Sunday, June 8, 2014

Five Writing Lessons From Edge of Tomorrow

The wife and I went to see Edge of Tomorrow today. It's pretty damn good military science fiction, and one of the best movies I've seen this year. (I'd probably rate it a shade above Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) The movie is based on a Japanese novel, All You Need Is Kill, and features Tom Cruise as a soldier living a Groudhog Day time loop that resets every time he dies. It's grim, sometimes funny and definitely action-packed.

It's also got a few good writing lessons to teach us. Brace yourselves for some spoilers, folks.

Listen up if you don't want to die again, privates!
1. Throw the jerk to the wolves.

Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, a smarmy P.R. officer who tries to get out of combat duty by blackmailing a superior officer. He's oily, has no discernible morals and is a blatant coward, so we're not exactly sympathetic when he's arrested and tossed into a front-line squad of grunts. Then we see him running through a combat zone, aliens butchering everyone around him, in a suit he's not trained to use (with the safety on!), and we're on his side. We want him to live, even if he is a dick.

He probably threw up in his helmet at some point.
If you're writing an asshole protagonist, putting him through undeserved hell is a good way to generate a bit of sympathy from the audience. Deserved hell is an entirely different thing, and should be reserved for the villain of your work. To generate sympathy you want extreme, disproportionate retribution befalling someone you otherwise wouldn't care for. (Beauty and the Beast is a solid example.)

2. Keep your pseudoscience simple.

The science behind how Cage keeps coming back to life is hideously complicated, if it has any validity at all, and is almost entirely not discussed. But the rules are told to us, and they're simple: When Cage dies he wakes up the morning before he dies. He remembers everything that happened. If he bleeds out too much and survives, he stops coming back to life, so if he gets injured he has to make sure he dies.

Death 587: Alcohol poisoning.
If you're writing hard science fiction detailed explanations of the weirdness are almost mandatory. But if you're writing what some term "science fantasy", or treating science like futuristic magic, going into too many details risks overcomplicating your story, contradicting yourself, and confusing the hell out of the audience. Be clear about how your science magic works, insofar as it concerns the story, and leave out the unimportant parts. Your audience will enjoy using guesswork to fill in the blanks and your story will be stronger for it.

3. Remember that your mentor did things.

Major Cage is guided through his efforts to save the day by Rita Vertaski, a veteran soldier who had the same talent Cage has and lost it. Throughout the movie we get references to her time as the Angel of Verdun, to people she loved and lost, to adventures she had and the horrors she's been through. It takes a badass woman with a big sword and makes her into a complex figure, someone the audience gets to know in some ways more closely than Cage himself.

But still a badass. Don't call her Full Metal Bitch to her face.
If you're going to write a mentor figure into your story, try to remember that they had a ton of their own adventures before they ever met the hero. Wisdom doesn't come from nothing. Take into account the experiences your mentor has had, and if they turn out to be plot relevant so much the better!

4. Take away your hero's cool thing.

Edge of Tomorrow gets a lot of mileage out of Cage's reset button, including a long sequence where Cage just dies in humorous ways for my sadistic amusement. I got used to him being able to survive whatever's thrown at him. So when the enemy started trying to kill him in a way he can't come back from, I got nervous. And when Cage lost his resurrection trick and had to save the world with no way to come back, I was on the edge of my seat. Because I no longer knew that Cage was going to survive. The movie got me used to what Cage could do and then took that away from him. By removing the primary advantage Cage had, it raised the stakes immeasurably. Cage was in more danger than ever before and nothing was certain.

If something makes your hero special, force him to get by without it, either temporarily or permanently. Let Clark Kent save the day instead of Superman. Send King Arthur into battle without Excalibur. Or give your furry-footed protagonist a magic ring that lets him sneak by anything and don't let him use it once he actually gets into enemy territory.

5. Deus ex machina is a maid service.

Edge of Tomorrow ends with Cage and Vertaski sacrificing themselves to end the war. That would be satisfying ending on its own, but also a real downer. Fortunately an alien deus ex machina crops up that lets Cage launch one final reset and give us a happy ending. And believe it or not, it works! Doesn't feel like a cop out at all. The reason is because the day has already been saved without assistance - the heroes won on their own, playing entirely by the rules. All the deus did was patch the "Pyrrhic" out of a Pyrrhic victory.

To be fair, Europe is still dead.
Most authorities would say you shouldn't use the deus ex machina. I say you're allowed to use it, but don't use it to win the day for your heroes; that's guaranteed to piss off your audience and make your ending feel cheap. Let the heroes win their own victories, then have the deus descend and clean up a bit, maybe throw your heroes a bone. They've had it pretty rough up until now, the audience will understand that they've earned a moment's consideration and appreciate it. But just this once!

And finally, bonus lesson number six:

6. Weird-ass aliens are awesome and we need more of them.

Seriously, I don't know what the Mimics are but just look at the damn things:



Anonymous said...

You got the wrong deus ex machina. Here, stick this thing in your leg and see where the enemy is! Talk about cheap and unsatisfying!

David said...

My memory's hazy, but I think the leg-stabby thing required a lot of work to get and cost the main characters quite a bit. So not a deus ex machina, but definitely some Handwavium brand pseudo-science. :) And thanks for reading!