Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: World-Building

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 Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards.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

I wrote a two-part post some time ago about world-building for fantasy and sci-fi. Like any good epic, Babylon 5 has a complex fantasy world to build—so here are some more tips for building the world for fantasy.

1.       Don’t build the world all at once. Introduce information at a natural pace.

In other words, avoid an info dump. If you’re writing something long and epic, there is plenty of time to introduce important information. Even with a shorter work, no reader wants to spend pages of exposition reading a textbook entry about your amazing fantasy world.

Babylon 5 begins with a bare-bones intro to the world. The audience learns that the setting is a space station in the future. Through action and dialogue, the main characters are introduced, and the main alien races of the series all make a brief appearance. Emphasis on brief. The story—and the setting—begins in the middle of the action (see the post about how to begin an epic.)

During this five-year-long epic, the world is developed, personal back-stories are revealed, alien cultures, languages, and technologies are explored. In real life you don’t learn all about a person or a place or a new situation in thirty seconds, so don’t make your audience try to learn this way, either.

2.       The little details can enrich the world and make things more believable.

As you’re building your world at a natural pace, and putting in the big points, don’t neglect the small, easily-overlooked details.

For example, in Babylon 5 it is vastly important to the plot and the environment of the fantasy world that humans and Minbari used to be at war. This fact is introduced right away to set the tone of cultural tension and shaky peace. However, it’s the little details that are tossed in throughout the series that shape the Minbari into something much more than just “the aliens who used to be at war with Earth.”

Details add flavor, like adding spices to food. Details like Minbari beds being at a forty-five degree angle instead of flat, or a throw-away line by a supporting character about a Minbari city that is carved entirely out of crystal.

How about other world-building details? Like the detail about cities on the Drazi homeworld having streets too narrow for any vehicle to travel on. And Narns are apparently marsupials (or something similar), because they refer to their children as “pouchlings.” And the colonists on Mars have their own baseball team, which competes in a futuristic World Series.

Are any of these details vital to the overall plot (or even supporting plot threads?) No. But they add depth and character to the fantasy setting. Just like real life, the best things are often found in the minutia.

3.       Be consistent!

This is the most important thing. All of the good pacing, character development, enticing details, and general creativity falls flat if you’re not consistent.

No writer is perfect, and the longer the story, the more details there are to keep track of. Even in Babylon 5, there are a few inconsistencies—like the slight changes in some of the alien make-up during the early episodes.

But overall, the world of Babylon 5 is consistent, and that is part of what makes the story so engaging. If a character dies, they are not forgotten about two episodes later. Each alien race has a distinctive and unique look to their space ships, so the audience always knows who is who in a space battle. The Narn language is written from right to left, and every time G’Kar is seen with a pen in hand (which is frequent, since the character is a writer), he is making his notes from right to left. Even the Minbari’s slanted beds make the periodic appearance right up until the very end of the show.

What are some other world-building do’s or don’ts that you have seen in your favorite fantasy or sci-fi epic? Comments are welcome!