Though today’s story isn’t about a winner, you’ll find the story itself certainly is one.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
[Sad] • 1,055 words
The Equestria Games honor the best of the best. But for there to be winners, there must be losers.
FROM THE CURATORS: This is, as Present Perfect put it, “a well-built behind-the-scenes look at a scene from the show through the eyes of a griffon. … It feels like an exercise in imagery, but has a surprising amount going on.”
We’ve previously featured several stories at FIMFiction’s 1,000-word minimum threshold, and at that length, using every word effectively is crucial — a lesson Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger takes to heart. “It’s always impressive to me when an author can paint a picture of a character, a species, or a culture that quickly, and that’s where this story shines,” Chris said. JohnPerry agreed: “It’s strikingly evocative for something so short.”
What’s even more striking — and a major factor in its feature — is its use of indirect storytelling for its emotional impact. “It sets something up and tears it down, letting the story be told in the background,” Present Perfect said, and Horizon concurred: “Half the story is a description of the gryphon’s hotel room, but not a word is wasted.” JohnPerry also praised the story’s depth. “I appreciate how the narrow focus on the narrator character leaves a lot to interpretation,” he said. “There’s layers upon layers to explore in this one, and in barely over a thousand words that’s quite the accomplishment.”
Read on for our author interview, in which A Hoof-ful of Dust discusses the wizardry of words, the golden age of television, and random acts of Derpy.
Give us the standard biography.
I don’t know. I’m a Gemini and an INTJ. I’ve self-identified as a geek before it was cool to self-identify as a geek. I’m an average adult male who writes stories about colourful horses and the magic of friendship. Or, maybe not, since I’m a little older than brony average, I’m married, and I have a little over a year under my belt of being a dad; that wasn’t so common in the big herd census thing. I’ve always liked to write; I was scribbling down some undoubtedly godawful fanfiction before I knew what fanfiction was (in a dark unenlightened pre-Internet age), and I’ve discarded a few fandoms before settling here, so I’ve had the fortune of a lot of time and practice to get a lot of the beginner’s garbage out of my system.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
It’s a reference not many people catch. It’s from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
In addition to being badass and ominous, my take on that passage was that it had to do with writing and writers. Everyone walks around with a little bit of understanding of fiction and fantasy and whatever — that’s their shadow, the thing that looks like a thing but isn’t — but the writer, he lives under this big ol’ rock, and under there is nothing but shadow. He’s the king of make-believe down there. He’ll blow your mind with the kind of made-up jazz he can throw at you, he’ll craft images from words, conjure whole worlds out of smoke, stir emotions from dust. Writing’s a form of magic: not stage sleight-of-hand or friendship like we understand but old ancient dusty wizard creation ex nihilo. There was nothing, and then by the word and the word alone you made something. That’s powerful.
And because you don’t have hands in pony-lingo, I had to change the quote a little. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with “hoof-ful” still, it’s a little awkward. If I was going to do it over I might be This Red Rock instead, but you can’t make a horse pun out of that.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Sweetie Belle. There’s parts of all of the Mane Six I identify and empathise with — even Pinkie Pie, who’s about as opposite from me as you can get — and instead of trying to keep their rankings consistent and up-to-date I decided to hell with it, Sweetie takes the top slot. I love her relationship with Rarity, they have a very genuine sibling dynamic going on, and I like that Sweetie’s not the brightest bulb but that isn’t the be-all and end-all of her character. Plus, she’s adorably squeaky.
I may also be growing a soft spot for Sunset Shimmer, who after EQG2 became this really interesting contrast to Twilight after a season of Twilight being shuffled into the background. She’s very fertile ground for re-framing a lot of the lessons the ponies have gone through, there’s big potential for redemption (more than the other villains, sorry to say), there’s all this history she has to have with Celestia, all great stuff.
What’s your favorite episode?
That’s another tough one. I don’t think I have one favourite. I really liked For Whom the Sweetie Belle Toils, because it’s great to see Rarity and Sweetie being sisters, and there’s Luna doing her thing, and there’s dream sequences, and it’s a play on A Christmas Carol. Look Before You Sleep was the episode that really sold me on the series, so I have a soft spot for that. It’s the first episode that cuts out members of the Mane Six completely, it’s all very focused on one location in one timeframe… it’s a solid bottle episode, very slice-of-life-y. And Magical Mystery Cure deserves a mention. It’s the musical episode, it’s a summation of the evolution of Twilight’s character over the previous three seasons, and Celestia’s song, man. I want the last episode ever to be like this for all the other ponies; Tirek going SSJ4 and wrecking face all over Equestria is visually impressive, but Cure is an emotional high point and one of the best episodes of the show.
What do you get from the show?
It’s cute. It doesn’t talk down to the audience. It’s sincere, which is the big thing. Like, I grew up with the Ninja Turtles, which is a 22-minute toy commercial, and after that was the era of Captain Planet and his weird awkward early-90s environmentalist social awareness. Both these things are sort of the opposite side of the same coin, and they both have an element of being very dismissive towards actually engaging children in entertainment. Just put in some ninjas/superheroes that eat pizza/have magic powers, kids like that junk! Then we can get them to buy all our playsets and toys/do whatever Ted Turner wanted kids to get out of Captain Planet. Everyone who works on MLP really cares for the thing they’re making, and it shows, and people respond to it. It’s not just this one show that’s fluked into that kind of dedication, either, there’s the same kind of care and attention to detail in things like Avatar and Adventure Time and Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and these are just the series I’ve had the time to watch. The end goal isn’t to sell a product (for many television shows, that product was the show itself), it’s to make something that’s got a viewpoint and to share that with its audience, be it that adolescence is a wild and turbulent ride or that the scope of social changes in the 60s was massive and far-reaching or that friendship is legitimately magic. Not since television started has television been this good.
What do you want from life?
Be happy? Isn’t that what everyone wants? Just be okay with my little section of the world and the narrow band of reality I get to perceive. Wanting anything more than that seems greedy.
Why do you write?
To get the ideas out of my head. There’s a brand of authors (who I suspect enjoy talking more about writing than actually writing, but that’s neither here nor there) who will go on and on about their muse and when their creativity is flowing and when it isn’t, and I think that’s all bunk. It’s too flowery a metaphor for what I feel like I have going on in my head for gathering story ideas, which is something more like a grease trap or that thing in the sink that keeps hair out of the drain. Concepts and images and words flow through your brain, and most of it passes through, but some stuff gets caught in this filter, and it Will. Not. Go. Away. until you write it down. Sometimes you get a half-finished scene out of it. Sometimes you get a multi-chapter epic out of just a phrase you needed to use. Every time I’ve gone to build a story from the ground up, just as an exercise to try some structure or plot, it’s garbage. It needs that little bit of mental gunk to start off with, the grain of sand to grow a pearl.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Practice, or you’ll never get to Carnegie Hall. Diversify your influences. Respect your history — you don’t have to like every agreed-upon great work, but you do have to at least come to terms that the people who made it were at the forefront of their craft and were the ones carving the way for whatever you’re doing now.
Empathise. Get outside of your own head and into the brainspace of other people. People completely foreign to you, people who have worldviews that run completely opposite to you, learn things about them and how they grew up and what their surroundings are and what influences them day in and day out and understand the path they took to become everything you’re not. Then you know how to chart out that same path for every character you write, and then you do that. Someone — I’m pretty sure it was Stephen King, but I’m also pretty sure he’s not the only writer to make this observation — said that nobody thinks of themselves as a supporting player, that we’re all the main character in our own lives; that’s crazy valuable advice, and it gives a lot of depth to all your characters, both big and small, when you’re mindful of it.
Meditate. Which isn’t really what it sounds like, since I’m pretty sure most people picture sitting in the lotus position and humming. That’s what works for some people, but for you it might be running, or blasting music in your earbuds on the subway, or sitting still underneath a tree in the woods somewhere with your shoes off. It’s whatever you do to get that inane idiot internal monologue we all have — the one that’s always going on about the coursework you have to do, wondering if you’re out of milk, voicing the perfect comeback to that thing that guy said the other day and you said nothing, planning the next chapter where you have all these loose ends to tie up before the climax, pondering the meaning of life, the universe, and everything — to shut up for just a second so your brain can straighten itself out. It will make connections it never would have with that little voice talking over itself. When you are stuck — and this goes for many, many more things than writing — find the place where there is no room for jangled messy thoughts, and go there.
Short as this story is, a great deal of time is spent describing the furnishings in the room. Why give so much importance to the items?
It’s to put the reader in the perspective of the nameless protagonist. He’s an outsider, he’s not a part of the culture we’re familiar with through just watching the show, so you can’t just take for granted when there’s a bed and a lamp and a dresser and whatever, that that’s all he sees. So in detailing a bunch of minute nuances about the room, you learn a lot about who’s looking at them. (That’s an example of that show-don’t-tell thing the Internet loves to drill into aspiring writers.) He’s so full of disdain for everything ponies do and everything that they are, his superiority is unquestionable. They’re prey; he’s a predator. They might talk and think and build houses, but given a different set of circumstances than the right-here-right-now, he’d eat one of them and never regret it: not out of malice or cruelty, but because that’s just the way nature has made them both.
And it sets up a clear picture of the room so it can get trashed in the second half. He wrecks the hotel room, and it’s a hollow and empty and petty gesture, because the soft ponies who built it and filled it with this flimsy junk, they beat him. When I was writing this, I was thinking of the scene in The Wall where Pink brings the groupie back to his hotel room and flips out and trainwrecks the place, then collects up all the broken pieces of everything and tries to put them in some sort of order, arranges them to make sense even though they’re broken guitars and a caved-in television and countless shards of glass. You saw him break all the stuff, it was all there when he sets up his little diorama. So if you want to write about a room getting destroyed, first you must Chekhov’s Gun the objects you want to destroy.
Why did you choose to show us the “before” and “after” with none of the actual competition?
It’s not needed. You can get all the context from just the before and after; he’s one of the griffons at the Equestria Games, his team comes third in the relay. You actually see the relay in the episode, too, so it’s doubly unecessary. In a longer story where, I don’t know, we track our griffon hero as he trains as an athlete, he scrubs out at the Games, and he goes into exile and learns something about himself (or doesn’t), there’s space for the actual competition, and probably some of the emotion that’s in the two halves of the story as it is now gets transferred to that pivotal scene, but for something short that is really just a “hey, here’s some interesting ideas I had about how griffons might be different from ponies”, it’s going to be words doing very little but describing actions with not much room to keep referring to the main point of the story, and that’s a thing worth avoiding.
Even though the griffon is the only character, this story ends up being as much about ponies as it is about griffons. Do you have any tips for world-building via contrast?
Setting up and highlighting contrasts is pretty good for everything-building. You can convey twice the amount of information by comparing one thing to another, you get to explore both of them at the same time … super-efficient. There’s a lot left unsaid about the other races in the MLP universe — maybe that’s intentional, given how awkward Over a Barrel turned out — so there’s plenty of room to make the non-pony societies different.
For how I arrived at how to portray the griffons, I drew from real-world animals. It’s pretty easy to take stuff about horses and map it to the ponies. Everyone does that. Griffons, while not real animals themselves, are combinations of two real animals, so you can make some inferences. Lions and eagles are both not just carnivores, they’re apex predators, top of their spot in the food chain. Eagles are solitary, lions live in family groups (wild horses do this too, but the mental image of a herd is quite different to a pride even though they’re a pretty similar structure). Ponies are pretty communal, we see plenty of events where all of Ponyville pitches in to do stuff around town. There’s even that group hysteria thing that happens when the background characters get all wound up about something. So if pony society functions as a group, how do the griffons work? I imagined them to be like rival noble houses, like the various families in A Song of Ice and Fire, where loyalty to your family is of the utmost importance, because it allows for a kind of selfishness that the ponies are totally lacking. Then family leads to thinking about bloodlines, maybe pure ancestry is important, and that’s how my protagonist becomes a little racist, which is another trait that seems pretty alien to pony society: they can be classist, sure, but a big part of their winter celebration is remembering the time the three races became friends and drove away the spirits of the cold.
And then the rest was just finding more things to do that opposes what pony norm is, to really drive the other-ness of the narrator home. It’s always bright and sunny and pleasant in Equestria; wherever griffons come from has to be cold and grey and windy. Ponyville gets bulldozed every other week from rabbit stampedes or the Cutie Mark Crusaders or random acts of Derpy; griffon castles are built to last and show off the long history of the family that lives there. But the biggest contrast is the one that goes mostly unsaid, because it’s been touched on time and time again in the show and what’s presented in the story is so counter to it: ponies have an endless capacity to forgive. We see Applejack in mostly the same situation in The Last Roundup, and when she doesn’t win the money to fix the bell tower up, it’s no big deal. Pinkie is inadvertently the cause of Ponyville being eaten by parasprites because she doesn’t explain herself, but nobody blames her. Twilight magics the town nuts when she hasn’t done her homework; it’s okay. The first thing Princess Celestia does to her little sister after falling under the sway of a dark corrupting entity and living in exile for a thousand years as a figure haunting the dreams of children is give her a hug. Forgiveness is infinite for the ponies, but one disgrace among the griffons that brings shame on your family, and you’re an outcast. How’s that for contrast? You highlight and underline a fact about the universe we’ve already been told by introducing new information that’s the complete antithesis of what already exists.
So, that was my process. But for tips on worldbuilding … let’s see. I guess the way of putting it would be to always be asking what’s missing. That’s the basis of fanfiction to begin with; we all thought there was something missing from a thing we liked, be it more time with a background character or our two favourite ponies making kissy faces at each other or a bit of the old ultra-violence. There’s a lot missing in the MLP universe, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s not like there’s gaping holes of logic all over the place that make previous events stop making sense, but more like the world is a play and we only get to see what’s up on the stage and never off into the wings. There’s stuff there, or at least the narrative is convincing enough that you can believe there’s something there beyond the curtains; you can extrapolate what should be there based on what’s happening on stage. That’s worldbuilding for an already-built world.
So, speaking of stages, what kind of entertainment is there in pony society? We know plays exist, and musicals. There’s cinemas, but no television. Plays seem pretty traditional, as per Hearth’s Warming Eve. But cinema doesn’t seem to be at the same level as what we have in the real world; there’s no multiplexes, no summer blockbusters, no 3D digital projectors. There could be, if you needed to handwave technology similar to what we have for some reason (the show itself does this all the time), but let’s say for example’s sake that the general cinema experience is a few decades behind the one we’re familiar with. Just how new is it? Is there a conflict between traditional respectable stage actors and these brash upstarts in the moving pictures? Who makes movies, anyway? What’s the ratio of fiction to non-fiction? Does having access to genuine legitimate magic instead of relying on special effects and camera trickery change the shooting process? How do ponies know there’s a big movie out? How often do they go to the cinema? Is it somewhere teenagers could go on a date, or do you need to dress up if it’s opening night? Is there room for both options? Just a little bit of digging into what’s missing opens up a labyrinth of questions.
But the most important thing is what you do once you have the answers in your mind: you sit on them. You don’t do anything with that information, until you need to. You just leave it in your head until the opportunity to use it naturally presents itself. Because stories aren’t made of the metaphysical differences between unicorn and alicorn magic or how Rarity’s parents met or what being a ship’s captain in Equestria is like, but of characters and their emotions and their failures and their victories. Don’t be itching to write a new story just to show off your headcanon, because nobody cares, they all have their own personal universe of headcanon to amuse themselves with. Just hold onto it, and match up the right background detail required with your vast catalogue of extra-canon musings, and readers will be falling over themselves to tell you how clever it was that you thought of that little thing, that it makes so much sense, and you can totally look like it was nothing, really.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Nah, that’s about it. I’ve rambled on with my unfocused blathering for long enough. If you found something useful or insightful in there, super-wonderful, and if you didn’t, I don’t know. Try reading some of my other stories, most of them are shorter and more concise than this interview.