How Pop Culture Comfort Foods Improve Your Storytelling

I’m perpetually in the middle of re-watching 30 Rock. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than sinking into a bubble bath with Howl’s Moving Castle, which I’ve read approximately twenty times. And as much as I love to explore new stories and challenge myself with genres outside my comfort zone, I can’t help but appreciate the merits of spending time with “old friends.”

This has been especially on my mind because of Fruits Basket.

If you’re unfamiliar, Fruits Basket was an anime released in 2001, adapted from a manga of the same name. I loved it from the get go. It was beautiful and sweet, funny and devastating all at the same time. But it wasn’t particularly faithful to its source material and was cut short after only 26 episodes.

Since its initial release, I’ve revisited this adaptation as well as read the original manga to the end more than once. For many reasons, the series has been a balm to me, a reminder to turn to optimism and practice empathy even when it might be easier not to.

Last year it was announced that a brand new anime adaptation was in the works, one that would tell the full story. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. When the series began in April, it was like getting a warm hug from an old friend. Every week, I make an event out of watching the newest (but also not-really-so-new) episode.

But there’s more to re-experiencing this show than the pure pleasure of it, and I think these “pop culture comfort foods” can actually make us better writers.

When I read a new book or watch a new movie, there are a lot of things zinging around in my mind: who all the characters are, what their challenge is, how they are working to accomplish it, and more. Then, on top of that, I’m trying to figure out whether I enjoy it or not.

I’m a pretty particular consumer, and my feelings about a lot of things boil down to, “It was fine, but I wish X had been done differently.” While I do think there’s merit in being able to articulate why something didn’t work for you, it’s a much more difficult and valuable thing to identify the spark in something you love.

When I’m watching Fruits Basket or reading Harry Potter, I already know who the characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Instead of nitpicking the flaws, I let the goodness of it all wash over me.

Because of the familiarity, I can dive past the surface and begin to understand what makes it so effective, and how I can apply that to my own storytelling. From the technical stuff—like seeing why small setups in chapters 2 and 6 make for a great reveal in chapter 27—to the more ephemeral—like getting a grasp of a difficult character’s growth arc over a long period of time.

I know I don’t make enough effort most of the time to praise the things I like. Revisiting books and movies and anime  I love (as well as learning to look past their flaws) has proven to be a fulfilling practice, a wonderful reminder of why I create in the first place.

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