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Writing actions with consequences

Sam Worthington, who plays David in The Debt.

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 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Reply

    Great thoughts, Gwen! I’ve done this by working backwards. First thinking what would I need to make X work? Then going back and crafting the “set up” or action for X. The tricky part is making sure that the “set up” or action is effortlessly woven into the story so that it appears innocent and a scene unto itself (and not a set up at all), but all the while having a greater purpose that will be realized later on.
    Not sure if I stated that clearly. My point is I don’t write linearly. There is a lot of back and forth going on when crafting my stories.

    • Reply

      I agree, Kathy. When I make this work in my stories, it’s either put in after the fact, or is a happy accident where I wonder how I knew to plant something for a scene I hadn’t thought of yet. 😉

      The Harry Potter books are full of seemingly innocuous items or incidents that become very important later in the story or the series. I’ve always wondered if J.K. Rowling was a master outliner, a really good reviser, or just brilliant.

  2. Reply

    As I’m plotting my current wip, I keep asking myself “what could happen to make this worse?” Sometimes the answer comes quickly, but other times it’s a head scratcher. I love when I have my happy accidents. It makes me feel like deep down somewhere I must know what I’m doing, a feeling that disappears pretty dang quick when I hit the next stumbling block, LOL!

    And I think J.K. is a blend of all three.

    • Reply

      I’m the same way, Maura. I keep trying to remind myself “trouble, trouble, trouble.” 😉 BTW, loved your Tightening the Knot article! Yay on getting your name out there.

  3. Reply

    I saw this movie, so this post makes a lot of sense to me as a writer. I’m working on my first novel (119k fantasy) in revision right now. @KM Fawcett: I’m doing that to, jumping around and making changes, so this may work for me. Thanks everyone.

    • Reply

      I’m glad it made sense to you, Bree. I probably could have found more examples, but those two really stuck with me long after the movie ended. Good luck with the revisions!

  4. Reply

    Thank you for a very interesting bloggpost, and a great blog. Am happy to have found it. Thanks for your comment on my blog – I have started trying scrivener, it is a very pretty tool. I noticed you are also a romance writer. So am I, the only swedish one, actually, 🙂

    • Reply

      Thanks for checking out my blog, Simona! How neat that you’re Sweden’s only romance writer. Although, I suppose it could be lonely too. Good luck with Scrivener!

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