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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