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January 19 2009

Joss Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips. Joss recently shared his top ten tips on screenwriting with 4talent magazine.

Thank you, Boldface Purple Dude thank you thank you thank you! More than a geek guru and a nerd sherpa, you are a story structure springsteen!
Mr T Minear esq. is also no structure slouch his own self (assuming he had some hand in the structure of 'Out of Gas') but yep, it's Joss' thang (i'm not sure there're too many writers that could've - or rather would've - come up with the first ten minutes of 'Serenity').

That's a great find, cheers Derf ;). Seems a bit random that it should end up in a Channel 4 magazine considering he hasn't really had much stuff on there - just a smidge of 'Angel' IIRC - but no matter.

(and if you follow the link back to the 4talentmagazine site there're some other interesting articles up - though maybe mainly for UK readers - including interviews with Charlie Brooker, Graham Linehan, Danny Boyle and Victoria 'Green Wing' Pile)
In the words of the great Ja'mie King (We Can Be Heroes & Summer Heights High) that is so totally random, but what a great find and what a great article...

That "finish it" is some useful advice. So is all of the rest of it.

Thanks, Jossdude, and thanks, Derf.
Saje, this is Charlie Brooker interviewing Graham Linehan, Russell T Davies and other UK writers about writing. It's a must see. (This is part one of five)

But good tips from Joss. "Finish it" is the one that probably is most useful to thousands of aspiring writers out there. I too know the experience of starting a script, finishing scene one, starting scene two, going back to scene one and tweaking it, then tweaking the bit of scene two I've done, then going back to scene one...
(Three Years Later)
...then tweaking scene two again...

I've managed to train myself out of that now.
A fabulous list. I've pretty much heard it all from him before, but it was scattered amongst various commentaries and interviews. Great advice for anyone writing anything, especially number 1...finish it. Why is that so damn hard?! *sigh*

I personally try to apply all of these in my work --which has nothing to do with writing for film of any sort.
oooh cool finds, love both Joss' tips and the Charlie Brooker interview :-)
It's a must see. (This is part one of five) ...

Yeah, I saw that episode of 'Screen Wipe' when it aired zz9 (or maybe just afterwards on iPlayer) and it was really interesting, as Charlie says - "pun" intended for both the people that would even vaguely consider that a "pun" ;) - it was a bit of a departure from the usual format but a very welcome one (Russell Davies talking about how 'Doctor Who' was originally created by a sort of focus group/committee was a bit of a revelation, I hadn't heard that before. I'd like to get his "The Writer's Tale" about the [re]creation of Who but it's a bit pricey at the moment).

In a similar vein BTW, this may be old news to the rest of you but I discovered (via Alex Epstein's blog) this bunch of podcast interviews from Creative Screenwriting Magazine the other day (including one with the Whedonverse's own Drew Goddard about 'Cloverfield'), some fluff but some pretty interesting stuff there too, if you're a "behind the curtain" sort.

("Finish It!" is even good advice for coding BTW, one of the first habits I had to get into when I started working after Uni was "It working is usually more important than it being beautiful, just get it done")

edited (coupla times) for clarity and errors and just general "Maybe you should, like, read it before posting ya idjet"ness ;)

[ edited by Saje on 2009-01-19 15:20 ]
"There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show."


("Finish It!" is even good advice for coding BTW, one of the first habits I had to get into when I started working after Uni was "It working is usually more important than it being beautiful, just get it done")

Very true...I'll admit to having a tendency to plan and plan and plan my code in my head and then my deadline gets close and I just spew out what I can. So yeah, just get something working, then you can make it pretty.

[ edited by JMaloney on 2009-01-19 15:25 ]
Timely. Tomorrow, I have a writers workshop entitled "You & the Blank Page." It's the precursor to a film-making weekend followed by next Tuesday's workshop where we shall all judge each others work and make merry with the passing of the ale and juggling of the geese.

Like I said... Timely.
I was going to say he left two out, but then realized they were really just one.

I was going to say he left out, "Take someone everyone loves, and kill him horribly." The next would have been something like, "Use familiar tropes... and flip them on their heads."

But that amounts to (nearly) the same, doesn't it? I mean, when I was young — back when the rocks were cooling and huge dinosaurs roamed the earth — no matter how bad the situation, you knew that your hero or his best friend could not possibly die.

Then came Whedon. Anyone can die. Well, except Allyson Hannigan. But anyone else.

Then relatedly but not identically are my favorite scenarios, the ones you knew exactly how they go because you've seen them a thousand times — except Joss delights to mess with them. Like when Giles is in the crypt, leaves it, and Ethan Rayne steps out of the shadows to make Portentous Bad Guy Speech.

Then Giles pops back in with "Sorry, someone there?"

I love those moments. That's classic Whedon style.
I'd like to get his "The Writer's Tale" about the [re]creation of Who but it's a bit pricey at the moment).

Got this at Christmas :) Haven't read it yet, but I will mention that it is stonking enormous and looks to be jampacked with Cool Thingstm. More later, I'm certain.
I just love it when Joss dispenses writing tips. As said above, there's not much new here, if one has seen many of the earlier linked accounts, but this is nice and succinct. And, yes, "finish it" goes at the top of the list, regardless of what one is writing.
More later, I'm certain.

Yeah, seems like a job for the .org when you finish it (does look like a lovely book-as-object though, credit card took a bit of a whack over Christmas - as they tend to ;) - or my resolve would've crumbled before now).
Then relatedly but not identically are my favorite scenarios, the ones you knew exactly how they go because you've seen them a thousand times — except Joss delights to mess with them.

I was recently watching Season 1 of Buffy (due to my lovely wife giving me the whole series for Christmas) and had forgotten how he was doing this kind of thing from the very first scene of the first episode: Hot blonde goes into some a dark school all alone with a guy. The dialogue (and ominous background music) was setting it up like you'd think:

Girl: "Do you go to school here?"
Guy: "I used to."


Guy: "There's nobody here."
Girl: "Are you sure?"
Guy: "Yes, I'm sure."
Girl: "Ok."

Of course, "Girl" turns out to be Darla and promptly vamps-out, and "Guy" ends up being "CSI Danny Messer" "Victim #1".
Loved getting into Joss Whedon's head, interesting article, thanks for posting.
I loved this. Having "finish it!" as a tip is REALLY helpful... plus I learned a new word: ossified.
You know how some lovely scout places an intriguing post on the front page and that leads you to some other cool site with some other cool article...

Well, I found this:

In this interview, the creator-producer-casting director-script editor-film editor-writer Victoria Pile of "Green Wing" (a British show, that being an American who has no cable subscription, I have never heard of) talks about the difference between creating t.v. shows in Britain and in the U.S. with it's studio system. It is a tale of frustration, a familiar one to those of us here at whedonesque cheering from our bleachers.

The article left me wondering about what other wonderful Jossiness we could have seen by now if he had a more supportive creative environment... say like the British system.

Of course we do have the great lure of American sized budgets and all other things super-sized -- big hits, big stars, big numbers, big advertising, big brother with his two cents.
That was all great stuff.

As an independent filmmaker who's going to gear up production on his first film soon, I can relate to a lot of this.
Yep, JMaloney, another good example. It'd be fun to fill a meta with our faves.

But you make me think: Buffy itself as a whole is just a big, deliberate trope-flip, isn't it? The helpless little blonde slip of a girl is the powerful heroine. You could argue similarly for Angel: the hero is a (hel-lo?) vampire.
Joss' tips are great and so applicable to other types of writing. I think I'll print it out as a reminder.

Separately, wow, Victoria Pile's experience is so interesting and disheartening. Thanks for sharing the link.
Congrats UnpluggedCrazy! I seem to remember you mentioning, oh say a year or so ago, that you were working on a script. Something to do with vampires?

Separately (and completely off topic, but important!)...Isn't today generally considered Buffy's "birthday?"
Of course we do have the great lure of American sized budgets and all other things super-sized -- big hits, big stars, big numbers, big advertising, big brother with his two cents.

Yeah exactly, there's a reason both series + specials of 'Green Wing' still only amount to about 18 episodes - the British system isn't really geared towards 24 episode "seasons" and the sort of rolling annual momentum of a US show. By and large I think we do "A single creator's unique vision" better than the US, maybe even much better (as a system, i'm not claiming anything about how many creators have a unique vision either side of the Atlantic) but the US system is better suited towards quantity and quality (when a show's good). And then there's the money and so on.

(even our commercial channels tend to produce much shorter series than in the US and i've never really been certain why that is, again possibly just the available budgets)

You could argue similarly for Angel: the hero is a (hel-lo?) vampire.

Not so sure about this one a) because vampire heroes (even vampire detective heroes) were around before Angel and b) because for male characters the apparent bad-guy being the goodie, the idea of the "outside man" or "anti-heroic stranger" actually is a trope already (from Westerns - 'The Searchers' among many others - to private eye movies - e.g. 'The Maltese Falcon' - to spy/action films - watched 'Taken' last night and Liam Neeson was very much that sort of anti-heroic character, even though the film didn't necessarily present him that way since it didn't really ask any interesting questions about his role in/worth to society. Not a bad movie, just one note and single layered).

It's no secret though that Buffy was designed to subvert the horror movie cliché of "bubbly blond girl walks into alley and becomes victim" and most episodes flipped something I reckon (one of my early favourites is the subversion of the "evil doll/puppet" trope in 'The Puppet Show').
I'm not sure the US really knows what a season is anymore anyway. The standard 1-hour drama is usually 22 episodes to a season. I'm not sure about half hour comedies, 26 maybe? But now, "24" is doing 24, Lost did 25 once and is now down to 16. I think one or more of the CSIs does more than 22 as well. On cable, they're doing crazy 13-episode seasons (more budget for each episode I think is the/a reason) and BSG is doing crazy things like having two half-seasons (though not in the sense of doing 13, which would b a "true" half-season run) and calling them one.

None of this is really a problem, so long as the shows come out. I'm just not sure what a season really amounts to anymore.
Thanks for the link BreathesStory, though I personally really didn't like Green Wing despite it starring Sarah Alexander who was fantastic in Coupling. Just seemed to have the feel of a kids show, everyone overacting terribly, which I put down to the direction.
I'm not sure the US really knows what a season is anymore anyway.

Hasn't the cable model always been different though ? BSG is basically a 20 episode season with a mid-season cliff-hanger (with season 4 split over 18 months to 2 years), likewise the Stargates and then many other cable shows are 12-13 episodes (or maybe 16 e.g. 'Monk', 'Psych', 'Burn Notice' (?)). With network TV (as far as I can tell) it's generally 20-24 per season ('Lost' is a special case I think).

Either way, even a short season on US TV is still (generally) longer than a full series of UK TV (Spooks, Survivors, Primeval, The Fixer, Life on Mars, The Office, The IT Crowd etc.) and the budgets higher.
I second your "huh", JMaloney. Have we ever actually heard that particular Firefly story before?
Not AFAIK but we knew it wasn't exactly plain sailing from day 1 (i.e. we haven't - quite understandably - heard the exact ins and outs of every argument Joss had over 'Firefly' but we sure knew he had some).
and make merry with the passing of the ale and juggling of the geese.

Video, please. I've heard a lot of talk about goose juggling, but seen nothing to substantiate it.

Yeah, finish it. I wish I'd read that and taken it to heart back when I thought I could write.
Hah! Yes, Saje, I'm pretty sure the cable model has always been different than broadcast television. I guess my tone didn't come across. Broadcast television has 22 episode seasons, with Lost, 24, CSIs, and anyone else not doing 22 simply being exceptions. I, however, was attempting some sort of humor (vainly) regarding the exceptions.

BSG Season 4 will be finished within 12ish months of when it began, and is 22 episodes. It's loong "hiatus" being due to the WGA strike. The show would have finished in the summer if they'd kept going, and for whatever reason they've never aired new episodes in the summer, so they prolly held off until '09 for that.
b!X, I could totally be making it up in my head, but I feel like I've read that somewhere before, or heard it. Even if I did, it's certainly not a well traveled insight.
Joss is a reader response guy! :-)

"You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member."
It's loong "hiatus" being due to the WGA strike

Eh, it was delayed by the strike, like everything else. But it finished shooting in Summer '08, I think. The loongness has more to do with Scifi channel decisions than external factors, I believe.
The part about numb butts reminds me of what Alfred Hitchcock said:

"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
One of my favorite bits of Joss wisdom (though not mentioned in the article) is that an effective intimate conversation requires an intimate setting.

I think it was just a throwaway anecdote from the "Surprise/Innocence" commentary, talking about how he originally tried filming the "You were a pro" scene elsewhere but moved it to Angel's bedroom. It's almost too simple and obvious, but it's a mistake I notice all the time now.

And of course there's the purple corollary: if you want to truly hurt someone, do it in pillow talk.
Agreeing with everyone--much of this advice suits the (completely un-movie related and much less exciting) writing that I do for a living.

the ones you knew exactly how they go because you've seen them a thousand times

I'm introducing a friend to BTVS (we're almost to the end of Season 3), and it's so funny because she keeps making pronouncements about what's going to happen next, and she's always wrong.
Dana - seems to me what he's saying there is "don't make your reader/watcher check out the commentary to figure out what you're trying to say. If they don't get it, you need to rework it so that they do." So, I'm not sure that it says what you think it says, although I have been and could be wrong again :) In any case, its a spot on list. Contradictory at times, as the best lists (and people) are.
I read it the same way, zeitgeist. But not, myself, knowing what "reader response guy" means exactly, I don't actually have any idea if we're actually all reading it the same way.
Reader response basically says "What the reader/viewer experiences is all, and sod authorial intent." Or to quote the wikipedia entry:

Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts "real existence" to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates his or her own, possibly unique, text-related performance.

FWIW, in that podcast I mentioned with Drew Goddard he's very keen to point out that his interpretation of what happens is just one among many i.e. it's not definitive and that he'd rather viewers made up their own minds (to the extent that he actually wouldn't give his ideas about some of the stuff in the film). Wonder how close to that position Joss is (the quote's ambiguous but I read it the same way i.e. if what you're trying to do isn't apparent to the viewer - or viewer surrogate - then you're doing something wrong) ?

By that Wikipedia definition BTW, I think I may be a "reader response guy" too ;).

ETA: I, however, was attempting some sort of humor (vainly) regarding the exceptions.

Ah, sorry bobw10, I missed that completely, mea partly culpa ;).

[ edited by Saje on 2009-01-19 21:43 ]
I'm loving those tips..
"Finish it", yeah, absolutely...But also "Everybody has a reason to live", and every character must be allowed to be what it is, is a beautiful concept, and really Joss is a master of it..
Also, "Listen" and "Don't listen", as he states just the perfect advice!!
Make sure to read the rest of the definition :).
Well, I have to be honest, I can't really be arsed so I just skimmed (hey, I didn't say I was a good reader response guy ;) but I do know I don't agree with this
"text-oriented critics assume that one can understand a text while remaining immune to one's own culture, status, personality, and so on, and hence "objectively"."

because, to me, everyone brings who they are, their memories/expectations etc. to any interpretation of what they see/read/experience so if the choice is between one or the other, I feel like I tend more to some kind of reader response. That said, I also think it's a bit daft to say texts contain no information inherently or never contain any objective information and i've a feeling if I actually read most of what reader-response critics had to say i'd be throwing books across rooms left right and centre so maybe there's a "third way" which i'm going to call (apologies upfront for the jargon) "making it up as I go along" ;).
So I've been thinking some more about the list and this has been on my mind on and off all day:

Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie...

I sooo agree with that sentiment. Anyone else ever spent any time trying to figure out how "The Dukes of Hazzard" could have been actually interesting? Seriously.

The original first six episodes were completely different from what the show turned into. Those episodes were grittier, the characters were meaner, and their lives felt more like the impoverished rural America of the 70's instead of the patronizing stereotypes they ended up portraying. (At least the rural area I'm familiar with -- Southeastern Appalachian Ohio.) No comment on the "movie."

Ummm, maybe that's just me then.
He meant to put an asterisk and then write "Except the Dukes of Hazzard". I kid; it's a great point!
Well "Last Action Hero" is a pretty easy one I reckon, I mean the nature of fiction, perceptions, overlapping/chosen realities and so on, that's fertile ground. In some ways (don't anyone laugh ;), LAH could've asked the same sorts of questions as e.g. 'Memento' did (much more successfully I might - but don't need to - add ;).

'Dukes of Hazzard' could've been more of a comment on the real rural south, class difference, income gaps etc. But how would they have got the horn into it ?
I think z was correct in his response to Dana above. Reader-response theory assumes that an author/filmmaker is actually competent in communicating to his or her target audience. If a book or film is a muddle because it is poorly structured, incompetently told or edited, etc., then there is a likelihood that nobody will be able to make any sort of meaning from it--regardless of the individual audience member's gender, ethnicity, class, age, politics, and any other factors that might contribute to his or her interpretation of what the "text" means.

On the other hand, I was never able to find anything I could relate to in the few minutes of the Dukes of Hazzard I ever saw--regardless of what it was trying to say. My response was always to turn it off. :P
Of course, in this case I was not actually being serious, which is why I added the smiley face, though it is a provocative response from Joss. But saje notes the basic problem with authorial intent v reader response, which is that despite what an author may mean or intend, we still filter our reading through our lived experience and knowledge, which includes culture, etc. You can read Billy Budd as a story set in a particular time and reflecting a particular ethos from that time, and you can read it as a Christ parable, and you can read in light of modern culture, ascribing meanings to the text that Melville never intended. Which is correct?

ETA: palehores, actually I am not sure reader response theory does require the communication to be clear; it says that we help in constructing meaning. I see this in shipping wars, where some people read a relation one way, others another. There are people who, despite seeing Grissom leave CSI and travel to Costa Rica to find Sara Sidle and kiss her passionately, still feel that Grissom's true love is Lady Heather, and there are others who feel it is still Catherine Willows- despite what they see on screen! And if Carol Mendelson tells them that GSR is real and forever, it still won't matter. Without inciting a flame war, think of it this way: Spuffy or Bangel? You can argue both, based on how you read the text... and despite whatever Joss may have intended.

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2009-01-20 00:32 ]
I've been telling myself to "finish it" for years. It hasn't happened, though, but I still know it's good advice.
BreathesStory, "Dukes of Hazzard" had a lot of resonance where I grew up in the South--our county pretty much had its own Boss Hogg who owned and ran everything. I remember anti-corruption and anti-Reconstruction themes, people victimized by the system, jabs at gun control.

I'm sure it was much more intelligent before the execs lobotomized it and turned it into a campy kids show. Sadly that was the fate of lot of '70s TV.
Hey, I dunno', when I was a little kid, I think all I needed for "meaning" was the car and the horn and some good looking people. So I guess the "meaning" depends upon the emotional maturity of the "reader" also ;).
Upthread there was some talk about tropes by um, Saje and JMaloney.

After thinking about it I went and found this site TV Tropes.

If you look under "Narrative Tropes" you will find an entry for "Applied Phlebotinum" which when followed has a nice little credit for David Greenwalt. : )

Fascinating site.
They also have a purple verb and many "obligatory Buffy references". :)
Hey, thanks, BreathesStory. I have indeed written a few scripts about vampires, but those are for later, when I actually have, you know, something in the way of a budget.

My friend is directing a movie which I'm going to act in and serve as producer on. Then it's my turn to direct. His movie is set in one location and with not much in the way of action. Mine goes all over the place and has a man get into a fistfight with Death. There is no way in which I know how to think small. :-)
Eh, it was delayed by the strike, like everything else. But it finished shooting in Summer '08, I think. The loongness has more to do with Scifi channel decisions than external factors, I believe.

If nothing else about this response pleases anyone, please be happy for me I've learned how to quote!

Battlestar finished shooting in April or May as I recall, pretty sure Tahmoh was done before shooting the original Dollhouse Pilot, which is why I said they would have finished airing in summer if they had kept going. So I think we are on the same page there. So yes, at that point it is Sci-Fi's decision that the rest did not air until now. I said that as well, but not nearly so clearly as you. |-)~

My point was that if it weren't for the strike, the entire season 4 could have aired BEFORE summer if they so chose. Season 4 was supposed to start in January, but got pushed back to the beginning of April once the strike hit. Even if they had aired the shot episodes on time, they would have had to wait for new scripts after the strike (the next episode to air is the first one of these new scripts, as "Sometimes a Great Notion" was the last script finished before the strike and shot during the strike) So regardless of pushing the first ten episodes, the last ten would have finished in summer time, and again, BSG has never aired new episodes in the summer, for whatever reason the PTB at Sci-Fi have decided. Without the strike, they could have begun airing in January, and all the way straight through before summer if they had wanted. I don't know if they wanted this or not, it's all just conjecture.

Hmm... and it's all very unimportant I'd wager, as I just remembered again I was just poking fun at the weirdness of TV seasons these days. |-)~

Also, to clarify my earlier comment, Season 4 is a 22 episode run counting Razor, which is how Sci-Fi is counting it. WEIRD TV seasons!!!

And grats to UnpluggedCrazy, good luck with your movies!
His #1 is SO RIGHT.

*runs off to finish an outline I've been working of for too long*
I'm doing a screenwriting course at the moment, and this article has helped me loads. It's so much more helpful then other things about screenwriting I've read, because its from Joss.

[ edited by Gota luv that Buffy on 2009-01-20 11:33 ]
Ah, now I'm spoiled for the ending of the Grissom-leaving episode. Sigh.

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