Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
Some of these points I’d already learned, but I was reminded of them by watching BtVS; others were new lessons that I learned by watching BtVS.
1. Have characters make a grand entrance.
On his first arrival in Sunnydale, in “School Hard,” the vampire Spike runs his car (the windows and windshield of which are covered with black plastic to keep out sunlight) over a curb and knocks down a traffic sign. In “Hell’s Belles,” when one of Anyanka’s victims pretends to be an aged Xander Harris, come from the future to warn his younger self not to marry Anya, he appears in a rainstorm, his red umbrella drawing the viewer’s eyes. (The grand entrance doesn’t have to be “grand” in the true sense of the word, but it should stand out, separating a new character from the story’s cluttered background.)
2. End each episode (and season) with a cliffhanger.
Some of the more memorable Buffy cliffhangers: The Master drowns Buffy (“Prophecy Girl”). After fifteen years as an only child, Buffy has a younger sister, Dawn, who’s always lived with her and their mother, Joyce (“Buffy vs. Dracula”). Buffy dies when she leaps off a tower to save Dawn (“The Gift”). Willow’s girlfriend, Tara, is shot--just after the lesbian lovebirds get together after a long separation (“Seeing Red”).
3. Dialogue counts.
The witty repartee, clever puns, allusions to literary conventions, references to popular culture, and jokes of the Buffy characters are legendary.
4. Use transitional dialogue, either straightforward or ironic, to lead into the action that follows the present action.
An example might be one character’s declaration that he or she knows exactly what Buffy (or another character) is probably doing at the moment, which statement is followed by a scene that shows the declaration to be true (or false); either way, the declaration acts as a segue between the previous and the next scene.
5. Give each character a core trait.
Buffy = duty; Xander = courage; Willow = humility (at least, until she becomes evil); Cordelia = arrogance.
6. Use not one foil, but multiple foils, for the protagonist.
Both Kendra and Faith are foils to Buffy, as are Angel and Spike.
7. Give the protagonist a core desire or problem.
Buffy wants to live a normal life; Angel wants to redeem himself.
8. Substitute a Big Bad for a little bad.
Almost every season does this. For example, the viewer is led to assume that the Anointed One is going to replace the Master as the Big Bad, whereas, in fact, the Anointed One is the little bad; Spike, who kills him, is the season’s Big Bad.
9. Base villains on metaphors.
In “Beer Bad,” alcohol turns college students into cavemen (the cavemen represent the teens' boorish behavior while drunk); in “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” a neglected girl becomes invisible, a state which symbolizes her being overlooked; in “I Robot, You Jane,” an electronic demon represents the dangers of Internet dating.
10. Employ romantic triangles, and have love affairs end badly.
Initially, Willow has a crush on Xander, who favors Buffy, who loves Angel. Willow loses Oz to the wild beast of the werewolf in him, she becomes a lesbian, and she loses her girlfriend, first to her own abuse of magic and then to a bullet. Xander jilts the girl of his dreams, a vengeance demon named Anya, leaving her at the altar when he gets cold feet. Angel leaves Buffy and moves to Los Angeles.
11. Endanger all important characters, and especially those who are beloved.
Buffy dies--twice. In Sunnydale High School’s seniors’ fight against the mayor and his minions during graduation day ceremonies, some students are killed and others are transformed into vampires (“Graduation Day, Part II”). Willow chooses evil, nearly destroying the world (and Xander) (“Grave”). Glory sucks out Tara’s brain and hunts, and tries to kill, Dawn (“Tough Love,” “The Gift”).
12. Make beloved characters suffer as much as possible.
Buffy suffers from unrequited love, from lovers who leave her (or whom she leaves), and from the losses or deaths of family members and friends.
13. Make sure that, in confronting monsters, protagonists and other characters also confront themselves.
In “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” Willow and Xander (and Cordelia) face the fact that their ignoring of classmate Marcie Ross has caused Marcie to turn invisible. In “Wrecked,” “Seeing Red,” and earlier episodes of the same season (six), Willow must face the truth that she is addicted to magic and that her addiction has harmed those she loves.
14. Employ parallel plots. Have the subplot reinforce and enrich the major plot or a thread that runs through the main plot (in television, the season’s arc).
In “I Only Have Eyes For You,” as she attempts to gain the upper hand against a couple of ghostly lovers in purgatory who haunt Sunnydale High on the anniversary of the Sadie Hawkins’ Day dance, during which the teenage male killed his teacher-lover and then committed suicide, Buffy has to come to grips with ex-boyfriend Angel’s own abusive treatment of her.
15. Pump back stories. Get all you can out of your characters’ personal histories, showing what they’ve experienced, suffered, enjoyed, and done that has shaped their lives and brought them to the point they are in the story’s present moment.
Several episodes are devoted to the personal histories (back stories) of Angel, Spike, Darla, Drusilla, and, of course, Buffy herself. We learn what Angel, Spike, and Drusilla were like before they became vampires, how they became vampires, what they did after becoming vampires (before coming to Sunnydale), how Angel’s soul was restored to him in a Gypsy curse and how having a soul continues to affect him, how he was introduced to Buffy, what Buffy’s home life as a young girl was like, and many other details that provide characters’ motivations, enrich and develop them, and make them more or less sympathetic.
16. Write with different authorial tones in mind: depth (Whedon), darkness (Noxon), humor (Espenson).
A writer can see the world through many people’s eyes, adopting whichever perspective, world view, value system, beliefs, principles, desires, hopes, and fears make a character tick. In doing so, he or she should make sure that the tone, whether deep and philosophical, dark and cynical, or humorous and satirical, fits the Weltanschauung of the moment.
17. Employ symbolism and indirect communication techniques.
BtVS is replete with examples. One that I recall is a flashing caution light that is seen on a construction sawhorse as Buffy and Faith enter a dark alley, pursuing (and pursued by) vampires. It’s a little over the top, perhaps, to be truly subliminal, but the effect (CAUTION! CAUTION! CAUTION!) of the flashing warning light is, nevertheless, effective in heightening viewer’s anxiety and the scene‘s suspense.
18. Set he tone of an episode in its opening teaser.
Virtually every episode of the show accomplishes this, alerting the viewer as to the emotional tenor of the episode through situation, dialogue, or, often, a combination of the two.
Note: BtVS has MUCH more to teach anyone who likes to write horror fiction. Perhaps a future article will address some of these other lessons to be learned.