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Monday, February 17, 2014

Writing Lessons from DBZ: Little Fish, Big Fish, and Inverse Reversals

Last post I started dissecting Dragon Ball Z and noting some plotting techniques you can use to ramp up your own story. I'm picking up today with another technique the show uses extremely well that, like the other two I mentioned, I hardly ever see used in elsewhere. Also like the other two techniques, it can really kick the tension in your story up several notches. Then I'm going to show how Dragon Ball Z flips one of the most common plotting tools used in Hollywood--The Reversal--on its head for fantastic effect.

Little Fish, Big Fish

Imagine you've been following Harry Potter and Voldemort's conflicts all the way from the first book to the seventh book. Harry and Voldemort are finally battling it out face-to-face. It's a legit battle, think of the movie version. Then suddenly, someone stronger, even more evil appears and defeats Voldemort, and we find out the seventh book isn't the last book.

At first, readers would be shocked. We've been working up to this. Voldemort was supposed to be it. But this new guy, we've never even heard of, took care of him as easily as swatting a fly.

And now, our heroes have a whole new, even more powerful antagonist to deal with, who has even eviller plans than Voldemort had.

It's a great twist.

But I could see how it could flop depending on delivery and how you handle the aftermath. Dragon Ball Z never flops it.

Often, we think we've meet the most powerful villain ever, only to find out there is another one far more powerful than him--an even bigger fish that can eat the villain up. And it's more shocking when he actually does eat him.

Sometimes the new arrival isn't evil. When we first meet the character Trunks, he shows up and defeats Frieza and King Cold like he's slicing warm butter. This happens after we've spent probably over a dozen episodes of Goku struggling to defeat Frieza alone and a whole season (if not more) where Frieza is the main antagonist. Then Trunks shows up and takes care of basically two Voldemorts. That's why so many fans find Trunks's debut awesome.

This only works for Trunks as a good guy because immediately after, he tells the other heroes about two new villains that are even more powerful than Frieza, King Cold, and him. Imagine if he showed up and defeated Frieza and King Cold and that was the end of the series. It wouldn't work. It would be unfulfilling. We just watched Goku and the others struggle so long and then a new character we've never met shows up and takes care of Frieza. That would be a flop.

But this technique, carried out with care, packs a stellar punch, ramping up suspense, shock, mystery, and tension.

Inverted Reversal

One of the most common plotting tools used in Hollywood is called a "Reversal." I took a quick look online and from what I can tell, people have different definitions and interpretations for what a reversal is, but here is the one I learned:

Hero looks like he's going to win --> Something happens and it looks as if the hero has no way of winning and that everything is lost --> Suddenly, despite odds, the hero, at the last moment, figures out how to defeat the antagonist and win the fight.

Some examples where this happens (there are hundreds) are Wreck-it-Ralph, Toy Story 3, Shrek, The Hunger Games and so on. So, in The Hunger Games, Cato is finally dead, and Peeta and Katniss think they are the victors. Then the rules change and they have to kill each other--it looks as if there is no way out. Then, Katniss gets the idea to use nightlock berries to outsmart the Gamemaker. That's a reversal.

Dragon Ball Z puts a fresh spin on this. It looks more like this:

Hero does defeat the villain (at least that's what it looks like from every angle) --> Some denouement down time, a bit of falling action and relief--> the villain returns, and the stakes are raised tenfold.

In other words, the average reversal goes like this.

Big Loss --> Big Win

The inverse reversal looks like this:

Big Win --> Big Loss

Dragon Ball Z isn't the only show that uses this inverse reversal. I've seen movies use it too. But what's crazy about Dragon Ball Z's version is that you really believe they've won, that the fight is over. The plot, the climax, has already exceeded your expectations--the end is already more than satisfying. The writer could end it there, and the audience would still get closure.

Whereas, when I see this done in other movies, a lot of the time, I find myself already predicting, "The villain's not dead yet. That's too easy." Also, when this is done in movies, the villain's second wind is often half-hearted, an unthreatening second attempt to defeat the hero. In Dragon Ball Z the "second attempt" might be just as powerful, or more powerful than the first showdown.

So, as the audience, we're worried. Remember, the first showdown already exceeded our expectations and exhausted our hero's abilities. If Goku couldn't defeat the villain then, when he used everything he had--how in the world is he supposed to do it now?

This technique totally raises the bar for the plot, but if you can meet that bar, you can exceed your readers' expectations even further, surprise them, and craft a denouement that feels even more satisfying than the reader could have ever imagined.

Next time, I'm going to talk about how Akira Toriyama, the writer, set up our expectations and then knew how to exceed them.


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