What Joss Whedon Taught Me About Storytelling

In 2009, Colleen Lindsay wrote a blog about what Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse could teach novelists about hooking readers.

Good article. Really true, too.

The art of storytelling has changed over the years. Our attention spans, as a collective audience, have shortened.

Colleen’s post is mostly about how Dollhouse took a few episodes (like seven, according to viewers) to really get going. People generally won’t wait through 7 hours of a show to get interested, unless they’re die hard Whedon fans like I am. (I actually liked it from episode 1).

It’s just a fact of entertainment reality. Audiences want to be hooked immediately. First page. First 5 minutes.

Whereas at one time, stories were told by the fireside in long, rambling, roundabout ways, weaving characters and conflict together leisurely, today’s culture no longer has the luxury needed for that kind of storytelling.


We just don’t have the time.

There is so much to choose from, with over 200 channels of nothing really to watch, it’s far too easy to channel surf from one to the next until we see a big explosion or get a cheap laugh that causes us to pause long enough to meet a character or understand the conflict.

Whedon is brilliant. Pure and simple.

But genius can’t be rushed.

Any fan of Buffy, Angel, or Firefly will agree with me on the genius storytelling of Joss Whedon; however, the gems aren’t often found in the first or even second episode. Some of the best moments are in the 5th or 6th seasons!

Whedon gives us characters with whom we identify and grow to love deeply. Complex characters who don’t have a clear line of good and evil. Real people. His characters become real. Where else can a character introduced in Season 2 as the current “big bad” come back season after season, becoming a love interest and ultimately saving the world? Nowhere but in the Whedonverse. The character of Spike alone (brought to life by James Marsters talent) proves Whedon’s genius. The love story between Buffy and Spike is one of the greatest love stories of our time. Tragic. Dark. Beautiful. The love story between Buffy and Angel would be another.

We took our cue from Whedon’s portrayal of tragic romance in our story Rowan of the Wood. All great romances throughout time are tragic, that’s what makes them romantic. Whedon is sadistic in his tragic romances, as shown in the long courtship dance between his characters Wesley and Fred in the series Angel. Finally Wesley and Fred come together after three years, and the next episode Fred dies, turning into some supernatural goddess creature. It was cruel. It was sadistic. It was necessary.

Perhaps Whedon doesn’t have the quick hook that is so desperately needed by today’s audience (myself included at times), but he does have stamina. His stories and characters influenced culture. They fuel the fire of inspiration in a whole new generation of storytellers (myself included).

Whedon’s storytelling style hugely influenced our book Rowan of the Wood and characters within that book. Upon creation, I had James Marsters in mind while writing Rowan. He was my Rowan. I, like many people in today’s instant gratification culture, am very visual. I need to see things. So while writing Rowan, I pictured James Marsters as eventually portraying him on screen. That vision shifted to actor Kevin McKidd, as the reality of time from book to screen became more obvious.

Now Marsters is my James, another character who makes an appearance in Rowan but is more fully revealed in the sequel, Witch on the Water. Our character, James, as you might imagine, is named after actor James Marsters. It would be my greatest pleasure to have Marsters play him on screen one day.

Also in Witch on the Water, we introduce a new love interest for Max MacFey: Ralph Ferguson, based on actor Nathan Fillion. Fillion’s dry, sharp wit is a perfect match with Whedon’s genius.

It was because of Spike. It was because of Caleb and Captain Mal. It was the dark, broodiness of Angel and the unrequited love between him and Cordelia. The darkness of Willow skinning her lover’s murderer. The love of Xander bringing her back from the edge. It was Dr. Horrible losing his beloved Penny (Felicia Day introduced me to Twitter, which literally changed my life). It was Buffy being ripped out of heaven and forced back into fighting evil in the Hellmouth. It was the dark love that developed out of her desperation, a love she could never accept.

It was because of Joss Whedon.

So, yes, we want to be hooked on the first page or in the first episode, but how many times do we watch or read those again and again? The Lord of the Rings certainly doesn’t hook the reader on the first page, yet it is considered one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) works of fantasy ever written.

Storytelling that stands the test of time.

New movies sent from Netflix gather dust on our shelf while we continue to watch our own DVDs of Buffy and Angel and Firefly, again and again and again and again. And again. We watch knowing what’s going to happen. We watch and we laugh again. We cry again. We curse Joss Whedon for ripping our hearts out again. But we watch. Again.

Joss Whedon is a storyteller.


Questions for you!

Who is your favorite storyteller?

What artist or writer inspires you the most?

16 Comments Add yours

  1. wrw says:

    (Laughing) I still ramble! I wish I could find a campfire to ramble around. Spent majority of my childhood with my grandmother,born 1907, and her generation, who told stories that were, and are, better than any film, any book written. She could remember the REAL sinking of the Titanic, and when horses still pulled wagons on the streets of Cleveland. And she told us all about it. Real-life stories with all the blood and gore and drama (literally). People worked sunup to sundown on farms, the hardest labor you could do, every single day, and they still found time. They walked nearly everywhere. We are total , spoiled wimps compared to them. We all need to turn off the tv, turn off the films, turn off the noise, and get back to this. It is possible– personal choice. That is why I am not ‘with the times’ tech -wise, and don’t want to be. There will still be a niche for us, in the 19th century communities(hee hee). We are looked at as ‘odd’ for not ‘keeping up with’ fashion, electronics, etc? Keep up with the masses idea of what is good? Pointless. The others are the odd ones.. those who have lost the true meaning of personal communication and ‘ships’: friendships, relationships.

  2. Doctor Q says:

    You know my feelings about Joss. I cannot even begin to offer a counterpoint. But I will sum it up very simply:

    George RR Martin kills characters off well. Joss does not.

    GRRM is high on my list of inspiring storytellers, right up there with Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Zack Snyder has potential if Sucker Punch is even half as good as it looks. And Brian K. Vaughn tells amazing stories. But my gold prize, other than GRRM and Neil, goes to Bill Willingham for his work on Fables and Robert Kirkman for his work on Invincible (though he’s best known for Walking Dead). Joss really doesn’t hold a candle to any of it, as he just never knows how to finish a story without losing his audience (i.e. Dollhouse Season 2, his run on Xmen, and his ruining of Runaways).

    1. christinerose says:

      Agreed re: issues with Dollhouse. He even lost me on that one and Joss is my master! I’m not familiar with his run on X-Men or Runaways, but Dr. Horrible, Buffy, Angel, and Firefly are masterpieces.

  3. Doctor Q says:

    Firefly, yes. He had only one season, thus could not mess it up thank god.

    Doctor Horrible was done on a whim and quickly, thus it’s brilliant.

    However I will simply agree to disagree Re: the Buffy-verse. I just don’t get it.

  4. I am also a huge Whedon fan, and a Marsters groupie wannabe. Spike in “Buffy” was fricking brilliant because of his clear character development and depth. Firefly and Dollhouse are on my list, just haven’t gotten to them yet.

    The slow unveiling of the story reminds me very much of the way my dad’s friends, both elders in their respective tribes, tell their stories. One thing I noticed about the Native American storytellers that I’ve met is that they don’t use phrases like, “he said”. They say what the other person said inside the narrative. Makes a person really pay attention to body language to understand what the heck is going on.

    1. christinerose says:

      There’s nothing wannabe about my Marter-groupie status. Total fan girl. I met him briefly at New Orleans Comic Con, and it was all I could do to not squee. He told me I looked beautiful, and my heart was thumping out of my chest for the next 20 minutes. Seriously.

      Firefly, definitely. Dollhouse, meh.

      Great observation on storytelling technique!

  5. As a fellow storyteller, I agree completely. Joss is experiential – we come to live with his characters. My greatest complaint is in agreement with Dr. Q. Shepard Book is my greatest disappointment in the Firefly ‘verse. He’s got a deep – and possibly dark – past that is given nods throughtout the series and abruptly cut off in Serenity. I can’t figure out if that’s genius or insanity.

    1. christinerose says:

      I think it’s that he didn’t have the time necessary to fully develop Book as Whedon does, slowly over (sometimes) seasons. Definite nuggets were placed in the Firefly first season, but the untimely end cut that particular story arc short. That’s my guess.

  6. eric mosley says:

    Hi All; I am really enjoying this discussion about effective storytelling or, as Christine wrote in introducing this post, hooking readers. What engages an audience? A bit of disclosure is that I’m a nonfiction writer, but I believe all use of words, whether we call it fiction or non, is storytelling.

    I find I love stories from many eras, ancient Greek, the old Japanese zen masters, and 19th century Russia to name several. And I loved Firefly. So in my universe, it seems to me that effectively engaging an audience can transcend things like pop-culture or the psychology (like ADD) of any given era.

    And it seems to me that finding a “hook” isn’t all that hard. Many of today’s storytellers successfully use vulgarity, sexuality, violence, or all three to engage an audience by stimulating a primitive emotion like fear, anger, or lust. Consider Grand Theft Auto. I’m pretty sure that if all I wanted was to be a successful writer then I could spend time playing Grand Theft Auto and then write stories based on those themes. However, being hugely successful, but with – in my opinion – completely negative social value, isn’t in my heart. What is in my heart is, I think, what really matters.

    For me, the why of writing is way more important than the how. (Okay, more disclosure, I’m close to self-publishing my first book.) The primary question for me is not so much about how to engage my audience, but is more about what’s the point of my story? Why am I telling a particular story in the first place? The answer is: I write to share what’s in my heart. My story is a vehicle to connect so that sharing can happen. And what I want to share is my truth.

    I think it is a writer’s truth that makes a long lasting, culture transcending hook, because truth is timeless and it can’t help but connect with what’s in the hearts of others. The trouble is, a person’s truth is not something that can be dissected and analyzed. So for me, a more salient question than “how do I create an effective hook,” is “how do I get in touch with and express my truth?” So I guess I think my hook is my truth. But then I’m a total newbie, and a romantic idealist, so maybe that’s how I want things to be and not how things really are. I’d really like to know what you think about this?

    1. christinerose says:

      We definitely must write what’s in our hearts. We must write our own truth. After doing so, we strive to connect with an audience who shares with or at least identifies with that truth. And that’s what it’s about: connecting with readers on a very personal level. Effective storytelling and expression of truth is paramount, no doubt, but if no one knows you wrote a book or where to find the book, then your story will be largely unread, unexperienced. It is so essential to connect with readers on that personal level because then they care about you and they care that you wrote that book.

      Best of luck in your publishing endeavor! Start building your author platform NOW if you haven’t already. I’m available for social media consultation if you’re interested. There is also a plethora of marketing information in my book.

  7. Icy Sedgwick says:

    I despair of the shorter attention spans when it comes to storytelling these days. Gone are the days when authors like Dickens or Austen could give us rich character histories in the first few chapters, allowing us to get to know these people before we followed them on their adventures. And you’re right about Whedon – his stories take time to develop, and mature. I suppose he’s the equivalent of good wine or cheese, you just can’t rush it. I wonder if there’s still space for that kind of storytelling these days, or if writers need to find a way to balance “epic” storytelling with instant gratification. Having said that, The X Files managed it, with their balance of the ‘monster of the week’ episodes with the ongoing story arcs. I’m sure there are enough readers and viewers left to appreciate such an approach!

    1. christinerose says:

      Whedon did something similar with Buffy, having an overall story arc with the big bad, but dealing with other “monsters of the week” in between. Wow. I really did love the X Files! 🙂

  8. Wow! X-Files, Doll House, Firefly… I loved them all. Notice they were all scifi. Entertaining, heroic, taught us what to do if we encountered a Fly-man, had our memories implanted, or fought against an unjust tyranny. Truth in all of them, and we got to enjoy the ride along with the principle players. Stories let us explore ourselves. Big shoes to fill.

    1. christinerose says:

      Seriously big shoes to fill. No kidding.

  9. What I’ve learned from Whedon is that TV executives have no idea how to deal with him. Leave him alone and he’s genius. Try to mess with his work and it will end in disaster.

    1. christinerose says:

      You got that right!

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