Plants and Payoffs

Craig with you today. My topic is going to be those plants and payoffs we use when writing our stories. This is one of the things an outline can help us with. You’ve seen my post about storyboarding, so you know my outlines aren’t very deep.

There is a certain amount of planning that goes into plants & payoffs. You don’t want them to feel forced. It may not fool someone who reads all the time, but that’s okay. You never want your characters to look at the reader and say, “Stop the action for a bit. You need to know there is a meat cleaver in the kitchen drawer. Trust me, it’s going to be important in a few chapters.”

It may seem basic, but there could be someone out there who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. This involves a situation where an author Plants something in the story, that’s going to come back later on and Payoff. Think of it like a Jack-in-the-box. You crank the handle and nothing happens. Crank it enough and the creepy clown jumps out.

This post came to me, because I was breaking a vow I made. I swore off my current project to address some other projects I do to help my fellow authors. This is actually good for the daydreaming phase of writing. I started out with the idea of using a shark to accomplish something in my story. (It’s a pirate tale.)

Daydreaming started with a white shark, but this story has some fantasy elements in it, which led me to black shark. Because everyone knows a black shark is scarier. Somehow it just wasn’t working for me.

One night I was randomly surfing on Pinterest, when I spotted this image. I won’t post it here, because it belongs to someone. After I saw it, I knew nothing else would satisfy me.

Because this is a fantasy creature, we have no idea what it does, looks like, or anything else. Do I really want to stop the action to describe all of this at the crucial moment? (Say no. The answer is no.)

This means I had to weave him into the story earlier. I wound up having a pirate tell a tale of his encounter with one of these creatures earlier in his life. This is the plant, if you’re paying attention. I used it to pile some character onto the pirate, and used the opportunity to change the creature a bit. Where some whales have barnacles attached, this thing has bits and pieces of a small coral reef. (Because it’s my world, and I’ll have it my way.)

We can debate the merits of backstory at a different date. This is eleven chapters in, and it takes a page. I’m not worried about it, but if it took a chapter it would be a mistake.

My pirate’s name is Johnny Jump Up, and his tale is scary. I may try to make it more so on the second or third pass. The point today is that when this creature returns, readers are already going to know what he looks like, and what he’s capable of.

Two or three chapters down the road, what I’m calling the ‘swimming reef’ is going to come back. Readers will already know everything they need, and I don’t have to stop the action with a bunch of descriptions, cool as they may be.

Plants and payoffs can be really simple. Like the cleaver up above. Maybe Gabriella is chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Weave in some character bits about her, her love of cooking, and owning all the right equipment. Then she nicks her finger, we get another view of her swearing and throwing out the vegetables, because they have blood on them. Make sure we at least get a drop of blood on the cleaver. (It’s a visual thing. Watching the blood swirl down the drain as she washes it works too.) Ten chapters later, when she buries in her stalker’s forehead, readers will remember how sharp it was, how heavy it was, and that Gabriella knows how to use it. It won’t seem to have miraculously shown up in the drawer at just the right time either.

This is another use for plants and payoffs. Readers need to know what is possible. Having a guy pull an unknown pistol from his pocket irritates readers. They’ve followed this guy for twelve chapters and never knew he owned a gun, let alone put it in his pocket that day.

If you have a big scene planned in your story, back up a few chapters and let readers know whatever you have planned is possible. Whether this is Gabriella’s cleaver, or my swimming reef. Then when it goes down, it won’t be deus ex machina.

45 thoughts on “Plants and Payoffs

  1. Pingback: Plants and Payoffs | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  3. An excellent post, Craig. I have found myself thrown out of a story if something jumps up with no prior reference to it anywhere. So, planting is important and sometimes it can be done with only a word or two. I love this!

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  4. This is no joke. I once knew a guy that showed up literally everywhere around town. He always carried this paper bag. One day in a conversation, someone said they would need an Enchiridion of ancient Greek to answer the question that came up (I had one but not on me and it’s basically a dictionary). The guy pulls it out of the bag – shocked everyone. There were a couple of other times he was known to pull something unusual from the bag but that was the one most unlike making the plant for the later payoff. Incidentally, we would often mention him and turn around and find him standing nearby in a public place. It was like saying Beetlejuice too many times!

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  5. I remember learning this concept when I was just beginning to craft novels many decades ago. I had a convenient prop appear in my climatic scene and an agent called me on it. It was an eye-opening moment. Now I know to set up those plants or do the necessary foreshadowing. When an author does this and does this well, I’m mesmerized. An excellent post today, Craig.

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  6. Makes me think of foreshadowing too. I’ve read a few things recently where it feels like the necessary objects fell into the characters’ hands at the perfect moment with no preparation. It’s almost like the ‘plant/payoff’ system isn’t used as often as it should outside of crime thrillers. What do you think about a blanket plant? This is when the author vaguely says that a character is knowledgeable of a broad subject or simply mentions that they have a collection of stuff. Nothing is specifically pointed out until it’s needed. For example, a character is described as having a tool collection in the house and then seems to always have the necessary tool at hand.

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  7. Very interesting topic! I love books when this is done the right way. It all goes back to Chekhov’s gun. If you put a gun in the wall in the first act, it should be fired in the following act. But if you want to fire the gun in the second act, you have to put it there earlier.

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