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Monday, February 24, 2014

Writing Lessons from DBZ: Exceeding Expectations and Audience Appeal

Exceeding Expectations

At the beginning of your story, and even throughout, you're making promises to the reader on a subconscious level. You're setting up the reader's expectations of what kind of story this will be and what's going to happen. Chekhov gave this example: if you have a scene with a gun in it, you're setting up the expectation that it's going to go off by the end of the story. When it does in the last scene, you've delivered on your promise. When we don't keep our promises, the readers are disappointed. When we meet expectations, they're satisfied.

But there's a third option. You exceed the expectations you've set up. And nothing is more fulfilling than that.

Dragon Ball Z not only delivers on its promises, it exceeds them.

Let's see this in action. In the Android Saga, we meet Trunks, a 17-year-old from the future who has come back in time to warn Goku, the protagonist, that soon two androids will appear and kill all of the heroes and wreck havoc on the whole planet.

Promise to the audience: two androids are coming to take over the world.

 In Trunks's time, most of humanity has already been wiped out. and all of the survivors have to live underground to survive.

So, future Trunks leaves, and the heroes train and prepare for these two super-strong androids, 17 and 18. Years go by and eventually two androids show up. And the heroes are faring well against them. They soon find out, however, there aren't just two androids, there are six! As an audience, we're just as shocked as the heroes--we were only expecting two. So It exceeds our expectations.

Throughout the series, Dragon Ball Z sets up expectations and exceeds them, either going beyond what is promised, like the Android example, or fulfilling that promise in a surprising way.

In an earlier saga, when heroes Goku, Gohan, and Krillin are pitted against villain Frieza, there is some foreshadowing about someone becoming a "Super Saiyan," a Saiyan with enhanced powers.

Promise: by the end of this saga, a Saiyan, is going to become a Super Saiyan.

 Frieza and Vegeta are under the impression that to become a Super Saiyan, a Saiyan has to transform into a giant, powerful Ape-like creature. Sort of like how a werewolf goes from human to wolf. None of the character have actually seen a Super Saiyan; they're only told about in legends.

So we're expecting something like this:

However, when Goku finally transforms into a Super Saiyan, we get this:


Physically, all Goku gets is blond hair, blue eyes, and a whole lot of power.

It's not what viewers expected, yet the story still delivered on its promise, in a surprising way.

If you deviate from a promise, it's tricky to pull off for the audience. A problem that arises is that you might not meet their expectations. So, if you do deviate from your promise, like Goku as a Super Saiyan did, you have to find a way to make the deviation just as fulfilling as what the audience expected. Otherwise they'll feel cheated after all that build up.

Even though Goku's Super Saiyan form wasn't what we expected, once he starts fighting Frieza, it doesn't take long for viewers to realize his Super Saiyan form is even better than we could have imagined.

Formulas with Variety and Appealing to Your Audience

If you want to get formulaic with me, you could say, "Hey, all these Dragon Ball Z Sagas follow the same story structure." You'd be right if you stripped the series to its bare bones. It would look something like this.

Bad Guy Appears
Protagonists fight bad guy. Protagonist may or may not be stronger than the bad guy.
Badder Bad Guy Appears
Protagonists can't beat bad guy
Protagonists have to train like crazy to get stronger.
Protagonists beat bad guy

(Repeat three times and you have the whole t.v. show down.)

Dragon Ball Z appeals to an audience that loves stories where things battle and level up. Usually that's a preteen boy audience, though I'm not sure if that's what DBZ was actually targeting initially. Look at Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh, and Beyblades, and you'll get what I'm talking about.  Battles and leveling up. With their story formula, the creators of Dragon Ball Z were capable of keeping these fundamentals throughout the series. As the villains become stronger, the protagonists must too, leveling up, literally as they transform or "evolve" (if you're into pokemon terms).

(Also, on a side note, let's not forget some of the awesome wish-fulfillment items in the Dragon Ball Z universe that any kid one would want: Dragon Balls that grant you one wish, senzu beans that heal people instantly, anything you want stored in a tiny capsule, time machines, space ships, a gravity chamber room, the power of flight, etc.)

But here's what Dragon Ball Z did right. They may have a bare-bone story formula, one that appeals to its target audience, but it has loads of variations to keep it fresh. And it still has quality. As writers and fans, we often get uncomfortable with the term "story formula," but really, a story formula is another word for a story structure. Unless you are writing literary fiction, you're following this "formula" with all your stories.

Story "formulas" are only a problem if they are too stiff, and the writer adheres to them like scripture.

Alright, back to Dragon Ball Z. With their formula, they're able to continue appealing to their audience while still keeping it fresh with variations. Despite having the same story structure, each saga is insanely different.

Frieza Saga includes:
Armies of villains
Frieza, the villain as a conqueror of planets
A story line heavily focused on strategy and outsmarting others
Takes place on a completely different planet
The heroes are stuck between two evil forces
First super saiyan transformation

Cell Saga:
Villains that can absorb the heroes' energy and never run out of energy
Cell, the villain, has no army and is a composite of every hero and villain in the series, and his goal is to reach his perfect form
There's a time travel story line
Cell holds a martial arts tournament with the heroes
Takes place on Earth
Gohan, not Goku, defeats the main antagonist Cell
Leveling up to a form beyond super saiyan

Buu Saga:
has Mind control
A villain who is more like an animal than a person in behavior. He eats people and takes on their characteristics. He's illogical because he's lacking the smarts. He's more like fighting a rampaging shark than like fighting Voldemort.
Level up through fusion
Earth and everyone on it is destroyed
So the battle extends into the universe and even heaven and hell.
Unlike all the other villains and heroes, Buu's strongest form is his pure, original form.

See how, although they all have the same story structure (so they can appeal to their audience), they are so different their audience doesn't get bored and the story line doesn't get stilted? It's amazing!

So as a writer, it might be worth your time to look at what fundamentals are appealing to your audience, keep those fundamentals, but give them plenty of variations.

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