Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Serenity & Kissing Monsters

Go. See. This. Movie.

If you haven't seen the Firefly series that sort of ran on Fox, it won't matter. You'll be able to follow it with no problem. If you have seen the series, you'll be awed. No one and nothing is safe in Joss Whedon's world. Does it seem like there's a theme in my recent recommendations? It's something I keep noticing in the stories that move me to recommend them.

"Kissing the monster" is what my friends June and Andi call it. The author goes to her darkest places. She doesn't wimp out or pull back to protect characters she's come to love. She goes wherever the story leads, no matter how painful. She writes characters who have monsters to kiss, then makes them kiss those monsters, even if they die or face fates worse than death.

But kissing the monster isn't about "torturing your characters." A lot of writers I've talked with seem to take great delight in torturing their characters. Being mean. Making their lives miserable. But when you ask them why, you get a blank stare. Then they mumble something about conflict and making it interesting. The problem is that random character torture makes me angry with the writer. I don't want to watch senseless angst and gratuitous violence. I want to see strong motivation behind the characters not walking away from the fire the writer is putting them through. The more torture, the higher the stakes need to be. The reason it's a monster you're kissing is because it matters. If it didn't matter, it wouldn't hurt. It wouldn't be hard. We wouldn't care.

Joss Whedon knows how to kiss monsters. Five minutes into this film my green-eyed monster shows up and nudges me. I want to write that well. I know how hard it is to do that. It tears you up inside. Nonetheless, it's one of my aims as a writer--to write that honestly about the choices people make and the consequences of those choices. Kiss my monsters the way my favorite storytellers kiss theirs.

In Serenity there's a lot of monster-kissing. People face their biggest fears, their most dreaded scenarios, their darkest places. It's a roller-coaster ride, full of the special effects you expect in a science fiction film. If you've seen Firefly, you know there's physical danger. But this film has more. There's an emotional roller-coaster ride, too. The characters are in the kind of adrenaline-driven stress that brings out the deepest emotions in a person, and Whedon shows it all. This movie isn't about sweetness and light where everything is perfect in the end. There's both sorrow and joy here.

is an emotional roller coaster for the audience, too. You know the danger is real because you know Whedon doesn't protect his characters. Some of them will end up hurting. They get beat up, tossed around, and dead. Others end up hurting psychologically. People they love may be hurt or killed or betrayed. Nothing is off the table and we sit on the edge of our seats, hoping this or that thing won't happen. If it's a film or story cliche, it won't. He twists things around so you cannot predict exactly how anything will turn out. If you like being twisted inside out and upside down, you'll love this film.