5 Things Star Trek has Taught Me about Writing

While I could write about this subject at most any time, I thought it would be appropriate now, while we’re still celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Star Trek. I’ve posted many times about the writing tips and techniques that I’ve learned from the sci-fi show Babylon 5, but since Star Trek was my first science fiction love, I thought it was high time I give it its due.

So here are five things, in no particular order, that Star Trek (mostly TNG, but really, all the series) has taught me about writing and storytelling:

The importance of supporting characters

Everybody loves the heroes of the story, but supporting and minor characters help round out the world. Whether your story has an ensemble main cast (like Star Trek) or just one main protagonist, you need other characters to serve specific roles and to provide more opportunities for interaction and character growth for your main characters. With a longer work (like a novel, a series of novels, or a TV show), you have the opportunity to expand on the minor characters that come and go, and turn some of them into recurring characters. Continue reading

5 Fictional Characters I’d Invite to a Summer Picnic

This week’s post is sort of silly, and inspired by Chronically Vintage’s post featuring some helpful blog post ideas. Since I was stuck for an idea this week, I’ll roll with this idea. This list could potentially go on waaaaaay past five, so for my readers’ sanity, I’ll keep it just to five.

Thorn – from the Bone graphic novel series by Jeff Smith. She’s the fun-loving country girl who discovers that she’s the crown princess, and saves her land from the Rat Creatures and the evil Hooded One. Of course, if I invited Thorn, I’d have to invite her guardian Gran’ma Ben, and her best friend Fone Bone, so now I’m up to three people invited to this picnic already… 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

Four Things

This week I’m stealing my blog topic from my friend Jessica over at Chronically Vintage. She’s a lovely person and blogs about vintage fashion, which is something I knew little about until I started writing historical fiction.

Anyway, the idea of this post is to not talk about writerly stuff per se, but rather to reveal some slightly more personal things about me. So here we go – four things about me: 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”