The Joss Whedon Principle

The last few days I’ve been dealing with a sudden crisis in the third draft of Princess of Shadows. There I was, innocently going along, inputing the hard-copy changes, when I was ambushed. Horrible cross-fire, screams, confusion, casualties mounting. Things looked grim.

To translate this into writer-speak, as I put in the changes (which has been amounting to a second read-through of the manuscript) I suddenly realized that an extensive passage right in the middle of the text just didn’t work. The passage was too long; even worse, things weren’t going badly enough for Kathy– there wasn’t enough tension and danger.

The sense that bad things need to happen to your characters is related to a concept that some people call “the Joss Whedon Principle”–

http://powertothemeeple.com/?p=443

Mr. Bourbeau’s blog is in specific reference to creating and running a horror RPG campaign, but the principle is derived from Whedon’s writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his other creations. And, as far as I am concerned, it applies to any fictional universe.

This is how I phrase the principle– in a dramatic work, particularly a piece of action-adventure, you have to– have to– put your characters in jeopardy. The jeopardy has to be real– and, as a consequence, real prices have to be paid. People suffer and die. Even victories must be purchased with blood and suffering. The principle is applicable even to genres where the peril is emotional or spiritual, rather than physical. Whatever peril your protagonist is liable to get into, it has to be real.

Of course, Joss Whedon didn’t invent this idea– it’s been around since the Iliad. But his particular application of this concept is unique and pretty much a hallmark of his work. You fundamentally don’t know what’s going to happen to his characters, and that brings a fresh sense of life to his writing.

(More spoilerish stuff herein doth follow. If thou wisheth not to be spoilereth, avert thine eyes).

For me, the BtVS moment that proved this principle was “Becoming”, the finale of the second season. Angel, as the monstrous Angelus (cuddly Angel minus soul = meany Angelus), is about to awaken the demon Acathla and open a hell vortex that will destroy the world. The only thing that will seal the vortex and save the world is Angelus’ own blood. Buffy fights Angelus even as Willow, her buddy and budding witch, attempts to restore Angel’s soul remotely from her hospital bed (these guys have already been through some pretty rough times). Just as Buffy overcomes Angelus, Willow restores his soul and he becomes Angel again. But the demon is awakening, the hell-vortex is opening, and despite the momentary joy of Angel’s restoration, Buffy still has to stab him through with a sword and shove him into the vortex. World saved, but Buffy is left broken and hollow because of the sacrifice she has had to make.

I watched that episode when it first aired with my then-writing group. I remember our collective reaction as “No, NO, NOO!” But, personally, that precise moment was worth an entire graduate-school writing class for me. It brought home clearly the idea that dramatic writing needs conflict, peril and resolution, and maybe not always the happiest possible resolution, either.

So, regarding Princess of Shadows, in the first place I realized radical surgery was needed to cut the excess flab out of the sequence. As a result I cut about 5000 words in the interest of moving the action along. More than that, though, I needed to ramp the danger back up. I tried several things, some of which actually made the problem worse, but I have finally hit on what I think is a solution. A very sad and unhappy solution, but then Kathy is in a very sad and unhappy place, all of which makes for (hopefully) a better story.

One caveat– I’m not just sticking random danger into the story, like wandering monsters in World of Warcraft. The elevated peril Kathy finds herself in develops organically (I hope) from the tensions and dangers already established in the story. I just needed to exploit the possibilities of what I had already laid out. You don’t want random danger– the peril should (in theory) build toward a climax that ties everything together.

I think I am now on the other side of the ambush, having assaulted my way through. I will resume putting in the hard copy changes and hopefully, maybe have all of them in by October 1st. Shortly thereafter I can start handing over this puppy to my beta readers.

Assuming the bad guys aren’t setting up another trip-wire on the trail ahead….

Later.

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