7/26/14

The Buffy Syllabus - A Free 12 Week Creative Writing Course

Happy 20th Anniversary, Buffy! It's not that I don't have to words to express what this show has meant to me, it's that I have far too many. So I'm gonna skip them all and let the course speak for itself.

Here's a brief bonus article I wrote waaay back in the day for Geek Monthly about why it was so crucial for Spike to meet the fate he met and for Buffy to stay, well, wholly Buffy. Which is to say, alive.

Anyway, that syllabus tho...

I care enough about you not to kick this off with a weak pun about a writer's pencil being like a vampire stake. So right away, I hope we've established some emotional trust.

Back in my grad school days, I spent my assistantship happily teaching ENG 285 (Introduction to Creative Writing) to undergrads. I loved teaching and my brain still sorts and shuffles like it needs to create lesson plans.

To burn off some of that unused teaching energy, I designed a twelve-week creative writing course using Whedon's seminal Buffy: The Vampire Slayer tv-show as a framework. Because, why not? I'm cherry-picking a bit from basic writing techniques and screenwriting, but it's my imaginary internet class and I can do what I want.

Feel free to use the following syllabus as an episode guide if you've always wondered what the fuss was all about. Or, use it as a twelve-week writing challenge.

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HOW TO USE THIS COURSE:

1. Each week, watch the assigned episode.
2. Read about the writing technique of the week. There are links for further study and you can turn to trusty Google if you want to dig deeper. If you're already a master of the technique and don't need to work on it, just sit there with a philosophical look on your face for a few minutes and move on to the next week's material.
3. Ponder the episode for a while in the context of the writing technique. Discuss it with a buddy if you can.
4. Do the assigned homework. Write in your genre of preference. Don't stress about length or formatting. Just put in an honest day's work. One thing I've heard consistently from people who take the course is that it really helps to choose one story and work on it through all twelve weeks. Whether that's a TV pilot, a short film, fanfiction...whatever. Consider taking the same idea through all the exercises. You may come out the other end with a polished, finished something or other.

Break legs!

WEEK ONE
S2: Episode 3: "School Hard" - SHOW, DON'T TELL
This episode works as an alternate series pilot. Because I'm starting you in season two, this episode gives you everything you need to know about Buffy's external conflicts through inference, direct dialogue, and SHOW, DON'T TELL. (There are some pretty wicked nineties things happening, from some of the acting techniques to the wardrobe. Promise me you'll hang in until at least season four, okay?)
One example of show, don't tell would be, instead of writing, "Sally was lonely"; you would write, "Even though the cafeteria was full of people, Sally chose to sit alone." That's showing, which still tells us a lot, but without making your reader feel patronized.
In screenwriting, we also do something called, "moving the action up". It means if something can occur more quickly in the story, it absolutely should. In "School Hard", the action moves up significantly when the villain decides not to follow the schedule.

Bad guys are great for stuff like that. Use them.

Homework: Introduce a character using SHOW, DON'T TELL. We should be able to figure out whether they are male or female, what they do for a living, and how they feel in the moment you're describing.


WEEK TWO
S2: Episode 6: "Halloween" - INNER CONFLICT
This episode introduces Buffy newbies to the inner conflicts of our main characters. Buffy wishes she was a normal girl. Willow has low self-esteem. Xander has an inferiority complex and a pretty significant manic streak.
To be interesting, a character must have both external and internal conflicts. No conflict = boring writing. And in the case of these characters, these same internal conflicts become fatal flaws later, so pay attention now.
Homework: Write something in which a character struggles with inner conflict. Bonus points if you can accomplish this using Show, Don't Tell.

WEEK THREE:
S3: Episode 6: "Band Candy" - INCITING INCIDENT
It will become obvious that I choose the more shticky, humorous episodes. It's no coincidence because they get a lot accomplished. The reason you hear "comedy is hard" is because in order to deliver a punchline, first, you need to create an easy-to-understand set-up. Clarity in writing is everything, no matter the genre. 
In the case of this episode, a very plot-heavy, front-loaded first act leads to the oh-so-enjoyable antics in acts two and three. And best of all, EVERYONE STILL LEARNS SOMETHING. The comedic episodes of Buffy are (almost) never just fluff or filler, they advance the season arc just as much as the dramatic episodes. They also clue us into important character developments that will push the season forward later. 
A quick comedy side-lesson: if you've got funny jokes or gags, but they don't accomplish anything story-wise, cut them.
Homework: Write something in which a very clear inciting incident throws your character or characters into action. (You don't have to write the ensuing action, just the well-thought-out set-up.)

WEEK FOUR:
S3: Episode 13: "The Zeppo" - POINT OF VIEW
Again, here's an episode that explores the inherent soapiness of the show in a way that makes us accept it even more as an audience. (I don't know about you, but I can take just about any personality type if they're aware enough to say, "Hey, I know I'm a weirdo.") Point of view is something writers leave unexplored far too often.
Homework: Write something from an unusual point of view. Maybe it's an inanimate object or the bad guy or your hero's mom.

WEEK FIVE:
S3: Episode 18: "Earshot" - RED HERRING
This episode gives us a lot of information about Buffy and how she manages to be so insecure despite the fact that she is a superhero. This is one I wish we could discuss together. Alas. 
A red herring is a great trick used most often in the mystery genre. It's good old-fashioned misdirection. Without issuing spoilers, in case you're reading this before seeing the episode, it's used to great comedic effect in this episode.
Related: "The Turn" and/or a reversal. You know what this is, you just might not know you know. You know?
Homework: Write something with a red herring and/or a reversal in it. It doesn't have to be a mystery story. But mislead one of your characters somehow. Mislead your reader. The tricky thing with red herrings and reversals is that it's a fine line between doing something clever and wasting your audience's time. Make sure any misdirection serves some kind of a narrative purpose, or your audience will feel manipulated in a negative way. I know...it's tricky. But trying difficult things makes us better writers.

WEEK SIX: 
S4: Episode 2: "Living Conditions" - PACING/RISING ACTION 
This episode does a fantastic job of mounting tension. Pacing is everything. Proper timing means better jokes. It means we don't get bored when we're at the movies. Video editors know that even a half a second can make or break a scene, a reveal, a gag, etc.
Also, this is a great time for you to explore Freytag's Pyramid, an essential explanation of pretty much all dramatic structure. It's handy.
Homework: Write something short that engages your reader as it builds consistently to a climax. If this all feels kind of amorphous to you, try writing something suspenseful. The suspense genre basically is pacing. (Watch some Hitchcock, it'll clear things right up for you.)

WEEK SEVEN:
S4: Episode 4: "Fear Itself" - JOY, YIPPEE, HOORAY
I just included this episode because I enjoy it. Much of what it accomplishes was already done in "Halloween" back in season 2. Also, this episode (along with much of season 4) is directly responsible for birthing the movie "Cabin In The Woods". (Research it, it's true. Note the Whedon regulars in the cast.)
Homework: Take the week off! You've been working hard. Or not. Whatever. I'm not your mama. (But I am so proud of you. For real.)

WEEK EIGHT:
S4: Episode 10: "Hush" - BREVITY
An episode with almost NO DIALOGUE. This is one of my all-time favorites. I could've made this week's challenge about Action, but instead, let's talk efficiency.
Being concise with my words has been the challenge of my career. I talk too much. The emails I write are too long. (They say anything longer than a five sentence email is white noise.) I once used the entire career of David Foster Wallace as a justification for my chronic wind-bagginess. But he was David Foster Wallace and I am not. If you are also not David Foster Wallace, you should work on being concise and effectively communicating your story in a way that serves the reading or viewing process.
Don't be that writer. The show-off. The pedant. People don't read because they want to know how smart you are. They read because a story engages them, enriches their life, or entertains them long enough to help them escape their troubles.
Don't indulge yourself. Tell a good story. Sometimes it's possible to do both, just proceed with caution. A question I ask myself a lot is, "Is this about me or the story?" You can write in a journal for yourself, you can write nonfiction about yourself, but if you choose to tell a fictional story? Serve that story.
Homework: Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end in 750 words or less. If you're feeling brave and you've proofread like a champ, submit your story HERE. You can do it!

WEEK NINE:
S5: Episode 7: "Fool For Love" - BACKSTORY/WILD CARD
A brief moment to discuss the Angel/Spike dichotomy. You may have noticed I'm including Spike's story arc here and not Angel's. That's because Spike is a more interesting character with a much more interesting backstory. Yes, Spike stuff gets kind of soapy as the show progresses. Embarrassingly so, I know. But this ep is a veritable Thanksgiving feast of backstory and what you can do with it. Also, start doing some reading about character types. Protagonists and antagonists, specifically.
Wild cards are my favorite character types. Think Han Solo, Quint from Jaws, or Gollum. Wild cards make for an entertaining read or viewing because you never really know where their loyalty lies until the chips are down.

Han Solo came through in the end because he cared about Luke and Leia more than he would've liked. Quint put everyone's lives in jeopardy because he had a pathological need to beat that shark. Gollum only wanted one thing, the ring, and nothing else mattered to him.
Human beings are selfish by nature. They stick around as long as they're getting what they want. Most of us are wild cards and Spike is a wild card in the truest sense.
(Sidebar: Listen, if you do get hooked on this show, I wince for what you'll have to see near the end of season 6 when you watch through on your own. It's...awful. And disappointing. And I even wrote an editorial about it once for Geek Monthly, but that's beside the point. Text me when you get there. We'll talk. We'll hug. We'll find cookies.)
Homework: Write a story with a wild card. Again, this can be a story about an already established character or you can write something original. Give us their backstory somehow and SHOW us why and how they're a wild card. What's bothering them? How does the audience know? Do the other characters know? What do they want? What's standing in their way?

Really dig your heels in.

WEEK TEN:
S5: Episode 22: "The Gift" - RAISING THE STAKES
Listen...I have a whole thing about this. Writers often think the only way to raise the stakes for their characters is to put them through the absolute WORST. It's why some people prefer Ant-Man pulling a heist and other people want to see Cap and Tony fight to the death. 
But higher stakes don't necessarily need to be worst-case-scenario/grimy/dirty/muddy/world-plague/death machine time. It just means bigger risks, tougher odds, and new complications. You can do that and still let the audience have fun. The BBC's "Sherlock" is fantastic about raising the stakes but preserving the show's playful tone. (So far...)
Sometimes we love it when an author raises the stakes in a gritty way. (See: J.K. Rowling kills EVERYONE.) Sometimes it feels like the characters and the audience have to suffer gratuitously. (X-Men: The Last Stand.) Raising the stakes is tricky. It involves balance in order not to devolve into, "Let me see what's the most miserable I can make everyone!"
This ep is a great example of raising the stakes without needlessly torturing everyone. Yes, it's sad. But sometimes that's okay. Whedon and his team of writers are particularly great at striking a balance between a tragic story resolution that offers a catharsis and retaining a sense of hope and direction. Amidst all Buffy's tough choices, we see other characters reunited and other heroes rise to the occasion in surprising ways.

See? Balance.
Homework: You know that story you wrote last week? The one about the wild card? Write part two. Raise the stakes on them. Turn up the tension. Make 'em squirm. But make it fun to read. (Or satisfying. Or tonally appropriate.) 

WEEK ELEVEN:
S6: Episode 7: "Once More With Feeling" - The Big Reveal
This episode had enough information to be a season finale. But on Buffy? We just dive right on in mid-season and see what effects the big reveal generates. There are two types of fiction. Genre and Literary. If I posit that Buffy is literary, it'll send some of the pearl-clutching types straight to their necklaces. But wait! I'm trying to make a larger point.
Genre fiction is all plot-based. You know the hero will win. You know everything will be okay in the end, you're just there to watch it unfold. Literary fiction presents you with characters that are so engrossing, you never really know what's going to happen. (Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, etc.)

Genre is plot-driven. Literary is character-driven. Got it? Good.
If you create interesting and diverse characters, your readers will go along for the ride (forgive the cliche) wherever you take them. Because the joy is in watching the differences in the way the characters react. That's what happens in this episode. 
Yes, there's singing. It's a silly musical. But Whedon got away with that because we were all curious to see how those characters would behave in such a strange situation. A musical demon arrives in town and forces everyone to tell the truth? What would come out if that happened to YOU? 
I mean...Whedon could've written an entire episode where the gang plays Canasta together and it might have been just as interesting if the same reveals were happening.

What? I said might.
Homework: Re-write your favorite Big Reveal from film or television. How does it go differently and why?

WEEK TWELVE: 
S6: Episode 8: "Tabula Rasa" - SHTICK
I thought I'd end the course on a lighter note. "Everyone loses their memory" is a really fun device that gets used a lot in television. (Star Trek: The Next Generation has a great version.) The past couple of weeks have been hard. If this wasn't a digital course and we were all in a classroom together, this would be pizza party week and we'd all get up in front of the class and read our best work and be applauded and feel supported.
(Sidenote: I think the saddest line in the entire series happens in this episode. See if you can spot it.)
So "Tabula Rasa" is your digital pizza party. But if you want one more assignment, I won't deny you.
Homework: Pick your favorite movie or TV show. Write an "Everyone loses their memory" scene or episode.

If you've read this far, if you've completed the course, I applaud you. If you haven't, I completely understand because WHO HAS TIME FOR THINGS LIKE THIS?!?!

In all seriousness, writing is hard. It takes practice. And exercise. And you're doing it. So good for you. Keep going.