As a result of considering “leftover plots” or plot-seeds or springboards or whatever we choose to call narrative motifs that occur in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we identified several additional storylines that could have been used in the series or (better yet, for us) that we ourselves, with some revision regarding characters, setting, and other narrative elements, could employ to write horror stories (or even novels) ourselves:
- An imprisoned character can escape, causing more mischief or even a little death and destruction before being killed or imprisoned again.
- Things that give rise to new organisms or liberate forces or entities, such as eggs, seeds, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, melting icebergs, shifting tectonic plates, earthbound meteors, and the like, can introduce new characters, including such worthy adversaries as hideous, horrible monsters.
- Problematic characters, such as a naïve, incompetent, or foolish follower or sidekick can create havoc and endanger lives.
- Physical objects, or artifacts, can function as inciting moments that spark a chain of narrative incidents, setting the rest of the story in motion.
We also learned some important factual matters pertaining to this technique:
- Ideas cannot be copyrighted, so they are fair game as inspirations for plots.
- The specific and unique ways in which ideas are developed can, and often are, copyrighted.
- Using the characters, settings, and other elements of such treatments could constitute plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
- Ideas must be given an original treatment in which characters, settings, and other elements are new, not derivative.
In “Angel” (episode 7, season 1), viewers are introduced to a mysterious stranger who comes to Buffy’s aid, helping her to defeat three vampires who attack her in the proverbial dark alley. Viewers wonder who this stranger is, what his interest in Buffy may be, and how he got the strength, agility, stamina, and fighting prowess to take on vampires alongside the supernaturally gifted slayer. Later, when, sharing a passionate kiss with Buffy, the stranger transforms into a vampire himself, one of these questions is answered, but the answer raises further, even more intriguing questions, one of which is why a vampire would be interested in (and apparently smitten with) his mortal enemy.
Willow Rosenberg, Buffy’s nerdy computer geek friend, starts an online romance with a stranger in “I Robot, You Jane” (episode 8, season 1). Buffy is concerned about the possible dangers of Internet dating, and, as it turns out, she has good cause to be concerned, for Willow’s newfound boyfriend turns out to be a demon that, once imprisoned in the text of a book, was liberated into cyberspace when the book was scanned into Sunnydale High School’s library database.
“The Puppet Show” (episode 9, season 1), which is one of the lamer stories in the series, is a takeoff upon the Chucky movies about a demon-possessed doll, except that this toy is a human who was cursed by having his soul confined to a ventriloquist’s dummy by the same brain-eating demon who’s been killing Sunnydale High School students and lunching upon their brains. (See! High school kids do have brains.)
Nightmares come true in “Nightmares” (episode 10, season 1). The bad dreams are products of an abused boy whose Little League baseball coach believed in making an example of him after blaming the boy for the team’s loss of a big game. Some of the dreams, although nightmares, are amusing--Xander’s fear of going to school in his underwear, his fear of the clown that performed at one of his childhood birthday parties, and Willow’s fear of theatrical performance--but others are truly terrifying, as when Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles, dreams that she has been killed or Buffy’s own dream that she has been transformed into a vampire.
Interesting because of one of the more transparent metaphors upon which Buffy plots are typically based, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (episode 11, season 1) equates being neglected and ignored with becoming invisible. In this episode, an invisible girl, Marcie Ross, uses her invisibility to gain revenge against Cordelia Chase and other Sunnydale students and, indeed, teachers who mistreated, neglected, ignored, and otherwise abused her before becoming a spy for the federal government.
“Prophecy Girl” (episode 12, season 1) is the two-part finale of Buffy’s first season. The slayer learns that a prophecy foretells her death at the hands of an ancient vampire king known as The Master. She tries to quit, but, when The Master’s minions attack and kill several of her fellow students, traumatizing Willow, Buffy reluctantly accepts her destiny and is first bitten and then, unconscious, cast into a pool of water, in which she drowns--only to be resuscitated by her friend Xander, who arrives in the nick of time with Buffy’s vampire lover, Angel. Revived, Buffy finds that she has taken on some of The Master’s strength--and darkness--becoming stronger and is now immune from his mesmerizing gaze. A fight, to The Master’s death--ensues.
Okay, so what have we learned?
Most of these episodes deal with xenophobia, an irrational fear of strangers, except that, as it turns out in most cases, the fear doesn’t seem all that unwarranted when one is residing atop a Hellmouth. The introduction of a stranger who is mysterious in some ways is a universal and well-used plot device. When used adroitly, the mysterious stranger creates and maintains suspense because his or her sudden introduction into the setting and circumstances of the larger story naturally arouses curiosity on the reader’s (or viewer’s) part, especially when the entrance is a grand one, dramatic and--in the case of the horror genre, at least--unsettling. In Buffy, to enhance the mystique of the stranger, the series’ writers used such techniques--okay, they can be called “tricks,” if one prefers to think of them in this way--as these:
- A possible threat. (Is the mysterious Angel stalking Buffy?)
- Romantic intrigue AND star-crossed love. (Buffy no sooner meets Angel than they’ve become a couple, but, since he is, as she soon learns, a vampire, and she’s the slayer, theirs will be star-crossed, to say the least.)
- Juxtapositions. The past (as represented by print-bound books) and the present (as represented by computers and cyberspace) meet, and they don’t get along all that well. Good (Buffy) and evil (Angel and the other vampires) represent two moral extremes. The natural, everyday world of Sunnydale and its citizens’ mundane lives are set against the supernatural world of their vampire foes. Life, as it is lived by Buffy and her friends, is contrasted with the life-in-death state in which the vampires exist, a hedonistic world of the senses and of passions that are cut off from such roots as love and compassion.
- Similarity of themes. Buffy often explores a theme from several perspectives. For example, Willow, whose love for Xander remains unrequited because of his love for Buffy, which is also unrequited because Buffy loves Angel, leaves Willow lonely, as does Marcie’s neglect by her peers. In each instance, the characters’ loneliness leads them to foolish actions. In Willow’s case, she is saved by her friends, to whose circle she returns. Marcie, having no friends, becomes a ward of the state, so to speak, after Buffy rescues Cordelia and defeats Marcie. Although it may not cure one’s loneliness altogether, friendship, such thematic treatments suggest, is the tie that not only binds but also saves one from a perfunctory, institutional existence as a ward of, and a servant to, the state.
- Animation of inanimate objects. This is a motif that is popular in fantasy fiction, including the horror and the science fiction genres. The animation of inanimate objects, whether through magical or technological means, is a subtype of the artifact plot device, in which an object, whether a ring (Lord of the Rings), a crystal (The Dark Crystal), or even a spaceship (Rendezvous with Rama) or some other object is the artifact.
- Trauma’s consequences. As child abuse, spousal abuse, torture, combat and other mistreatment or crisis situations have shown, trauma has long-, if not life-long, consequences and can cause recurring nightmares, acts of violence, and other disturbed behavior.
- Duty’s duty. Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons which reason does not know.” So has duty. Even when there is no logically defensible reason to do so, the claim of duty often holds, especially when altruism, or even self-sacrifice, are directed at protecting others, more helpless than oneself, about whom one cares. Buffy dies that others may live, and, in doing so, she underscores the supreme values of brotherly love, courage, and that pesky pest, duty.
Having considered only a few of the lessons to be learned from a consideration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, we’ll revisit the topic of “Leftover Plots” in future installments.