Two men are bound to a metal restraining device in the center of a dark, hot room. Their bodies already show the effects of their torture. Sweat runs down their faces as their captor and his assistant prepare for the next round of abuse. They gather and lay out their tools; knives, scalpels, and devices designed to issue electrical shocks are all laid out in a pretty little line, waiting their turns. The victims can only watch and listen with a mixture of fear and defiance as these evil men discuss their chosen methods for causing them pain.
Then, hope arrives. A door opens and one of their allies appears with a bag of money to purchase their freedom.
But wait! The torturer says there is only enough money to purchase one man’s freedom. She is fiercely loyal to both men, but now, her devotion is divided. Her priorities must be tested. One of the tortured men is her husband, the man she loves and whom she knows is not fit to withstand such abuse. The other is her captain, the man with whom she has served and worked for many years. He is stronger and more able to withstand torture, but he is also more capable of devising a rescue plan for the one left behind.
She stands before the torturer and both of the men she loves. Whom will she choose?
This type of big decision is a fairly common plot device, and it can certainly produce a great deal of strife and tension, especially when the characters must deal with the fallout after the choice has been made. We are supposed to learn something important about the person who is forced to make the decision.
But, be honest, don’t you roll your eyes just a bit when you come to a scene like this? Hasn’t it been done a zillion times before? Don’t you just want to get on with it? You already know what to expect. The torturer will enjoy taunting the woman with this difficult choice, and the woman will agonize over her decision. Then, having chosen which man to save, the remaining one will be upset at being left behind, and his relationship with the woman will be volatile for some time, if he is rescued at all. You’ll have to read scene after scene of them rehashing the scenario as the woman works through her decision. You could practically write it yourself.
When you come to the point in your writing when you have one of these “stock” scenes, try finding a way to change it up, just as the writers of Firefly did in “War Stories,” the scene described and pictured above.
Here’s how it ends:
The torturer is gearing up to taunt the woman and enjoy his little game.
He says, “I think this is not enough [money]. Not enough for two. But sufficient, perhaps, for one. Ah, you now hav…”
“Him.” The woman points at her husband.
The torturer is taken aback by her quick choice and is speechless.
She says, “I’m sorry, you were going to ask me to choose, right? Do you wanna finish?”
I love this scene. It accomplishes its purpose without going in the traditional direction. We do learn a great deal about the woman and about her relationship with both men, but we do it without all the needless mumbo jumbo. The woman is practical in all situations; she chooses her husband because he is not able to take any more torture, and the captain can. All three characters understand and approve of this choice. The couple returns to the rest of the crew, and they immediately devise a rescue plan to save their captain.
Now, lest you think there is no emotional fallout from the scene, let me assure you that there is. The question of the woman’s loyalty has been the center of the episode and it is resolved by the end. I won’t spoil it for you. Go rent it on Netflix and watch for yourself.
Readers are smart. They know when a writer is walking into an over-done scene, and they think they already know the ending. Surprise them. Change it up. It will make your story much stronger in the end.
Images courtesy of Can’t Take the Sky.