OMEC: Discuss Firefly with SL Huang

Editor's Note: You can check out the forum topic here, but you'll need to log on to post.

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.


Official Dream Foundry Media Exploration Club

Have you heard about the Dream Foundry’s first piece of recurring programming yet? No? Well, you’re in luck!

Over on the forums, we’re spinning up our official Media Exploration Club. We’re going to pick a theme and a variety of works from all the different formats the field covers, and then we’re going to talk about them. The discussion around theme selection is happening now; the current top contenders are “Transformation,” “Coming of Age,” and “Vulnerability.” If you’d like to have a say in that, swing by and make your preferences known.

This is a very cool and exciting project for us. We’ve been champing at the bit to launch this from the very beginning, and we’re super excited to have it be one of the first recurring programs we’re offering.  

Why are we doing this? So glad you asked!

“The arts” are one of those things where some things are universal, and some things are highly specific, and there’s a long tradition of fistfights (rhetorical and otherwise) over which is which. The fact is that all art shares a similarity in purpose and, so far at least, is by and for humans. The Romantics back in the nineteenth century all had a shared aesthetic, but they expressed it in everything from music to sculpture to poetry. The medium for their art didn’t matter so much as their interest in the way big, dramatic feelings and atmosphere can warp and shift otherwise realistic representations. The poets were talking to the painters and the composers, discussing and refining shared purpose, spurring each other on, and together producing one of the most exciting bodies of European art. (Or so says me, anyway.)

Very few people are fluent in all the mediums available. That isn’t just okay, that’s normal. But fluency isn’t required in order to appreciate a piece, even from an analytical, craft-driven perspective. A prose writer isn’t necessarily likely to have a hot tip about a Photoshop brush, but they could very well notice how the framing in a comic panel references another piece and what extra work that does for conveying the content of the panel. And if they don’t notice that on their own, they’re definitely in a position to learn a lot when somebody else points it out. After all, while the prose writer isn’t going to frame a visual image as part of their work, they certainly can echo structure and motif from prior work to good effect. Plus, they might someday wind up writing for comics, and knowing something about panel layout and design will suddenly be quite useful.

I could go on and list a dozen more scenarios for the kinds of craft discussions that could be useful to a variety of folks (narrative techniques for developing character sympathy as a template for compelling game mechanics, anybody?), but the proof is in the upcoming conversation. Come read, watch, listen, and play, then stay to talk. If the medium for that month isn’t one you can speak about, then ask questions. Insight into what catches somebody with a different background and perspective is the stuff of epiphany and inspiration. So come on, dive in, and join us for all the enticing conversation we have coming.