I’ve been giving some thought lately to why I enjoy the books/shows movies that I do. Because in some cases, the media I consume is popularly considered to be good, and sometimes it’s popularly considered to be bad. And in many other cases, there is something that captures the hearts and minds of my friends and millions of other people in my demographic, but just don’t do it for me.
So I think I’ve finally found the five things that make or break a story for me. As far as I can tell, a book/show/movie/play/story only needs one of these elements to appeal to me in order to get me hooked.
Now this one is the most obvious: do I care about what’s going to happen next? A great example of this comes from the Harry Potter series. I watched the movies and played the computer games before reading the books, and I noticed that I was only addicted to the books during parts that weren’t included in the movies/books. This means that I tend to enjoy the later Harry Potter books, which had stream-lined movies, computer games I didn’t play, and thicker works with more information to fit into a two-hour movie, anyways.
We insist on stories having plots, but sometimes a plot is only a temporary thing: once you’ve learned it, you know it, and the suspense is no longer there. You might go back and re-read a Sherlock Holmes story to see the clues and foreshadowing that you previously missed, but you can only do this once or twice — unless you wait a few years in between reads to forget the plot altogether.
Another obvious one: is there a character that I like? Do I want to be like them? Do I relate to them? Do I care about what happens to them? Believe it or not, I actually don’t find many of the Harry Potter characters compelling. But in the Percy Jackson series, another childhood favorite, Nico and Artemis definitely helped to get me hooked even when the main characters didn’t.
A lot of the characters I like tend to be very…fanficky. The character whose powers relate to death/fire, the evil twin, the misunderstood antihero, etc. But not all of them need to be. Shuri in Black Panther is a good example of someone I want to know more about and love seeing on screen.
This one gets underrated a lot by academics who want to insist that characters make the story. But honestly I think setting/premise is the biggest attraction for me. This includes most of fantasy and scifi, of course, but there have definitely been stories taking place in the real world or using real-world elements that have gotten my attention. Ratatouille and Happy Feet really hooked me as a child, not because of the plot or the characters, but because they romanticized cooking, dancing, and singing so much. Spy novels and movies do this same thing: even though the story takes place in the real world, and might even be nonfiction in some cases, seeing a different part of the earth that you hadn’t explored before can have the same effect as going to Hogwarts or the Warriors forest.
Tone might not be the best word for this. Let’s take a look at three popular kids’ shows: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Steven Universe, and Adventure Time.
When Adventure Time came out, plenty of my friends started watching it. It was Cartoon Network’s poster child for several years, and I would see people with backpacks, shirts, and even cosplays relating to it. So of course I checked it out. But no matter how many episodes I watched or times I tried to get into the show, I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t getting something, and I had no idea what that something was.
On the opposite end, despite its popularity, I did not intentionally try to get into My Little Pony (MLP). I happened to be at a friend’s house where someone was watching the show, and we briefly sat down to join them. We watched the last five or ten minutes of an episode about a fashion show (something I hate), which revolved around the character who would become my least favorite (Rarity). But there were something about the show that just kept it in my mind for a while. Eventually, I went to check it out, and ended up getting hooked on the first two or three seasons.
Finally, there’s Steven Universe (SU), another popular show that I tried several times to get into but failed. However, recently, I decided to watch only the SU episodes that were related to the overarching plot. And suddenly, I was addicted.
Steven Universe and Adventure Time didn’t have the tones I liked. I couldn’t get into the shows just from watching normal episodes. There was something about the way the characters spoke, the pacing of the show, the way that things were presented, that just didn’t appeal to me.
Other examples of this are Harry Potter, BoJack Horseman, Your Name, the Warriors series, Born a Crime, and the Percy Jackson series. All of these things have amazing tones that I absolutely love. Harry Potter, at least in book form, is just so goddamn charming, and I love the dry humor even if I didn’t appreciate it as a kid. I didn’t even consider reading the Percy Jackson series until my brother read me its table of contents and I realized that the book was utterly hilarious. Biographies of comedians like Tina Fey and Trevor Noah don’t need to have compelling characters, fantastical settings, or or even interesting anecdotes: they just have to be funny.
The Warriors series, Your Name, and Bojack Horseman didn’t have tones that appealed to me because they were funny (though the last one is a comedy show). For some reason, I just loved reading the Warriors books, even if I knew the plot and didn’t like the characters. The writing was just so beautiful and made the forest feel so savory that I could just read the same book for hours and hours. The same went for Your Name, which just loved taking the time to admire the scenery and music. For Bojack Horseman, the tone is much harder to pinpoint. I saw the first two episodes with some friends, and even though I didn’t find them funny at all, didn’t like the characters, and there was currently little plot, there was something about the pacing, the jokes they did decide to tell, and the way people spoke that just kept the show in my mind.
So this section is hard to pin down. I think that tone is a wrong word, but I lack a better one. Pacing? Attitude? Personality? It’s hard to say, but I know it’s there.
This last one is a little related to plot and characters, but I promise it deserves its own category. I will be hooked on a book, show, or movie that tries to answer some sort of existential question that I care about. For instance, just a week ago I watched Trading Places because I was curious as to what the movie had to say on nature vs nurture. I got hooked onto Bojack Horseman later on because I wanted to know what the show would eventually say about nihilism and the secret to being happy in life and how that differs from material success/fame. Any story that wants to answer a question that’s controversial or a question that even I don’t have the answer to will get my attention. Sometimes they disappoint, but often they don’t. At the beginning of Inside Out, you do have to wonder: what is the point of sadness? Why not get rid of it? In To Kill a Mockingbird, the whole time I was wondering what Scout would eventually think when she saw the reality of racism and sexism, and how she would come to terms with it. In Worm, I already had an answer to why the ends don’t justify the means, but I wanted to know what another author’s take on it was. And let’s not forget The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, during which every reader is struggling with the fact that their cells can be immortalized far beyond their own natural death and what that means on a spiritual level.
Does this mean that any story with a theme does it for me? No. There are some questions to which I feel pretty confident in my answers. There are some things I love that have no clear themes to be seen. And there are even some novels like Harry Potter that only reveal small epiphanies when Dumbledore talks at the very end, but don’t ever mention them throughout the book.
Does a story need all of these? How many does it need?
Honestly, I can’t tell.
When I was about twelve, I got obsessed with a show called Monster Buster Club (MBC). It was a French-Canadian scifi show that ran for two seasons and then was never heard from again. It has very, very few fans on the Internet and it’s honestly hard to still find episodes of it. But I still watched every episode, sometimes multiple times. But all it had was setting/premise. I didn’t particularly like any characters, the plots were simple and often predictable, I thought the tone was awkward, and by god there were no themes to be seen. The setting was very similar to Star Wars and Star Trek, but for some reason MBC appealed to me more.
That being said, even though I loved it, MBC did not end up being a very successful show. What about the successful ones? I’ve thought about a lot of the things I’ve read/watched over the years, and they normally tend to hit a chord with me in 3 of the 5 elements. I’ve yet to find one that got all 5. But I also don’t think that 3/5 is the minimum number: I don’t like all of these things equally, and they’re not equally successful by any means. I also tend to only read/watch things that have already been quite successful — apart from Monster Buster Club, I haven’t really been exposed to a lot of things that other people don’t know about. And then, of course, there’s the thing we always have to keep in mind: different people have different tastes. Obviously there are a lot of people out there who love Adventure Time‘s tone (at the very least the people who wrote it). Alternatively, there could be a lot of people out there who prioritize different elements of the 5. Maybe some people don’t care about the setting at all, or only get a kick out of nice plot twists.
Which leads me to my last question: are these elements the same for you? Are there other show aspects that absolutely hook you (apart from the usual “it has my favorite animal in it” or “it’s got a gay couple” or “I just love giant fighting robots)? Romance, perhaps? Pacing? Actual tone?
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