“Twilight, you can teleport!”: How limits can make a writer’s job easier

You know what really sucks?  The flu.  You know what sucks more than the flu?  When the flu exacerbates preexisting health conditions and you’re out of commission for several weeks.  In any case, I should be back for now.  Here’s something I started shortly after “Rarity Takes Manehattan” aired and just finished.

__________________________

I don’t really plan on doing many reviews here, as such.  Instead, I usually take a single aspect of an episode that I think is interesting and analyze that, using it to talk more generally about storytelling (or whatever else I think is interesting about it).  This is because a) I just find that more interesting, and b) if I did actual reviews, I’d have to compete with Digibrony, Bronycurious, and Silverquill, and well, fuck that.

So I’ll start by clarifying that I really liked “Rarity Takes Manhattan”, and I think it did a number of things extremely well (Digi and BC cover most of these).  That said, I’m going to focus here on one of the episode’s flaws, because it demonstrates an interesting point about worldbuilding: Twilight.

Don't look at me like that!  You know what you did!

Don’t look at me like that! You know what you did!

Surprisingly, I’m not going to focus on her interaction with the Manehattanites and their lack of recognition of her.  That definitely is a flaw, and it’s one of the few points of the episode that’s been universally criticized.  But I don’t have much to contribute that hasn’t already been said, so instead I’ll focus on this scene, when they realize they’ve forgotten the dresses.

DressesShock

My god, the entire world has become a pink backdrop!

Okay, show of hands; who thought, for at least a second, “wait, couldn’t she just teleport them there?”  Probably not everyone thought that, but I’d bet a lot of people did.  And it wouldn’t be the first time.

Twilight’s teleportation ability has left fans scratching their heads at several points in the series.  We’ve seen her refrain from using it in several cases that would be useful or potentially life-saving, which means that it’s difficult to determine when she is or isn’t in danger.

Of course, we wouldn’t really want her to consistently use her ability to solve any problem that comes up.  That would eliminate a lot of opportunity for conflict, and thus a lot of opportunity for good storytelling, which is probably why the writers have held back from using it.

The obvious solution is to introduce an explicit limit on her power, so that the audience knows exactly when it is and isn’t useable.  For example, they could have Twilight state in-show, “I can only teleport to places I can see.”

It might seem like this would make more work for the writers — whatever rule they introduced, they’d have to make sure that they didn’t break it.  But they’ve effectively introduced such a limitation anyway; they’re limiting her teleportation to when it makes for a good story.  But unlike “Twilight can only teleport where she can see” (or some other concrete rule), the audience doesn’t know when that rule applies.  This means that we aren’t confident in our knowledge of what she can and can’t do.

“Okay, fair enough, but why does that even matter?”  Excellent question, Hypothetical Reader.  It matters because without knowledge of the characters’ abilities, we can’t have effective dramatic tension.  To illustrate, let’s use an example where the show handled this well; Sonic Rainboom.

Wingburn

Welp

When Rarity’s wings burn, we all immediately know she’s in trouble — we’ve never seen any indication that she has an ability that would save her.  Furthermore, the episode explicitly told us this was a concern, but did it in a way that wasn’t ham-handed or contrived — it let us know about it as part of a minor conflict earlier in the show.

Now, imagine that in previous episodes, we’d seen Rarity daintily float herself around on occasion (which, come to think of it, seems like a pretty fitting character trait).  Now, when her wings burn, we as the audience are uncertain and confused.  We think “wait, couldn’t she just float herself up?”  And at that point, the effectiveness of the scene (either for comedy or drama) is hurt, because rather than focusing on the imminent danger, we’re focused on trying to figure out why this is a concern.  And if we decide it’s not, we’re immediately pulled out of the scene.

In a situation like this, a good audience will use willing suspension of disbelief to give the writer a certain amount of leeway.  But one of the jobs of the writer is to use that resource as little as possible.  Because even if the audience shrugs and moves on, the very fact that they had to do that means that the scene is less effective.

I’ve previously discussed the pros and cons of FiM‘s “in-between” approach to worldbuilding.  This highlights one of the drawbacks of that approach: if there are few concrete rules of the setting, narrative inconsistency becomes far more pronounced.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but think about this: how many times has Twilight teleported to a place she can’t see?  I can think of one time she did so as a major element of the plot: “Dragon Quest”.

Headcanon RUINED!

Headcanon RUINED!

So while we might expect that introducing a rule to Twilight’s ability would make more work for the writers, they’re basically writing as though such a rule exists anyway.  Only one (or a few) episodes would need to be majorly changed if such an in-universe limitation existed.  And in return, none of the umpteen moments of “wait, can’t she just teleport?” would exist, so the net effect would be an increase in the show’s quality.

And here’s something else to consider: suppose the “only where I can see” rule existed and they didn’t alter “Dragon Quest” — what would the audience reaction be?  Most of us would likely say “Ha!  Continuity error.  Gotcha!” and move on (especially if McCarthy acknowledged such an error, or something like that) — I’m pretty sure there’s no TV series without one or two minor mistakes like this.

But the fact that we don’t have such a rule means that instead of being a simple mistake (along the lines of Swanlestia), this scene breaks our understanding of the limits of Twilight’s abilities.  So oddly enough, if everything were the same but we had a concrete limit on Twilight’s teleportation ability, “Dragon Quest” (and maybe a few other episodes) would be weakened, and probably tens of other episodes would be strengthened, because we wouldn’t be thinking “can’t she just teleport?”.  So the net effect of not having a stated rule is to weaken the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and make things more difficult for the writers.

For a storyteller, it’s an intriguing conundrum; you might think that leaving the rules of the world vague would cover your ass.  But in certain cases, the less explicit you are about the rules of the world, the more inconsistency can hurt your story.

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8 Responses to “Twilight, you can teleport!”: How limits can make a writer’s job easier

  1. Matt says:

    I need to disagree with Twilight not being fully recognized by the Manehattens: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSjsPm099qg

    And I always thought Twilight was using teleport and gambling on appearing in a place away from the Dragons in “Dragon Quest” whether she knew where it was or not. A heat of the moment sort of thing.

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  4. Timwi says:

    My personal interpretation is that Twilight can teleport to any place that is *either* within line of sight from her, *or* that she’s been to before often enough to call it familiar. While this still doesn’t explain Feeling Pinkie Keen (which I think is a shame), it does explain Manehattan.

    • matt says:

      With “Pinkie Keen” she was being chased by a Hydra and trust me when I say that you tend to not make great decisions under that sort of pressure. Of course, by Season 2, she seems to be more use to adventure.

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