In a well-crafted story, every item introduced or action taken has a purpose or consequence. Simple in theory, but not easy to implement in practice. However, I recently watched a film–The Debt–that struck me for how well it made use of every single action.
I didn’t like the ending very much, but the execution was excellent (both in script and acting). David, Stephan, and Rachel are Mossad secret agents living in East Berlin, trying to capture a former Nazi war criminal Dr. Vogel.
SPOILER ALERT! Below are a couple of the seemingly small actions I remember that led to much larger consequences: pulling away from a kiss, and breaking a bowl of oatmeal. How could those have life-altering consequences for the trio? Here’s how.
- David and Rachel almost kiss, but David pulls away. Rachel, feeling rejected by a man she’s come to care for, seeks solace in Stephan’s bed. No big deal, right? Except that David finally gives in to his attraction later on, and just when we think he and Rachel have a chance, she turns up pregnant from her night with Stephan. Talk about tension in that tiny apartment. Feeling obligated, she laters marries Stephan, but she and David pine for each other for decades.
- They’re holding Vogel captive in the house after a failed attempt to smuggle him out of Germany. While David is trying to feed Vogel, the doctor makes inflammatory comments about the Jewish people that anger David enough that he smashes the ceramic bowl full of oatmeal. Stephan takes David out of the apartment to calm down, leaving Rachel alone with the doctor, who’s tied up. Again, so what? Well, the doctor finagles a shard of the innocent bowl and uses it to cut the ropes binding him, attacks Rachel, and escapes.
See what I mean about lovely set up? Each initial action seems small or even secondary, maybe there to add tension or characterization. Yet both actions ultimately lead to staggering consequences. One rejected kiss sets off a chain of events that brings a lifetime of misery for the would-be lovers. A single loss of temper eventually undoes the whole mission.
Now if I could just master that trick in my own work. Got any tips? Any examples of seemingly ordinary actions with big consequences?
Photo credit: By Abutorsam007 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons