Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Joss Whedon's Dollhouse can teach novelists about hooking readers.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with my friend Andre, who used to make his living as a reader for television and film production companies, reading through teleplays and screenplays, looking for something that really grabbed him and that he thought might be worth passing along to the higher-ups for further exploration.

As is wont to happen when the two of us hang out together, the conversation turned to pop culture. Specifically, the new Joss Whedon project Dollhouse, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnae Eliza Dushku.

Now, if you follow pop culture in any way, it's no secret that Dollhouse has been a project fraught with problems. Several versions of the pilot were shot, screened and subsequently scrapped after test audiences came away confused or - worse - bored. Finally, nearly a year after the first viral marketing campaign for the series had been launched, and after persistent (but false) rumors that the show would be canceled before it even premiered, the much-anticipated pilot episode of Dollhouse aired. And viewers said "Meh." And viewers said "It's boring." And viewers said "This is gonna tank." Whedon assured viewers and critics that the show would really get going about seven episodes in, and that they just needed to stick with it.

Sure enough, this past Friday, the seventh episode aired and it was a doozy, everything a Joss Whedon fan could hope for. The show's premise finally seemed to come together.

And this was precisely Andre's problem with the show: that it took seven hours for the pacing of the show to start working. And that's just too damned long when you've only got thirteen episodes in the can, no promise of a second season and a producer who's already had one show yanked (Firefly) for exactly the same reason. Because the fact is most viewers aren't going to stick around long enough to make it to that seventh hour. Who has that kind of time to invest? So most of the potential audience for Dollhouse probably tuned out about four episodes ago.

Ideally, a new television series need to hit the ground running in the pilot episode, or the ratings will drop each week to the point that the network has no choice but to yank it mid-season. A couple of great pilot episodes that worked? The pilot for ER, which ended with Julianna Margolies' character attempting suicide. The pilot for The Shield, which ended with one undercover cop shooting another point blank in the face.

The average teleplay is about 60 pages long for a one-hour episode. So the writer has 60 pages, more or less, to grab the viewer and make them want to continue the journey for the rest of the television season.

And guess what?

As a novelist, you get about the same number of pages to grab agents and editors before we put your manuscript down and move onto the next one. Your writing may be gorgeous but if you can't grab us as readers, we simply don't have the time to be spending 120, 150, 200, 250 pages with your story in the hopes that it'll get better somewhere down the line.

Who says TV has to turn your brain to mush? =)


Joya said...

I really liked this entry! Bookmarking, and sharing with others who might find it useful. Thanks!

Richard said...

Really fantastic piece. I do NOT undestand how anyone working in television today -- given that network execs are known to axe shows that don't immediately get ratings -- could put a pilot on the air that does not instantly grab. It's ludicrous to tell audiences "well, stick with it 7 weeks." I think it MIGHT be a tad different in publishing if only because the reader has the book in hand and, if he's told by people, "it starts slow, but man, then it really gets going" they can kinda plow through the first boring segments immediately. Television, on the other hand, expects you to come back week after week.

C.J. Redwine said...

I like this comparison! I love the concept of Dollhouse and hung in there because I trusted Whedon but you're right--he needed to seduce his audience in hour one. I tell beginning writers they need to seduce their readers in the first chapter or no one but their mother will read on to chapter two.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...


Bill Cameron said...

Yep. I'm one of those who gave up on Dollhouse two or three episodes ago. And this is in spite of a massive man crush on Tahmoh. You saying episode seven "was a doozy" is too little, too late.

So, point well taken. With a novel, though, I'd suggest even 60 pages is too many.

Douglas L. Perry said...

Couldn't agree more. In fact I just wrote a post called Gripping Beginnings about this on a group writers blog called Adventures in Writing.

The post will show up tomorrow morning.

I think that Joss is making the classic well known writer mistake thinking that because he has the audience, he doesn't have to work on his beginnings. Don't copy him.

Moira Rogers - Bree said...

The thing that stays with me most about the first 4 episodes of Dollhouse is that I think you could start with episode 5 and not really have missed anything. The only people with character growth of any sort were the antagonists and the bad-guys-trying-to-do-good. I just don't think anything in those first four episodes taught me anything that couldn't be covered with, "It's a bunch of brainwashed people who get programmed to do assignments, but now one is starting to remember who she was."

It felt like starting in the wrong place to me. If I could open a book on page 100 and not have missed anything vital, I'd be pretty damn annoyed with the book.

The Ink Gypsy said...

Thanks for writing this. It's a well overdue discussion! Mr. Whedon has a huge following so can gamble a little but even so, he's lost a lot of potential fans along the way in this venture; possibly some old ones too. How he kept Fox and the notoriously skittish Execs on board is a mystery.

Obviously novelists are not given as much of a chance as pilots of shows are, in that readers won't usually persist reading for an hour before deciding whether or not to keep at it - let alone commit to buying another book. I'm presuming agents, by definition of their job, need to be even MORE discriminating.

Dollhouse may turn out to be amazing. Whatever the case, it's very arrogant to ask people to invest seven hours of viewing before 'deciding' whether they like it. It's like saying "read two of my books in this series - no questions asked - before you decide whether or not to buy another one"!

One has to wonder where the storytelling craft is here? Is it a case of too many cooks spoiled the broth (as happens so often in entertainment) so that even Mr. Whedon couldn't save it? Or is it a case where arrogance (or laziness) in storytelling approach has ruined a good idea?

Whatever the case, the debut of this show is at the very least a very vivid example of what NOT to do.

Cathy in AK said...

One thing Joss has going for him is an established fan base. As with a favorite author, we trust that the lead up to the "good" stuff will mean something in the long run, and we are willing to stick it out. Hopefully the network agrees, because the last two episodes were doozies and I do want more.

New viewers in particular, like new readers, may not hang in there long enough to reap the goodness.

Lesson learned.

Jennifer Astle said...

I want to be you when I grow up :).

Charlie said...

I stuck with the show and I'm glad I did. I saw potential and it kept me interested just enough to watch one more hour.
When I read, the first chapter has to make me want to read on. I won't invest time on something that doesn't pay off.

writtenwyrdd said...

I loved Firefly, loved Buffy--but Dollhouse bored me and I have never made it through a whole episode without falling asleep.

But I really appreciate what you are saying here about hooking readers. Dollhouse's premise is so cool, I really wanted to be hooked.

Adam Heine said...

"a producer who's already had one show yanked (Firefly) for exactly the same reason."

I thought Firefly was yanked (or unloved) because Fox aired the episodes completely out of order. I never saw it on TV, but I watched the DVD box set. I liked it at episode 1. Loved it by 2. And bought my own copy of the DVD's after seeing 3.

Adam Heine said...

Oh, right, forgot to say that this is a really good point, regardless of why Firefly was yanked :-)

Melissa said...

My understanding with Dollhouse was that the first four or so episodes were a compromise with the network. Fox had one vision of the show, Joss another and with Fox having the actual network and money, Joss had to give in somewhat and make those first episodes more stand alone.

It's really become an excellent show though, I hope viewers come back!

Anonymous said...

I could put up with a show building up over time, but you are right about Dollhouse. I stopped watching after three episodes. Nothing interesting was happening, and it didn't seem to be really building on anything substantial. You can't carry something on cool concept alone. There are numerous other good shows on tv right now to maintain my interest anyway, so something is really going to have to grab me to keep me watching. I suppose the same can be said for books too. Current fave shows: Lost, supernatural, Saving Grace, Life on Mars (bummed this show is done already), The Mentalist.

S. E. Ward said...

I'm not a Whedon fan by any stretch of imagination. I actively avoid anything the man has touched. I think you may have hit on one of the reasons why: it takes him too damned long to get to the point sometimes. I thought that with Buffy, and it sounds like he's gotten worse.

Keep in mind, that's not just seven hours he's asked people to give him as a buffer; it's seven weeks. He's asking for a habit. I won't stick with a dull story for seven chapters, much less seven weeks, if it doesn't interest me. I still have no interest in The Wheel of Time because the start is so slow (and I haven't really heard much that grabs me, save politics). Dollhouse has an interesting premise, but it's not going to be the Whedon show to draw me into the flock--if anything, that would have been Angel.

Jennifer said...

Excellent point, let's hope this gets back to Joss- and a few writers.

You know I almost deleted all the Doll House episodes from my DVR earlier today. I know it's Joss and everything, but this sort of pacing is what I'm pretty sure my drama teacher meant when he called something 'indulgent'.

WandererInGray said...

Nah. *shakes head* I don't have seven hours to invest in something that's boring on the off-chance it's going to get good.

I adore Whedon, but I was bored silly after the first ep of Dollhouse and haven't gone back for more.

Nice comparison, Colleen!


Anonymous said...

When I saw the title of this post on my blog reader I thought, "What? We are going to learn about pacing from Dollhouse? The most boring start ever?"

I sure am glad it was a lesson on what not to do. :)

christine tripp said...

I got that connection right away, between a new show grabbing the audience attention right off the bat and a book doing the same. I really had not thought of them in the same light but yes, of course they are both forms of entertainment and they must.
Seeing "Dollhouse" got me, in that Amy Acker is in this pilot and I just did a mock pic book cover for a new pilot with AA.
We can not, however lofty our ambitions, get away from the fact that this is a commercial business (and that is not a bad word)

Reba said...

The main problem I have with Dollhouse (other than the execrable third episode) is that I don't care about the main character at all. The only thing that has kept me watching - aside from the fact that my husband turns it on - is the minor characters, all of whom seem to be better actors than the lead. Much like novels, if the person I'm supposed to be rooting for isn't worth my time, I'm not going to get invested in her/his story.

Also, all the slutty outfits are surprising, considering Whedon's loud support for feminism. Sexy doesn't have to mean short skirts, and he should know that. Zoe from Firefly was sexy as hell, and you never saw her half-naked.

S.M.D. said...

I think there needs to be a distinction made between Firefly and Dollhouse (checked out of the latter at Ep. 4, because it was no longer worth my time, and only saw the former well after it went to DVD).
In Firefly, even though things took some time to get off the ground plotwise, at least the characters were interesting enough to keep you curious about who they were, what they would do, etc. You were willing to say "eh, we don't need answers now, because Mal and Jane and Zoey are keeping me entertained!
But that's not the case with Dollhouse. Echo is the most boring, pointless character to shove down our throats for more than one episode. She's a different person every episode, so you can't connect with her. The characters I cared about more were ones who hardly showed up on screen (the cop primarily). So, what you end up with are four episodes (for me) of "interesting concept, but about sick and tired of Echo and the repetitive crap" running through your head. Also, I am starting to agree with my friend that Whedon is obsessed with Dushku. She's not that great, and was actually pretty terrible in the ep where she sang.

So, meh. I love Firefly, but Dollhouse is a train wreck.

Anonymous said...

Ouch! So much hate for Dollhouse.

I never miss an ep. Of course, Joss Whedon is the man behind the curtain in my version of the Emerald City so I haven't missed any of his shows.

Great observation, Colleen. Truthfully, the only things the husband needed for a hook were over-the-knee socks and a Russian accent ("Dole-howz".)

Maybe a post on Castle (featuring another of my favorite Whedon alums) and the lesson we can learn about twisting a plot line until it goes fractal?

Maria Zannini said...

Excellent analysis. I study Whedon specifically for his brilliant characterizations, but I can learn just as much by his lack of pacing.

I wondered why Dollhouse failed to grab me and why it took so long for Firefly to make me care. (I LOVE SF, so that shouldn't have watered down my enthusiasm.)

And you are spot on with ER. I don't even like med shows but this one grabbed me from the first episode.

Thanks to you and Andre for some very astute observations.

Lisa Iriarte said...

Others beat me to it, but I wanted to chime in on Firefly. I haven't seen Dollhouse (too busy writing), but what got me about Firefly was the chemistry between the characters. It was palpable from episode one. It was cemented by episode two. Even if we weren't sure about the direction of the plot, the characters were so fabulous and the actors' chemistry so good, that we hung in there. And then the plot got interesting as well.

I think that says something else about novels and readers. The plot might not fall into place until later. But if it has something else fantastic going for it, like great characters or phenomenal world-building, many readers will stick around. It just needs something to be extremely well done, and of course, if it's more than one thing being doing well, that's all the better.

spyscribbler said...

Someone may have said this already, but... I don't even watch shows until they have two seasons under their belt. I HATE getting shows yanked from me. I'm just sick and tired of it. I'm not the only one, either; nearly everyone I talk to won't watch a show until it's "safe" from being yanked.

I think the way TV is doing it is failing. Some of the best and most brilliant shows are yanked, and very few are sticking.

The bottom line is that we need time to fall in love with characters. Sure, we need hooks to grab our attention, but we still need time to fall in love with characters. People watch series for the characters, not the hooks.

Execs need to give watchers a chance to a) trust the show is not going to be yanked; and b) fall in love with the characters.

I agree with what you said about novelists, though.

Beth said...

It was FOX's decision to make the first four to five episodes more "conventional," which is such an odd, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot choice. The viewers who stuck with the series are the ones who know Joss and had the patience to wait for what they knew was coming; the ones who dropped by the wayside are the very viewers FOX was hoping to hook with the formulaic and largely boring intro episodes.

As regards your post, I'm surprised to hear we get as many as 60 pages. I figure if the agent isn't hooked in the first five, it's curtains.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I really just have to chime in and say that while Joss's stories have always been slow burners, the slow pacing of the first five episodes (Dollhouse picked up with Epi 6 "Man on the Street") was mostly the decision of Fox. They essentially wanted five pilot episodes so that anyone could tune in over the course of five weeks and be able to grasp the concept.

While this probably seemed like a good idea on paper (a way to build an audience...missed epis one and two? No prob! Start with three!) the actual execution was seriously lacking. One pilot was enough, I didn't need five. However, I still enjoyed the story and was paid off nicely when Joss got back creative control at epi six.

I agree that a story must hook you and hook you fast, I think the thing Whedon is mostly at fault for is actually trusting Fox once again. I almost hope Dollhouse gets cancelled so that he can take his circus to the web and tell the stories he wants (I was hooked on Doctor Horrible in thirty seconds!)

Sherry said...

My thoughts exactly. I wanted to enjoy Dollhouse. I'm a big fan of SF and, frankly, I loved Firefly. But Dollhouse really doesn't track for me. It's not gripping. I watched this week's episode, and...yeah, still nothing. If there had been anything else on, I'd have watched that instead. Fortunately for Dollhouse, that time slot is TV wasteland.

And you're right, books are the same. I usually have several going at once, and if they don't grab me in the first few chapters, I'm done. If I have nothing else to read, I'll read rejected ones in the hope they get better, but they rarely really, the first chapters do tell the tale.

Julie Weathers said...

I agree completely.

I took my original opening to Surrey IWC and my two fave agents held up their hands to stop in three lines in. Granted, if you're reading the eye will probably want to keep going longer, but it was the sign of a major flaw.

I gasped and clutched my heart, then I went home and rewrote the beginning. I had taken the Barbara Rogan Next Level Workshop, which is excellent, and later sent her the new opening. She agreed it was MUCH stronger and did everything an opening needed to do.

The first one was pretty. The second one made the reader want to know what was going to happen next and how is the mc ever going to get out of this situation.

Best thing I could have ever had happen to me was having two agents I greatly respect let me know my opening was a snoozer.

I should have known that. I read, perhaps, five pages in the opening when deciding to buy a book. If those pages aren't great, the random pages I read and the blurb have to be flawless or I'm not going to buy.

Conjurae said...

If an editor or agent gets 60 pages into a novel, then finds it unraveling, I'd think that the writer either got lazy, or sidetracked, or possibly self-indulgent. I stopped reading the Wheel of Time six books deep when a certain character sidetracked me with nearly 30 pages...30 PAGES...of internal narrative. I shelved it.

Question for Ms. Lindsay: If writers clearly display a grasp of the craft of writing (story + writing) will you work with them and the story to bring it back online? (I've often read author's notes from published novels that extol both agent and editor for sticking with the writer and patiently guiding them through the troubled spots.)

Stockyard Queen said...

It's not just a matter of agents (or anybody else) not having the time to wade through 200 pages before getting hooked--the question is, why should you have to? If the author can't grab the reader faster than that, s/he isn't doing the subject justice.

John Baird said...

I want to love Dollhouse, but even after episode seven, I still find myself not caring. In fact, because they hit the 'reset' button on the operatives at the end of the episode, which means I'm in for more of what I'd seen the previous six weeks, I felt more like I'd been jerked around than hooked. A writer must manipulate his audience, but the audience must not see the strings.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere: "emulate The Simpsons, not Henry James". I guess that applies. Okay, I'm officially killing someone on page 59 of everyone of my manuscripts. That will solve the problem. (sigh)

usedbuyer 2.0 said...

Colleen, this is quite smartly put, and a point worth making. I do wonder though, on behalf of more serious writers that I love who seem incapable of "hooks," at least beyond the now neglected pleasures of language and invention, if the fate of some potential genius is really dependent entirely on such slap and tickle for agents and publishers? I wouldn't know anything about it, obviously, but is literary fiction really judged so relentlessly by plot? Educate your friend, the hopeless fuddy reader.

JeffV said...

Yeah, I'm with usedbuyer. The point is useful as a compartmentalized bit of technique, but the reason most (published) novels I see fail because they're too invested in the hook and there's nothing behind it except smoke and cotton candy.


Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

I live in the UK so no sign of the series here yet - did anyone watch the TV cartoon series 'Joe 90'? Obviously he's not as 'pretty' but the 'over-writing' seems familiar.

Kenny Celican said...

Thanks for the well thought out and informative post, Colleen.

I know starting slow is a killer, but not every story can start with 'he leapt from the exploding car, narrowly avoiding death and dismemberment'. What I was lacking was a concrete idea of how fast / slow a story needs to start. Since most shows I try to watch are culled at five and sixty minutes, that gives me a solid idea; in five minutes I need to show someone that there's something to be seen, in sixty minutes I need to give them a taste of that something.

Again, thanks. Excellent food for thought.

MrTact said...

I completely agree about Dollhouse. I dispute that Firefly had the same problem, though. I was salivating as of the time the guy in the bar says "Your coat's kind of a... brownish color," which is all of a minute and a half in. And when the guy at the end got kicked into the engine, I was done.

Don Gwinn said...

Soooo . . . . does that mean I should watch Dollhouse this week? I haven't watched since the pilot (on Hulu.) I guess I was one of those people who didn't get grabbed (and that's a hand-knitted Jayne hat on my head in my profile; I'm a Browncoat and proud, baby.)

Firefly grabbed me from the start and kept my interest, but I have a theory about that. I never watched it on television. I bought the DVD set because my friend raved about it, and on the DVD set, the episodes are in order and follow the actual story arc. FOX aired them out of order at haphazard times, and they also forced Whedon and Minear to rewrite the second episode into a near-farce comedy.

Those are Whedon's excuses; I haven't thought of any for my own work yet. :D

Rabid Fox said...

I must admit, after watching the first two episodes of this series, I quit. "Firefly" was a fantastic series while it lasted ... though, I unfortunately didn't become aware of it's existence until the final episode--Lousy Fox Network.

With "Dollhouse", I didn't have a touchstone with any of the characters or storylines. Maybe it's turned into a very watchable show, but with my TV viewing time at a minimum as it is, I'm just not in a hurry to watch it.

Great blog post. Kudos.