Saturday, October 2, 2021

Why keeping your promises in writing is important.

 These days there's a lot of buzz about subverting expectations in media, whether it be movies, books, video games, comics, etc.  People want stories that take age old tropes and turn them upside down.  Or, at least, they're told that they want it by people who keep trying to make it happen, and keep failing miserably at it.  There's a time and a place.  Doing something shocking to shake things up can work in fiction, and it can be a powerful storytelling tool when it's used correctly.  UNFORTUNATELY, it rarely is in modern media.  And as I was thinking about this current trend of creators seemingly trying to one up each other on who can come up with the most epic subversion of the audience's expectations, I got to thinking about the negative side of that.  Sure.  Something unexpected happened in the story.  But when it wasn't set up in anyway beforehand, it more often than not comes of as the writer lying to me and breaking promises that they made earlier in the story in order to upset the status quo.  And that got me to thinking about stories that make promises that they either can't keep, or that they never had any intention of keeping, and why it's important to keep your promises as someone telling the story.

So.  I started thinking back on all of the media I've consumed throughout my life for examples of promises not kept.  And I found the perfect example to illustrate my point in an Anime series called Berserk.  No, I'm not talking about that crapfest from 2016.  That one's bad for completely different reasons, namely that it's made by a moron who has no earthly clue how to properly block a scene or tell a story in a visual medium, and it looks cheaper than the first season of RWBY as well as being ugly as sin to look at.  No.  The Berserk series I'm talking about is the one from 1997.  I hate this series.  I HATE this series.  HATE.  I absolutely despise it.  And it's not because it's a bad series or anything, but because it breaks promises that it makes in the first episode in a spectacular way.

The series begins with a grizzled old mercenary with a comically large sword walking into a bar and freaking cutting some guy in half for annoying him.  It's brutal.  It's bloody.  It's dark and edgy without being so to a cliche degree.  In short it was EVERYTHING I was looking for in an anime series back in 1997.  We see this walking force of destruction then hunt down and slaughter a demon while searching for someone he means to avenge himself upon.  It is glorious.  It's an amazing setup for a story.  I was super hyped up for the next episode.  Where would this death metal sentient bloodsplatter go next in his quest for vengeance?  What new and interesting monsters would he face as he hunted down the man he wanted to kill?

Well, screw you~~~!!!  The show never had any intention of telling that story.  It is actively lying to you, the viewer, with this first episode.

So.  Next episode, we see the same man, visibly younger, and with all of the pieces he was missing in the first episode still attached.  Oh.  Okay.  We'll have a short flashback to show who betrayed him and why he wants him dead so badly.

Five episodes later, I was starting to get annoyed, thinking, man, this is a really long flashback, can we get back to the present day now please?

Five more episodes later, I was like.  Crap.  This is the entire series, isn't it?

And it was.  24 of the 25 episodes of this entire series are spent on this flashback.

At the time, I was not familiar with the source manga series that the series was adapted from.  I didn't know anything about it.  All I knew was that I really liked that first episode and I wanted more of that.  I have since found and read the entire manga series (R.I.P. Kentaro Miura, may the afterlife somewhat resemble the Idolmaster games you enjoyed to the point of never finishing your epic series within your lifetime).  The Golden Age Arc, as this flashback is called, is relatively short.  Especially when you compare it to some of the other arcs in the series which span across multiple volumes.  I'd say that there was probably enough material  to fill up maybe 6-7 anime episodes.  Which means, 6-7 episodes of content were stretched to fill up a 24 episode quota.  This leads to some pretty severe pacing problems, and long, loooooooooooong stretches of episodes where nothing interesting is happening.  And all of this while the broken promises of the first episode are hanging over it.  This same story arc was remade into a trilogy of movies almost 15 years later, and though the runtime is shorter, it still suffers from the same pacing issues of a one movie story being stretched into three movies.  Plus the cgi used for some scenes in the movies is absolutely terrible.

The first episode of this series makes promises.  It presents itself as one thing, and then does something completely different.  The show lies to you, and goes off in a completely different direction than the one that it promised in the beginning.

Had I not seen this first episode, I probably would have loved this series.  It's a pretty decent story about a mercenary joining a company, and working his way up through its ranks until being horribly betrayed by the man at its head.  A man he thought was his friend.  But the longer the story dragged on without returning to that original hook in the first episode that so captivated me, the more annoyed and angry I got with it.  It's really irritating for a story to start out as one thing, then flip you the bird and do something completely different after page one.  The story can be objectively good, but I'm still going to hate it because it's not the story I was promised.  The show lied to me, and I'm always going to hold that against it.

I look at a lot of the books, games, movies, and TV I've seen/played recently, and I'm seeing broken promises more and more.  Storytellers are relying on broken promises more and more often these days to subvert expectations and bring shock value to their work.  Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, probably THE piece of media I was most looking forward to last year breaks basically every single promise made by the first book, and a fair few that it makes within itself.  Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that the book was absolutely terribly written, but a lot of it was the author giving the literary equivalent of a double bird to her readers in order to subvert their expectations.  The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons is a particularly egregious example.  It throws out the first book entirely, and tells a completely unconnected story about a character than was in MAYBE 10 pages of the first book if I'm being generous.  The Last of Us 2, gawd don't even get me started.  The Last Jedi and the Rise of Skywalker, both movies break promises made by the first movie, and they both seem to be in a competition with each other to see which one can make the audience hate them more because of it.  

Game of Thrones.  

Ah, poor Game of Thrones.  

The thing that's really interesting in Game of Thrones is that George R. R. Martin subverts all kinds of expectation, but he does it in a way that both makes sense within the context of the story and the characters as they have been presented thus far, but that also keeps the promises that it makes.  It's masterfully done.  If only he'd masterfully get off his ass, and write the freaking ending already!  Seriously, it's been over 10 years since the last book came out!  That goes completely out the window after about season 5 of the show though, after they ran out of source material to make into the series.  Everything after season 5 is basically glorified fan fiction, and you can really, really see the difference in the way the subversions are handled, and how the writers of the show, without the framework they'd been building upon up to that point, start breaking promises that the story has made.  The broken promises start piling up as they break bigger and more important promises, until the story and the characters are so fundamentally broken that they just can't be saved no matter what they do to try to course correct back.

Anyway, I guess the point of all this rambling and complaining is that stories need integrity.  They need to remain true to themselves.  When they break promises made to the consumer, it isn't interesting or investing.  It's annoying and angering.  When expectations are subverted just so an author can yell, LOOK WHAT I DID, AREN'T I CLEVER" (I'm looking at YOU Rian Johnson!!!) without any setup or payoff other than momentary shock value, it destroys the integrity of the story and the characters, and it makes people who have been enjoying the story angry and annoyed.  I don't know about you, but when someone lies to me, or makes a promise to me and then breaks it, I don't immediately praise them for their bold choice in selective truth telling.  I tell them they're an asshole.  I have been wronged and I want an apology.  Fiction is no different.  When a story promises you one thing and then gives you something completely different then expects you to praise it for breaking its promises, it's not a bold, inventive, or revolutionary choice in storytelling.  It's an author lying to get a few exclamation point emojis out of the people consuming his media.

A story needs to keep its promises or it has no integrity, and without integrity, what is it?  Nothing.  It's absolutely nothing.

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