Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'

by Ken Miyamoto on May 7, 2021

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.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

'Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back'

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.

Okay, let's discuss this installment's example — Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

close encounters of the third kind

The Screenwriting Plants and Payoffs of Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Note: Beware of  Spoilers.  

Steven Spielberg has written very few screenplays during his career — Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of them.

The Oscar-nominated main story centers on Roy Neary — husband, father, and electric lineman — who watches how his quiet and ordinary daily life turns upside down after a close encounter with a UFO one night while on call during a city-wide blackout.

The screenplay also follows two additional side stories:

  • French scientist Claude Lacombe, his American interpreter, cartographer David Laughlin, and other researchers investigating strange occurrences throughout the world.
  • Three-year-old Barry Guiler is abducted by aliens, leaving his single mother Jillian on a desperate search to find him.

The Five Tones

Before his abduction, after young Barry has his first encounter with aliens, he begins to play five tones on a musical instrument.

Halfway across the world, these tones are discovered by Lacombe (who is played by none other than pioneering French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut) and his team as they research a mass-sighting of a UFO in India.

The team soon discovers that the tones are leading them to a particular location of latitude and longitude coordinates.

The Shape

After Roy’s first encounter with the aliens, he begins to see visions of a shape when he looks at various objects. He first sees it when he has a mound of shaving cream in his hand. He stares at it and begins to shape it with a curious gaze.

Later, he’s eating dinner with his family and becomes obsessed with his mashed potatoes. This leads to a heartfelt scene showcasing his indescribable obsession with the result of what he is seeing in his head, but what he can’t fully understand.

Conflict with his wife ensues as he takes his obsession to the extreme. He begins to build a massive and detailed model of a mountain in his house. His obsession forces his wife to flee with their children in fear that Roy is losing his mind.

His obsession grows, free from the worry of his wife and kids.

As he continues to add to the model, he still doesn’t understand what he is building and why, until…

Devil’s Tower is the location that the government has been trying to uncover. A location sent from the stars. A location that all who have encountered the aliens are being drawn to.

Hand Signals

Lacombe uses Curwen hand signs that correspond to the five-note extraterrestrial tonal phrase.

Everything Builds to the Climactic Sequence

All of these subtle plants lead to an amazing payoff when Roy — now partnered with Jillian in their requests for answers — discovers the origins of the shape they've been seeing. They are in awe when they first lay eyes upon Devil's Tower in person.

Then the plants of the tones and shape converge as we're taken to the secret landing strip that the government has created for their potential first communication and meeting with alien beings.

This leads to the climactic ending when the mother ship opens communications with the humans with those five tones — followed by many more — creating some sort of universal language that the humans and aliens can communicate through.

And finally, the hand signal interpretations of the notes lead to direct human-to-alien communication.

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

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