But don't mistake length for garrulousness! What he's assembled is a comprehensive look at every aspect of construction, narrative, and cohesiveness, all meticulously and thoroughly explored. ColonelWaffle makes a lot of statements, but he backs up everything he claims with story quotes and laudable analysis. If you've ever wanted to take a deep dive into a story, today's your lucky day: head down below the break, and explore My Little Dashie with unparalleled fidelity.
Table of Contents:
2. Grammar and Formatting – Part 1: Punctuation Mark Free-for-all
3. Structural Integrity – Part 1: The First Half of the Story
4. Storytelling Dynamics – Part 1: Metaphorically Tense Perspectives
5. Storytelling Dynamics – Part 2: Perspectively Tense Metaphors
6. Suspension of My Disbelief – Part 1: Opaque Dramatic Arcs
“The essence of the Rainbow speaks to countless colored crossbows, shooting arrows of emotion through the sky, but what does it mean?” the waffle pondered to itself.
Shame. Shame and depravity be upon me that I should choose this story to discuss. The perennial argument as regards My Little Dashie is a never-ending fool’s journey through the swirling winds of insanity. I don’t take sides! Or, huuuuungh, a distortion that is, maybe. I’ve always loved that word “distortion” by the way. It makes me think of someone grabbing ahold of a table and twisting it beyond recognizability, just with their hand. Heheh, it’s a funny image to be sure. No? Yeah, so you could say I’m on the side that doesn’t take My Little Dashie seriously, but on the other hand, I take seriously the way the fanfic functions and attracts attention. Why is it so beloved? I’ve seen people bicker, but has anyone really explored this? I mean, really, really explored it? Huh?
You need a hero. You’re holding out for a hero until the end of the night, and he’s got to be strong, and he's got to be fast, and he's got to be fresh from the fight. You need a hero, and I am your hero, because I’m going to do just that. I shall brave the treacherous currents of this story and figure out the objective, unequivocal reason why people like it. OH, but I’m getting ahead of myself! Let’s first establish why I personally can’t enjoy it. However, even before that, let’s summarize the plot.
The main character is a depressed and lonely man who lives in an abandoned factory town. He remains unnamed throughout the story. One day, he finds a box on the sidewalk. Inside that box, there is a cartoon character that the main character is familiar with, being that he’s a brony. A young filly Rainbow Dash who can’t speak or eat or fly peeks up at him. The main character, who’s afraid for the little one, takes her home and decides to adopt her. He cares for her as if she was his own daughter, and they share experiences together for 15 years. After those 15 years, Celestia and the remane five come to take Rainbow back to Equestria, and they do. The main character reflects on their experiences together. The end.
So, without further superfluous ado…
2. Grammar and Formatting – Part 1: Punctuation Mark Free-for-all
Note: This section focuses on the technical aspects of writing. I’ll edge on discussing semantics when it’s relevant, as it tend to be when talking about grammar.
For such a popular story, the copy-editing leaves something to be desired, and to be clear, I do hold this story to a higher standard because of its popularity. There are too many grammatical problems that you’d expect an editor to have dealt with before My Little Dashie was submitted to fimfiction, since the story was popular before its submission to the site. The most glaring one is the repeated incorrect use of semicolons. Almost every semicolon from the beginning to the end of the story is incorrect. Observe:
[1. Incorrect semicolon, no predicate in second clause] I was stopped by something unusual; a stray cardboard box in the middle of the sidewalk.
[2. Obviously incorrect semicolon] I get the initial response I expected; fear.
[3. Incorrect semicolon] I look, and sleeping beside me is the small cyan filly; her rainbow mane and tail still, her head resting on the inside of my elbow.
[4. Incorrect semicolon] (“My own little pony, a Rainbow Dash plushie to sleep with and hold tight. And now I have a real Rainbow Dash, a filly, sleeping at my side; content as though she's known me since birth.”)
[5. Incorrect semicolon again] My despair, my sore feet and painful heart all go unnoticed as nothing else can come remotely close to the feeling I have right now; this joy I am experiencing at this moment as I lay awake on my couch.
[6. Incorrect semicolon] I've been sick for three days now; a mental illness that has been tearing me apart.
[7. Incorrect semicolon] (“That's when it always happens, you know; when everything is finally perfect and you don't have to worry anymore.”)
I stopped taking notes on them somewhere towards the middle and then started again near the end. My implicit mission statement with a critique like this one is to wring as much good and bad out of a story as I can possibly find, but the incorrect semicolons started to seriously clutter my notes somewhere around the middle, so I thought: “Whatever. I guess I don’t need to point out every grammatical problem.” I stopped taking notes on them but then changed my mind later on. Anyway, I think I correctly observe that at the time ROBCakeran wrote this story, he didn’t understand how to use semicolons. I’m sure he does now. In fact, most of the criticisms I make against My Little Dashie won’t apply to his writing today. He’s far and away a way better writer today.
That being said, there’s a broader lesson to be learned here. When you decide to use a certain punctuation mark, or word, or phrase, you’d better know how to use it. Otherwise, you’ll end up like ROBCakeran. Not to mention, I’m guilty of this. Try this sentence on for size:
“The lock” was done; I gloated as I now stared at the blueprints.
This is from The Story of a Robot, which I’m currently revising. From my perspective, the strongest aspect of that story was Sweetie Bot’s voicing and characterization, while the weakest aspect was the formatting. There are two obvious problems with the sentence in question. No. 1: while the semicolon is not incorrect, it’s completely unnecessary. The only reason why I might consider it necessary in a sentence like this is because it rushes the pacing somewhat, as apposed to if these were two separate sentences. However, the two main clauses of the sentence are too disconnected to justify that. They don’t follow, the way you want two main clauses to when you use a semicolon. The second issue is the stilted phrase “as I now.” I could’ve simply ended the sentence with: “I gloated, staring at the blueprints.”
You also need to know why, or at least be able to justify why you use a specific punctuation mark, word, or phrase, and not any other. Semicolons are fairly floppy and unwieldy. They’re relatively rare in storytelling, so they catch your eye, and they break the normal rhythm of the text because of how rare they are. They want you to read faster for sure. That’s their intended purpose, but it’s easy to not know how to react when you see one, as they pop up where sentences should normally end, by definition. I kind of hurry through sentences when I see them, but then I find I missed some little thing because I read just a teeny-weensy bit too fast. I think the issue there is that there’s not really an established standard for how they function when you use them to pace the narrative. How fast do you actually want the reader to read when you use them? It’s the reason why I advice to stay away from them for pacing purposes, though there are other reasons they might be useful. For the purposes of pacing though, they’re definitely overused in this story.
Likewise, the occasional use of colons in this story seems hard to justify. Here’s an example: “As I stand to stretch my tired legs, I accidentally bump the side of the box with my foot, and the inevitable occurs: she wakes up.” Colons aren’t useful at all for pacing the narrative, in my opinion. When I see a colon, my instinct is to stop for as long as I would if there was a period. In this case, I don’t see why the author couldn’t have just used a period. I think this is true for all colons used in My Little Dashie. Here are the other examples of it I found:
[1.] Every so often, something new and interesting happens: I meet an old friend, I find a dollar on the ground, or I get chased by a stray dog.”)
[2.] I've fallen into the same dull routine: Wake, work, sleep, repeat.
[3.] This is where I currently stand: looking into the box at a small... something.
[4.] She's beyond the word ‘lost’: she is misplaced.
[5.] I know the meme gets old, but I must say it: my heart exploded again.
[6.] Apparently the fan fiction writers got it right: she can't bake at all.
[7.] She has given me hope, love, compassion, and now something I thought I'd never utter: a daughter.
[8.] The night of her departure, I did something I hadn't done in a long time: I went for a walk.
The third issue is one I’m more than familiar with from my critique of a different story… ellipsis-induced dramatic pauses. It’s maddening, because ellipses are like super commas. They’re SO useful, but so overused in amateur fiction writing. I think it’s symptom of a person not understanding the tools of the trade yet. They can’t tell the difference between a hammer and a sledgehammer, a comma and an ellipsis, and use the sledgehammer because it seems more dramatic and because it looks cool, perhaps. The thing is that ellipsis-induced dramatic pauses are supposed to be long. If you’re an avid reader, that’s how you’re used to them, but they way ROBCakeran uses them in this story, it’s like they’re supposed to be short, like natural comma-pauses, which begs the question: why not use the more inconspicuous comma? Just observe:
From My Little Dashie: “Each time, the image stays the same. Inside, is a sleeping... filly... Rainbow Dash.”
My version with commas: “Each time, the image stays the same. Inside, is a sleeping, filly, Rainbow Dash.”
From My Little Dashie: “‘We... she is...’ I started, but I couldn't hold back my tears any longer, ‘I know it's not true...god, I wish it was, but-’”
My version with commas (and a hyphen): “‘We, she is-’ I started, but I couldn't hold back my tears any longer, ‘I know it's not true, god, I wish it was, but-’”
Commas and hyphens do the trick twice as well in these instances. If you want to portray a character stammering, you’ll achieve that much more easily with hyphens and commas than you will with ellipses. And the pauses in “sleeping… filly… Rainbow Dash” are immersion-breaking, in my view. The pauses are too close to each other and drawn out. You realize you’re just looking at dots as you’re reading. From the position of the author, it’s once again the illusion of mistaking a sledgehammer for a hammer. You don’t need dramatic pauses this long following each other.
You can see the converse problem in a sentence like: “‘D-d-do I have t-t-to go d-d-daddy?’” The dramatic effect of the hyphen is underestimated, and thus the hyphen is overused. Here, it might be useful to bring up the difference between the narrator and the viewpoint character. The narrator is the main character as he’s telling the story, and the viewpoint character is the main character experiencing the story as it’s happening. Maybe the line “Do I have to go daddy?” really was spoken as “‘D-d-do I have t-t-to go d-d-daddy?’” in the story, as the viewpoint character experienced it. But it doesn’t make any stylistic sense, so the narrator needs to narrate it differently. You can’t read it by just looking at it. You kind of have to slog through it, which maybe was the point. I personally think it looks ugly, and it doesn’t at all have the effect of making me imagine Rainbow Dash stammering. Instead, I have to stop for a second and squint. In the words of the president of the United States: “Wrong. Wrong.”
I have one more issue as it relates to punctuation marks. It has to do with Applejack’s voicing. It’s not a huge thing but I’d be remiss not to point this out. Here are three lines of dialogue, courtesy of Applejack:
“She was stopped by Applejack's hoof, “Easy there sugarcube. We're jus' here fer Rainbow, so we ain't got no time for any eatin'.”)
“Uh... 'scuse me sugarcube,” Applejack started, returning from the kitchen, ‘did ah jus' hear Rainbow call ya ‘dad’?”)
“That don't es'plain why she don't know us,” Applejack said.”
I feel like pulling out the lyrics to the musical Oklahoma:
I'm jist a girl who cain't say no,
I'm in a turrible fix
I always say "come on, le's go"
Jist when I orta say nix!
The problem with writing Applejack’s dialogue this way is that it’s somewhat muddled and hard to read, while doing nothing to help us understand how she actually sounds. Spelling “just” as “jus’” and “for” as “fer” isn’t really helpful. We already know that she pronounces those words like that because she’s Applejack. You only need to remove or add a letter, as in “eatin’,” when you have to spell the word differently for it to sound different. You can’t pronounce the word “eatiNG” as “eatiN’.” Therefore, you need to spell it as “eatin’,” with an apostrophe.
The common denominator among the criticisms I’ve made so far is a poor, indiscriminate use of punctuation marks, specifically the semicolon, colon, ellipsis, hyphen, and apostrophe. It’s fine to use these too often. That’s how you develop an instinct for how they should be used. It’s possible not to use them enough if you try to avoid them entirely, so that’s not a solution. That goes doubly for the apostrophe. Don’t try to avoid the apostrophe. That’s a bad idea, you know… because it’s impossible. How’s that for a well-placed ellipsis by the way? In any case, I find it helps asking myself the question: “Why do I use this punctuation mark as apposed to any other?” But then that begs the question: “Why would one punctuation mark be better than another?” Think about it, because there are often clear answers to these questions, not objectively clear but intuitively clear. For instance, these things are generally preferable: clarity, briefness, and immersiveness.
I view them as the three great principles of narrative prose writing: the principle of clarity, briefness, and immersiveness, so I’ll often talk about them in transcendent, elevated terms. Take them as you will. It depends on what you want out of your story. Ask others what they think. Someone more experienced might be able to crystalize how using a certain punctuation mark in a certain context makes the narrative prose actually sound. Most of all, be open to criticism. Be strong. Keep calm and narrate on. As regards My Little Dashie, its punctuation marks are spread far and wide and wobbly and are misused and overused again and again. I think this is way more noticeable when you’ve read for a while, as I have, since I have an instinctual understanding of how these punctuation marks are supposed to feel when used that others perhaps might not have. To me, it sometimes makes the text hard to read but what it does most of all is break immersion time and time again, and that is something I will not put up with, up with which I will not put. Anyhow, once again, take that as you will.
3. Structural Integrity – Part 1: The First Half of the Story
Note: This section focuses on breakdowns of narrative structure, mainly conflict development but perspective and plot structure too when they’re relevant. I make qualitative judgments about the story based on these breakdowns.
I’ll now go through the story systematically and break it down in terms of conflict development. I’ll begin with the first half of the story, as per the title, and return to the second half later. The story is written like an autobiography, showing snippets of the main character’s life over the course of 15 years. It begins with him mulling over the tragedy of his life. He talks about how lonely and depressed he is, and this goes on for the first 1000 words of the story. The two central conflicts that arise are thus loneliness and depression on the part of the main character. After he’s found Rainbow Dash, these conflicts are resolved and replaced by an underlying central conflict from which little conflicts spring up.
The first 1000 words of the story end with a sequence break, and then we get the sequence where the main character finds Rainbow Dash in a box. This is the inciting incident of the story’s third central conflict. The first two are immediately resolved when the main character finds Rainbow Dash, once again. It’s not normal that this happens, and it calls into question why the first 1000 words needed to be spent establishing that the main character is lonely and depressed. The third central conflict of the story is “how to take care of Rainbow Dash.” I think that’s the best way of summarizing it. It’s the ins and outs of how to raise a daughter who’s also a pegasus from a cartoon.
In the second sequence, the main character talks about how happy it’s made him to adopt Rainbow Dash. He helpfully tells us: “It has been only four months since I brought the young Rainbow Dash into my home.” The second section touches on the conflict in this paragraph:
She seems to enjoy the morning cartoons on the local stations, and I myself have come to enjoy them. She acts much like a young child would. Then again why wouldn't she? Another amazing feat is she has been learning to talk. I'm not much of a teacher, or for that matter a parent, but I am doing my best to help her learn to speak and read. I don't know how, or even where to begin to attempt in teaching her to write. From the show they did it with their mouths, but I will let that go for now. Once she is a little older, if I even have her that long, I will do what I can to teach her.
As I said, the sequence touches on the conflict, but it’s only a light push, nothing more––a soft glance. It’s prudent to note here that the specific conflicts of the main character teaching Rainbow to speak, read and write are never returned to, except after already resolved. The central conflict is returned to and the central conflict includes this paragraph, but Rainbow specifically learns how to speak, read and write later, between two sections of narrative, and the main character simply tells us about it afterwards.
A year later, in the third sequence, two new minor conflicts spring out of the larger central conflict. The first is: Rainbow doesn’t know she’s a cartoon character. Should I tell her or no? The second conflict is: “I can see the hunger for fresh air in her eyes. I can't keep her in here her entire life.” The first of these conflicts will come back, and Rainbow will have to deal with the fact that she’s a cartoon character. The second one is ill-defined. Rainbow hungers for fresh air? It sounds like a metaphor, like she wants to go out into the world and explore, but it’s apparently meant to be taken literally, because after the main character starts taking Rainbow Dash outside to the park and such, this second conflict is never returned to. Figure that.
In the beginning of the fourth sequence, the main character talks about how he taught Rainbow how to fly. It’s two years later, and he’s mighty proud. I’ll note here that mentioning Rainbow not being able to fly earlier in the story would’ve created a small dramatic arc from that point, up until now. I as a reader would’ve said: “Uh-huh, so now he’s finally taught her how to fly after having so much trouble with it 1000 words earlier.” That dramatic arc would’ve puffed along in the back of the reader’s head and generated a little tension throughout the course of these 1000 words. This was the conflict that never was and there are many examples of this throughout My Little Dashie that I will mention later in this critique. I view these as lost opportunities to generate tension and give the story a more coherent feel.
A new minor conflict pops up in the fourth sequence. It’s that the main character can’t afford to buy Rainbow the things she wants, and it’s almost verbatim put like that: “I only wish I had a way to buy her the things she wants.” Never mind what she wants, which isn’t explained. In fact, Rainbow’s thoughts and feelings on things are barely glossed over, but more on that in a later section of this critique.
“If you told me four years ago…” the fifth sequence starts. The main character is very studious about telling us how much time has passed. I don’t think this is necessarily bad but I can imagine subtler and cleverer ways of doing it than just stating the number of years that has passed at the beginning of every new sequence. The story is written in the style of an autobiography after all. If I wrote an autobiography on my life, I would hold myself to a somewhat higher standard than that. You could work the number of years into any of the other narrative modes that aren’t narrative exposition, such as dialogue, description or action.
For example, imagine the main character coming home from work one day in the first sequence, finding a letter from one of his friends with the year 2012 written somewhere on it. There we have one point of reference. Imagine him then getting another letter years later with the year 2014 or 2013 written somewhere on it. That’s a cute little motif you could return to now and again to inform the reader of how much time has passed. I’m not saying you should do this or that this is even necessarily the cleverest option, but it’s better than mentioning the year at the beginning of every new section, at least in my opinion.
Also in the fifth sequence, Rainbow got her cutie mark. Or rather, we’re told that she got her cutie mark in self-thought vis-à-vis the main character. Once again, what led up to her getting her cutie mark? What struggles did she have to go through? None, because the main character tells us she didn’t know what a cutie mark was until she got it, which isn’t unbelievable but it’s somewhat annoying. Remove the sentence about her not knowing about what cutie marks are, have him tell her about them two sequences earlier, allude to it one sequence later, and resolve it in this sequence. That’s a small dramatic arc that would inject a theme into the story, as dramatic arcs do. The theme would be something like “struggling to grow and understand the world around you,” and a confluence of these small dramatic arcs could crystalize that as a theme. Again, this is a failure in recognizing opportunities for conflict and creating themes that could and would coarse through the story, making it feel more coherent.
Later, in the fifth sequence as well, this happens:
She smiled at me, then closed her eyes to sleep. I walked out, turned off her light, making sure her Spongebob nightlight was on, of course, closed her door, then sat down on the couch. I haven't moved for an hour now, I'm so lost in thought. The few times she had called me "daddy," I didn't think anything of it. I could picture why she called me that. Being with her so much made me accept it as part of taking care of her. But tonight when she said those three words, the realization finally sunk into my heart. I am her daddy.
She considers me her daddy. And quite frankly, I consider her my daughter. Even though we are of a totally different species, I still love her with all my heart. And it has taken her to speak those words to me for me to finally realize that. I think I have finally done it. I have broken my hard shell that had formed when my parents died. I've let a sweet little filly into my life. I gave her a home to live in, food to eat, and now a daddy to love. She has given me hope, love, compassion, and now something I thought I'd never utter: a daughter.
“Those three words” are: “I love you.” She told him that she loves him and his reaction is deceptively shallow. Let’s zoom in on this part: “I think I have finally done it. I have broken my hard shell that had formed when my parents died.” This may seem like a satisfying resolution to an internal conflict. However, go back and read it again. There’s something fishy here, and that is that there’s actually nothing anchoring this part, or indeed, this last paragraph to the rest of the story. This resolution is to an internal conflict that never began.
The main character speaks of a “hard shell” that formed when his parents died. What does a “hard shell” mean in psychological terms? It’s not a clear metaphor at all, and no “hard shell” was mentioned up until this point. How has the main character actually changed? Through this rhetorical sleight of hand of mentioning a “hard shell” being “broken,” the author has completely circumvented having to explain how the main character changed from the beginning of the story up until now. In addition, there are no context clues as to how he’s changed because we learn he’s changed in narrative exposition. In other words, we’re told that he’s changed. This is problematic, because the main character’s explanation of how he’s changed is fuzzy and unclear. As a consequence, we don’t understand how he’s changed.
This is a failure in character development, and it isn’t isolated to this paragraph but more on that later. I’ll note a second thing here that should’ve become more and more obvious as I went through the story. Its sequences don’t progress causally––there is no plot. Instead, what ties the story together is the main character’s ill-defined dramatic arc, vague as the changes he goes through are. You often see this plotlessness in diary-style stories. They zoom the reader in on the internal conflicts and concerns of the main character while leaving external factors and even other characters to the wayside. That’s why you’d better have a good central conflict in mind when writing this kind of story, something that could well be the focus of 12000 words of text without boring the reader. It’s also useful to be good at voicing, since you also have to portray this conflict believably in self-thought.
What you’re doing is portraying the conflict in a diary/autobiography so by definition, it has to be in narrative exposition, and there the game is all about describing things in specific terms. That’s why you can’t use metaphors like “I have broken the hard shell that had formed when my parents died” to describe character development in this kind of story. Here, there is no plot, no logical progression of events, so the reader relies on you, the author, to state how things have changed in clear terms. If we can’t see how a character changes from point A to point B, you need to be able to bridge that gap in internal monologue through specific expository description. The author, ROBCakeran, doesn’t do that. He tries to boil things down in vague language and fuzzy metaphors. To reiterate, it’s not clear how the main character changes from the beginning of the story up until this point in my analysis. But it’s even worse than that and you’ll soon be wary of just how deep this issue goes.
4. Storytelling Dynamics – Part 1: Metaphorically Tense Perspectives
Note: This section focuses on construction: said tags, word choice, sentence structure, etc. I analyze these and make observations about them.
Let’s start by talking about issues of perspective and tense. The perspective of this main character is a first person narrator that moves between present and past tense intermittently. The closest analogy I could come up with was an “autobiographical narrator,” but most autobiographies don’t move between past and present tense in this way. Another possible analogy is a diary. It would describe the main character’s fawning, seemingly nostalgic recollections of events––how I would characterize it. The issue with that would of course be that some of the narrative plays out in present tense. Diaries don’t play out in present tense. In any case, I decided on the “autobiographical narrator,” because that analogy seems more descriptive.
The obvious way in which the tense shifts helps My Little Dashie is that they punctuate the story with the moments that are most salient to the main character. If the author wants something to feel visceral and immediate, the contrast between present and past tense provides that. I think this is true because when the story shifts to present tense, we feel closer to the main character than we would have otherwise. In addition, the autobiographical style helps the author describe events over long stretches of time with brevity.
The downside to this writing style is that it takes us away from the characters. Their immediate day-to-day struggles fade into the background and we’re left with a rough outline, something of a sketch of how life is between Rainbow Dash and the main character. I’ve already worried about the effect this has on us being able to follow his character arc, the inner journey of this main character. What I’ll add is that I think the author sometimes allows the main character to make statements about what other characters think or feel in a way that is undisciplined. Here’s an example:
A single tear ran down her left cheek, as I could see her eyes moving under her lids. Her mind was doing the same thing mine was, forcing our fondest memories all at once, for this would be the last time we ever saw one another.
The main character doesn’t know what her mind was doing here. Rainbow could be thinking or not thinking about any number of things, but he makes an absolute statement about what and how she thinks. He does it as the narrator, which makes the statement absolute. One could speculate that this was deliberate and that this is just what the main character thought Rainbow was doing. I’d be open to consider that, were this not one of several examples of the main character doing this kind of thing. Here’s another example:
I smile again at her. She looks up to me with much confusion in her eyes as she tries to process what is happening.
The main character doesn’t know this. Who’s to say whether she’s trying to process what’s happening, or whether she feels in part safe, in part confused? This is a presumptive statement. It’s said in present tense as if the main character has any foreknowledge of what’s happening in Rainbow’s brain. He doesn’t. This isn’t a big complaint but I find it to be an undisciplined way of conveying a first person narrative. An author needs to watch his or her attributions. That’s the moral of the story. A broader criticism that could be made against this story concerns sudden tense shifts that sometimes confused and otherwise annoyed. Here’s an example:
Now, I didn't even imagine it was possible to accomplish such a feat in my world. I knew you could break the sound barrier, but actually do the rainbow part too? My mind is blown. So, the initial explosion brought upon many broken windows and sent off car alarms in the next county. I quickly rounded her up and we rushed home before anyone could arrive at the park. I was lucky none of my windows were broken.
“My mind is blown.” This is the sentence I want to note. I think it clashes with the rest of the paragraph. It feels jarring to me, and the reason why is because it’s an expression you use when you’re shocked in the moment, yet the main character is talking about something that happened in the past. He has to be because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to break out the present tense in the middle of the paragraph. As a bonus, I also want to point out the unnecessarily specific phrasing in “the initial explosion.” That begs the question: what did the rest of the explosion do then? Also, “sent off” refers to something flying up in the air or being thrown really far. The author probably meant to write “set off.” Here’s another tense-related example:
This part of town was hit the worst; only a few houses still stand, and none of them occupied. It truly is a sad sight to see. Then again, it's really the only sight I see. The only sight I'll ever see.
This one is a different animal. The issue here is that the main character goes from describing things in past tense, into remarking on his descriptions in present tense. He might be currently thinking in the past, meaning that “then again, it’s really the only sight I see” is a thought that’s thought at the same time as he describes this run-down neighborhood. The second option is that he’s thinking about how he feels in the present, as he describes the past. In other words, either the narrator and the viewpoint character are the same person, or the narrator has experiences the viewpoint character doesn’t. It’s not obvious which one is correct.
All is in the character’s head, both past descriptions and current thoughts. Moving between the present and past tenses doesn’t distinguish clearly to the reader whether the main character’s thinking out loud in the present, or whether he’s just describing how he felt in the past, in the present. In other words, is this is how he feels in the present tense, or this is how he felt in the past tense? Right, so this is the issue with using present tense to convey thought but past tense to convey everything else. It’s not clear what kind of narrator one’s dealing with. Some writers opt to write thought in past tense as well, while others write thought in present tense in italics, but you have to pick something that makes it obvious what kind of narrator the reader’s dealing with. Is it a past tense monologue from the main character, or a recollection of events in the present? Is the narrator and the viewpoint character the same person, or does the narrator have experiences the viewpoint character don’t?
It’s eventually revealed in My Little Dashie that it’s the latter, since the main character goes from describing things in past tense to present tense in the middle of a scene, specifically the scene where he finds Rainbow Dash in a box. That means he stood in front of that box and thought about his life and past experiences before he decided to pick Rainbow Dash out of that box and take her home. Wait, what!? Um, well, never mind. That’s what people mean when they talk about the magic of storytelling, I guess. A tense shift is used to greater avail in this scene:
I stopped beside the box, and looked down at the colorful blob inside.
This is where I currently stand: looking into the box at a small... something. No, I know exactly what it is, but my brain isn't allowing me to fully realize it just yet. At first I want to say it's simply a toy, left to die along with all the other things in this block. But then I saw it breathing. In fact, it appears to be sleeping. My hands are sweating, my breathing erratic, and I'm blinking my eyes trying to refresh my vision.
I actually think the tense shift itself is more emotionally forceful and stylistically prudent than anything else in the scene where the main character finds Rainbow Dash. Just look at the rest of the paragraph. The writing itself is bare-bones effective, in my opinion. It has a grip on my emotions somewhat but then some weird word choices causes that to swivel off. I really tried to immerse myself, but I have a hard time swallowing phrases like “my breathing erratic” and “trying to refresh my vision.” Is that supposed to express shock or confusion or what?
The disjointed structure of the last sentence gives me the impression that the main character has vertigo, but then he says things like “my hands are sweating,” which makes me think of someone being stressed out and “I’m blinking my eyes trying to refresh my vision,” which makes think of someone being confused. The word choices seem to be tonally contradictory. They don’t have the same conceptual content. As for “my breathing erratic,” I don’t know what that’s supposed to make me think of. Joy? I’m honestly not sure. This kind of tonal discord characterizes the rest of this scene, in my opinion.
In general, one could argue the first person autobiographical narrator is the optimal way of telling this story. If we could only know emotional progression and overall change the main character goes through from scene to scene, I might agree with that. As it stands, I take issue with the way this story’s told. I’ll expound more upon that later. More favorably, I will say that it allows for some interesting and sometimes affecting contrasts during tense shifts. Also, the autobiographical style blends with the main character’s voice in really favorable ways sometimes. I’m thinking specifically of the opening sequence. I’ll talk more about that later. I have some positive things in spare to say about this story, but I feel I can only do that against the backdrop of my analysis of this story’s characters and conflicts. About them, I have mixed things to say. However, before all that, I offer more breakdown of construction.
5. Storytelling Dynamics – Part 2: Perspectively Tense Metaphors
This section will be devoted to looking at the strange and curious cases of failed metaphors in My Little Dashie. We’re talking about metaphors that are not incorrect in the technical sense but just fail to evoke in the way they’re supposed to. Talking about whether metaphors evoke or not is subjective to the extent that it is, and I make no mistake about that. I can tell you about some of the broad principles I use and why I think they’re reliable. Whether you choose to agree or comply with them is up to you. I personally think there are some situations where it’s obvious what makes a metaphor work or not. There are others where it’s not as obvious, but I think the view some people seem to take that it’s all up in the air is semantically silly. With that said, let’s start with this sentence:
Upon arriving, I sat down down and played some games, attempting to push the box out of my mind. I had little luck, as the box somehow managed to push it's way back in.
Here, the word “down” is used to two times in the first sentence and “its” is written as a contraction, as “it’s.” What’s more notable about these two sentences is that the metaphor of the box pushing its way into the main character’s mind isn’t evocative. I think the villains here are the verbs “attempting” and “managed.” The author sucks the air out of his metaphors by adding these words in front of “to push” in both sentences. “To push” is an infinitive and at the end the predicate in both cases.
The word “attempting” informs the verb “push,” and that’s all that it does: function as an adverb, same with “managed.” Believe it or not, this removes emphasis from “to push” and places it on “attempting” and “managed,” two verbs which are contextually unrelated to the actual metaphor.
I know I’m going on and on, but let’s remind ourselves of what the author tried to do with these two sentences. He tried to construct a colorful metaphor, maybe not consciously, but this is the rhetorical device he actually tried to use. What do you think conserving a metaphor inside a verb string with auxiliaries and adverbials actually does? I will rephrase that to make it clearer: What do you think using an adverb together with a verb inside a metaphor actually does? I will clarify further. Here’s an example that I came up with:
I’m surrounded by horror, and it’s pushing in on me. Closer and closer, it pushes.
Here, the metaphor is conserved in the verbs. The “horror” isn’t literally “pushing in” on this hypothetical first person narrator. A second example:
I’m surrounded by horror, and it’s managing to push in on me. Closer and closer, attempts it to push.
Can you see the issue here? The verb “managing” punches the air out of the verb “push” in the first sentence of my second example. “Managing” comes first and adds sort of an intentionality to the verb “push,” but the thing to remember is that the sentence is a metaphor and “to push” isn’t meant to be taken literally. The actual “horror” didn’t “manage” to do anything because horror is an abstract concept. This issue largely nullifies the metaphor and makes it only discernible, meaning you can understand what it’s trying to say, but it’s not evocative. You can’t visualize or feel or otherwise imagine “the horror pushing in” on the main character. In the second sentence of my example, you can see the same dynamic. That’s why the metaphor has to be conserved in the main verb of a sentence. Maybe there are exceptions to this but I don’t think they’re many.
The issues with the second of the two sentences from MLD are exactly analogous to the issues with the example I gave, because of the tug of war between the modifiers and the main verb, which together contain the metaphor. In the first sentence, it’s not exactly analogous because the adverbial “attempting” stabilizes the sentence somewhat, so you can’t just take it out. If you did:
My version: Upon arriving, I sat down and played some games to push the box out of my mind.
If you reformulate:
My version: Upon arriving, I sat down and played some games, pushing the box out of my mind.
The jump here between literal action and metaphor is jarring, so I think ROBCakeran was right in his instinct to add “attempting” in front of “to push.” I just think “attempting” is the wrong word. It’s too long, and it implies effort, in my opinion. When “attempting” to do something, you’re putting effort into doing it. I think it’s a loaded word that has too much content for this sentence. I would replace the word “attempting” with a shorter, less loaded word that demands less attention from the reader.
With all this in mind, let me finally now replace the word “attempting” and pull out the word “managed” and we can watch the results together:
My version: Upon arriving, I sat down and played some games, trying to push the box out of my mind. I had little luck, as the box somehow pushed its way back in.
And voila: the metaphor works. All I needed to do was change a few words around. It’s easy that I make things sound more complicated than they really are when parsing sentences. For anyone reading this, just follow the basic principle to keep a metaphor conserved within the main verb, trust your instincts, find an editor who can spot things like this, and you’ll do fine.
Here’s my next subject:
Those large black eyes, along with the rose-colored rim around them, drive my heart to, as the meme goes, explode... twice.
It should be obvious why I picked this sentence. It’s illustrative of the stylistic issues with My Little Dashie in many ways. I’ll address them in no particular order. First of all, trying to use a meme as a metaphor, and furthermore announcing that this is what you’re doing in the story, is bad idea. Why, you ask? Why, because memes become outplayed and when they do, they lose their meaning, their ability to be evocative. It’s the same principle with curse words. First they’re shocking, and then they’re not, because they lose their charge, after which they’re replaced with new curse words. It’s the reason why we don’t go around calling each other rantallions and beard-splitters in the 21th century. Well, on the Internet, it’s the same principle, except it happens hyper-fast, so a meme, any meme for that matter, does not an effective metaphor make. It will have already lost all its meaning a year, month, or even a week after using it.
Second of all, the ellipsis-pause makes the sentence feel too solemn and dramatic––the same criticism I made before. Third of all, “those large black eyes, along with the rose-colored rim around them” can be shortened down to “those large black eyes and the rose-colored rim around them,” and you can do this without losing any content, tonally or otherwise. Fourth of all, “large” is a word that’s forceful and that emphasizes size. You can talk about a “large tree” or a “large cloud” but it’s harder talk about a “large mouse” or a “large squirrel.” You need to explain more. Why was the squirrel so large? Was it fat? You know. Saying that Rainbow has “large eyes” sounds awkward, because it implicitly feels as if the main character is trying to emphasize their physical size. Of course, he’s just saying that she looks cute, so a word like “big” would be more constrained and less awkward-sounding than “large.” Plus, you would get alliteration with “big black.”
Together, the failed metaphor, ellipsis-pause, strange phrasing, and weird word choice make for a rickety, hard-to-get-through sentence, especially the metaphor. The metaphor was a bad idea. It adds absolutely nothing, if you don’t count cheese, and it’s made worse by this sentence that comes later in the story: “I know the meme gets old, but I must say it: my heart exploded again.” Yes, again. The metaphor is returned to again. Honestly, it’s not even THAT good a meme. And, why show how your characters feel through memes anyway? It seems lazy to me, on top of just not being evocative. Hey, what’s this:
"Goodnight daddy. I love you."
I haven't been on the internet in, what, three years now? I don't know how the My Little Pony thing online is doing, or what memes are still alive or not. But damn it all, I'm gonna say it cause it's true! My heart exploded twice!
This is the moment where Rainbow tells the main character she loves him. Remember? And the meme returns, and with an epic build-up to boot. Still, the main character can’t stop it from sounding weird by spending three sentences justifying it before he says it. “My heart exploded twice” is a bad way of describing how a character feels at any given moment, except in a shallow, jokey way. Not to mention, look at it and think about the untold implications reusing this metaphor has for the character development the main character has gone through, or rather, maybe hasn’t. Despite keeping her in his care for several years, all he has to say when she says, “I love you” is: “OMG, adoooorrrable!!” Um, no, it’s not adorable. That’s your own daughter, extending her trust to you. It’s not adorable. Please. Moving on:
In my heart, I hope that never happens. In my head, I know it will. It's just a matter of when.
Here’s just an example of a metaphor that doesn’t need to be a metaphor. The first sentence begins: “In my heart.” Wham! Evocative, if a little clichéd. The second sentence begins, “in my head.” But what is the main character referring to when he says “my head”? His mind. As such, the word mind literally describes what the main character is referring to when he says “my head,” and is as short. Therefore, the word mind is more evocative with regard to the thing the main character’s trying to describe, since it literally describes that thing: his mind.
Speaking generally, the crucial thing to note here is that it’s easy to fail at metaphors, or weaken them. I imagine them as being on a spectrum where they’re on one end suggestive of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of touch, and on the other, just words on a screen that tell me nothing. There are many subtle factors, some that are hard to identify, that determine whether a metaphor works or not. In my view, the best strategy is to write out your story without editing it as you go along, since that might interfere with the natural flow. After that, walk away from it for a day, come back, and look at your handiwork, and read your metaphors with this yardstick in mind: does it evoke something visually, or in terms of sound, or even any of the other senses? I think that’s the right strategy. Creating or using metaphors is all about instinct. What fits where in the what and the why? Keep that in mind.
6. Suspension of My Disbelief – Part 1: Opaque Dramatic Arcs
Note: This section focuses on plot and characters. In short, it’s on the subjective side. I discuss the content of the story here through my own personal lens. Enjoy!
As clarified before, My Little Dashie has not a plot. Instead, what ties the story together is the main character’s relationship with Rainbow Dash. He describes moments between himself and Rainbow in broad, autobiographical descriptions that span over 15 years. It’s all narrative exposition from the first person perspective of this main character. That’s why I said that every sliver of tension hinges on how engaging the main character’s internal conflict is. What is the internal conflict then? It’s how to take care of Rainbow Dash, as I said. It’s the internal and central conflict of the story. Knowing that, we specifically have to look at the issues raising Rainbow presents for the main character. Well, if you’ve been waiting for a punchline, here it is. Those issues are either nonexistent, with a few exceptions that I will go over, or they play out off-narrative.
Let’s dissect that statement immediately before anyone gets confused. When we learn that she knows how to speak, read, and write, that’s something that happens “off-narrative,” simply meaning outside of the narration. The main character tells us: I want to teach her how to write, and then she knows how to write in the next section. Another example: When we learn that she knows how to fly, that happened without any forewarning. The main character’s proud over it, but we can’t be since we never experienced her learning how to fly. He simply tells us that she learned how to fly.
The only sad moment in Rainbow’s upbringing––her finding out the truth about her being a cartoon character––is fluff. It’s not handled with care as to how someone would actually react in that situation. It’s like “WHAM, sad moment” followed by “WHAM, resolution” almost immediately, and I will demonstrate this to you:
Today has to have been the worst time of my life, even more than when my parents died. Due to events I could not prepare for, Dashie found out the truth before I could tell her myself. She knows what she is, a made up cartoon character from a kids television show. She is mad, no, upset beyond all thought. She had locked herself in her room, but I know my daughter. She didn't stay in there long. She opened her window and flew off, probably into a tree to sulk in her sorrow.
I'm a monster.
I should have told her sooner, I just wasn't sure when would be the right time. Now we are both suffering for my carelessness. I thought getting cable would be a good thing, give her some more shows to watch, but what I didn't realize was that we got the HUB station. I wasn't even aware it was still up, and find my surprise the show My Little Pony is still even AIRING! It had stopped at eight seasons, but still it was repeated.
The issue with Rainbow’s and the main character’s entire argument is that there’s barely any dialogue in it and all of it is described in past tense, in exposition, in really undescriptive terms. This was good point for some tension and some conflict to arise. But we barely even get to know what Rainbow and the main character said. The main character hasn’t been given any clear character flaws yet, and is dangerously bordering on being two-dimensional if it wasn’t for a couple things, such as his overprotectiveness of Rainbow, which could be argued is a character flaw, though it’s not really that clear. As far as character flaws, what if he doesn’t know how to handle the situation and snaps at Rainbow Dash? Maybe he says something horrible to her that he’ll come to regret later on. Why not? He can have a difficulty with his temperament. It’s a character flaw that’s generic enough and easy enough to insert that––even if the main character is intentionally bland to make projecting yourself onto him easier––it’ll add something.
On a second note, we can’t forget either how important it is, the way this affects Rainbow Dash. Her entire world is turned on its head. How does she handle it? No, not important, huh? The entire focus of the story would probably need to be shifted in order to address this in any case, but it’s a valid observation nonetheless. Here’s another important character moment from when Rainbow’s an adult and Celestia and the remane five have come to take her back––in this scene, the main character goes upstairs to tell Rainbow about her friends and Celestia being there:
So that's what I did. I told her who was down there, and that they were there to take her back. She had seen the cartoon every so often after some time, and found the wacky adventures entertaining. She had given up any thought that the Rainbow Dash in the show was her, and only viewed it as another cartoon. As I talked to her, and explained that those very ponies she didn't believe in were downstairs, she brushed me off with some laughs. She didn't believe me, and thought I was playing some joke on her. So, I took her down into the living room.
The author repeatedly turns important character moments into expositions dumps of voice-over narration that explains what happens in broad terms and then tells us how the main character feels about it. In my opinion, this is a copout from actually having to characterize hard-to-characterize moments and is not an engaging way to tell this story, or at least the most engaging way to tell it. We don’t get a clear picture of how Rainbow feels or how the character arcs of both Rainbow and the main character play out because we don’t get a clear picture of how these character-defining moments play out. How do their thoughts and feelings about each other and the world around them change over time? We don’t know, and the reason why is because much of this information is buried in these scenes that play out in narrative exposition, not action.
The main character’s relationship with Rainbow Dash is central to this story, but in this sense, is kept vague throughout. Sure, he tells us that they have a father-daughter relationship, the same way he tells us how much he’s changed, but what he says and what we know from reading the story are two different things, aren’t they? It’s not clear how he’s changed because he never describes how he’s changed in clear terms, and it’s not clear exactly what kind of relationship he and Rainbow Dash share. For instance, at the beginning, the main character talks about how he’s always wanted a Rainbow Dash-plushie, and then he finds Rainbow Dash. What am I supposed to make of that, thematically? At one point he says having her made him stop watching the show, so he even likens the joy he got from having her to the joy he got from watching the show. That’s really weird. Does he just like her because she’s cute?
Furthermore, there are potentially many, many negative or grueling aspects involved in the upbringing of a child: disagreements, financial insecurity, caring for your child’s social life, worrying about their health, etc. These things are given barely any attention throughout the story. What about Rainbow’s social life? How could anyone survive with just a single person to talk to and no other link to the outside world? I’m not saying the story should be dedicated to this. I only want it to be addressed. Why is it never addressed?
Yes, what about the not-so-nice moments? Only the stereotypically nice, picturesque moments are given attention throughout this story, with the exception of two scenes: the one where Rainbow learns she’s a cartoon character and the one where Celestia and the remane five come to take her back. What about Rainbow’s teenage years, and her discovering herself sexually? This is not very nice or picturesque but it’s reality. And honestly, the author really does a number on it. Here’s how the conflict that arose from Rainbow learning that she’s a cartoon character is finally resolved:
I open my eyes from the sudden sound, and look to my left. I'm shocked at what I see before me, looking at me with teary eyes herself. Dashie, my little Dashie, covered in burrs and tree sap along her mane and tail, is standing a couple feet from me. She is wet, with both rain and tears. I hadn't heard her approach, then again being a Pegasus she was very quiet and light on her hooves.
She doesn't speak, and instead walks over to me, not caring what noises she makes under her hooves. I don't move; I just sit on the ground and watch with my own wet eyes. She looked so horrible, and yet so beautiful at the same time. Her coat would need a good cleaning, but that was the least of my worries.
Without a word, she sits next to me, not making eye contact as she looks off into the woods. I can only look at her, wishing to hug her tightly and never let her go again. But I hold back, knowing that it would be too sudden. Finally, she is first to speak.
“I... I heard you,” Her voice then got quiet as she whispers, “And I'm sorry too.”
And… cut. The story seems to go through the motions of setting up its conflicts, and then tearing them down, i.e. the main character telling us that he and Rainbow had an argument, and then offering the resolution to that argument stiltedly and mechanically for the reader to enjoy. It feels like it’s deliberately designed to be sad without letting the sad moment arise organically between the characters. Him telling us about his and Rainbow’s argument sets up the conflict, and then the resolution happens in dialogue, so that’s a fragment of a dramatic arc. We don’t get to follow the characters through their struggles, only their struggles’ teary-eyed resolutions.
We don’t get to experience the main character going through these struggles with her. Rather, we get to experience the main character explaining that they happened. When these scenes don’t play out in narrative exposition, they jump into narrative description of Rainbow and the environment in which she learns or does things, which is an interesting stylistic decision. I can show this by taking the paragraph in which she learns how to fly and color-coordinating it according to the narrative modes. Narrative exposition will have one color and narrative description will have another.
Blue: Narrative exposition
Green: Narrative description
Back to the flying. I've been taking her to that old park for weeks, in hopes I could help her learn how to fly. There is a large tree there, with branches sticking out over a sandbox. The perfect spot for her to practice. If she falls, and I can't catch her, at least she'll have something remotely soft to land on. She fell a lot. I knew she would fall a lot. There were many scrapes, cuts, and bruises toward her goal, but finally, after many weeks of work, she flew. It was only a short distance, about fifty feet, but she still did it. She's a little scraped up, but she's beaming with pride. Maybe now she could fly overhead, so that the few people on the ground don't notice her. I'll have to see if she can manipulate clouds like she could in the show; it would make it much easier to take her places. Then she can hide on a cloud as we go to the park.
There we have a little motif with the large tree with branches sticking out over a sandbox. The motif of a large tree is favorably returned to later when Rainbow learns she’s a cartoon character, and the main character and her make up in the forest. I want to note how dry this paragraph would sound if just those bits and pieces of description that you can see were removed. The jumps between narrative exposition and description, few as they are, serve the story well. I think that’s because narrative description is generally far more evocative than narrative exposition. Description is more open to interpretation, so it’s easier to project your feelings onto it. It’s also reminiscent of classic fairytales, the jumps between exposition and description. I found myself thinking about Hansel and Gretel, perhaps because of the forest motif in that story. Anyway, I like it.
I think that’s a good note to end this section on. I will return to plot and characters later. What I did here was mostly a critique against the style in which this story’s written. The central conflict and main character aren’t interesting enough to justify the laser-focus on them that the autobiographical style demands. I think there might be other ways of telling this story that’d poke the author’s creative bone in happier ways than this did. The main character and his internal conflict don’t amount to much. He spends most of the story being happy, and without character flaws. Really, most of the story’s tension lies in what Rainbow learns and fails at, and those things are relayed in narrative exposition, the least immersive of the four modes.
Yes, he can describe Rainbow Dash as having “spunk” and “attitude” all he wants, but I still have no idea how she feels about anything. Maybe the story should’ve focused more on her thoughts, feelings and experiences, and less on this main character that’s happy all the time about having Rainbow Dash for his daughter. Yeah, we get it; she opened your heart up to “love and joy,” but there’s no tension in that. If that’s all she did and there’s no more apparent growth as a human being that you need to go through, then your journey is complete. Step aside and let Rainbow take the spotlight. Having a daughter is no more easy than being a daughter and going through all the hurdles of growing up, especially when you’re a pastel-colored cartoon.
Make sure you come back Friday for part two!