Rule of Joss - Complications Ensue
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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I'm working on my metaphysical pay cable series, and as a massive sf&f geek, I find myself tending to look at episodes from a point of view of "what is the cool sf&f antagonist in this ep? And I have to remind myself of (what I'll call) the Rule of Joss: don't start with the sf&f antagonist. Start with where is the hero emotionally? What is Buffy's real-world emotional problem this week? Now, what is the sf&f antagonist that best catalyzes that emotion or problem?

In other words, if you have a ghost story, your story shouldn't be about the ghost. It should be about the protagonist, and why she's seeing a ghost. What is her problem that confronting a ghost will help her resolve? It could be a fear she has to confront, or a bad decision, or a moral qualm, or likely a combination of all of those. But the ghost is only there, narratively speaking, to take your hero through her story.

It's not the only way to write a ghost story. Many commercially successful ghost stories have nothing to do with where the hero is emotionally. The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, for example, are all about the villain. And even a nifty horror movie like DESCENT, which starts the heroine in a truly horrific place emotionally before she even goes spelunking, is really about the cave and what's in it. But the SF&F movies I find stick with me the most are movies, first of all, about what it's like to be the hero. BLADE RUNNER, even the much maligned theatrical version, is not primarily about the replicants and their desire to live; it's about Deckard and his humanity. (Which is why I find the director's cut unnecessarily on-the-nose and self-indulgent.)

Start with your hero. What's the emotional process you want her to go through? Now, how can your supernatural antagonist (or science-fictional situation) put her through that process?

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5 Comments:

I'ds think this exact same advice would apply to any procedural -- the doctor, or lawyer or cop has their own emotional struggle, so the case of the week should be designed to bring that out, not the other way around. Right?

By Blogger shana, at 5:17 PM  

I had to look up sf&f, but now
I understand. I probably would be a bigger sf&f fan if there was a lot better quality examples of it. My wife started watching Buffy, which drew my ridicule. That is until I watched a few episodes. Then I was hooked. The musical episodes is one of my favourite episodes for any show. I even started watching Angel. I watch Battlestar Galactica, now, and have to explain to my friends that it is indeed a good show and not how it sounds.

I guess I have no real point to this comment. I though the original post was good and a good reminder that, at the core of most good stories, are god characters.

By Blogger Tim W., at 5:47 PM  

I listened to the Creative Screenwriting podcast of Orci and Kurtzman and they were talking about their time on ALIAS. They ALWAYS started out with the idea:

"What emotional crisis should we put Sydney through this week?"

Then they built the spy elements to amplify that crisis.

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 9:35 PM  

The rule of Joss is very specific though - in many episodes, the supernatural element that focuses the emotional dilemma isn't introduced until the end of Act One (of Four), after we've had plenty of time to notice the characters' (not always Buffy) emotional space.

For example, in the "alternate world" eps, The Wish, and Dopplegangland, Cordelia (in the former) and later Willow, both spend the first act mooching around Sunnydale High, feeling down. The things the episodes are remembered for - the Master ruling Sunnydale, Vamp-Willow, are projections of the characters' inner turmoil, and wouldn't be half as memorable if the emotional states hadn't been so well set up in the first place.

By Blogger Lee, at 3:18 AM  

What Lee said.

By Blogger wcdixon, at 3:26 AM  

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