May 15, 2019

The Only Screenwriting Rule Worth Following: Plant and Payoff

Plant and payoff
There are many screenwriting rules out there. They're all bullshit, except one. If you plant it early, you better pay it off later.

I love to write. It's so freeing and when you're having a good time writing, nothing feels better. Writing is alchemy. More often than not, you're creating something from nothing. Sure, there are days when the Writer's Block gets bad, and times when you need to really dig into the beats of your story to get things right, but it's all about the journey. 

The only thing I really hate about writing is how everyone tries to tell you what's important. There are so many "rules" out there that if you wind up following them you'll get a garbled mess. 

There's only one rule in all of screenwriting: If you plant an idea you need to pay it off. 

That's it. 

Now let's learn why that matters. 

What are plant and payoff? 

Plant and payoff is a simple concept. It means that if you introduce a story detail you need to make sure that detail matters later. So the plant is the introduction, and the payoff is what happens later. The idea comes from planting a seed and watching it grow. It also comes from this guy Anton Chekov, who preferred the gun metaphor.

What is Chekov's Gun

Chekhov's Gun is a story concept that describes how every element of a story should contribute to the whole of the story. The idea comes from Anton Chekhov's book on writing advice: 

"If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act."

If you can't master the plant and payoff or Chekov's gun you deserve to be shot. Just kidding. But not really. Storytelling and screenwriting is about a series of payoffs for the reader or viewer. To get those payoffs, you have to plant ideas. I say this is the only rule in screenwriting because it really is the only rule. There are lots of other helpful tips and tricks, but every great movie and even competent screenplay has plant and payoffs. 

How do you use plant and payoff? 

Every detail in your screenplay matters. No one likes reading long-winded paragraphs where you describe stuff that can't or won't happen on the screen. So when you're using plant and payoff, you want to do it in tandem with your outline or beat sheet. Try to have your plants come in story beats, and your payoffs come in story and character beats. 

You always want your payoffs to land. That means you should imbue them with new information about the characters or with something cool or unexpected within the story that makes the audience feel appreciated for noticing that detail earlier. 

Let's go over a few plant and payoff examples to run you through how it goes in movies and television. 

Obviously, some spoilery payoffs to follow. 

Plant and payoff examples

Plant and payoff is the best and oldest rule. It has its origins in oral storytelling. Homer. The bible. Stand-up comedy. Nowadays, we see plant and payoff in lots of things. From the scar on Harry Potter's forehead meant to mean one thing but then paid off to mean another, to the prophecies in Game of Thrones that foreshadow Arya killing the Night King. 

First, let's take a look at one of the most fun and successful blockbusters in the last few years, Mad Max: Fury Road

In this movie, we get lots of details early that wind up mattering later. Whether its a driver's club foot that can be used to stomp on the gas, or cargo of pregnant women, even the eye of the needle rock formation is set up along this chase.

Not only do these plants provide for epic set pieces, but as they pay off one by one the audience learns the value of paying attention and getting invested in the details. 

This works even better in TV. Especially in shows like Breaking Bad. 

In the final season of Breaking Bad, we meet a character named Lydia who LOVES artificial sweetener. We also know she needs to die. She crossed Walt, it's what has to happen. Now we planted that Walt has Ricin he got from Jesse months ago.

We planted that Lydia likes tea. We planted she uses sweetener. 

These are some epic plants, and while we think they payoff in different ways, the real payoff comes from the reveal that Walt used the Ricin in Lydia's tea to kill her in the final scenes. An epic payoff. 

These are all plot points with payoffs, but what about a plant and payoff with a character? 

In Bruges focuses on two hitmen who, after a difficult job, head to Belgium to hide out until things cool down. 

The story is full of great character reveals, but none are bigger than learning Colin Farrell's character, Ray, is upset because he's killed a kid. This idea is planted earlier and gets pulled out through his treatment of little people, his anxiousness, and his sour mood. Ken's optimistic approach to their situation gets paid off because we finally understand why he's trying to get Ray out in the sunshine. Each choice they make is rooted in their belief system. 

The way their story is planted is through their situation, their talks about what bad things have happened, and their brooding. 

The more we learn about Ray, the more we understand his erratic behavior. We're paying off details we learn slowly in an exciting and engaging way. 

What's next? Three Act Structure: Breaking Down Acts One, Two, & Three in Movies

The idea of writing an entire screenplay can be daunting, but if you break it into pieces, it can be easier to picture in your mind and on the paper. That’s where the three-act structure comes into play. Most movies made today are based off three-act screenplays. And the three-act structure has its roots in performances of old. Why does everyone use it? 

Because it works, it's time-tested. And best of all? It's easy to master.

We've posted a host of comprehensive screenwriting tips, mainly how to write internal and external conflict to make your plot dynamic or how to sell a screenplay once you've finished the challenging writing process. 

But THIS post on how to utilize and master the three-act structure is the key to a reliable foundation for your storytelling process. 

So click the link and learn more.      

Your Comment

6 Comments

This is precisely why I think "Lost" was 100% pure, maggot-filled garbage.

May 15, 2019 at 2:29PM

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It can't be coincidence that this article is released as GoT is coming to an end...

May 15, 2019 at 4:21PM

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God. Damn it. Okay, first I just want to say that I really REALLY appreciate this website and the articles/videos featured. HOWEVER, you gotta warn people about Game of Thrones spoilers man! Like, when describing Chekhov's gun, maybe take any of the millions of example from cinema history, not something crazy recent that not everyone's gotten to yet... ugh, I thought I was in safe territory here. Anyways, thanks for the content (ALMOST ALL OF THE TIME except this one event)...

May 16, 2019 at 6:56AM

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Cameron Geiser
filmmaker wannabe
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Great article and exactly on point. I get so mad when random crap is planted and then either not paid off or paid off in very uncreative ways. And, of course, a good plant can be ruined when the payoff is delivered by a badly written character. But overall, a very insightful and concise article!

May 16, 2019 at 10:37AM, Edited May 16, 10:37AM

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Double payoff for In Bruges: When Harry thinks he has killed a child and kills himself because his code demands it.

May 17, 2019 at 12:31AM

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Most complex payoff structure: the British / Northern Ireland cop thriller "Line of Duty." Current season 5 reaches back to season 1 for plants you had no idea existed. Makes Breaking Bad look like Murder She Wrote.

May 17, 2019 at 12:38AM

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