A Vital Element in Screenwriting

As a screenwriter, an important question arises – “how to engage your audience?”. Today I am going to discuss a winning formula to spice up your screenplay. “You reap what you sow”. Similarly in a screenplay, a ‘Plant and PayOff’ is used. It simply means that you establish something earlier in the film that pays off later or is later used in the film.

Some of the famous ‘Plant & PayOff’ used in films are as follows:

1)        In James Bond films, the character Q introduces different gadgets, car and weapons to 007. He uses these toward the end to fight with villains (PayOff).

A still from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

2)        The term ‘Rosebud’ in Orson Welles’ classic ‘Citizen Kane’. Initial few shots show this plant. It remains a mystery throughout the film. The last shot reveals the PayOff and that too only to the audience (won’t reveal here- watch the film).

The mystery of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane (1941)

3)        In ‘Do Dooni Chaar’, the plant is the question paper of a student (having roll no. 1393) that allures the school teacher into a money-making deal for the down payment of his dream car ‘Alto’ (PayOff).

4)        In ‘Mom’, the shady detective guy (played by Nawazuddin) is the plant. He helps the protagonist (payoff) to trace the rapists.

5)        In Abbas Mastan’s ‘Race’, the plant is establishment of Saif Ali Khan’s character. He is a daredevil who loves racing and stunts. It pays off later in the film.

6)        In Shyamalan’s ‘The Sixth Sense’, well, the plant is so subtle that the payoff comes as a surprise (One of the best I have seen).

7)        In ‘Jaws’, it is the pressurized scuba tank which later helps in killing the shark (payoff).

8)        In ‘Fukrey’, the character of the homeless drug-addict (who used to sell Lali’s motorbike parts) is the plant. He later helps Lali by giving him the money to invest in the next dream (payoff).

The character of homeless addict in Fukrey (2013)

9)        In Abbas Mastan’s ‘Aitraaz’, the mobile phone defect is the plant. In addition, it helps Raj’s acquittal (pay off). 

The mobile phone defect in Aitraaz (2004)

10)     In ‘3 IDIOTS’, the ‘Viru S’ inverter is the plant. It takes power from the car batteries. In addition, it is later used in the film to carry on a delivery (PayOff).

In short, a plant can be a dialogue, a character, a painting or a photograph, a prop or some piece of information or a combination of all these. It is introduced (planted) early in a film, is mentioned repeatedly in the film (depends) and finally pays off later in the film generally during a climax (not always during the climax). It can also be used during several scenes instead of the entire film.


In conclusion, a good ‘plant & payoff’ engages audience and gives them a chance to be an active participant in the narrative rather than being a ‘sitting duck’. The best way to use it is to make sure that both plant and payoff are far away from each other in a narrative, otherwise both plant and payoff would appear deliberate and forced upon. For eg. Consider the above mentioned ‘3 IDIOTS’ scene. If Ranchho invents the inverter in one scene and in the next scene, the delivery happens with the help of the inverte. On the contrary, it sounds too superficial.. Isnt it??

We have to make sure that the plant is not too obvious otherwise the payoff will fall flat and becomes quite predictable. And, if the plant is too subtle, we might not even notice the payoff.

So, a ‘plant & payoff’ is a vital element in feature and television writing. Next time you watch a film or a television series, try to identify one and try to use in your own productions as it not only develops your sense of story structure but also helps you to make your narrative unexpected.

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