Will They, Won’t They Just Kill Me Already? (February Special 2019)

So, Romance shows tend to drag their feet a lot. That’s hardly a new observation, indeed it’s a common joke, especially among anime fans, due to the particularly egregious nature of it in anime. This sort of thing has a name, and it’s “Will They, Won’t They”. Over its 30-year history in mainstream anime, it’s become a shockingly universal part of the romance genre, it’s even more “fucking everywhere” than even the other universal tropes the community mentions. Why is it so criticized? Why is it so popular? And what would my preferred take on it be? All good questions, and all I will answer.

First off, why is this formula so popular? Well, to answer that, it might be helpful to look at its mainstream debut. Though incarnations of it existed in some form before then, the trope hit the mainstream with Rumiko Takahashi and Ranma 1/2. In this context, the formula makes some sort of sense, Ranma was a serialized manga, and the “will they or won’t they” question keeps fans engaged, thereby still reading new chapters and keeping the manga afloat. Weekly anime have a similar motivation, keeping the question going and continuously baiting the viewers keeps them watching week by week, which obviously is what any show wants. Ignoring every other piece of context for a moment, it’s clear why this is an attractive formula, it is highly effective when divorced from the other variables that affect the audience’s interest. And, for the first few years, it seemed to work pretty well. However, that’s not to say that the formula does not have its own problems. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a horribly flawed formula that was on a very short lifespan once it hit mainstream popularity.

The appeal of this formula is fairly clear in and of itself, but the big flaws of it are a little more difficult to explain. The simplest of the lot is that it absolutely kills the pacing, because progress in this part of the narrative flat out does not happen for who knows how long. There are cases which can get away with this, Clannad being a favorite of mine (we’ll get to that later), but the vast majority of shows which include this formula refuse to deviate it up until the very end, meaning exactly one step of progress gets made over the entire run, and by that point, the pacing of it is so bad and the plot is so unresolved that it just becomes unsatisfying. To be clear, two people getting together is not a resolution for the conflict, it is the beginning of an arc, and while there is plenty of room to bend those rules, putting a setup plot point at the end is one of those things that you just don’t do. It also means that, to keep the audience invested in the possibly-going-to-eventually-be-a-relationship, the writers need to keep teasing it nonstop. And if you keep teasing your audience like that for so long and consistently don’t make any progress on following through with it, they will start to get annoyed. People don’t tend to like nonstop teasing with no signs of actual progress. This feeds into something even the most unobservant fans notice, the contrivances. If you want to include all this teasing but also stop progress from happening without it feeling overly nonsensical, you’ll need to start contriving excuses in order to keep these two ordinarily incompatible factors existing alongside each other. I haven’t named the most common one yet, but I’m sure every one of you knows exactly what I’m talking about: misunderstandings. Dear god, misunderstandings. While one or two well-written misunderstandings can be charming on their own, when they keep happening over and over again, it just becomes more and more annoying. What’s worse, given that any writer will tell you that using the same event over and over gets repetitive, this creates the demand for the misunderstandings to become more and more absurd in order to perpetuate the delays. I can think of no better example of this than Kimi ni Todoke, specifically the insane delay tactics present throughout the second season. The most interesting premise for a dilatory tactic was when another guy showed up with an interest in Sawako, at least that could bring out some good drama in concept (in practice… meh). But that wasn’t nearly the extent of their delays, not even close. Even the first time they both confess to each other is in service of this need for perpetual delay, with both of them somehow fucking up their confession attempts so much that they manage to convince the other that they’re actually rejecting them. It’s so absolutely incomprehensible and obviously contrived to keep the story from progressing that it received a colossal backlash, and it thoroughly earned it. This kind of plot is continuously frustrating because of how transparent it is, alongside how much it’s clearly just trying to manipulate the audience, and people are very good at catching on. Finally, we come to a point I touched on earlier, the fact that getting together is what I called a “setup plot point”. If you were to categorize different plot points into their role in a story, “relationship starts” would go in the “early parts” nine times out of ten, and in “around the middle” the tenth time. The reason for this is because “relationship starts” is not in and of itself any sort of payoff, it is a setup for a plotline of its own. It’s a starting point, or at the very least setting up a new paradigm for the story to follow up on. Using it an an ending is unsatisfying because romance plots are about relationships, but there isn’t actually a relationship, there’s only the buildup to one. Ultimately I find this the biggest nail in the coffin of this formula, it’s just stringing people along with no satisfying conclusion.

All of that said, there are cases of this formula being done well. Namely, Clannad (the anime, the novel is not this at all), which put a new spin on it. The opening scene thoroughly sets up the pairing between Tomoya and Nagisa, and then it doesn’t really go addressed for a while, as the two spend most of their time helping other characters with their own arcs rather than putting any focus on their own. This is in large part a consequence of how the show was adapted, these other parts are actually different routes the player can choose in the novel, but the show decided to adapt the majority of all the different routes into one cohesive story, so as a result they relegate the story between Tomoya and Nagisa to the background in the arcs where others are in focus, except for Fuko’s arc, which puts it front and center. This works for a few reasons. One, while Nagisa is not in focus for these arcs, she is always there, and it gives her time to develop as a character by showing how she interacts with the others and how she feels about things that happen. Two, it is exceedingly clear that the other dilemmas are the focus, and they take up so much of that focus that there is almost no “will they/won’t they” teasing. Three, most of the other arcs build towards it in one way or another. The key event in the first season is the drama club’s performance, something that is established very early on to be extremely important to Nagisa, and it’s further established that Tomoya is helping many of the others primarily to get their help with putting on the play because it matters so much to Nagisa, who he’s focused on helping. Fourth, and most importantly, the show does not end with the two getting together. The show follows it up with After Story, which actually does tell the rest of the romance arc, thereby leaving the “getting together” scene as the shift into a new arc that it’s meant to be. However, that isn’t to say it does this flawlessly, even it makes a few mistakes at times. There’s one scene where Tomoya and Nagisa embrace in the courtyard, until Kyou interrupts them. This scene really bothered me, because it was the scene where they originally confessed in the novel and the obvious contrivance of the interruption is clearly just to delay the confession scene until later in the story. As a result, a few of the other best scenes in the novel are changed into less compelling forms, which I just found horribly disappointing. So, overall, Clannad handled this pretty well. Umineko also had an interesting spin on it with the characters of Jessica and Kanon. What made this work so well was that the two of them were very open early on that they wanted to be together, but Kanon felt they couldn’t because he is “furniture” and she isn’t. In other words, the story establishes that they want to be together but can’t because one of them has personal issues that got in the way of them getting together, so the question becomes if they can work through those issues or not, on top of all the other weird shit that Umineko’s premise adds into the mix. The lesson to take from these seems to be that this formula works best when combined with 1.) one or both characters having personal issues to work through directly relating to the conflict that builds up to the relationship, and/or 2.) shifting focus elsewhere while including development for both characters on the side via the new scenarios they encounter.

So, up until now, I’ve been talking exclusively about other works that use the trope, but now I should answer the third question, how would I use this formula? Well, the answer is that I wouldn’t make it a traditional romance. What I would do is basically the opposite, a hardcore drama about two really toxic people in a harsh relationship who perhaps know deep down that they really shouldn’t be in this relationship, but aren’t consciously aware of it, so the tension is whether or not they’ll realize it and break it off. That’s a very very unconventional take on it, but I genuinely dislike the trope as a writer and therefore am inclined not to use it in its normal form. The reason for that is the same reason I never really got why so many people I talked to seemed to just think this is how things are done, or even unintentionally adopted aspects of it, such as ending their stories with the main characters getting together. Not only do I like the romance genre as a whole, but I especially like writing relationships, and I always found it frustrating when writers I was working with didn’t want to go that far because they were stuck in delay mode. So avoiding this trope always came naturally to me because I was never interested in it. Hence why I’ve been so much more critical towards it than defensive. I don’t consider it a worthwhile formula in most cases and would certainly never use it in the normal way.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to quickly touch on one defense of this trope that really bothers me, which is when people confuse it with the “slow burn” romance. These two are not the same thing, they are in fact very different. A slow burn is when the progression up to the arc starting takes a while, but that is largely taken up by the characters getting used to each other, learning more about each other, helping each other out, and eventually falling in love. Whereas, a will they/won’t they is usually where the characters are already in love but delay actually progressing it in any meaningful way. To put it another way, Clannad the novel is a slow burn, the last few episodes of Clannad the anime are a will they/won’t they. Unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer the former, especially because slow burns don’t generally end with the main characters getting together, and actually include the romantic arc. It’s a huge difference, and one I get extremely annoyed by the ignorance of. Just needed to clarify that quickly.


Author: WhenSomethingCriesAgain

Several years ago, I found myself positively brimming with opinions and insight, with no way to express them, so I began writing, and found that I liked it. I decided to start a page to keep records of my writing, and hopefully convince a few people to agree with my ideas.

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