What Joss Whedon Teaches Us About Writing
Posted on September 25, 2012
As I watched the special features from The Avengers that’s now available, I realized once again how much I enjoyed the movie because of what Joss Whedon brought to it, which I expressed in my May blog post after opening day.
Not everyone is a fan of all of his works, but there are many things that writers should appreciate about what Joss brings to every story he presents. I deconstructed the strengths of the movie and other works of his to come up with some areas where we writers can take notes.
1. Storytelling: Above all, Joss wants to tell a good story. The Avengers could have been trite and followed the formulaic, overdone copy of every other summer blockbuster movie. Instead of giving a predictable story, Joss took a risk by giving the characters the forefront and letting the action become something to which they react. The action drove the story rather than just cool fight scenes. The dialogue compelled the audience to pay attention instead of acting as filler. As writers, these are qualities we can afford to and should be applying to our own stories.
2. Dialogue: One of the things Joss is well-known for is his dialogue. It’s fast, it’s bold, and it usually carries deeper meaning to it. Nothing that the characters say is wasted, which is a quality he applies to all of his works. Granted, he doesn’t have to add dialogue tags like we do when writing prose. However, what he does add is action to the speeches. Usually, the characters are doing something while delivering the words. If they are just standing, it’s usually because the dialogue itself is active or driving. To us writers, that means when we give dialogue tags, they have to be more than just, “he/she said.” Our characters need to be active while delivering dialogue, too.
Joss’ dialogue usually reveals something about the characters. While Captain America talks to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner about doing what they’re ordered to do, there’s an underlying current of uncertainty there that points to his own questions about what he’s supposed to be doing. Giving our characters more than just words and making those words count can elevate our writing to another level.
3. Word Choice: Joss chooses his words very wisely. From putting the words, “I aim to misbehave,” into the mouth of the beloved outlaw character Mal that made us all grab our brown coats to join to the surprising, “Puny God,” from the Hulk, Joss knows what he’s doing. One of my jaw-dropping moments in the movie was noticing that he got away with Loki calling Black Widow a very unsavory term because of his word choice (I won’t spoil it here – go watch and find it). The lesson I take away from his word choices is to be purposeful. It can make the difference between good and great writing.
4. Action: In the featurette “A Visual Journey”, Joss states, “I write for visual moments…”. In my editing blog post about outlining as an editing tool, I spoke about visualizing our stories and the plot “beats”. I extend action here to also mean being active. A part of what makes writing good is keeping it active. Active writing voice, active characters, active dialogue, active scenes – thinking of our writing as “visual moments” can help keep the momentum going and maintain reader interest.
5. Characters: What endures about Joss’ works is his characters. How does he make so many characters that are memorable and worthy of admiration? He gives everything to his multidimensional characters. We cheer for Mal, yet he does things that aren’t always good. Dr. Horrible becomes the ultimate bad guy when he kills Penny, but Joss shows the depths of the pain that got him there. In The Avengers, Joss had a virtual playground to build on these well-known characters. All of the elements that make up a good story comes through them.
What we writers can take from his style of characterization (besides inspiration for cosplay when we attend conventions) is giving characters their prominent place. Through them, we can tell the story that draws a reader in and keeps him/her hooked from page one to the last.
While we know there is no perfect storyteller, I would say that Joss Whedon should be right at the top of the list. Whether or not you like all or some of his works, there are definitely things we can take away from how he constructs his stories that can make us think and possibly make our stories better. For me, I don’t intend to be a clone, but I do want to learn from his success.