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Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs: 'The Sixth Sense'

by Ken Miyamoto on October 25, 2021

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 in an effective manner.

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 — The Sixth Sense.

The Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs of The Sixth Sense

Note: Beware of  Spoilers.  

The M. Night Shyamalan original screenplay became one of the top-grossing movies of its release year — and of all time.

The script was sold to Walt Disney Studios for $3 million, with the stipulation that its writer, M. Night Shyamalan, would direct. The executive who instantly fell in love with the script and brokered the deal, David Vogel, was later dismissed from his position and left Walt Disney Studios. Disney then sold the production rights to Spyglass Entertainment but kept the distribution rights and 12.5% of the box office revenue.

Rules

Rules of The Sixth Sense world were vital to Shyamalan and his producing crew, as well as the editor.

Editor Andrew Mondshien stated:

"In a film like this, where people are going to scrutinize what you've done, it's essential that you go back and are very rigurous about maintaining the laws and the rules of that world."

Producer Frank Marshall reiterated the importance of maintaining the rules and sharing the plants and eventual payoffs of the story in an honest fashion:

"One of the things we really wanted to protect was that if you saw the movie for the second time, that we were true to it. And we were honest about it. And we didn't just pull a fast one. So we had to establish rules about each scene."

Plants and payoffs are all about the rules of the world you create in your screenplays. You can't add a bunch of twists and turns for the sole purpose of pulling a fast one on the audience. Plants and payoffs throughout your scripts must adhere to the rules you've set — to the point where a second read of your script proves that you've kept that notion in mind throughout your writing process.

Now, onto the plants and payoffs.

The Color Red

Throughout the film, the color red is mostly absent — except for certain visuals where anything in the real world has been tainted by the other world of spirits and ghosts. They also signify intense emotional moments and situations.

The Sixth Sense

The "red" motif in 'The Sixth Sense'

Examples include:

  • The red door of the church where Cole seeks sanctuary
  • The red balloon
  • Cole's sweater at the birthday party
  • The tent where Cole encounters the ghost of the little girl
  • The volume numbers on Cole's tape recorder
  • The doorknob of the locked basement door where Malcolm's office is located
  • The shirt Anna wears at the restaurant
  • The little girl's mother's dress at the wake
  • The shawl wrapped around sleeping Anna at the end

These are subtle visual plants that payoff upon further viewings of the movie.

Malcolm's Clothes

Malcolm's clothes throughout the film are items that he wore or came in contact with during the night he was killed.

  • His overcoat
  • The blue rowing sweatshirt
  • The many layers of his suit

The Sixth Sense

'The Sixth Sense'

Upon a second viewing of the film, you can see that the script and direction of the film adhere to these rules to properly pay off the concept that Malcolm died that night.

Malcolm Never Interacts with Anyone Other than Cole

One of the masterful touches is the selling of Malcolm's interaction with characters in the film other than Cole. There is no interaction — but it seems as if there is some type of contact.

Malcolm is shown sitting across from Cole's mother when Cole arrives home. This visual implies that Malcolm's services have been requested by Cole's mother when, in fact, they never speak. Cole's mother never interacts with him.

When you watch the scene, you'll notice that her eyeline is lower than Malcolm's. He is looking right at her. She is looking below and past him.

The Sixth Sense

'The Sixth Sense'

The Temperature Drop

It's often a mistaken memory that the temperature drops every time a ghost is present in the film. This actually only happens when a ghost is upset. The visual is represented by a living character's reaction to the cold and the sight of their breath.

This is another subtle plant that is played off when we finally see the temperature drop in a scene with Malcolm when he realizes that he is, in fact, dead. He's upset at the revelation, which causes sleeping Anna's breath to be seen.

The Sixth Sense

'The Sixth Sense'

How to Develop Plants and Payoffs in Your Screenplays

The concept behind using plants and payoffs is introducing 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.

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


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