.
How to Develop Plants and Payoffs in Your Screenplays
The concept behind using plants and payoffs is to introduce a story point, visual, line of dialogue, character trait, or object early on within the script — usually in subtle fashion — and have that element be eventually revealed as something partial to the end of the story. And the more plants you have throughout the script, the better.
Most professional screenwriters learn and understand one vital element in their screenwriting process — know your ending first. It gives you something to write towards.
Sure, there’s some leeway. You, the screenwriter, can and should discover where your characters take you. But knowing at least a general ending to your story is so important.
The end of the script is your compass. It will tell you where you are veering off course. It will tell you when you’re headed in the right direction.
When you know your ending, you can enjoy the process of peppering your script with plants and payoffs.
- You can create plants as you write.
- You can create even more plants during the rewrite process.
- You can create multiple payoffs throughout your script and plant subtle clues, imagery, lines of dialogue, and moments ahead of them.
Screenwriting Lesson Learned
Pepper your screenplays with plants and payoffs. Why?
- They enhance the read.
- They elevate your screenwriting.
- They prove to script readers (interns, assistants, readers, producers, development executives, managers, agents, and talent) that you have attention to detail in your writing.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies