I drive my family crazy when we go to the movies. About fifteen minutes after the movie starts I lean over and tell my husband what’s going to happen–at least one BIG scene. My husband is often shocked (and dismayed!) when I’m right. “How did you know?”
I know because I look for “plants.” (And not the green hanging kind.) Rather things that show up in the first few scenes that I knew will tie in. If we see the character’s mother, she just might die. If there’s a gun, it just might get fired. If there’s a little black dress in the closet, most likely it’s going to be worn.
Want to know better how it works? My guest blogger Jeff Gerke will explain:
Plant and Payoff—Part 1: Payoff without a Plant
This is the first in a two-part series on something I call Plant and Payoff.
If you want your readers to care about the right things in your novel, you have to include both the plant and the payoff.
It’s a mixed metaphor, I know. I should call it the plant and the harvest or the investment and the payoff. Yawn. Boring.
The plant is when you let the reader know that something exists, that something is important, or that a character has an ability or piece of knowledge. The payoff is when you use that thing you’ve planted.
Examples will help.
In the original Star Wars movie, we think Luke Skywalker is pretty much toast in the Death Star trench because his wingmen have been taken away and Darth Vader is moving in for the kill. As far as we know, he’s completely unprotected. But then in swoops Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon to save the day. “Oh, yeah!” we say. “Han didn’t come with them. He would’ve been unaccounted for. That totally works! Go, Luke, go!”
The plant was that Han Solo was in the area but not with the attack group. The payoff was him arriving just in time.
At the climax of The Lord of the Rings Frodo comes to the Cracks of Doom to throw the ring into the lava, but there he stops. He’s failing at the last. He’s going to give in to the ring and go do Bad Things. But then out of nowhere Gollum pounces and wrestles with Frodo for the ring, ultimately saving him from his own bad choices.
Though Gollum had been out of our thoughts for a while, we did know he was still unaccounted for. He was out there, on the loose. That was the plant, though the reader wasn’t aware it had been planted. When Gollum arrives, just at the crucial moment (the payoff), it makes complete sense to us. We go, “Oh, right! Gollum!”
Note that while those two examples are pretty similar, the plant-and-payoff dynamic is not limited to crucial moment interventions. But they serve as good illustrations.
What if we had never known the Han Solo character and then at the climactic moment this complete stranger zooms up and blasts Darth Vader? We’d be like, “Huh? Who’s that guy? What’s going on? That totally doesn’t work.”
What if we’d never heard of Gollum and then, right when the story needed someone to come in and save Frodo from his bad choices, this odd creature jumps up and takes the ring? We’d be like, “Um, what was that weird thing? What a stupid ending!”
Those would be examples of payoff without plant. Because the important element hadn’t been introduced earlier (i.e., planted), it feels external to the story. It feels like an intrusion of something that didn’t belong, not something that arose organically from the story. Introduce those characters earlier and suddenly it all feels right.
It sounds silly and obvious, but I see payoff without plant all the time in aspiring novelists’ fiction. People we hadn’t met before become the key group to rescue the hero. Treasures we hadn’t even heard about before become the thing the hero acts like he’s been after all along. Characters we hadn’t met die and the protagonist is all broken up about it, but we’re like, “Dude, who’s that? Sorry he’s dead, and all, but I don’t exactly care. I’d never heard about him before now.”
That’s what a payoff without a plant is. If you don’t introduce important things early on, we don’t believe them or care about them when you bring them out later. A protagonist who for 300 pages has been a pipe fitter and then in the climax suddenly knows how to defuse a thermonuclear device is going to feel wrong to the reader. A car that for the whole story has been on death’s door but then in the climax becomes a world-caliber race car is going to strike the reader as being completely unbelievable.
And it all would’ve been solved if only the thing had been planted somewhere earlier in the book.
If you have characters whose special abilities are going to be called upon in the climax, you’d better be very sure you’ve indicated to the reader before then that he has those abilities. If they key to the whole novel is the switch the hero has to flip to avert the earth-dissolving disaster, you’d better be double sure you’ve talked about the switch earlier in the book.
A payoff with no plant will just anger your reader. And nobody wants that.
Next time, the reverse: a plant with no payoff. Grrr.
Jeff Gerke has spent fifteen years in the Christian publishing industry — years that included writing six published novels and two co-written nonfiction books, stints on staff with three publishing companies, and years as an acquisitions editor.