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The Expectation Problem: How Do You Grab the Audience Right From the Start?

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BCT: That’s the point, in a way. But a quarter of the way into the first episode it shifts to a dark and rainy night two years later, with its lead, Aoi, a new production assistant, now demoralized under the weight of adulthood, responsibility, and, indeed, hard work. Her former clubmates are faring no better. Suddenly, these characters are set in a story where they will have to grow well beyond our first impressions of them.

GBS: It does have many qualities needed for a good opening, here demonstrating that the characters we’re introduced to have some room to grow and develop over time. If a character is already some kind of super awesome complete package at the start…doesn’t that make them boring?

BCT: It gives us little to expect from them, or the story for that matter.

GBS: So, one way to show that is to focus on people at the bottom rungs of the ladder, like the Kaminoyama Five. We see them gain knowledge and experience. How, then, do we get that same sense of “room to grow” for a main/lead character who is more accomplished at the start?

BCT: That’s trickier.

GBS: Perhaps such characters have to grow in a different way. It’s not their powers or abilities or knowledge that expands (though that can still happen to some degree). It’s something else about them that advances. Their journeys are more journeys of personal growth, not simply quests to get “stronger” for whatever reason.

My love Story Episode 5
Takeo Gouda of My Love Story!!

BCT: Okay, so Takeo Gouda. Freakishly tall, strong, and athletic, liked by pretty much everyone. Plays the Hero, easily. But he has his blind spots that are surprising to see: low self-esteem, doubts that anyone could truly love him.

GBS: Good example. Seemingly invincible, it’s exactly that lack of confidence you note which leaves open the door for growth.

BCT: For those reasons he was one of the most most satisfying characters to get behind and root for in any show this year. And then his best friend, Makoto, manages to prove the effectiveness of the formula even more.

GBS: Another seemingly “perfect” character, but again we discover that he has much to learn about other people and overcome his issues with trusting others. Going against expectations seems to be a common way to make a character interesting at the beginning.

BCT: Like having Rokuro “Rock” Okajima shift from hapless salaryman hostage to ruthless criminal Black Lagoon partner in 20 minutes. But that’s just the character conforming to our expectations for what the story would most likely be about. The show itself didn’t exactly upend things in the beginning.

GBS: Sometimes a story can confound our expectations both in terms of characters and setting. One that manages that neat little trick is The Devil is a Part-Timer! The story would seem to be some kind of high fantasy plot with Demon Lords and Heroes waging ridiculous battles, but the action soon morphs into a critique of our modern world of drudgery: a Demon King who is reduced to being a part-timer at a fast-food joint and a heroine who works at a call center.

There is a very slick double-upending of expectations here, since we do have a fish out of water story, but the setting is not strange or unusual at all for the original audience. It’s their world (which is foreign for us foreign fans, but not too foreign either).

BCT: This was similar to Shirobako where an almost generic introduction wasn’t necessarily interesting, but that the upending—to the “real world” in this case—was. But what positively stoked my expectations was more subtle, as the story settled in: not the drudgery by itself, but that the story was so invested in the characters being sincere and earnest about this new life—it wasn’t only cover until battles inevitably resumed (in fact the battles were the least interesting part for me).

GBS: Yeah, the battles were not that engaging (and more often went for comedic flourishes). Much more enticing was trying to get a feel for the characters and how seamlessly…or not…they had adjusted to this world, our world.

BCT: This is interesting because it’s about a start that was quick to like, but it was of a sort unusual enough that it took much longer to appreciate why I liked it. A lot of what we’ve talked about are familiar and accustomed tropes introducing a show to us, the show ticking off boxes in our heads, saying, “this is what I like, drive on!” or, “I’ve seen this; game over man!” But nothing may be as likable a start as something that confounds our expectations entirely.

At the same time, for others—and maybe depending on the medium—nothing may be as likable as what is most comfortable and familiar.

GBS: There is a reason why formulas are reused…they have been shown to work.

BCT: And maybe nothing’s as familiar and successful as starting with a bang?

GBS: It’s perhaps the most classic opening maneuver in use by storytellers. As legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn put it: “We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.”

Girls Und Panzer
Girls Und Panzer

BCT: I’d mentioned the action show, Black Lagoon, earlier, which begins its story by ratcheting up from a tense hostage scene to a speedboat-helicopter mid-air explosion (sounds as cool as it looks). A lot of examples of this. From an old favorite of mine, Magic Users Club, which opens with a full scale alien invasion and wraps up its first episode with a magical girl falling out of the sky, to the more recent Girls und Panzer, beginning in medias res with a perfectly representative scene of the Hollywood-style action of the show that also happens to introduce the central characters—the tanks. Fun, fun, fun.

GBS: It’s perhaps a hallmark of serial storytelling, easy to find in action shows but even apparent in other kinds of continuing storylines. It’s always good to begin on a show-stopping note. Take Love Live! School Idol Project for example. Hardly an action show, but it begins with the major drama of Otonokizaka High School being faced with closure. This world-changing event, at least in lead character Honoka Kousaka’s mind, gets things moving very swiftly into her decision to form an idol group and save the school.

BCT: We could fill up several pages with examples I keep remembering. Nothing as quick, indeed. But as you say it’s important in most good serial stories. For less linear, character-based things it can almost throw us off.

GBS: So…I guess we go against expectations for our characters by ending with a bang?

BCT: As long as this all doesn’t self destruct in ten seconds…

GBS: Nah, it ends with us finally getting our breakfast as I see the waitress bringing my pancakes.

BCT: And my donut.

So, thank you all for joining us as we took another look at the problem of how our expectations can shape how we watch what we (hope to) like. While Brian and I finally get to our breakfasts, please feel free to chime in below in the comments with shows which you think got off to a great start and what about that start made you instantly fall in love with those shows.

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