Buffy Turns 20: What BtVS and Joss Taught Me About Writing


Just a portion of my Buffy Bookcase

Twenty years ago today, my then-boyfriend/now-husband Ismael tried to get me to watch the first episode of a new show premiering on= the struggling WB network called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I rolled my eyes at him. He had strange taste in television and, while I loved vampires, I had never felt compelled to see the movie. I just had no interest in it. Even after that day, Ismael kept pushing. No, the series was really good. It took him by surprise. It would take me until a year later to try an episode. That episode would be the two-parter, Surprise and Innocence, more popularly known as the episode where Buffy and Angel make love and Angel turns evil. I am not being hyperbolic–I wasn’t the same person after that. Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life, it changed how I saw myself and who I was as a person. It motivated me and informed who I am as an artist.


So, as a love letter to a series I can still recite the dialogue for, I’m going to discuss the top ways Buffy changed my writing and my life. Note – Spoilers ABOUND. If you haven’t watched…just watch the show. Seriously?


  1. Lexicons Change…Muchly. The sarcasm. The snark. The strange turn of words. I still refer to people as bitca. I’ll add ish to turn verbs into adjectives and age to nouns to make them verbs. If there’s something to be said, I’ll ‘pop culture’ it up. I abbreviate words that don’t have abbreviation. I give emotions place names, like Waah Waah Land. I reorder words to sentences in odd ways. Pathetic much? Probably, but I started this show when I was fifteen and deciding who I was going to be. Was I intending to be Buffy and The Scooby Gang? Not so much. But it found its way in and I can’t help going for some serious quirkage when I’m feeling chattish. Don’t be afraid to play with language, as long as your audience can understand you.

2. Risk-Taking Pays Off. When my boyfriend was busy bugging me about the series, he was very interested in the fact that the principal of the school was eaten in episode six. Seriously, it was his main selling point. I didn’t get it until they turned Buffy’s love interest evil in season 2…and kept him that way for the rest of the season. This show would do anything, and even when it hurt, I loved it. Joss Whedon, the series’ now well-known creator once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” And he did, solidly, for seven seasons. He disappointed us, but then he gave us great narrative reasons why our sadness was necessary. And Joss’ commitment to risk wasn’t just about risking his characters–it was about risking his reputation. He managed to craft and direct very risky episodes such as Hush, an episode with only 17 minutes of dialogue, The Body, an episode entirely about the strange and detached feeling of losing a loved one, and Once More, With Feeling, otherwise known as The Buffy Musical. All very risky, all paid off nicely. Taking creative risks with your work keeps it interesting.


3. Happy Sadness is Okay. There are episodes of this series that make me laugh out loud and cry real tears. They make me worry for the characters, and they make me cringe in embarrassment. As a teenager, Buffy taught me that the confusion of my emotions was not strange. It was just life. Life can be twisty. As an artist, it taught me that genre isn’t a real thing in art. I mean, if you want to sell it, you need to know what genre it best fills. But when you’re writing it? Write the thing. Art is about portraying our journey in a way that makes sense to us. And our journeys aren’t romances or coming of age stories. They certainly aren’t comedies or dramas. They are all those things. Well, for some of us, they may not be a Western, but you get my point. Be free. Worry about labels later.



4. Success Does Not Come Without Clunkers. The Puppet Show. Ted. Most of Season 7…Oops. Some of the series wasn’t spectacular. There were episodes that I can only barely stand to rewatch when I do my rewatches. Which is proof positive that not everything you do is going to land with an audience. And that’s okay. BtVS is still judged as a whole and your body of work will likely be, as well. That doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Some really good lines from the series come from The Puppet Show, Season 7 led up to a spectacular ending, and Ted…well…Ted had John Ritter! So, even your missteps can yield positive results.


5. POV is Important. The Zeppo follows sidekick Xander through a day in which he stumbles blindly through a relatively minor issue while his friends deal with some world ending cataclysm we know nothing about. You know why? Because we’re with Xander and, frankly, he has no time for this Hellmouth thing. Superstar throws you into a world where Jonathan, a relatively minor recurring character, is suddenly a star, right down to getting placement in the title credits. In the Season 5 episode Buffy vs. Dracula, Dawn, a little sister we have never met thus far, just pops up, and we’re expected to accept it. She’s been planted there and the memories of the world has been altered to include her, but we don’t find that out until later. For now, we’re just surfing through the story, trying to figure out what is going on, and it adds a sense of mystery and foreboding we wouldn’t get if we knew everything. Point of view can make or break your story. Use wisely for best results.



6. People CHANGE. Sometimes they change slightly, sometimes they are affected by something that completely and irrevocably alters the fabric of who they are. But the most important thing is that people evolve. I’m not who I was when I started watching Buffy. Buffy was much more mature, but also more dark inside, when she finished the series. Willow was stronger and wiser. Xander was more sober and careful. Dawn was less whiny. Giles was less up tight. Anya learned to care. Tara became confident. Angel and Spike repented for their wrongs. Faith went from tragic headcase to true hero. Cordelia became a higher being and Oz became a werewolf zen master. Your characters have to be altered when they finish their journey, or else what is the point?



7. Know When to Hold Back. Joss Whedon and the writing team didn’t know what they were scripting when they created Earshot. In Earshot, an encounter with a demon gives Buffy mind-reading abilities, which lead to her overhearing a plot to kill all the students in her high school. It was scheduled to air in April 1999. And then, a week before the episode was to air, the Columbine High School Massacre happened. A freak moment of accidental prescience. Whedon and the network hurriedly pulled it off the airwaves because escapism isn’t fun once it isn’t escapism anymore. In that vein, artistically we should pay attention to when our work may be insensitive or cruel and be sure to yank that back. Art should not be used as a sword to harm.

A more artistic example of knowing when to hold back is evident in The Body. While the series had always been for mixing laughter and tears, for this episode, there is no laughter to be had. It is forty minutes of grueling sadness because it is so truthful, in a way that art should be truthful. Examining the emotions of the main characters after Buffy returns home to find her mother dead, The Body soars as an episode that doesn’t have half of the well-known Buffy style, because it can’t. Even vampire slaying because a numb, necessary event happening despite the main focus. Despite its sense of humor, Buffy knew when to take itself seriously.

8. Even People You Love Can Be Unlikeable. This one, I REALLY needed in my private life. The lesson was very strongly learned through the richness of characters in the Buffy Universe. I hated every character at some point. In Season 1, when Angel is all cryptic before disappearing, Batman-style, or when Cordelia doesn’t get that Buffy is cool, even when she saves her ass. In Season 2, when Xander decides it’s cool to make the entire female population of Sunnydale fall in love with him by magic and later doesn’t bother to tell Buffy that Willow is trying to re-ensoul Angel. In Season 3, when Willow and Xander cheat on Oz and Cordelia or when Buffy lets loose with Faith. In Season 4, when Buffy seems to forget about her friends or when Riley does ANYTHING. In Season 5, when Dawn whines incessantly or when Xander tries to convince Buffy to try to love Riley even though he betrayed her. In Season 6, when Willow gets addicted to magic and lies to Tara and when Buffy plays around with being a reckless idiot. In Season 7, when Buffy keeps screwing up, then making self-righteous speeches. Make your characters human. Make them flawed. We’ll love them all the more.



9. Make Things Relatable. So, you’re fighting a war against a hellmouth full of demons? Make it feel more like high school, so your audience can relate, since most of us…MOST of us…have never went to war against a hellmouth full of demons. Even with the craziest twists our stories take, we should never leave them out of our audience’s reach. Ground them to reality and make them that much more powerful. And speaking of powerful…


10. Who Run The World? WEIRDOS. Nothing showed me how to let my geeker flag fly like Buffy did. As I watched the characters in the series grow more powerful, and also as I watched Joss Whedon, a self-proclaimed geek, become more successful, I truly understood that the things that kept me from fitting in are also the things that make me interesting, that make my work unique. Embrace the weirdness. You’ll be stronger for it.

Finally, I want to thank Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the cast, the crew, the writers, and Joss Whedon for creating a show that taught me so much and guided who I would become. And also, thank you to my husband, whose incessant nagging (I say this lovingly) led me to become an even bigger fan than he was. If you’re a writer and you haven’t watched this series, you need to check it out. As silly as it sounds on the surface, it truly is a television masterpiece.


Keep it Simple Stupid: What My Son and Twitter Taught Me About Writing

I can hear my son, Logan, shouting “Don’t say stupid!” in my head as I type this.  That might be the most important thing he’s taken away from my 3.5 years of parenting him.  Don’t say stupid.  You see, I am a potty mouth, and somehow Logan has only managed to pick out the word stupid from among the myriad creative ways I have found to swear or say otherwise nasty things in his presence.  (No, I am not a perfect parent, or a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination, and if there is one absolutely terrible parenting faux pas that I have committed, it is swearing in front of my son.)  Stupid is the only word he has repeated.  I taught him that word is forbidden after he called his friend stupid.  So he reminds me.  Every single time I say it.  Because for him, we live in a black and white world, words have good meanings and bad meanings and if he shouldn’t say stupid, then darn it, nobody else should.

That’s the way it should be.  As one of my favorite characters, the eponymous character Angel, once said, “We live as if the world is what it should be to show it what it can be.”  Except, that’s sort of impossible.  We can’t live in a world where we react to things as though evil and good were very easily divided into their corners because the grey areas are where the conflict lives and where the interesting essence of a story can be found.  There are great mountains of complexity to be found in the space between good and bad and that is more than enough to make people’s head spin.  Your reader can be entranced and confused and compelled by what you write because of that alone.

You don’t need extremely complex verbiage to do that work for you.  And despite what E.L. James may have taught you with “50 Shades of Grey”, you do not need to chew, swallow then vomit a thesaurus up to do so, either.  (I know I pick on her far too much, but all I can think of upon examining her work is a very enthusiastic and, still simplistic, “ARGH.”  The occasional book reviewer in me cringes.)

Watching Logan grow up and develop language of his own has provided me with an opportunity.  As he struggles to define and understand new words, I also struggle to put my own thoughts into words that he can understand.  If one fact can be distilled from that experience, it would be that language is important.  You may be thinking, “No s&^t, Sherlock!”  And to that I can only reply, “Told you about my potty mouth.”

Logan is not only constantly in search of the right words, but I’m always constantly in search of language economy – a way to explain my ideas in simple, effective sentences that are not ridiculously verbose.  Logan is also a hyper child, and when I try to explain things in roving, complicated sentences, he reacts by walking away from me.  Which is what readers often do if you present them with long, twisty sentences that look like a paragraph when you really could have said it in one line.

Oddly, my use of twitter has taught me something similar.  If you look at my twitter account, it is filled with #WIPquotes, or, quotes from my works in progress.  These usually get posted as I’m writing my story.  I write a line, I like it, I tweet it.  But often times, the line does not fit in the tweet.  Since I like to share, I really want to make that line tweetable.  (Language can also be invented – tweetable?)  So I will try to find better words to streamline the sentence, and in that way, most times, I make the line stronger.

It’s true, that talking to Logan usually means simplifying too much, unless I want to spend the next hour explaining the words that explain the words that explain the words, etc., etc., etc.   But the idea that sometimes the simplest explanation, the simplest phraseology, the simplest term, can often be the best is something that is often tossed aside in the pursuit of “prettier” language.

Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule – there are always reasons to go for the more complex terms, the more interesting turn of phrase.  The idea is always to strike a balance between the two so that your work becomes more well rounded and not too bogged down.

Any thoughts on this topic?  To any of my writer mothers out there – Any fun things you have learned about your work from your children? Share!

Theories of a Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung once said, “…in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche…there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

This theory that we all share one knowledge base, inherited from our ancestral lines, which we use as our resource when we do anything else, is nice, in a ‘We Are Family’ sorta way.  I once would have thought it was a crock, but lately, I’m not so sure.  Here are three examples of some ‘Are you kidding me?’ writing moments, that may prove Jung’s theory.  They will require that you trust me implicitly, because they are pretty unbelievable.

1) The Secret Circle Scene Swap – On my lunch break at work, I had a brilliant idea for a scene in the story I was developing, The Order of the Key.  That scene involved my two magickally inclined seventeen year old leads, Jacklyn and Kyp.  Kyp has known about his powers all his life and has some practice in using them, but his romantic interest, Jacklyn, is just learning that they even exist.  In an attempt to teach her more, the two travel out into the forest behind his house and do a little spell practice (or something that sounds less dirty than that just sounded…).  They have a romantic moment, and this scene ends up being the set up for their first kiss.  

I wrote this entire scene before I got home from work that day.  I came home so excited about it, that I literally forced my husband to read it.  He gave me notes on it and we discussed it.  Then we settled in to watch the premiere episode of The Secret Circle.  

About halfway through the episode, the main character, Cassie, freaks out about powers she has just discovered and runs out into the forest.  Her romantic lead, Adam, follows her trying to calm her down.  He shows her how to do a spell, which they perform together to perfect results.  And they ALMOST KISS…and I let out a bizarre little shriek as Ismael nudged me, wide eyed.  

Really?  REALLY?  I had just written this!  

The Secret Circle was based on a book series that I have never read.  Was that scene in the book?  I have no idea.  All I know is that show totally copied off of me.  Totally.  

2) Main Character Brain Plant: When I write, I usually have some physical model in mind for my main characters, that I use to help me nail down certain things about physical appearance in the initial, seed growing process of a story.  Usually, these things evolve over time, and I end up with a very different looking or behaving character than I went in with.  But what happened with Kyp Franklin when I was drawing him up has never happened to me before.  Kyp sort of arrived in my head fully formed.  He’s an arrogant hero with a perfect memory, who firmly believes he is capable of protecting anyone from anything despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  This alone gave me all kinds of ideas for his quirks, his mannerisms.  Physically, Kyp would need to be strong, but not overwhelmingly strong.  Jacklyn, the lead of the story, was the physical superhero out of this group, Kyp, the mental superhero.  So, while he should be tough (after all, he’s spent his whole life training to fight), he shouldn’t be muscle-bound.  As for his face…it just seemed to arrive in my brain.  I had no idea where it came from, but as I wrote, I could see this person in my head.  

Fast forward to a year and a half after Kyp had been created.  A trailer had been released for the movie adaptation of a series that I have something of a love/hate relationship with, The Mortal Instruments.  I watched the movie trailer with excitement, to see how my two favorite characters, Simon and Alec, would be portrayed.  

Alec appeared and he was Kyp.  I mean, he is EXACTLY what I pictured in my head.  Only his eyes are wrong – light when they should be dark.  Eagerly, I looked up this actor.  His name is Kevin Zegers, and while I believe I had seen him in passing before (I remember all of the critical acclaim behind his character in Transamerica), I had never seen anything with him in it before (at the time.  Lately I’ve been watching everything he’s ever been in – I have an obsessive personality), nothing to make me have such a very clear picture of him in my head.  We’re talking mannerisms, gestures, faces – I don’t know where he came from.  But I do know who I want to be casted in The Order of the Key movie, should there ever be one…

3) Joss Whedon / Stephenie Meyer / Guillermo Del Toro Wrote My Plot/Characters/ENTIRE BOOK SERIES.

Below please find a side by side comparison of stories that others came up with, and stories that I did, in explanation of the headline above.

a) Angel Plotline, by Joss Whedon: When Cordelia loses her memory, her friends lie to her in an attempt to keep her calm, but the lie unravels spectacularly when the heroine is attacked by the very creatures that supposedly never existed.


Rebirth Plotline (part of the scrapped trilogy mentioned here: When the heroine loses her memory, her friends lie to her in an attempt to keep her calm, but the lie unravels spectacularly when the heroine is attacked by the very creatures that supposedly never existed.  Nope.  Not joking.  Exactly this.

b) The Host, by Stephenie Meyer: The heroine, named Melanie, is infected by an alien parasite but it is unable to fully take over.  She ends up sharing her world with this alien being, but her infection separates her from the love of her life, and when she finds him again, he is a member of the resistance against the aliens, and said alien causes complications in any attempts at rebuilding a relationship between them.  Ian O’Shea, a friend, has a strong dislike for the alien, but eventually grows to care about it.


Dark Galaxy, by Justine Manzano – The heroine, named Melinda, is infected by an alien parasite, but it is unable to fully take over.  She ends up sharing her world with it, but her infection separates her from the love of her life, Shamus, and when she finds him again, he is a member of the resistance against the aliens, goes by the name of Shay, and said alien causes complications in any attempts at rebuilding a relationship between them.  Bobby, a friend, has a strong dislike for the alien, but eventually grows to care about it.  Still not joking.  I’ve been working on and off on this story for 5 years.  

c) The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan: – Civilization is taken over by vampires.


Eclipse (the scrapped story Ismael and I were discussing here: The island of Manhattan is isolated and overtaken by vampires.  The discovery of The Strain may have been the final nail in Eclipse’s coffin.

Evidence enough of a Collective Unconsciousness?  Well, to me, it’s either that or there are bugs planted around my house, mining for ideas.  But I’m not in the market for a tinfoil hat yet.  I’ll go with the psychologist’s theory instead.

Has this ever happened to any of you readers?  Post about it in the comments.