First Draft: Lessons in Screenplay Plants and Payoffs from Chinatown and The Orphanage

In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


“Bad for glass,” says 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 isby virtue of his being an investigator uncovering clues one step at a timeour 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. This allows Jake, and the audience, to understand that the meaning was waiting there all alongand now provides the vital component needed for us to solve the mystery of Hollis Mulwray’s death.

That humans missand then makeintellectual 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.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown.

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).

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.”

So, why is this 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.

Plus, there is possibly nothing more satisfying than well-executed plant and payoff.

Belén Rueda as Laura in The Orphanage.

Case Study: The Orphanage

(Spoilers ahead)

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 gamea 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 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 gameswith 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.

Óscar Casas as Tomás in The Orphanage.

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 10 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.”

Belén Rueda as Laura in The Orphanage.

Plant/Payoff One

The Orphanage’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 climaxand one of the most mind-blowing call-backs in any filmwhen 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.

The lighthouse from The Orphanage.

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.

Montserrat Carulla as Benigna in The Orphanage.

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.

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