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ravenbell ([personal profile] ravenbell) wrote2010-01-14 10:25 pm

Some thoughts on Writing and Dollhouse

Some vague allusions to recent episodes of "Dollhouse" here, but they're not the main point of this post, so no worries if you're trying to avoid spoilers.

I've been happily enjoying the final stretch of episodes of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse," which has been prematurely canceled by FOX. The creators have gone the route of packing something like five years of story into the last ten episodes, so it's been really fun viewing keeping up with the breakneck pace of the plot as we approach the end - I feel like I'm getting massive payoff for all the hours I put in watching the so-so first season.

Last week's episode ended with a big, game-changing twist that apparently came out of the blue for some people. Today I ran across a discussion on ONTD over here (watch out for lots of spoilers) talking about an iO9 interview with Tim Minear, who wrote the episode. And I was really struck by the severe negative reaction to Minear revealing that the big twist wasn't something that had been planned out from the beginning of the show, but a development that had been worked out at the beginning of the current season. All sorts of accusations of "lazy writing" and "bad writing" are flying around.

I really don't understand the complaint at all. I mean, I really can't wrap my head around what the problem is here. I guess some fans have a sort of romanticized notion of writing serialized fiction where everything is laid out from the beginning, all your problems are worked out in advance, and you have a straightforward master plan to follow each and every step of the way with no foreseeable deviations. It sounds nice, but you know what? That's *NUTS.*

I'm sure some people actually do it like this, all neat and orderly and all, but when you consider the logistics of filmed serial entertainment, which is always subject to unforeseen constraints - actors coming and going, suits interfering, budgeting concerns, technical problems, location availability, and a million other things that go wrong on a daily basis, you have to have a certain degree of flexibility to get things done. And "Dollhouse," which barely got a renewal this year by the skin of its teeth, was CANCELED halfway through the season, and the writers lost NINE HOURS of screentime in which they could tell this story. We KNOW there had to be massive restructuring of the plot to get any sort of conclusive ending.

And really, how does it impact audience enjoyment if the big twist is something that was planned in advance or a spur-of-the-moment thing? If the writer hadn't told us we never would have known. Looking at the big twist in context with the plot-loving fic-writer part of my brain, I can definitely understand why they did it - Character X now has a backstory where he was previously kinda ill-defined, is no longer in a redundant role, and his implied actions actually fill in a bunch of previous gaps and inconsistencies that hadn't been dealt with yet. If you can figure out how to do that without all the major pre-planning, in a crunch, with the fans breathing down your neck, and do a damn good job of it - that is the OPPOSITE of bad writing. There's nothing sloppy or lazy about it.

What little I know of writing in serial format comes directly from my fanfic projects. Sure, I knew vaguely what was going to happen from week to week, but not how I was going to get there. A lot of it's a juggling act and a lot of it is problem solving. How do I set up this event? How do I reveal that information? Will the reader remember something that happened four installments ago? Do I have room for character development? And no matter how you plan, things change when you actually write. You find out that what you want might be out of character for someone, or there are developments you don't foresee emerging. And you figure out that THIS is going to work much better than THAT. And you can change your mind. And it's not a bad thing at all. I work best writing my way around obstacles, which is why I love prompt challenges so much.

Is the writing process the same for everyone? No. Does this approach seem to work for Tim Minear and the people behind "Dollhouse"? HELL yeah!