Post 200: “I Fly Blind”

image descriptionAs I considered the 200-post benchmark for this blog and writing in general, I was inspired by the process of J. Michael Straczynski, creator and head writer of Babylon 5—arguably one of the best science fiction shows ever televised here in the States. It aired from 1993—1998. Note the key words one of. Many people have differing opinions about which shows belong in the top ten list of all time best. But some polls list the Hugo-award winning Babylon 5 at least in the top 10 or 25. It was “conceived as, fundamentally, a five-year story, a novel for television” (Wikipedia). This year, I started watching the show for the first time ever, thanks to Netflix. (Yes, I’m late to the party.) I just finished the third season.

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J+Michael+Straczynski+Premiere+Screen+Gems+nTpIdy6jbialOut of 110 episodes in the show’s run, Straczynski wrote an unprecedented 92! I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I love to watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries of TV shows and movies. I especially love listening to commentaries where a show’s creator dishes on how everything was done. Joe Straczynski is particularly forthcoming about Babylon 5. He doesn’t shy away from spoilers, so be warned if you’re planning to listen to his commentaries as you watch key episodes.

If you’re squirming right now because you’re not a fan of science fiction, let me reassure you: you don’t have to have a built-in appreciation for science fiction in order to learn something from this guy. In a commentary for one of the most anticipated episodes in the show’s five-year run—Z’ha’dum from season 3 (sorry; I can’t explain why it’s key without giving spoilers)—Straczynski provides a master class on writing. All of the quotes below have been transcribed from that commentary. First, he talks about his methodology:

The way I wrote this show is to put my cards out on the table every season. I told you, “Here’s what’s going to happen, but you won’t know how it’s going to happen, or why it’s going to happen, or what it’s going to mean.” And that to me is a great portion of the fun.

So, an author is the ultimate sleight-of-hand artist. But you knew that, didn’t you? It takes skill to tell a reader what’s going to happen, and yet surprise him or her with the how. This is why foreshadowing is an author’s best friend. In a sense, you’re hinting to a reader what’s going to happen, but not telling him or her how. Yet in visual media like Babylon 5, foreshadowing has to be shown through key images. This builds anticipation. But as Straczynski alluded to, you might know what’s coming, but you don’t know how or why. And that keeps you watching.

Straczynski then moved on to a discussion of plots and outlines. This quote really resonated with me:

Plots almost don’t matter. Effects don’t matter. Wardrobe doesn’t matter. Technology doesn’t matter. What matters is what William Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself.

Since stories are about people, a character’s emotional arc matters. As Straczynski has mentioned in other commentaries, viewers need to have a connection to the characters and their desires. A story resonates with us on an emotional level if we can relate to what the characters want and the forces that keep the characters from attaining their desires. What Babylon 5 does brilliantly is showcase characters who gain what they want and deeply regret that they did. We can all identify with that.

Straczynski followed up that discussion with a quote that warmed my pantser heart:

I don’t write from outlines. After the end of the first season, Warner [Brothers Domestic Television] stopped asking me for outlines. . . . I sit down with a script, get into the scene, and say, “Where do I want to go with this?” And I listen to the characters and write down what they say. I fly blind. I know where I want to go in general with this story, and what the benchmarks are per episode, but whenever there’s a character like [name cut due to spoiler] talking right now, whatever [this person] says is a surprise to me while I write it as it is to you to hear for the first time.

Please don’t come away with the mistaken notion that Straczynski is against outlining. As he mentioned in this commentary and others for the show, he had a five-year plan for the show. So he started off with an outline. He stopped having to write them for the episodes, because he already knew where he wanted to go with the show and each character’s arc.

“I fly blind.” That’s an apt description of me as I write each post for this blog. 🙂 I’m not like J. Michael Straczynski: a writer with a five-year plan. I simply wanted to write about what interests me—what I love. But as a novelist, my process is evolving. For my latest novel, I wrote an outline years ago. As I completed the draft of the novel, I had to throw out parts of the outline, and essentially fly blind as I listened to the characters and learned more about them. But you know what? I ended up in the exact place where I’d planned to end up.

So, to wrap this up in a neat little bow, my plan for the blog is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: writing what interests me and interviewing people who write about what interests them. Thanks for coming along with me on the journey.

Babylon 5 logo image from bolumrehberi.com. Joe Straczynski photo from zimbio.com.

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41 thoughts on “Post 200: “I Fly Blind”

  1. Thank you L. Glad to have discovered your blog. It always gives me something to think about as I munch my cornflakes. As for B5 and Straczynski – really enjoyed the series when it aired over here. One thing that puzzles me as a writer is all this talk of ‘listening to characters’. It always sounds like the writer is somehow possessed by his or her own creations and they take the writer unwillingly or unwittingly on some mystical journey across the page.
    I always think this is a fancy way of saying – we make stuff up. But like that’s not good enough for the non-writer to hear. Our magical, alchemistic process has to be more special.
    People always ask that dumb question when they find out you’re a writer, ‘where do you get your ideas?’ To which, depending on my level of irritation (caused by social factors I cannot control) I usually answer –
    ‘On line. There’s thousands of pages of free ideas that writers can just google.’
    ‘Really?’
    ‘Yeah, it’s great, we never have to make up anything.’
    That’s usually enough to end the conversation. Unless they realise I’m messing with them, then we could have a proper conversation about creativity, the imagination, the complexity of the human brain etc. And as I don’t usually want to talk about writing, when I’m in the middle of writing something, it’s a great door closer.
    I’m getting meaner in my old age!
    I suppose what you must mean is that you detach enough from yourself as you’re writing, to ‘inhabit’ your imaginary character’s mind/world, which yields better results?
    If so, why is this? When everything we create is just an extension of us and our own imagination, why do we have to ‘trick’ ourselves this way? Is it really that difficult to be so immersed in your own imagination?
    It’s no problem for me. My wife will often say to me, ‘John, you’re living in a fantasy world’. My answer is always ‘Yes, that’s what I do.’

    • Hi, John. You’re another great person I’ve met through the blog. Thanks for your great thoughts. I also live in a fantasy world and am cool with that.
      I know what you mean. It seems weird to say that a writer “listens” to characters who don’t exist in reality. Yes, we make stuff up. For me, the listening comes when I finally pay attention to what I’ve written about a character and stop trying to be “writerly.” For example, I wrote a paragraph with pretty sensory details and submitted it to my advisor who then pronounced it “crap.” She was right. I was supposed to be writing from a specific character’s perspective. But here I was describing the world the way I saw it. Totally ineffective. I needed to really get immersed in the world I was trying to convey.

      Sometimes it is difficult to get into my imagination. It takes a few steps for me sometimes. I have to shut off the television and shut off the events of the day and my reactions to said events. I have to slow down basically. Not always easy.

      • I’m trying a new approach (for me) to the novel I’m writing – using a ‘narrator’s voice’ to tie everything together, as there are many characters, human and animal that share the same journey. I’m finding it fun to have ‘the voice of god’ to set scenes and introduce back story stuff about characters as I introduce them into the main story flow. Of course, my ‘VOG’ narrator sets the tone and hopeful it’s one people will find amusing and interesting,as I’m taking a risk switching from the POV of different characters in the main story using this device.
        I don’t really know much about this method, as I’m self taught and don’t like to analyse stuff too much, but it seems like it’s working so far, as this draft is more coherent than the first! And I’m enjoying it.
        Anyway, I look forward to reading your book. Keep going. Keep believing. Keep on keeping on.

      • Good for you going the omniscient route. I think I’ll try that at some point. I have a fairy tale I’d like to write that would work with omniscience.

  2. Congrats on your two hundredth post! That’s pretty amazing.

    Flying blind is a nice way to put the fact that after a while you do have to let go and trust that you’ll land in the right place. Letting the story carry you, so to speak.

    And that’s a great plan for your blog, I think sometimes I overthink it, as far as what I *should* be writing about – I like the idea of keeping it simple and only writing about what interests you.

  3. Congrats on 200! I like how he mentions ‘plot almost doesn’t matter’. It really changes how you look at a story because you switch to characters and their inner travel. Wonder what would happen if you read a book twice. Once looking solely at the plot and the other looking solely at the character evolutions. Wonder how different it would be.

    • Thanks, Charles. Good question. I reread Sabriel by Garth Nix. It has a stellar plot and great characters. I looked at the characters and how Nix told the story through their eyes. Then I examined the plot. Everything is so tightly woven together. I think if Nix had spent more time on his main character’s angst, the tension would dissipate. On the other hand, if he hadn’t allowed some quieter moments where we could get to know the characters, we would feel like a ping-pong ball smacked between paddles. So, the book is a good example of how character and plot work together to make a pleasing whole.

      • That’s something I run into with my books. There are times that the characters’ personal journeys overshadow the main plot. For example, one of the romantic subplots takes the forefront a bit and I always fear it takes away from the story. It evolves the characters and hooks into the main plot a bit, but it’s a concern that readers might see it as pointless fluff. A lot of people don’t consider the evolution of a character outside of the main ‘quest’.

      • I agree with that. The romance aspect works when the character evolves in some way. I know some readers don’t like the romance, but it’s part of life! I have a bit of romance in my book. My characters are teens. A complete avoidance of the subject would seem odd.

      • It’s funny how some people shriek in rage when a romance turns up in a story. Yet, they also get angry when a character’s evolution is unbelievable because said character remains distant.

  4. I think your plan to go with the flow is a good plan 😀 It’s nice to be able to post about what interests you, rather than be stuck to a plan you might lose enthusiasm in.

  5. It doesn’t surprise me that you could “fly blind” but still end up where you planned…you are a true talent, Linda!
    Congratulations on your 200th post, that is quite an accomplishment. Here’s to 200 more!

    • Yes, he’s quite prolific. And I love Peter Jackson’s blogs and documentaries on the making of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

  6. Happy 200th! And what a worthy subject choice… Babylon 5 and Joss Whedon’s Battlestar Gallactica had similar conceptual structures and working patterns, which showed in their tight and consistent through lines. Thank you for transcribing these wonderful quotes for this edge of the writing world.

    • Thank you! Yes! And I enjoyed Battlestar Galactica, which I would say is probably the best sci-fi show ever. I can’t help seeing some of Babylon 5 in Battlestar.

  7. Wow, so impressed with Straczinsky’s process and ability to fly blind. Brilliant man. Happy 200 blogs to you Linda, so happy that you will be continuing to enlighten and entertain us they way you have been!

  8. Great blog L.! I love this show and I like the information you provide here. The characters really are what make this show and the process they go through is heartbreaking and exhilarating and inspiring.
    Its interesting how he “puts all of his cards on the table”. I really liked The Book Thief and how Zusak uses this technique as well.
    Its so awesome you are writing this. Happy 200th post!

    • Thanks, Colleen! If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have watched Babylon 5. So thank you for that! Thanks for the reminder of Markus Zusak. He’s so brilliant!

  9. Yay! Flying blind has served you well, Linda. Wonderful blog–as usual. Congratulations on the 200 mark!! I resonate with that method of writing–knowing the major points and flying blind in between.

  10. I fly blind through life. We all do, really. I guess that’s why it feels right to write that way, too. My first drafts become my outlines, even with the memoir I’m writing now. I have no idea where Andra of the Natchez Trace and her parents are going to want to end up, even though I know what happened. I don’t know which bits they think are truly important. I let them decide as I go along, and I’ll clean up the mess later.

  11. Way to go on number 200 Linda!! I like that you illustrate ‘not outlining’ doesn’t mean ‘not planning’. I’ve come to learn there is a difference and as I grow as a writer, I’m finding myself a bigger fan of planning than I am of outlining. I think the key is flexibility.

    • I agree, Phillip. There’s a time for planning and a time for letting instinct take over and winging it. I’ve grown to appreciate planning more. But I find that I have to let the plans go after awhile and go with my gut.

  12. Congratulations on #200!
    These are some really great things to think about with Story Telling. I know sometimes when I am editing drafts, I edit out the liveliness and fire of the first draft and have to go back a few steps. I’m glad to see that freshness in such an accomplished tv writer.

    • I’m with you there. I sometimes “overwrite” chapters. The old saying to “write hot, and edit cold” needs to be amended sometimes to “write hot, and edit with passion” so that we keep the fire burning!

  13. Thank you for such a meaty post. I love reading about ‘process’ as I come away with something to ponder along with realistic suggestions on ‘how to’ for my own application.
    Sounds like your ‘take away’ includes validation on your own approach towards writing; especially with your blog.
    Certainly with 200 quality posts under your belt, you can pants-it and see where your next 200 posts take you. 🙂
    peace

    • Thank you, Laura. Yes, accepting one’s process is the first step every writer needs to take. Not that we can’t grow and change. But we need to accept where we are and stop comparing ourselves with others.
      Peace to you!

  14. Yes, I think that is an important insight — that the plot and the other structural elements are really just a “delivery system” for the relatability of the piece, or for experiences the characters have that the audience can relate to.

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