Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Action versus Explanation

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 Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards.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.

Action is what grabs an audience’s attention. Not every moment has to be heart-pounding adventure—and in a long work like an epic, moments of slower pacing and reflection are needed. And explanations are certainly necessary—especially with a complex multi-thread plot. But excessive explanation as the set-up can lead to readers either skimming through those parts, or worse, putting the entire book aside.

Many of the story threads in Babylon 5 are done this way—action first, explanation later. A good example is in the fourth season episode “Endgame.” Several episodes before that, Captain Sheridan had assigned Lyta and Dr. Franklin to a special task on Mars, to deliver some special cargo. Sheridan’s plan could have been explained before the action was implemented—and it would have been impactful as the audience reacts with shock.

But instead, the action proceeded with no further explanation than “Sheridan has a plan” and “special cargo going to Mars.” The audience stays alert for several episodes, following the adventures of Franklin and Lyta as they arrive on Mars with their cargo.

The audience learns at the same pace as the other supporting characters in this storyline just what this “cargo” is and what the plan entails. The viewers’ response of shock is intensified because they finally get the explanation as the climax is happening.

In this particular case, the explanation—using the Shadow-modified telepaths to disable enemy ships without destroying them—would have built anticipation as the audience waited to see those details played out. But told this way, the anticipation is much greater as the audience first finds out that the “cargo” is cryogenically-frozen telepaths, then waits some more to find out why Franklin and Lyta brought them to Mars. The mystery is part of the excitement.

Not every plot twist or climactic scene has to be done this way. In fact, a good balance of explanation-then-action and vice-versa can keep the audience from getting bored or predicting the next scene. Complicated epic plots require some degree of explanation—but mixing up the timing and method can be another way to keep readers engaged and wanting more.

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2 thoughts on “Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Action versus Explanation

  1. Excellent point regarding how a strong character is not always the same thing as good character. While I haven’t seen this series, I can think of numerous characters on other shows (and movies) where such rings true, from Gemma on Sons of Anarchy to Nucky on Boardwalk Empire. And despite being far from upstanding citizens, so to speak, we still like/love – or at least empathize with these (often lead) characters big time because of their strengths and leadership qualities.

    Many hugs & happy weekend wishes,
    ♥ Jessica

    Like

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