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Pairs and Plot Hooks

First aired: The Signal: Season 5, Episode 14
Written by Nick Edwards
Read by Nick Edwards

Pairs and Plot Hooks

One of the things we all love about Firefly and Serenity is the characters. Joss is very good at creating interesting characters that involve, entertain, even sometimes exasperate the audience, but who always create a lasting interest that sustains our attention. The fact that the stories are so damn good too helps of course, but it’s the characters, or more importantly the interaction between the characters that is probably one of the principle reasons we all like this show.

That’s kind of stating the obvious. Which it is…. but I think there is a bit more to it if you start looking a little deeper.

Telling a story is easy. Anyone can do it in some fashion, but telling a good story is more of an art. There are ways to build a story using particular common writer’s tools that anyone can learn to use. Routine, everyday tools of the trade, which even gifted and startlingly original writers will use on a regular basis.

That’s because they work.

Let’s take just 2 examples.

First, character pairs – and I don’t mean as couples, though that can work too of course. One way to deliberately create a dynamic between characters in a larger group, is to effectively create pairs of opposites. That is where 2 characters, which could be viewed as ostensibly fairly similar in their roles, actually have opposing characteristics. If we look at Firefly, we can see several examples of this technique.

Zoe and Jayne are both superficially the “muscle” of the crew, They are there to back up Mal with force if required. Mal will be involved with this too of course when it goes down, but with Zoe and Jayne, you can make a case for that, being their principle role. That of course is where the similarity ends. Zoe is generally very moral, Jayne, not so much. Zoe is disciplined, a legacy of her military background, whereas Jayne gets kind of excitable as to choice; in weapons at least. Zoe is in a stable loving relationship while Jayne doesn’t kiss them on the mouth. You see where I’m going with this.

You can play this game with just about any ensemble piece of drama.

Book and Inara are another pair. Here the distinctions are rather more subtle and in fact are much closer to similarities than identifiable differences. The obvious ones like Book’s vow of celibacy against Inara’s skilled, indeed professional, use of sex go without saying. But both approaches to sex come from a vocational choice and even have a spiritual aspect. Both have their religious beliefs, from very different traditions to be sure, but there is a shared respect and understanding that these are just 2 sides of the same coin. Joss quite consciously plays with the roles in the pilot where we have the man of god suffering a spiritual crisis and the professional courtesan acting as his confessor and even offering a blessing. Both characters have a number of mysteries concerned with them, though these must be very different. With Book and Inara, the pairing is quite deliberate to make them the thoughtful and spiritual part of Serenity’s crew and highlighting that this need not be due to similar backgrounds.

Wash and Kaylee are the heart of Serenity. Again, this character pairing is more subtle than our first example of Zoe and Jayne, but the contrasts and similarities are there as with Book and Inara. Both come from different backgrounds. Wash from a heavily industrialised and polluted world, Kaylee from a more rural, though technological setting. Wash entered flight school and extensively trained to gain his ability whereas Kaylee’s talent is raw and runs on pure insight and feeling. Yet both have a knack with machinery and can converse in highly technogeek language that is way beyond mere Captains. Both have a lighter hearted approach to life too, but Kaylee is the eternal naïve optimist willing to see the best in everyone, whereas Wash is more worldly and tempers his no doubt painfully earned scepticism with humour.

Simon and River of course come a as a package. But that’s about it. The differences are extreme with Simon all controlled and River as wild as a wild thing whose amygdala has been stripped. The sibling bond is at the heart of their story and you don’t need to delve any deeper. Of course, this all leaves Mal standing alone.

And that’s kind of the point.

In fact it’s one of the major plot hooks of the whole Firefly Verse.

The character pairing exercise is just one aspect of building a working group dynamic. Many other combinations can be argued for, but this is just one literary tool that Joss uses in giving us that ensemble vibe that he is so good at.

The plot hooks of course are just another tool in Mr Whedon’s considerable arsenal. Mal’s whole tragic/anti-hero/bitterness/redemption thing is something that we all find attractive and also familiar. Nothing wrong with that, it pulls us in and let’s the story unfold without having to go all expositiony to spell things out.

We get it.

The whole American Civil War parallel is another hook that works very well, as is the “tramp steamer crew just trying to make a living” situation that is the bedrock of Firefly. These are ideas quickly understood and empathised with and are hooks that the rest of the individual tales can be hung on.

I could go on trying to list some of the more obvious plot hooks that draw us to Firefly, but we’d be here all day, there are so many of them. The whole “fugitives from evil empire” thing with Simon and River, the repeated use of misdirection – Saffron being a prime example – to keep us on our toes as we follow the story, the whole western thing with horses and six shooters. These are all hooks, deliberately employed, that we gladly let ourselves be caught and dragged along by, while Joss weaves some truly entertaining and original stories around us as we watch.

I’ll leave you to think about what other hooks are there that are actually quite familiar if you think about it.

Or you could just sit back and let the Verse take you away without having to over-analyse it.

Firefly works both ways.

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