“Friendship is Magic, Part 1” and Howard Tayler’s three* levels of worldbuilding

Previously, I observed that “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” packs a ton of exposition into a 22-minute episode.  This raises an obvious question: how does it do this without becoming boring?

To address that, let’s turn to the Writing Excuses podcast.

You’re out of excuses; now go make some friends.

If you’re at all interested in the art and science of storytelling, I’d highly recommend this podcast. It consists of Brandon Sanderson (whose virtues I’ve previously extolled), Mary Kowal (Glamourist Histories), Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary), and Dan Wells (John Cleaver) discussing writing and storytelling technique.

Their episode “How Do I Write a Story, Not an Encyclopedia?” reveals some valuable insight into this question:

Howard Tayler: Skill Level #1 [of world-building] is; “The plasma cannon is a fusion powered thing that magnetically bottles plasma and shoots it at the enemy.”

Skill Level #2 is; “Son, you’re going to break that plasma cannon. It’s a fusion powered thing and- no, that throws the magnets out of whack and the column won’t stay straight.”

Skill Level #3 I can’t come up with off the fly. That’s where over the course of two or three paragraphs, while this plasma cannon is being deployed, the reader is told the things that they need to be told — which are, for the purpose of this story; “it’s a magnetic bottle that shoots charged particles.”

Let’s look at FiMP1 with Tayler’s three Skill Levels in mind.

We should first note that Skill Levels 1 and 2 aren’t necessarily bad — they’re just easier.  They have their place, even in well-told stories.  Indeed, FiMP1 uses Levels 1 and 2 in a few places (the introduction, for example).

That said, most worldbuilding is better-delivered via Skill Level 3.  As an example, let’s consider Rainbow Dash’s introduction.

"Hi. I'm the friendly neighborhood Jerk with a Heart of Gold. Nice to meet you."

“Hi. I’m the friendly neighborhood Jerk with a Heart of Gold. Nice to meet you.”

This scene is the first time we learn one major piece of worldbuilding: “ponies actively manage the weather”.  The scene needs to explain this fact to us, show us how it happens, and do so without making it feel like a lecture.

There are a few ways one could go about this.  Let’s consider some hypothetical examples, using Tayler’s skill levels.

Skill level one: “Pegasi (and only pegasi) can physically touch clouds as though they were solid, and affect the weather by moving clouds from certain locations to others.  They can also induce rain and snow by wringing or jostling it from clouds, as though they were water-soaked sponges.”

Skill level two:

Spike: Why don’t you just get rid of them with your magic?
Twilight: Unicorn magic can’t affect clouds, Spike.  Only Pegasi can affect the weather.

These get the job done, but they don’t integrate well with the story.  They stop the action so the audience can be told the things they need to know.

By contrast, the actual scene uses Skill Level Three.  Just like Tayler’s hypothetical plasma cannon, Dash’s abilities are unequivocally demonstrated during the scene (Level 3) — we see her move the clouds, manipulate the wind, and induce rain.  In a sense, this is yet another version of the “show, don’t tell” rule (in fact, I’m beginning to suspect that’s true of most rules of storytelling).

Comparing Rainbow Dash to a plasma cannon seems oddly appropriate.

Comparing Rainbow Dash to a plasma cannon seems oddly appropriate.

But even this doesn’t fully articulate why the scene works so well.  It turns out another level exists above Skill Level 3:

Howard Tayler: We’ve talked in the past about making scenes serve multiple purposes…For me, I would say that’s actually Skill Level 4. That’s a point at which not only has the world building been transparent, but everything that you put in the world is doing double, triple, quadruple duty.

The really impressive aspect of Dash’s intro is how the scene uses Skill Level 4: the worldbuilding serves multiple narrative purposes.  Dash’s cloudsmithing introduces us to an element of the world, but it also accomplishes several other things.  It provides several amusing visual gags.  It establishes the basics of RD’s character — ambitious, yet lazy; well-meaning, but socially maladroit; brash and conceited.  Finally, it sets up the minor conflict (Twi’s bad mane day) that allows Rarity’s introduction to occur.

Early versions of wet-mane left something to be desired.

Early versions of wet-mane left something to be desired.

This is true for most of the pilot: each scene of worldbuilding serves more than one purpose.  Think of the examples I discussed last time, and you’ll find that every example I give accomplishes something apart from worldbuilding, be it establishing character, building dramatic tension, or just getting a quick laugh.

This demonstrates a counter-intuitive principle of storytelling: the more information that each scene provides, the better it tends to work (to a point, of course).  If Dash’s introductory scene had only showed us aspects of Rainbow Dash’s character, or only told us how Pegasi manipulate the weather, or only set up Twilight’s encounter with Rarity, it would have come across as artificial.  The audience would think “okay, we’re introducing a new character now,” or “now we’re getting some worldbuilding.”  But when the scene does all 3 of these things (and more), it’s much easier to forget about that, suspend our disbelief, and simply go with the narrative.

What’s intriguing to me is this: My Little Pony is not the type of show you’d expect to have great worldbuilding or exposition.  Those elements are frequently thought to be the exclusive domain of more “adult, serious” works of fiction.  But FiM shows us that an all-ages appeal is perfectly compatible with an intriguing and developed fictional world — you just have to deliver it well.

Once again, FiM demonstrates a major thesis: the main way to write a good story for little girls…is to write a good story.

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