Haikyuu and Progress

A term that’s remarkably under-addressed when it comes to writing is progress. It’s the life blood of almost any story that is not an episodic citcome. For instance, I’ve seen video essays and read reviews highlighting Breaking Bad’s directing, its writing, the acting, but never a focused conversation on the feeling of progress as a mild mannered science teacher becomes a drug kingpin. And even in the case of the aforementioned exception – the episodic sitcom – what sets shows like the Office apart is its drawn out development of Jim and Pam’s office romance. A show could have remarkable acting, cinematography, pacing, etc, but easily lose people’s interest without proper progress. 

If you look at the reasons that a lot of shows decline, I believe the answer stays the same – it all has to do with progress. Eventually Jim and Pam got together, eventually the Walking Dead ran out of the sense of anything to aspire to. And if there is any genre that is most aware of a feeling of progress, it’s a shonen anime. The genre is all about getting stronger, defeating the next powerful enemy, learning the next powerful attack. 

But progress is a finite and tricky resource to manage. Give too much progress too quickly and you run out of goals for the characters to accomplish. Progress too slowly and you lose the audience’s interest. I recently read Manga in Theory and Practice by Araki (the man behind JoJo) and he actually talks quite a bit about progress, warning how “Just like the economic bubble, the problem is what happens after you’ve reached the top.” Eventually the character progresses to the point where any further progress will feel superficial or simply less satisfying. 

And yes, you can always make a more powerful enemy – this one destroys planets, this one galaxies, this one the very fabric of time and space. But at a certain point the scale is so vast one can no longer appreciate the scope of the progress. 

This brings me to Haikyuu, one of the shows I have been watching in the midst of Covid quarantine. Probably the strongest feature of this show is how terrifically it balances the feeling of progress throughout, not just as a mechanism of the plot, but as a part of its theme. 

The show follows a particular volleyball team as it goes from underdog to powerhouse. This formula is not all that uncommon, but there is a real difficulty in telling a proper underdog story. After all, we don’t actually want to follow a weak team that can’t win, but we also want to see someone come back from behind. We have to believe they can win it all, but also fear they could lose at any moment. 

Perhaps one of the most important lines early on is delivered by the captain, when he explains that the team is not great, but not bad either. An important aspect of progress is choosing a starting point. The obvious choice is to start at the bottom, giving you the most room to move up. But we also want our hero to be exceptional- a loser, but a talented loser. 

Going back to Breaking Bad for a moment, our protagonist starts out as a loser who makes next to nothing as a science teacher, who has cancer and a son with cerebral palsy.  He emits no cool whatsoever and has everything working against him. But, he’s also a genius scientist who helped found a multi-million dollar company and is credited with contributions to a Nobel prize in science. 

In other words, a lot of progress is an illusion. We feel like Walter White is the underdog, which makes him satisfying to root for, but he’s able to synthesize the ultimate meth in just one episode. 

Progress, in other words, is a lot about smoke and mirrors. It’s about convincing the audience to feel a certain way. And Haikyuu does this terrifically, creating as much of a feeling of progress as possible. When our protagonists first join the Kurasano volley ball team, two members are no longer on the team, arguably the two best out of the original roster, because they were shaken up from a devastating loss last season. 

It’s a pretty simple conflict that is easily resolved, but this is a clever choice by the writer. As the players are slowly added back, the team feels like it’s growing, even though it’s simply gaining back the roster it originally had. 

The show is also clever in that it manages to have a great feeling of progress throughout the first season, despite the fact that very little is made. Kurasano wins their first practice match, against one of the very best teams in their area, giving a feeling of payoff to the viewer. But the other team is missing its star player, and it is clear that the win doesn’t really count. 

This is how Haikyuu solves the fundamental issue of progress. See, the issue is this: if the hero is able to beat a very powerful enemy too early, it all seems too easy and there is nowhere left to go. But if they don’t get good fast, the viewer loses interest. In the case of Haikyuu, Kurasano plays only the last few points of the match against the other team’s star player, and of those points they manage to only win one – the one point they need to win. Haikyuu cheats, letting the heroes beat one of the best teams only a few episodes in, while also making clear they can’t actually beat that team. 

Not in a real match. 

By the end of season two, Kurasano only manages one real win, against the team Data Tech. Data Tech is hyped up throughout the season as the team that beat Kurasano last year and crushed their spirits. This makes the win satisfying and a clear indicator of progress for the team. But their only other win this whole season is against a very weak team. By the end of season one, Kurasano is not even that good, but they feel strong because they were only a point away from beating their rival, the team they managed to beat in their first practice match. 

So, on the one hand, they nearly managed to beat a very powerful team. On the other hand, they lost because the other team figured out how to beat them. Had they played a hundred games after that, it is likely Kurasano would not win a single one. Haikyuu is so clever about making our heroes feel simultaneously invincible and powerless.  

In fact, as season two starts and Kurasano attends a training camp, it’s members remark how they are the weakest team out of the whole lot. The show so accurately emulates the feeling of progress – slow and hard fought for. One does not get better over night, or over one season. And yet, in the moment, it feels like our characters are growing incredibly quickly. 

Apart from using the show to impart writing advice, I’d obviously love to recommend it to anyone looking for a something to watch during Covid. Particular stand out episodes include “Winners and Losers” from season one and “Greed” from season two. 

In “Winners and Losers,” Kurasano competes in their first actual match. The challenge is how to make Kurasano appear like they have progressed. They’re up against a weak team, so they’ll obviously dominate, but beating a bunch of nameless underdogs hardly makes they seem powerful. This is where the story takes a really interesting turn, switching the point of view to the weaker team. 

By telling the story from a new perceptive, we now see Kurasano in a new light – they are terrifying and unstoppable – we don’t see their dorky, humanizing moments. We don’t see the tremendous thought and uncertainty behind each play – only powerful spikes and impossible receives.

The underdog team also happens to resemble Kurasano and it’s players when they were much weaker. Not only does this give the episode an almost metaphorical feel, as Kurasano defeats their past selves, but it adds to the stakes. The losers worked hard too. This sport, and life, can be brutal. And yet, at the end of the day, there can only be one winner.

The rest will go home in tears. 

The episode is also somewhat meta, as the characters on the losing team remark how, if this were a TV drama, they would be background extras. It’s a relatable notion, one that pushes at the boundary of the narrative. This writer is clearly quite hyper aware of storytelling convention. And this hyper awareness extends to the episode “Greed” as well, when a rival coach observes Kurasano, remarking how there are but two paths – to stagnate and stick with what works, or to evolve (and risk everything). 

This sentiment extends to the show itself, already deep into the story and clearly a hit. It could have coasted. But instead this episode resets everything, breaking the fundamental rules that made the show work from the very start. 

The once cohesive team breaks down, and the characters all fall out of orbit, set on separate paths, to improve in isolation. But the break up is not contrived. They are still friends, still getting along. They are still a team, just one with more separate practice.

Now there is tension. 

While still being affable and a team player, the main character has become something of a monster. His ambition made him try to steal a spike from the team’s ace, not consciously, but by instinct. 

With so many Shōnen about young men with the ability to punch holes in mountains, it’s a miracle they all remain so down to earth and well adjusted. Sure, seeing them become assholes would not be much fun, but Haikyuu manages to explore this notion without actually making anyone unlikable. In fact, this changing awareness of talent just becomes a part of the progress. It’s such a simple notion, but a critical one – progress can be felt not only through an increase in status or power, but by a change in personality. 

Anyways, I’ve gone on long enough about Haikyuu, but check it out if you’re curious. For any aspiring writers, it’s a pretty great example of well paced, meaningful progression. If there is any weakness, it would be its status as a sports anime. Every confrontation is ultimately set to the same format – a match of volleyball. Whereas other Shōnen anime can go from a race, to a cooking competition, to a game of dodgeball, (actual examples from Hunter X Hunter) Haikyuu has no such luxury. Still, it’s amazing, and you should at least give it a gander. 

Until next time. 

Writing beginnings – Lupin the Third and Hill House

Today I wanted to talk about introductions as, in all honesty, these are by far the most important part of any story you write. Even if your ending is terrible, if people have made it as far as the final few chapters or the last episode then they will probably still suffer through, just to see how it ends. Really, nothing matters if your viewer does not keep watching. And if they are watching, the beginning is when you have the most audience attention. If I am watching a show on Netflix for instance, those first few moments are when I am most guaranteed to be paying full attention. After that, who knows – I may be grabbing a snack, I may be drawing, I could be checking my phone. For this reason, the introduction is also a great place to put critical information.

I started thinking about introductions because I just watched Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro, which had one of the most striking and effective introductions I have ever seen. At first I was confused, thinking I had somehow skipped ahead. The very first shot is of our two main thieves descending on two money badges, attached to rope, robbing a casino. The casino then lights up and armed thugs chase out the two protagonists. There was no establishing shot, no opening credits or title cards. All this – the establishment of the characters, what is happening – all that I just described happens in ten seconds. 

But this first sequence, consisting of two shots, does not feel rushed, despite the speed at which the information is being delivered to us. This is because the shots are so incredibly efficient. Seeing two men scaling the side of a wall with money bags is instantly self explanatory, and the comical size of the moneybags and the shit eating grins of the thieves tells us so much about the tone of the movie. 

Also, the shot is split exactly in half: one half is occupied by the thieves descending on the wire, the other by the side of the building and a single window. As soon as the thieves are out of sight, the music that is playing is replaced by the sounds of alarms, as the window turns on. The very next shot is a wide of a building, as the lights all turn on, then the bright neon sign that says casino. The light turning on in the first shot instantly connects us to the lights in the second shot, giving us a sense of continuity. 

Then, two thieves run into the foreground, followed by some thugs behind them. Nothing profound is happening here, per say, nothing instantly showy. But this is a very difficult thing to do – to introduce an action all in ten seconds, telling the audience what is happening and who it is happening to, all in the span of two shots.

To test this, try paying attention every time you watch a new show or movie. What do you know in the first ten seconds or so? Do you know who the main character is, what they are doing, or what the obstacles are? To be clear, there is no one right way to write a book or show or movie. A slow introduction is not a bad one, not at all. Take The Shining, a movie that starts with scenery of a car driving through the mountains, for well over two minutes. We don’t know who the characters are, what they’re doing, or what the movie is going to be about, but the way the shots sweep over the landscape is somehow so terrifying and atmospheric that it drags you in. 

Part of the reason this opening works is exactly because it withholds information – we wonder who is in the car, or where they are going. For a less effective opening to the horror genre, I wanted to look at the Netflix original The Haunting of Hill House. 

The opening starts with a pan down on an old mansion converted in mist, as the narrator declares “No live organism can continue to live sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” They then go on to describe the house, as we get shots of the interior, of dimly lit halls and the spooky sculptures that decorate it. This monologue lasts a minute, after which we’ve learned nothing – met no characters, been introduced to no plot. All that we can possibly discern is that this house is haunted, and that is literally in the title. 

The show could have started without this “spooky” introduction, and probably would have been more compelling for it. And yes, the same is technically true of The Shining, but the introduction to The Shining is so striking because the scenery is gorgeous, the day bright and the mountainside lush. Normally this would not be a spooky scene. But the ominous music and the way that it’s shot provide the feeling of unease and even doom. 

Meanwhile, a haunted house is cliche. The audience is being told that this place is sinister, both literally by a voice over and figuratively by the thick mist and over the top gothic decorations. But that’s all we’re being told. The monologue is just some phislopcial musings and descriptions of the house. Now, this same monologue appeared in the original Haunting movie, but in the movie it appeared at the end. After a great tragedy, we hear the voice of a character we just witnessed perish calmly describing the walls and the floors of the house. This monologue is terrifying because of the context, because we know who is saying it and because it actually stands in contrast with what we’ve just witnessed. It’s calm and dispassionate and objective, after great hysteria and tragedy. But in the show, because it’s the very first thing we hear, it has far less meaning, since there is nothing to connect it to. 

In short, we’re a minute into the show and we know almost nothing, whereas, in the first ten seconds of Lupin, we know the who, the what, and the where. Then, by the minute mark of Lupin, our titular protagonist has escaped the casino security, whose vehicles were tampered with ahead of time, and made off with his cash. The next scene takes place in the aftermath, where Lupin and his accomplice are driving down the highway in a car comically overstuffed with cash, celebrating their haul, when Lupin notices that the bills are fake. They’re a special kind of counterfeit that has is so well made it fooled a state run casino. And with that, they happily toss all the fake money out of the car and head off to get to the bottom of the counterfeits, which are apparently made in a place called Cagliostro.

We are now two minutes into the movie, and we know a few things. First, we know what the movie will be about. We also know that Lupin is a master thief, but that he does not neseaeioy care about money itself. Yes, the money is counterfeit, but it’s good enough a fake to still be worth something, and yet he tosses it out while laughing to himself. That fact that his accomplice does not even object tells us something about their relationship as well. 

This second minute of the movie, before the credits roll in proper, reinforces the who, while introducing a new when and what. Two minutes in, and everything is set up. Meanwhile, the first sequence for Hill House takes up seven minutes total. 

And how does it spend those seven minutes? The overall arch of events is that a brother hears his sister crying, goes to her room, and says it’s alright to be scared – that even he gets scared. The father comes in and tells the daughter that the scary “bent neck lady,” is gone and leaves the room. He checks in on his other daughter, who is sleep-talking across the hall, only to notice that the door he had just shut behind him is open. He closes it again, then returns to bed where his wife is waiting. Meanwhile, we see his youngest daughter is now trying to sleep, as a ghostly woman can be seen hovering overhead. 

My issue is not necessarily with the events themselves, though not much happens in these seven minutes. The biggest issue I have is with the details of what’s happening here. The father and brother are both perfectly kind to the scared girl – “Your big brother scared her (the bent neck lady) off,” says the dad. “Big brothers are good like that.” The issue is that any chance for conflict is missed. The girl calms down quickly, and there’s never a real debate over whether the bent neck lady was there. The dad does not even check for her. What if the dad tries looking around and is checking drawers when he finds one is locked? It’s a simple conflict, and a simple question – what’s in the drawer? But at least it’s something. 

Or what if the brother were a little less understanding? What if he says that there is no bent neck lady, and his sister insists that there is? Or what if she wants to go sleep in her parent’s bed and the dad won’t let her? Again, the issue is this scene has no conflict whatsoever. What’s worse, I don’t feel I learn much at all about these characters. I get that the dad is a “good dad,” that the brother is a “good brother,” and that the sister is scared, but that doesn’t really tell me much about their  fundamental character. 

Or, instead of changing events, the scene could have simply been shot differently. The way these events are framed does not lend much information. For instance, as the dad leaves in the scene, we see him walk across the room and close the door behind him. Instead, why not cut to a shot of him and the door, as he closes it, then linger on the shot just a moment as he leaves off screen, so that we are subconsciously made to remember that door. That way, when he returns and sees it open, it has more impact. 

Or, rather than have a shot of the entire hall, why not have a closer shot of the dad as he leaves his eldest daughter’s room. We can then see him turn and look at something. What is he looking at, and why does he look concerned? Then we get a shot of the open door. The way it’s shot originally, the possible tension of the moment is greatly diminished. 

In short, after two Minutes of Lupin the third I could tell you a fair bit about Lupin – that he’s a skilled thief, a goofball, knowledgeable, plans well in advance, and while he loves to steal, he cares less about treasure itself. For him the thrill is in the adventure. And he is bound to his associates by something deeper than mere mutual greed. 

As for Hill House, all I can really say about the character I see the most is that he seems like a good dad. But the generic, TV kind of good dad. I don’t know what he wants, what he likes, or what his goals and challenges will be over the course of the show. And this is after seven minutes, compared to Lupin’s mere two. 

But the biggest issue is that there is so little conflict or suspense in the first seven minutes of Hill House. So little action. An opening should both inform and entertain, even more so than the rest of the show. This is why many shows, like Breaking Bad, start in the middle of things, so that the first thing we see is especially exciting. 

Starts are huge, and I think I’ll be close reading a few more over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’ve just enjoyed the exercise of asking myself in the first ten seconds, minute, and two minutes of a show – what do I know, and how engaged am I? 

 

Writing About Race, The Office

Race is a challenging subject to discuss, and I almost didn’t write this piece, but it seems like a hard topic to ignore if I’m going to continue expounding on writing. And the issue is not one of morality, per say. While I believe writing about race in a respectful and informed fashion is indeed important, morality in writing is murky waters. What I want to focus on is the structural patterns writing takes on, and ways to avoid certain traps. 

And yes, I understand that it may seem strange writing about the office, a show largely focused on a white cast and very middle class, white problems.  But race exists in all spaces, regardless of the diversity present. The office does a good job of showing what race looks like in this kind of environment. 

We all know the basic format for the race episode – the one black character finally gets the spotlight, only to be accosted by some blatant racist, allowing the white character to intervene and save the day. 

A chief offender of this format is the Oscar winning Green Book. There’s little actual examination of race, just some power trip fantasy as a single white guy gets to beat the crap out a series of cartoonish racists and teach a black man how to be more black. Apparently eating fried chicken and being poor makes the main character an expert of the subject. 

But to reiterate, I’m not so much concerned with the moral issues here (not that I don’t find Green Book horribly problematic). The issue I want to address is a narrative one. Any good story runs on conflict, and the cartoonish racist versus the virtuous white guy is one of the least interesting conflicts there are. 

I’m trying not to jump around too much – I swear we’ll get into the office soon – but I wanted to talk about The Dark Knight first. The conflict is interesting because the Joker actually has a point. This causes Batman to question himself and argue with his allies. The main conflict breaks off into several smaller conflicts, and because what the joker wants is complex, his methods are complex. Nothing remains static. Alegences shift and perspectives change. 

Or as Harvy Dent says “you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” 

This is usually a good way to judge if your conflict is interesting. By the time the conflict has been resolved, has anything substantial changed? If the conflict is the noble white guy versus the racist, not much can change. These scenarios rarely present a challenge to the white character, as the whole point of this format is that they are morally consistent. And the racist never has much of a point, so how could they push or challenge the other characters? 

This is where the Office’s subversion comes into effect. Here, the true antagonist is the “noble” white guy. When Michael Scott learns that a new employee – a black employee – served time, he remarks “Why did the convict have to be a back guy? It’s such a stereotype I just wish Josh had made a more progressive choice, like a white guy who went to prison for polluting a black guy’s lake.” The issue here is that there is no issue. Everything is fine. But Michael is made uncomfortable by race, and his solution is to be the hero. 

This conflict is inherently layered , as Michael has the same goal as Martin Nash, the titular “convict” of this episode. They both want a tolerant work space. But Michael wants to solve a problem, whereas Martin wants no problem in the first place. 

But the conflict is made even more layered by Michael’s self awareness. Yes, he’s iconic for his lack of self knowledge, but he seems to know he’ll only cause chaos. So at first his solution is the right one – “We need to forget this whole Martin in prison thing. People will draw unfair conclusions about Martin and/or black people.” 

As a result, the first phase of the conflict is not caused by Michael, but instead the accountant Angelia, who remarks “Let’s protect the convicts. At the cost of a general feeling of safety in the workplace. As a 90 pound female that sits in a ill lit, rarely visited corner of the office, naturally I agree with that.” This is a kind of racism I rarely see in TV. It’s a blatant exploitation of faulty logic and social expectations. Rather than play the aggressor, Angela plays the victim. 

The first conflict is between Anglea and Martin, which is ultimately resolved peacefully, if not uncomfortably. Martin starts to tell jokes about how he misses prison, about how it was better than the office. He normalizes his criminal history and solves his own problems.

It could have ended here.

But this solution comes at the cost of Mcihael’s ego. Martin insulted his wonderful office. And what’s more, Martin solved his own problems, while every bit of media Michael ever consumed tells him that he should be the hero. 

The conflict is interesting because I can see where Michael is coming from. He told everyone to leave Martin be, and they didn’t, so Martin had to tell jokes at Michael’s expense to fit in. “I think my prison cell was actually a bit bigger than Michael’s office.” 

Michael should not have to suffer the consequences of someone else’s mistake, he feels. But that’s what it means to be the hero. To be the bigger person. Instead he goes on a self righteous tirade, dissatisfied with an ending where he is the villain. In one of my favorite rants of the episode, he says “Close your eyes. Picture a convict. What’s he wearing? Nothing special. Baseball cap on backwards, baggy pants. He says something ordinary like ‘yo, that’s shizzle.’ Ok, now slowly open your eyes again. Who were you picturing? A black man? Wrong. That was a white woman. Surprised. Well shame on you?” 

To again quote Harvy Dent, Michael lived long enough to see himself become the villain. The conflict has phases, characters switch sides. And even though it’s just a byproduct of good structure, the episode does happen to have a substantive message. 

The office sets up race in a way that actually allows for a dynamic plot. Even the outcome is interesting. Michael eventually traps everyone in the conference room, to prove an office is better than prison. He only releases them after Tobi, who he hates and constantly derides, explains that everyone was just kidding him about prison. That this is what communication is. What friendship is. It’s the first time Michael ever truly hears Tobi out, and he seems to have a real revelation about his relationship with his employees. 

But it’s too late for Martin. The environment is ruined for him. And Michael’s last words are, cringingly,” “I won’t miss him. And that’s not because he’s black.” In short, Michael learned something, but not about the thing he was supposed to learn about.

It’s a great twist that makes perfect sense. There’s growth, so the episode doesn’t feel pointless, but not growth in an area where, realistically, Michael will not be growing anytime soon. 

While it may sound like a cold, distant way to look at it, really try to think of story structure when dealing with tricky moral and social issues. And granted, this can be easier said than done. Giving the racist a point is not an elegant solution, and complicating social issues has long been a strategy to dismiss them. Story complexity is not the be all and end all. But to explore an issue means just that – to explore, to be dynamic, to move around and have an ever shifting conflict. 

Stay safe everyone, and hopefully I’ll have something new oit soon. 

 

Strange structures: Cowboy Bebop

In my last article, I talked about how Avatar was great because it used its first episodes – even it’s first seasons – as set up for future events. This narrative bricklaying is a fundamental element of any good story. But you know what they say, that rules are meant to be broken, and Cowboy Bebop is particularly unusual once you look at it. 

I plan to do a series of brief pieces on TV shows with unusual narrative structure, and I thought of no better place to start than the classic 90s anime Cowboy Bebop. Avatar’s first episode, like most, sets up its main cast. And Cowboy Bebop? Its first episode introduces a drug syndicate, a notorious fugitive and his mysterious loves, and then? It blows it all up, and the fugitive and his lover die. Little carries over. Little is set up. Far from feeling like an opening episode, this premier resembles an ending. 

In fact, almost every episode feels like the season finale to someone else’s show – often we’ll meet characters who are known throughout the universe, with their own past and unique personality, that may or may have lived for over a hundred years already. And then they die, or sometimes they gain a different kind of closure. But every episode introduces some grand concept and new characters, only to never mention them again. 

People have often cited another cartoon, Bojack Horseman, as a hard show to watch. And while I agree, I can still binge entire seasons of it. Meanwhile, Cowboy Bebop Leaves me exhausted after just a handful of episodes. This is because nothing is added. In Bojack, at least events have consequences, one’s actions have an impact. But in Bebop, nothing is added, nothing carries over. In fact, the universe feels a little emptier after each story. 

I’ve never seen this structure before, but it’s one worth trying out, as difficult as it seems – to make a series full of endings. One grand finale after another, one after another, until our heroes get their own end. 

Avatar The Last Airbender and Patience

For a long time I’ve been struggling to explain how I could love Avatar the Last Airbender and yet derive virtually no Joy from its sequel series, the Legend of Korra. But with Avatar back on Netflix and me thoroughly embedded in my couch, binge watching Ang’s adventures for a solid week now, I’ve noticed a few things that may help explain my feeling. Out of all the things that Avatar does right, patience may be its greatest virtue. 

When I first watched Avatar was in the era of cable, back before Netflix attacked, so I watched the series out of order, enjoying whichever episode happened to be airing that night. As a result, the first two episodes were some of the last season one episodes I saw, over at a friend’s house during a sleepover. I remember being so excited to see where it all began, only to be deflated by the feeling that these episodes were largely mediocre. 

I would argue that season one is the weakest of the Avatar’s seasons, not because it was poorly written, but because any writer that is in control of their process should produce a story that escalates. Every season should help set up the season to come, like a staircase. Granted, this often does not happen, for a variety of reasons, the first being that many shows are premise based, and once the premise is explored, they have little space left to explore (here’s looking at you WestWorld). Another issue is one beyond the writer’s control, which is the way streaming services like Netflix produce new series. 

Bob-Waksburg, Bojack Horseman’s creator, recently went on record as saying Bojack Horseman would not have gotten a second season under Netflix’s current business model, as its first season took a while to properly set up the show’s most interesting elements. The Netflix model gives many shows a chance to compete, which is great, but the competition is fierce. As such, it makes little sense to save your best ideas for season two or three when saving them may mean you don’t even get renewed. As such, many first seasons on Netflix go for broke, filling in as many interesting ideas as quickly as possible, often without proper setup. They also tend to end on huge cliffhangers that are sometimes hard to write out of, hoping a big finish will secure a season two. 

I do not blame shows for working this way, since they have to do what they need to to compete. But in a perfect world, a show will take time to escalate. I’ve often heard that the first episodes of Bojack were simply some of its worst, and that the writers were still figuring out what they were doing. But it’s very hard for a show to start as a 10. Writing a tightly structured script is a lot like setting up a series of dominoes and knocking them over, watching all that meticulous set up pay off. Watching someone set up the dominoes is far less satisfying than the actual fall, but it’s an unavoidable process. The only way to start a show at 10 is often with a high concept premise, which makes for great first episodes, but often leaves nowhere to go but down (again, WestWorld). 

This brings me back to the first two episodes of Avatar. These episodes portray Zuko as a fairly run of the mill, hot headed villain, Aang as a naive child, Katara as melodramatic and Sokka as a dolt. Some of the subtleties of their characters are alluded to, but for the most part they are rather straightforward. Given how nuanced they became later, I found myself bored by these first two episodes. But these episodes give us a baseline, which gives future character development meaning. In the very next episode, Aang learns that his people have been murdered and goes into a murderous rage, while Zuko, who felt like an ineffectual team rocket-esque villain, beats Zhao, a high ranking fire nation general. This episode only hits so hard because of the diligent set up in episode one. 

And while we’re on the issue of Zhao, I wanted to address his characterization. He’s arrogant, cruel, brash, and a generally bad guy, one with very little depth. There’s some nuance certainly, but his main character trait is “cocky asshole villain.” The general consensus is that this kind of villain is inferior. Korra would seem to agree, instead having a villain with a tragic backstory, inner turmoil, and a morally complicated mission statement – that non-benders are essentially treated as second class citizens. Indeed, in a vacuum, Zhao sounds far less interesting than Korra’s season one villain, Amon. 

But a character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of a broader narrative, and Zhao fits his own perfectly. He’s too cartoonishly malicious to be all that threatening, but this is perfect as our heroes are still honing their skills. Had they faced a threat like Azula in season one, they’d have no way to triumph. Furthermore, we’re just being introduced to the main cast. If the villain is too nuanced, takes up too much screen time and too much of our attention, then the heroes will not have enough time to develop. In many ways, Avatar is a case study in narrative economy, and season one leaves virtually no time wasted. To add a character arc for the villain would mean to fundamentally restructure the entire story.

But most critically of all, Zhao is morally simple. He’s just the bad guy. This may sound like lazy writing, but to have moral complexity, there must first be a baseline. Zhao lets the story begin with a fairly straightforward moral paradigm, where the fire nation is evil and the heroes good. But by seasons two and three, even by the end of season one, this status quo begins to change. By the final season, we get to see the fire nation and its citizens, many decent people, at the same time we meet “evil” water benders and earth benders, though by this point, evil no longer seems to apply to anyone outside of the fire lord. They’re less evil than “really, really complicated and misguided.” 

Korea attempts to have subversive morals right from the start, with nothing to subvert. See, the issue is that Amon has a point – non benders do seem to be victims of benders, and there’s no obvious way to fix this issue. Not to mention, benders have strayed from their spiritual roots and have become increasingly materialistic. The issue is, the show has no way to write itself out of this situation. The set up is morally ambiguous, which gives the show a feeling of maturity and sophistication, but to what end? See, Amon is too right. That’s why the twist is that he’s in fact a water bender and his whole “rights for non-benders” stance is actually a ruse. I see this a lot on TV. The show has moral complexity, only to reveal it’s all a front. This way you get to have the feeling of “morality” without ever exploring or resolving it. But the issue is, Amon has a point, only to have it swept under the rug in the midst of his unmasking. 

The long term consequences of this choice is that, in a twelve episode season, Amon gets a lot of screen time, leaving our protagonists woefully underdeveloped. This problem is only made worse by the sheer number of recurring good guys, like Korra, Asami, Mako, Bolin, Lin, and Tenzin and his kids. Avatar keeps its main gang very tight in season one, with Aang, Sokka, and Katara. Season two is better for Toph, for sure. But adding her season one was not an option. There was not enough time to develop her, and developing four characters from scratch all at once would make season one feel far more crowded. 

See, adding characters isn’t as much addition as it is multiplication. In season one, you have three main relationships – Aang and Katara, Sokka and Katara, and Sokka and Aang. Adding Toph doubles that number of relationships, which means her simple addition adds a lot of complexity to the group’s dynamics. Avatar seems to be particularly aware of characters not existing in isolation, but as part of a story structure (like Zhao) and also part of a series of relationships. When Zuko joins the gang, the first thing that happens is a series of episodes where he bonds with each of the three members of the main gang (minus Toph) forging those relationships. But in Korra, the cast feels less tight knit, as they’re all introduced at once. That doesn’t leave enough time to explore all the possible combinations, meaning Bolin doesn’t have much of a relationship with Tenzin, likewise for Asami and Lin, or for any number of pairings. 

I recently rewatched the episode The Beach for the umpteenth time, one of my favorite of all of Avatar, as it gives humanity to one of the show’s most inhuman characters. But what makes it so remarkably powerful is how late in the game it comes. We’ve seen Azula be a devious, unfeeling machine for a while now, a more interesting but no less straightforwardly evil character than Zhao. Waiting this long for the payoff really enhances its impact. 

I also wanted to quickly mention something about character development. One of my favorite writer interviews is with the writers of the office, and one piece of advice they gave (or maybe more of a warning) is that character development makes for great moments, but chips away at the vehicle of the character. That is to say, once Zuko reaches self-actualization, which makes for some of the most powerful episodes of the series, you can no longer tell jokes where he literally explodes with fire when angry. Once Toph and Katara are on the same page, you lose an interesting bit of tension in the group. Developing characters makes for great TV, but do it too fast and you have nothing to work with. Your character is either too mature for comedy or conflict, or just artificially goes through the same motions all over again, till they mean nothing. 

I could go on and on, but really, all I wanted to convey is the critical nature of patience in storytelling. Avatar played the long game, which helped cement its status as an all time classic. Sometimes, to transcend your genre, you must spend a while playing it straight first. 

 

Unorthodox: Writing the Sad Villain

Today I wanted to talk about Unorthodox, probably one of the best shows to come out on Netflix this year. But as with anything successful, I find myself having a hard time conveying what “great” actually means – in fact, any positive language used to describe TV and movies seems to be losing a lot of its rhetorical edge. I hear the words “masterpiece,” “triumph” or even just “great” way too often. To the point that they’re meaningless. It feels as if we’re experiencing something of a linguistic inflation. That’s why, today, I wanted to focus on just a small, concrete part of Unorthodox – the villain.

I know I’ve talked about villains a lot already on this blog, but today I wanted to emphasize two categories of villain – the powerful villain, and the weak villain. When writing a villain, ask yourself: is breaking the law a symptom of their power, or the source of it? 

In Batman, for instance, the villains can break the law because they have the means to. Doctor Freeze can rob a bank because he has ice powers to take down droves of police. Poison Ivy can rob the bank because she controls sentient plants.  But in Unorthodox, our villain is Moishe. 

Unorthodox follows Esther as she escapes from New York to Germany, trying to escape the ortahdox community she was raised in. Moishe is the man sent to bring her back, along with Yakov, Esther’s husband. Moishe May be the man for the job – the resident badass of the orthodox community – but he is also an outcast of the community, a compulsive gambler and a likely drunk. Unlike Doctor Freeze, he doesn’t have the power to break the law. Rather, breaking the law is what gives him power. 

When Moishe first arrives in Germany with Yakov, he reveals that he has a cellphone, forbidden in the orthodox community. He gambles, also forbidden, and he takes Yakov to a brothel (which, yes, is quite forbidden). When looking for Esther, he even sneaks into her mother’s house and steals documents, leaving a peel behind to show he was there.  

Moishe is weak, so he must break the law, giving him a temporary boost in power. But this is a borrowed power, creating debt. That is to say, a willingness to break the law can give you short term agency. If I really want a jacket that I can’t afford, I could always steal it. I could punch anyone I want in the face, run around naked in public. Technically, any of this is possible. But then I’m in debt – I’ll pay for that temporary freedom, with interest. With prison time. With fines. In this sense, the law is like a high stakes loan shark. 

Throughout Orthadox, Moishe is in debt, playing a gambling app that he seems to continually lose to. He winds up borrowing money from Yakov, then arranging a poker match to get his money back. Villains like Doctor Freeze lose because they must be stopped. Often the heroes and the whole city must team up to stop them. But villains like Moishe lose because their power is borrowed. And while Moishe surprisingly wins his gambling match at the end, the message is clear – the debt will be paid. Maybe not today, but it will be paid eventually, interest and all. 

What makes a villain? There are ways to be a proper villain – the capacity for harm, or desire to cause it. Doctor Freeze is the former, Moishe is the latter. And he shows us that dangerous and powerful are not the same thing. Danger often comes from a lack of power – from desperation and hunger, from insecurity. So when writing your next villain, ask yourself – are they weak or are they strong? Is their power innate or borrowed. The sad villain seems to be appearing more and more often, and this prospect excites me. 

Today’s piece is short, but I hope to talk more about Unorthodox and the many shows I’m watching during quarantine soon. Keep posted for more frequent uploads. 

 

Tone in Parks and Recreation

Today I wanted to talk about tone. Tone is a very strange part of narrative in many ways, and one that feels largely under-discussed. On the one hand, tone is very easy to manipulate. The inspiration for this blog entry was a youtube video of a scene from Friends, where the laugh track was removed and everything was put in grey scale. Other than these changes and an eerie background score, the scene was exactly the same, yet felt like it was from an entirely different show. To be frank, it was fairly disturbing. But while this trick works for the sake of a joke on the internet, all too often I see what feels like a lazy tone, where a certain effect is achieved with lots of grey scale and overbearing music. 

Inconsistent tone is a criticism I’ve seen a lot in critical reviews of shows and movies, and it’s a fair complaint to leverage. But I rarely see anyone complaining about consistent tone. It feels as if we’re encouraged to keep tone steady as writers, but this consistency often makes for stories that are tonally monochromatic. For instance, I’ve watched shows where no one ever tells a joke, where the sky is always overcast, where every person is always unhappy. What is often praised as consistency I see as a crutch. Tragedy can happen on beautiful days, happy moments on overcast ones. 

For those of you who have read multiple posts on this blog, you’re maybe aware it started as a dedicated anime blog. My focus shifted as I realized just how small a slice of the narrative pie anime encompasses. Still, part of my infatuation with anime in the first place was how it manages to have such contrasting tones, a task made easier through animation. One second a character may be drawn in a cartoonish fashion, the next in a hyper realistic fashion. With animation, tone can change on a dime. 

In my opinion, some of the best tone is created through tonal contrast, or to quote Dante’s Inferno, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness.” A sorrowful moment after a comedic one can carry real gravitas, just as a happy moment after a tragic one can carry with it powerful catharsis. Also, a show tends to be more interesting when it hits multiple tones. There’s no reason I wouldn’t want to laugh during a horror movie, to tear up a bit during a comedy. 

But I did not plan to talk about tonal contrast today, even though I love that model for writing. For the longest time, I thought there were two main approaches to writing tone- to be totally consistent, or to have contrasting tones. But during quarantine I have been watching a lot of Parks and Recreation, a rare show that introduces a possible third option. Parks and Recreation is one of the few shows I know that has an inappropriate tone. This may sound like a terrible idea – in fact, it is a criticism I see often, but Parks and Recreation does so intentionally, and to truly remarkable effect.

For a while, I did not Enjoy Parks and Recreation. As the final season concluded, so many reviews came out explaining how the show was this incredible monument to optimism, that it somehow shows the very best of the American Dream. For some reason this interpretation did not sit right with me, until I started to rewatch it with a friend. The friend loves the show, and it only took five minutes of watching with her to understand why – she is almost an exact carbon copy of Leslie Nope. She is my friend and I love her, but she can be a bulldozer, she can be a bureaucrat, she can be emotionally shortsighted. 

But even still, my friend is a far cry better than Leslie Nope Leslie, who has all those flaws magnified times a hundred. The fact is, Leslie is kind of a monster. To truly understand this fact, one need look no further than what I’ll be calling the Jery test. Jery, real name Gary, later changed to Lary, is a government employee that everyone else at parks and recreation torments mercilessly. He does indeed mess up often, he’ll fart and blunder about, mispronounce words – but other than these superficial flaws, Jerry has a beautiful family and a happy, contented life. His interests are varied and his talents numerous. Above all else, he has a good heart.

Yet Leslie and company bully him mercilessly – they belittle him for making a mural inspired by his dead grandma, they send him on a wild goose chase that makes him miss his daughter’s birthday, then another that makes him miss his honeymoon. They even make fun of him for a heart attack that they induced. Leslie and the other main cast are morally  terrible in other, subtler ways, but Jerry serves as direct evidence of their utter lack of empathy. 

Beyond her tromenting of Jerry, Leslie tries to destroy every relationship that her former boyfriend, who she broke up with, tries having. Worse, she says of her best friend Ann that she is beautiful yet not that bright or talented, having never needed to compensate for anything. Then later Leslie says that she has the right to make any choices concerning Ann’s body – if any of these lines were coming from a man, it would be shocking. But Leslie gets a free pass, partly because of all her good work in government. Leslie is literally a bureaucrat that worships bureaucrats. She says as much herself. 

But to best understand Leslie’s moral faults, it helps to look at the actual structure of an episode. The first episode I want to talk about revolves around getting a plan for the park Leslie has been working on since episode one. Someone from Eagleton, the neighboring town, volunteers their services. Leslie refuses his help because she has a stigma against those from Eagleton – it’s not entirely unjustified, but certainly extreme. 

Eventually Ben, her boyfriend, convinces her to work with the architect. After a misunderstanding, Ben suggests they talk things out with the park designer. Instead, Lesli sprays whipped cream all over him. The outcome? The episode simply ends with the park designer agreeing to work with them, despite Lesli’s actions. 

What’s strange about the structure of this episode is that it shirks the usual sitcom format, where our hero wants something, has a hard time getting it, changes their ways, then finally gets what they want. Here, the step where the hero changes their ways is removed, which skews the entire formula – Lesli behaves terribly throughout this episode, which we tolerate due to the subconscious expectation of growth. And by the end of the episode, the first time I watched it, I assumed that a lesson was learned, because the tone was positive. The show ended with the feeling that Lesli got the happy ending she deserved. 

Only, she did nothing to earn it. 

The fact is, Lesli did not change at all. She acted like a petulant child and was rewarded for it, but due to the positive presentation, that fact is easily lost. In many ways, most episodes of Parks and Recreation play out like an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where terrible people refuse to change their ways, but in It’s Always Sunny, the gang rarely gets the outcome they want. They get what they deserve for their actions, not what they think they deserve. 

In Parks and Recreation, the only real difference in formula is that the main characters are portrayed as positive  – they get the outcome they think they should receive. 

The second episode I wanted to look at is one where Lesli is trying to negotiate for money for her park, trying to switch the vote of councilman Jamm. To be clear, Jamm is also a pretty awful person, certainly more so than Lesli. Lesli’s friend Chris, who works for the government, comes to help mediate between the two, and eventually Jamm agrees to give Lesli the money she needs, in one year’s time, provided the economy holds up. 

His offer isn’t perfect. But that’s the nature of compromises. Lesli’s response to his offer, however, is to yell at him and call him a horrible monster (which, in fairness, is accurate), before storming off in a huff. Chris tells her this is not a productive response, but she says she wants the money now, no strings attached. She will not compromise.

The outcome? Chris, who’s honor and lack of corruption has been a cornerstone of his character for nearly four seasons straight, compromises his morals to get Lesli what she wants. 

Parks and Recreation always struck me as strange because it’s a story about some fairly deplorable individuals, but it always adheres to their world view. They believe they’re the heroes, and the show indulges them, giving them victories they don’t necessarily deserve. 

Every episode ends on a positive note, yet the world it depicts is horrifying. The trash department is run by blatant misogynists, the town’s one bus rental place is run by an asshole who dishonors his business deals, the local perfumer hunts people for recreation, and almost all the men in local government have sent pictures of their privates to at least one unwanted recipient. 

Parks and Recreation takes full advantage of its format as a comedy, allowing it to mine horrible people for humor. The comedy – and the tone that accompanies it – distracts from the depravity. This is part of what makes Parks and Recreation such a unique experience. 

If any one character personified the show best, it would be the aforementioned Chris, the living embodiment of tonal inconsistencies. He is all smiles as he debuts at the end of season two, saying that this town is literally the greatest town in the world. How everyone is amazing. How, as a state auditor, all he’s there to do is “slap a fresh coat of paint,” on the local government. “Tinker,” a little. 

Then his partner, Ben, explains to Lesli that they are actually there to “take a machete” to the government, functionally gutting it. It’s only in a much later season that we see Ben and Chris talking to each other about the joy they derive from tearing local governments asunder – the high it gives them. 

There are few shows quite like Parks and a Recreation, where what is happening on screen is subverted by highly inappropriate positivity. I don’t even know what the moral is here, given that this is such a unique approach to tone and story. Perhaps the lesson is that you can break the rules – that for all I talk of structure and rules on this blog, you can find new ways to mess with tone, new ways to totally subvert story structure. 

Stay safe, stay writing, stay sane.

Thought on Stakes and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

Since I find myself in quarantine, now seems like the perfect time to not only watch tons of TV, but to also write way too much about it. My other hope is that I’ll have something of a captive audience for this blog, given most of the world is in lock down at this point. 

Given the recent global situation, I’ve found myself watching soothing shows, goofy and action pact shows. Cathartic shows.  Last time I talked about JoJo’s Bizarre adventure, which is all those things, and I want to continue that conversation. 

What I want to address is why the show has such staying power. I’ve tried watching other shows like it – other action shows, other anime, other comedies. But JoJo stands out in particular, and I wanted to talk about why. 

You can miss it, but Araki (JoJo’s writer) is a pretty nuanced writer. Nuanced may seem a strange word to apply to a man who has the sense of humor of a twelve year old boy, but he clearly understands the mechanics of a story well. In particular, I wanted to highlight his use of stakes. 

Stakes are a huge part of what makes a narrative compelling. Without them, there’s very little reason to watch. But simply raising the stakes is not enough to make a story compelling. A prime example would be a drama like Criminal Minds. I only watched season one, but the episode I remember most, nearly a year later, was about a family being held hostage. At some point, the killer is going to murderer this family, and the detectives find themselves racing against the clock. 

There are episodes with higher stakes – episodes where a bomber threatens to blow up hundreds of people, episodes where the protagonists are held hostage themselves. But here’s the thing – we know the protagonists can’t die. The stakes may seem high,  but because we know the protagonists can’t die, the tension is low. 

The same applies for any Drama, like SVU or Dexter. Whenever Dexter is in “trouble,” it’s hard to be particularly worried, since we know he’ll get out unscathed. But in the premier episode of Dexter season 4, the stakes are not life and death for our serial killer protagonist – the stakes are maintaining his marriage and his normal life. That is something he can actually lose.

I want to focus on a specific pair of episodes today – The Lovers parts one and two, from the third installment of JoJo’s Bizarre adventure. In terms of establishing and escalating stakes, I consider these episodes something of a masterclass. Araki successfully manipulates stakes in all of his episodes, but this one is particularly easy to learn from. 

The first scene sees one of our protagonists haggling with a merchant, negotiating the price of their lunch. This is a very short sequence, but there’s a good reason for that. Stakes generally dictate how long a scene can last. With just a few dollars worth on the line, the stakes don’t create enough tension to sustain a long scene. 

But this does not mean that high stakes can carry a long sequence. To give an example, let’s say we’re watching a slasher movie. The villain is chasing our protagonist through the woods with a knife; the stakes are high. But after thirty seconds or so of chasing we’ll probably be bored. 

In this episode of Jojo, the stakes are constantly changing. At first, they are very low, with a bartering match. But then the gang’s hostage, who has valuable information, is attacked and is bleeding out on the street. The stakes, once again, are not life and death. Someone is dying, yes, but the stakes are whether or not the gang can extract information from this person before they die. 

If one pays attention, the tension in this episode is constantly shifting. Once the antagonist shows up, a man who goes by the name of Steely Dan, the point of tension starts to change from minute to minute. First, there is the larger tension – Steely Dan has placed a parasite in one of our heroes, Jonathan, which will eventually kill him. Also, if Steely Dan is killed or injured, Jonathan will suffer the same fate. 

It is good to have a large, overarching tension that lasts throughout a whole episode. But this alone is not enough to keep a viewer invested. A good example of why would be any poker movie. Usually, we only see a handful of critical hands, at least two. This is because, hand to hand, the stakes don’t actually change. We can only tolerate about five to ten minutes worth of a poker game at best. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the movie Rounders. In the final sequence, our hero is gambling for his very life. But as high as those stakes are, watching the entire poker match play out in real time would be boring and tedious. That’s because stakes create anticipation – you want to see an outcome. Prolong that outcome for too long, and you lose your audience. You want them to care about the game of cards, but human nature often cares more about the result.

If we understand stakes being about anticipation, then the question is how to sustain it. Rounders gives us a good hint. In the final sequence, our protagonist wins the match to save his life, even wins a bit of money in the process. However, it’s not very satisfying, as he still doesn’t have enough money to pay back his debts. That’s when he’s offered double of nothing odds. 

Now the stakes are changed. Now he doesn’t just stand to lose his life, but all the money he just gained. On the other hand, he could also gain quite a bit of money, enough to live out his dream. The stakes just changed, and they just got higher. 

This is what I call the ladder of stakes. You almost want to keep a viewer addicted, looking for their next fix. As soon as you give them one outcome, tempt them with another, then another. In this way, one can sustain tension throughout an episode or movie, by continually introducing new stakes.

Before we move on, I just want to look a little more closely at the anatomy of a poker scene. As I said before, we usually only see a few hands – at least two or three. This is because there’s a very basic set up that you’ll see a lot if you look for it. 

Player A wins a hand, starts to feel confident. Then Player B wins an even bigger hand; it’s looking bad for Player A. But then Player A wins an  even bigger hand still, walking away with the pot. A lot of Poker games in TV and movies are some variation of this pattern. But why? 

For stakes to work, all the possible outcomes need to feel possible. Your average poker scene is tense because we believe either Player A or B can win. This creates a feeling of uncertainty. Meanwhile, if we know what’s going to happen is inevitable, the anticipation that makes stakes so effective goes away. 

For example, let’s go back to the scene of someone chasing someone else through the woods with a knife. I remember this exact scene played out in the movie the Strangers – a very typical home invasion movie. And yet, I wasn’t the least bit scared or even that invested. The reason was that the protagonist was in the middle of the woods, with no cell reception, no weapons, nowhere to really hide, and their car had been totaled. There’s no way to escape, which makes the stakes feel meaningless. The stakes are high, sure, but the outcome is obvious. 

If the movie made a critical mistake, it was taking away the protagonist’s gun so early, or taking away the car so early. Without them, there is no real tension, since the only possible outcome is their demise. Yet we have to wait over an hour to see that play out. 

Now let’s return to JoJo. Like Rounders, it makes a ladder of stakes to keep the viewer invested. But unlike Rounders, the construction of its ladder is much more sophisticated. 

After Steely Dan appears, our protagonists split up into two groups. Joseph and the others try to remove the parasite from his brain, while our title character, JoJo, confronts Steely Dan. But he can’t hurt Steely Dan, since doing so would kill his Grandfather. What’s clever about splitting these groups up is that it creates two kinds of stakes. Very high, life and death for Joseph, but much lower stakes for JoJo.

For instance, Steely Dan demands JoJo give him a massage, or be a human bridge so he can walk over a moat, or steal expensive jewelry for him. The stakes are smaller here, but there’s still a great deal of tension. Will JoJo, who is a very prideful character, give into these demands? What will Steely Dan do if he says no? What horrible demand will Steely Dan make next? What will happen to JoJo if he’s caught stealing the jewelry? 

The Stakes are constantly changing throughout the episode, every two minutes or so. And often those stakes are very low. But low stakes can be very compelling, even more effective than higher stakes. After all, if you start off with the highest stakes possible, then there’s no possibility for escalation. There’s nowhere to go but down. But start low, and you can still rise.  

Furthermore, if the stakes are lower, then the outcome becomes far less obvious. Low stakes are more concrete too. It’s hard to imagine what life or death stakes actually feels like; it almost becomes too abstract to fathom. But many of the stakes in JoJo are quite familiar. For instance, Joseph is freaking out and writhing In pain, compliments of Steely Dan’s ability. The stakes here are that he’s attracted a crowd and it’s embarrassing. 

But perhaps more critical than any other element here is the payoff. As the stakes rise, so does the expectation of an epic finish. As the episode continues, and as Steely Dan tortures and humiliates JoJo, JoJo starts to write receipts, explaining to Steely Dan that he will “pay him back,” when this is all over. 

Whenever you write high stakes, it is important to remember that they must lead somewhere. In many narratives, a big mystery or large threat is introduced, to keep us watching, only to be essentially dismissed a few episodes later. In this pair of episodes, a glorious beatdown is built up the entire time, until finally the parasite is extracted from Joseph’s head and JoJo is free to put a beating on Dan. 

Most writers would likely do just that, right away. It is indeed a satisfying choice. But Araki takes it even further, adding a few last rungs to the ladder of stakes he’s constructed. Steely Dan grovels, and JoJo lets him go – it looks as if we won’t get that beat down we so wanted, the very beat down all this has led up to. Suddenly, the stakes are increased. What we thought was an inevitable outcome may not occur. 

And then, complicating matters even further, Steely Dan takes a young girl nearby hostage. We don’t know this girl, but because she’s an unnamed character, the danger feels real. She could actually die. But then, in a twist of events I won’t get into, the hostage is freed – and then, and only then – do we get the beatdown we were waiting for.

After that, JoJo walks away, throwing his receipt back behind him, saying that Steely Dan’s debt is paid in full. 

Wow, so, this became more ramble than initially expected, but here is a basic summary –  stakes are all about anticipation. Thus, don’t simply make your stakes high. That will give you nowhere to go next. Also, make your stakes believable. There should be at least two possible outcomes that seem truly feasible. Also, a single set of stakes can only keep your audience invested for so long. Keep introducing new stakes every couple of minutes. And of course, make the outcome truly satisfying. 

Until next time, stay safe and stay healthy all. 

 

Thoughts on ensemble casts

Today I want to briefly talk about ensemble casts. The basic rule for ensembles is that the more cast members there are, the simpler they probably be, as the narrative space is far more limited. If one twenty minute episode has ten characters and another only has two, we should expect to know roughly five times as much about each of the characters in the first show, as their screen time is divided two ways, rather than ten. 

This is the first thing to remember when deciding the size of one’s cast. The more characters you have, the more likely it is you must distill them down to their essential essence. Likewise, the fewer characters you have, the more multidimensional they need to be, to carry different kinds of scenes. 

The biggest mistake I see with ensemble casts is redundant characters. I tried Criminal Minds, a show I initially quite enjoyed, but the issues quickly became apparent. There were many of the classic cop archetypes – the grizzled veteran, the loose cannon, the maverick, the calm and collected one, the rookie. The problem was that two characters, both Gideon and Spencer, were able to occupy multiple roles at once. 

This may sound like a strength of the show, as we’re conditioned to read complex characters as strong ones. And if the show focused only on these two characters alone, then their complexity would be a strength. But Spencer can play the role of voice of reason, the rookie, or even the wise elder figure, all at the same time. Gideon is the same way, swapping out the rookie role for grizzled veteran. 

The issue is, there are many other characters, this being an ensemble shoe. But because Spencer and Gideon can play any of their roles, they often overshadow the others. Furthermore, tension often arises when archetypes clash – when the rule follower and the maverick have an ideological struggle. But characters like Spencer can be brash when needed, yet calm and collected when the moment calls for it, reducing the opportunities for tension. 

Most critically, characters dictate what kind of scenarios you can write. If all of your characters are brazen, yet simultaneously careful, they won’t fall for an obvious trap. But sometimes you want your characters to fall for a trap. 

Sometimes you want things to go wrong. 

That’s why many ensemble shows have the goofy character for comic relief moments, the smart character for more strategic ones, and the brawler for when they want to have some action. 

I recently rewatched JoJo’s Bizarre adventure Part 3, which is functionally a Saturday morning cartoon for adults. But despite the surface level stupidity – literal fart jokes and such – the writing is actually very strong. The main cast has five members, each simple, but each very well defined. 

This is another issue I frequently see with character writing – that writers are so eager to achieve complexity that the character becomes distorted, falling out of focus. Knowing what the character wants on a basic level is the most important aspect. Good characters, especially in ensemble shows, are like wind up toys. Place them in a scene and they should almost act on their own. 

For instance, there is Polnareff, who is a bit of an idiot. This trait is critical because certain scene ideas would be impossible otherwise. For instance, one enemy has the ability to possess a doll. If any of the other characters saw a suspicious doll in their room, they would probably get rid of it. But by having the idiot character like Polnareff, suddenly this idea is possible. Idiot characters are often frowned upon, I feel, but they’re extremely important if a writer wants the widest range of options. 

But Araki, the writer of JoJo, also writes some scenarios that are more complicated, and require strategy and wit to get out of. This is why he has Kakyoin on board, the resident strategist. 

In short, Araki has only five or so main characters, but none are redundant. Each enables a different kind of scene to be written. Also, critically, he carefully considers their relationships to each other. 

In an enable cast, each character combination is almost like a new character. Want a character that is dumb enough enough to get into trouble, but clever enough to get out of it? Have two characters team up. 

With the group of five Araki has devised, he can basically mix and match to make over fifteen different character types. 

In this sense, simple characters are almost like half characters, that can be combined as needed. This approach is strongly encouraged, as having five simple characters that can be mixed and matched is far easier (and tenable) than ten fully fleshed out, complex characters. 

Furthermore, a whole group can be another sort of character. Araki will often have one of his main heroes out of commision, for one reason or another. This way the whole group dynamic shifts. 

As is the lesson with most of my rants, there is a real advantage to employing simplicity. But there is also a great deal of skill required. 

Creating five simple characters in a vacuum is easy enough, but making sure that their traits lineup in interesting ways (in any of ten possible pairings) is quite difficult. Out of five simple characters, one can engineer almost infinite scenarios, if they know what they’re doing. But one complex character, or even two, can be constraining.  

Remember, a character is a plot device. However interesting they may be, their utility comes out of what kind of plots they produce. The perfect character in one show, with one set of characters, may suffer elsewhere. And a simple character that’s boring in theory may create endless hours of entertainment with the eight supporting cast. 

 

 

More thoughts on villains

While there’s no way to empirically prove it, there seems to be an unspoken agreement that villains are the most fun and memorable parts of most stories, with the cool costumes and dramatic speeches, the total disregard for society. In TV we even see heroes replaced by anti-heros, as Walter Whites, Ricks, and Bojacks come to the forefront. Each of these characters could easily be the villain in someone else’s story, and in the recently released final season of BoJack Horseman, we get an episode where the titular horse does not even appear, but rather, stands as a specter over the story of others. 

When he’s not the focus, he undeniably the bad guy. 

Even looking back on the decade long legacy of the Avengers, we can see further evidence of the impact villains have. Marvel has (perhaps deliberate) kept pushing villains out of the spotlight, letting the heroes steal the show. But now, almost every Avengers memes I see are Thanos related – “how much did it cost,” “perfectly balanced, as all things should be,” and so on and so forth, 

Granted, memes do not reflect the full impact of a character on pop culture, but it is interesting to see how the legacy of over a dozen films – an entire franchise – can be overshadowed by a single villain with only two feature films. 

Freud would probably say that we enjoy villains because they let us live out are darkest fantasy, free from the constraints of society. And while there’s certainly truth to this psychological perspective, I believe that there’s also a strong narrative explanation for why villains are so relatable and intriguing. In terms of story structure, a villain is truly free. 

The protagonist of a story has certain inborn constraints – they must be likeable enough for an audience to tolerate them, nuanced enough to remain interesting, and above all else, they must have an arc. This means that for every win, there is a loss. 

Their character must go on a journey, either literal or figurative, with clear points of ascent and descent. 

This is because the story rests on the shoulders of the protagonist. 

But a villain does not need to have an arc, or even be likable or complex. In this sense, the villain is truly free. And that idea is what brings me to the main point of this piece, the show Narcos and its season three antagonists, the Cali Cartel, otherwise known as the gentlemen of Cali. 

The Cali cartel represents the apex predator, the invincible villain that is always a step ahead of the hero. 

They are smarter, more organized, and better positioned than everyone else. Relative to the other characters, they are – as the kids like to say – “totally OP.” 

Now, granted, the villains are beaten, but only because of bad luck (as the show literally explains to use with a voice over). This is an important fact because it means that they need no Achilles Heel, no discernable weakness. Thus we get scenes like those featuring Don Chepe, one of the four Cali bosses – he guns down a group of gangsters in a hair salon, as he rides around in a swivel chair delivering badass one liners. We don’t really need this scene. There is not much plot. But it was all rather badass. 

Another one of the mob bosses, Pacho, has a scene where he dances erotically with his boyfriend, for a solid minute, before strapping a man to the end of his motorcycle and pulling his legs off. Or there is another scene where he walks into a church, as a fire comprised of his enemies blazes behind him. 

Most of these villain scenes carry little narrative weight, but the villain is so powerful, they’re basically detached from the plot. They rarely contend directly with the good guys. And their downfall all takes place over the course of a single minute montage. It’s less of a character arc than a series of badass feats, and then, defeat. 

Perhaps this is why we idolize villains? From a narrative perspective, the scenes with the Cali bosses amount to a series of violent interludes – cool ideas the writers wanted to try out. 

Meanwhile, most of the major conflicts and plot developments take place between the protagonist and corrupt politicians, nameless underlines, and between themselves . Take out 90% of the scenes featuring the main mob bosses, and there’s still a story. Take away the protagonists’ scenes, and there’s simply a slideshow of cool images. 

The more powerful a villain – the more untouchable they are – the more they exist outside the main plot. And the more they do that, the more they can become a repository for cool ideas. A villain scene is often open ended, limitless in its creative potential. 

And this is why, in part, the villains are so remarkably cool, so memorable. 

They give the writer the chance to write without constraint, to really let loose. 

To live above the laws of narrative.