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What Made Buffy Great: Seven Seasons of Lessons for Writers

BuffySeason1Welcome back to the Hellmouth! Sundays are for writers round these parts, but we’re going to stick with the Buffy theme because there’s a lot to be learned from the show.

And as always, here’s your warning that…

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Buffy lasted for seven seasons. Seven seasons they thought a supernatural story with a female lead would never make it. Seven years of gaining traction with a devoted fan base that would last and refresh itself for years after the show’s end.

So why do people stick with it? What was it about that little heap of seasons that inspires people to still convert people to Buffy fandom almost a decade after the show left the airwaves?

Well, a lot. But here’s what Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me about great writing.

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1. Never Let Characters Stagnate

The picture that opened this blog post is Buffy Summers in season 1. The one above is Buffy Summers in season 7. Even though you can’t see the writing in these pictures, you can tell that the woman in the second picture is sure of herself. She knows her place in the world, and she knows that she has the power to change that place.

The characters who stood over the crater of Sunnydale after battling the First? They’re not the same people who sat in the library bitching about Cordelia. The writers of the show created characters who you got to know, bit by bit. When they did something out of character, you knew it, and the writers almost always made sure there was good reason for it.

Each character had a distinctive voice, a way of speaking, and a personality unique to the others. What came out of Xander’s mouth probably wouldn’t come out of Buffy’s — or Giles’. The characters grew and changed and faced challenges that pushed them into becoming different people. The arcs of the characters across seven seasons — that’s the mark of great writing.

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2. The Antagonist is the Spine of Your Story

One of the biggest keys to keeping characters in flux and developing is an antagonist who continually challenges them and forces them to adapt. Antagonists should be the single most important characters in your stories after your protagonist, and an argument can be made to make them almost more important.

You have to get inside their heads, find out what makes them tick, why they do the things they do. Give them something to sympathize with. Give them truth to tell. Bad guys telling the truth almost always throws off a protagonist. Find that truth and make it as true and as important as anything you can give to your protagonist. Mayor Wilkins is right about Buffy and Angel. And he’s right about Faith. Also, his love for Faith makes him sympathetic. It adds layers to his evil and makes him one of the best villains on television.

Season after season, the writers gave us antagonists with heft, from Angel in season 2 to life and the Trio in season 6.

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3. Make Dialogue a World Builder

Fandom is full of Joss-isms. Dawn tells Riley that he can’t go patrol because he’s all weak and kittenish. “Kitteny,” Buffy corrects her.

There’s a fine line with this, but finding little dialogue quirks for your world helps create that world and make it its own. The expressions in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series are another example. “Light!” “Blood and ashes!” They fit in with the ideology of the world he’s created. The same with Buffy. The way the characters speak to one another helps delineate the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from, say, the world of Jack the Tax Accountant.

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4. Tell Human Stories Through The Lens of Your World

This goes for any genre, but primarily supernatural/paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi. One of the greatest things about Buffy is that if you strip away the paranormal aspects of her life, you still have a compelling story of a young woman growing up, accepting herself, and making a concerted effort to change her path.

I remember when I moved to Poland. I brought all seasons of Buffy with me, packed in a huge CD case. When I went to Poland, there had been very few times in my life where I felt like I belonged anywhere. But there, I had a circle of friends to run amok with. I found a place there where I was happy and active — and when I had to leave, I felt completely lost.

It was on my return to Colorado after my almost two years in Poland that I started to love season 6 of Buffy. Because even though I hadn’t died and my life in Poland wasn’t heaven, being forced to come back to a city that made me feel lost — well, I could relate. I’d been happy.

In fact, a lot of season 6 hit home for me. Working crappy jobs to pay the bills? Check. Feeling like some cosmic force was messing with me? Check. And it’s the same with all the seasons. Human stories. Supernatural setting.

I could probably keep going, but let’s stop there.

What lessons have you learned from Buffy, writers?

Miss any of my other Buffy posts? I’ve got a whole page for them in the nav bar. Check out Emmie’s Buffyverse for all the Buffy posts!

 

 

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Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (unless you’re in Poland, in which case a land quite close to your doorstep), I had to get my wisdom teeth out.

As I lay on the reclining chair with my mouth pried and propped open as far as it would go and only local anesthesia standing between my uber-impacted teeth and the extraction process, I quite clearly recall the Polish dentist remarking to a young protege how unusual my teeth were with four roots instead of two. I also recall the song playing on the radio during that encounter with the surreal.

Always look on the bright side of life! Dee-doo, dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo!

I still have that unusually rooted tooth. I take it out and look at it every once in a while when I’m feeling whimsical.

And when I want to feel special.

My wisdom tooth has four roots. I’ll take that to the bank and smoke it.

With all this talk about the End of the World and all my doom and gloom about the terrifying nature of water post-apocalypse, I thought I would take a lesson from the Monty Python boys today and share the five BEST things about the end of the world!

One Woman Wiggles Her Booty While The Rest Sta...

(I felt obliged to leave this caption as-is) One Woman Wiggles Her Booty While The Rest Stand Perfectly Still (Photo credit: jesse.millan)

5. If You Make Plans, They’ll Have to Show Up.

Ever notice how smartphones have drastically increased the flakiness factor of your fellow humanoids? How many times have you made plans with someone only to have them text you the day of and say they forgot they had to go the to the dog orthodontist to put braces on their dachsund?

In the past two weeks, this has happened to me three times. I have one former coworker who has made plans with me not once or twice or even thrice (yup, I said that). It’s been four or five times — and she’s never once actually shown up. When you put aside part of your day for someone, it’s never fun when they use technology to cancel on you last minute.

In an apocalypse, we wouldn’t have technology! So if you tell someone to meet you at the Washington Monument at noon on 29 July, if they don’t show up, they’re probably just dead. And if they’re not dead, they’re going to show up. Because they don’t want to be the asshole in an apocalypse who lets everyone think they’re dead when they’re not.

English: Dandelion clock (Taraxacum officinale...

When was the last time you puffed one of these into a hundred tiny parachutes? English: Dandelion clock (Taraxacum officinale) For more translations SEE BELOW (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4. Peace and Quiet.

The last time the power went out during the day here, I marveled at how much noise simply…ceased. The hum of the air purifier. The grating snarl of the refrigerator. (Hey, ours has a mind of its own.) The whoosh of the air conditioner. The whirr of the fan. Decibels upon decibels of electronic buzzing vanished into silence.

The handy thing about all that noise going away is that you could actually hear the zombies and monsters coming to get you and arrange to be elsewhere when they arrive.

We live in a loud, loud world. A little silence is balm for the soul.

Coke Zero Ad

Coke Zero Ad (Photo credit: peepo_tolentino)

3. No Commercials.

N o one will try and sell you shit you don’t need ever again! Ever wonder why you walk out of Wal-Mart with three separate sizes of storage bins and a turkey baster? You saw it with an ad on it that made it look vitally important to your survival on a Tuesday, so you got it. You can put yarn in it. Or quilting fabric when you finally buy a sewing machine and learn how to quilt. And everyone needs to baste their turkeys, right?

Yes. Exactly once per year.

If you’re in America. Good luck finding an intact turkey to roast if you live in Poland. I think we got our Thanksgiving turkey on the black market that year.

Commercials suck. They make me want to buy a Dyson or a new Civic to replace the perfectly serviceable newish Civic that sits in our reserved parking spot. I get so sick of pictures and actors trying to sell me everything that it makes me long for the end times.

English: Picture of an archery competition at ...

Rio 2016, here I come! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Free Time

You know that hobby you’ve always talked about undertaking but never really get going because your life is taken up by menial tasks like working 50 hours a week, eating, interacting with those humans who live in your home, calling your mum, and flossing?

Well, in the post-apocalyptic wonderland, not only could you take up more than one hobby to occupy all your gloriously free time, but the equipment would be cheap as free! You might have to fight your way through a zombie horde to get to the nearest REI, but once you’re there, you can take ALL the rock wall for yourself.

Underwater basket weaving. Fly fishing. Archery. Crocheting. Interpretive dance.

It’s all you, baby.

We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely ...

We Can Do It poster for Westinghouse, closely associated with Rosie the Riveter, although not a depiction of the cultural icon itself. Pictured Geraldine Doyle (1924-2010), at age 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Be All You Can Be

No, you don’t have to join the army.

Hell, you’ll BE your own army.

The best thing about the apocalypse is that it will try your mettle. You can be as badass as you want to be. You can take out zombies and survive on your own. You can protect your family and build a new civilization in your own image (mua ha ha ha).

All of the preconceived notions of YOU will vanish when the world ends. There will be pre-EOW you, and there will be post-EOW you. No more boss who makes you feel like a nincompoop. No more bill collectors hounding you. No more foreclosure notices, 6 AM meetings, missing little Billy-Bob’s first home run. No more You 1.0.

You get to start fresh. You get to realize whatever inner magic you’ve always had but kept squashed inside like a squirrel in a jar. Want to be different? Go for it.

So there you have it — five great reasons why the apocalypse wouldn’t totally suck. There are plenty of reasons why the end of the world would be a bummer, but today, I’ll take my cue from those crazy blokes who brought us The Knights of Ni and the great big killer rabbit.

What would be your high points in an apocalypse? What could be an improvement?

Just a Hunch: EOW Entries

Hold onto your butts, because the apocalypse is coming. And someone is getting towed outside my window. Oops.

We’ve got two more great entries for your reading pleasure today from the lovely Angie Richmond and Unisse Chua.

As they say in Poland, smacznego!

Last Day

by Unisse Chua

499 words

Alarms started to wail in the empty laboratory at three in the morning. Dr. Levi Jones woke up and shouted, “Where’s the fire?” He fell asleep again while finishing up a report.

“There’s no fire Jones. It’s the greenhouse,” shouted his research partner, Dr. Catherine Lane. He blinked and tried to think of what to do. “Levi! Greenhouse!”

“Oh, right.” He stood up and ran to the greenhouse.

When Levi got to the greenhouse, he heard the computer say, “Attention: Subjects two and fifteen has no pulse.”

“Two more?” asked Cat. “I can’t believe this. Nothing was wrong for a month, and now all our lab animals are dying.”

“Well, not all. The panther’s still –“

Another alarm went off. “Attention: Subject seven in critical condition.”

“You were saying?”

Levi quickly grabbed the protective gear hanged outside the greenhouse and suited up. He opened the door and rushed to find the panther, but when Levi got to her, it was too late.

“No pulse. Pupils dilated…” He trailed off examining the body of the jungle cat.

“What are we going to do Levi?”

The doctor ignored her and continued examining the animal. It was extraordinary. There were no external signs of any sickness hitting the beast and yet it collapsed.

“What were the stats of the subjects before?”

“The only unusual thing about them was that they had a flat line immediately. No spikes or heart attacks. They just dropped dead.”

“That can’t be. It’s too bizarre.” He felt annoyed and helpless. “This can’t be happening now.”

The greenhouse was exposed to a gas they created to help clean the environment. It contains active elements that eat up the pollutants in the air. It was created to only work in air.

“The air,” Cat said. “The gas works in air but when the animals breathe, they take in the air together with the gas.”

“That’s nonsense. We already tested the gas on the animals before but they didn’t drop dead like this!”

“There must be something we’re missing.”

“The gas is to be released tomorrow! We can’t be missing something now.”

“Don’t you think I know that, Levi? If we let that happen, it’s the end of the world!”

He shook his head. “No, that can’t happen.”

She took out her phone. “Wait, what are you doing?”

“I’m calling my dad. He’ll tell them to stop the release tomorrow. We need more time.”

“But there’s no more time Cat! I don’t have time anymore. It has to be done tomorrow.”

“Why?” she asked, puzzled. “We have plenty. We can work on it together.”

He stood there, staring at her. “What?”

“Tomorrow’s my last day. It has to be tomorrow.”

“What do you mean your last day?”

He ignored her and went back to work. It has to be tomorrow, he said to himself. If the gas doesn’t cure the world, the twelve years he gave up to come back in time would be useless. The world will still end.

The Europe Thing

by Angie Richmond

499 words

“It’s so quiet out.” Vaughn whispers.

Kallie raises her cigarette to her lips with one hand while the other transforms the sidewalk surrounding her feet into a pretty piece of art with a chunk of blue chalk she stole from a neighbor kid. Her Perky Pink polish is already chipped in several places revealing her discolored toenails; a reminder that cheap nail polish is never a good idea.

“I know.” She exhales slowly on purpose, like they do in the movies.

Vaughn grabs the smoke from Kallie’s fingertips and takes a quick puff. He’s not a fan of smoking but the silence is creeping up on his nerves. His fingers tap relentlessly on his bent knee.

“Somethin’ gonna happen.”

He passes the smoke back allowing both hands to drum.

“Oh yeah, like what? The end of the world?”

She laughs and stubs out the butt. Normally she has no desire to feed into Vaughn’s paranoid, delusional rants. Worldwide pandemics, flash floods, killer bees; it’s always something with Vaughn.

“I’m serious, Kallie. It just feels – different.”

He stands; the ritual of pacing commences. He kicks up chalk dust from Kallie’s street art.

“Are you sure it’s gonna happen?”

She leans back, stretches out her cramping legs and tries not to trip Vaughn up.

“No. I mean not officially 100% sure, but this feeling…”

He lets his words disappear, unsure how to describe a feeling.

“Can we go look?”

Kallie smiles knowing his answer before he gives it. She’s being an ass but it’s so much fun taking the piss outta him.

He stops pacing and bends down in front of her, grabbing her shoulders and inching his face so close that their noses touch. Kallie thinks of the Eskimo kisses she learned about in grade school.

“You know it’s too dangerous.”

Vaughn’s brows furrow giving the appearance of one large fuzzy caterpillar. She almost chokes on her laugh.

“Oh yeah right…I forgot.”

She wiggles out of his grip and lights another cigarette. Vaughn paces. She wonders if he really knows something the rest of the world doesn’t. Maybe the doctors just need to up his meds again.

“Do you have any regrets? You know, since it’s the end of the world.”

She shouldn’t be encouraging him; it’s no good for anyone to get Vaughn riled up but she’s bored.

“A few,” he sighs, squinting at the sun waiting for some unknown threat. “not much can be done now though.”

“The Europe thing again?”

She asks picking at her toes, only half listening for Vaughn’s response. It’s a tradition between them now; he gets a feeling and she humors him. She knows her part.

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

This time he sounds genuine. Not just an empty apologize born from a fear of the end.

“Oh. Well….it’s okay.” She means it this time too; surprised by his naked emotions.

“You sure?”

He stretches his hand and she mirrors him. Their fingertips brush just for moment before she lets her hand drop.

“Positive.”

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