Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

Can’t Take the Sky From Me!

A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of introducing my girlfriend to one of my favorite fandoms — the Firefly TV series. We shared a bottle of wine and watched the first few episodes together while at her place one night. When I was getting ready to leave, she asked to borrow the DVDs so she could finish the series. Being an avid Browncoat, I of course had no problem with this.

A few days later, she returned my DVDs and we had a lively chat about her favorite characters, plot lines, and moments. Towards the end of the conversation, she smiled at me and said, “Well, I really enjoyed that. I’m ready to borrow the next season if you have it on DVD as well.”

Ooops… “Ummm,” I said, “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Do you have a digital copy we can watch together?”

“Well darling, there’s no more.”


“What do you mean there’s no more?”

I probably shouldn’t have smiled, but I did. “Well you see, Fox canceled Firefly after a single season.”

“What? That’s stupid! Why would they do that?”

“Love, people have been asking that very question for years.”

Like many other major fandoms, we Browncoats are passionate in our love. However, unlike most of the others, our series only had 14 episodes with which to win our undying affection for Serenity and her crew. How did Joss Whedon do it? Why were we addicted so fast? Part of becoming a writer is learning how to dissect the pieces of fiction you love to find out what gives them their power. I’ve rewatched the Firefly TV series half a dozen times over the years, hoping to unlock Whedon’s secrets to addictive storytelling. I have a few theories, but here are the top seven reasons I think that Firefly was so powerful.

meet the washburns
In Million Dollar Outlines, David Farland pointed out that many of the most successful movies of the last 50 years actively transported their audience to a different place or time. The ‘Verse that Whedon created certainly checked that box. Whedon’s world was dynamic, colorful, and exciting. The juxtaposition between the advanced societies of the Core and the space cowboy Rim was both charming and filled with conflict. And come on, who doesn’t want to be a space pirate living on the Serenity?


Part of Joss’ brilliance with the Firefly series was how well he was able to blend all sorts of emotional payoffs.

Excitement — I mean, space pirates, am I right?
RomanceTell me that I'm prettyThere were three very different romantic subplots. The first, between Mal and Inara, was a reluctant attraction story all too reminiscent of modern dating. The second, between Simon and Kaylee, was more of a young love. It resonates well with our own first romantic exploits. Finally, there was the established love between Wash and Zoe. It was unlikely, yet stable and strong. Something many of us wish to find for ourselves.
HumorbonnettSometimes it was simple one liners, references to flowered bonnets or the “special Hell.” Other times it was a running gag, like when we had an entire episode about Jayne being a folk hero. Either way, there were plenty of laughs and inside jokes.
Mystery — River and Book’s back stories provided plenty of intriguing questions that have fueled fan speculation even long after the series ended.
Wonder — I mean, space pirates, am I right?

In so doing, Whedon was able to cast a wide net, both attracting and satisfying a large and diverse audience.

Big Damn Heroes
This aspect is twofold. On the onehand, there was plenty of conflict on the Serenity. Each member of the ensemble drove the others crazy at times. That special sort of insanity reserved for siblings. It kept things interesting and dynamic. It also resonates strongly with much of the audience.

On the other hand, they also fought as a family, repeatedly and selflessly putting themselves at risk for one another. Watch the episode where they assault Niska’s station or the one where the crew goes back to rescue Simon and River from hill people. They were willing to die, and kill, to save their own. They loved one another, one of the truest human emotions and an undeniable anchor for audience empathy.


The crew of the Serenity were pirates, criminals and vagabonds. They stole from the rich, sold to the poor, and were gleeful in their exploits against the Alliance. In our world of well-ordered queues and 9 to 5 jobs, we enjoy stepping out of line with them every now and then.

do something right
When it came down to the line and they had to choose between fleeing near certain death or fighting, they stood their ground and fought for what was right.


Audiences love underdogs, and the crew of the Serenity always faced overwhelming odds. The government of the Alliance was demonstrably selfish and neglectful, if not outright evil at times. Life on the Rim was brutal and occasionally cruel. However, our band of miss fits struggled to survive none the less, often escaping those chasing them by the narrowest of margins.


Each of the characters was treated as a whole person and given room to grow as an individual. They each had their own pasts, natures, and futures. Though they couldn’t all always share the spotlight, Joss allowed each their own time to shine. Throughout the series, we were able to watch them become better versions of themselves, carving out a home and a family in the uncaring ‘Verse they were born into.


Thou Shall (Not) Kill Your Darlings

Don’t you do it, George.

There is a popular piece of advice that has gone around (and around) writing circles since William Faulkner said it: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Joss Whedon has since advised writers to cut what they love most from their manuscripts or screenplays if they’ve come up against a serious case of writer’s block. The advice is, succinctly: take out what you love the most to get “unstuck.” And writers have agonizingly cut their beloved characters and scenes out of their first and second drafts, thinking they are heeding valuable advice.

While I personally think authors like George R. R. Martin kill off beloved characters particularly well in order to elicit emotions from the reader, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about. I mean when a writer gets some alpha or beta reader’s feedback suggesting they cut a character or scene the author particularly loves. Forcing a character out of a first or second draft can be devastating to a newer writer. Sometimes, it might be necessary. But other times, it’s important to recognize when you have something special.

We can safely assume Joss Whedon has been stuck on many occasions because he’s a writer and that’s in the job description. Let’s imagine Whedon came down with a serious case of writer’s block while working on episodes of Firefly. Following his own advice, what would he take out? My favorite part of the show is Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of the firefly ship Serenity. Now let’s just imagine Firefly without Malcolm Reynolds for a minute. I can’t help but ask myself… What’s the point, anymore?

Would the show have reached its famed cult status if Whedon replaced Mal with a different, less Han Solo-esk character? Perhaps, but an absolutely vital piece of what makes Firefly so memorable, part of its magic, would have been buried in old drafts, never to see the light of day. Mal is special. He’s important to the story, and the story would be weaker without him. Imagine if we never knew Nathan Fillion as Mal because Whedon was under a deadline, or had had a bad week?

Put down the knife; back slowly away from the computer. Before immediately killing off your favorite character or deleting your favorite scene, I offer you an alternative: questions.

1. Did I develop this character to his/her full potential?

2. Is there something buried in my character’s past that could be vital to this story and increase conflict?

3. *Gulp* Is there a conflict?

4. What about my character could cause conflict with: a. others, b. his/her surroundings, c. his/her culture, or d. him/herself?

5. Did I outline this story? (Most writers report writer’s block when they skimp on pre-writing and outlining)

6. Am I holding back, or waiting to reveal something pivotal until the end? What if I put it near the beginning instead? How would that change the story, and could it make the story stronger?

7. What would make my side characters more interesting to play as a foil to the main character? Are the side characters just as developed as my main character?

8. Would taking this character out of my story make the story stronger or significantly weaker?

9. Pretend you have cut the scene or character in question. Are you just as enthusiastic about the project as you were before?

10. Are you willing to put in the time and work to fix the issue, deepen the character, conflict, or scene, in order to keep it in your project?

When it comes down to it, writers either run on enthusiasm or discipline. Ideally, at least a little of both. If the character or scene you love is giving you trouble, ask yourself if you’re still enthusiastic about the story, and committed to telling it. If it’s one of your first stories or drafts, you may find it’s better to cut your losses and either begin again or start a different story entirely. But if you love the story and are committed to telling it, there is always a way to fix the problem without resorting to cutting or killing your beloved darlings.