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Marginal Notes

Everything I need to know about Plot I learned from Buffy


A couple of weeks ago, a client told me one of his beta readers had said his book read like a comic book. I asked why that was a bad thing.

Granted, you don’t want your characters to be shallow caricatures or your plot to be mechanical and contrived, which is what many people mean by “reads like a comic book.” But all of this client’s characters were fully rounded and plausibly human. Even the psychopath who hunted people down in the woods had his vulnerable moments. And while his plot had problems, contrivance wasn’t one of them. I suspect his beta reader was complaining about the fact that his manuscript was an exciting adventure story.

Years ago, I stopped reading New Yorker fiction because I lost patience with beautifully written stories in which nothing much happens. For the sake of this article (oh, the sacrifices I make.), I picked up a recent issue to try again.

Joseph O’Neill’s “The Referees” tells the story of Rob, who has just returned to New York and is trying to get two character references so he can move into a co-op. We meet a lot of Rob’s former friends and get a good idea of who he is and what kind of life he’s led. He has a clear and engaging voice, and it’s hard not to like him despite his drawbacks. The story makes good use of some advanced techniques, like present-tense narration and a highly unreliable narrator. It also says some intriguing things about how we judge one another and ourselves. But by the end of the story Rob still has only one reference, which he wrote himself, and we don’t know if he gets the apartment or not. Maybe he’s changed by the experience. Maybe he’s not.

In short, nothing happens. It does it quite beautifully, but . . .

I understand why some people might love quality characterization and beautiful writing so much that they’re willing to read a story for these pleasures alone. But most readers need something more to keep them going. They want to hope that something good – or fear that something bad – will happen to characters they care about. They want to watch those characters take action to change their fates. They want to be surprised.

They want plot.

This hunger for plot is, I think, one reason comics and YA fiction, and the movies based on them, are so popular. The best practitioners of these arts know and value the power of story, and one of the best of these is Joss Whedon. He’s the force behind the current revival of the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, the Agents of Shield), but the work I know him for best is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Buffyverse (alert – abundant spoilers ahead), the series follows the adventures of Buffy Summers, a cheerleader at a small, Southern California High School who is also the Slayer. A Slayer is a young woman, always chosen after the last one dies, who gains enhanced strength and reflexes to fight the vampires and demons who leak into our world through Hellmouths – connections with other, less savory dimensions. Slayers are found and trained by a member of the Watchers Council, one of whom is Giles, the librarian at Buffy’s school – the local Hellmouth is under the library. For seven seasons Buffy, along with a group of friends (not all of them entirely human), did battle against a long series of creatures bent on the destruction of all that is good and wholesome in the world.

The series is as campy and fun as you might expect. But underneath the silliness lies a lot of effective, often brilliant storytelling. In fact, Whedon’s handling of Buffy shows how to create stories that are comic book (in the best sense) without deteriorating into cartoonishness.

For instance, Whedon is willing to portray good and evil in pretty stark terms. Buffy is good and vampires are bad, full stop. And given that morality in the real world is often more confused than this, many readers like to escape into a world where the choices are clearer. Whedon keeps this working because his morality, while always clear, is never simplistic. Good and evil are the sides, but characters sometimes switch sides or aren’t sure what side they’re on. Three long-term character arcs involved two vampires and a demon joining the good guys, and three others involved good characters going over to the dark side. And the fact that these arcs develop over years shows that the transition from good to evil or back is not easy or facile.

Whedon has never been afraid of high stakes tension, either. People’s lives are at risk every episode, and the world at large is at risk at least once per season – to the point that in one of the later seasons of the show, he poked fun at his own end-of-season-apocalypse with this exchange:

“It’s . . . it’s the end of the world.”

“Again?”

But even when the world is in danger and dark forces are at work, Whedon never loses sight of the characters’ personal, internal, intimate struggles. In the episode “Helpless,” Giles, who by then has become a substitute father for Buffy (her parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother), is driven by the Watchers Council to rob her of her powers and put her in deliberate danger. The Council has found that, at a certain point in their training, forcing a Slayer to rely on her own wit rather than her enhanced abilities helps her to fight more effectively and live longer. So Giles is acting for Buffy’s own good. But the betrayal breaks the trust that had formed between them, and that betrayal, rather than the vampire threatening to kill Buffy and her mother, is the real focus of the story.

Whedon never uses the conventions of the genre mindlessly and often works to confound them. At a critical moment in the episode “Passion,” one of the main characters, Jenny Calendar, is being pursued by a vampire through an empty school at night. It is the stereotypical horror-movie chase, with desperate races through darkened, echoing hallways, attempts to hide, sudden discovery, and renewed pursuit. You’re almost impatient for the moment when Jenny makes her final escape -- she is a main character, after all.

Then the vampire catches her and snaps her neck.

It is one of the most shocking moments in the series, and the shock comes in part because it plays against genre expectations.

I suspect that one reason typical New Yorker stories are so plot free is that, out of a fear of falling into cliché, they shy away from strong conflict, clear morality, and standard storytelling conventions. But if Whedon’s work shows anything, it’s that there’s absolutely no reason the basic elements of a sound plot can’t be combined with the virtues of the typical New Yorker story. After all, Shakespeare managed deft characterization and a brilliant use of language while telling some ripping good yarns, complete with swordfights and ghosts and witches that wouldn’t be out of place in the Buffyverse.

In “Normal Again,” an episode from the sixth season, Buffy is injected with venom during a fight with a demon -- and wakes up in a mental institution. There she learns that she had a complete breakdown and, for the last six years has been living in a delusional world in which she is a mythical being called the Slayer. The rest of the show cuts back and forth between the Buffyverse, in which her friends capture the demon to prepare an antidote to the venom, and the mental institution, where her doctors and parents try to find a way to keep her grounded in reality. Eventually, her psychiatrist tells her that her emotional connection to her imaginary friends is what’s keeping her in the delusional world. She genuinely loves these people who don’t exist.

At the climax of the show, Buffy traps her friends in a basement with the demon as a way of breaking free of her feelings for them. In the Buffyverse, she huddles in a corner, forcing herself not to intervene as they fight for their lives. In the mental institution, she struggles to stay with her parents despite everything that’s pulling her back. Then her mother, to encourage her, says she has to believe in herself. Buffy replies, “You’re right. Thank you. Good-bye.” And returns to the Buffyverse to rescue the people she loves.

If the thought of a delusional hero having to decide between sanity and the loss of passion sounds familiar, you may be remembering the end of Don Quixote. There, Alonso Quixano, after all of his delusional adventures as the Man of LaMancha, has finally recovered his sanity. But his friends try to persuade him to go mad again, to become Don Quixote once more, because as Buffy found, it’s better to be insane and live in a world with honor than remain sane in a world without it.

Many years ago, I read a National Lampoon article in which a group of New-Yorker-type writers kidnapped Frank W. Dixon, creator of the Hardy Boys series, and forced him to write plots for them. While that was, naturally, over the top parody, it might not be such a bad thing for New Yorker writers to explore the joys of the Buffyverse, and the brilliant storyteller behind it.