Plants and payoffs feature in many stories. Whilst most relevant when analysing screenplays, this narrative device also crops up in literature.
Especially in fairy tales.
When something seemingly inconsequential happens, so much so that readers barely pay attention to it, that’s the ‘plant’ bit. But when it returns later in the story and suddenly has some significance, there’s the payoff. In stories, very rarely does anything happen at random. An explanation of sorts is almost always given at a later point.
The literary fairy tale ‘Fairer-than-a-Fairy’ by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, found in The Yellow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, has a good example of plant and payoff in action. The heroine is sent on a mission to collect fire from a terrible monster, but ends up obtaining it from the monster’s wife instead. She also receives a stone from the wife, which she is told ‘might prove useful someday.’
Later on, the heroine goes seeking her banished lover, taking the stone with her. At this point it is still just an innocent object; neither she or the readers have any evidence that it will be useful like she was told. However, when she becomes weary, it transforms into a shelter for her to sleep in. The payoff.
As her quest progresses the heroine encounters three sisters who give her more items: A nut, a pomegranate, and a crystal smelling-bottle. Upon finding her lover, these are used to break the curse placed upon him and so they help the heroine’s objective to be achieved.
Many folk and fairy tales follow similar structures to this, where the main protagonist gains items which mean nothing at first but later become important. Having them subtly ‘planted’ in the narrative elicits surprise from readers and makes the story operate cleanly. This way, when characters need assistance the objects are already in place just waiting to be used. You don’t have to introduce or explain lots of new things.
So if you’re a writer, think about what your story needs and how you can weave it in. How can you create that satisfactory payoff which ties up the loose ends and makes readers gasp? And if you’re a reader, pay attention to everything. Sometimes trying to spot plants is as much fun as realising how important they are when the payoff comes!