Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Buffy

A bazooka goes with every outfit.
Flashback to 1997. I’m 13 years old and excessively confident in my assessment that spinning a full TV show out of that cheese-tastic movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to be a disaster of epic proportions. I am so sure of my opinion that I sit down on premiere night, curled in a bean bag in our unfinished basement, and click on our old 19-inch analog TV to observe the trainwreck.

Two hours later, I click the television off, hungry-eyed, and start counting the hours until the next episode.

A lot of things started with that two-hour premiere on a bean bag chair in a basement. My desire to be Buffy when I grew up, for one, which led to a leather jacket for Christmas and a habit of wearing a cross necklace around my neck. My lifelong membership card to the Joss Whedon Fan Club, for another.

But mostly, it profoundly impacted my writing.

No one creates in a vacuum, which is why artists always talk about their influences, and I discovered BtVS at that perfect age of influence. Those middle school and high school years – you’re like a sponge. What you get filtered from your parents doesn’t cut it anymore, so you consume media like a beast. Music, television, movies…anything you can tap into that expresses some of the chaotic feelings that are crashing around inside your stomach. That song lyric, that one character – they’re you. And you’re them.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and, subsequently, Angel – was the crack I just could not stop snorting, and I can see the impact now and always on the work I turn out. Everything I ever needed to know about writing, I learned in those 144 episodes.

Strong women don’t mean flawless women. I’ll admit: The reason why I wanted to be Buffy had a lot to do with the fact that she was a bad ass who got to make out with Angel. But if that was all there was to her, I doubt I would’ve been such a fangirl. The truth is, Buffy was awesome because she was also a girl – like me. She liked to watch stupid movies with her friends and wear outfits that she felt cute in. She had boy troubles. She fought with her mom. She wanted to run away and be something else. She made stupid mistakes and said dumb things. Sure, setting off a rocket launcher in a mall? Total BAMF-envy. But I didn’t connect wit the character because she could roundhouse a bad guy. I connected with her because she was a person.

Paper covers dialogue. Dialogue smashes plot. Yes, plot is important. Very important, in fact. Definitely spend time making sure Stuff Happens because that is exactly what stuff ought to do. Is happen. Y’know what’s extra-super-important, though? Dialogue. Because that is one thing we humans do – or, at least, try to do – all the time is communicate. And if you have characters droning on, explaining this or outlining that or monologuing, etc., I’m out. It is the quickest way to make me stop reading: If people don’t sound like people. Or worse – if they all sound like boring people. I don’t care if it’s a medieval fantasy world, you can still write a conversation. Characters can still sound unique and communicate differently. Plot is a priority and beautiful descriptions are awesome, but if you don’t give me solid dialogue, you’re welcome to exit stage left.

If your characters don’t fuck up, you’re not doing it right. I’m not talking about fucking up as in, “Oops, they lost the Lost Pendant of Periwinkle thus driving the plotline forward for another 100 pages.” I’m talking about actually messing up, like normal people do. Snapping at their best friend because they’re irritable. Picking a fight they shouldn’t pick. Exploiting someone else’s weakness. Having one of those days where they just feel like everything they touch turns to utter failure because I think everyone has those at least occasionally. Let them fuck up like you or I fuck up and not just as a plot point.

That one thing that would totally end the fictional world? Yeah, do that. Someone recently made a t-shirt that says Guns Don’t Kill People, Joss Whedon Kills People. It’s all very nudge-nudge-wink-wink hilarious because the running joke is that Joss has no problems killing anybody, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Bad things happened in Buffy (and all his subsequent shows). Good people died. Sometimes senselessly. Characters were tortured and went through hell. Literally. There was no Bella-with-a-mental-love-shield keeping all of the good guys safe and preventing any fighting or blood or pain. If everyone makes it out of a plotline unmarked, then it wasn’t a very good plotline. Go back. Push it further.

This last one leads me into one of my favorite quotes period but also one of the best pieces of storytelling adivce ever. And yes, since this is a Whedon-heavy post, you bet your sweet fanny it was said by Joss Whedon.

Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.

Yup. That pretty much sums it up.

12 thoughts on “Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Buffy

  1. Great, great post! I’m with you–like a sponge, I sucked up every episode of BtVS I could. Loved the plots, the twists, and especially the dialogue, which is SO important when writing. Whedon is a god. I don’t care how fangirl that sounds πŸ™‚

  2. Okay, the whole ” Guns Don’t Kill People, Joss Whedon Kills People” thing is hee-larry-us! Also, I think I just fell in love with you! Great points, and all reasons why I loved Buffy.

  3. “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

    ^ Best. Quote. Ever.

    I missed Buffy the first time around, but caught it on Netflix (hooray for Instant Watch!). My God is that show like crack. Absolutely loved it.

    And I liked that Whedon wasn’t afraid to off the characters you liked. Nobody was safe, and that went a long way toward heightening the tension. (Of course, I still haven’t forgiven him for Wash.)

  4. Great quote and awesome post. I am glad I read it, because in this second novel of mine my MC screws up a lot. And about killing people off, that makes me feel better too. My beta readers gave me hella flack for a death or two…and I was like…sorry? But not really. I am going to be honest, I never watched BTVS, but my husband will be out of town the next few days. Maybe I should have a netflix marathon.

  5. Fantastic post! Love your t-shirt. πŸ™‚ And thanks for saying it’s all right to kill off good characters. I had my crit group worried at one point, but they came around. And apparently I depressed the #$@% out of 1 of my betas. Should I take that as a good sign?

  6. Great post! I haven’t loved everything Joss has done but Firefly and Buffy are up there for me. I rewatched a lot of it a couple years ago and I have to say that it truly is a modern classic – and you did a great job explaining why.

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