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Storytelling Strategies: Edge of an Ending

Paul Gulino explores writing a great movie ending by analyzes ones that work and don't work, as well as offering tips to help you write a great one.

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Edge 00

For a satisfying ending, reach back to the main character.

Edge of Tomorrow (written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth) is an engaging and inventive sci-fi adventure that builds to an ending that almost works.

The near-future story concerns Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) who, despite his best efforts to avoid a dangerous combat situation, is thrust into an invasion of alien-occupied Europe and, in the process of dying, discovers he has a strange power to “reset” events by one day — in effect loop time — and relive that day repeatedly, the loop being reset every time he’s killed. By this means, he manages to survive longer and longer with each “reset,” benefiting from the foreknowledge he has of where the aliens (the “mimics”) are and when they’ll strike at him. At one point, he meets Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a military hero who once had this power, and lost it, and who coaches Cage into solving the mystery of the aliens to find their weak spot. At the end of the second act (about 75% into the film), they mystery is solved, but Cage loses his power and must proceed on a final mission to destroy the aliens’ mega brain and thus save the world.

The reason the ending is disappointing is that it’s generic (Cage slips into the role of the typical action hero by this time; he intuits the right choices, runs just a little faster than the bad guys, and endures mind-boggling bodily harm and still keeps ticking) and predictable (the explosions get bigger, come more frequently, the sounds gets louder, as does the music, the pace becomes frenetic, and the action becomes improvised — the good guys are always able to make all the right choices just in time for no reason in particular).

The storytellers make one late attempt to make the ending less predictable: just before the final confrontation with the Omega alien, Vrataski explicitly tells Cage that neither will survive the mission. Sure enough, they are both killed, but, contrary to Vrataski’s declaration, Cage regains his looping ability and their lives -- as well as the ending's predictability -- are safely restored.

Toward a solution

When an ending feels less than satisfying, it’s worth digging deeper into the main character and finding out whether his or her issues have been fully explored.

Major Cage's cowardice, which offers rich storytelling and thematic possibilities, is unfortunately abandoned by the storytellers after the first act.

Major Cage's cowardice, which offers rich storytelling and thematic possibilities, is unfortunately abandoned by the storytellers after the first act.

One reason the resolution of Silver Linings Playbook (2012) works so well is that the audience has much more invested in the third act than whether or not Pat and Tiffany will win the dance contest, or his father the bet of which the contest is a component; we are concerned, rather, that Pat will fail to overcome his biggest flaw: his blindness to the superiority of Tiffany over Nikki — that he will wind up with the wrong woman.

The main character of Edge of Tomorrow, William Cage, has one unique characteristic for an action hero: he’s a coward. Unfortunately, the storytellers abandon this element of his character soon after he discovers his power.

Indeed, during the film’s climactic moment, when Cage offers to sacrifice himself for Vrataski — something that marks a huge transformation from his initial cowardice — the moment goes virtually unnoticed; by then, as mentioned above, Cage has already evolved into a typical action hero, and such a gesture is what typical action heroes make all the time.

It’s worth re-imagining the film as it might have been if the storytellers had fully explored Major Cage as a he is initially presented — a coward who is so terrified of combat he’s willing to blackmail an Allied general in order to avoid a combat situation.

Recurring Problem: First Act Woes

In order to pull off such a reimagining, the storytellers would need a proper first act. The film suffers (in a trend I’ve noticed) from the lack of an effective first act, the part where we are introduced to the main character, circumstances, objective, and obstacles — creating a main dramatic question: will the character get what he or she wants?

The first act of the film as written runs about 30 minutes and includes the opening montage to establish the sci-fi world and international circumstances, followed by Cage trying to get out of a dangerous mission, followed by the dangerous mission, his death, and his apparent time loop experience — up until his encounter with Vrataski and teaming up with her.

What’s missing in the first act is information about Cage’s world before the movie begins; i.e., what are his relationships? His ambitions? His expectations? His personal style? Most importantly from a character arc/theme viewpoint: what is his relationship to cowardice, his views of his duty, his justification for ducking duty, and how he’s perceived by others in this respect?

The absence of this information leaves the storytellers few options when it comes to fully realizing the potential of the character and the theme and, ultimately, the ending, and costs them some terrific storytelling opportunities.

For example, consider the choice the storytellers made in having Cage meet his comrades in J Squad during the course of the first act. He has had no prior relationship with them, and nothing to prove to them, and they don’t care about him at all. Thus when the magic happens and Cage becomes able, in effect, to predict the future, it’s simply a new plot element, and there is no way to dramatize how this might affect his character and his relationships. He doesn’t care about anybody, and nobody cares about him.

Sgt. Vrataski's recruiting poster. It would have added rich irony to the film if Major Cage, an enthusiastic coward, had earned one because of his special power.

Sgt. Vrataski's recruiting poster. It would have added rich irony to the film if Major Cage, an enthusiastic coward, had earned one because of his special power.

Now suppose instead the storytellers made the choice of starting the film with Cage already in J Squad (forget the whole major thing; it’s unnecessary); he already has a reputation for being a coward. In fact, the opening scene with General Brigham can instead be a meeting between Cage and his commanding officer, reviewing his dossier detailing his cowardly acts — and by this means the information about recent world events — the alien invasion, the mimics, the world wide war that has broken out — can all be covered.

As an added bonus, this strategy would provide the storytellers with a means of delivering exposition more effectively: instead of simply shoveling neutral information at the audience through the opening montage (probably the least effective way to do it), this information can be presented in the context of an indictment of the main character’s character — a much more efficient and rich approach.

Now, when the magic occurs and Cage realizes he’s effectively immortal and can predict where the mimics are and defeat them, he can pose as a swaggering, courageous hero, exploiting his power to make it appear that he's brave -- thus adding a rich layer of irony to the proceedings. Suddenly everyone in the squad loves him, as does his commanding officer, and word gets out, and his reputation spreads worldwide; he even gets a recruiting poster, much like Vrataski did after her heroics at Verdun.

When he meets Vrataski, she’s willing to play along with his heroism act as long as he cooperates in solving the mystery of the mimics.

How does this affect the ending?

Currently in the third act, Cage realizes he no longer has the power, but decides to go ahead anyway to finally slay the Omega mimic. It would be stronger if he’s given a real choice — e.g., after being wounded, he’s offered a chance to retire from active duty and do recruiting tours as a combat celebrity. In this case, the decision to go back into combat without the advantage of his special looping power marks a major turn in his evolution as a character — for the first time, he will be brave for real.

Now, in the climactic battle scene, his offer to sacrifice himself has real resonance. In fact, it would be better if he didn’t ask — if the battle is staged so that he simply moves in and endures certain death so Vrataski can live.

He dies in the process; she lives, and afterward proclaims him the bravest soldier of the war, neatly and emphatically completing the character arc begun in the opening scene in which his cowardice is on display.

Such a re-imagining would be the difference between a movie that’s pretty good and one that really blows its audience away and gets studied at film schools for years to come.

What could be better than that?

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