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Monday, March 17, 2014

Writing Lessons from DBZ: Skyscraping the Cost of Victory and Fish out of Water

Skyscraping the Cost of Victory

One way to raise tension in your story is to raise the stakes--you heighten what's at risk. But what if you raised the cost of your character's victory so high that to win means to lose at the purpose of his goal? Okay, I know that sounds confusing, so, let's get to the example.

In the Buu saga, the whole point of defeating the super villain Buu is to save the world and everyone on it. But what if the only way to defeat Buu is to destroy the world and everyone on it? The cost of winning is much greater now (and so is the story's tension). The very reason to destroy Buu might be the only way to destroy him. Look at that plotting technique--isn't it crazy?!

This concept is brought up when Gotenks is trying to put an end to Buu and almost obliterates Earth in the process. Piccolo tells him to watch his power output so he doesn't blow up the planet, and then Gotenks asks, "Well, which is it? Do you want me to kill Buu or not?"

I've never seen this technique used in another story, at least not to this extreme.

So what is your character's goal? What is she trying to succeed at? Can you give her goals that contradict? Can you "skyscrape" the cost of her success?

Does she have to sacrifice the very thing she's trying to protect to defeat her antagonist? And if so, how does she cope with that?

Fish out of Water

This technique isn't new, but I had to bring it up because of just how well Dragon Ball Z handles it.

The idea is to create your character with his strengths and weaknesses and then plop him into a situation way out of his element. This can create comedy or (you guessed it) ramp up tension.

Vegeta's defining characteristic is pride. He's a prince, a fighter, and he views himself as a superior person. Vegeta's view of himself is what's most important to him. He wouldn't tell us that, but it's true.

So what does the writer do? Put him in situations where his self-respect is at stake, where Vegeta has to choose between his pride and saving himself, his pride and saving the world. And there are instances where he picks his pride and instances where he sacrifices it. So sometimes, we're not sure what's he'll do (and that adds more tension).

It's hard to adequately explain Vegeta's pride if you haven't seen the series. He's not a prideful idiot. He's a prideful genius. Pride and honor is what he lives for. At times it's more important than his own life and the life of his family. Imagine that for a second.

Then the writer makes Vegeta face humiliating situations. Here's just a handful of examples. As the series progresses, they go from bad to worse.

-A low-class saiyan, Goku, whose an idiot and supposed to have a low power level and is everything Vegeta despises, becomes more powerful than Vegeta. (creates tension)

-Then, Vegeta has to team-up and work together with Goku. (creates tension)

-With nothing but the clothes on his back, Vegeta has to live under the mercy of Bulma (though he'd never admit he was at her mercy), and therefore gets stuck wearing hideous clothing like this. (comedy)

-Vegeta's own son becomes more powerful than him. (creates tension)

-Goku's 11-year-old son becomes more powerful than Vegeta. (creates tension)

-Vegeta has to sacrifice himself to save the world from Fat Buu--the most embarrassing villain to lose to, because Buu is a pink tub of lard that acts like a little kid obsessed with candy, and, he's stupid. He's not even smart or sophisticated like the other super-villains Frieza and Cell. And this, this is the creature the Prince of all Saiyan has to succumb to?

I mean, look at him. If loosing to that guy out of all villains doesn't hurt your pride, nothing will.

-Later in the series, the technique of fusion--two people joining to become one super-powerful being--is introduced. In order to have a fighting chance against a villain, Goku, that idiotic embarrassment of a Saiyan, needs to fuse with someone, and gets stuck with Vegeta. Vegeta is so prideful, he would never want to fuse with anyone in a million years, but the worst person to fuse with would be Goku. Their rivalry goes back years.

-On another occasion when Goku and Vegeta need to fuse, they have to do this ridiculous dance that's "like a cross between traditional fighting stance and water ballet". Vegeta of course resists ("You're insane! I'm not posing like that! We're warriors. Not ballerinas!"). It's another stab to the heart of his identity.

-But perhaps the most painfully humiliating moment is when Vegeta has to dance and sing to calm down the God of Destruction, Bills, so he doesn't destroy Earth. Let me tell you, as a viewer you want to laugh and look away from your t.v. screen at the same time because you vicariously feel Vegeta's humiliation so powerfully; it's like your own dignity is shattering while you watch.

If you need more comedy or tension, try using the plotting tool in your story.

By the way, there's only one more post left of Writing Lessons from Dragon Ball Z! 


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