How to write a satisfying story… movie breakdown
Halfway through Netflix’s “The Tomorrow War” with Chris Pratt, I paused to take notes. It’s a great example of “the thing it costs is the one thing the hero refuses.” I’m only halfway through but I can see where this is going.
1. early scenes establish hero’s relationship with this father: his father left him, and he can never forgive his father for this betrayal. He refuses to let his father see his daughter.
2. he meets his daughter in the future: she’s the key scientist, the last hope for humanity. She tells him, that he left her and her mom. He can’t believe it, he knows for a fact, that this is the one thing he would never do. It goes against everything he believes in. It’s absolutely impossible – it’s a price he would never pay, because it would break him and everything he stands for.
3. I’m assuming the ending will go like this: he realizes that, if he does not leave his daughter, she will not become the persistent genius the world needs. He is forced to leave her, even though it breaks him, because he knows it’s the only way to save the world.
It could’ve just been a story about aliens and cool time travel effects, but that would have been empty and hollow. So they also give it a human element, about a hero, his daughter, his father. I’m guessing he *might* also have closure or forgive his father in a final scene, but not sure if that will happen.
Or that’s how it could have gone.
Actually, it’s a little more complex, and hits a few crucial points I mapped out in my Book Craft guide to writing. What follows is a blow-by-blow reaction to the plot events, with tons of spoilers, in a way that should be helpful to identify key elements of a successful plot, story or screenplay. I’m also going to point out some gaping plot holes, to show why they don’t really matter.
The movie takes a twist, when the father-daughter team figure out the crucial toxin to kill the aliens. But time’s up: the daughter wants to send her dad back with the toxin to kill the alien threat before the war. She knows this will destroy her and her timeline. She says:
“I’m asking you to do what no one else is willing to do.”
“Because you’re my father, there’s no one else I want to trust more.”
Sometimes, to avoid a plot whole, you have to raise the glaring question and answer it. It doesn’t have to be a good answer, that makes sense. It just has to be raised and plausible.
It could have been anyone, but this gives her a chance to connect with her dad. Fine.
But then he says, “Ok, I’ll do it, but I’m coming back for you, and you and me, we’re going to save this world together.”
Um what? That’s not how any of this works. If he goes back with the toxin and kills the aliens… the timeline will be destroyed, she won’t exist. Coming back to save her and fix her timeline, doesn’t make any sense. But fine, he’s feeling heroic and refuses to let go of his future daughter, even though it’s logically necessary. This proves the emotional attachment… he’s going to lose her anyway, but there must be heavy resistance first. This starts building the resistance. If he just accepted the plan, knowing she’s basically as good as dead – that she has to be – he won’t freak out or try to save her half as much as he does, which would take away all the urgency.
To make the story matter, we can’t let logic or reason wash away emotional attachments. But we have to do the best we can to skip over plot holes and keep tension high. One of the ways to escalate tension, is with a countdown timer; or by staking the obstacles.
After the heart-to-heart… the timer starts.
- 7 minutes to jump.
- The alien queen wakes up.
- Thousands of creatures overrun defenses.
These three things together are necessary to build tension and excitement around the finalish battle scene (there are two final battle scenes; the one where they lose, the dark night of the soul, then the one they win – this is true in most satisfying fiction, and that’s why I built my plot dot fiction outline the way I did.)
However, none of things make sense when you think them through.
They don’t just ret-tranq the queen, as they’ve been doing every hour for hours… so she gets out. And her hordes of aliens find her, swimming the ocean and freeing her bonds. They showed up in this crucial 7 minute window, and are attacking the base, so everyone is dying and fighting, with big explosions.
There’s the inner battle and the outer battle: the forces fighting the allies, to buy time… and the main event with the protagonist(s) and chief villain/alien queen.
All he has to do is not die… and wait it out. But that would be boring. So instead he tries to get to the chopper on the roof for some dumb reason. His daughter gets hurt. He tries to save her, for some dumb reason (putting his own life and the fate of the entire planet and humanity at risk, for a daughter who won’t exist once he fixes it).
Heroes often make stupid, illogical mistakes under the protection of loyalty/honor/duty… a stubborn persistence in the name of universal principles and personal attachments is what often define them. Villains are defined by the impersonal, seeing the big picture, at the expense of individual players. For heroes, every life matters, no matter what.
1 minute countdown. Tearful goodbyes.
“You need to make sure this never happens.”
The queen hunts them down for some dumb reason (hero always faces off with the prime villain, not the hordes). Hanging by 1 arm over flames.
Literally loses his daughter, torn from his arms by the falling alien queen – it’s not enough to have a symbolic or metaphorical letting go; the sacrifice or choice he’s going to make in the past. It has to be shown, on-stage. It has to be visceral, vivid and raw – with active resistance and tension – often shown as a literal tug of war (him pulling up to save daughter, her being pulled away by the alien.)
The thing he loses, can’t be easy for him to accept or bear. It has to be violently torn away.
Back to the Present
He goes back to his time, but the jumplink is offline they can’t travel to the future again.
It’s over. He wants to sent the toxin to the future immediately and still save his daughter, or something, even though that’s impossible and would mean the end of civilization and the big alien war. He says “Now I’ve got a solution and no way to use it, so we’ve got to figure it out.”
Which doesn’t make any sense on paper. He’s got plenty of time to figure out where the aliens are and try to kill them. But, the next step in the plan can’t just be given, easy or obvious. Obstacles must be shown or presented, as if there’s a difficult choice to make or missing information that needs to be discovered.
You must raise the questions before you present answers; information must be earned – you show what’s important by first showing the lack, gap or needed knowledge. So even though this question seems unnecessary and out of place, it’s kind of just a way to steer readers/viewers towards what happens next… which goes like this.
“Ok, so we stop them.”
“How did they get here? No ships, it was like they were already here.”
This is where, in a “mind-blown” moment, I thought maybe they were hinting towards something really cool: that the toxin he brought back with him was actually the beginning of the aliens, that he’d created them somehow, in a perpetual, impossible time-loop. That’s super interesting, but not easy to resolve or explain.
Instead, somehow, they find some ash under one claw a soldier brought back as a souvenir, and found out is was volcanic ash. So they have one question that depends on one obscure question about… volcanoes.
This is a satisfying payoff because of a much earlier scene, where he avoids a student who is obsessed about volcanoes. That’s a seed planted, that bears fruit, playing out in a surprising way. This is a great way to build cohesion and makes everything feel relevant and necessary.
The details don’t make a ton of sense, but it’s a fun trail of breadcrumbs that gives them a purpose and a direction. They need to go to the polar ice cap and find an alien ship. This last leg can’t be easy, without conflict. So, the government refuses to help. Suddenly, the alien war in 30 years doesn’t feel as important, so they basically give up trying to worry about it. This is implausible, but the ending couldn’t just be the government nuking the alien ship. The heroes must be oppressed and refused.
There is the “accounting of limitations” scene, where a side-character spells out everything they need and how hard it will be: we need a pilot willing to risk flying into international waters to find an ancient alien ship under an iceberg… “There’s no way we can get there!” (this quest is impossible).
Which leads them back to his deviant father: the one he swore he’d never ask for help, ever. Now, he needs to go and ask him for help (the thing he swore he wouldn’t do; his one rule he won’t break – set the hard limitation earlier for whatever it is the hero has to do. Set up the resistance earlier, so he is forced to change).
When they actually find the ship, there’s a decision scene, where all the character decide what to do together: Should we risk absolutely everything and go in there unprepared to do it alone: or should we just call for backup and let the government deal with it?
The smart, right choice, would be to get help. But that’s not good for dramatic conflict or story. So even though it’s very, very stupid to go inside… that’s what they have to do. To make this seem less stupid, the open discussion raises and rejects possibilities, and gives each character a chance to state their personal reasons… why are they here? Why are they willing to risk their lives, the fate or the world, everything, and do the dumb thing anyway.
It’s not entirely believable, but it’s fine. It’s enough. It just has to be voiced, because otherwise, the audience won’t forgive them for being too dumb to realize and expect the logical consequences. They have to at least consider the risks and decide deliberately anyway for whatever reason that this must be done, and must be done now.
Then, things get increasingly stupid and exciting.
By which I mean, there is more conflict, which is a result of very poor decisions, but things move fast enough it doesn’t really matter: once characters have chosen to go all in, they can be reacting to unexpected twists, making poor decisions but forced by danger or stress.
There are pods of aliens. A bunch of males and apparently just one female queen. Obviously, they should dose the queen first and be done with it – but they don’t. They dose a bunch of males. Then the other males wake up. Chaos ensues. Some escape the ship.
They go after the female, while chased by the males. A few characters stay behind to die/blow up the whole ship (with a ton of C-4 they somehow carried in on backpacks, but oh well. The other characters are left behind until it’s just him, his dad, against the alien female. This is the build up to the final battle scene, which needs: a villain, a hero, and something for the hero to lose.
They are attacking the alien from both sides with machine guns.
Then, they switch to pistols, for no reason. But it’s cool.
They’re fighting on the edge of a cliff, because sure.
He rams the alien with his snowmobile somehow, because damn. Surprise wow factor.
He stabs her with the alien claw, and then with an ice pick!
Final battles are up close and personal. In most movies, the final battle scene boils down to a fist fight, no matter what kind of weapons are available, they need to be put aside (otherwise, victory or failure would be swift and immediate). A final fight scene needs to drag out and be suspended.
The injured hero tries to lure the alien queen off the cliff.
But then his dad sacrifices himself instead, saying “I’m sorry for everything.”
The hero, confronted with the potential loss of his estranged father (perhaps after just witnessing the painful loss of his future daughter) is motivated to continue the fight instead of giving up. This needs to happen in the middle of your final fight scene: the hero is defeated or willing to die… but then realizes there is something else, something more, than they can’t bear to lose. Often the villain taunts them or gives out one last threat towards someone they care about.
The hero rallies.
He jumps on the alien’s back, and slits its throat with a knife. He punches it while dodging (even though, previously, soldiers put a hundred rounds into these aliens without stopping them, and the aliens easily chewed through hundreds of soldiers). Now it’s down to a fist fight.
Finally, he punches the vial of toxin straight into its mouth and it breaks.
Why not just stab it earlier in stasis? Because, then the fight would be too easy. This battle needs to be close. The hero needs to almost lose. So whatever plan or advantage he had, it must be taken away or resisted.
He breaks the vial of toxin, and for dramatic effect kicks the queen off the cliff like “This is sparta!”
It’s a very satisfying fight scene, even though it’s also silly, contrived and over-the-top.
Dad returns home bringing in the recycling bin. A return to normalcy. Introduces grandpa to his daughter. On the surface, an action alien flick. But also, a story about a guy with father issues trying to raise his daughter, and the healing that brought his family back together.
It doesn’t make a ton of logical sense, partly because time travel stuff is hard. He ends with: “In the future that’s never going to happen, she changed me. I’m never going to leave her. Never going to leave this family, because my best future was always right in front of me.” That sounds vaguely cool even though it’s mostly meaningless. (The future daughter who changed him, wouldn’t exist without him leaving her – he has to leave her to experience her, which he won’t ever do because he’s changed that future already).
But overall, it works, and illustrates many of the important elements of a successful story and how you some plot holes are fine and even necessary, in order to build up the drama and conflict. For more on this stuff, check out this long post on satisfying character arcs in the Snyder’s Cut Justice League and some other modern examples.
…Takeaway Writing Tips
The Tomorrow War is an illogical mess and riddled with plot holes. But those details don’t matter cuz they got a lot of stuff right. Don’t think! Just enjoy snowmobile rocket alien bare knuckle boxing !
The interesting point is, sometimes the very tenuous plot holes are just there to support a plausible version of events. If you (easily) resolved the obstacles with simple solutions, the impactful dramatic couldn’t happen. Sometimes you have to invent unsatisfying answers to logical inconsistencies, to sustain the most dramatic narrative.