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

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There are 10 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. carmen webster buxton

    I really, really wish they had given his show more time! I missed it in “real time,” too. Thank god for DVDs.

  2. 2. Scott Seldon

    It may be short, but it is fantastic. I don’t know why it didn’t catch on, but it really should have. I didn’t find it until a couple years after the movie came out.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Carmen, yes, the DVDs have been a lifesaver for me. I LOVE the show and already want to go back and watch it again, beginning to end.

    Scott, I think it was just too quirky for some people. That blend of 19th century Western and 26th century space opera is not for everyone. I loved it, and obviously it garnered a terrificly devoted following, but I can see why some people didn’t know what to make of it. Sad that something different and cool can sometimes be done in by those very qualities.

  4. 4. cathy

    Speaking as someone who watched Firefly when it aired… it was shown on Friday night (which was one of the worst nights for television) AND they aired the episodes out of order. I loved it to pieces, but wasn’t surprised when they cancelled it. Bitter, but not surprised. (Joe Millionaire or some other lame reality show took Firefly’s place which made it even worse.)

    I boycotted Fox for years over it, and it really changed the way I watched television and gave me the patience to start waiting for seasons or shows to be done before I watched them. They have *slightly* redeemed themselves with continuing with Fringe, even if they did put it on the Friday night slot.

    And if you’re looking for another fantastic sci fi series do yourself a favour and catch Fringe. It took about 7 episodes to grow on me, then I was hooked. They do a fantastic job of reinventing the show each season, as well as evolving characters who live in a world connected to an alternate reality. It is, quite frankly, amazing how the actors are able to play different versions of themselves yet remain true to the core of the characters. (The writers get a lot of credit for that as well, of course!)

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Cathy, and for the recommendation. I’ve seen previews for Fringe and I’ve been intrigued, but I have yet to watch it. Would I be better off renting earlier seasons before hooking into it in its current form, or should I just jump right in?

  6. 6. Katrina

    Being able to learn from master story tellers in various forms is probably one of the things that can help turn a decent author into a really good author. As far as I’m concerned, Joss Whedon is certainly a good source to learn from. His shows aren’t perfect but I tend not to notice the lack of perfection while I’m watching.

    One of the problems with Firefly when it was originally aired was that the network started by showing the episodes in the wrong order which made it harder to understand. Starting a book by reading the third chapter before the first doesn’t work well either.

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Katrina, I can’t think of any storyteller who is perfect — we’re all still learning, mastering our various crafts. I agree that Firefly was handicapped by the way the network handled the episodes, and I certainly agree that i wouldn’t want my publisher rearranging my chapters to fit their idea of what would sell best. It really is remarkable what Joss had to put up with re. this show.

  8. 8. cathy

    You should definitely start at the beginning. There’s a lot of world building and continuity to appreciate and they do a good job on picking up on early season events later. You also have the advantage of knowing going in that this is going to be the last season of Fringe, so you won’t have the will they/won’t they cancel angst. (Something you don’t usually have to worry about with books!)

    I hope you like it!


  1. A Podcast Interview and a New Post About FIREFLY! | D.B. Jackson
  2. A Post About FIREFLY and a New Interview! « An Exchange of Words: David B. Coe’s Weblog

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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