I’ve mentioned before how it drives my family crazy when I can tell them in the first few minutes of the movie what’s going to happen in the end. That works when the “plant” is followed by a “play off.”
But sometimes, I get the movie wrong. Why? Because there’s a “plant” without a “pay off.” The mother doesn’t die. The gun doesn’t get fired. The dress isn’t worn. My friend Jeff Gerke will explain what that means:
Plant and Payoff—Part 2: Plant without a Payoff
This is the second in a two-part series on something I call Plant and Payoff.
Last time I talked about what happens when you give the payoff but haven’t set it up with the plant. It falls flat and feels to the reader like you’ve pulled a rabbit out of your hat. It feels like you’re not playing fair.
This time I want to talk about what happens if you plant something but then don’t use it. That’s a plant without a payoff. To the reader, it feels like a red herring, and it’s equally frustrating. Worse, it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing as a novelist. (FYI, that’s bad.)
Imagine you’re reading a story and the author goes to great lengths to set up that the protagonist is a whiz with numeric patterns. I mean, we get pages and pages of how good she is with these. We’re thinking A Beautiful Mind kind of thing.
As we’re going along in the story we’re waiting for that information to be important. We’ve assumed that you’re showing us this because it’s going to come into play later. So we’re set up for it. We’re ready. As situations develop in the story we’re like, “Okay, I’ll bet she sees some pattern in the flower arrangement and solves the mystery!” We’re totally engaged.
Now let’s say the rest of the story goes by and the protagonist never uses that pattern recognition thing. Not once. Has this pleased Mr. Reader? Nay, I say!
The reader feels ripped off and angry. “Wait a minute here. You made me remember all that about the numeric patterns and you never used it? It was never important? Why did I waste the brain storage space to retain that in ready memory then? The whole reason I got interested in your story is because I thought you were going to use that.”
Plant and Payoff are like bookends. If you have either one but don’t have its matching one on the other side, all the books fall off onto the floor. Figuratively speaking.
Make sure you don’t spend page-space talking about something you’re not going to use. Make sure you don’t mention something about a character that you don’t come back to later.
Recently I watched the excellent movie Night at the Museum. Hysterical film. But it had a plant without a payoff. It was small, but it irritated me.
Rebecca tells Larry that all the time Sacajawea was leading Lewis and Clark’s expedition she was carrying her baby on her back. But Sacajawea in the museum has no baby. Then we see Teddy Roosevelt searching for something in relation to Sacajawea. And Sacajawea herself is looking kind of forlorn and distracted, as if she’s looking for her baby who has perhaps gotten lost. We’re completely set up for the search for Sacajawea’s baby.
But it never happens. We’re thinking there’s a baby in peril somewhere, but it’s never spoken of again.
That’s a plant without a payoff. We thought it was a major plot point but it ended up being just a little factoid the writer threw in because he’d researched it. It angered the viewer (well, one viewer, anyway) because he thinks it’s going to be important but it ends up not being so.
One final note about plant and payoff: they have to be in correct proportion to one another. If you spend pages setting something up, it had better be very important later. And if something is very important later, it had better have been set up sufficiently and not just mentioned in passing.
In Tom Clancy’s massive novel The Sum of All Words (er, “Fears”), he spends probably 100 pages on one particular storyline: giant redwood tree trunks that have been felled in the Pacific Northwest and are being shipped to Japan, where they will be used in a temple. While at sea a fierce storm breaks out and the logs are dropped into the ocean.
Are you set up? For at least 100 pages you’ve been reading about these trees. You’re convinced it’s a very important thing because it’s been given so much page-space. What kind of payoff could it be, you wonder. Will the good guys create some kind of torpedo using a redwood log?
So a submarine surfaces in the storm in order to receive a message on its antenna. But, oh no, something hits the antenna and it doesn’t work. Hey, who put these redwood logs in the ocean?
That was it. One hundred pages of following these stupid tree trunks, and the only thing the entire storyline was there for was to have something to bonk a silly antenna! I was furious. The payoff was definitely not in proportion to the plant.
Don’t do that.
Make sure you have planted everything you want to be important later, and make sure you give a payoff to everything you plant. And keep them in proportion.
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.