If you were a teenage girl in the mid to late 1990s, there is a 99% chance that you had an interest in the paranormal. In the days before Supernatural, there was The X-Files; before Witches of East End, there was Charmed. And before Twilight, before The Vampire Diaries, before True Blood… there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
BTVS is an American supernatural/fantasy television series that aired from 1997 to 2003. The narrative follows Buffy Summers, the latest in a long line of young women known as Vampire Slayers, who are called (chosen by fate) to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness when the current Slayer dies. Like previous Slayers, Buffy is aided in her mission by a Watcher, who guides and trains her; unlike her predecessors, Buffy surrounds herself with a circle of loyal friends who become known as the “Scooby Gang”.
I was twelve years old when BTVS premiered, so the show was a major cultural influence during my teen years, and it remains a major creative influence on me to this day. My poor adolescent heart broke throughout the whole Buffy/Angel doomed-soulmates saga; I was inconsolable for days following the season 5 finale; and I still cannot accept the Potentials as real Slayers.
The man behind the phenomenon, Joss Whedon, isn’t an author but he is one hell of a storyteller, and you would be hard pressed to find another screenwriter within the last twenty years who has had as much subtle influence over writing for film and television as Joss Whedon.
Below is an examination of the skills and techniques that make Whedon one of my writing role models. Warning: may contain spoilers.
The “Hero’s Journey” is hardly a new storytelling formula, but how Whedon approached it from a fresh perspective is what makes BTVS such an exceptional work of fiction.
The idea for BTVS came directly from Whedon’s dislike of seeing the horror film cliché of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed”. Whedon has said that he wanted to subvert this stereotype, and create someone who was a hero.
The ultimate statement of BTVS was the joy of female power – having it, using it and (most importantly) sharing it.
And as far as powerful female heroes go, they don’t come more empowered than the Chosen One herself, Buffy Summers. Beautiful and stylish, easy-going, funny, street-smart and intuitive, athletic, a loyal and caring friend – if you didn’t want to be her, you wanted to be a part of the Scooby Gang just to be in the presence of her (MAJOR GIRL CRUSH ALERT!). But despite all of these qualities, Buffy’s most inspiring attribute is her ability to pick herself up after life knocked her down. She taught young girls to embrace their individuality, and to keep fighting (literally, not metaphorically) when the world is ending (metaphorically, not literally).
The embodiment of female power isn’t just limited to the titular hero, either. Willow, Faith, Cordelia, Dawn, Anya, Tara – all very different women, with different strengths and weaknesses; yet they all still personify the concept of female power.
From antiheroes to father figures, there may be a handful of clichés thrown into the mix of male characters, but that’s not to say that the men of Sunnydale are all one-dimensional eye candy written into the show to fill a quota in the formula. Xander, Giles, Spike, Angel, Oz, and yes even Riley, were all unique and complex characters who added emotional and plot layers to BTVS.
Xander, especially, provides much of the comic relief and is the genuine heart of the Scooby Gang. Arguably, though, his most significant moment in BTVS is when he takes Buffy’s place as the hero who saves the world from the Big Bad (‘Grave‘, episode 22/season 6) and shows the audience that you don’t need to have superpowers – ie be overly remarkable – to make a difference.
What makes Buffy, the Scooby Gang and other important Sunnydale players so relatable (and successful as fictional characters), is that their complex layers and characteristics are revealed over a period of time. As a result, the audience’s emotional connection with them develops naturally, just like the relationships we develop in real life.
Pacing and tension are essential in fiction writing, but finding the right balance can be tricky; if the plot is slow and slack, you will leave your audience bored, but if it is too fast and intense, your audience will feel overwhelmed. In addition to strengthening the audience’s emotional connection to characters, humour is a marvellous storytelling technique for establishing and maintaining a steady pace, and for relieving tension when the plot becomes too serious.
The humour of BTVS was sometimes clever and witty, sometimes sarcastic and low-brow, but it was always well-timed. Whether a quip came in the middle of a battle-to-the-death, or a moment of irony followed a grand declaration, the humour was delivered when the audience least expected it, but most needed it.
Like Whedon himself said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
4. FORESHADOWING and SYMBOLOGY
NO ONE has mastered foreshadowing like Joss Whedon. Not only did he devote an entire episode to the technique (‘Restless’, episode 22/ season 4), but he completely changed television history with the seemingly unexpected death of the central character in the season 5 finale (‘The Gift’, episode 22/ season 5), only to announce that he had left clues to this momentous plot point as early as season 3.
Put the clues together like a jigsaw puzzle, and the event makes sense. Foreshadowing that is implimented properly should always leaving the audience thinking ‘oh, of course!’. But what Whedon taught writers around the world was that in order for foreshadowing to be implemented magnificently, the revelation must feel like a kick in the gut to your audience and not just another new piece of information that advances the plot or reveals character.
Symbology is another ace in Whedon’s deck of writing techniques; afterall, his original inspiration for BTVS was ‘high school as hell’, and the first 3 seasons very much lived up to this metaphor.
Magic is frequently used throughout the series as a metaphor for drugs (Willow’s story arc in season 6) or for sex, and racism is often examined through discrimination against demons (e.g ‘Family‘, episode 6/ season 5).
Ultimately, the reason why BTVS remains an incredible work of fiction almost 20 years since it debuted, is because it is relatable. If you subtract all of the supernatural elements from the story, the themes stay real.
Friendship and family, romantic love, abusive relationships, grief, sacrifice, homosexuality, addiction, bullying, American college culture, identity, rape and misogyny, racism and discrimination, feminism, the dangers of politics and religion, poverty… arguably, there is not a single social issue that BTVS didn’t cover. In addition to the themes explored in singular episodes and story arcs, each of the seven seasons also has its own overall theme.
The most notorious example is season 6’s examination of depression. While many fans disagree with the darker tone of the season, when put into context, season 6 is in sync with the show’s focal theme of “growing up is hell”.
The enduring cultural impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer cannot be denied. A study conducted by American online magazine Slate in 2012 named it the most studied pop culture work of all time, with more than 200 papers, essays, and books written about the series by academics. The show’s credits and influences on writing for television include:
- the first silent episode of a television series (‘Hush’, episode 10/season 4)
- the first musical episode of a television series (‘Once More, With Feeling‘, episode 7/ season 6)
- the first lesbian kiss in an episode of primetime television series (‘The Body‘, episode 16/ season 5)
- the introduction of a season-long “Big Bad”, instead of a “Monster of the Week”
- re-popularising long story arcs in primetime television shows
In the years since BTVS ended, Whedon has continued to exert his screenwriting prowess with television series like Dollhouse and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and films such as the Avengers and the Avengers: Age of Ultron; however none of his subsequent work has achieved the same hyper-cult status as his landmark series.
And none ever will, because what Whedon created with Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a once in a lifetime encounter with true creative genuis.
© Tara Jenkinson 2016
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Seasons 1 -7, DVD, 20th Century Fox