This year, I got into a series called ‘Dr. Stone’. It is about how humans are frozen in stone for 3,700 years, so civilization collapses. The first to awaken is Senku, a Japanese teen who was obsessed and highly skilled with science. His goal is to recreate all of human civilization by reviving every aspect of science. From the picture and reading reviews, I thought this would be a really high action series. In fact, I didn’t even know about the science thing until I began watching. So, what did I run into?
- The action (fighting/chasing/etc.) in this series is minimal. I can’t say more than that without spoilers.
- The tension and suspense is still very high.
I binged ‘Dr. Stone’ as best as I could and I’m watching it again with my son whenever he is here. There were times during the initial viewing where I watched an extra episode and ran the risk of not getting to either errands or a decent bedtime. Just couldn’t stop because I wanted to see what happened next even when a story arc was done. They didn’t have any detailed previews either, so all I had was a strange title like ‘Stone Wars’ or ‘A Flimsy Alliance’. The second time through is just as good, but I’m trying to analyze how a series with minimal action is able to have the same affect. Not that hard since it was clear the first time, but I’m trying to sound professional. I’ve noticed three important factors that kept me engrossed.
All of the characters had interesting personalities and there was a sense that all of them had the ability to change. Senku converts a lot of people to the idea of science without really trying, so you get to see different reasons for a person to side with him. Even some of those who are aggressive soften at points. You also have the ‘villain’ who simply wants a different type of world than Senku, so there’s a philosophical aspect where you can kind of see the point of each person. For example, Senku wants to revive everyone with science regardless of how they were while the other guy feels like certain groups should be destroyed or left in stone. It’s a battle for the future of Earth that keeps you thinking even when it isn’t in the forefront. You also get to see characters learn about science and ‘get excited’ (A commonly said phrase by Senku), which is an aspect that catches my son’s attention. All of this is done with minimal action scenes.
It is made clear early on that science is not perfect and there is a lot of failure that comes with experimenting. At one point, you learn that it took Senku, a genius, weeks to make a spearhead and months to figure out pottery. Time and again, they run into obstacles and even failures. One can see that the characters learn from their mistakes, but it leaves you with some tension when they are working on a project. After seeing a few attempts fail at the last second, you can end up holding your breath until Senku declares that it’s done. Even then, you aren’t 100% sure. So, the action-based tension is replacement by the uncertainty of success. It’s like watching a tightrope walker even with a net. They aren’t jumping around or fighting, but you can become engrossed in the fate of the person because failure is more than a mere stumble.
This tension is abundantly clear in ‘Dr. Stone’ when they have to make a medicine, but it takes over 20 steps. They rocket through a few, but there are big ones that take a lot of work and other advancements. I believe it was 8 episodes for the ‘Sulfra Drug Story Arc’ to end and this is a 25 episode series so far. That’s a lot of attention to something that is primarily chemistry and pharmacology. Big steps are shown with major challenges and sometimes it’s made clear that failing means the whole thing is over. Limited resources or needing to get a piece that requires risking their lives drive home an amount of tension that you don’t even notice. This is because of pacing and the third aspect that I almost missed until I started writing this post.
It’s so simple, but it might be more of a TV or movie thing. The sense that the characters are excited or worried causes those emotions to appear in the viewer/reader. You already have the tension and characters that are appealing. Now, you have an emotional connection to carry you along. A victory is met with clear celebration and failure is met with a variety of frustration and sadness. Some characters are more positive than others and you have some comedy to keep things from getting too dark. Yet, you really feel how the characters are coming through, which invests you in their fate. I think it’s harder to do as an author because people tend to shout ‘show, don’t tell’ and that’s a challenge with writing. Not everyone picks up on the signs of a real person being sad, happy, or anxious much less a fictional one. So, this is much more difficult than getting someone’s attention through physical action, which is why one might use the second option more often.
So, this does seem like more of an analysis of ‘Dr. Stone’, but I think it does give an overview of what you need to get high tension with minimal action. Hope you enjoyed it.