Years ago, I ran a blog called “Confluey,” where I posted musings about media, culture, and society. The blog never made it big or had more than five visitors per month, but it got me started writing on the Internet. What I remember most about the blog, though, is its name.
“Confluey” is a word used by the character Cordelia Chase, who was created by veteran TV screenwriter/producer/director Joss Whedon. She’s attempting to turn the noun “confluence” into an adjective, and it comes off as a real word. Whedon’s scripts are full of such neologisms, as well as a linguistic wit that’s become his signature style. Dubbed Whedonspeak, this blend of wordplay and snappy dialogue offers more than just entertaining television. It gives us valuable lessons in copywriting.
Copywriters are writers who compose ads, webpages, social media posts, and anything else meant to sell something. The world of marketing relies on copywriters to produce persuasive language. When you read something that convinces you to buy a product or sign up for a free trial, you can thank a copywriter.
So, what does this have to do with Joss Whedon? Well, whether you’re producing witty comebacks for the Slayer or snappy taglines for a business, you’re playing with words. Both Whedon and the best copywriters bend the rules just enough to stick in people’s memories. As a copywriter myself, I’ve realized the influence of Whedonspeak on my career.
I strive to create compelling copy that doesn’t sound like a regular old sales pitch. That means playing with words to make an amusing, memorable impact on the reader. Since I started my full-time career as a freelance writer, copywriting has grown from an occasional gig into something I do every day. Not to toot my own horn, but I garner a lot of praise for my work — and I have Joss Whedon to thank for that.
”Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”
This sentence, uttered by pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) is a favorite quote for many “Firefly” fans. It’s hilarious even out of context because it’s an aggressive exclamation that pairs an expected adjective with an unexpected one.
Great copywriters portray their subjects in unexpected ways. No one will be compelled to buy a product if it sounds like everything else on the market. Add
“I may be dead, but I’m still pretty.”
Whedonspeak is full of unexpected pairings like this awesome line, uttered by Buffy in the season one finale. This line plays upon the contrast between “dead” and “pretty.” (Plus, it’s unexpected for someone to refer to themselves as “dead.”) Buffy uses this sentence structure frequently. See also:
“It’s not like I’m quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots.”
Many successful taglines play on opposition. Indeed, Buffy’s line about her boots sounds like an advertising slogan. Consumers expect stylish things to be expensive, so by saying they’re affordable, you’re adding an element of surprise.
“Man, atonement’s a bitch.”
On “Angel” Season 2 Episode 17, the titular character plays on the clichéd phrase, “Life’s a bitch,” with his own raison d’etre: making up for his past sins. Buffy also plays on a common aphorism in the very first episode of Buffy, telling Willow to “Seize the moment, ’cause tomorrow you might be dead.” (See also: “It’s curtains for you, Dr. Horrible. Lacy, gently wafting curtains.” — Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog)
In copywriting, we often put a twist on typical phrases to grab people’s attention. We can play on established colloquialisms and expressions to tap into a sense of familiarity while adding that dose of the unexpected. That way, we don’t seem like we’re simply regurgitating past ideas. Rather, we’re positioning our topic as the fresh new take on an old classic — as Whedon himself does.
”You have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”
Never one to pull his punches, Giles says this to the lovestruck Wesley in Season Three Episode 20. It’s a hilarious metaphor that’s oddly specific. The line wouldn’t be as entertaining if he just said “scone,” or something that could actually have maturity. In fact, one starts to think a little too much about whether blueberry scones are more childish than other varieties of scones.
Copywriters can put this into action by using detailed, amusing metaphors to describe their subjects. Whether you’re writing a tagline or some copy for an email or ad, you can play with the readers’ preconceptions. Be specific and unexpected: generalized statements and clichés are boring!
Well, you’re just a regular Hans Christian Tarantino, aren’t you?
Lorne says this to Angel in Season 2 Episode 21 of Angel as the titular character regales a group of children with his tales of violence. It works because it plays upon two well-known names, yet drops an unexpected element: we’re expecting to hear “Anderson” after “Hans Christian,” yet “Tarantino” typically follows the name “Quentin,” which resembles “Christian.” It’s a seamless blend of the two names.
When in doubt, mix up parts of established clichés and colloquialisms. Think about ways that you can break apart and reconstruct what people typically say. That brings in a sense of familiarity yet also that crucial element of surprise that makes a sentence memorable.
”Big damn heroes.”
This is how Zoe describes the crew of Serenity, and it’s such a strong phrase that Firefly/Serenity fans around the world have adopted it as a slogan. (See also Jayne’s line “Time for some thrilling heroics.”) Notice that Whedon has a way of interrupting the normal flow of words, inserting “damn” for emphasis.
When in doubt, go for the adjectives that pack a punch. Think about slogans such as “finger-lickin’ good.” Again, it’s specific and elicits an emotional response. Both this slogan and Zoe’s line also have a nice rhythm. Notice the pairing of two one-syllable words with a two-syllable one, or vice versa. This pattern makes the phrase more memorable.
”I didn’t jump [to conclusions]. I took a tiny step, and there conclusions were.”
This sentence, uttered by Buffy in Season 2 Episode 15, might be one of the most cleverly Whedonesque of the series. First, she contrasts her words with a common expression (“jump” vs. “tiny step”), then she inverts the second part of the sentence. That is, she says “there conclusions were” rather than “there were conclusions.” Once again, this unexpected phrasing makes it humorous.
I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming, uh… text.
Whedon excels at playing upon root words. When Giles says this to Buffy in Season 2 Episode 11, he’s playing on the meaning of “subtext” to show that she’s letting her secrets spill out — which he expresses by removing the prefix “sub-.” Similarly, Cordelia coins the word “confluey” when she drops the noun ending “-ence” from “confluence” and adds the suffix “ey.” (See also: “It’s fruitless. No fruit for Buffy,” from Buffy 3.11)
Many slogans use similar words or a parallel sentence structure. The most famous might be “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.” Others break apart words to play upon, e.g. “When the world zigs, zag.”
”I aim to misbehave”
Perhaps one of the best-known lines from Serenity, this is basically Captain Mal’s motto. The sentence is well written because it’s relatively simple, with only one multisyllabic word. And the verbs are yet another unexpected pairing: “aim” and “misbehave” don’t usually appear in the same sentence.
If there’s one common theme to these brilliant sentences and what they mean for copywriting, it’s that you must embrace the unexpected. Think about popular slogans such as “Twist the cap to refreshment.” It’s action-oriented, yet written in a specific, unexpected way.
Joss Whedon’s writing (and the strategies and tone that he instills in his teams of writers) is highly recognizable, yet refreshing enough that each of his shows has a distinctive voice. When we look at his other work, such as Toy Story and The Avengers, we can clearly see his talents for wordplay and memorable quotes. Yet it’s on his TV shows that Whedon and his team really unlocked their potential for great dialogue and one-liners.
As a devoted and passionate writer, I am always looking to improve my craft, and I notice that I always produce better work after watching something that Joss Whedon wrote. I’d also say that my career as a writer owes a lot to my many hours watching Whedon’s shows… and that’s what I’d call confluey.
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