Putting Stuff in Your Story and Actually Using It

If you’ve devoted as much of your lifetime to absorbing stories as much as I have, it’ll come as second knowledge that when a character points to a baseball bat on the wall and comments, “I use that in case of rapid clown attacks,” and then the third act features a tsunami of foaming, savage circus performers sweeping across the suburbs, that baseball bat is gonna have a lot of face-to-face meet-and-greets.

This sort of foreshadowing is the trope famously known as Chekhov’s Gun, and the idea of teasing the audience with something early on before showing them the later payoff extends to many other aspects of writing. The sister trope, Chekhov’s Skill, happens when a tired salaryman brags about the 13 home runs he got back in the little leagues, then later cracks a couple dozen zombie heads over the Empire State Building. But not every item or skill introduced has to be the end-all, be-all solution for when hoards of the uncanny attack. The coke Bob orders in act I doesn’t need to come back as the solution for his escape from his evil twin at the peak of the second act, but generally, if you add something to the plot, make it mean something, and don’t just shove it aside like Mary and the Witch’s Flower does.

The film follows—if the title isn’t obvious enough—a girl named Gary. Bored and friendless, she meanders about her aunt’s property in the English countryside in search of a killer to her boredom. You remember those moments as a kid when you tried helping your parents cook dinner or hang up the laundry but they chased you away, assuring you that mommy and daddy had everything under control, so that you didn’t rip off the kitchen sink faucet for the third time? The opening act is a tribute to those sour childhood memories.

Upset, she wanders off to the forest to grumble about the hard-knock woes of a redhead ten-year-old and trails a pair of cats to a curious flower known as a fly-by-night. Stuff happens, and one of the felines goes MIA, so its mate leads Larry to a broomstick chilling in the forest, and she winds up riding the cleaning utensil through the sky to the magical school for witches and wizards known as not-Hogwarts.

While she arrives on a search & rescue mission per the puss’s orders, she’s distracted from her duty when she meets the headmistress, who mistakes her for a transfer student and gives her a walkabout of the grounds, showing her the magic-based subjects they’re teaching and how all of the students wear masks so that the animators didn’t have to animate faces. She also heaps all degrees of lavish and praise on Harry for her talent for magic, which she discovers she has six seconds upon arriving, and the pumping of compliments bloats her ego so much that you can see the this-is-gonna-go-to-her-head-and-blow-up-in-her-face plot from a hillside six kilometers away.

After some showboating, the headmistress takes her to her cottage to register her, and while she’s fumbling about for the paperwork, Jerry does some snooping out of curiosity and finds a secret log of the hag stashed away. And it’s this exact moment in the film where it switches rails and pretty much abandons everything act I had been about. It goes from an ego-check tale to a damsel in distress plotline with an atom bomb metaphor thrown in for good measure.

One might argue that the whole tour is Mary and the Witch’s Daisy taking a scenic detour and this scene is when it gets back on track, and that’s a fair point. The sole reason for Terry showing up at not-Hogwarts in the first place was to rescue a captured alley cat, though that’s a mission statement which wasn’t articulated to her very well, and after this is when she gets her butt in gear to pick up some pussy cat.

Lately, I’ve been reading Dr. Stone, one of the new stars of Shōnen Jump. The story goes that humanity one day does like that Electric Light Orchestra song (or like that Joe Walsh song (or like that Ingrid Michaelson song (or like that Pentagram album (or like my Final Fantasy VI party when we face a hoard of Mandrakes)))) and turns to stone.

Dr. Stone Mandrake Battle

Skip forward a couple thousand years and the Earth has reverted back to a giant nature reserve. This means that any and all of humanity’s progress in any and everything has come undone, but Senku, a human Wikipedia on everything science, vows to restore humanity by rebuilding all the technologies our species spent two million years discovering.

It’s a good, fun romp, and I’m bringing it up here because the series doesn’t let much of anything go to waste. If it shows up in a panel, it’ll likely come into play later, even if it seems to have served its job then and there. For example, a couple volumes in (minor spoilers), Senku is testing the durability of a carbon fiber reinforced polymer shield against a spear. With how that scene is set up, you’d think it were a one-and-done-type of deal, but like any good-minded scientist, Dr. Stone sees the virtues in recycling, and later on, Senku uses this lightweight-but-strong-material-blocking-a-spearhead practice when he for realises gets stabbed by a spear.

There’s this three-tier system when it comes to the items or scenes populating your story and are put into play later on.

Chekhov's Gun Tier Pyramid

At the bottom, you’ve got Chekhov’s Gun, which is when something shows up or is mentioned and it’s fairly obvious that it’ll be important later on. Think the namesake of this trope or any of Hagrid’s jumbo pets.

approval face

Next up is similar to Chekhov’s Gun, except the item in question seems more insignificant in nature. These are harder to spot for the audience because they’re more innate to the setting or the characters. For example, a driver’s car make and model. You see them driving it, but it’s such an expected prop in a contemporary setting that you wouldn’t think twice about it being the observation which solves a murder mystery.

impressed face

Lastly, you’ve got your recyclables. Like that example from Dr. Stone, these are the scenes and objects which accomplish what they were put in to do but are reused later on. I personally rank these at the top due to the unexpectancy they carry over from the middle tier and the creativity that usually follows when you see the numerous applications of these objects, skills, or what have you. This is the tier with the highest return rate on mindblows.

omg face

Returning to Mary and the Witch’s Daffodil, Perry’s swelling sense of greatness while at not-Hogwarts falls under the lowest category, alongside Chekhov’s gun, and so you expect it to come back later, only important. But because she doesn’t rub up against situations where her pride is shut down, what we get is a dud of a setup. We show the gun, and we might fire the gun, but it jams, and the film ends before we can fix it. So then it would have been better to never have shown the gun in the first place. The curious thing about this, though, is if you did strip away Kerry’s ego pop arc, what you would get is the book this film adapts, The Little Broomstick.

If you know anything about the studio which made this film, Studio Ponoc, you’ll know that its roots are dug into the soil of Studio Ghibli, which in their later years had the curious quirk of adapting obscure children’s novels by obscure English authors, and it continued this trend, the obscure children’s novel in this case being Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick. I’ve been wanting to bring up this book since the second paragraph, and now I finally have my chance. I also read it specifically for purposes of writing this, so I hope I get brownie points for that (actual brownies also acceptable).

For a good percentage of its runtime, Mary and the Witch’s Poppy is faithful as an adaptation, deviating only so much, and I would describe the plot of the book for the most part as not having more than it needs. When Strawberry is receiving the grand tour of not-Hogwarts in the book and is under the influence of the fly-by-night’s magic-granting abilities, she plays along with the headmistress’s delight for kicks and giggles. She doesn’t let her sudden mastery over magic or the confetti the headmistress is throwing on her polish her pride; she’s just a child messing around with an adult, and for that reason, I had no problems with the book not slapping her with a reality check, because that would’ve been fixing a pipe that wasn’t leaky.

There’s a big fat “however” to all of this, and I want to emphasis it so much that it’ll be its own line.

However…

As much as authors, including myself a couple paragraphs back, advocate slashing away any unneeded or unused plot elements, the act of simply removing them sometimes can create a vacuum in the narrative. The movie sends Blueberry on a brief ego trip, but the book doesn’t bother with that. The movie sets up expectations that Blackberry will learn what happens when you gorge yourself too much, but the book doesn’t have those expectations at all. As a consequence, the book, while cleaner and better trimmed, is dry.

Let’s do a wee experiment, where I tell you two terrifically terrific stories and you decide if I’m on to something or just spouting nonsense.

Bob enters a gas station, buys a bag of chips, a six-pack of cola, and two candy bars, stares at a pair of scissors on clearance, goes and pays at the register, then heads back to his car.

Bob enters a gas station, buys a bag of chips, a six-pack of cola, and two candy bars, pays at the register, then heads back to his car.

Future winners of the Nobel prize, those two one-sentence masterpieces, I know. Sarcasm aside, do you see what I mean? The second story omits the scissors, so there’s nothing to that scene than Bob restocking at a gas station. The funny thing about that first story is that it provides us with more information (the scissors) but at the same time no information (why would he take an interest in that useful desk drawer cutting instrument?). Questions are afoot, because we don’t know Bob’s motives.

Human beings hate not knowing stuff. We hate it so much that our ancestors once upon a time blamed thunder and lightning on a pissed-off, half-naked dude who lived as a mountain hermit. So when some new prop of a story drops in, we demand to know its significance to everything else we’ve seen so far and what exciting scenes are around the corner.

Is Bob looking at the scissors because he’s planning on murdering someone? Does he struggle with his emotions and cuts himself to distract from the pain? Is he financially illiterate and blows all his discretionary income on clearance goods he doesn’t need? When you shuffle in unknowns in this manner, you’ve got the audience asking themselves, “What will this lead to?” or, better yet, “How will this go wrong?” and it’ll remain in the back of their mind even as the rest of the plot unravels. I knew Mary and the Witch’s Sunflower’s unknowns were in the back of my head while the film itself completely forgot about them.

While it’s the cool thing to rag on a movie and proclaim that the book was better (that was my mission statement going into the book), I can’t come away from either claiming that one is better and the other is a stinking hulk of garbage. If I were to liken them to whittled carvings, The Little Broomstick is a soapbox derby car (simplistic and smooth but lacking real intrigue) while Mary and the Witch’s Tulip is a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs (messy and questionable by nature but engendering a curiosity in the viewer as to why the carver would be inspired to carve an Italian dish out of wood). But this is just my way of saying that neither was particularly memorable and didn’t leave much of an impression, so I’m awarding them participation medals for showing up.

Setup is an anticipatory tool in how it lays down the foundation which the plot builds upon. Because of its nature of withholding the juicy bits for a later date, it’s a sharp hook for easily grabbing and reeling in the reader’s attention. It goes hand-in-hand with delayed gratification, but just as I mentioned in that post, your payoff for your setup can’t be half-arsed. The story itself also has to be enjoyable, because the audience will put up with a mediocre-at-best narrative only for so long before they toss it aside and rummage through their backlog of entertainment for something more bearable. Then when nothing tickles their fancy, they’ll resort to rewatching Spirited Away for the sixteenth time.

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