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.”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.)
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.
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.
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.”]
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.”]
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.