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Monday, January 27, 2014

Learning from Every Genre

As a writer, it's important to read and watch fiction in addition to writing it. I have two new fiction goals I'm working on.
  1. Read and watch more fiction outside my usual genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and YA
  2. Read and watch more foreign fiction
The reason it’s good to branch out is because different genres and different cultures have different ways of storytelling, and if you apply the right techniques to the story you’re writing, it can make it fresh.

Mistborn for example, came about when the author, Brandon Sanderson, decided he wanted to combine the heist story with high fantasy. He is a straight-up fantasy writer, but the heist narratives inspired him. The outcome is that Mistborn is a fresh story in that genre section.

Last summer my brother and I put in some Dragon Ball Z movies and episodes. I was totally in it for nostalgia. My brothers and I and my friends all grew up on this show. I remember playing pretend Dragon Ball Z with some of my closest pals. So I thought it would be fun to revisit.

One night when we were watching, this amazing, beautiful dialogue exchange happened between two of the characters, a conversation that revealed the complexity of the characters and the complexity of their relationships. It astounded me so much that I was still thinking about it as the "camera" panned the scenery, each character, close ups on their faces, then close ups on their hands, then over the scenery again (this show is notorious for dragged-out pacing). I was still floored. I thought, Wow. I want to create a story that has those same complex relationships!

The truth is, you can learn something from just about anything, even an animated Japanese show made in the 90's.

I admit, what I did not expect was to fall in love with the series all over again! I basically rewatched the entire thing! (And it took like 6 months.) And you know what? I learned a ton! I mean, a ton! My 10-year-old self had no idea that the writer of this series was such a master at ramping up tension in a story. But my 24-year-old self sure does!

Last year I dissected Les Miserables, well, now I'm dissecting Dragon Ball Z, something on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. I've written a whole series of posts called "Writing Lessons from Dragon Ball Z" that I will be putting up in February. They are killer plotting techniques that can ramp up the tension, suspense, and intrigue of any story.

I realize there is a ridiculous stigma about doing this. And some of you right now are raising an eyebrow and tilting your head. You might even be embarrassed for me. Try not to be afraid of it. Some will stick their noses in the air because it's a "cartoon." If you are one of those people, please, feel free to avoid reading those posts, but you will be missing out on some really crazy techniques I learned! And you might be limiting yourself.

For a while, I might try doing two posts a week--one Dragon Ball Z and one not, for the people who aren't interested.

But whether or not you follow them, I hope you will be more open to other genres.

For those interested, below, you can find my notes on that piece of dialogue I dissected. Otherwise, this is the end of my post and you can stop reading.

My Personal Dissection of Dialogue 

The set up is this. Cell is the villain, and he's going to destroy the whole world, so all of the main characters are trying to stop him, but they are only allowed to fight him one-on-one. Cell is more powerful than all of them. But there is one good guy who might be able to defeat him: Gohan, an eleven-year-old boy. (By comparison all of the other good guys are experienced adults.) Goku, Gohan's father, believes Gohan has more potential and power than any of the good guys, including himself, so, he trains Gohan like crazy and then sends him off to fight Cell.

But Gohan is getting wasted, beaten, and bloodied in the fight. All of Goku's friends are yelling at Goku, telling him to get Gohan out of there, and how could you put your own eleven-year-old son in there? But Goku won't listen. He believes full-heartedly that Gohan's true power will only show itself when Gohan has been pushed to the limit. So Goku let's Cell take his shots on his son.

Piccolo, one of the good guys whose yelling at Goku, has a soft spot for Gohan. In fact, Piccolo is a tough guy, and his relationship with Gohan is his only soft spot. You see, at the very starting of the series, Goku gets killed (long story, but he was brought back to life under special circumstances,) and Piccolo spends some time raising Gohan himself. He really cares about the kid. He says this to Goku:

Piccolo: No, I can't take it. Goku, you can keep standing there all you want, but I'm helping Gohan. 

Goku: No, you're not! You and I both know you aren't strong enough to fight Cell. So wait, just a little bit longer.

Piccolo: For what? For Gohan to get killed? For Cell to rip him to pieces while we watch?

Goku: Wait until he has no choice, and then, when Gohan is backed into the corner with no way out, he'll awaken his furious strength....

Piccolo: Enough of this game, Goku. You're wrong about your son. Gohan may have that power, but it doesn't matter. He doesn't thirst for battle and mayhem! He's not a fighter like you! Do you want to know what he is thinking? He's not thinking about strength or competition. He's wondering why his father is standing there, letting him die! And so your son may be the most powerful person in the world, but he's also a scared 11-year-old little boy.

And here is why it's so beautiful. It encapsulates everything going on with these three characters and their relationships!

First, Gohan is fighting Cell because Goku put the pressure on him (Gohan, you're the only one who can save the world!), not because he wants to. Goku projected himself onto his son; he assumed his son would be up for the challenge because he himself would have been. Goku wakes up to the horror of what he has just done. And now he doubts that Gohan will come out of this alive, and as the viewers, we doubt too, so the context of the fight shifts and the tension rises.

Second, Piccolo knows Gohan better than his own father does. This adds to Goku's horror. As Gohan's father, Goku should know his son better than anyone, should have responsibility over him, nurture and protect him, and he's made an awful mistake. He might watch his own son die any moment. And Gohan, the son every father wished they had, had trusted Goku's judgement.

So just these lines of dialogue shift the whole context of the story. As viewers, we trusted Goku too--he's the protagonist. So we're faced with multiple horrors at once, which kicks up the tension and simultaneously reveals character.

Now that is a crafty piece of dialogue.

The other writing tips will be different than this--they're mostly plotting techniques that can enhance your story.

Tune in next time.

1 comment:

  1. one of my favourite story arcs - when he eventually transforms into super saiyan two with tears in his eyes with the resolve of a tidal wave - powerful and beautiful


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