Screenwriting Tip #103: The Joss Whedon Gambit
They say screenwriting is about “killing your babies.” They’re usually talking about cutting your favorite scenes, not maiming and killing your favorite characters. But when the Whedon Gambit’s done right, there’s nothing so emotionally crippling in all of cinema.
It’s called the Whedon Gambit because Joss Whedon is the master of this particular trick. If you’ve seen the first or last season of Angel, or if you’ve ever sat down to enjoy Serenity immediately after watching Firefly, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Hey, I still haven’t forgiven that callous bastard for the ending of Buffy’s sixth season. It’s gotten so bad that fans of Whedon’s work now go into automatic paroxysms of fear if two of his characters start exhibiting signs of happiness together, or worse still, profess love for each other. The fans know that means their chances of horrible, horrible death or disfigurement just increased exponentially.
But this technique isn’t unique to Whedon. Alfred Hitchcock designed the murder at the mid-point of Psycho to be a jarring, horrifying wake-up call that would throw the audience off balance. And if the books are anything to go by, HBO’s Game of Thrones is going to be one long, bloody festival of beloved character deaths.
Why do this? What possible gain can there be in brutally removing the audience’s favorite characters? It wakes them up, for one thing. If someone pauses the DVD—or drops your script—because they’re so shocked at what just happened… well, that’s exactly the kind of visceral emotional response you’re looking for. You got into this writing game so you could make audiences feel something, remember? Well, now they feel breathless and slightly sick. Congratulations (you monster).
Another reason is that it’s an amazing cliffhanger, act out or turning point. These kinds of pivotal events are probably just as emotionally scarring to the protagonist as they are to the audience, which makes them brilliant structural elements. In film, a Whedon Gambit makes for a great mid-point or Dark Point, while in television it makes a powerful act out for one of the later acts.
Finally, they get the story where it needs to go. Whedon famously says “give the audience what they need, not what they want”. He’s absolutely right. If you’ve ever seen a television show that panders to its audience’s whims by spotlighting and idolizing the ‘fan favorite’ characters, you know it’s not a pretty sight. Drama should always come first – not the audience’s feelings.