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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?

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