Joss Whedon Story Tropes: Easy to Learn, Hard to Pull Off

Agent Coulson steps into the light in the opening moments of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Source: ScreenCrush)

Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) steps into the light in the opening moments of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Source: ScreenCrush)

by James Dunham

Watching Joss Whedon and company’s shows and films over the years, one easily picks up some relatively simple patterns of style and tone (so ubiquitous it’s fair to label them tropes), and some of these patterns— for example, the one-liner, the reversal of expectations—are so easy to imitate that people could flock to copy the Whedon brand using the same combination of tropes (and maybe they have—but if so, they haven’t succeeded often enough for this writer to notice).

Dominic Griffin’s recent Deadshirt article on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hints at the reasons the Whedon brand is difficult to successfully execute—even, occasionally, for Whedon and Co. themselves. So all is not as simple as it first appears.

Whedon and the Mutant Enemy crew hardly have the trademark on one-liners, but they have built a reputation of hitting spot-on, and with a unique, indefinable flair. In Dollhouse episode “True Believer,” Topher notices that a doll, who is effectively asexual when not loaded with a particular personality, shows visible arousal in a group shower. Questioned by his superiors about the disruption, he explains, in a brilliant double entendre, “Something came up.” In a classic Firefly moment, Jayne quips, “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I get and beat you with until you understand who’s in rutting command here.” Hilarious, even after multiple viewings.

As a counter-example, in a much-advertised moment from the first episode of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Ward says he’s “clearance level six” and knows Phil Coulson is dead, after which Coulson steps from the shadows and says, “Welcome to level seven.” He adds, as an afterthought, “I couldn’t resist that dark corner.” The timing was fine, the self-awareness is a clever touch, but somehow it falls a little flat. What gives?

Fran Kranz as Topher in Dollhouse

Fran Kranz as Topher in Dollhouse

Here’s the difference: In Dollhouse, Topher is visibly uncomfortable with the sexual subject matter, and struggles to find a euphemism for “someone got an erection.” (He settles on “man reaction.”) His pun is as awkward as it is funny. It arises from him, as a complicated person, rather than simply from the writer trying to be clever. In Jayne’s case, the hilarity of the “chain of command” line results from our expectation that Jayne is about to justify his actions with some parroted quotation about military structure. But he’s too clueless to do so cogently and settles for a even more half-baked explanation that to him nonetheless makes perfect sense. As with Topher, the joke arises from his personal limitations rather than from his wit. And that makes it effective both for its own sake and as an expression or even revelation of character.

In Coulson’s case, the joke is almost purely logical, a dramatic gesture (stepping from the shadows) that’s a little cliché. One can feel the writers trying to cover their tracks with the “couldn’t resist the dark corner” comment. But is Coulson really the kind of guy who can’t resist dramatic gestures? Oddly enough, yes, and it’s the third line of the joke which hits hardest: “I, um, think there’s a bulb out.” And this line works perfectly, much funnier than the previous two, because this isn’t about making a joke anymore — or at least not just about that — but about Coulson himself. His weakness for dramatic gestures makes him self-conscious. That little pause or hesitation (written here as “um”) makes it succeed. It reveals his uncertainty: perhaps the gesture was such an indulgence that people won’t take him seriously. Suddenly, as with Topher and Jayne, the joke reveals something about Coulson as a person. But the first two lines are merely clever, and thus more shallow and less effective.

For a writer, tying one-liners into character is a tricky business. Giving a character a joking personality isn’t enough, especially in an ensemble where everyone deserves a shot at the snarky comeback. But the cast can’t all be wiseacres, and their lines have to feel authentic and true to their personae. The examples above perhaps get at a deeper insight: many people make jokes to cover their flaws rather than to assert their wit. When writers focus on the latter, the jokes often fail because viewers don’t believe the characters would really say those lines. But viewers will believe in a character’s flaws and limitations.

Whedon and Co. also use the much grander “reversal of expectations” trope quite often. One of the most obvious is situational—setting the scene so that viewers understand a situation to be one way, only to have it revealed as completely different, sometimes the exact opposite. A few obvious examples:

Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) is in control in The Avengers.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) is in control in The Avengers.

The Avengers:

Black Widow sits tied to a chair while an intimidating man demands she answer his questions. Her phone rings, and she asks, annoyed, “Are you kidding? I’m working. I’m in the middle of an interrogation, this moron is giving me everything.”

The very first scene of Buffy:

A confident boy leads a scared girl into a supposedly haunted school. Because the boy is confident and the girl scared, viewers expect foul play: perhaps he’s a vampire, luring her in. Shock! She bares her fangs and assaults him.


Coulson and Ward prepare a truth serum to use on the recently-captured Skye, who has been refusing to tell them anything. Coulson shoots the serum into Ward and tells Skye to ask him anything she wants.

Sounds simple. Set the stage one way, then turn it around. Easier said than done. The Buffy example is the least complex: it’s a show opener, more about establishing the tone and style of the show than about character. And it works because viewers aren’t expecting a lot of character from anonymous horror casualties-to-be. The Avengers works on a higher level: the scene serves as viewers’ introduction to Black Widow, and establishes her as a smart woman in total control of the situation. Her annoyance at the phone call is a nice touch, letting viewers know she so completely pulls the strings here that she doesn’t even take her captors seriously. Admittedly, this isn’t quite a top-notch reversal, because the character it establishes is, at that point, still a trope herself, and it doesn’t reveal anything really human-feeling about her. Given that she’s a practically super-human character, that’s partly excusable, but it ultimately leans this reversal closer to “clever” than “great” because a great reversal can do so much more.

S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s truth-serum scene is actually the most complex of these three examples (which are just a few among many more throughout Whedon and Co.’s work) because it reveals an important character trait of Coulson’s: He’s willing to take unconventional risks, and to offend people like Ward, if it ultimately wins Skye’s cooperation. He’s showing Skye (and the viewers) his true colors—not those of a cold-hearted agent of authority willing to dehumanize captives (as the lead-up suggests), but those of a diplomat, willing to give a little in order to get something back, giving Skye a reason to trust him. As a bonus, viewers get a glimpse into Ward’s usually-censored thoughts, giving a much-needed, if short-lived, look inside his character, too. It doesn’t merely reverse the viewers’ expectations, but actively complicates the people involved.

This is the reason these tropes require so much work to do well: the tropes themselves aren’t the point. Sure, they enliven the story and make it fun, but at their best they do so incidentally, functioning first as an expression of character. Whenever the one-liner or the reversal exists primary for its own sake, viewers lose a deeper reason to care. Aspiring Whedonesque writers ought to take note: only after the writer has done the real work of creating truly complex characters can the tropes begin to shine—revealing that complexity (and often, vulnerability) in a way that also happens to be fun.

James Dunham usually writes stories and novels, but can’t help constantly analyzing books and TV from a writer’s perspective. He has an M.F.A. in Fiction from Bowling Green State University.

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