This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.
The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.
A question that often plagues writers of every genre is “how do I begin the story?” This is more than just a question of choosing the perfect first sentence. It’s about deciding the most appropriate moment of the main character’s life and story to bring in the reader.
This can be especially challenging with an epic story, because, by its very nature, it has a history and long-range repercussions that may not actually be part of the main plot. How do you begin such a long story without giving a boring history lesson?
The Babylon 5 pilot episode begins with one of the main characters of the series, Londo, giving a brief narration. He explains that this is the beginning of the story of a new space station called Babylon 5, but the audience also learns that it’s really an ending—Babylon 5 is the last of the Babylon stations. Four other space stations and their missions went before this one, and those stories—as yet untold—are the foundation on which the current story is built.
Any truly epic story is always at the beginning, at the end, and somewhere in the middle, because plot threads and characters are intertwined across time or distance. There’s no catch-all answer to the question of “where do I begin my story”—each plot and set of characters are unique. A guideline to consider, though, is beginning with an upsetting of the status quo.
As lovely as it is for real life to pass along without upsets or disasters, it makes for a somewhat tedious story—especially if you’re wanting to tell a long-running saga. Quickly establishing the norm—and upsetting that norm—jumpstarts the action and introduces the audience into the minds of the characters.
In Babylon 5, Londo’s brief narration (notice my emphasis on brief—let’s avoid that boring history lesson) explains that this final Babylon station is dedicated to serving the interests of peace. (This also hints that maybe the previous four Babylon stations didn’t succeed at this mission of peace…but more on foreshadowing in a different post).
Upset the Norm
The norm is established during the first few minutes of the story, through narration and the characters interacting in the setting. This is a space station in neutral territory, serving as a peaceful free port for all cultures, several of whom are rebuilding after long and violent wars. Then the norm is upset—an assassination attempt, cultural misunderstandings, and a surprise attack. Babylon 5’s mission of peace is immediately put to the test. And thus a plot is born.
It should also be noted that while the problem is introduced right away, it is not every problem that ever will be in the plot of the entire epic. In a long saga or a series, there is usually one over-arching plot, and then any number of smaller plots that feed into the main theme of the story. It’s important to establish the main plot fairly quickly. It can then be developed, via subplots, side plots, and other storytelling threads, over the course of the tale.
In this example, the main plot is established immediately—a threat to intergalactic peace. Many other plots feed into this during the course of the series—the Shadows returning after a thousand-year hiatus, the Minbari government crumbling, the enslavement of the Narns, the dictatorship on Earth, and on and on.
But all of these are part of the main plot—war encroaching on peace—and that core concept is the plot that is revealed right away. All of those other plots are not even hinted at right at the beginning. That’s the point of an epic—all of these related plots need time to develop. Upset the status quo as soon as possible, but don’t throw in everything at once. The audience needs time to learn about the characters and situations involved so the impact of each new plot thread will be felt.
I’m not going to discuss world-building in this post, even though that’s a vital element to any fantasy or sci-fi epic. The norm of the world of Babylon 5 is established as quickly as the main theme of the plot. In the first ten minutes of the pilot, we know that it’s in the future, on a space station, and there are humans and aliens from countless cultures all living together. The depth of this world is revealed in more detail as time progresses.
The same can be done in the first few pages of a novel. Establish the basics of the norm—both the setting (world) and the situation. Then when the problem enters the picture, the reader can learn about the world at the same pace that they are learning about the characters and the plot—because both the characters and their world are part of the fixing of the problem.
The trilogy that I’m writing may or may not qualify as an “epic.” And hopefully I’ve followed these guidelines with my own beginning. I guess my critique partners and beta readers will let me know! Keep reading for the next few weeks—I’ll be writing about some more elements of telling an epic story.
“And so it begins.” – Kosh, “Chrysalis”