Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Movie: Directed by Tomas Alfredson.

Inciting Event: Retired MI6 agent George Smiley is recruited to look into the possibility of a mole within the agency. Although viewers have been aware, since the very first scene, that the question of the mole is central to the story’s conflict, this is the first time Smiley learns of it. It is his first encounter with the main conflict. He is momentarily reluctant (“refusing” the Call the Adventure) before agreeing to covertly investigate.

First Plot Point: There is no clear plot point to close out the First Act and begin the Second. Smiley learns several new bits of information, including the possibility of a Russian defector being the mole and the fact that the agent who was supposedly killed in the opening scene is, in fact, still alive.

However, there is nothing that dramatically turns the plot and engages Smiley even more distinctly and irrevocably with the conflict. The problem with this is that the first section of the story lacks definition. The First Act feels like it drags on because it has no definable ending.

First Pinch Point: Smiley finds disgraced field agent Ricki Tarr (who first tipped off the government about the mole) in his flat and learns his story: he fell in love with a Russian defector who was captured and taken to Odessa after promising a huge secret to MI6 in exchange for political sanctuary. The pinch comes primarily from the emphasis of the stakes via the woman’s fate and Ricki’s anguish over it.

Midpoint: Smiley’s associate Peter steals a log book from headquarters, which proves the veracity of Ricki’s information (and that Ricki himself is not the mole). This isn’t a scintillating turning point, as it goes, since the audience never has any real reason to doubt the mole or suspect Ricki. But it leads to a nice Moment of Truth, in which Smiley reveals he met their Russian arch-nemesis Karla and hints at the deeper similarities between them.

Second Pinch Point: Smiley learns his deceased boss suspected all five men heading the agency—including Smiley himself. This drives home the stakes of the antagonism. The story also gets an emotional pinch via a flashback that shows agent Jim Prideaux being interrogated by the Russians—who summarily execute the woman Ricki is trying to save.

Third Plot Point: Smiley tells the Prime Minister that the super-secret safehouse the PM has been funding is, in fact, the cover for the mole to send information to Karla. Again, this is not as devastating as it could have been—not because it is understated, but because the audience has no reason to be shocked by this information. Also, the emotional punch is to the PM, not to Smiley, who has already figured all this out privately (and, by nature, isn’t too moved by it).

Climax: Smiley sets up surveillance on the safehouse, in order to discover and trap the mole.

Climactic Moment: The Climactic Moment actually takes place off screen. Audiences don’t discover it until Peter walks in to find Smiley calmly holding a gun on the culprit: Bill Haydon.

Resolution: Haydon is to be shipped to the Russians, but before he can leave, Jim Prideaux kills him. Meanwhile, Smiley returns to the agency, this time as the man in charge.

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email: