(Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for Orphan Black and One Piece.)
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So I noticed something about ESCALATION–ie the ramping up of conflict in a way that keeps audiences coming back for more.  Very often serials accomplish this by introducing characters that are bigger and bigger deals.  Every time we think we have a handle on how this fictional world works, another character crashes in who’s stronger or more powerful than any we’ve seen before.  We, the audience, reacts with a “WHOA!  There’s THAT kind of thing in this story!”  Very exciting!

I recently finished Season 2 of Orphan Black and the rate at which the show introduced it’s escalation characters was as follows:

orphan black - escalation timeline

What’s interesting to me is that the anime One Piece used a very different model of escalation:

One Piece - Escalation Timeline

Orphan Black introduces its escalation characters evenly.  One Piece introduces nearly ALL of them (with one exception) towards the beginning.

Granted the timelines of these shows are MUCH different.  But still, what’s going on here?

Whenever we see two stories doing the same thing in different ways, we can learn something.  Each story is trying to accomplish something slightly different and that difference manifests itself in a two separate METHODOLOGIES.

But before we try to speculate on this difference in methodology, let’s take another look at what each story actually DID.

At what point do the writers of Orphan Black choose to introduce its escalation characters?

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We meet Helena gradually.  First we just know SOMEONE is out there killing clones.  Then we meet her, but we don’t know who she is.  Then we SEE her.  Then Sarah manages to get the better of her, and THEN we meet Tomas.

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Almost the same with Olivier.  First we just know ABOUT him, then we meet him, then we learn who he is, THEN we meet Leekie, then Sarah gets the better of Olivier, THEN we realize Olivier is a bit of a loser, THEN we realize Leekie is really the one in charge.

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Same pattern with Rachel: we meet Leekie, get to know him, get used to him, Cosima infiltrates Dyad, THEN we meet Rachel.

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Marion too: we meet Rachel, get to know her, get used to her, Sarah thwarts her once, THEN we meet her boss Marion.

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So we have a pattern: conflict arises involving new character, the conflict is overcome, a newer bigger conflict is introduced via another new character.  In other words, the audience becomes comfortable with the status quo, THEN the story unsettles them with a new character who demonstrates that the story is much BIGGER than the audience thought it was.  But never by MUCH.  Once a new character becomes RELEVANT, the story’s scope expands but ONLY as much as it needs to reinvigorate the audience’s interest and keep them watching.

Contrast this with One Piece.  How does One Piece choose to introduce its escalation characters?

One Piece‘s escalation characters appear BEFORE they’re relevant.  Sometimes, HUNDREDS of episodes before they become relevant.

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The earliest and most prominent example of this is the appearance of Hawkeye Mihawk in episode 24.

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His appearance is relevant to Zoro, the first mate of the Straw Hat Pirate Crew, who dreams of becoming the greatest swordsman in the world, a title currently held by Mihawk.  Instead of building up to Mihawk over the course of hundreds of episodes by pitting Zoro against stronger and stronger swordsmen, One Piece introduces Mihawk SUPER early in episode 24.  Mihawk demonstrates his abilities, blows everyone’s minds, and disappears.  We don’t see him in action again for over 400 episodes.

What effect does this have?

By teasing the audience with glimpses of a big picture, the SCOPE of the story grows to ENORMOUS proportions while relatively SMALL STORIES are still being told arc to arc.  While the characters are still dealing with conflicts of local impact, we see a MUCH LARGER plot enveloping the world beyond them.

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Such an GIGANTIC scope is EXCITING!

From close to the beginning of the series, the audience KNOWS a much bigger story is looming in the distance.  These escalation scenes are peppered throughout the series, usually between story arcs.  At this point, the audience is on a high from the climax of the previous story.  By choosing to escalate HERE, the audience realizes that as epic as the journey has been thus far, this is only the beginning!

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This rapid expansion of SCOPE creates an anticipation that shapes the audience’s entire experience of the story.

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The effects of these two different methods are interesting in their similarities and differences.  With Orphan Black‘s method, the escalation keeps audience much more engaged in the plot at hand.  Compare this to the One Piece method, where any given story arc has a LOT to live up to if it means to compete with the superiorly AWESOME metaplot.  When the story doesn’t deliver, I’ve found myself waiting for the next epic escalation scene between arcs.

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On the other hand, the sense of plot progression is MUCH greater in One Piece.  Even if Orphan Black eventualy becomes as globally relevant as the metaplot of One Piece, it will never FEEL that way because it was built up so gradually.  One Piece offers a real EXPERIENCE of escalation because each step is so much more DRASTIC.   It feels like ACCELERATION, whereas Orphan Black‘s steady escalation retains the same steady rate of progression throughout.  The slow escalation is just enough to keep me from being bored instead of ACTIVELY drawing me in.

Personally, I much prefer the One Piece method, as the payoff is so much more epic when it’s done well. But it’s not attempted nearly enough.  And it’s almost NEVER done in the west.  It could be because it all seems so counterintuitive for pragmatic the western storytelling mindset.  Why reveal a character before he’s relevant?  Why dole out escalation when you can use it sparingly as needed?  While this attitude SOUNDS logical, it ends up severely limiting the emotional heights a story is capable of evoking.  Setting the bar high early on and making all escalation relevant to the FUTURE story instead of the story at hand sacrifices a short term hook for a long-term hook.  A skeptic might argue that this is unrealistic, and yet One Piece has kept its gigantic audience for over fifteen years.

Perhaps with the growing popularity of anime in the US, we’ll start seeing more integration of eastern and western storytelling methodologies.  Until then, I’ll just have to keep gunning for an Orphan Black anime!

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(Art by T-r-n : http://t-r-n.deviantart.com/)

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