In recently watching Blood-C Episode 11, and reading some viewer reaction to it, a certain fact became abundantly clear to me. That fact is that “Anime creators and writers have not adapted their storytelling approach for the TV Tropes era”. This is something I’ve suspected for awhile now, but Blood-C’s latest episode turned my suspicion into knowledge. So this blog entry is dedicated to exploring how to do effective plot twists in the TV Tropes era.
Now, before I continue, let it be said that this blog entry will include some spoilers. Most of these will only be implicit spoilers, however.
To begin my exploration of modern anime plot twists, and how to make them more effective, let’s begin by looking at Blood-C.
Initially, I felt that the massive world-inverting plot twist of Blood-C Episode 11 was well-executed. It was timely, and for me, it was powerful. It did make me feel significantly deeper empathy for Saya. However, I can see now why it didn’t have the full impact that CLAMP likely expected it would.
Simply put, your more passionate anime fans are increasingly genre savvy. Most have at least some familiarity with the writings on TV Tropes. So straightforward “pulling back the Wizard of OZ’s curtain” world-changing plot reveals are not necessarily going to be as effective as they once were. While some liked Blood-C Episode 11, many did in fact react to it with derisive laughter, saying that Blood-C now works best as “unintentional comedy”.
So how then do you do effective plot twists in the TV Tropes era? How do you manage to pull the wool over the eyes of genre savvy viewers, and give them the surprise that you hope to give them? I don’t think that every good story needs loads of plot twists, but by the same token, there’s little I appreciate more than a dramatic, well-executed, and well-thought out plot twist. This is because an entirely predictable storyline eventually starts to bore me, frankly. This is less of a problem with a shorter storyline, or one where plot is relatively unimportant, and so the creators of an one cour slice of life anime need not concern themselves at all with what I’m writing here. But for those writing plot-heavy and/or lengthy anime narratives, here are six tips on how to really surprise your audience, and make them appreciate it:
1. Subvert the tropes that are almost always played straight, and play straight the tropes that are almost always subverted.
Simply subverting every anime trope you make use of won’t shock anybody, because viewers will eventually come to assume that every trope you use will be subverted. There’s also the fact that some tropes are now more commonly seen in subverted format than played straight.
Here’s a line that I’d like readers to remember as a quote, because I think it says a lot about what plays into the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of tropes: Yesterday’s cliche is often tomorrow’s novelty, and today’s novelty may become tomorrow’s cliche.
Simply put, there comes a point when the subversion of a trope is more commonplace and cliche than playing a trope straight. At that point, subverting a trope may have the exact opposite impact of what you might hope it will.
I would argue that part of the reason why Tiger and Bunny did so well is because it played most superhero archetype tropes straight. I remember how, at the very beginning of Tiger and Bunny, a few people thought that Sky High would end up being a major villain. Nope, turns out that the “King of Heroes” really was the straight-laced, clean-cut, Boy Scout-esque guy that he had initially came across as. It was “superheroes played straight” elements like this that gave Tiger and Bunny so much of its charm, including a welcomed touch of nostalgia for people like myself who grew up on superhero comics.
But then, if a trope is consistently played straight to this day, then subverting it can make for a welcomed change. I recall an episode of Kamisama Dolls that made me think we were in for your standard issue beach episode, but thankfully the episode turned out entirely differently from that.
So if the goal is to surprise the audience and/or to make them appreciate how your story isn’t being overly conventional, then the key is not to simply subvert everything, but to play straight that which is almost always subverted, and subvert that which is almost always played straight. Still, this advice itself is pretty broad, so let me continue by breaking it down further.
2. Have “Death Flags” that go absolutely nowhere.
It honestly annoys me how often “death flags” lead into character death. For me, it takes away some of the impact of a death scene by making it more predictable than it otherwise would be. Also, I’d really have to stand up and take notice if an anime show was to have a character surrounded on all sides by death flags yet still survive through the entire narrative.
So why not do just that, anime writers of the world? There’s no rule saying that it can’t be done. Take a major secondary character, surround him or her with death flags, and then have him or her survive through the entire story anyway. For added impact, take a different major secondary character, carefully place no death flags around him or her at all, and have that character killed off just when viewers were expecting the death flagged character to die. I can pretty much guarantee you that this would absolutely floor the online anime community, whom are entirely accustomed to death flags leading to death.
You see, being genre savvy doesn’t mean that viewers are expectation-free, it just means that their expectations have changed. The new expectations can be played around with just as assuredly as the expectations of the less genre savvy viewer can be played around with. False Death Flag operations are just one way to play around with them though. Another way is…
3. Insert Red Herrings.
“There are no coincidences in fiction”. Many anime fans sincerely believe this. Sadly, anime writers typically play right into this belief by having there be no coincidences in their works. But again, there’s no rule saying that you can’t have red herrings in your narrative. In fact, some classic Detective novels will often throw in some red herrings just to throw off the reader, making it so that the answer to the “Whodunnit?” question is a bit more surprising than it otherwise would be. But then, writing a good Detective mystery is tricky in and of itself, so I’ll give an example of a simple sort of red herring that any writer could use.
Have two characters with the same family name, and don’t explicitly confirm or deny the nature of the relation between them. Readers/viewers will naturally assume that the two characters are related (I myself have done this in the past). Let the idea that they are related build up, and then at an opportune moment, make it known that they are not related to one another at all. That will surprise some people. But what would probably be most surprising is the following…
4. Be aware of your reputation, and go against it.
Gen Urobuchi and Mari Okada are two prominent and well-known anime original writers. Both of them have well-established reputations by now. They have their own fanbases, as well as people who aren’t fond of them but follow them. Their writing styles, and tendencies towards certain types of characterization and narratives, are well-known.
Gen is known for writing very dark and twisted works. Okada is known for romance trolling, and emasculating male characters (specifically, putting them in drag).
Gen writing another Madoka Magica would surprise nobody. Likewise, Okada writing a romantic comedy with romance trolls and cross-dressing male characters would surprise nobody.
Indeed, some viewers would go “ho hum” over both.
So what would surprise people?
Gen writing a story that starts dark and is mostly dark, but ends with an overwhelmingly happy ending to rival that of Mai HiME.
Okada writing a story every bit as GAR as Gurren Lagann, with hot-blooded very masculine males entering into straightforward romances with no trolls at all.
In fairness, a writer going against his or her personal inclinations and style is no easy matter, and may be almost impossible for some. But if it can be done, it’s probably worth doing at least once.
5. Use Foreshadowing sparingly
This fifth tip admittedly goes against the grain. Foreshadowing is generally a highly regarded literary device, seen as a way of adding cohesion to a story, and making it easier for readers or viewers to follow. And indeed, it does work that way. But if your goal is to have a plot twist that surprises people, you can’t foreshadow it. At all, really.
Modern anime fans are simply too genre savvy. Insanely genre savvy in some cases. The slightest hint gives everything away. In Kamisama no Memouchou, there was a four-part arc that resolved itself with a character reveal that would typically be mind-blowing. But due to rather light foreshadowing beforehand (just a couple innocuous hints, really) loads of people had guessed at it already.
The reveal of who a major character’s father was in Steins;Gate is another case like this.
So here’s the key for the modern plot twist: It must make sense retroactively (i.e. the plot twist shouldn’t create plot holes) , but it need not be foreshadowed whatsoever.
Now, foreshadowing should still be used, for plot elements that aren’t intended to be surprising or mind-blowing. Narrative cohesion can be gained that way. But for the major plot twists, cards should be played close to the vest, and a poker face strictly maintained.
It’s worth noting that one of the best anime plot twists of all-time was executed precisely this way. It was in the anime that showcased these three characters.
The finale plot twist of Magic Knight Rayearth is so powerful, so emotionally impacting, precisely because it was never really hinted at much at all. At the same time, the plot twist in question created no plot holes. CLAMP’s exquisitely executed plot twist here may be part of the reason why their Blood-C efforts seem unimpressive by comparison.
The ending of Magic Knight Rayearth is more instructive than ever before on how to do a good major plot twist. Even in the TV Tropes era, I think it would have held up quite nicely. But back in the 90s, it must have been utterly shocking to just about anybody watching it live.
Magic Knight Rayearth also shows the value of major plot twists. It’s an anime that I’d remember far less prominently if not for it.
Ah, but for those of who have never watched MKR, its plot twist has already been spoiled to a degree by me. I’d apologize for that, but I did give you fair spoiler warning. 😉
You see, merely reading about how an anime has a shocking end, or a controversial end, is enough to take away from its impact for new viewers. With that in mind, I give my final tip…
6. If you have a plot twist planned, don’t hint at it pre-airing in extra-canon material.
In other words, don’t leak important episode details to magazines, and don’t give interviews where you basically give it all away. Stay totally mum about it all. In the internet age, the slightest hint will lead to rampant fan speculation that can only undermine your efforts to awe or surprise.
So there are my six tips for making modern plot twists.
However, does every story need plot twists? Of course not.
But some should, and some clearly aim for that (as Blood-C did).
The next time an anime aims to have an impressive plot that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, I hope that at least some of my six tips (or something to the same effect) will be kept in mind and utilized.
What do my fellow anime fans and blog readership think of these six tips, though?
That’s what I’d like to know in any replies to this blog.