7 Tips for Surviving NaNoWriMo
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer
by Robyn Ryle
I would not have survived writing my dissertation without the help of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (My reward for reaching each writing goal was to watch another episode.) This cult television classic is even more helpful to those writing full-length fiction. As you’re hunkered down with your daily NaNoWriMo writing goal, consider a Buffy episode as a reward. It has the added bonus of teaching you some important writing lessons from a team of master storytellers.
1 Tara must die!
Kill your darlings.
We’ve all heard versions of this writing truism. Buffy creator Joss Whedon is rivaled perhaps only by George R.R. Martin in his willingness to kill off his characters. As fans, we’ve all felt the pain of losing someone in a book or favorite TV show. Why is this a good thing? Something has to be at stake in the world you are creating.
In one story I wrote, all the bad things that happened to my characters were in the past. This was good for me, as I only had to experience the aftermath of the suffering of people who I very much liked. It also meant that everything interesting was already over. Put your characters in danger, real danger, where lives (literally or metaphorically) are at stake. You’ll be surprised what you learn about your characters and how exciting it gets—for you as a writer, and for your readers, too.
2 Spike is smarter than Angel
Make your villains complex.
The world of Buffy fandom is divided between those who love Spike and those who love Angel, two of Buffy’s love interests. I am firmly in the Spike corner; Spike gets all the best lines.
In Buffy, the villains often know more than the good guys. The Mayor (Season Three’s “Big Bad”) explains to Buffy and Angel why their relationship is doomed. Dracula is the one who helps Buffy realize that she wants to know about the true nature of her slayer power. The scariest villains are the ones who are smarter than the heroes—who understand the heroes better than they understand themselves. If your villains are two-dimensional idiots, there’s not much for your hero to do.
3 “You are strange and off-putting.”
There is no throw-away dialogue.
Joss Whedon once called television “radio with pictures.” In television people spend most of their time talking. Dialogue is important. Don’t take it for granted. Every conversation is an opportunity for that perfect pearl of character-revealing dialogue. Every word is an opportunity to veer in a direction your readers didn’t expect you to go. The “strange and off-putting” quote is one line in a conversation between Dracula and Xander, where Dracula is turning Xander into his Renfield. It’s one sentence, but it stays with you. Every bit of dialogue in your story is an opportunity to shine.
4 Really, a musical episode?
Don’t be afraid to try something different.
Artists are sometimes punished for trying something different. The great ones don’t let that stop them. Why not a whole episode where no one can talk? Why not a musical? Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try writing a scene as nothing but dialogue. Then try writing it with no dialogue.
Lately, I’ve been playing with flash fiction. What would your novel look like if you had to reduce it to 1,000 words? Don’t forget that writing is play.
5 The First and Last Evil
Know where you’re going.
There’s a lot of debate about plotters versus pantsers. Do you plan out everything that’s going to happen in your novel ahead of time (plotter) or figure it out as you go along (pantser)? These debates sometimes miss the point. How you get there is less important than the end product. However it happens, your readers should have a sense that you knew where you were headed all along.
In the seven seasons Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on the air, you could see clues planted throughout about where the series was headed. The First Evil, which is the villain in the very last season of the show, makes its first appearance in Season Three. Every time you raise a question in your story, you make a promise to the reader that it will be answered. When you don’t follow up, your audience loses faith in your ability to tell a coherent story.
6 Why not a little sister?
Explore your characters.
A lot of fans thought Buffy “jumped the shark” when a little sister showed up out of the blue in Season Five. You can also see the introduction of Dawn, Buffy’s little sister, as an opportunity to reveal a different facet of Buffy’s character. What would happen if Buffy had a sibling? I’m not advocating that you invent siblings who turn out to be the magical embodiment of a key to another dimension in your novel, but you might think about how introducing new relationships can help you learn more about your main character.
7 Thumb wrestling
Show versus tell.
In one of the first episodes of Season Five, the Scooby gang, with Dawn in tow, discovers a dead body in the magic shop. Dawn is banished outside where she’s accosted by a crazy man who tells her she doesn’t belong. In a short span we have death, a verbal attack, and the feeling of being left out.
When Tara (also a new addition to the gang) comes to sit with Dawn, do they have a long discussion about their feelings? Do they explain at great length what it feels like to be on the outside looking in? No. They thumb wrestle. Unexpected, but the scene reveals a great deal about Tara and Dawn as characters. It’s a great example of balancing a scene of dramatic tension with lightness and humor. It’s also a textbook case for why showing is better than telling. Anyone can say they feel left out, but only the unique people Tara and Dawn are would use thumb wrestling to cope. ■
Robyn Ryle teaches sociology at a small liberal arts college in Indiana. She has published fiction and flash fiction in Pea River Journal and WhiskeyPaper. She is also the author of a sociology of gender textbook with SAGE Press, Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration (2014). She is a national speaker on the importance of place from a sociological perspective and writes about place and other topics on her blog, you-think-too-much.com. She lives in a 140-year-old home in Madison, Indiana, with her husband, step-daughter, and two peculiar cats.
Editors Note: An established television show is considered to have “jumped the shark” when it begins an unrecoverable decline, marked by character or plot events introduced to sustain interest. The expression refers to the episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie, on waterskis, literally jumps a shark.