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?

2. Show don’t tell. Every action should move the plot forward or illuminate character.  Continuing with Firefly: you see him rallying the shell-shocked troops with a speech. Nothing atypical here, he is the hero after all, so we need a little speechifying. It still shows his optimism and his ability to motivate those dependent on him. One thing here, though, is illuminating. We see him take a second (at 1:44), in a crazy situation, to kiss a cross around his neck. This does so much to show his character, especially as later in the episode you discover he has no faith. Basically this opening sequence is the death of that faith. It only took a second, but it says volumes about this character.

3. Make dialog do double duty by illustrating character. Right after he kisses the cross, he then says to his obvious buddy he can depend on — “Ready?” Here, the typical thing to write would be “yes” and they go charging out, guns blazing. But what does she say in response? It’s the same thing as “Yes” but it’s also soooo much more. She says “Always.” Still just one word, but now, what does this say about this new character? And the relationship to the main character? And their history? How long have they been fighting this war? It makes the watcher want to know more while also informing them about backstory without it being a huge infodump.

4. uh-oh humor. I guess this is what you’d call it? Our two main characters (Mal and Zoe for those Firefly virgins) go out and pick off a soldier and commandeer a huge-ass gun and blow up an attacking ship. It’s a moment where Mal and the audience go “yeah!” but then we realize that this has now caused the ship to crash in a trajectory he’s in the middle of and he needs to scramble away. He and the audience are having to keep on their toes. More illustration of character, too, as just when he realizes they’re safe, he’s able to find humor in the situation and laugh. Zoe, however, does not, and is only relieved.

5. Make every action illustrate character. Note how differently Mal and Zoe react when they return to the bunker. What does that say about each?

6. Voice. Watch how Mal then tries to “man-up” the scared soldier. He’s already done the typical ra-ra speech, so what does Joss do here? An unusual bit of dialog for a soldier, but that is sooooo Mal. “We can’t die Bendis. You know why? We’re so. very. pretty. We’re just too pretty for God to let us die. Huh? Look at that chiseled jaw.” I mean, how freakin’ unusual is that? That’s voice.

7. Misdirection. Lead your reader down a path a short way and then upset their expectation. Mal then expounds on his pep talk to Bendis when he hears more air support coming in. He thinks it’s their rescue party and tells Bendis so. The audience believes it too. We’re now rooting for these beleaguered people and want to believe their trials are over. Then, Zoe breaks in with the truth. What they’re hearing is the enemy.

8. More character building. I HONESTLY can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this scene and I STILL get chills watching how Mal takes this news. He doesn’t even blink when Bendis is shot dead next to him. We see his belief system die, right here, and you can see it.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of the rest of it, because I want to go and continue with my Firefly geek-out, but also to leave room for others to see what’s going on here. The next scene takes place six years later, and each shot continues to illuminate setting and character and the world this is taking place in. Watch how each new character is introduced. The ship’s pilot and his dinosaurs. The female engineer. The bad guys and how clinical they’re shown.

If this is your first time learning about Firefly, be ready for a great and wonderful and heartbreaking (because there are so few episodes) ride. Also, you’ll be experiencing it differently than I did. I was one of the few that saw Firefly while it was on air in 2003 on FOX and though this was the pilot, it was the last to be shown on air! The first episode I ever saw was The Train Job.

What other writing craft lessons do you see in this clip?

EDIT: After hitting Publish, I remembered one other point I’d wanted to make. Notice how there’s no “set-up chapter.” Too often we’re tempted to tell the reader everything about our character and their world and the situation they are in. We often don’t get to where the story really starts until the second chapter. Hence, we destroy the mystery, the suspense, the tension. We kill any reason for the reader to keep reading. Here notice how far you are able to follow without having all that backstory. Joss doesn’t do an initial bit talking about what this war is about, or what cause these people are fighting. None of that. Resist the urge to explain, as they say!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndlinv9GrJw]

21 Replies to “Writing Lessons from the TV show Firefly”

    1. You’re welcome! It’s funny because I’ve been wanting to rewatch anyway to study it for its humor and comedic timing and ended up watching it last night for a different reason altogether. and then found so much more. Only made it through “Bushwhacked” last night so will definitely put in more over my 3-day weekend.

  1. This is a fabulous post, and so true! I really like Firefly, and Mal’s character in particular. But you’ve summed up the points from a writer’s POV beautifully.

  2. My TV watching was still controlled by my mom, but my brother and I did watch it for a few weeks right at the very beginning. I was totally gung-ho when Serenity came out (which also did an excellent job in it’s opening sequence), Good post, you had some really great points. Care to analyze any other shows?

    1. We’re one of a rare breed my friend, to have seen it on air, out of order and all. At one point I remember thinking, wow, this show is too intelligent, it’s going to get cancelled, I just know it. It’s the only time I’ve ever participated in a letter-writing campaign for a TV show. Re: the movie, yes, I was thinking the same thing about it’s opening. He did such an excellent job recapping.

      This has been the most popular post so far, and I love Firefly so much, was thinking of making this a regular thing. Maybe Firefly Fridays? Oops, that means I beter get crackin for tomorrow’s post!

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