Why We Write

January 16, 2008

Why We Write – Number 19: Jane Espenson

Number 19

Today’s piece is written by Jane Espenson, writer for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Co-Executive Producer of “Battlestar Gallactica.” 


I had a lot of Barbie dolls when I was a kid.  Close to a dozen, I think.  I remember that I loved them, but looking back, I’m not sure why.  I knew at the time, vaguely, that I was supposed to make up stories and act them out with the dolls, and I actually remember trying to do that, and failing.  The problem was that I didn’t know these girls.  I didn’t know their backgrounds, their quirks, what distinguished one from the other.  I didn’t get the premise of how eleven identical ludicrously-shaped teenagers had met.  But most of all, I didn’t know their voices.  Without that, I was uninspired.

The dolls I REALLY played with were the characters from M*A*S*H and Welcome Back Kotter and Barney Miller and The Odd Couple and The Love Boat and Starsky and Hutch.  I would fall asleep making up stories for those shows in my head.  But I was a brutal audience.  I couldn’t enjoy the made-up stories if I couldn’t make myself believe them.  And I couldn’t believe them if the voices weren’t right. 

So I would keep tinkering, reworking the same scene over and over in my mind every night until I could hear it.  I assume that I was doing the same thing that impersonators do when they learn to take on the voices of others.  I was just doing it silently.

I’m not old enough to have gotten my start writing for the radio. But I wrote as if I did.  Because I was so focused on the word, the image meant less to me.  I’ve since learned the power of the image, but deep in my heart, finding the exact right word for that character is still, to this day, the most important thing.

Even now, when I’m stuck on a line, I’ll lie down in a quiet room.  And I’ll listen, just like I did when I was ten.  If I’m lucky, I’ll hear the line.  Heck, I’ll hear the whole scene.  Then I just have to type it.  Note that this is why I don’t write at The Coffee Bean.  It’s not quiet enough and they don’t let you lie down.

I’ve been lucky, during my working life, to get to write for Ellen, Buffy, Lorelei, Starbuck and so many more unique characters.  Getting to step into their voices has been incredibly fulfilling.   The fact that Buffy has continued beyond its televised run into the world of comic books is amazing and wonderful to me.  Her voice lives on.  Starbuck, of course, has also not finished saying what she has to say.  When a fair agreement is reached, I look forward to listening to more of what she has to say.  And writing it down.

Are there kids out there somewhere now, writing lines for Apollo and Starbuck in their heads as they fall asleep?  Am I not so strange that there can be other kids like me?  I hope so.  And I hope when those kids start pursuing careers, that there’s one here waiting for them.



WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.


  1. I just found Buffy in 2007. I spent the entire year watching the full series while also watching my best friend die from cancer. I want to thank you for, as mirrored by a previous poster, allowing me a beautiful reprieve. Your work on that show, and the shows that have followed, is greatly appreciated.

    Comment by Kellie — January 16, 2008 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  2. Jane,
    Thank you for a wonderful post. I’ve always loved your writing (both on the tv and my computer screen) and just wanted to tell you that finding a voice (whether it’s a character’s – which I don’t do regularly, or my own) is something shows like Buffy and Gilmore Girls really taught me.
    So, thank you 🙂

    Comment by Manuel B — January 16, 2008 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  3. […] Richard Selzer, TV, writing trackback One of my favorite [TV] writers, Jane Espenson, writes about why she writes. Jane rules. I have no aspirations to be a television writer, but I still enjoy the way Espenson […]

    Pingback by See Jane Write « The Painful Nowning Process — January 16, 2008 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  4. I appreciate and sympathize with your comment regarding the voice of those characters you’ve written for, both as a part of your career and in your mind. For me, it’s rare to hear the voice of my own character as an actual voice, but I’m struck by those instances when a piece of fiction is adapted to film or television, and the voices of the actors chosen so closely resembles that inner voice the fiction itself brings to mind. Can we imagine another voice than Morgan Freeman’s as Red in The Shawshank Redemption, or Mia Farrow in The Last Unicorn? I think not.

    Comment by sedgehammer — January 16, 2008 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

  5. […] fans will enjoy Jane Espenson’s essay about her childhood dolls and how she finds the voices of her […]

    Pingback by World Wide Wed(nesday) | ~ ramblings of a TV whore ~ — January 16, 2008 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  6. I’m a 39 year old man and I found Buffy around 2000-01, I think… I’m not sure anymore, but it was during a particularly trying time and I’ll be damned if it hasn’t become one of the most enduring obsessions I’ve ever had.

    I love it (and Joss and Jane and Marti) for the sophistication it brought to TV and for how realistic it portrayed grief.

    It amazes me that during the 5 seasons of 6 feet Under (which I do love) they were never able to portray death and grief with the depth of emotion and realism that Buffy did in “They Body” and the year that followed (BTVS Season 6 I thought was all about grief).

    Love ya Jane.

    Comment by hector — January 16, 2008 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  7. First and foremost: much love and fuzzy gratitude to you, O Jane. Your work has given me much joy.

    And no, you are not alone. Although I am about as far from being a professional writer as I am from piloting a raptor or turning my significant other into a troll, I, too, have spent many an hour trying to hear characters in my head. Starting with Star Trek as a kid, and continuing now as a nightly habit to help me drop off to sleep (sometimes Buffy, sometimes Jane Austen, sometimes Gosford Park, sometimes my own half-formed stuff), I need to hear those conversations and imagine those feelings and human responses to situations. I, too, am not so visual, although I can respond mightily to visuals on screen or on the page.

    And my thanks are owed just as mightily to those who don’t just stop with imagining, but really put fingers to keyboard and really have their visions come to print or broadcast. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You give me dreams, and you show me reality.

    Thank you.

    Comment by abracapokey — January 16, 2008 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  8. Jane – You certainly weren’t alone in the way your childhood imagination worked. Boys toys allowed a different perspective to crafting my own stories because I could watch the over-the-top cartoons they were based on – like GI Joe or Transformers or even the original Star Trek.

    That didn’t make crafting my own imaginative stories any easier, it just meant I knew when something was too fanciful or just not right for what I knew the character to be.

    Great piece and I, for one, can’t wait to hear what Starbuck still has to say.

    Comment by SC — January 16, 2008 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

  9. Jane, many kudos. As a sixteen-year-old female with aspirations to screenwriting, you have been one of my role models from my discovery of Buffy about a year ago. I am now on my fourth run through the series and am still finding it to be the most incredibly written television series ever produced. I too would make up stories for my Barbies, sending them on epic quests to rescue magic jewels. I write in my head all the time- it’s the only way I survive school, in fact. Your writing on Buffy in such episodes as Earshot and Intervention has helped me through some very tough personal times. You are my role model, as not only a female writer but a female writer in the fields of sci-fi and fantasy-exactly what I want to be. Thank you for being such an inspiration- I’m behind the writers 100%!

    Comment by Jamie — January 16, 2008 @ 8:13 pm | Reply

  10. I never had Barbies when I was growing up, but a friend gave me an action figure based on myself for Christmas and I started writing an online comic based on the action figure (it’s not a doll). I’ve never written a comic, but it has latched onto my imagination the way nothing else has for a very long time.

    Comment by Rose — January 16, 2008 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  11. I really loved this. I spent a lot of time making up stories for The Equalizer (that’s a way to date myself, isn’t it?) and Law & Order and all sorts of characters in my head when I was younger so I totally identify with this. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Brittany — January 16, 2008 @ 11:07 pm | Reply

  12. Can I thank you on the behalf of my brother for Buffy? 🙂 I on the other hand would like to thank you profusely on Starbuck 🙂

    Comment by bertas — January 20, 2008 @ 12:19 am | Reply

  13. Nice blog site, keep up the good work. Im a fan of Buffy!

    Comment by Celebrity Impersonator Blog — January 20, 2008 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

  14. hello, i this it`s very good article, even if i didnt need a barby to play with 🙂

    Comment by טכנאי מחשבים — January 25, 2008 @ 12:50 am | Reply

  15. Thank you for your part on Buffy. That TV show means more to me than I can say.

    I suffer from a severe neurological disease (ME/CFS), and when I found Buffy, some four years ago, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was in bed most of the time, severely fatigued and emotionally numb. The only thing that would make me feel was Buffy. I watched one episode a day, laughing and crying myself through, and then went back into the emotional void until the next day and the next episode.

    I found not only a great TV show, but a part of myself — I realized how much I love storytelling, which has taken my life in new directions.

    Still suffer from that pesky disease, but I had Buffy to help me through the darkest hour.

    Comment by Nicholas D — January 30, 2008 @ 8:17 am | Reply

  16. […] the writers of Buffy my love for that show and the dramatic circumstances under which I found it: (link) Thank you for your part on Buffy. That TV show means more to me than I can […]

    Pingback by Mythology » Blog Archive » Buffy — January 30, 2008 @ 8:32 am | Reply

  17. Nice assay . We all need to right more and express our feelings freely.

    Comment by טכנאי מחשבים — March 7, 2008 @ 9:39 am | Reply

  18. “Am I not so strange that there can be other kids like me?”

    Rest assure you are not strange at all.. Kids think differently than grownups and have a much reacher imagination and an amazing creativity.

    You are more connected to your true self and it’s great.

    Comment by Meitali — July 7, 2008 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

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    Comment by טכנאי מחשבים — August 3, 2008 @ 11:14 pm | Reply

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    Comment by סיאליס — May 22, 2009 @ 7:58 am | Reply

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    Comment by טכנאי מחשבים — December 26, 2009 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

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  38. […] Why We Write – Number 19: Jane Espenson « Why We WriteComment by bertas — January 20, 2008 @ 12:19 am | Reply … Why We Write – Number 53: Curtis Kheel … Why We Write – Number 52: Reader-Submitted Essay… […]

    Pingback by Number 19 | Worldcup2010balls — May 30, 2011 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

  39. just loved it

    Comment by gidon — June 22, 2011 @ 4:29 am | Reply

  40. היום המחשב הוא עניין מאוד אישי
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    Comment by טכנאי מחשבים — August 8, 2011 @ 3:59 am | Reply

  41. […] comment dans son cas le processus de création se passe. L’exemple le plus flagrant est dans le petit essai du site whywewrite. J’espère que vous avez apprécié cette nouvelle chronique et que vous […]

    Pingback by Focus sur…Jane Espenson | Les Plumes Asthmatiques — August 10, 2011 @ 1:08 am | Reply

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