Love Tropes in Stories

Even though Valentine’s Day was yesterday, I feel obligated to write a Valentines-ish post, just because. Even those of us who don’t call ourselves readers of the romance genre usually enjoy a good love story. So here are a few of my favorite couples from books/movies/shows, and the different types of loves stories they represent:

The Against-All-Odds Love – Sheridan and Delenn

This couple is from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, which I’ve blogged about many times, and which I hold up as one of the best examples of storytelling in any media. The main plot of the show is war, good versus evil, and the shades of gray in between. But there’s a little romance, too. Sheridan and Delenn have everything going against them: they’re busy leading an army, trying to save their respective governments, and dealing with cultural difficulties between the two of them because they are two different species. But they fall in love anyway, determine to make it work no matter what, and their unity makes them and those who follow them stronger for it.

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5 Things Watching Sci-Fi has Taught Me about Writing

It’s no great secret that my favorite genres to read and watch are fantasy and science fiction. I’ve actually watched a lot more sci-fi than I’ve read (unless you count comic books). But anyway, I’m doing this post as a follow-up to last week’s post about things that Star Trek has taught me about writing.

For this post, I’ll branch out, and draw examples from some of my favorite sci-fi TV shows ever: Babylon 5, Stargate (all the series, but mostly SG1), and Star Trek (all the series, but mostly TNG). And don’t worry if you haven’t seen all or any of these – my point is to illustrate how good writing is good writing, regardless.

Consistency in world-building is vital to believability

This is the most important thing that I’ve learned about writing. Whether you’re writing sci-fi or a YA contemporary romance, a short story or a 10-novel series, you must be consistent within the world of your story. Consistency helps create credibility and believability, even with a fantastical subject matter. In Star Trek, regardless of which series you’re watching, the ships always fly with a warp drive. This is one thing (of many) that the audience can always expect from any story set in the Star Trek world.

Characters are what truly make the story

Citizen G'Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he's also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Citizen G’Kar of Babylon 5 may be an exotic-looking alien, but he’s also a deeply complex, and surprisingly human, character.

Of course people watch sci-fi for all the special effects, the exotic aliens, and the epic space battles. And in books – sci-fi and otherwise – the adventures, snappy action, and rich settings are important. But without fully-developed characters, all you really have is a cool travel brochure of the world you’ve created. For a story, you need plot and characters. Readers and viewers need people they can connect with.

The three sci-fi shows I mentioned – Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Stargate – have no shortage of characters. What makes an engaging story is the relationships between the characters – their friendships, the different ways they handle challenges, their enemies, their likes and dislikes. In Babylon 5, the overarching plot is war encroaching on peace. But what makes the audience keep coming back for the next episode is not just the dramatic space battles and the epic story of the Army of Light versus the Shadows. It’s the characters who make up that Army of Light, the characters who have hopes and dreams and a reason to keep fighting. If the audience didn’t care about the characters, they wouldn’t care who won the war. Continue reading

Strong Women of Sci-Fi – Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5

This week I’m going to highlight one more strong female character from science fiction – and I have to discuss my favorite sci-fi show ever, Babylon 5. For anyone who’s watched Babylon 5, you would probably agree that the two main female leads – Susan Ivanova and Delenn – are strong women. But as much as I’d agree with you, and as much as I’d like to discuss either of those characters, I’m going to talk about the character of Lyta.

Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5

Lyta is a telepath, and she initially serves as the diplomatic aide to the enigmatic Ambassador Kosh of the Vorlon Empire. Throughout the story of Babylon 5, the Vorlons – at first allies, then enemies, but always mysterious – alter Lyta’s telepathic abilities. She becomes stronger than average telepaths, and by the end of the series she reveals that the Vorlons had intended to use her as a doomsday weapon in their war against the Shadows.

I believe that Lyta is a strong character, but unlike Delenn or even Ivanova, she has a negative character arc. At the beginning of the story she starts out “good,” as it were – she’s a good person, she wants to do the right thing, she readily sides with the Army of Light. But through both circumstances and her own poor decisions, her character arc descends from the positive to the negative. By the end, she is hated and feared by her friends, and she herself has become belligerent, distrustful, and a terrorist. Continue reading

Music and Dance and Predictable Plots: Storytelling at its Finest

I love a good story. And whenever I find a good story, whether it’s a book, a movie, a comic, or something else, I often try to analyze it to figure out what it was about the story that made it so good. I’d like to think that this practice has helped me as a writer and storyteller – if I know what makes someone else’s story good, then I can incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

One of my favorite examples to study is the 90s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5, which I have blogged about repeatedly. That is one of the best examples of epic fantasy storytelling, which is my first and biggest love when it comes to stories (to both read/watch and to write). But lately I’ve been absorbing a very different kind of storytelling: the musical comedy movies of the 1930s. 

No epic fantasy tales to be found here in these musical slapstick adventures. In fact, most of these films follow the same basic plot structure and feature the same kinds of characters and story elements or tropes. Original they’re not. So what makes them such good stories? 

Side note: most of the movies I’ve been watching are the films of the Marx Brothers, and the films starring the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I know there were plenty of dramatic and non-musical movies made in the 30s, but let’s save a discussion of King Kong or Gone with the Wind for another post.

Romance. This is really nothing new, and certainly not exclusive to the comedies of the 30s. But whether romance was a subplot (like in most of the Marx Brothers movies, since none of them played the romantic leads) or the main plot (as in most of Fred and Ginger’s movies), it’s an ever-present idea. Everyone loves a good love story – it’s one of the oldest and most universal storytelling ideas and it stands the test of time.

Music and dancing. Because, you know, these were musicals. Telling a story through music is also an old and universal idea. Music, like stories, has the power to communicate things about life that ordinary methods can’t match. Also, during this time period most Americans were suffering the effects, great or small, of the Great Depression. A story of happy romance and singing and dancing was more than entertainment – it was a needed respite from a crushing reality.

Archetypal character roles. Complex character development was not really big in these old movies. In fact, you always know the role and basic personality of every main character the moment they show up on screen: the dashing bachelor (Fred Astaire), the career gal with no interest in romance (Ginger Rogers), the crotchety but brilliant con man (Groucho Marx), the inept girl-chasers who wind up saving the day (Chico and Harpo Marx), and so forth. Of course this is largely due to the fact that in these movies I’m discussing, the actors had a “screen persona” that they carried throughout their movies. These stories were never intended to be rich, character-driven explorations of the human condition. The lighter elements of the story were the focus, so little time was spent developing complex characters.

Comedic storyline with predictable plot. Frequently the plot in these movies involved some sort of mistaken identity, with predictable hilarity and unrealistic results. I’m not sure why this was such a common idea, but I can see how this sort of plot would provide the audience with a sense of power, because they knew something the characters didn’t. To the average citizen during the Depression who was at the mercy of uncontrollable circumstances, a brief moment of even fictional power could be very appealing.

Certainly not every good story has to have all (or any) of these elements. But it’s fun to see how these basic elements were used over and over to tell predictable stories that we still enjoy 80 years later.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, here is comedy, romance, and dancing all in one package:

10 Quotes about Life from Babylon 5

I’ve written another post of quotes from sci-fi and fantasy, but I thought I’d do a part two and make it exclusively quotes from the sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m rather fond of that show. Not only is it one of my favorite TV shows ever, it’s one of my favorite epic fantasy stories, in any medium. The writing was brilliant, and the episodes were full of witty dialogue and quotes of wisdom.

As I asserted in my previous quotes post, we can learn a lot about real life from stories of fantasy.

It takes a rare kind of wisdom to accept change and redemption in another. Many would refuse, seeing only what was, not what is. – G’Kar, “The Hour of the Wolf”

You seek meaning? Then listen to the music, not the song. – Kosh, “Deathwalker”

We are all born as molecules, in the hearts of a billion stars – molecules that do not understand politics or policies or differences. Over a billion years, we, foolish molecules, forget who we are and where we came from. In desperate acts of ego, we give ourselves names, fight over lines on maps, and pretend that our light is better than everyone else’s. – Delenn, “And All my Dreams, Torn Asunder”

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little, and the ground is not fertile and nothing can grow there. Too much, and the best of us is washed away. – G’Kar, “Objects in Motion”

Touch passion when it comes your way, Stephen. It’s rare enough as it is. – Marcus, “Lines of Communication”

I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not explained everything. – G’Kar, “Mind War”

We are dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers. – Elric, “The Geometry of Shadows”

Fighting a war is easy, destroying is easy. Building a new world out of what’s left of the old: that is what’s hard. – Delenn, “Lines of Communication”

Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet. You can travel farther with both than you can with just one. – Brother Alwin, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars”

Now we make our own magic. Now we create our own legends. Now we build the future. Now we stop being afraid of shadows. – Delenn and Sheridan, “Into the Fire”

My Top 10 Favorite Authors

I realized that since this is supposed to be a writing blog, I ought to make mention of other authors occasionally besides myself. In the various “top favorite” posts of this and that, I have never covered my favorite writers. So, I am now remedying that. Here they are, in a sort-of one to ten listing:

C.S. Lewis – Once I graduated from Little Golden Book versions of fairy tales, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is what I cut my fantasy teeth on. I’ve reread those books probably more than any other book or series ever.

J.R.R. Tolkien – Middle-Earth was the next logical step after I mastered the Narnia stories. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not easy reads, but I loved the stories and Tolkien’s words enough to read the books several times.

Beatrix Potter – My mom read me stories about Peter Rabbit and Tom Kitten along with those Little Golden Books, but I never actually outgrew Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter is one of my writing heroes in general, and not just because she wrote about bunnies.

L. Frank Baum – He is a recent addition to my favorite author list, because I only recently started reading his Oz books. Baum’s vivid imagination and love of the fairy tale style is evident in The Wizard of Oz and all the subsequent books.

Chris Claremont – He wrote all of the greatest X-Men stories of the 80s and 90s, in my opinion. I’ve always loved comics, and Claremont had some of the most vivid characters and elaborate storylines during his time on the various X-Men series.

J. Michael Straczynski – JMS, as he’s often known, is primarily a writer and producer for TV (though he has written a few comics, as well). I love him best for his show Babylon 5, which featured epic sci-fi storytelling on a Tolkien-esque scale. JMS not only drafted the overall concept for the series, but he wrote the script for almost every single episode himself.

John Maxwell – Here is my token non-fiction writer for the list. John Maxwell is known as a leadership expert, and I’ve read quite a few of his books. While I don’t have a desire to be a leader in a corporate or political sense, I do want to be able to positively influence people with my writing. And as John Maxwell says, “leadership is influence.”

Jeff Smith – Another comic writer. He’s actually an artist, too, and he wrote and drew his famous Bone saga. Bone is equal parts epic fantasy and slapstick humor, and a very unique cast of characters.

Lois Gladys Leppard – She wrote the Mandie books – an inspirational children’s mystery series. Unlike most of the books on this list, the Mandie books aren’t fantasy. They’re historical fiction, set in North Carolina around the year 1900. Believe it or not, I do enjoy the occasional non-fantasy tale.

Dr. Seuss – Who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? His books have that fun, timeless quality that makes them enjoyable at any age.

Who is your favorite author?