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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hunter and I have been watching Firefly, me because it's been too long (almost 6 months!) and him because he's never seen it, loves it, and I am secretly teaching him story structure. (Someone's gotta support me in my old age.)

Go watch the "Our Mrs. Reynolds" if you haven't already, and then we'll talk.

/* spoilers */

I mentioned a little while ago that Joss turns four act structure on its head in FF. That's not exactly true. I should have said he fully uses all the tools available in four act structure. But that wouldn't have sounded so impressive.

What is so brilliant about the Joss in this episode is the way he uses the audience's understanding of TV to play with its expectations. This wouldn't be the first episode where we meet a naive, innocent girl who turns out to be more than she pretends. So his narrative problem is when we meet someone who says she's X, we expect there's going to be a reveal.

So Joss goes all out. He makes the entire episode be about Mal dealing with a naive, vulnerable, innocent girl who says he married her. He has the other characters poke fun at Mal. He has her naivete become a problem for Mal -- a problem for the entire crew. Her presence causes dissension. Joss hints openly that the episode is going to be thematically about the abuse of female sexuality in a paternalistic society. The unwelcome attractiveness of a submissive woman.

Usually what tips you off to a character being a spy is that there isn't enough story there if she isn't. There is a hole in the story -- a narrative vacuum that must be filled. You know instinctively that what you're seeing isn't the whole story because it would be too boring if it were the whole story.

Instead, Joss commits so wholly to the character's innocence that you are wondering if this will be an episode about Saffron inadvertently setting the crew at each other's throats. There is no vacuum to fill. There's a perfectly good episode there. Or maybe those bad guys out in space will capture Serenity and Mal will have to fight for a wife he never wanted. 'Nother good episode there.

Instead of which, Joss goes and throws a curveball, and suddenly the episode is about something entirely else.

He does the same thing to some extent in the pilot, where when Mal tells Simon that Kaylee is dead, he shoots it exactly as if she were dead, all slo-motion and canted angles and dread, playing up the sorrow of the moment ... because if he didn't shoot it that way, you'd know it wasn't true.

The lesson, I think is: if you're going for a mislead, commit to it fully. Play the mislead as if it's really where you're going. Make sure you're describing the action in exactly the same tone as you would use if that were where you were going. Make sure there isn't a hole there that the audience is expecting you to fill. Don't hold back.

Incidentally, this is true in a broader sense in thrillers and sf when you're setting up your world and your characters but before you throw your plot into motion. If you're writing Night of the Iguanas and you're going to strand a whole bunch of characters in the Mexican backwoods surrounded by mutant carnivorous iguanas, be sure there's an interesting plot going on before the iguanas show up. Make sure your main character already has a problem, something that haunts him that he is actively trying to deal with. Make sure the drama and tension is already building. Then when the iguanas show up, the audience hasn't been irritably waiting for the other shoe to drop; they're actively involved. And, of course, in lulls between characters being eaten, you can watch them try to resolve their personal differences. And that's always fun.

"Life is what happens when you're making other plans," said Mr. Lennon, and so it should be with your plot. Plot is what happens while your characters are trying to get on with their lives.

5 Comments:

Another huge part of selling this character as a naive girl is Edmodson's music - in fact, the score plays out so well that even after the reveal, when she confronts Inara you almost believe her story all over again.

By Blogger Andrew the Great, at 5:06 PM  

Reminiscient of Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn where the Gecko boys already have their share of trouble (plus they're just plain nasty) and end up where the audience would never have guessed. It starts a crime pic, and then morphs into what might be a road film and finally into the delicious horror treat that I enjoyed when I don't typically even view pictures in that genre!

However, Whedon has mastered the craft in a "fool me once" sort of way that keeps the audience guessing eternally.

By Blogger Mr. Hargett, at 6:22 PM  

Yes! Exactly! All I could think of during this post was Aliens. Cameron fully commits the tone to an ending that could easily happen once the characters are back aboard the main ship. That's why the tail through Bishop's chest is such a terrifying way to announce the final act. As this plot development unfolds, the viewer probably realizes that this drama could have concluded any other way—it must be a showdown between two females over custody of the child (and thus, of humanity).

Out of Gas is still my favorite episode, though. :)

By Blogger Ross Pruden, at 6:41 PM  

sorry, that's: "...could NOT have concluded any other way..."

By Blogger Ross Pruden, at 6:42 PM  

Another fun thing about this episode of Firefly? It gives us an 100% literal take on Chekhov's Gun (And it's so smooth, you still don't see it coming!)

By Blogger Arlo, at 9:49 PM  

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