Learning from the master, Joss Whedon

I am a huge fan of watching the director commentaries on shows you love as a method of improving your writing skills, especially when it comes from a writer you really love. And one of the writers I love best is Joss Whedon, because, well, he's freaking brilliant. I was on a panel last month titled "Joss Whedon is My Master Now" at Life, the Universe, and Everything with Bree Despain, Robert J Defendi, Chersti Nieveen, and Michael Young. Among geeking out about all things Joss Whedon, we talked about the things we learned from Joss that helped our writing.

Like that moment in season 5 of Buffy when she found her mom dead on the couch. When Buffy first saw her, she said, "Mom?" then "Mom?" a little more intensely, then "Mommy?" (Seen in the first few seconds of this clip.) This episode was so critically acclaimed in part because the reactions were so real. No matter how old you are, when you lose a parent, you become a kid again. It's a great example of how to write death scenes well, when the character who dies is one that the main character was very close to.


When Captain Mal was introduced in the pilot episode of Firefly, he was being... well, the Mal that aims to misbehave. And as a viewer, we weren't quite sure if he was the guy we were supposed to root for. I mean, was he even a good guy? He was just off thieving, after all. Then being ornery toward his crew.

Then Kaylee, the heart of the ship, gives him a kiss and says "I love my captain." And since she is who she is, and if she says that the captain is someone you should love, we immediately believe that we should. That's the beauty of supporting characters-- since they know your main character the best, we believe them when they say awesome things about them. Things you can't get across so effectively any other way.

One of the best (and most painful!) pieces of advice I've ever heard came from the commentary of Angel, the episode in season 3 called Waiting in the Wings. The episode's conception came when Joss learned that Amy Acker (Fred) was classically trained in ballet. He wrote an entire episode about the ballet with this in mind, knowing that he wanted Wesley (Alexis Denisof), who was in love with Fred, to fall asleep during the ballet, and to dream about the two of them on the stage, doing their own ballet. They filmed the scene, and it was HILARIOUS. They were both in leotards and Fred was dancing beautifully, and Wesley was, well.... not. It was a fantastic scene.

Joss (left), Alexis (middle), Amy (right). photo credit: the2scoops via photopin cc
Then, in editing, Joss realized that the episode just wasn't working. Something was wrong, and he just couldn't seem to fix it. Then he remembered some advice he got once-- If something isn't working, remove your favorite part.


Remove your favorite part. Ouch, ouch, ouch. 

Of course, the scene with Fred and Wesley doing ballet together was his favorite part. It was, after all, what inspired the entire episode. But he took it out, and then was able to make the changes needed for the episode to work. He said that too often, we try to bend the plot to the scene we're in love with, when that's not what the story needs. And when we are so in love with a certain part, it makes it more difficult to see what needs to change.

Excellent advice, Mr. Whedon. Painful, but excellent.

If you're a Joss Whedon fan, what episode / scene did you learn the most from? Or if you've watched any other great commentaries, who do you think you've learned the most from?


Anonymous said...

I actually just clicked out of Netflix from watching Firefly! Talk about timing :) From the episode I just watched, I was struck by Mal's comment to Jayne: "It's not about you. It's about what they need." How often we live this out. I could probably weave it into my character's reactions more.

Taffy said...

If something isn't working, remove your favorite part...
Thanks for the reminder, Peggy. I need to add this to my list of MUST DOs when editing.

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Reid Kemper said...

Removing your favorite part from a story is a pill hard to swallow, but I guess it makes you better in the end. By the way, I love Firefly.

Anonymous said...

Those scenes were so hard to get through when the series were running and still today, they are so powerful, so moving because we care about the characters, the loss of one of their own.

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