Writing Excuses 17.6: Hitting Reset Without Getting Hit Back
Key points: How do you reset expectations, break old promises and make new ones, without breaking the trust of the audience? Deliver something different and amazing! Yes-and, keep the old promises and make new ones. No-but, break the old ones, but give them a different wonderful experience. Oh, crap. I broke it, and I don’t know how to fix it. Dash through the red paint and hope no one notices. Telegraph the change as much as you can, and accept that you may lose some audience. Long-running shows often do a reset during season breaks. Give them a big moment of character change instead of the big climax they expected. And a Big Can of Worms for resetting your career…
[Season 17, Episode 6]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Hitting Reset Without Getting Hit Back.
[Kaela] 15 minutes long.
[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Megan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Kaela] I’m Kaela.
[Sandra] I’m Sandra.
[Megan] And I’m Meg.
[Howard] We are talking about resetting expectations. We are talking about breaking promises and then making new ones without actually betraying the trust of the audience. I’m trying to think of a good example of this. It’s possible that the good example may be Million-Dollar Baby…
[Howard] Which breaks a promise to the audience, this is a sports movie, by giving us 1/3 act that shows that it’s actually a drama about euthanasia, about… It’s very dramatic and it’s not very sports movie. As we pointed out when we mentioned it earlier, it’s got a 90% fresh rating from critics and audiences over at Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe part of this is because it’s 15 years old. But it won a lot of awards and it did great grossing in theaters. It was something which broke promises that audiences felt had been made to them, and then delivered something different, but delivered it so well that the majority of the audiences put up with it, they accepted it. They loved it, they came out of the theater… I don’t want to say happy, but having experienced something amazing, which is what the filmmaker set out to do. So let’s talk about that. What are some examples of things where you feel like the expectations have had to be reset and they did it well?
[Kaela] Well, I think that, personally, for me, there are two main movies that come to mind for this. One is Kung Fu Panda Two, which is one of my favorite movies ever, and How to Train Your Dragon, for different reasons, but both of them playing with expectations. I think Kung Fu Panda Two does multiple things with your expectations. For one, it kind of gives you an origin story again, except it’s deeper, it’s bigger, it’s… You’re like, “Whoa, I didn’t think I was going to get this from a Kung Fu Panda franchise.”
[Kaela] So I think that’s the other thing is, tonally, it’s a lot harder, it’s a lot… It’s more explorative of pain, of destruction, of trauma, of working out issues like… Heavier themes than the first one. Like, the first one had a good heart still, but the second one just really dives in there in a way that you wouldn’t have expected. But at the same time, I was not like, “Why is my fun movie sad?” when I watched it. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, they do a great job of acclimatizing you.” They start out fun and everything too, but they do a good job of acclimatizing you to this is going to be a bit heavier of a movie. It’s still going to be an amazing adventure, but it’s going to be more emotionally in-depth than the first one without losing you. I don’t know anybody who was lost with Kung Fu Panda Two. I think… I know most people just sat there stunned and in awe instead. Not disappointed.
[Howard] Yeah. I was kind of slack-jawed. I was, “Wait. How did they do that?” Usually, the origin story has to come first, and the two movie is a raising of stakes and a new adventure. But you managed to raise the stakes and give me a new adventure and give me an origin story and it’s… Wow. It seems to defy… It seemed to defy the number two.
[Howard] Which was pretty cool. Meg?
[Megan] I actually have an example of something that did it badly, that raised my expectations and then turned it on its head.
[Megan] It’s the anime Attack on Titan. Which is about humanity fighting to survive when they are constantly attacked by huge giants who are referred to as Titans. We have are very strong protagonist character who’s going to get revenge on all the Titans and he’s going to save the world. They kill him off, seven episodes in. I was like, “Amazing. I love this. Now his meek sidekick character is going to have to step into his shoes and become the new protagonist and…” No. Protagonist came back, magically, and with magic powers.
[Megan] And is so magical now. I was like, “Man. I mean, that’s cooler now, but… I wish he’d died.”
[You want a ghost?]
[Howard] Why couldn’t you stay dead?
[Howard] As I categorized these in our outline, I talk about yes-and, which is a raising of expectations, making new promises while keeping old ones. I feel like yes-and is the easiest expectation reset. Because really, all you’re doing is raising the bar. It’s not like you’ve broken promises. No-but is the next one, and that’s the actual reset where you had to make promises by breaking earlier ones. Yes, I know I promised you a sports movie, but I’m going to give you an amazing cinematic experience that’s going to touch your soul and you wouldn’t have come out to the theater to watch this anyway, but it’s important and, thank you, everybody, and I’ll take my Oscar now. I may be projecting a little bit. The third category is what I call oh, crap. It’s the one where I felt like I most often lived in Schlock Mercenary, which is the discovery that you’ve broken a promise but only after it’s too late to fix things. I foreshadowed something and got the technology wrong. Oh, crap. Oh, I can’t actually make that work, what do I do instead? So in these three categories, what are our strategies?
[Sandra] I remember watching… Oh, it was decades ago, the making of Indiana Jones. A documentary. So it was like one hour long, the making of show. Listening to Steven Spielberg talk about how when they’re writing the scripts, they would actually literally paint themselves into a corner. The opening sequence, Indiana Jones has just run from the boulder, tumbled out, and now he is standing trapped, facing a circle of spears, and there is literally no way to get out. Spielberg basically says, “Well, what you do when you’ve painted yourself into a corner is quickly duck and dash your way through the red paint and hope that nobody notices the footprints.”
[Sandra] Which is pretty much what that movie does. There may be better tools for this, but honestly, I think of like the Pirates of the Caribbean, I think it’s 5, that begins with we’re dragging an entire building through the middle of town using a horse-drawn cart.
[Sandra] It is absolutely completely and totally ridiculous, but basically what it’s saying is, “This is the movie you’re getting. If you’re not on board, just go ahead and leave the theater now.” So if you have to reset, any time you have to reset expectations, you’re going to lose some audience, you’re going to shed some audience who don’t make the turn with you. That’s just normal and expected. If you need to make the turn, make the turn anyway. Telegraph it is much as you can, so that people are ready for that moment. Okay, we all need to lean to the right. Lean to the right so we can make this turn, and… Now the wheels are back on the ground and we can keep going.
[Howard] There were a lot of turns in that scene where they were dragging the…
[Sandra] The whole building.
[Howard] The bank through the village, and, as I recall, they lost all of the money.
[Sandra] They lost the entire building.
[Howard] In the course of doing that. Yeah. Nice. Good choice of scenes. Nice metaphor. Well played. Bravo.
[Megan] There’s something, especially in long-running television series, where, in between seasons, they will reset. So it’s always sad sometimes when they come back into a season and these characters are now gone, and, oh, no, the set where they spent all their time, that’s different now, they’re going to spend all their time here instead. Sometimes writers rooms will literally just reset the world and which characters we have and we just never mention it.
[Sandra] Yeah. That becomes part of the expectation of watching a long-running show. You just kind of know that there’s going to be a reset. A…
[Howard] Sorry. Let me interrupt you there. That’s the experience of someone who has watched lots of long-running shows.
[Howard] There are plenty of people who watch a long-running show for the first time and as those things happen, they’re like, “No!”
[Howard] No. Because they feel like they’ve been betrayed.
[Sandra] An excellent reset to examine is the movie Serenity versus the TV show Firefly. Because you have this TV show that only ran for a very short time and then was canceled. Then you have this gap of time. Then they make a movie. In order to… Which is actually a jump in media. It’s… A movie is a different medium than a TV show. Which meant that there are different expectations, different language you can use, and in order to make that shift, they had to do some reset. The one that I… That jarred me the most, was that by the end of the run of the show, the doctor character had kind of become reconciled with the captain character as we’re a family. When they start the movie, there’s a lot more friction between them and it’s more like the beginning of the show than the end of the show. They had to do that reset in order to give the proper arcs to the movie, because the movie had to be able to stand alone as well. So, it jarred me, as a watcher of the show, but once I was like, “Eh,” it was not so jarring that I was knocked out and walked away. I was like, “Eh, I don’t like that, but… Okay. Take me along for this ride.” So…
[Megan] As an example for the no-but resetting expectations, Avatar the Last Airbender did that to me in, like, the third season. Like, the day of black sun. Because they really built up to it. I was watching this is a kid at the time, about 13-ish. I was like, “It’s finally happening.” We’ve had seasons building up to this day, they really built up to it in those moments, too, where they’re like, “We’re really… This is the day we lay siege on the Fire Nation.” It’s the eclipse that we risked all our lives to find information about in the previous seasons. This is it. It’s a two-parter, and everything, so I was like, “Oh, this is finally going down. We’re going to take down the Fire Nation.” And it doesn’t. It does not pan out. They fail the invasion. Because they already knew and were already ready and just gone. They’re shocked and terrified, and I was too. I was like, “What?” But what they did was a great job in that, because otherwise it could of felt like really deflative, where you’re like, “Well, great. Okay, but what did we spend all this time for, then?” But what they give you is a bunch of other things that you really wanted and needed, like, most particularly, the Zuko storyline carries out the days of black sun two parts. Having Zuko come in and that’s the moment where he decides to defect from the Fire Nation and healthy avatars make his new plan to take down his dad. Like, that ends up making the story worthwhile. So, no, I didn’t get like the big climax that I was really prepared for, but I got Zuko’s storyline intersecting finally and his big moment of character change.
[Howard] You can argue that we set out to defeat the Fire Nation, and we got the victory we didn’t expect, which was turning Zuko.
[Howard] So, you can make the argument that you actually fulfilled the promise. I think that’s part of how you make no-but work is that you take the new thing that you hand them and say, “By the way, this actually fulfills all of your other expectations.” Trust… I’m just going to paint it red so that it looks like what you were…
[Howard] Yeah. [Garbled a neat] trick.
[Howard] We need to have a book of the week. Or a thing of the week. I think Meg’s got it.
[Megan] I have a thing of the week that also ties up a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about in all of the other episodes. This is a Korean drama that I originally watched on WB’s drama streaming service, which no longer exists. But you can purchase the show on DVD which I have. The show is called Circle: The Two Worlds or Circle: the Connected Worlds depending on your translation. But every episode is two completely different stories. The first half of the episode takes place in 2017, the other half takes place in the far future. The 2017 story is about these twin brothers who are going to university and there’s some strange things going on and they’re investigating it. It’s a smaller story about brothers investigating a mystery. The future story is high sci-fi, and there’s this town where you can only live if there’s a chip implanted in your brain that regulates your emotions and there’s no pain and no fear and there’s no crime. It’s about a police detective who is trying to investigate an alleged murder that’s happened inside the perfect city. But the guards won’t let him in. But it turns out he has a second motive to get in there. He believes there’s evidence about two twin brothers who disappeared back in 2017. It’s these two completely different stories, completely different genres, and you’ve got expectations set up for how these kinds of stories work. It’s slowly about how these two storylines tie back into each other and influence each other. Circle: the Connected Worlds.
[Howard] That sounds really cool, and I wish I had it on a streaming service right now.
[Megan] Howard, I have my DVDs here in Utah. They could end up at your house on accident or purpose at some point in time.
[Howard] Well, see now you’re making all of our listeners terribly, terribly jealous…
[Howard] Which just doesn’t seem like a fair thing to do.
[Howard] Early on in Schlock Mercenary, I was writing… I mean, the design principles for Schlock Mercenary were I am not making fun of science fiction in my science fiction comic, the comedy will come from other things. But it was very newspaper humor, dad joke type stuff. Would have fit right in in the age of people collecting newspapers. But this was a web comic. About two years in, the Teraport wars begin, and the stories begin getting bigger. Brandon Sanderson wrote the introduction for book 2, The Teraport Wars, and said, “This is the book where Schlock Mercenary figures out what it wants to be when it grows up.”
[Howard] It very much… This was not a thing that I did consciously. It certainly wasn’t a thing I did expertly. But it was a thing I did. I had an existing audience, an existing brand, and I decided to take them from a quick episodic fast beats sort of story to a much larger form story. I got lucky in that I guess the audience was so small to begin with that when it grew, we didn’t notice that we lost anybody. But this was definitely a case of something which at the time I began creating it was one thing, and at the time I finished it was very much something else. Even though you still have this blob character and mercenaries running through the core of it.
[Sandra] You had an assist from the fact that web comics are expected to evolve. So there is a genre expectation that there will be evolution which totally assisted in the redirect, which [garbled can be…]
[Howard] Yeah. That is the… That is what we called the low expectations of audiences watching amateurs.
[There’s that. Anyway…]
[Howard] Good times. Wow. Are we really already 19 minutes in? What else can we say? I had a… We just need to can of worms this part. The whole career level can of worms of how do you rebrand yourself after spending 20 years as a cartoonist. Whatever I go do next, how do I keep the promises of my old brand…
[Howard] Or break them in such a way…
[Another can of worms]
[Howard] I don’t know.
[I think we just need to…]
[Howard] That’s an old can of worms.
[slap a lid on that, and say, whoops, can’t cover it.]
[Howard] Whoops. Sorry. That’s another eight part thing.
[Howard] Okay. We ready for homework?
[Homework. You are giving us the homework this time.]
[Howard] Okay, I am. In the first episode, I talked about how this intensive was expectations and promises, and how I didn’t call it Eight Expectations because that would have forced me to drill down and to configure the content in such a way that there were eight discrete elements covered across seven episodes plus a… It was a headache. Your homework is to fulfill the promise that I decided not to make because I would have broken it. Call this intensive, call this discussion we’ve had over these last eight episodes, Eight Expectations. For you, for your toolbox, write down eight different categories in which promises and expectations can be used as structural elements, as troubleshooting elements, as critical elements, as career elements. Laying over all of the other tools that you use, that we all use, when we write, when we create. So there’s your homework. Write the thing that I was either not smart enough or into much of a hurry to write, the course outline for Eight Expectations. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.