Firefly Friday – Are you giving readers an excuse to put your book down?

Welcome to the next installment of Firefly Friday, where we examine a writing tip chestnut and marry it to my favorite TV show Firefly to illustrate the tip. Today’s topic: Scene and chapter breaks.

One of my favorite writing craft books is James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish). It is so useful in understanding the framework necessary to construct a plot. One of his tips is to make your scenes HIP. That is, start with a Hook, amp the Intensity during, and end with a Prompt. Note that he’s not talking about chapters, but scenes. Sometimes you could have several scenes in one chapter, and it’s important to make these HIP too. I added this to my checklist I inserted before each scene during revision, and checked off if I had each. If I didn’t, I dug back into the scene to figure out how I could.

For prompt, Bell advises that you have a “read-on prompt” which could be one of the following:

  • impending disaster
  • portent
  • mysterious line of dialogue
  • a secret revealed
  • and several more, but I’m not sure of copyright laws on this, so I won’t copy any more from his book.

The point is, you want to give them something that will make them want to keep reading. This is especially important when the scene ends a chapter.

So, to illustrate this lesson, here’s a scene from the episode Out of Gas. In this scene we start with Mal left alone on the ship. Their ship had a part blow, which knocked out their life support. The others have left in a last ditch effort for help and he waits onboard (the captain going down with the ship) in case their distress beacon is heard out in the middle of nowhere. He’s freezing, he’s fallen asleep, and then a call comes through.

In the commentary, show writer Tim Minear talks about how he wanted to break for commercial right when the rescue ship looms into view (3:35). Joss Whedon disagreed. Tim says that he fought hard with Joss on this, but that Joss insisted he keep going. There was no “jeapordy” at that point. Joss won out, and Tim agrees it was the right choice to end it where they did, which is when they hold him at gun point (5:09).

Now Mal’s in jeopardy and the viewer wants to come back after the commercial to see what happens. The earlier spot, while dramatic and a great tight shot, held too much hope for the scene. Too risky for the viewer to think “oh yep, he’s getting rescued, what’s going on in baseball world? {click}”

The other part of this scene that is useful to watch is how it illustrates Mal’s character and their world. Tim Minear talks about this in the commentary: Mal’s almost out of oxygen but he’s still suspicious and has the strength to stand up to them while discussing arrangements: “and I do expect to see that engine part before I open the door” (4:40)

Fan of the show? Have you learned any good lessons from the show I haven’t covered?

Weekend Grab Bag – Writing, Geekiness and Tolkien

Writing:

Ada Lovelace:

Browncoats:

  • This past week if you ran across any Whedonites, you probably saw them grinning with unadulterated joy. Why? Because it was revealed that Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, had made a film in secret! It started with Nathan Fillion tweeting on Sunday: Oh, it’s real. Very. Very. Real. muchadothemovie.com  - since no one knew of it and Mr. Fillion is known to be a prankster, it was thought to be a joke. But no, Joss Whedon assembled many actors from his previous ventures to make a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 14 days! More details here and here

In Geekdom:

Firefly Friday – Dialogue – How Scary is Pain? It’s all in the delivery

This week: dialogue delivery.

Earlier in the week I decided to focus on dialogue, but as I mulled it over, I found I was having a really hard time with this post. The problem is, Joss Whedon is known for his witty dialogue. How could I even capture it in one post?

Well, I can’t. You can take any scene in any episode and study the snappy dialogue.

Then it dawned on me: the point of this writing series is to focus on lessons we hear all the time and illustrate the lesson using an excerpt from Firefly, not to promote how awesome the show is. Pressure off (whew!), I decided to zero in on one interchange, not because it exemplifies Firefly or its witty dialogue (it doesn’t), but because it illustrates a common dialogue lesson.

We often hear the admonishment not to overburden our dialogue exchanges with exclamation points and dialogue tags like “she screamed loudly!”

As a writer, over-relying on such ways to show emotion can weaken your prose. It shows the writer either didn’t trust his/her writing skills enough to properly show emotion, or he/she didn’t trust the reader to pick up on it.

Another reason to refrain from it is that sometimes understatement can be funny or more powerful. To illustrate this, here’s an excerpt from the pilot “Serenity.” Jayne, the crew’s muscle guy, is being asked by the captain to get information out of the spy they just captured. Watch until 7:37 and note Jayne’s delivery. His lines could be delivered very menacingly in typical bad-guy fashion. Instead, he states them very calmly in an off-hand manner, especially the “Pain is scary” line. From the commentary for this episode on the DVD we’re told that the actor playing Jayne, Adam Baldwin, originally delivered these lines in a very scary way and Joss told him to dial it way down.

How different would this scene be if he’d played it over the top? To bring it to the page, which is what we deal with as writers, here’s a transcript. Imagine this is dialogue in a novel:

Mal ripped off Dobson’s gag and stepped back to stand by Jayne. “I’m in a tricky position, I guess you know. Got me a boatload of terribly strange folk making my life a little more interesting than I generally like, chief among them an Alliance mole. Likes to shoot at girls when he’s nervous.” Mal strode back to Dobson. “Now I got to know how close the Alliance is, exactly how much you told them before Wash scrambled your call. So… I’ve given Jayne here the job of finding out.”

Jayne pulled out a big-ass knife. “He was non-specific as to how.”

Mal leaned in to Jayne’s ear and said in a low voice, “Now, you only gotta scare him.”

“Pain is scary…”

“Just do it right.”

Now, let’s get excessive with punctuation and menace to see how differently the scene would be:

Mal ripped off Dobson’s gag and stepped back to stand by Jayne. “I’m in a tricky position, I guess you know. Got me a boatload of terribly strange folk making my life a little more interesting than I generally like, chief among them an Alliance mole. Likes to shoot at girls when he’s nervous.” Mal strode back to Dobson and loomed over him, hands on hips. “Now I got to know how close the Alliance is, exactly how much you told them before Wash scrambled your call! So I’ve given Jayne here the job of finding out!”

Jayne pulled out a big-ass knife and growled, “he was non-specific as to how.” He slapped the knife several times against his palm and grinned wickedly.

Mal leaned in to Jayne’s ear and said in a low voice, “Now, you only gotta scare him.”

“Pain is scary!!”

“Just do it right!”

Do you have any spots in your dialogue that might work better underplayed?

Want to analyze the dialogue further?

Past Firefly Friday Posts

Firefly Friday – Flip that Cliché, a writing tip

Last Friday I wrote a blog post on the spur of the moment – Writing Lessons from the TV Show Firefly - in which I talked about some of the common writing tips, especially in openings, that are well illustrated in the pilot of the cult TV Show Firefly.

I’m still getting my blog feet wet (ooh, dang, the water’s cold!) but one thing I know I won’t get tired of writing about, and that’s this show. That post has gotten the most traffic and comments so far, so I thought I’d try to do this weekly and call it Firefly Friday. I know there are other writers out there who are fans as well, so please feel free to view the comments section as your space too, to expound further!

Today, I thought I’d focus on cliché’s in writing, and how we can turn that cliché into something fresh, funny and/or unexpected. How to do that? Flip it! and flip it good! (okay, was I the only one that sang Devo’s Whip It there?)

What this means is to use a cliché and bring it right up to the point where the reader is expecting the typical ending, and then surprise them with a completely different outcome. The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, and his team of writers were very good at this.

Here’s a scene near the end of Train Job, which was the first show to air on TV, and so was the pilot, but was actually the second episode (Don’t get me started!). Mal, the captain, (in the brown duster) has turned against the person who hired them (for an excellent reason) and so is about to give the henchman (with the face tats) the money back:

Here we have the henchman giving a very melodramatic cliché speech (delivered very well), and I know when I first watched it I thought, okay, so this guy’s going to be the main guy’s nemesis for the rest of the series, and then wham!

Here’s another example, this time in Shindig, written by Jane Espenson. Mal has just won a sword duel against a superior (in skill) opponent. His supporters tell him he should finish off the opponent and why. Mal responds “Mercy is the mark of a great man,” but then watch what he says and does next:

Both scenes still get chuckles out of me. But they also illuminate character, so they don’t just serve as opportunities to get in a chuckle.

I’m sure there are more scenes in Firefly that illustrate this. What are your favorites? Have you taken a cliché in your own writing and flipped it? Share it below!

EDIT: For more on making clichés work for you, see Janice Hardy’s post You Spin Me Round: Making Clichés Work for You

Writing Lessons from the TV show Firefly

I’m not feeling too well tonight, so I thought I’d sit down and do a Firefly marathon, a lamentably short-lived TV show created by Joss Whedon. I’m a total geek about this show. Yes, I’m a Browncoat

But, as I started watching the opening sequence, ideas for a blog post itched at me. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this, but every time I find something new. This time, I guess because I’m hyperaware about writing right now,  I kept seeing examples to illustrate writing techniques. So I hit pause and came upstairs to do a little snippet so I could watch the rest in peace. Actually, that probably won’t happen because I could easily see this turning into a series of posts. Sigh. I know I’m not exactly breaking new ground by saying this, but, you know, I just feel the need to personally say it. Joss rules.

Think of all the lessons in writing you’ve read in the past. About how you’re supposed to start your story with action. Peak a reader’s curiosity. Make them care enough to keep reading past the first page. No backstory in the beginning. And then general rules for the rest of your novel, like make your dialog do double duty by illuminating aspects of your character. Misdirection. Establish your POV character. Give your POV character a voice. Establish your world, but without info-dumping. And on and on. Well, these are all present in the opening of the pilot for Firefly. Heck, if I was feeling better, I could probably tease out even more. And if I was feeling super-duper, I bet a quick search would bring up other posts that have already done this.

Anyway, below is the opening I found on YouTube, and if you’ve never seen it before (or even if you have), watch it and see these different elements of telling a story well:

1. Start your story right in the middle of action. Make the reader curious (but not frustrated). You want them to keep reading and your opening sentence should hook them right away. Your reader should also know who the POV character is and what’s at stake. What’s their immediate goal, etc. Firefly: can’t get any more action packed than starting with explosions. You also get a tad bit of worldbuilding, but without any sagging. Small clues show that this is not only a battle, but the uniforms and technology are slightly different, so you know immediately this isn’t from our current history. At the :30 second mark, our POV character rushes out of the craziness and when he reaches a bunker, takes control. Notice that his second line of dialog not only moves the plot forward, but reveals character: on finding out that they have no commanding officers, he doesn’t miss a beat and finds a quick solution to the problem. What does that tell you right away about this character?

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