As 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.
Out 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.