Spoiler warnings for My Little Pony and The Graceling By: Kristen Cashore. Before we begin.
So, my daughter is still on her pony kick. Actually, she’s been wanting to watch “Let’s Plays” about Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, so I set up the laptop and let her watch part of a 2 hour speed run since she was good and finished her lunch. But, the other night, and for the past few days, she’s wanted to watch the “Animals” episode of My Little Pony.
The premise of the episode is that all of the Mane 6 have an animal friend except for Rainbow Dash. She then decides to hold a tournament to find the “coolest” pet. Her selection includes butterflies, falcons, bats, eagles and hummingbirds. But Fluttershy insists that a tortoise participates as well. He’s the exact opposite of everything Rainbow Dash wanted, but ends up being her selected pet because…The Plot Demanded–no wait. Not quite. But almost “Because The Plot Demanded It.”
I know it isn’t fair for adults to critique a show designed for 8 year old kids. But this is one of the episodes that’s always been bothering me. A particular plot point in that episode is so…off-putting and so glaring, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. It was the third time hearing it in the background that I finally formed it into words. I remember icanhazcheeseburger had a page. I dunno if it’s still there, but it was called “Oddly Specific.” That’s what’s wrong with that episode. An arbitrarily, oddly specific point or saying that the entire plot hangs on. And using devices like this, is quite frankly, lazy.
First, the specifics. Rainbow Dash has the final competition to decide the coolest pet. A race against her down a dangerous gorge. Now, here’s the laziness. Announced as a race, Rainbow Dash states “The first animal to cross the finish line with me wins.” Later on, Rainbow Dash gets trapped and the tortoise, later named Tank, saves her by carrying her on the back of his shell. With the Falcon being the first one to cross the finish line, it looks like Tank won’t be Rainbow Dash’s pet. But wait! Rainbow Dash said whoever crosses the line “with her” is the winner. The oddly specific part is “with her”
First off, if it’s a race. That means first place is the winner. Wouldn’t that also be the best way to determine a pet? Why should a pet keep up with her and cross the finish line with her to win? True, keeping up with her is a considerable feat, but if an animal kept up with her, wouldn’t that just mean the animal is in first place anyway, since we see Rainbow Dash dominating the race for 90% of the event. Why such an oddly specific rule to reach the end goal of having Rainbow Dash learn a lesson and get a new friend?
Making up oddly specific rules is, in my opinion, lazy. Especially when said rule carries the bulk of the plot. This was always the problem I had with The Graceling. I know everyone loved that book, but I thought it was average at best, and my wife didn’t like it at all. She stated it was a mediocre fantasy book that had been done a million times. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to put an end to laziness.
Spoiler warnings again for The Graceling. You’ve been warned.
Ok, so people in Cashore’s world have “Graces” Think of them as mutant powers ala The X-Men. Katsa’s (Ugh!!!! Another “Kat” character who fits the stereotype of EVERY OTHER “Kat” character) mutant power is killing. But she meets a man who’s grace is “fighting.”
When I read that, it immediately jarred me out of the story. That’s oddly specific. That fighting and killing are two different mutant powers. But we see Katsa “fight” and subsequently kill a lot of people. So, does this guy, whose name I forget, lack all aptitude to kill a person once he’s beaten them by “fighting.” Or, is the writer using a lazy technique to carry the plot? I think it’s the latter.
Of course, that’s not his grace. It’s something else, but he uses his super hearing to fight and keep up with Katsa or something. The point is, the a bit plot point hinged on something that comes dangerously close to a red herring. Yes, I realize red herrings are nothing to be trifled with in fiction, but its obvious by the way the author has framed her world that Katsa’s boyfriend isn’t want he seems. Fighting and killing are the same thing in this world, so why is fighting treated differently? I would almost call this a red herring because we’re told fighting and killing are two different things, even though Katsa’s grace is killing which makes her apt at fighting at the same time. People can only have one grace, mind you.
If you need something to happen to make a character make a decision, first of all, it’s probably not good for the plot. I’m against “making” characters do stuff in a vast majority of cases. But if you decide it’s right for your plot it, don’t be lazy and pass off oddly specific things as generalizations for the “big” plot reveal. I have no idea how it could’ve been handled differently in The Graceling save the whole “fighting is a grace” mechanic had to be removed and replaced with something else. But in the case of MLP, Rainbow Dash recognizes that all of the other animals leave her behind once she becomes trapped. Let’s not forget, her Element of Harmony is Loyalty. Tank was Loyal to her to the end, and once she realized that, she could’ve chosen Tank as her pet, regardless of who won the race, as they weren’t “Loyal” and thus shouldn’t be with Rainbow Dash. It works and reinforces a character trait that’s not seen a lot, adding weight to Rainbow Dash’s element.
So, that’s my take on those oddly specific things that hold up huge segments of plot. There might even be a word for things like these, I dunno. These are fine in your rough drafts. But don’t let them survive to the finished version. It’s lazy. We all have trouble with this, and I’m no exception, but once we start asking more of our fiction, we’ll probably get more out of it.