OMEC: Discuss Firefly with SL Huang

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There’s a fantastic essay by Hugo-winning writer John Chu about using non-English languages in English-language fiction. I come back to it every time I include multiple languages in a piece. John details the challenge of how “nonfluent readers must never feel as though something is missing but fluent readers must never feel as though anything is extraneous.”

The whole essay is very much worth reading, but there is one section I find myself thinking about during so many other creative circumstances as well, not just multilingual ones. And that’s the parallel story John tells about the composition of the musical Carousel:

The new theatrical orchestration of the Carousel Waltz obviously had to match Carousel‘s existing pit instrumentation, but Rodgers also needed an orchestration suitable for an upcoming concert performance. […] Rodgers wanted one orchestration which incorporated a set of additional instruments. Without those instruments, the instrumentation matched that of the Carousel pit. With those instruments, the instrumentation matched that of a concert orchestra.

The result had to be an orchestration that sounded complete and satisfying either way. Those additional instruments had to sound integral to the waltz when they were used. The waltz couldn’t sound like it’s missing something when they weren’t used.

Don Walker is quoted as saying, “This was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

I think about this story when I’m writing about anything some of my audience will have a background in and others won’t, like math. I also think about it when I’m writing sequels, or other books in the same universe—how it has to make sense to people who know nothing and also not bore people who’ve read everything.

And I think about it when watching the first two episodes of Firefly.

When the network declined to air episode 1, both episodes 1 and 2 had to act as a pilot episode, letting the audience know exactly what was going on with the world and exactly who the characters and relationships were. But they also had to function sequentially, so that on an eventual DVD release, it wouldn’t seem like episode 2 was repeating information.

And they had to do this using the media techniques of film—namely, dialogue and audiovisuals—to accomplish all of this exposition.

In my opinion, they do a smashing job of this. Whatever other criticisms can be made of Firefly, the fact that the first two episodes are both able to introduce and establish an enormous main cast of characters and relationships—in addition to the world they live in—is a heck of a feat. And it doesn’t feel at all repetitive.

When I think about writing those teleplays, I almost faint with how difficult it feels. In both, it’s specifically established that Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic and also that she’s the sunny heart of the crew. In both, it’s slipped into conversation that Zoe and Wash are married, without it seeming like an “as you know, Bob” bit of dialogue. In both episodes we get told very clearly that Book is a preacher, and in both episodes we’re also given hints of his mysterious past. We get the history of the world and Mal and Zoe’s role in the war and long history together, and we’re shown and told exactly what kind of world we’re signing up for. And with nine people who function as a found family, we get many, many relationships established, sometimes visually, sometimes through dialogue, sometimes both.

If I were to make a list of everything they were clearly trying to establish and squeeze into each of two different episodes, ones that had different stories but that also had to function as one following the other, and tried to write those…well, I’d melt into an intimidated mess. But Firefly manages to leverage the techniques of filmmaking to do all of this to great effect, without it being at all obvious to the casual viewer.

I could keep going with examples, but instead, I want people to come discuss it with me! How does Firefly do this level of establishment of character, story, relationships, and world, and do it twice, using the techniques of film? Come nerd out about it! Or about anything else Firefly-related or film-related you’d like to talk about!

Let’s get our geek on and tear apart exactly how those two episodes drew so many of us in so effectively.

Editor's Note: You can check out the forum topic here, but you'll need to log on to post. Personally I'm excited to talk about Firefly any chance I get! I look forward to seeing you there.