We’ve all been there before. You’ve just finished watching a movie or reading a book and there was just something about it that left a bad taste in your mouth. You can’t quite put your finger on it, you just didn’t enjoy it. Unfortunately, in most cases we don’t give it any further thought. Our only concern in entertainment is whether or not it successfully entertains us, so the reasons behind our reactions are often left unconsidered in favor of simple like-or-dislike assessments. That’s a shame, because we could glean dozens of lessons by stopping for a moment to question why the things that please us please us and why other things don’t. Which parts of the story failed to hold your attention? What lines made you cringe? Which characters annoyed you and which did you wish had gotten more attention? What is it about those things that you find boring, unnerving, obnoxious, or appealing? For a story-lover like myself, these questions perform a double purpose. Not only can they offer boundless insights into what makes me who I am, sometimes even convicting me of things that I need to change, but they also unlock a wealth of truths about what separates the great stories from the weak.
One example is yesterday’s new episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, “The Show Stoppers”. A lot of fans didn’t like it, but they were awfully vague as to why. Most of them gave one or two reasons at best, and many of those were superficial, but I have to admit that I agree with the general consensus. There was something about the episode that didn’t work well, and my writer’s mind had to know what it was. I spent a little time thinking through those critical questions, and pretty soon I had an idea of what was off about the episode: there was no focus. One of the things that I loved about many of the previous episodes was their clarity and focus. Each episode was moving toward a goal, a moment of character development, and each scene served to build up to that moment, developing a theme and moving the story toward a satisfying conclusion. In “The Show Stoppers”, though, a lot of scenes seemed tacked-on. Instead of weaving jokes into scenes, they added unneeded scenes as platforms for their jokes, and there were a couple of montages that really could have gone without saying (or showing in this case). Because of all of that time spent on scenes that didn’t add to the theme, any attempts at character development felt rushed, and by the end of the episode there was still no real theme. None of the characters changed, none of them learned anything, they simply experienced the events of the episode and moved on. Every good story needs a goal toward which to move, and it needs to ignore the details that don’t move it there, and that’s where “The Show Stoppers” fell short.
If I’d just shrugged and written off the episode as “lame” or “boring” from the moment the credits rolled, I wouldn’t have learned anything from the writers’ mistakes. By thinking through what I didn’t like and how I might have done it differently, I got some great mental exercise in pacing and theme development. Think about all of the opportunities that we pass up when we settle for merely being entertained, and imagine all we could discover if we approached entertainment with our minds engaged and probing questions at the ready. Every story we experience could become a chance to think and learn and grow, and what’s not to like about that?