Plants and Pay-Offs: Unearthing Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

In a previous post I discussed the importance of foreshadowing, suggesting that the term covers a wide variety of narrative elements, including theme and symbol — elements that one might best describe as meta-narrative, that is, a layer of significance that sits above, or at the base of a story and does not necessarily participate directly in the plot.

In this post, I want to focus exclusively on narrative elements that create foreshadowing, yet are very much part of the plot — actions and objects that participate directly in the story. It may be best to describe this sort of foreshadowing as planting and paying-off to differentiate it, for the sake of precision, from foreshadowing though theme and symbol.

Planting for the Pay-Off

In writing, every narrative action ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in screenwriting, which uses fewer pages to tell the story than are afforded a novel. If the writer plants a gun in a scene, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion. In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can fight back. In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s (Jim Carrey) dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee, setting up the pay-off later in the plot, when it crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

Where is the best place to put plants and pay-offs? A plant should remain innocuous and be situated at a natural and believable point along the story spine — as part of the story’s natural development. Its pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

In Summary

Plants and pay-offs deal with specific elements in the plot. The main characteristic of a plant is that it should appear innocuous, while a pay-off should be delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.


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7 thoughts on “Plants and Pay-Offs: Unearthing Buried Treasure

  1. Mark Landen

    Hi Stavros,

    Once again your choice of examples resonates… the first season of Jericho was awesome! The movie A Few Good Men was just on TV and I noticed they did a “plant and pay-off” in that movie, but not in the form of a weapon. It was in Santiago’s closet when the main characters visited Gitmo, the murdered soldier’s clothes were still there. Then, late in the movie, Tom Cruise’s character remembers the clothes were still in the closet, yet Santiago was supposed to be transferred thus he would have packed his bags!

    In my story I have a non-weapon “plant and pay-off”, but both occur in Act 1, perhaps 30-50 pages separating them. The way the story is structured it’s impossible to delay it, so my question is what kind of advice would you give to best pull off something like this? The object has enormous emotional value to it, so it has that going for it.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis

      Thanks Mark. Although I’ve said that it’s best to delay paying off a plant for as long as possible, that’s just a rule of thumb. If your pay-off is at a dramatically heightened moment, and indeed it sounds as if yours is, then that is the true measure of appropriatness. Of course, there can be many plants and pay-offs, some of smaller significance than others, but all acting to stitch the story together through a series of “ah-ha” moments.

  2. Shea Moir

    Guns and weapons or important objects to either the Protagonist or Antagonist, are really effective ways to propel your story forward. You are spot on though, you see a gun in the first half of a movie/story, it is pretty much implied straight away, that the gun is going to create either, an obstacle or turning point… or possibly even a sad and bitter… or happy and successful climax or resolution. I love screen writing. Its like a really fun philosophy game. 😀 Keep up the post, Stavros!

      1. Shea Moir

        Of course! You have always liked perfection, (It’s your favorite) and this post is perfect! Straight to the point, no funny business! Brilliant stuff!! Very helpful to those who wish pursue story telling! Its all very clear to me now, thanks 😀

  3. Russ Welsh

    This post reminds me of a scene in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” When Roger easily slips out of his handcuffs, Eddie Valiant (played by the ever brilliant, but frequently underrated, Bob Hoskins) asks Roger if he could have slipped out of his handcuffs at any time. Roger retorts “no, not at any time, only when it is funny”. In this way, I guess, all genres are a lot alike. Where comedy uses this technique for humour, drama uses it for emotional effect. Great post.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Yes, well noted Russ. Glad you’re still enjoying the posts. Thanks again for commenting.


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