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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Firefly

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Firefly

(or “The Real World Tells Stories Too”)

(And a hearty “welcome back!” to all the Joss Whedon fans who visited my blog!)

Whenever people try to describe Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’ to someone who hasn’t seen the series yet, the inevitable term they use is, “It’s a Western in space.” Which is true enough as far as it goes; any series that has an episode with the heroes smuggling cattle to another planet definitely earns the title “Western in space” pretty definitively. But when he came up with the idea for ‘Firefly’ and its storytelling engine (TV series are always very concerned with storytelling engines, because TV series look at 100 episodes as a minimum benchmark for success), Whedon didn’t just decide to combine the tropes of the Western genre with the tropes of the science-fiction genre. He used the reality of the American frontier, rather than the fiction of the Old West, as his model to create a storytelling engine.

Noticing how involves a quick history lesson. What we think of as “the Old West”, with gunslingers and bank robbers and grizzled settlers and sheriffs who were the only law in their town and madams with a heart of gold, et cetera, was a product primarily of the Civil War. There was settlement of the West prior to the Civil War, of course, but when the Confederacy collapsed, many of the former Confederate soldiers who didn’t want to live under a government they’d just spent four years fighting drifted westward, where the United States’ authority was minimal and they could use their military experience to make a living in a lot of not-particularly-legitimate ways. This meant living a lot rougher, but again, four years of being in a war had left them with different standards as to “civilized life” than the average person.

These semi-lawless veterans flooded into an already not particularly lawful part of the country that was still awash with gold prospectors and settlers who were also leaving the civilized parts of America for their own reasons (the Mormons also moved west into Utah during this period.) This created an unusually anti-authoritarian, sometimes violent society…one which was within the borders of the United States, and which the federal government had to tame if they wanted to truly become a continental government. (And one which, arguably, they never managed to completely conquer–many states in the western part of the US remain firmly libertarian and anti-authority, although the streak seems to have been put to positive uses for the most part.)

So this was the model that Whedon used for ‘Firefly’. The conflict between the Sino-American Alliance and the “Browncoats” (and note that Whedon has always been vague about the exact causes and ideals of the Browncoats–Mal, of course, simply says they were for “freedom”, but just about everyone thinks they’re fighting on the right side) is an analogy for the Civil War, and Mal is one of the many disaffected veterans of that war who moves out to the frontier. The societal model for ‘Firefly’ feels real because it is real. It’s got the kind of logic that’s been tested by history. Writers should never feel afraid to borrow from history, because it’s the only kind of plagarism that audiences admire. *rimshot*

Other elements of the Western in ‘Firefly’ are born out of economic logic. Sure, you could probably use a futuristic hover-buggy to ride around in, but if fuel is short, a horse is cheaper to feed. Laser pistols? A fancy toy for the rich, and a bullet kills just as sure as amplified and focused light. Why build tables out of wood instead of synthetics? Because it’s cheap and plentiful and we’ve been working with it for the entire length of human history, and we know how to do it. The tropes of the Western aren’t just there because Whedon thought they would look cool, they’re there because they make sense within the story. (The only real “Western trope” is the idea of the Reavers as frontier savages, and Whedon deliberately subverts the idea in order to avoid the uncomfortable subtext of racism that’s frequently present in Westerns.)

I’ve talked a lot about storytelling engines in this column (mainly because that’s what it’s about), but ‘Firefly’ does remind us that one of the quickest, easiest, most reliable storytelling engines comes from the world around us. Because the world is always full of stories, more than can ever possibly be told.


I miss firefly

me too… damn fox

And that is why I want to see Nathan Fillion as Jonah Hex.

Excellent analysis of this show.

Did I miss the Storytelling Engine?

I see a very good description of setting and background.

But I don’t see the engine, which from appearances was pretty limited, since the option in the movie was to kill several of the crew, introduce brand new characters to drive the story (and kill them) and to dumb the mysteries of the setting.

True. I think the engine, as such, is one familiar to anyone who’s played the TRAVELLER RPG- a crew on a tramp freighter takes “transport” jobs of dubious legality, often indulging in plain-old robbery and running into trouble on every planet.

I’m with Scavenger. Good article, nice history lesson, no engine.

“TV series look at 100 episodes as a minimum benchmark for success.” No, American TV series look at 100 episodes as a benchmark for success. Fawlty Towers only had 12 episodes and and the UK Office only had 14, and they’re both seen as widely successful. To think that 100 episodes is necessary to be a success seems to be mistaking quality for quantity, something that the very idea of storytelling engines could be guilty of itself. Plus the idea of basing a western on actual history rather than a cliched idea of it, the revisionist western, is now more of a cliche than the original, all Whedon invented was to a put a revisionist western in Space.

Ted, I think it’s “American TV Executives look at 100 episodes as a benchmark for success.” IIRC, 100 episodes is when a TV show becomes likely to go into syndication, which is where the long-term financial victory is….


Yeah you’re right, but to me that shows that it is a bad measure of success. Executives like a good storytelling engine because it’ll make a lot of money. If the whole point of storytelling is to make make money then why should we, as viewers, care about them. It seemed to me that John was completely uncritically taking the idea that quantity equals success in an artistic sense. If storytelling engines are merely a way of making a multitude of mediocre episodes then they seem a fairly artistically bankrupt. Personally I’d prefer less episodes of greater quality. To me a good storytelling engine, for the audience, is one that’ll make many good episodes, not just many episodes.

Bernard the Poet

November 19, 2008 at 4:54 am

“Fawlty Towers only had 12 episodes and and the UK Office only had 14, and they’re both seen as widely successful”

Frasier could have easily told its story in twelve episodes, so could Cheers. Friends might not have become ‘friends who sleep with each other’, if the writers hadn’t had to drag the show out for ten years.

Superman should have ended in Action Comics #12 (he could have married Lois). Then collected into book form, where it would now be considered a classic like Treasure Island or Black Beauty.

Of course, hundreds of millions of dollars would not have been made, but that is a small price for art.

Storytelling engines that can produce countless stories without: repetition, a drop in quality or dilution of character and setting, are rarer than gold.

Take Batman, he has been going for sixty eight years, so in theory he should have an excellent storytelling engine, but I don’t thnk he does. In the last twenty years we have had six Batman films, but the most commercially and critically successful ones have been about his origin or relationship to the Joker. Whenever a filmmaker has tried to broaden the story they have met with failure.

Thats because Batman’s story can be condensed to Batman Year One and the Dark Knight Returns – all the stories that occur between these two points are just padding.

The difference in styles between British and American production is so vast that I really didn’t think it needed explicating, but just to clarify, British productions can defray costs because the same actors and writers are used over multiple productions (something possible when you have one large government-funded production company.) While in America, costs have to be defrayed over the course of a production, and syndication has traditionally been essential in ever seeing a return on one’s investment. (DVDs have changed this model somewhat, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point where we’ll see a one-season series made to be released on DVD. Repeats are still where the money is, and it’s hard to sell repeats of a one-season series.)

As to the question of “financial vs artistic success”, I think that you need one to have the other. The BBC is freed from the question to a not-inconsiderable degree by the fact that they’re publicly funded (although the phrase, “It’s a waste of the licence fee” gets bandied around a lot by British viewers), but in America (where ‘Firefly’ was made, last I checked) having a string of commercial failures kind of impacts your ability to keep making future series, no matter how good they are. If you’re losing money, you won’t be able to keep doing your shows, and then you won’t have any kind of artistic success at all.

Obviously, everyone hopes they’re making good TV. Nobody ever sets out to do something average. But the idea that you have to do something short and limited to be any good is, I think, a self-limiting one; if I’ve gotten anything across in the ninety-something columns I’ve written for this series, I’d hope it would be the idea that a good set-up for a series can keep going for a long time without needing a “shake-up” or an “ending”, simply because the characters, places, people and things you’re telling stories about are interesting in and of themselves. Just because there have only been two good Batman movies doesn’t mean that there have only been two good Batman stories (in fact, the most recent and in my opinion best Batman movie wasn’t based on either of the two stories Bernard mentioned.)

“(something possible when you have one large government-funded production company.)”
John, that only applies to BBC-produced stuff… We do get an awful lot of other production companies that follow the American (commercially-funded) model… In fact, as I understand it, BBC America actually shows a lot of shows that weren’t produced by the BBC…

It’s simply that historically, a British “season” tends historically to be a lot shorter than an American one (on average, I would hazard a guess at about six episodes per series…)

Some interesting points being made here.

Bernard: Your examples seem like they would deprive us of the best bits of their respective lore. Those Superman stories seen as artistically valuable – “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Kingdom Come, All-Star, even DKR” would not exist if it had ceased publishing at #12. And actually, I don’t think it would be seen as a lost classic, I think it would have been seen as a passing fad that ended unremarkably. It took decades of people playing with the concept for it to reach it’s artistic high water marks. Similarly, if you define “padding” as unnecessary lengthing, well, Detective #27 is a self-contained story. In fact, your examples of the quintessential Batman stories wouldn’t exist without decades of stretching and testing the concept. Batman has gone from a executioner/vigilante to a light-hearted sci-fi hero to a campy goofball to the world’s greatest detective to a raging psychotic and back again. Filmmakers attempts to broaden the story may have failed, but by most reasonable standards, not all comic creators’ have. Each of these interpretations survived for at least ten years and was/is considered pretty successful, even definitive, by a large group of fans. To reduce all of these moments to two stories, by the same guy, no less, is to dismiss the creative contributions of dozens, maybe hundreds of respected industry talents as “padding.”

I think a 12-episode FRASIER wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying. As planned it was mostly just about Frasier not getting along with his dad- things like the Niles and Daphne subplot and Roz’s characterization and so on came out of subtle shifts in the writing over the years. There’s some merit to the longer-story approach.

John, I think you’re off base even with American TV. Cable TV makes television in 13 episode seasons for the most part. The Sopranos didn’t break 100 episodes, The Shield didn’t, Battlestar Galactica won’t.

American network TV still does the 22 weeks, hope for a 100 episode syndication kind of budgeting and that’s a holdover from the 1950s and 1960s when a sponsor bought a particular timeslot and you showed the same program in that slot all the time. But it’s less and less the case.

British television on the other hand never had this model to begin with, even on commercial TV, so they’ve always tended towards shorter seasons. The existence of the BBC has nothing to do with it except in that it prevented the American model taking hold because until the ’80s 2/3 of the channels were publically funded.

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