Planting and Payoff

By Michael Schilf · February 13, 2010

“Rosebud!” The famous, first murmured word from Orson Welles’ 1941 cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane, is a plant, only to be paid off at the end of the film when it is revealed to the audience that the enigmatic “Rosebud” was the name of Mr. Kane’s childhood sled.

Or take Chinatown, in the climatic reversal scene in the third act where Gittes has come to Mrs. Mulwray’s home with evidence – her late husband Hollis Mulwray’s glasses and an earlier plant – that Gittes believes proves Evelyn’s guilt in the murder. But after discovering Katherine is both Evelyn’s sister and daughter and deciding now to help Evelyn evade the police, Evelyn pays off the glasses when she explains that “Those didn’t belong to Hollis” because “He didn’t wear bifocals.”

The above examples are classic, but every film incorporates planting and payoff: a device by which a motif, a line of dialogue, a gesture, behavioral mannerism, costume, prop or any combination of these is introduced into a story and then often repeated as the story progresses, until in the changed circumstances toward the resolution, the planted information assumes a new meaning and “pays off”.

But not every plant and payoff is required to carry as much emotional weight as “Rosebud” or Hollis’s glasses. Some plants and payoffs are simple, and only reveal character, often being wrapped up within a single scene or within the same sequence. Other plants and payoffs are paramount to moving the story forward. But all plants and payoffs – if done properly – do involve the audience, connecting with them and making them active participants and not just passive observers. 

Planting and Payoff: A Case Study – The Sweet Smell of Success

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the film-noir drama The Sweet Smell of Success, one of Ernest Lehman’s masterpieces, that literally has dozens of plants and payoffs. Below are three examples to get you started, but the best education is to watch the film – or any film – with pen and paper in hand, looking specifically for the use and execution of planting and payoff.

Example One:
A. In the first sequence of Act One, Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis) is about to leave his office when his secretary says, "Take your topcoat."  Sydney replies, "And leave a tip in every hat check room in town."

B. Later in sequence two, Sydney and J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) exit the restaurant.  J.J. gets his coat from the checkroom and gives them a tip.  Sydney tries to walk out without J.J. noticing that he doesn't have a coat.  J.J. recognizes this and makes a snide comment about Sydney for trying to save tips again. This is a great use of planting and payoff, not only because the audience adds it up, but we also recognize that this is something Sydney has done multiple times in the past.

Note: This is an example of a economical plant that has been completed before the end of Act One. It has no baring upon the story – clearly does not move it forward – however, it does reveal an element of Sydney’s character. Whether minor or major, plants and payoff must move the story forward and/or reveal character.

Example Two:
A. In Act Two, in sequence five right after the midpoint, Sydney sneaks his way into viewing the proofs of J.J.’s column in advance for that afternoon’s paper. There’s a plug for a “funny man” comic, Herbie Temple, performing at the Palace Theatre. This is the plant.

B. Seeing an opportunity to make a “fast buck”, Sidney immediately heads over to the Palace Theatre and introduces himself to Herbie Temple, where he makes a fake phone call to J.J. pretending to tell J.J. what to write about Herby Temple, "If there's a more hilariously funny man around than Herbie Temple at the Palace, you’re pardon us for not catching his name. We were too busy laughing – no, make that ‘we were too busy screaming’."  Sydney plagiarizes the already written column to make Herby think that he got the write up because of Sydney in the hopes that Herbie will hire Sydney to be his future press agent.

C.  Later in Act Three at the beginning of the last sequence, however, Sydney is celebrating at the bar "toasting his favorite new perfume.  Success!" when Herby Temple walks in and acknowledges himself from the article, "If there's a more hilariously funny man around."  Herby tells Sydney that he has talked it over with his manager, and they decided to go with Sydney.  Sydney – now flying high with his new future column deal with J.J. – thinks of himself as too big to even consider the account and condescendingly blows the old comic off.

Note: Here is an excellent example of a three-part plant/payoff. A is the plant to the payoff in B, yet B then becomes the plant for the payoff in C.

Example Three:
At the end of Act One, when J.J. leaves the restaurant with Sydney and they run into dirty cop Harry Kello, J.J. asks Kello about a reported suicide, and Kello's partner sitting in the car refers to the suicide as a "love suicide."

This “love suicide” plant is paid off in the end of the film, where the reference to a “love suicide” is being played out as J.J.’s sister, Susie, literally tries to kill herself after J.J. not only forces her to “never to see Steve again” – the man she loves and wants to marry – but she learns that J.J. and Sydney have also framed Steve with drug possession as well as hired Kello to hospitalize Steve.

Note: This example – planting with dialogue and paying off with action – literally book ends the film. We start with news of a love suicide and end with an attempted suicide as a result of broken love. Romeo and Juliet again.

Incorporating planting and payoff is a key ingredient to a good script: future & advertising, mystery & suspense, delay & revelation, and preparation & aftermath are all tricks of the trade that use planting and payoff to help create a strong audience connection. And the audience is everything. It’s why you write the script in the first place, and as the screenwriter, it’s your job to make sure you do whatever possible to help the audience become invested in the story by making them feel smart, anticipating, reaching conclusions, and adding it up.

When planting and payoff is used correctly, the audience doesn’t even realize that they are working it out, but they are. No longer are they passive passengers. When you allow your audience to add up two plus two, they will love you for it – because you create a situation for them to become connected and intimately involved.