What Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me about writing

I was very fortunate when I was at university, because I was taught creative writing by Witi Ihimaera, author of The Whale Rider.  However, as it often the case, I didn’t really have the experience at that time to benefit as fully as I could from the process.  One piece of advice in particular that Witi gave me, that went completely over my head, was that “Your novel must have arcs.  You sow the seeds at the beginning, arc over the story, and pick it up and tie it all off at the end”.  (May not be an actual quote – it was over ten years ago).  Ah.  Exactly.  Earnest 21-year-old me nodded enthusiastically, asked for one explanation, still didn’t understand but gave up and hoped it wouldn’t affect her final mark (it didn’t.) 

Because I was too busy studying and worrying about marks during my high school years, I missed Buffy the Vampire Slayer the first time around.  However, in my mid-20s I saw Season 1 on special in an independent CD and DVD store and I thought I would give it a go.  I was mesmerised and went on to watch all seven series in rapid succession.  However, much to my surprise, I finally got what Witi was on about with the arc.  Season One – the idea of the Master is introduced.  Intervening episodes – he is mentioned from time to time, they have run-ins, but we, the viewer, are always aware that he’s there, in the background.  Final episodes – Buffy has to deal with the Master directly (no spoilers.  But it is good).  Start the idea at the background, let it “arc” over your entire work, and tie it in at the end for a satisfying conclusion and a unified whole.

And they say television rots your brain…


2 thoughts on “What Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me about writing

  1. The American TV season idea has many weaknesses, but I do like the arc notion when it’s used – also with the idea of sweeps weeks where within the season there are moments of high drama.

    This does mean sometimes that there are episodes which are barely even ‘filler’ (Bad Eggs from Buffy’s own Season 2)… but that’s only a limitation if you’re tied into a 22/24 episode season.

    The arc is also I think more effective than the ‘three act’ idea which is oftentimes a little too simplistic.

    On the Buffy theme, I consumed the first three seasons as quickly as I could (I remember running to the Sorting Office the day S3 part 3 was released because the postman hadn’t delivered it by eleven, only to discover it’d been delivered while I was going to the sorting office…) but Season 6 was such a lot of disappointing crap (esp. following the Riley and Dawn nonsense and all the Connor stuff in Angel) that I bowed out.

    To quote from the show: Colour me disappointed. It took me until last week to get over it enough (without even realising) to watch Firefly and Serenity. Which are awesome.

    1. I’m not sure having an arc necessarily excludes you from a three act structure. I definitely agree that the danger is filler – Supernatural is probably the worst for that (so… there are monsters that want to take over the world, and we are supposed to be in hiding? Okay, but, we have 42 minutes to fill so let’s have an adventure!)
      I actually didn’t mind Season 6 of Buffy, mostly because I was a bit low myself at the time and it was nice to see even superheroes had down moments (and Riley’s talk about the wheel that goes round was motivational). I really could have done without Season 7. I still haven’t seen seasons 3-5 of Angel.
      Firefly is good then? I’ve seen Serenity but never the original series.

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