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Thursday, March 22, 2012

How "Buffy" Was Written

Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman

In The Watcher’s Guide, Volume 2, the television series’ writer Jane Espenson explains the procedure that she and the other Buffy the Vampire Slayer writers used to develop the show’s scripts.

Before the writers plot the episode, they determine its “emotional arc.” On Buffy, the monsters typically symbolize the emotional states of the show’s characters. In “A New Man,” the episode in which Giles is transformed into a demon by Ethan Rayne, a sorcerer with whom Giles practiced black magic as a youth, the “emotional arc” is alienation: “We talked a lot about alienation,” Espenson says, and, as examples of times when a person may feel alienated, they discussed “what it’s like when your father has a breakdown, what it feels like to be old.”

They also identified Giles’ “concerns” and the source of those concerns, whether the source was “his career” or whether Buffy, who is older and more independent now that she has graduated from high school and attends college, living on campus, loves “him anymore.” In addition, they considered the idea that his girlfriend, Olivia, who had been visiting him from England but had returned there, might decide to break off their relationship and thus might not be “coming back.”

The outcome of their discussion concerning the causes of Giles’ alienation was to decide that “the redemption for Giles comes when Buffy sees him [in his demon form] and recognizes him [as Giles]. And that sort of brings him back. It doesn’t solve all his problems. He’s still not as central to Buffy’s life as he used to be.” Nevertheless, “he knows that she knows him; she saw him; she values him. She was ready to kill the demon, not just in her normal demon-killing way, but with specific revenge in her heart. ‘You killed Giles.’ So we had to have all that before we could even start thinking about what happens in each scene.”

Once the writers have decided upon the episode’s “emotional arc” (alienation”), its cause (Giles’ life seems to be falling apart, especially since Buffy has become more independent), and the resolution of this crisis (he realizes that Buffy does value him), they determine “what happens in each scene.” In doing so, they follow a definite procedure, Espenson points out.

Each episode, she says, is divided into a teaser and four acts. The writing of the script begins by nailing down the “emotional high point” with which each act is to end. The “emotional high point” becomes more climactic at the end of each act. The first “act break” (the end of the act and the beginning of the advertisers’ promotional messages) may be end on a relatively weak “emotional high point,” one that appeals to viewers’ curiosity more than to their emotions per se. The “emotional high point” with which the second act ends, or breaks, is the episode’s climax, or turning point, where things begin to improve or to sour for the protagonist. The third act break identifies the protagonist’s decision with regard to how she plans to resolve the conflict that the earlier acts have set in motion and sets the protagonist or another character in the direction of “ultimate danger.” The fourth act resolves the conflict. Here is the example, complete with explanations, that Espenson offers:

The act breaks is where you start. At the end of each act, which is going to be its emotional high point. You want to make sure the audience comes back after the commercial. . . . At some point [in the discussion of ideas among the writers] Joss [Whedon] will say, “Oh, I’m beginning to see a story here. If this [episode] is about Giles feeling alienated, and we’re going to have Giles turn into a demon, then he should turn into the demon at the end of [act] Two.”

We knew Episode Twelve would have Buffy’s birthday, because it always does, so we knew that was a good way to get Giles feeling alienated early.

At some point Joss just said, “Okay, end of One. Ethan steps out.” He pitched the moment exactly as it appears in the script. He had that whole thing completely in his mind. That was our first-act break.

Second-act break, okay, he’s a demon. Third -act break, Buffy says, “He killed Giles. I’m going to kill him.” So that we have Giles heading for the ultimate danger moment as we head into Act Four.

So it’s the moment in which Joss lays those three moments down, the ends of Acts One, Two, and Three--at that point you’re very close to writing things up on the dry erase board. But not until then. We never start writing anything up there until Joss has decreed the act breaks.
This is The Watcher’s Guide’s summary of the episode; now that Espenson has explained how its “act breaks” are determined in advance, based upon each of the episode’s “emotional arcs,” one can see how the writers gets from point A to point B, and so on, filling in the action between the incident that ends each act. (The book’s authors summarize the action differently than according to its divisions into teaser and acts; here, its sequence has been modified to fit the structure that Espenson indicates is typical of the episode’s construction.)


It’s Episode Twelve, and time for Buffy’s birthday party. This time, it’s a surprise party, and Giles is there as the only guest over twenty-five years of age.

Act I

He’s startled to discover that Buffy has a new boyfriend, and stunned when Willow and Xander casually mention that Riley’s in the Initiative, both of them assuming that he already knew. . . since they, Anya, and Spike know. [His being out of the loop concerning what is going on in Buffy’s personal life suggests that Giles is and feels alienated from her.] Add that to Maggie Walsh’s dismissive attitude toward him, and her opinion that Buffy has lacked a strong male role model, and it’s time for a midlife depression for Giles [in which he feels both expendable and emasculated]. Ethan Rayne, a sorcerer who practices Black Majik and worships chaos, is back in town.

Not seen in Sunnydale since [the episode] “Band Candy,” he commiserates with Giles in the Lucky Pint, a Sunnydale watering hole, about feeling old and useless [this part of the scene reinforces Giles’ feeling of alienation]. He also tells Giles that rumors are flying fast and furious about something called “314,” which has demons quaking in their boots [this is an allusion to a situation that will be revealed in a future episode of the show]. [“Okay, end of One: Ethan steps out.”]

Act II

The two become quite drunk together, and in the morning Giles suffers from more than a hangover. Ethan [has] slipped him something that has turned him into a Fyari demon. He’s hideous, with huge, curved horns, and his speech consists of Fyari grunts and growls. When he goes to Xander’s house and tries to tell him what happened, Xander reacts violently and defends himself with pots and pans. Giles escapes, running through Xander’s neighborhood, prompting a 911 call. [“Second-act break, okay, he’s a demon.’]


While on the run, Giles runs into Spike. It turns out that Spike speaks Fyari, and can, therefore, communicate with him. Spike agrees to help him. . . if Giles will pay. Meanwhile, Buffy, Riley, and the rest of the gang assume that the demon has either kidnapped Giles or killed him--in which case Buffy promises vengeance. She takes from Giles’ desk what she believes to be a silver letter opener; silver is what can kill the Fyari demon. With great glee Giles chases Maggie Walsh down the street--payback to the “fishwife” for her insults. Buffy and Riley go to the magic shop to look for clues. Buffy finds a receipt signed by Ethan Rayne, and with Riley’s help traces Ethan to his crummy motel. Riley tries to tell Buffy that the Initiative will take it from here, but Buffy insists that this is her battle. [“Third -act break, Buffy says, “He killed Giles. I’m going to kill him.”]

Act IV

Together, they go to the motel and discover that Giles (still a demon) is already there, in full demon rage, about to kill the duplicitous sorcerer. Buffy attacks Giles. [”We have Giles heading for the ultimate danger moment as we head into Act Four.”]

Only after she has dealt him a. . . blow [with the silver letter opener, which should kill him] does she recognize him. . . by his eyes. It turns out that the letter opener is made of pewter, not silver. Giles’ life is spared.

After changing Giles back into his human form, Ethan is taken into custody by the military police. When Giles and Buffy talk about what’s happened, he realizes that she loves him like a father and always will. Riley tells Buffy that he likes her strength and her take-charge attitude. Much mutual admiration takes place.

For practice in seeing how the Buffy writers use this approach to write other episodes, one can find both summaries and scripts of each of the show’s episodes at the Internet web site Buffyworld.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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