My Last, Best Hope for Mastering Structure

Babylon 5 pic 1Earlier this month, I wrote about how Star Trek ignited my passion for writing and gave me the push I needed to start committing words to paper at a young age. Not all my early work, however, was Star Trek fan fiction; I also produced a couple of short original pieces, as well as a 100,000-word novel in ninth grade called The Investigators. What all these works have in common is that they were very terrible, though each one improved on the one that came before.

There are a number of failings in these first works, but the main problem is that I didn’t have a handle on structure. My understanding of plotting could be reduced to this: the plot is the sequence of events that occur over the course of the novel. I mean, you can’t get any vaguer than that. If you read my first novels (I don’t recommend it), this is evidenced by the overall sense that I was making the story up as I went along. There were so thematic underpinnings, the twists and turns came out of nowhere and served no purpose beyond surprise, and the characters did not progress through meaningful arcs. Lots of stuff happened, but none of it told a story. The plot points were random; I may as well have written some plot ideas on playing cards, shuffled them together, then wrote the novel based on the order of the cards with no thought towards what would make sense or provoke an emotional response in the reader. The plot was just what happened-and it could be anything.

In 1998, however, at the age of fifteen, I was washing dishes at the restaurant where I worked when a coworker, Carole, asked me if I’d ever seen Babylon 5. The two of us shared a passion for Star Trek, which is what we talked about most often, but I had barely heard of Babylon 5, even though the show had just about completed its five-year run by that time. Carole had the first couple of seasons recorded on VHS, so one day she came to work with a bag full of tapes for me.

I took those tapes home and began to devour them.

Much has been written about the unevenness of Babylon 5. Especially in the first season, the acting was rough, the effects were cheaply produced, and the writing was… bumpy. Awkward, even. And yet I immediately fell in love with the show, because it was the first time I encountered a television series that was unabashedly serialized. It was a show that was intended to be viewed in order. Though individual episodes had beginnings, middles, and ends, Babylon 5 told a larger story that could only be fully appreciated and understood in the context of many seasons.

Since that time, Babylon 5 has been followed by dozens of serialized shows, so many in fact that heavy serialization has become the norm. However, in terms of structure and planning, no show, in my opinion, has ever surpassed the high standard established by Babylon 5. The show’s creator and main writer, J. Michael Straczynski, personally scripted 91 of the 110 episodes, and wrote the last three seasons entirely by himself, with the exception of one installment. This resulted in unbridled consistency. From the beginning, he knew where the story was going. He had a full series outline. Many shows’ writers have claimed to have known the end from the beginning (I’m looking at you, Lost and Battlestar Galactica), but Babylon 5 is the only show I’m aware of that proves its structural integrity by directly foreshadowing its later twists and turns right from the very start. Rewatching the show, with full knowledge of how the show progresses and ultimately concludes, allows its genius to be fully appreciated.

Structurally, Babylon 5 taught me to think ahead. It taught me to think about consequences. It taught me to think about the significance of the events of my story, even the very small events. In fact, the very small events in my stories often end up triggering very large events down the road, something which Babylon 5 excelled at.

It could be said that Straczynski planned his show almost too well, with the effect of producing uneven episodes which aren’t always much fun when viewed in isolation. The plot momentum of that show, however, is pretty overwhelming-in a good way. When it comes to understanding the importance of structure, Babylon 5 provides a master’s course.

5 responses on “My Last, Best Hope for Mastering Structure

  1. RD Meyer

    Babylon 5 was without doubt one of my most favorite shows and has provided much inspiration for my writing. Ever since I learned about the Battle of the Line and the mysterious Minbari surrender as they were on the verge of total victory, I was hooked. I must’ve come up with a dozen different scenarios on that one myself.

  2. Evan Braun Post author

    Indeed, when it comes to specific mysteries and characters, I could go on and on about the virtues of Babylon 5. Perhaps that will be a post, or series of posts, for another time!

  3. Misha

    I’ve never seen Babylon 5, but I do understand what you’re saying.

    Good plots aren’t about stuff happening to characters. It’s about the characters having to make choices and having those choices have repercussions that come back with even more choices until the end comes. Hmm… Now you have me thinking too.

  4. ChemistKen

    Babylon 5 will always be one of my favorite shows. I loved the foreshadowing that spanned multiple seasons. Too bad the show had to shift to TNT for the fifth season. Not knowing whether there was even going to be a fifth season really screwed up the storyline, requiring Straczynski to tie up the main plotline by the end of season four and turning the fifth season into a mess.

  5. Tonia Stout

    When allies of the Shadows seek revenge against Earth, President Sheridan seeks aid in the unlikeliest of places in order to save his world. While being a Babylon 5-film, it also sets up the spin-off Crusade, introducing the ship that this series is set on, two major characters, and its backplot.

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