What makes Joss Whedon’s writing so good? Is it the way he can put a clever line in the mouth of a serious character in a tense situation and not ruin the mood?
Dominic: Did I miss anything?
Dewitt: Just the vodka, thank God. (Dollhouse, “Epitaph One”)
Is it the way he can dogpile a bunch of funny lines so that they just keep coming?
“Yes. Yes, this is a fertile land, and we will thrive.”
(as Stegosaurus) “We will rule over all this land, and we will call it… ‘This Land’.”
(as T-Rex) “I think we should call it…your grave!”
(Stegosaurus) “Ah, curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”
(T-Rex) “Ha ha HA! Mine is an evil laugh…now die!” (Firefly, “Serenity”)
Mal: You wanna run this ship?
Mal: Well…you can’t! (Serenity)
Or the way he can convey real meaning through silly nonsense?
Dr. Horrible: And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one.
Dr. Horrible: Like with pie. (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Act 2)
I think the main factor that makes his dialogue good is how purposefully he uses it. He doesn’t waste dialogue, stuffing in meaningless lines to fill slack moments. Every line is a joke or character development or plot explanation or a setup for something later, or, most commonly, several of the above. He layers the meaning deeply, even in seemingly frivolous moments.
Take the Dr. Horrible quote above. Yes, it’s silly. The flawed illustration, as if the existence of pie proved something about human character, is cleverly written. Then there’s the double meaning. Dr. Horrible is referring to Captain Hammer, who to all appearances doesn’t have any layers at all. But the line also applies to himself. The shy guy in the hoodie is a cover for the mad scientist in the lab coat, but–as revealed in the final moment of the show–underneath that, he’s still a shy guy in a hoodie.
And every line is like that. As a writer who often finds myself inserting filler dialogue and scenes that happen simply because I didn’t know what to put next, I am rather in awe of this skill. The viewer never feels like his or her time is being wasted, because every line is a reward. It’s the essence of what makes his shows so fun to watch.