Plants and Payoffs in Screenwriting

By James Napoli • June 4, 2021

“Bad for glass,” mutters private eye Jake Gittes in Robert Towne’s Chinatown. When the statement is first heard in the story, it is merely Jake’s culturally insensitive remark about the inability of Evelyn Mulwray’s gardener to pronounce the letter “r.” It has no meaning to Gittes, who is–by virtue of his being an investigator uncovering clues one step at a time–our surrogate in the telling of the tale. We, too, have no particular meaning to attach to the phrase “bad for glass.”

When the words occur a second time, though, as Jake returns to Evelyn’s house, they very suddenly and significantly attain meaning; and this allows Jake, and the audience, to understand that the meaning was waiting there all along–and now provides the vital component needed for us to solve the mystery of Hollis Mulwray’s death.

That humans miss–and then make–intellectual connections that can change how they relate to the world is part of life. Stories, especially movie stories, become even more memorable when they can exploit this aspect of human nature.

“It was there the whole time!” we exclaim upon realizing that salt water is bad for the grass and that the key to Hollis Mulwray’s drowning was contained in a passing comment.

The human need for something new that enters our field of experience (the plant) to eventually make sense (the payoff) is deeply engrained in us. And screenwriting can exploit in ways that no other medium can, because of cinema’s ability to direct our eyes to what is meant to be most significant in the narrative. (In the above named case, the mispronounced word “glass” will end up pointing us to a pair of glasses.)

Why do people go to the cinema? The search for entertainment? The need for a kind of drug? All over the world there are, indeed, entertainment firms and organizations which exploit cinema and television and spectacles of many other kinds. Our starting point, however, should not be there, but in the essential principles of cinema, which have to do with the human need to master and know the world. - Andrei Tarkovsky

We can even dig deeper than the words of filmmakers to establish our need for intellectual connectivity in stories. Social psychologist Arie W. Kruglanski introduced the “need for cognitive closure” in human beings. Part of Kruglanski’s definition included the idea of an individual’s “desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity.” Maria Konnikova, writing about cognitive closure in The New Yorker, put it this way:

The human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity; from an early age we respond to uncertainty or a lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations. What’s more, we hold onto these invented explanations as having an intrinsic value of their own. - Maria Konnikova

So, why is it important for screenwriters?

Because it means your audience is champing at the bit to have you deliver such moments in your script! Moments that allow them to make those connections and spontaneously generate plausible explanations within the groundwork you have established.

And besides, you love movies, and you know there is possibly nothing more satisfying than well-executed plant and payoff.


The 2007 ghost story The Orphanage was directed by J.A. Bayona and scripted by Sergio G. Sánchez. It is a beautifully constructed piece of screenwriting, which takes the time to layer in countless motifs, images and ideas that repeat and spin back on themselves in dizzyingly rewarding ways.

First, in order to frame the study, a synopsis:

Laura was adopted from an orphanage when she was a little girl, leaving behind several of her orphan friends, with whom she would play a game—a variant of “tag”–in which one child “knocks on the wall” repeatedly with her back turned, until the other children catch up to her, tap her on the shoulder and start another round.

When Laura grows up, at the age of 37, she moves back to the house that was once the orphanage and plans on starting a home for mentally-challenged kids with her doctor husband, Carlos. An old woman, Benigna, shows up claiming to be a social worker and asking about the couple’s young adopted son, Simon, who has AIDS, but Laura sends her away, only to find Benigna poking around in their back garden of the house that evening and fleeing.

Simon has a history of playing with imaginary friends, and he claims there are several there with him at the orphanage. Only Simon can see a little boy named Tomas, who wears a sack over his head. When Simon disappears, Laura and Carlos search desperately for him. Only when Laura consults a psychic does she begin to believe that Simon’s imaginary friends are ghosts in the house and have taken her son.

Indeed, she proves herself right and realizes the ghosts of the children are the other orphans she left behind when she got adopted. They were murdered by Benigna after they played a game with her son (the disfigured Tomas who wore a sack on his head), resulting in his accidental drowning.

Now, as spirits, the orphans want to keep playing games—with Laura. In communicating with the dead orphans, Laura finds Simon, not realizing that he, too, is a ghost, and was right under her nose the whole time, having died in a hidden basement in the house, locked there unknowingly by Laura during an earlier mishap. When Laura realizes she has unwittingly caused her son’s death, she takes her own life to join him in the afterlife, where she is also finally reunited with her orphan friends. Carlos returns to the house and finds a little totem Laura left behind, and he realizes her spirit is at peace.

One of the truly revelatory things about The Orphanage is that, although there is a twist ending that relies on plant and payoff information, or “clues” laid out by the story that make sense afterwards (and as such can be compared to The Sixth Sense), the film also carries plant/payoff threads through on many other levels, often deeply emotional ones. The overall effect is quite impressive.

Below is a list of ten plant and payoff threads that ripple through the extraordinary mosaic of The Orphanage. There are several more that can be found and it would be more than worth your while to uncover them and achieve your own “cognitive closure.”

Plant/Payoff One

The film’s prologue depicts the young Laura playing tag with her friends, and sets up the image of a scarecrow that becomes instrumental in orienting the audience to Laura’s later decision to put the orphanage “back the way it was” in order to more fully summon the spirits of the murdered orphans. And, of course, that game of tag repeats in the climax–and one of the most mind-blowing call-backs in any film–when Laura realizes she can use it as the definitive game with which to call the dead orphans out of hiding.

Finally, the prologue ends with an unidentified official at the orphanage at the time of Laura’s adoption saying, “Your friends will miss you a lot, Laura.” In fact, it was right after Laura got adopted that the orphans turned to the cruelty that resulted in Tomas’ death. Laura was the glue that held them together. She needs to be reunited with them first and foremost. Finding her lost Simon turns out to be only a component of that larger, more global fate.

Plant/Payoff Two

Laura is awakened by Simon calling out to her, and telling her, “They’re outside, listen.” Laura assumes Simon means his usual imaginary friends, but, in fact, he is talking about the dead orphans, who are already communicating with him. Moments later, Laura describes the lighthouse outside Simon’s window that no longer works, but did when she was a girl. Twice more in the script, the lighthouse is mentioned as being operational, and in both cases it refers to the past when the orphans were alive.

Plant/Payoff Three

Simon drops shells on the way home from the beach in order that his new spirit friend Tomas (whom he meets in a cave at the location of the boy’s drowning) can find his way back to the house to play with him. When Laura wakes up the next morning, the trail of shells has been piled up at her front door.

Plant/Payoff Four

When Benigna visits on the pretext of being a social worker, she asks, “Will you be making many improvements to the house?” We later realize she is trying to find out if anyone will be tearing up the grounds and finding the bodies of the murdered orphans she has hidden in the garden shed.

Also in this scene, Laura tells Benigna, “I grew up here and I always wanted to return.” She does return, of course, in joining the dead orphans at the end of the story. And, in this context, Laura’s many declarations of how much she wants to “be with Simon” take on a creepy new resonance.

Plant/Payoff Five

In trying to hide information about his condition from Simon, Laura locks his file in a drawer with a large key. This key becomes the first object hidden by the spirits in the game of hide and seek that they play with Simon and Laura, although in that first game Laura does not believe anything supernatural has occurred. Just before the game begins, Simon and Laura are going through a box of memorabilia and find that Simon has saved the wrapper from the ice cream he got after his tonsil operation.

Later, in the final game the orphans play with Laura as they lead her to Simon’s body, that ice cream wrapper becomes a clue the dead orphans leave for Laura to point her toward that same memorabilia box, in which the spirits have placed only a single, mysterious doorknob. It is this doorknob—many scenes later–that fits the wall in the anteroom and leads Laura to the hidden basement where Simon has died.

Plant/Payoff Six

Simon reads Peter Pan and asks about Neverland and whether his mother would come to rescue him if he went there. When the spirit-orphans welcome Laura back to the afterlife, they comment that she has grown old, like Wendy in Peter Pan.

Also in this scene, Simon declares that he will never grow up and grow old. At first, this seems like a boy’s playful identification with the “I’ll never grow up” ethos from Peter Pan, but, in fact, Simon knows he will die.

Plant/Payoff Seven

Simon becomes belligerent in wanting Laura to see “Tomas’ little house,” which later becomes the secret basement in which Simon falls to his death. During the same argument, Laura causes some heavy pipes to dislodge in the small antechamber that leads to the secret basement. In propping the heavy pipes back up against the wall, she has unwittingly blocked Simon’s path back into the house, and this is the way in which Laura unwittingly caused his demise.

After Laura slaps Simon when he becomes belligerent, an angry Simon dresses up in the clothing of his new friend Tomas, with the sack over his head. As such, Simon is wearing a whistle around his neck when he disappears. It is this whistle that he blows just before he dies and is heard by Laura in a dream that awakens her.

Plant/Payoff Eight

When the whistle awakens Laura, she has no idea where it came from, but then hears a crash in the wall (which later turns out to be Simon’s fatal fall) and when she goes to investigate she finds a small female doll in Simon’s room. Here, the dead orphans are already playing with Laura, and they have left that doll as a sign that she, herself, is the missing component in the spirit world. Laura completes the orphans, and must be together with them in the afterlife to restore order.

This is exemplified in a beautiful scene in which Laura finally begins to see what the orphans want when she finds an old toy box with dolls representing the other orphans, and places the “Laura doll” back with them, completing the grouping of old friends.

Plant/Payoff Nine

When Laura goes to hear a psychic speak, the psychic declares that to glance at one’s doppelganger, or supernatural twin, means, “without any doubt, a passport to the other world.” When the adult Laura dies and holds her son in the afterlife, she looks out the window to see (illuminated by the now-working lighthouse from the past) herself as a little girl, staring up at her and then running away, her spirit free.

Plant/Payoff Ten

The film’s final image is of Laura’s husband Carlos returning to the orphanage after losing his wife and son, and finding, in a crack in the floor, the St. Anthony medal that Laura had been wearing around her neck for much of the story. In fact, it was Carlos who gave Laura the medal, claiming that he did not believe in it, but that it would work if Laura wore it. Carlos instructed Laura to “give it [the medal] back when we find Simon.”

As Laura dies, she rips the medal from her neck and it falls into the floorboards. She left the St. Anthony medal behind for Carlos to know that she had, indeed, found Simon.

In Conclusion

All great scripts contain lessons for screenwriters to apply to their own work. You may not be writing a ghost story or horror film, but in watching the ways in which writer Sergio G. Sánchez allowed so many details to keep referring endlessly back to themselves, it is not hard to see how carrying such threads through one’s own work can enliven any genre you care to name.

James Napoli