• Member Since 18th Oct, 2014
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Trick Question

Being against evil doesn't make you good.


Princess Twilight Sparkle has been losing her mind. She lives plagued by nightmares and hallucinations.

Discovering she's not alone, Twilight realizes Equestria may be in great danger. She seeks counsel with Princess Luna to discover the truth about her nightmares. However, Luna warns Twilight the knowledge she seeks will come at great personal cost.

Twilight Sparkle would give up anything to save Equestria, but how much will she sacrifice just to learn the truth?

Special thanks to Bradel for his editing advice.

This story won First Place in The Writeoff Association's "A Matter of Perspective" contest.

Now featured on Equestria Daily.

This story has been accepted to the Royal Guard archive.

This story has been accepted to the Nonpareil Fiction archive.

Chapters (8)
Comments ( 135 )

Loved this in the writeoffs. Still love it now.

Oh good! I'm not sure how many TWA readers will like the revision, though. There's so much new stuff.

I've just finished reading this, and I enjoy it a lot. It was unpredictable in a good way (at least for me) And, it made me have all the different kinds of feels. Exept perhaps happy. :twilightsmile:

As far as style goes, I really love how you write Luna. You might actually be my favorite at it. And, I've read a lot of Luna stories.

Oh my Celestia this makes so much sense now! I loved how you built up the drama and wow they should have really listened to Twilight in the first place!

So... Changelings run the Matrix?

My main complaint here is that the opening chapters made the story sound just a hair too meta. Describing the Visitors sounded like justifications for animation errors (missing or switched cutie marks, overlapping limbs, pallette swaps, etc.), while Twilight noting the ridiculousness of her former life (solving friendship problems abruptly, settling disputes with pie fights) felt like typical Brony complaints about their least favorite show-writer of the week. It was jarring and immersion-breaking. I'll grant that the ending did at least give something approaching a reason for things bring the way they are.

The shippy TwiLuna moments seemed to come out of nowhere, despite my absolute love for them. I wouldn't complain about them, given that it's my OTP, but it felt odd and forced without seeing any of the backstory. Was that relationship part of the harsher "real" world? Was it an hallucination induced by the Changeling-Visitors for love collection purposes? Was it just Luna's hope for how she'd be spending the rest of her now-sucky reality?

Definitely a dark and crushing piece, albeit with room for some structural improvement.

Princess Luna's dialogue is a lot of fun to write. My secrets: avoid contractions (helps a lot!), speak semi-formally, flower up the speech a little (especially by using complex phrase structures), use slightly archaic words (easy to overdo), and use 'shall' and 'will' properly.

The purpose of the meta at the beginning is partly to set up the fact that the world they live in isn't realistic for a reason, but it's also there for misdirection: it's tricky to write something that will fool avid MLP fans up until the end.

The TwiLuna shipping is supposed to be weird and awkward. They never had a relationship. Princess Luna is incredibly lonely and never sees anypony in the real world, so she takes advantage of Twilight without asking.

Of course you can translate it! I assume you'll try not to edit as you do. Note that the title is supposed to invoke a twist meaning. That's the only reason I changed the name from "The Price of a Smile", which I liked better (for the latter, the reader is less likely to understand after reading that the price is one's smile, rather than a smile being priced).

Submit it to EQD!

I can't. Not shan't, not even won't, but can't. But the praise is nice. :twilightsmile:

Well, (1) I provided comments but didn't really edit it, and (2) there's nothing blocking an author from submitting an edited-by-a-prereader story to EQD anyway. I'm not even sure we've got rules saying somebody new has to view the thing and approve it—but when it's come up with me, I've always recused myself from doing an approval on a story I was heavily involved with. That's definitely how RCL works, though—we recuse ourselves from the process when we were heavily involved with any story that comes up.

Point being, that's no reason not to submit to EQD. But I'm guessing Trick is thinking of other things like content guidelines. I haven't read the new version, so I can't comment on that. But if that's the issue, it doesn't hurt to send it along and note where you think it might not be EQD-cool, and have the pre-readers look over it anyway. Most of the rules are guidelines that can be fudged a bit if the pre-readers think a story is sufficiently high quality. Not all of them, though.

Anyway, I just got done with a 12-hour car trip and I'm just doing quick scan-and-replys, so hopefully this response didn't wind up totally off topic.

I wrote a review of this story.

It can be found here.

Why can't you submit it to Equestria Daily?

I think the biggest issues it has are structural; the loose ends, particularly the awkward Luna moments that don't really get explained in the story, along with the pacing of the scene in the diner and with the birth rate numbers. But I don't think it has any content issues, unless I'm missing something.

This will sound stupid, so you have my advance apologies. :derpytongue2: I think I'm uncomfortable putting myself in a position where I'll be rejected. Even though I want to reach as many fans as I can (presuming they like what I do), I don't like pushing my work onto others. One of the great benefits of Fimfiction is that I can post work, and if anypony chooses to read it, they may; but if they don't care for it, it's not entirely my fault. I didn't make them read it or anything. They came to me, so to speak. :trixieshiftright:

Cognitively speaking, I realize this is silly, but affect ≠ cognition. I don't even go on EQD anymore because the fandom's output is just overwhelming to my senses, and EQD is in some sense the "official" pulse of the fandom. So if you can only submit your own work there, I won't be up there until I discover the miracle cure for feels. Or maybe meet Rainbow Dash or something. :rainbowdetermined2:

Anyway, it's kind of a moot point. Although that's a hard wall, there's also a soft wall: my stuff isn't that good. :twilightsmile: I get lucky on occasion, and y'all are very nice to provide advice and feedback that (I hope) is improving my writing over time, whether or not it's harsh. I'm very grateful for it. :pinkiesad2:

(†: Although there are limits even there. I've affected a lot of people with Twilight's Secret Journal by having the story go in directions some readers aren't comfortable with. Several readers who love the story have had to bail for emotional reasons, which is totally understandable. At least there I try to warn ponies up front, but colt howdy, do they get frustrated when you won't tell them how the story will end...)

(‡: I shamefully admit to reading Horse News on occasion, and then looking at the horrid things ponies say in the comments, and then wondering why I read Horse News on occasion.)

Soooo shipping and stuff. I think that the visitors are actually helping them remain happy and innocent.


At least there I try to warn ponies up front, but colt howdy, do they get frustrated when you won't tell them how the story will end...

I know that feel.

Very surprised after reading through this that it didn't have a crossover tag. :ajsmug: To me this very clearly seems to mirror the plot and elements of The Matrix in almost every way (at least, the first act of it).

This was decent, though I would have preferred more. Any chance of a sequel? :twilightsmile:

I was debating whether or not to mention it in my review, but I felt it was a sufficiently big spoiler that it would be better to leave out.

You know, there's probably a considerable audience of people on this site who were born after The Matrix was released. :trixieshiftright:

Although I think this story is strongest ending where it does, sequelae are possible. Ideas for how this pans out in the future (differently from the similar trope you mentioned) are what generated the seed for the story in the first place.

I need an Apple Smith icon. :facehoof:

That's a good point. The main reason I included them is that they feature in the opener, and the reader isn't supposed to know how much they figure into the story.

Does anypony else think the Cheerilee and Mac tags are deceptive?

I didn't see that coming. I thought the reveal would be something meta about the whole universe being a TV-show, and that none of them really exist. Nicely done keeping a strong sense of mystery throughout.

There are some loose ends, though. For instance, why would Twilight no longer care for her friends? If anything, she'd be determined to work hard toward saving them. Also, the pacing feels a bit wonky, and the final chapter, too.

Overall, I really enjoyed it, but you leave me wanting more - it is perfectly set up for a sequel. Then again, we've already seen Matrix...

Btw, story shouldn't be tagged Big Mac and Cheerliee - they were minor characters.

EDIT: I have added the Prologue chapter here for hook, and restored the story to its original name ("The Price of a Smile").

Nothing in the story has changed.

The suspense in this piece was done really well. I think I even had to start looking over my shoulder at some points when reading the story. I was totally expecting some type of Truman Show crossover, with some of her best friends being actors, but after the dream with Luna, it was beginning to become more clearly a Matrix crossover. Well done!

(I also appreciate the fact that you outright give the secret as to what's going on away in the first non prologue chapter, yet it's early enough and you give enough misdirection that the ending was still a surprise)

This reminds me of The Matrix. Live in a false, yet innocent reality or face the true, cold reality. Great story!

Thanks. One similar misdirection you might have missed (the one that fools most ponies) is since the oddities are all show-related, it looks like the reveal will be meta and Twilight will discover she's a cartoon.

I meant I don't agree that my story deserves 72-point font praise. :pinkiesmile: It's just a story, and it didn't hit the feature box for a reason.

She ripped off the page and stuffed it into her end table drawer, where lay dozens of similar papers with tiny nonsense words and phrases written on them, like "not re", "buffa", or "fake memo"

Hmm.... :ajbemused: Now, granted, I'm reading this after the having already read the rest of the story, but this feels like it might give too much away...

6203274 Exactly my thoughts!


I was going to comment something but 6191929 summed up my thoughts on it pretty well. I really liked the build up to the reveal though – I couldn't put this down once I started. Good job.

Finally got around to read it (had a few full weeks), I quite like the improvements you made on the write-off entry, and the misdirectiong works better now than before. Congratulations!

This is actually another showing of a fascinating aspect of your writing, Trick. You manage to take something that sounds meta and explain it within its universe, completely self-contained. And it works perfectly.

I'm now really wondering about TSJ. How much will be drawn from within FiM, how much will be original content..?

Hadn't seen than one, thanks. If I am supposed to interpret that as "a sequel to this story could take the concept and spin it in a different direction", fair point. A setting doesn't make a story, after all.

You mentioned sequels and the Matrix in the same sentence, which brought that comic to mind.

Simply AMAZING! If I knew how to enlarge font on the mobile page, I would make "amazing" the largest possible font!

I do have a couple questions, however, that I hope haven't already been answered and are moot at this point (I didn't find the answers to my questions in the comments section, that's why I'm asking here). First, what took ten months? Reliving all Twilight's old memories? Second: to clarify, the Visitors were changelings controlling everyone's dreams through their own lucid dreaming? Third: does that mean that everyone's dreams are connected? Fourth: how did Luna manage to have both her and Twilight escape the pods? Fifth: Is it safe to assume in this AU that the wedding ended with Chrysalis winning? Sixth: Why were ponies disappearing from the dreams if more ponies meant more love for changelings to feed on? Seventh: Why did Luna believe the births would rise again? Eighth: WHAT NOW? !?!?! *SEQUEL COUGH COUGH SEQUEL* Ninth: wao trick question senpai how u create such amazing stories I jelus and applaud u

Sorry for the spam and if some questions have already been answered. Again, great story!

Try to spoiler some of that! :raritywink:

First, what took ten months?

The implication is the changelings have been in control of Equestria for that duration. During that time, Twilight and others formed new memories in the simulated dream-world controlled by the changelings. Nothing in the series that happened after the wedding actually happened: it was part of a simulation. This is a separate issue from the modified memories which predate the wedding.

Second: to clarify, the Visitors were...

Yes, but it is implied that it's more than just lucid dreaming. The changelings have some kind of control over the dream simulation and the memories and experiences of the ponies within it.

Third: does that mean... and Fifth: is it safe to assume...

Yes, and probably yes.

Fourth: how did Luna...

The story doesn't reveal how Luna escaped her pod, how she enters the shared dream world, or even if she had ever been in one of the pods in the first place.

Sixth: why were ponies...

The story doesn't explain this, but the implication is that maintaining the shared reality in order to produce the love output becomes more tenuous if too many ponies discover that it isn't real, or perhaps if there are too many disruptions.

Seventh: why did Luna believe...

The story doesn't say, but it's a reasonable guess that Luna realizes the changelings will want to find a way to keep the love generator up and running. This can't happen if the ponies die out.

Eighth: (SEQUEL)

Maybe. Although I think the story is strongest as a solo piece, there's still more I have to say.

As for the last part: write what you know. :pinkiecrazy:


Right, sorry! I stayed up until 5 am reading this done I couldn't put it down and it completely slipped my mind! :facehoof: Fixed :twilightsheepish:

And thank you for answering all those! That really clears a lot up for me :twilightsmile:

And I do agree with you regarding the sequel, in a way. I understand what you mean when you say this story has the biggest impact as a stand alone piece, but the raging curiosity/fangirling monster inside of me can't help demanding more...

So, that's what luna was doing, during the invasion of canterlot.

I was reading this when my phone dinged. I almost peed myself:rainbowlaugh:

Ahh, finally finished reading this. It only took two weeks! xD

I very much enjoyed it, and am sad I missed the writeoff it was a part of. I was wondering if the truth would be they were all a cartoon, which having read the comments I see this was intended. Even so, something told me it was too expected for you to go that route. The Matrix, for all that I love it, never entered into my head as an explanation. Also, for all that you kept mentioning changelings, I never seriously considered them. I wasn't sure what to expect, which was a very nice feeling. ^.^ Also, you work up the sense of dread, suspense, and helplessness very well, and you create very high stakes--the highest, I would argue, as they pertain directly to Twilight losing who she is.

Now, what I'm going to say next I don't consider a criticism of the story--only, perhaps, in the sense I would criticize my friend when reading a wonderful book they lent me only to discover they merely gave me half of it. I'm not speaking of writing a sequel, as others have said. I just want the rest of the story. See, I don't feel you have finished it. This is a rather bold thing to say to the author, so I'll explain. :twilightsmile:

The ending answers the (seemingly) primary question of the story--what is really going on/who are the visitors? What is this "truth" Luna keeps speaking of? You answer that perfectly by the end, and effectively so. But this was hardly the only pertinent (or interesting) question raised by the story. I'd even go so far to say it's not the primary one, either--the one the reader cares most about. Until Twilight visits Luna, it is the only question. But Luna brings in other, more complicated concerns, which is why I believe this is such an enjoyable story. According to Luna, the truth will not only ruin Twilight's life and her friendships, but it will very likely alter her so drastically that she may even side with the visitors upon learning it, enforcing their deception on those she loves. Luna also posits a profound possibility, morally: aiding the visitors might be the right thing to do. What will Twilight decide when she learns the truth? What will become of her character and personality? This I would argue is what matters most to the reader, and is the core concern of the story.

The current ending doesn't answer this. I don't consider it an open ending, because this was a primary concern that has been left unaddressed. We never get to see the affect the Truth has on Twilight. The moral ambiguity also goes unaddressed, I feel, because without getting to see how terrible and painful Twilight's real life was and may yet be (other than one memory), it's difficult to make the argument the changelings are providing a better future for everypony by putting them into a happy dreamland, where they'll live out the rest of their lives before dying, as they would in the real, more painful world. And it's an argument that is never directly formed by Luna or even the story, since we do not see Twilight's decision on the matter. Her decision is the stance the story itself takes. Since it ends before she makes it, the story doesn't answer the moral question it raised.

This is why I say it is unfinished. And again, it's not a criticism in the sense of "hey, the story did this wrong," or "this is bad writing". Not at all! Rather, I simply feel as if I have reached chapter twenty of a thirty chapter story. To use the Matrix as an example, it would be like if it ended without ever deciding whether Neo was The One or not. Instead of dying, he rescues Morpheus and along with Trinity they escape the Matrix and the movie ends. We'd sit there, having witnessed Neo do things no one else could do, but also with the Oracle's words still in our minds, and we'd say, "So...is he The One, or isn't he?" In the same sense, the ending here answers what exactly is going on, but I'm left asking, "So, what is the right thing to do about this? What is the affect on Twilight, and what does she decide?" These are core questions raised by this story and carried throughout (Luna continually brings it up, and it's even the main concern of her friends in the last secret meeting at the end--what will happen to Twilight when she learns the truth and what will she do about it)--these aren't questions for a sequel.

So again, please don't think I am in anyway saying this story has a flaw in its quality. I simply don't feel I have finished reading all of it. And it's in its favor that I desperately want to. No exaggeration.

I read your comment on the effect produced by this ending, how it might be diluted by a sequel, and I would agree--if learning what was really going on was the only primary question of the story. But it isn't. I have yet to see what effect this renders in Twilight, and what the story says is the right thing to do. Is happiness worth the sacrifice of truth and reality? Clearly, that is the cost everypony is currently paying, but the question is, is it right?

If it weren't for these other questions, then the ending would have a very effective punch in it's reveal, the sort of pop in the gut you're trying to achieve. But it only has one third the weight, currently. And I say all of this knowing you probably won't add to it (with more chapters, not a sequel)--and you know, in your shoes I doubt I would either. This is how you want the story to end. Whether I'm right or wrong is secondary--it's about what you want, as it should be, because you're author. But as a reader who very much enjoyed this, I am simply saying that for me, what you wrote feels unfinished, and I thirst for the rest. For this reason, your desired effect at the end isn't as significant.

Perhaps you can divide things up into Books? Book one ends, here, and book two addresses the other important questions? You could still maintain the original ending you desired while fully completing the story, as book two wouldn't be a sequel, but a continuation.

A lame suggestion, but I wanted to toss it out there.

And remember, TQ...you have a great story here. Don't ever forget it.

Spoiler some of that silly! :derpytongue2:

To answer your comment: yes. The story ends at the climax and doesn't completely resolve the questions it brings up. Partly this is to torment the reader (to inspire you to think about what it means, rather), but it's also because I indeed am planning a sequel.

It isn't high on the priority queue, but it is in there. :twilightsmile:


Spoiler some of that silly!

Nyyyaaaah I don't need to spoiler. Too lazy.
*TQ gives Axis her stern, teacher glare*
...okay, I'll spoiler it.

Woohoo sequel! I mean, I still think it all belongs in this story (and I think it would be easier from a narrative standpoint too), but I suppose that's sort of arguing over a technicality at this point, since you will be continuing it. And I certainly won't complain to be getting more. I can't wait! Besides, I can settle for you purposefully not answering those other questions. Do I think you succeeded in what you wanted by not answering them? Not exactly, but at least you did it for a reason, and a good one at that. Besides, the story is still awesome anyway.

Eh, I don't buy the whole horror of the final revelation. Who says the fight can't still be won, or that their real lives aren't really worth restoring? In particular, why think her friendships would be lost when this apparently happened after she made them? But I guess Luna never implied it was impossible to win, just that it was a great risk over ignorant bliss. Still; I definitely wouldn't regret the decision, or even feel bad about freeing everyone.

I think the horror comes from the fact that Twilight realizes what a perfect life she's left behind.


I can understand why it's painful, I just don't see it as this great horror. Her real life is still there to take back. If the world isn't as perfect as the dream then why not work to make it more like the dream?

At the end of it all, I agree with Twilight's assertion that knowledge is always worth it. There is no truth too horrible to be worth knowing.

I guess that's from someone who never had perfection, but frankly I don't even agree that the Dream was perfection; perceptive ponies will keep being unhappy noticing the inconsistencies. The truth can't even be hidden well enough to get the bliss of 100% ignorance among the populace.

Oh, dang. Yes. YES. YES!
If this is going where it appears to be going, I am so excited. I love the 'we're not real' story, like in Mogworld (there are others, but I can't think of them). Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions, but these things all sound like continuity and animation errors, so I don't think I'm wrong.

Oh, and I almost forgot:

"Do your friends think you're crazy?" interrupted a walleyed pegasus mare.

If you are talking about Derpy here, there's a small correction you could make. 'Walleyed' means that the eyes point outward. Crosseyed means they point inward. And as we all know:
Derpy's eyes point inward (kind of up and down, but definitely inward rather than outward). I've seen that mistake a few times, so I guess that it's a common error.

That one's not so easy to classify. If it's not directly cross-eyed, most ponies will call it "walleyed", even if the deviation isn't horizontal. There isn't an informal name for Derpy's wandering strabismus, nor is there one for her hypertropia (a fixation of one eye upward). Hasbro has referred to her as walleyed. :derpytongue2:

I'm glad you've enjoyed the story so far! :twilightsmile:

Now that I'm going through the version that's been expanded from the Writeoffs, I just wanted to offer a thumbs-up for the edits here. I think that the unfinished notes in the prologue might be tipping your hoof a little too much a little too early, but you've got a very effective escalation of tension here with strong pacing. I particularly like the way this chapter's final scene offers a kicker to the Luna meeting and really recasts the writing angle.

Having finished it, I have to echo 6427840 and say that the story stops too early. What you've got here is really good, but so much weight is placed on the moral questions and on Luna's insistence of consequences that it feels a little bit cheap to end as the curtain is drawn back.

Mostly, it's that the story makes a big point of asserting that Luna couldn't have simply said "you're in the changeling Matrix, but real life really sucked, so maybe we're actually better off in here", and right now I don't feel like the ending supports that. I mean, it's certainly worldview-altering, but there's no textual evidence yet that Twilight was wrong: why wouldn't their friendship survive this revelation? It's very easy to imagine an answer to that, but we have to see it, or else it's equally plausible that Luna's just talking out her plot, which ruins the central theme of the Great And Terrible Price.

I'm definitely going to track this in hopes that it's continued/completed, but it's not terribly satisfying as a standalone piece right now. The prose is indisputably excellent — especially the slow build in the early chapters that I mentioned — and it had me on the edge of my seat till the reveal, even having read it before. So you're definitely to be commended for what's here ... just come back to it and seal the deal!


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