August 23rd 2012
A Writer’s Belated Tribute to FIREFLY
I have recently, finally, mercifully learned why people loved Firefly so much. I am a longtime fan of Buffy and Angel, and I think that Joss Whedon is a genius. But somehow I missed the beginning of the series, and by the time it found its way onto my radar as something I should have been watching, it had been cancelled.
On the recommendation of so many friends I lost count, I got around to watching it with my wife on Netflix. And wow. Just. Wow. I’ve also been re-watching all seven seasons of Buffy. (Who has two thumbs and owns the deluxe box-set? This guy.) And I am convinced that an author can learn pretty much everything he or she needs to know about storytelling from the oeuvre of Mr. Whedon.
The Whedon Lessons: Make your characters quirky, give them tons of backstory and personality, and then stand back and allow them to grow and develop as they need to. Create worlds that are fairly simple in concept, but are filled with details that will provide fodder for stories for as long as you need them to. Find plot lines that will surprise and ultimately satisfy your audience. Begin each episode with a kick-ass opening sequence. Use humor to offset the horrors to which you subject your characters, and also to keep your viewers/readers off-balance as they move from one plot point to the next. Make your dialogue natural-sounding and witty, and use it to simultaneously advance your narrative and deepen your character development. Never allow your pacing to flag. And most of all, imbue everything you do with all the passion you can muster.
Obviously, these storytelling principles are not really unique to Joss. In fact, many of the qualities that distinguish Whedon’s work can also be found in the work of another of my creative heroes: Aaron Sorkin, who brought us not only The West Wing (my favorite television show of all time and another box-set that I own) but also The Social Network, A Few Good Men, Sports Night, and several other movies and shows.
The fact is that the elements of good storytelling are fairly simple and they are shared by a broad array of novels and short stories, movies and television shows.
Let’s look at Firefly again — the episode “Out of Gas” in particular. The show opens with Mal dropping to the floor of the cargo bay, critically, perhaps fatally, wounded. We’re five seconds in, and already Whedon has grabbed us by the throat. We’re hooked. Then we go back in time and start to piece together the events that led us to Mal’s collapse, at times gripping the armrests on our chairs, at other times laughing aloud. We learn how Serenity’s crew came to be together, just as we learn how the ship came to be adrift, and how Mal was wounded. In a way, it’s the sort of “here’s-where-we-all-come-from” episode that some directors might choose as the series pilot. But Joss waited, knowing that it would all be more interesting and more powerful for Firefly’s fans if he waited until the series had established some basic ground rules.
I have a friend who is also a writer who at tax time writes off the expense of her cable bill, her Netflix account, and her DVD purchases (not to mention all of her book purchases — but I do that, too). When I first heard that she did this, I thought it was pretty amusing not to mention gutsy. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the logic in her accounting. The fact is, watching the work of Joss Whedon has taught me a great deal about storytelling and worldbuilding. Listening to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue has made my own character interactions better. Reading the books of my friends, which I do quite a bit these days, has helped me work through issues in my books.
We learn from the masters. We learn from each other. There is a reason why Monet, Renoir, Manet and other Impressionists hung out together. There is a reason why Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and their friends among the world’s literary illuminati joined forces in Paris in the 1920s. Art begets art. Yes, I have seen every episode of Buffy, and yes, I intend to watch all of them again. There are nuggets of creative wisdom in those shows, waiting to be mined. Plus, the show rocks. Same with Firefly. While I have to return these disks to Netflix after I watch them, I will be buying the collected series soon enough. And I will study those, too.David B. Coe http://www.DBJackson-Author.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com
David B. Coe
David B. Coe is the author of eleven fantasy novels, including the books of the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands. He has also written the novelization for the Ridley Scott production of ROBIN HOOD, starring Russell Crowe, that is due out in May 2010. In 1999 he received the Crawford Fantasy Award, given annually by the IAFA to the best new author in fantasy. He has a Ph.D. in United States environmental history and lives on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee with his wife and daughters. Visit site.
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