Writer's Toolbox: Second Chances

We all have regrets, moments we wish we could have back. Nothing haunts us like the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. Since so much of fiction is wish fulfillment, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that second chances play such a large part of so many different narratives through every genre. Redemption is impossible unless our heroes have an opportunity to right their previous wrongs, and nothing is more dramatic and climatic than a culmination of an arc that really captures that illusive sense of justice and closure we all crave.

The second chance is a staple of many genres, but it’s been elevated to cliche in sports movies. How many time has a down on it’s luck man or team gotten another bite at the apple? Rocky, Cinderella Man, the Mighty Ducks… the list could go on and on. Rocky in particular recycles the formula over and over: a second chance at the big time, a second chance at Apollo Creed, a second chance against Clubber Lang, and on and on for all eternity. The more intense and disappointing the initial failure, the more meaningful a new opportunity becomes.

Second chances are the entire raison d’etre of all backwards time travel movies. Like a great many devices, the purpose is wish fulfillment. What might our lives have been like had we we merely a changed a thing here or there? Time travel offers a literal second chance wherin a character can relive critical decisions. But for stories to really work, they need drama, and drama comes from the danger of things not working out. Failing a second chance is a great way for characters to reexperience tragedy in profound, devastating fashion. Just look at Back to the Future, of all places.

In Back to the Future, Marty does all he can to save his best friend Doc, leaving a note detailing the old man’s impending doom. When Doc tears up the note without ever reading it, terrified of altering the timestream, Marty rushes back early to his timeline. As luck would have it, a car failure costs him precious time. When Marty finally returns to the scene of Doc’s demise, he’s too late, and a weak ‘No!’ escapes his lips for the second time in his life, simultaneously with his earlier self. It’s a crushing, fatalist failure.

Among many others, the much less venerated Hot Tub Time Machine recycled this Back to the Future device with a great deal of success. As a middle aged man, Lou is an utter and complete failure, abandoned by his friends until a suicide attempt draws them to his side. When a magical Hot Tub allows them the opportunity to relive the most cherished, debaucherous vacation of their lives, Lou sees the opportunity to change the most humiliating, unbearable experience of his life: a thorough beating at which his friends never got his back. When his friends again fail to show, Lou relives the most horrible moment of his life, the moment that ignited his downward spiral in the first place. Pretty heavy stuff.

Of course, Back to the Future and Hot Tub Time Machine are comedies first, and only tease at the paralyzing futility of our own existences. In the end, it turns out Marty’s message reached and rescued Doc, and Lou manages some closure by soundly beating the bully that ruined his life. Regardless, by so astutely confronting the audience’s fear of failure, these comedies manage to muster a great deal of unexpected drama and pathos. From me, at least.

Second chances don’t have to be quite so literal. Circumstances can change, so as long as a hero’s character is similarly challenged.

Fine Example:

“I could have been a contender.”

It’s hard to imagine any line in film history that has better expressed regret. In one of the most oft-quoted speeches of all time, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy laments a squandered life. Years before the beginning of the film, at the insistence of his brother and the local mob, Malloy threw a fight he was sure he could dominate. In the rear view mirror, he attributes all his failings to that moment.

In the beginning of On the Waterfront, Terry’s ignorance and compliance leads to the murder of a man he deemed decent. Despite the desperate pleas of the victim’s family and the local Priest, the entirety of the town keeps quiet due to the stranglehold the mob has on the community and the unions. As Terry falls more and more in love with Edie, the sister of the deceased, his frustration with the mob grows and grows. By the time Terry delivers his famous speech under his own brother’s gun point, he has witnessed multiple murders and threats on innocent lives.

When his brother is murdered for sparing his life, Terry finally stands up to the mob. When threats are made against his life, and he is abandoned by his community, he stands strong. When he is refused the opportunity to work, he marches straight to the mob headquarters, and proves himself the fighter he always knew himself to be. After Terry absorbs a beating that nearly kills him, the town finally rises to his aid, and they take back the pier so long controlled by the mob.

The more heartbreaking the failure, the more dramatic the second chance. Terry’s triumph is so invigorating because his circumstances make his regret so palpable. Because his pain runs so deep, the chance to redeem himself is all the more meaningful. This careful orchestration of redemption combined with the delicate portrayal of squandered potential are what make On the Waterfront such a treasured cinematic achievement, despite its alleged genesis as a justification for Elia Kazan’s aid in Hollywood blacklisting. Obviously, Brando’s legendary performance didn’t hurt, either. But that guy gets enough credit.

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