Throughout your script you should be "planting" plot, character, dialogue and actions that you can later "pay off" to create an emotional response in the audience. We want the audience to feel what our characters feel, to have an emotional experience. Plants and pay offs are important tools we can use to reveal information and create an emotionally charged moment for the audience.

There are three kinds of Plants: Establishing, Reveal/Surprise, and Soft Plants. The plants are pretty much the same, but the way they Pay Off is very different. All three deal with establishing information - but what happens after that are three different roads to three different conclusions.

A Reveal/Surprise Plant is designed so that the audience *forgets* the information that is planted so that when it is revealed later in the story it is some form of surprise or "That's right! She always wears a bullet proof vest!" The Establishing Plant is designed to *remind* the audience of a goal or skill or some other bit of information so that they do not forget it. The Soft Plant is the most interesting of the three because it is just information that is established that may *never* Pay Off. Never. It's optional. I often use Soft Plants when writing - I establish some piece of information that I have no planned Pay Off for - but maybe I'll come up with some use for that information later in the script... or maybe I won't and it's just an interesting detail about character or location or some other aspect of the story.

In James Cameron's ALIENS every single character is given a little story that pays off at the end. The cowardly commander who tries to fight the war from the armored vehicle ends up showing courage by sacrificing himself on the front lines so that the others can get away. Vasquez, who hates the commander and makes fun of him throughout the film, is at his side - showing that she respects him. Ripley hates androids, won't even sit at the same table as Lance Henrickson's character - but he's the one who dies trying to save her at the end. The supporting character's conflict is planted early, and paid off at the end.

In the second scene of Jeff Nathanson's CATCH ME IF YOU CAN we see Leonardo DiCaprio at a Rotary Club dinner honoring his father (Christopher Walken). As he listens to his father tell a story, DiCaprio slowly peels the labels off a bottle of champagne - trying to keep it intact. Though you may think this was just something for the character to do while his dad tells his oft-told tale, in reality it's a plant that will pay off in two very different ways.

First - Leo peels the Pan Am decals off of model planes to force checks (that nervous habit comes in handy).

Second - when FBI Agent Tom Hanks confronts Leo in a Los Angeles apartment, Leo claims to be a fellow Federal Agent and hands him his ID folder. By the time Hanks flips open the ID folder, Leo is long gone. The ID folder is filled with labels peeled from products. This is both a plant AND a pay off. When Hanks sees the peeled labels in the ID folder he knows the federal agent is really Leo the forger... and it plants the peeled label habit in Hanks' knowledge of Leo (Hanks is not a psychic - we needed a scene that connects the peeled labels to Leo).

Later in the film, Hanks and his team are searching for Leo and end up at a society wedding. Not much chance that the groom is their lower-middle class forger. Hanks is ready to leave when he sees the champagne bottle with the peeled label. That's the pay off! The real reason we say Leo peeling off that label in the opening scene. The minute he sees that champagne bottle Hanks KNOWS that Leo is the groom... and currently only a few feet away in an upstairs bedroom! Because the plant and pay off are VISUAL we don't need anyone to tell us that Hanks has figured out Leo is locked in that bedroom upstairs. We figure it out based on the visual plant from that second scene.


My screenplay DARK SALVAGE got me a bunch of studio meetings - it's Indiana Jones in swim fins. A huge epic adventure about sunken Spanish Galleons and two crews that go after the same treasure. Everybody loved it... but the main reason why it didn't sell is because it takes place both on and under water, which was very expensive to shoot at the time. The most mentioned film was WATERWORLD. Maybe now that CGI is better and those PIRATES movies were hits, someone might be interested in it now...

I used plants and pay offs throughout the script to show the relationship between characters evolving, or just to create a clever reveal later in the story. The ship our heroes rent has a battered old refrigerator covered in refrigerator magnets... which vanish in one scene. Well, the way you find sunken treasure is with a magnetometer - and it's later revealed that the hero has used the magnets to throw the villain's team off. This plant and pay off adds character to my Horner character (who owns the boat and the refrigerator)... then makes our hero Lonnie look clever (when he plants the magnets away from the real potential treasure sites)... then pays off again when the villain Curt discovers them. Those magnets also have a "reverse pay off" when leading lady Shelby sees a reflection of an attacking henchman in the refrigerator door that wouldn't be visible if the magnets hadn't been removed.

Every character in DARK SALVAGE has plants and pay offs, but let's look at (sidekick) Carter and (hero) Lonnie's relationship. After seeing too many films where the hero had a wise old mentor, I decided to turn that upside down and make my hero the mentor character. So I needed a student - Carter. Carter's character helps the story in many ways:

1) Because no modern movie has ever been about marine salvage divers, I needed a "new guy" to act as an audience surrogate. All of the technical stuff could be explained to the audience by having Lonnie or Shelby explain it to Carter.

2) Carter also acts as a reflection of Lonnie. We can chart Lonnie's character arc through his relationship with Carter, and see where Lonnie DOESN'T change in scenes where Carter DOES change.

3) Carter also adds some comedy relief. Shelby is sarcastic, but I needed a character that was a little goofy. Someone who could do and say silly things to balance the heavy tone of the Lonnie/Curt (hero/villain) and Lonnie/Evelyn (hero/femme fatale) stories.

4) That reverse mentor thing: Lonnie sees himself in Carter. He sees the guy he used to be, and sees the potential. So Carter will bring out Lonnie's character - especially his optimism and his belief that good deeds pay off. Lonnie is such a bitter character, I needed a way to show his sweetness.

Okay, that's why Carter's a character in DARK SALVAGE, so now let's look at some of *his* plants and pay offs.

PLANT: The first scene with Lonnie and Carter I wanted to show how similar they were. So I invented this sunken DC-3 off the coast of Gualala that Carter was going to dive and Lonnie had dove years ago. That DC-3 was never intended to be a plant! Total soft plant - when I wrote the scene I just needed to show scuba diving!

PAY OFF: Near the end of the script I had a big dramatic scene between Carter and Lonnie. His friendship with Carter was turning out the way his friendship with Williams had turned out. Lonnie was angry (a pair of dive knives pay off here) - but there are no one sided arguments. So what could Carter throw back in Lonnie's face? How about that sunken DC-3?

It's important to plant as many details in your script as possible - to give characters full, rich, lives and surroundings so that you have material to pay off later. The best thing about pay offs from soft plants like this is that they surprise you (the writer). You had no idea that little detail would become a pivotal part of the script when you wrote it. If you plant a great little detail and it never pays off, that's okay! A great little detail makes the character more real - which is a different kind of pay off.

PLANT: Carter's frustration with being "top man" - he wants to be a diver on the salvage mission.

PAY OFF: Carter finds a very unexpected way to be a diver on the salvage mission... by joining the villain!

PLANT: Carter tells Lonnie he wants to "Hold the gold in my hand, that's what it's all about."

PAY OFF: At the end of the script, Lonnie helps Carter get his wish to hold the gold in his hand. This is an emotional moment - set up earlier in the script so that I could pay it off here. When Carter's line plants this scene, you don't expect it to pay off like this. That's the key to a good Reveal/Surprise Plant & Pay Off - even if the audience anticipates the pay off, you surprise them by paying it off in an unexpected way. You want to keep the cause and effect between plant and pay off, but you don't want the audience to be able to predict the effect.

Sometimes you can use plants & pay offs to create mystery. In an early scene femme fatale Eveyln does something unexpected - she starts a shoot out with the villain Williams. Why? Hey, folks, that's a plant! I wanted the audience to wonder why she did that, so that I could build mystery around her character. She's already the unknown person on the boat. Another part of the plant is that she used to dive with Williams. I continue to plant information that acts as clues to "the Evelyn mystery" - she secretly meets Williams for drinks when they go to shore (pay off of the Evelyn's lipstick plant), her dive knives match the punctured canned goods, and the BIG plant I slip in when no one is looking: She talks about this business associate of her father's who slept with her and dumped her - now they hate each other. If you're assembling the clues to the "Evelyn mystery" that last plant solves it... it's really a pay off! But the confirmation comes 23 pages later when I pay off the entire Evelyn mystery in a big dramatic scene with Lonnie... she used to be William's lover & protege.

Other plants & pay offs in the script: the coffee with egg shell, the bar tabs (a running gag), Shelby not feeling needed by Lonnie, the story of Ron Ennio, the "easiest million I ever earned", beer consumption (another running gag), the magnetometer hits, the cannon, the Green King wreckage, the "rain check", and how all of the dive shop guys in the beginning of the script show up by the end of the script! There are so many plants & pay offs that I could nerver list them all... I haven't even mentioned the entire Lonnnie/Williams relationship that's FULL of plants, pay offs, and past incidents coming back to haunt the characters.


Sometimes you may plat something with no payoff in mind. In my script SPLICERS, I had a scene where our soldier hero first meets the female soldier love interest he admires her chrome 45s and asks to take a look at them. She shoots him down with "I don't know you that well." That started out as just a line of dialogue, but ended up being used a couple more times in the script... it "accidentally" paid off later.

Another accidental plant was a soldier who was killed early on... and later in the script I had my hero at the same location in need of a weapon. I tried to figure out what he could use as a weapon, then I remembered the dead soldier... and his weapon. Hey, a great accidental plant!

I also gave each character in SPLICERS an emotional conflict (plant) that could be resolved later in the script. Another female soldier has a hot date and wants to get the mission over with as quickly as possible. Orginally the hot date was just a way to define her character, but it ended up paying off by the end of the film when she sacrifices herself and stays behind so that others can escape... and that means she'll miss her date.

Give each of your characters a plant (conflict) early that will be resolved in later scenes so that they can help save the day or create an emotional pay off with your protagonist. Fill your script with as many details that not only add verisimilitude but give you material that you can pay off later. Find the unexpected way to pay off your plants to keep your script unpredictable. You can't have too many clever plants and pay offs!

Reveal/Surprise Plants: are designed for the audience *not* to remember the information you have established.

Establishing Plants: are designed for the audience to remember the information you have established.

Soft Plants: are information established which may never pay off! It might just be a cool detail... or may end up that secret weapon in James Bond's briefcase you never thought he'd use.

It's always about what you want the audience to feel and what you want them to know... *how* you tell the story.


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Your story is like a road trip... but where are you going? What's the best route to get there? What are the best sights to see along the way? Just as you plan a vacation instead of just jump in the car and start driving, it's a good idea to plan your story. An artist does sketches before breaking out the oils, so why shouldn't a writer do the same? This Blue Book looks at various outlining methods used by professional screenwriters like Wesley Strick, Paul Schrader, John August, and others... as well as a guest chapter on novel outlines. Plus a whole section on the Thematic Method of generating scenes and characters and other elements that will be part of your outline. The three stages of writing are: Pre-writing, Writing, and Rewriting... this book looks at that first stage and how to use it to improve your screenplays and novels.

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Most screenplays are about a 50/50 split between dialogue and description - which means your description is just as important as your dialogue. It just gets less press because the audience never sees it, the same reason why screenwriters get less press than movie stars. But your story will never get to the audience until readers and development executives read your script... so it is a very important factor. Until the movie is made the screenplay is the movie and must be just as exciting as the movie. So how do you make your screenplay exciting to read? Description is important in a novel as well, and the “audience” does read it... how do we write riveting description?

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copyright 2020 by William C. Martell

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bluebook E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there will soon be novels.

Furious Action Class

Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.

Producing my own scripts, investment possibilities, pipe dreams.


Naked Class The NAKED SCREENWRITING CLASS ON MP3! The 2001 London Class on 8 MP3s! Recorded *live* the morning after the Raindance Film Festival wrapped. The two day class on 8MP3s, plus a workbook, plus a bonus MP3 with PDFs.
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Each Blue Book is 48 pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!

THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The Market!


My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER

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