It’s been a very long time since I’ve done one of these. But, as I started rewatching one of my favorite anime, a strange thought came to my mind: is there a point where there’s too much story?
If you call yourself a writer, you know that plot is the key to any successful narrative project. Anime has a little more wiggle-room in this regard, as it could always use the “art” veil to bypass a lack of plot, but most “favorite anime” tend to feature a story that’s filled to the brim with good writing. But sometimes “filled to the brim” turns into overflowing; when the plot is so thick you have to keep a flowchart nearby to keep track of everything, you do risk losing your audience or even potential audience.
Bored to Death should not be the goal
When the Plot is So Thick it’s Tied in Knots
People tend to praise complexity in plot, especially in anime. If you can keep people guessing and string them along like beads on a necklace you’ll quickly find yourself a hearty audience. But if you go overboard on the complexity, and go round and round in the process, does the show’s appeal go down?
Look no further for how this becomes a problem than everyone’s favorite edge-mystery, Death Note. It’s a good anime, with a really good plot and an amazing cast of characters, but blink and you’ll usually miss a slew of important details. The plot has enough twists and turns to be a proper hedge maze, and most of it has to be explained in either exposition or quick little demonstrations after the fact.
And that’s another exposition done!
The truth about Death Note hurts but has to be said: if the story didn’t have such likable, well-written characters, no one would be willing to follow along. As it stands, Tsugumi Ohba did a good job of bouncing the story between L and Light (and a third character I’ll avoid for spoilers). This cuts down on a lot of exposition, but we still have a battle between geniuses that leaves us tumbling over plot points at light speed. Exposition will likely go over people’s heads and, with this show, that’s not something to be proud of.
When The Plot Doesn’t Know when to Stop
The other potential pitfall of plot-pollution comes from quantity, as my Survive or Stagnate post discussed. There’s a certain length stories need, and anything beyond drifts into cash-cow territory. There’s one show that walks this very thin line and, as much as I love it, I have to talk about it here: One Piece.
One Piece, the world’s most successful manga and one of the big pillars of shounen anime, has been going on for a long time. The sheer volume of chapters/books/episodes is monumental; you could bury a prefecture in Japan with all the paper used for it. And while this is great for longtime fans who wanna keep the fun going, it can be intimidating for outsiders. Who wants to start an anime going on season 18 with 700+ episodes?
Thanks to this magnitude of episodes, the story is nowhere near where it started. The point of any good story is, of course, to instigate change, but there comes a point where we don’t resemble our starting point at all.
Make It Work; Make Them Care
So with so much running against having a complex, over-the-top plot, how come we see so many try? Why don’t more people just stick to the bare minimum storytelling and just add fluff as needed?
I believe that many still attempt because the successful writer can make this work and work well. The original manga for Fullmetal Alchemist and the Brotherhood version of the show have plots that twist and turn all over the place and only get more complicated as they go. But they never lose their appeal in the long run because they keep the length decent and kept the characters interesting. In short, they make sure the audience would want to invest in this super complex plot.
They become little cheerleaders for the story
In the long run, that is where the crux of it all lies. If you cannot get your audience to care, it won’t matter how long and complicated your story is. If your audience can’t be bothered to follow you, than your intricate road map may as well be window-dressing. If you keep things exciting and pull people in, then they will follow you through whatever funhouse you put them in. You can create a character that’s endearing and make their death a turning point; you can make a character who’s a genius and utterly horrible to guide the story; you can make a plot that has endless episodes because your audience wants more and more.
Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the execution.
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