Let's explore how Oda has solved the fundamental pitfalls of long-running shows!
Hello everyone, and welcome to Why It Works. As One Piece surges toward the conclusion of its Wano arc, it feels like 500 episodes of worldbuilding are all somehow being paid off at once. Wano is undoubtedly One Piece’s most paradigm-disrupting arc since Marineford, with its conclusion certain to shake the power balance of the entire world. And yet, at the same time, Wano still feels like a perfectly coherent continuation of One Piece’s fundamentals. How could that be?
How can a story shift from the scale of tiny villages to entire worlds without losing its core appeal or invalidating the significance of its initial characters and conflicts? So many stories have failed in this trial, with their grand final arcs sacrificing the potency of their worldbuilding or the significance of their secondary characters. So how has Oda managed it?
The answer is, as is so often the case when it comes to One Piece, “the accumulation of a thousand conscience, intelligent storytelling decisions.” Oda is clearly a genius of action manga, and his masterwork has scaled without losing track of itself with a gracefulness I have never seen repeated. Fortunately, One Piece itself seems to serve as the final blueprint of his strategies, its very structure offering solutions to this seemingly unsolvable dramatic puzzle. I can’t break down a thousand storytelling decisions today, but I can at least point out a few major ones and leave the continued research to all you capable readers. Let’s break down how Oda scales up One Piece without losing its essence!
Tactic One: An Expansive Yet Contained World
When you’re writing a single, finite story with a clear beginning and end, your drama generally follows a standard arc pattern, escalating across the rising action, culminating in a climactic confrontation with your greatest threat, and then dissipating into denouement. When you’re writing a continuing, arc-based action narrative, your “dramatic arc” will look more like a field of moguls: one bump after another, each attempting to top the peak of its predecessor. Audiences are rarely excited about a new threat that’s less threatening than your previous threat, so you’re forced to escalate, with each new villain offering new peaks of danger and villainy.
This is a natural consequence of storytelling, and yet it can frequently lead to a groundless, unfocused narrative. When your new villains always outscale the old villains, consistent viewers might start to wonder why they should care about any villains, given they’ll clearly be invalidated by the next set. When you look back on a narrative constructed out of this sort of dramatic one-upmanship, you frequently see a series of reveals that each negates the meaning of their predecessors. If there’s always a man behind the man behind the curtain, how can we invest in the drama that’s before us?
Oda has solved this natural issue of scaling by building a defined world with specific threats and sticking to that blueprint through thick and thin. There is the world government, the navy, the top pirate crews, and the various subsidiary organizations beneath them. Though new threats are introduced all the time, they always fit within this framework and never invalidate the scale as we know it or the threats that have come before.
It seems clear that Oda put a great deal of thought into the overall geopolitical framework of his world. In fact, early on, it appears he was still thinking about it. During the East Blue segment, we only receive the nebulously defined threat of “the navy” as a representative of any larger world order. Alabasta introduces the government and the warlords, but even then, the overall framework isn’t clear. It is only when we reach Enies Lobby and Sabaody that the fundamental variables of One Piece’s world are fully clarified — a worldbuilding project spanning One Piece’s entire first half.
It takes Oda a while to hammer out his world’s fundamentals, but the benefits of this project are clear to see. Rather than new villains and challenges invalidating the threat of prior opponents, new enemies are now accompanied by the satisfaction of seeing how they fit into the existing structure or the anticipation of already knowing their significance. The world feels solid because the world is solid — there’s no threat of some entirely unknown enemy arriving and saying “I was actually pulling the strings!” because there’s no need to escalate above the drama as the world presents it.
Oda crafted a world that will naturally provide sufficient conflict for the Straw Hats all the way to their goal, so there’s no further need to revise, and thereby diminish, its sense of solidity. When the Straw Hats move, we get the pleasure of seeing the entire world move with them, as the consequences of their actions ripple outward to all known points. While the individual islands of One Piece are full of dazzling and unexpected flourishes of creativity, the fundamental solidity of the worldbuilding guiding them is never in question.
Tactic Two: Clear And Steady Powers
The geopolitical tentpoles of Oda’s world aren’t the only thing holding steady. At this point, Oda has securely defined his sets of powers, such that both new and old enemies all fit within a coherent hierarchy of menace. This, too, took Oda some time to hammer out; early Devil Fruits possess a wildness of application that he’d eventually pull back on a bit — physical strength wasn’t clearly defined, either.
As with all of Oda’s talents, he refined his application of powers rigorously, eventually coming up with the Haki system. The Haki system explains away early deviations from the power system like Eniru’s inexplicable abilities, while also providing an answer to the heretofore unsolvable issue of logia powers. Through Haki, One Piece has provided an avenue for all of its combat-inclined heroes to slowly improve themselves without invalidating the abilities of others by outright out-leveling them. With the flexibility of devil fruits tethered to the reliability of Haki, Oda is able to scale his action without dwarfing the significance of the less powerful characters.
Tactic Three: Non-Combat Conflict
This consistency of action is supplemented by another of One Piece’s strengths, its knack for maintaining non-combat-oriented conflicts for all of the show’s secondary characters to meaningfully engage in. I previously scratched at this strength while discussing One Piece as a tabletop game, but it applies equally well to One Piece’s gracefulness of scaling. By providing conflicts where outright combat isn’t the solution, One Piece is able to maintain the significance of characters like the roguish Nami or tough-talking Usopp, giving them challenges where they can genuinely strut their stuff, rather than just cheer on the sidelines for the toughest guy in the room.
This focus on complex, nonlinear conflicts has an obvious secondary benefit: it’s way more interesting than a series of outright fight scenes. A world where every conflict ultimately resolves through two tough guys fighting each other is a boring world; the world of One Piece is far more complex than that, a world where a key act of subterfuge or betrayal or a fiendish plan involving a multi-island drug supply line can be the difference between victory and defeat. Through embracing non-combat-oriented conflicts, One Piece is able to draw on a far wider array of genre influences than its contemporaries, elevating its drama in the process.
Tactic Four: Big World, Small Stories
All that said, it’s undeniable that Luffy and his opponents have grown to be fairly titanic figures, with their battles frequently reshaping entire cities or islands. With fights of such staggering scale, it can be easy to lose sight of what our heroes are actually fighting for. “The fate of the world” is a distant, emotionally barren concept; for us to care about these battles in an emotional sense, we must have specific people to care about and a sense of what this conflict means for them. Oda has taken care to ground his larger conflicts in individual human stories, keeping our perspective closely tethered to conditions on the ground.
In One Piece, the personal human stories are never forgotten, with each new arc being swiftly contextualized by the specific stories of its culture and people. Alabasta is not just some desert vista; it is the home of Vivi, someone we have come to care about. Punk Hazard is not purely the political pawn of Caesar and Doflamingo; its terror is given a human face through Brownbeard and the children, those who trusted in and were betrayed by its masters. And Wano, an arc culminating in a battle for the New World at large, is not just some new battle arena; it is the ancestral home of the Akazaya, a place so corrupted by commercial exploitation that a girl like Tomo can’t even find a bowl of rice.
As with Oda’s other tactics, this generally good habit of storytelling also results in other benefits. These sequences of getting to know the populace are frequently their own reward, reveling in that distinctly One Piece-ian appeal of exploring some distinctive new island. Through these stories, we come to love these islands and their people — and thus, when a threat to them emerges, we feel personally invested in their survival. As a result, each new challenge isn’t just another arbitrary threat in a line of such threats, it’s a clear danger to people we’ve come to care about, expressing its malevolence in unique ways. By maintaining a focus on the individual lives that are impacted by One Piece’s major players, Oda never loses the human element of his larger-than-life conflicts.
I have gone on for far too long at this point, yet have still only scratched the surface of Oda’s mastery of dramatic scale. Simply getting an audience to care about your characters in the first place is a difficult feat. That Oda has maintained One Piece’s emotional pull this long is a testament to his skill as a narrative architect and his understanding of drama’s emotional fundamentals. Oda has proven he’s capable of keeping this story’s heart alive all the way to the finish line; I have no idea how he’ll do it, but I can’t wait to find out.
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