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Animators, Actors, and the Episodic Quantum Leap · 10:21pm Nov 23rd, 2015

[Most of this post was originally in my previous post, “Pop Ideology and Why it's Easy to Write for MLP”. hazeyhooves pointed out that this part was distinct, and seemed incomplete. I added some material in response to that, and more in response to ForSpite, then pulled it out into this separate post. The part that was originally in the previous post is in a lighter gray and a smaller font, so you can skip or skim it easily.]

[Did you know fimfiction's default font is not black, but gray #333333? I'm gonna use black for the new parts, for better contrast.]

There’s a particular kind of plot which makes it especially hard to write stories for a TV show, but which is used as the starting point of TV shows again and again, because it appeals to everyone else involved in the production except the writer. That’s what I call the Quantum Leap plot. Each episode thrusts the characters suddenly into a new, randomly-chosen environment and watches how they react.

During the Advanced Writing panel at Bronycon, I tried to explain what I consider the structure of a tightly-constructed character story (see point 4c on the Advanced Writing handout). Ideally, every key point of the story should connect to a point of a character. So a really good story hooks us with a problem hinging on something about one character, and then solving that plot problem requires addressing a character problem, thus developing the same or a different character further. “Amending Fences”, “Princess Spike”, “Scare Master”, “Brotherhooves Social”, and “What About Discord” all try to do that.

The most-recent show I started watching was “Penn Zero, Part Time Hero.” I like the show, but its setup--a blind teleport into an unknown new world and problem every episode--makes it impossible for the characters to cause the initial plot problem! [4]

Unless maybe the problem to be solved is always Penn's hair

That means the solution to the plot problem can’t have further consequences for their life and character. (I hope to write another blog post on this, tentatively titled “Stacking and popping resolutions”.)

Jumping into a new environment every week seems, a priori, a pretty unlikely thing. Yet we see this same setup used over and over in animated and superhero/action series: Bugs Bunny, Quantum Leap, Kung Fu, The Fugitive, Doctor Who, The Incredible Hulk, Samurai Jack, Supernatural, Over the Garden Wall, and sometimes Rick and Morty.

(Less action-oriented shows are more likely to have its converse: The heroes stay in one place, and the random event of the week comes to them. All crime shows, and all those manga series about a mysterious sexy shopkeeper who dresses in black and solves supernatural problems [5].)

Animation and comics have a long tradition of being developed by visual artists, sometimes without a script. The storyboard is more central than the script. When I worked for a 3D animation company, I had to read The Illusion of Life, a manual on animation by two of Disney’s most-famous animators. It’s not a manual on how to draw; it’s a manual on how to make a drawing seem like a real person. It’s a great book, but it’s meant for an animator who’s given a plot and must try to figure out how each character would act it out. That’s the visual, animation (and maybe comic book?) tradition. Animators think very visually. Think of the Fluffle Puff tales: take one simple character relationship, and show it visually in many different cute, entertaining, expressive ways, with no words. Animators don’t spend their time designing character arcs; most famous animated characters have no character arcs. They figure out, in minute detail, how a character would act in a given situation. Emphasize given.

Notice that fan animators never enlist a writer to come up with a story for them. Notice that Disney rarely developed new stories. Even Studio Ghibli, which I’m a fan of, has consistently sloppy story structure--some events could be eliminated or re-ordered, the tension and pacing of different scenes or episodes don’t build on each other, and my uncertain recollection is that time spent building up tension around some plot point is sometimes wasted by suddenly deflating it. It could be that the Japanese like meandering, structureless stories with misdirections of tension, but I suspect they're written by animators. Story isn’t all that important to many animators. I think Pixar is the first animation studio that really understands story.

Actors, like animators, think of characters first as a bundle of speech patterns, gaits, tics, habits, et cetera. Cinematographers think of frames and lighting. Directors think of dramatic moments. All of them instinctively want to throw a character into a random startling situation as quickly as possible and watch them react, because to them, a character is a bundle of inclinations, habits, and reactions. They all love the Quantum Leap plot. Only the writer and the show runner consistently see the big picture, the cross-episode picture.

The Quantum Leap plot is supposed to make writing for the show easier, because you can write anything that pops into your head. (It does make it easier to get scripts for a show on short notice if writers don’t have to watch a lot of previous episodes.) But in the long run, it’s a short-cut that makes it very hard to integrate plot and character. It makes it easier to write something, but harder to write something that will outlast its closing credits, in its consequences and in the viewer's memory .

Now the Mane 6 are being Quantum Leaped around Equestria by a magic map. People can still write good episodes within this format. But they’re a little less likely to write a great one, that doesn’t just entertain, but also drives the series and its characters forward.

ForSpite wrote:

Nonetheless, I maintain that it's still not impossible to write a 'randomly transported to new place' story where what the people find at the new place and how they respond to it ties back in to their character and its development. Even the original travel can be connected to a character element.

You can tie it back in to their character, like the couple of Penn Zero episodes I mentioned in footnote [4]. It's easy to tie the solution of the plot problem back to the character. But it's nice to have the plot problem itself (the "hook") directly tied to or caused by the character as well, and that's just about impossible in a Quantum Leap plot. (Though the show Quantum Leap did it several times--by having Sam leap into someone from his own life, or someone from Al's.)

ADDED: I put that in extra-large letters because I have re-explained this point to different people 4 times since making it in my initial post. Coming up with a resolution to the plot problem that relates to a character issue is not hard in a "quantum leap" plot. Having a character issue cause the plot problem is. They are different things.

ADDED: I feel like I've lost my way in this post. I started talking about the Quantum Leap plot because it makes it hard for me to think of new plots, not because it makes weak plots. Possibly the more important problem is that it weakens character development in the long run--the physical events in one episode don't change the environment of other episodes. Characters can't form long-term goals to get a degree, or start a business, or climb a mountain, because they're never in the same world twice.

Take "Scare Master". The initial plot complication is that Fluttershy is terrified of Nightmare Night and shuts herself in her cottage, but Demon Bunny demands a blood sacrifice carrots, and sends her out. The plot resolution is Fluttershy working up the courage to scare her friends good.

Imagine the show had been a Quantum Leap or Penn Zero episode, and Fluttershy had leapt into the body of somepony very fearful, on a planet called Earth where they had this strange holiday called Halloween on which people scared each other, which was completely unlike anything in Equestria. Fluttershy could still be a scaredy pony who works up the courage to do what she needs to do in this alien holiday, then goes home to Equestria.

But the show couldn't have the ending it did, where she then ties that back to the initial plot complication, her fear of Nightmare Night. This is really cool--most stories would just have the character resolution (Fluttershy overcomes her fear) solve the plot problem (Fluttershy can't take part in Nightmare Night). But "Scare Master" does more. The plot problem is solved, but because the plot problem is itself taken from Fluttershy's life, we can then ask how this character-based solution to the plot problem affects her going forward. Then we get a second level of character development, when she can re-evaluate Nightmare Night, and reject it, not out of fear, but because she understands it, has taken part in it, and now has both the authority and the courage to say that she honestly doesn't like it.

[4] Sometimes they bring the random plot back to character history. There’s an episode where the villain, instead of carrying out his evil plan, stops to hold tryouts for a new sidekick, because his current sidekick, as we know from previous shows, is incompetent and not very evil. There’s an episode where the plot crisis is created by giving a simple task to a character with severe ADD. This is good. It just isn’t as good as it could be if the entire plot were held together by character.

[5] Seriously, I think it’s a genre in Japan.

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Comments ( 17 )

"Now the Mane 6 are being Quantum Leaped around Equestria by a magic map...."

I'm really expecting next season to be this on steroids. Twilight Sparkle's Friends Through Time or something like that where they visit historic events after Carmen Sandiego... Um... Sunset Shimmer goofs them up.

I've tended to view MLP as Gilligan's Island. You have X characters with strong stereotypes and a unifying purpose (although individual goals), and every week a different Plot Ball gets dropped into their situation like Pachinko. The Plot Ball gets kicked around in a fairly predictible fashion (because if it didn't, the watchers would get confused and change channels) and eventually drops out the other side while the whole thing resets for next week. It's the curse of syndication: episodes get thrown up in the order the network wants, instead of a series like 1,2,3,4. The only show that strikes me as breaking the pattern was Babylon 5, because for most of the last half, JMS wrote nearly *everything* on the show, mixing arc episodes and character episodes the way he wanted. (and darned near not getting Season 5 funded)

Author Interviewer


Twilight Sparkle's Friends Through Time



With the best will in the world, I find you a troubling individual.

3564476 are there any instances of a show switching out its format without any rebranding or rebooting? While we've had a few Quantum episodes this season, FiM is still primarily a slice-of-life show. A real shakeup of structure could give it new legs into future seasons.

I mean, it won't, because Hasbro would never okay it, but its a nice hypothetical.

3564745 With the fragmented method of syndication, they are perfectly able to do a short arc, say six or eight episodes during which the M6 meet X number of historical figures... which coincidentally can then be sold as plastic figures in a multi-pack with an attached DVD of the episode arc. The rest of the season can then be indeterminate as to where it belongs on the timeline. After all, Christmas seems to come before Halloween on tv this year :)

the 3rd season of ReBoot is a pretty good example. it became something really different after getting dropped from ABC (and ironically becoming much more successful through syndication)

If actors often think this way, it might also explain why so many things lack convincing character development - if you think of a character as being a static thing, then development is strange to you.

Wanderer D

But it's nice to have the plot hook tied to the character as well, and that's just about impossible in a Quantum Leap plot.

Hm, maybe this is strictly for TV, but as I'm writing The Sweetie Chronicles—which does have a lot of the Quantum Leap element to it—I can tell you with some authority that it is entirely possible to make it about the character that is jumping, as much as the worlds that are visited.

Whether this can be accomplished in animation? Probably, as long as they don't fall into the pattern you presented. I imagine there can be a 5 Season Arc a-la Babylon 5 that would actually make it possible in cartoons as well. You'd just need to convince the producers that story-telling actually matters.

3564630 Troubling like a leftover piece to a jigsaw puzzle you thought was finished, or troubling like indigestion?


Hm, maybe this is strictly for TV, but as I'm writing The Sweetie Chronicles—which does have a lot of the Quantum Leap element to it—I can tell you with some authority that it is entirely possible to make it about the character that is jumping, as much as the worlds that are visited.

Can you give a specific example? I know it's possible to tie what happens in the new location to the character jumping. It's even possible to choose the location to jump to specifically to be a mismatch with the character and bring some problem to the surface, which I didn't mention because I've rarely seen it done outside of Pilgrim's Progress and The Phantom Tollbooth. What I meant is that usually the new location was chosen as having an interesting plot problem of its own. It's very hard to do something like in the Scare Master example, where the initial plot problem is that Fluttershy is afraid of Nightmare Night. The initial problem is almost always something that existed in the new location before the main character went there.

Wanderer D

3566092 Well, in TSC each world visited, although unique, is also appropriate to bring out, prepare, or deal with an issue related to Sweetie. For example, the prologue sets her mission, which might or not affect the worlds she visits.

The first three worlds after that all teach her basic spellcraft skills she still uses to this day, while the fourth armed her with a couple of magical items she has used on occasion.

The fifth revealed that there's more to the fragments she's looking for, while also showing her that worlds can get pretty bad.

The sixth world taught her a lot of skills, and upped her education level to a more appropriate standard, while she was also malignantly hypnotized and trained by Chrysalis as a spy, and she also learned an effective dueling style to help her in situations where she would be in a fight.

The seventh world I could have done better, but it got her her one single weapon, revealed a major plot point on her specific quest and hit her pretty hard on her beliefs of how things work.

The eight world brought her back to her roots a little and helped her remember her friends, despite the last chapter.

The ninth world changed her at a spiritual level and transformed her physically and spiritually into another creature, gave her PTSD and a couple of perks that don't measure up to what she went through, and revealed the existence of an external force acting against her.

The tenth world was the polar opposite if the ninth and focused on her dealing with PSTD with the help of the locals, and then being sent out of her established leaping formula...

The eleventh world is helping her deal with an identity crisis currently... and the rest would be spoilers.

But, the point is, each place she visited had, in addition, little plots to show-off the different places she was in. Being a joint mission, hanging out with NMM or whathaveyou. Regardless of that, the moving force and hook are entirely with "Traveler Sweetie" as fans started calling her.

An old friend pointed out that a "quantum leap" is by definition the SMALLEST possible state-change that can be made. Yet the term is used for very large changes, when "order of magnitude" would be more appropriate.

3566332 That's what I called tying the plot resolution back to the character, which was a thing I said you can do with that setup. It isn't having the plot hook tied to the character. Like in the Scare Master example: The problem resolution involves Fluttershy's character, but that could have been the case even if the plot problem had not involved Fluttershy personally. Having a plot problem which was caused by Fluttershy in the first place opens up more possibilities.

Tying the plot resolution back to the character is the most-important thing. I didn't originally mean to say that this distinction here was a big deal; I started talking about it because it eliminates my best sources of inspirations for plots. I think the bigger problem is that when it's used continuously, like in Penn Zero, the tie back to the character becomes weak. Maybe this is more because the constant shift in location prevents some kinds of character development--the character can't develop many concrete long-term goals.

3566924 I think wanderer D accomplishes both hook and resolution tying into character... Sometimes.

The inciting incident in the latest jump is Sweetie Belle being mistaken(?) for a changeling impersonating that universe's Sweetie Belle. This reflects her recent worry that she's losing herself as she is physically and mentally scarred during her travels. I'm quite certain (and this is speculation) that the resolution will involve Sweetie stepping up as a leader, something she hasn't done yet, furthering her growth.

Having the long term goal be the same, but with wrinkles being tossed into the mix every third jump or so, helps.

All I'm saying is I'm excited for the next chapter.

Huh. Now I understand why I don't like Gilligan's Island. Thanks, Georg!


Except that the show about the time traveling scientist leaping into different peoples' bodies was not, in fact, called Order of Magnitude Leap.


Speaking of time traveling scientists, I think the Quantum Leap Plot[1] makes Doctor Who a better show, because the titular character is so custom-tailored for the part that he justifies the nature of the plotting. (Certainly the people writing and starring in the show haven't had any complaints about it.) A large part of the show's charm is watching a fascinating wanderer running from his aristocratic upbringing breeze into a sick society and make it better through relentless force of will and empathetic moralism. It just wouldn't fit the flighty nature of the character if he settled down, started a private practice in London, and took on regular clients. Instead, his arrival becomes the plot. It also benefits in breaking out of the inherent conservatism you mentioned in your last post, given the Doctor's strong anti-establishment stance. What he wants is to stop the monsters, overturn dictators, and save people, and then scarper away before he has to deal with the consequences. His goals mesh with the Quantum Leap Plot beautifully.

That said, the current producer has a fascinating way of getting around this by using the time travel implicit in the premise. Many of the overarching storylines are the result of something the Doctor has done. Except he hasn't done them yet. His decisions affect him before he makes them, leaving him to struggle through a labyrinth of time as he tries to extricate himself from the causal chains.

[1] Technically, since Doctor Who predates Quantum Leap by a good twenty-five years, "Doctor Who plot" is probably more accurate

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