Plants & Payoffs
When a writer introduces a specific detail into a story, she/he needs to examine whether that detail will be unconsciously believed by the audience. If it isn’t, the writer runs the risk of alienating the audience and undoing all the hard work that went into the script. To avoid that happening the writer should subtly foreshadow the specific detail so it feels completely natural when it eventually happens. The writer has to prepare.
Subtle preparation starts with our darling characters: how we set them up and how they subsequently behave. For example, if we know a character is a former soldier and gets jumped by three heavies and easily overpowers them, the audience are ready to accept that as a possible outcome. Yet if the character is a mild-mannered accountant who still manages to ninja his way out of his predicament, unless the audience have been prepared to think otherwise, they could be sceptical of the outcome and might snap out of the story. A mild mannered accountant who also boxes as a hobby could at least be a good starting point.
Likewise, imagine that same accountant, off work with a broken leg, watching his neighbours from his apartment window. Thinking he’s just witnessed a murder, he opens a drawer and produces binoculars and various telescopic lenses to zoom in for a clear view. Might that be just a little too convenient? If we were to establish earlier in the narrative that he’s a bird-watching enthusiast or, even simpler, change his profession to that of a photographer, then the groundwork has been laid for unquestioned audience acceptance.
This may all seem very obvious to read, but so many films and their audiences suffer because of a failure in preparation. It could be a result of the filmmakers being too involved and losing perspective or simply through complacency or maybe even arrogance, but the fact remains even seasoned pros fall foul of poor preparation.
In the David Koepp-penned, Steven Spielberg classic, Jurassic Park, poor preparation results in a disappointing finale, made all the more disappointing by how simple it would have been to avoid. Following a tense chase scene, the two kids, Timmy and Lex, find themselves trapped in the computer room with Dr Grant and his fiancé, Ellie. Earlier in the film, a computer breach results in all security doors being automatically unlocked and disabled, which now poses a serious problem for the kids as the one and only door to the computer room cannot be locked manually and a velociraptor is about to get in. They are trapped. They are dinner.
Dr Grant and Ellie are fighting a losing battle to hold the door shut against the raptor’s superior strength and weight. It’s surely only a matter of seconds before the raptor bursts through and massacres them all. We hold our breath … the kids cower … any moment now … and then something miraculous happens. Lex sits down at the recently rebooted computer system, speedily navigates through its operating systems and promptly activates the security systems. The door slams shut and locks, the disappointed raptor peers dolefully through the glass and the kids breathe a sigh of relief, safe and sound within the locked room. WHOOSH BUMP! That’s the sound of me returning to reality. Suspension of disbelief has just been suspended until further notice. How I hate those whoosh bump moments.
I invested time and emotional energy rooting for these kids only to be rudely affronted when one of them (who up until this moment has spent the majority of the film crying and screaming) morphs into a high-security computer systems analyst in the nick of time and saves the day. Where on earth did that come from? Poor preparation.
Lex using her computer skills was a specific detail that should have been a payoff moment. The problem is there hadn’t been a significant plant earlier in the script to make that payoff acceptable. All we had were a few lines of dialogue, very late on in the film, where Timmy calls Lex a nerd because she’s always on her computer at home. Lex responds to Timmy by saying she’s a hacker. Timmy again calls her a nerd. And that’s it, a brief dialogue exchange in which a nine-year-old boy tells us that a twelve-year-old girl likes computers, and from that we are expected to accept her elevation to heroine über-geek status as she speedily navigates her way around a state-of-the-art complex computer system while a terrifying monster breathes down her neck.
What’s even worse about that scene is that in Michael Crichton’s original draft, adapted from his novel, it is Timmy, not Lex, who saves the day in the computer room. Crichton having an off day turns bad preparation into an art form by failing to plant even a whiff of Timmy’s technical prowess. I assume Koepp and/or Spielberg, in reading that draft, figured it a bit far-fetched that a nine-year-old would be so au fait with computers and so, in the new draft, they changed the nine-year-old boy to the twelve-year-old girl, and for good measure threw in a line about her being a computer nerd to plant a seed in our minds. It’s a real shame that having identified a problem, the resulting fix was too weak.
I’m not sure why they were so keen to have Lex using the computer as a tension-building moment (let’s face it, in a story involving dinosaurs and children there’s hardly limited options for creating tension) but having decided to include that element, why not prepare it properly?
We are first introduced to Lex and Timmy in an amusing scene that is a payoff for Dr Grant’s character. We are shown early in the film that Dr Grant hates kids, yet his fiancé, Ellie, wants kids. When Dr Grant is about to embark on the much-anticipated tour of the dinosaur park, he discovers to his horror that two children are to accompany him. This is the first time we realise there are children on the island. It’s a surprise that instantly annoys Grant, which amuses Ellie and in turn amuses us. That joke is a payoff for the earlier plant but unfortunately it’s included at the expense of the ultimate payoff scene towards the end of the movie.
Any number of options could have been used in this instance. They could have introduced Lex in the computer room being given a systems demonstration by the resident computer genius. She is the owner’s granddaughter, after all, and if he’s happy for the kids to drive around a park full of dinosaurs, surely he’ll not mind a little tinkering in the engine room? The sibling rivalry can still be used as a tool to disguise the plant. The computer guy could be impressed by how quickly Lex picks up what he’s showing her - specifically, the park security systems – and say, “She certainly knows her way around a computer.” This would prompt a smile from the proud grandfather, which in turn would be swiftly followed by Timmy’s, “She’s a nerd! She’s always on the computer at home.”
It’s still subtle yet establishes a more effective plant to help us accept the plausibility of a twelve-year-old sussing out an automated security system at the end of the film. Furthermore, rather than show us an effective plant, they use a nine-year-old boy to tell us a weak plant. Whoosh bump. Bad decision in what is otherwise an extremely well-written script.
For this kind of subtle preparation to work, not only is it important for the plant to establish enough information to justify the payoff (as above), it’s also important the plant appears as an insignificant detail, nothing to arouse excitement or suspicion. It’s only later during the payoff moment, when the critical detail has been introduced, that it all falls into place and the relevance of the plant pays off. When this works, it’s a great moment because the audience feel they have participated in the story. They’ve had to work for it, plus they know you’ve trusted them enough not to spoon-feed them exposition. You’ve connected with your audience.
In M Night Shyamalan's Signs, the young girl, Bo, believes that all drinking water is contaminated. Whenever she’s given a glass of water, she takes a sip, turns her nose up and puts the glass down. As the film progresses, more and more glasses of abandoned water collect throughout the house. Her family indulge her, knowing it’s just a harmless childhood phase, and we all smile at what is a very cute little girl with a very charming character trait. At no point do we suspect these actions to be anything other than good characterisation. It’s only at the end of the film that we discover the perfect combination of great characterisation with a well-crafted plant.
Shyamalan offers further examples of great preparation for all his main cast, giving them subtle and believable character traits that never feel forced or telegraphed yet all serve as great payoff moments at the climax. The script is a masterclass in preparation, as well as a great example of low-budget scriptwriting.
Good preparation isn’t always about being subtle. Telegraphed preparation - flagging information to the audience - can serve as a good tension builder simply because the audience are aware there’s a payoff coming. One of the more common forms of telegraphing is through variations of: "If you do this, then this will happen." When Little Red Riding Hood is warned, "Do not stray from the path!" we are immediately on high alert when she eventually does stray from the path because we’ve been told to expect trouble.
Where this type of preparation can suffer is not necessarily with the original plant, but with the expected payoff, and to demonstrate here's another Spielberg classic, Minority Report and another well-written script, this one by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen.
A policeman, John Anderton, is on the run in a futuristic society where everyone is tracked and identified by eye scanners wherever they go. There is no avoiding detection and because it’s only a matter of time before he will be caught, Anderton takes the only route left to remain a free man: he has an eye transplant to remove his ‘fugitive’ eyes and replace them with those of an average Joe. It’s this scene that lays down two pretty heavy plants that both result in unnecessary whoosh bump moments.
With the Jurassic Park example, we saw a weak plant fail at the payoff due to shoddy preparation. With both the examples in Minority Report we see two blatantly telegraphed plants fail miserably because there is no pay off in either instance.
John Anderton’s fugitive status forces him to visit a shady back-street surgeon for the eye transplant. Just prior to the operation, Anderton is given an anaesthetic that quickly renders him physically useless, although he can still speak and hear. It’s at this point that the surgeon reveals he and Anderton know each other. Many years ago, Anderton arrested and locked up the surgeon for the shocking crime of setting female patients on fire. Anderton remembers him (not one to forget) and as Anderton lies there paralysed, trapped in the surgeon’s chair, the surgeon recounts his prison experiences, even alluding to the fact that he was raped.
As Anderton struggles with the grim reality that this nutter is probably after some serious payback, the surgeon lifts a laser gun to Anderton’s face, thanks him for sending him to prison and then says, “Let me return the favour…” and as the laser gun moves in, we collectively recoil from what must inevitably be this madman’s gruesome retribution.
The script then cuts to another scene and when we eventually return to Anderton, he’s in the same place, post-op, with his face and eyes wrapped in bandages. The surgeon is still with him and explains that it’s imperative he waits twelve hours before removing the bandages otherwise he will go blind. The surgeon stresses this several times, to the point that Anderton even repeats it back to him, demonstrating that he (we) understands he will go blind if he removes the bandages before twelve hours have passed. This is the second telegraphed plant. The audience are still waiting for the payoff on the first one. What has this nutter done to Anderton’s face and eyes they wonder? Also, why isn’t Anderton wondering that, too?
The surgeon gives Anderton a timer and some recreational drugs. An alarm will sound in twelve hours letting him know he can safely remove the bandages. The surgeon exits, Anderton takes a hit on the drugs and settles down to wait the allotted time. Unfortunately for him, the police are closing in and with six hours still remaining on his “gonna-go-blind” timer, Anderton is forced to uncover his newly transplanted left eye so a scanner can read it. He peels back the bandages, forces open his eye and the scanner strobes across it. Ouch! The new eye fools the police. They think it’s a different guy and the audience breathe a huge sigh of relief at the end of an extremely tense scene. The pain and suffering and ultimate blindness in one eye were worth it because he’s still a free man.
The next scene shows Anderton in public wearing sunglasses. We sympathise with him and his recent sacrifice, that is until he removes the glasses and can see perfectly well with both eyes! Whoosh bump.
If you telegraph this kind of detail you have to follow through with your promise and deliver, otherwise the audience will feel cheated and you could risk losing them. If Little Red Riding Hood defies her mother’s warning and strays from the path, something pretty rotten must happen to her. Failing to realise telegraphed preparation deprives the audience of expected payoff. It’s part of the deal. Chekhov said it more succinctly: “do not show a rifle on stage unless you are planning for someone to use it.” This is exactly what happens in Minority Report. What about the mad surgeon? Where’s the payoff there? Exactly what did that warped, woman-burning psychopathic surgeon with a chip on his shoulder do to our hero’s eyes? Is something yet to come? No. Nothing.
Anderton’s face is unscathed and his eyes work perfectly well for the rest of the film, despite the surgeon heavily hinting it was payback time, and despite the fact that Anderton exposed one eye within the timeframe that we had it drummed into us he would go blind. That’s a double whoosh bump moment. Two massive payoff scenes that should have been written were deafening in their absence.
Although both preparation problems in Minority Report are the same type of problem - telegraphed plants with no payoff - their differences lie in accountability. Whereas in Jurassic Park the problem is created at script level, with Minority Report the honours are even, with both writer and director demonstrating a shocking lack of vision. (I think it’s safe to say I’ll never work for Mr. Spielberg.) The first problem, the telegraphed threat from the lunatic surgeon, was a poorly-executed attempt to create even more tension in a succession of scenes already crammed full of tension.
In continually trying to up the stakes for the already beleaguered protagonist, the writers overlooked the required payoff scene. The result? Audience distraction and disappointment, the very opposite of what they were after. It’s a great example of where less would have been more. Throwing more and more problems at your protagonist just for the sake of it doesn’t equate to heightened tension. Allowing the scene to breathe and for the audience to focus, allows for existing tension, of which there is plenty in this example, to take root and build, making the eventual payoff that much more rewarding.
The second telegraphed plant, the warning not to expose his new eyes until twelve hours have passed, was originally followed by the required payoff scene but only in the script. In Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s script, when Anderton exposes his left eye after only six hours have passed, the eye actually turns white and for the rest of the script, as promised, he remains blind in that eye. That is the payoff scene that should have been seen, has to be seen, but unfortunately didn’t materialise in the finished film.
For whatever reason Spielberg decided to remove the element of Anderton going blind from the film. That’s fair enough; it’s the director’s prerogative, scenes are dropped and chopped all the time. However, having made the decision to drop the blindness element, Spielberg failed to remove its preparation, which left a gaping hole where there should have been a payoff scene, resulting in confusion, frustration and ultimately a betrayal of investment for the audience.
A similar problem occurs in Kieslowski’s Trzy Kolory: Bialy, where a confusing and disappointing finale is the direct result of specific preparation, present in the script, being cut from the finished film. Rejected husband, Karol, decides to fake his own death in a ploy to bring his estranged ex-wife, Dominique, from France to Poland for his funeral. Karol’s best friend, Mikolai, is in on the plan and after Karol’s ‘death’, arranges for a new identity, a new house and a new life for Karol in Hong Kong. Karol is due to fly to Hong Kong the morning after his own funeral.
Spying on his fake funeral, Karol is both moved and shocked at Dominique’s genuine grief, which prompts him to visit her at her hotel that same night. She expresses enormous relief that he is alive and they make sweet beautiful love and fall asleep in each other’s arms. It’s unclear why, after yearning for her for so long and going to such extreme lengths to induce her to come to Poland, Karol then sneaks off early in the morning before she wakes.
The police suddenly arrive and Dominique is surprisingly arrested for Karol’s murder. She is subsequently convicted and imprisoned leaving a sad Karol to pine outside her Polish prison with no further mention of his proposed Hong Kong plans. THE END. Whoosh bump.
The script reveals all. It turns out that Karol faked his own death to deliberately implicate Dominique as payback for the hell and humiliation she put him through in France. What we don’t see in the finished film is Karol arranging the set-up by having one of his men pinch Dominique’s passport whilst she’s at his funeral and replace it with one containing a new airport stamp that proves she was in the right place at the right time for his murder, the plan being that as Karol takes off for Hong Kong in the morning, his friend Mikolai will tip off the police about Dominique and all will be wrapped up nicely.
But it isn’t wrapped up nicely, at least not in the film, because the audience do not see any of that significant preparation and so when the police unexpectedly arrive at Dominique’s hotel and question her about her passport, we have no idea it has been faked and cannot understand why she has been arrested.
The script further reveals that following their night of passion after the funeral, Karol decides he can’t go through with the frame-up and he has also changed his mind about going to Hong Kong. So, the next morning, he leaves Dominique asleep in bed and hurries to the airport to cancel his ticket before phoning Mikolai to call the whole thing off.
Unfortunately, his arrival at the airport reveals that the clocks have gone forward. He tries to get hold of Mikolai but it’s too late; Mikolai’s already phoned the police and there’s no going back. And so we get the bittersweet ending. But only in the script, because in the film Karol sneaks off without explanation and Dominique is bizarrely arrested for Karol’s murder. We then see Karol seemingly devastated about Dominique’s arrest and imprisonment yet still allowing her to be wrongly accused of his murder, and there is no mention whatsoever of why Karol’s planned new life in Hong Kong hasn’t materialised. It’s about as clear as mud. Whoosh bump.
Kieslowski recognised this and admitted the ending was not clear. He agreed with the criticism but still defended his decision to cut the film saying he didn’t want to burden the viewer with a longer story. It seems very strange to cite audience welfare as his reason for cutting a film’s length when the subsequent result is mass audience confusion, especially when you consider the film is only an hour and a half long and the actual time cut from the finished film, according to Kieslowski himself, would have extended it by only “at least another ten minutes”.
Let’s suppose that is the case and for whatever reason he was against breaking the ninety-minute barrier. Director’s prerogative. But why did he choose to remove critical preparation that would undoubtedly lead to audience confusion and disappointment when he could just as easily reclaim that time from other areas of the film and sacrifice less important material? There’s plenty of opportunity to do that, plus he could have perfectly adequately foreshadowed the climax in less than “at least another ten minutes”.
All Kieslowski needed to do was show the all-important set-up with the passport forgery, then show Karol, after leaving Dominique in the hotel, discovering the time differential and trying to stop Mikolai from making that fateful phone call. That’s it. No longer than a few minutes. Instead we’re left with an intriguing and amusing film that ultimately confuses and disappoints at its climax. With all due respect to another brilliant director, I think he simply got it wrong. I think he made a mistake, an error in preparation, something none of us is immune to, neither the gods of film nor those of us who aspire to lie at their feet.
Of course, it’s always easy to pick holes in others’ hard work, but despite the problems highlighted above, all the examples have been consciously chosen from films that are recognised as being both critical and commercial successes. I just believe they could have been better. I fully accept that it’s extremely difficult to craft a work of drama without any holes, but we have some wonderful tools at our disposal to help do that, and by respecting just how delicate those tools are and understanding that even the greats can sometimes get it painfully wrong, hopefully we can be aware of our own fallibility and never become complacent.
First published in SCRIPTWRITER MAGAZINE issue 43 November 2008
Little Red Riding Hood by the very talented Annie Rodrigue