Storytelling Tips from Babylon 5: Ending an Epic

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 Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards.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 don’t know if there are hard and fast “rules” for writing the conclusion to an epic story. And I have no personal experience in doing so myself, since at the time of this writing, I’m still in the first draft stage of book two of a trilogy.

I have ended individual stories before, and I know that can be challenging. Beginning an epic is sometimes easy by comparison to ending a long tale, but it can be done well. Here are a couple of elements that I’ve observed in well-concluded epics.

Tying up loose ends

This is the most important element to ending most any kind of story, in my opinion – unless the point of your tale is to leave readers with more questions than answers.

Because of its length, and its multiple sub-plots and side threads, an epic’s conclusion can often be relatively long. In Lord of the Rings, several “endings” were gone through before the actual conclusion of Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens and Sam returning to his family.

Similarly, Babylon 5 had several moments when the series could have ended: the ending of the Shadow War in “Into the Fire,” the liberation of Earth in “Endgame,” or the thoughtful, time-spanning fourth season finale “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” But there was still more story to tell, and many questions still open.

Yes, even after the series’ conclusion, some details went unanswered. What was Lennier’s ultimate fate? What happened to David Sheridan and the Keeper that Londo left for him? Whatever happened to Lyta? But despite these small hanging details, all of the plot lines were brought to a close – all of the sub-plots, and the main plot of war encroaching on peace.

A sense of conclusion is important for an epic, I believe. Even if there’s room for more story, the main plot has reached an end and the goal has been accomplished. In Babylon 5, the wars are won, and a new era of peace has been ushered in. The tale of war, for now, is over.

Saying Goodbye

This is another important element in concluding an epic fantasy tale. Epics frequently feature a large cast of characters, many of whom are thrust together for the duration of the plot. By the end, some characters may be dead, and all of them have been changed.

It may be appropriate for the story for the characters to return to their lives that were interrupted by the main plot (such as happens in the Lord of the Rings). Or it may be that the characters need to move on to new lives, now that the adventures of the main plot have changed them (this is the case in Babylon 5).

Some characters part on friendly, tearful terms, excited about their new lives – like Sheridan and Delenn’s goodbyes to Garibaldi and Lochley. Other characters part with less joy and hope, because of who they have become during the course of the story: Lennier’s parting with Sheridan and Delenn, or Lyta’s parting with the entire cast.

Spending some time with partings and goodbyes is important for the reader, too, not just for the characters or for the sake of plot. In an epic tale, the reader (or viewer) has spent countless hours and hundreds of pages falling in love with the characters and their world. Goodbyes within the story give the audience a chance to say goodbye, to find closure and contentment in knowing the final path of the favorite characters.

The final fifth season episode of Babylon 5 – “Objects at Rest” – is all about partings and goodbyes, as the characters leave the Babylon 5 space station that had been their home and the crux of the plot. The series finale “Sleeping in Light” – which takes place twenty years after the plot of the series – is the ultimate of goodbyes.

At the end of Lord of the Rings, both the characters and the reader experience the conclusion of a final farewell as the main protagonist Frodo says goodbye to the other characters and to the main world of the story. Likewise, Babylon 5 ends with the main protagonist Sheridan saying goodbye to the other characters, the world of the story, and the audience. Both are bittersweet, but quite conclusive endings.

Never underestimate the power of a well-presented farewell to wrap up an epic story. What is one of your favorite epics and how did it end?

“Every part of this station has somebody’s fingerprints on it, layers and layers of people’s lives. There were times I thought none of us would get out alive. Some of us didn’t. But we did everything we said we were going to do, and nobody can take that away from us.” – Zack Allen, “Sleeping in Light”

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Good versus Evil

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.

Good and Evil

It’s a struggle truly as old as time itself, and therefore the basis and framework for our stories – fantasy and otherwise. The Good versus Evil battle can range from great wars that span kingdoms or galaxies to the inward personal struggle of morals versus one’s darker nature.

Like most fantasy epics, Babylon 5 covers both. As the character of Delenn notes: “The war is never completely won. There are always new battles to be fought against the darkness. Only the names change.”

War in Macro – Epic Battles

Fans of fantasy and science-fiction expect a few good fights scenes. And the more long and epic the story, the more opportunities for battles. While not a requirement for fantasy in the broadest sense, the “epic” storytelling style usually involves numerous plot threads, places, and characters – all of which provide the fodder for large-scale battles.

Battles usually increase as the epic story moves towards the climax. Babylon 5 features more than a few large dramatic space battles as the Army of Light fights the Shadows (note the archetypal names for the two sides of the war, making it clear – at least at first – who is Good and who is Evil).

If you’re writing a book trilogy or series, this increase in tensions between Good and Evil applies to each individual book as well as the over-arcing storyline. In Babylon 5, each season was like a novel, with the episodes as the chapters. Each season (or “book”) had its own plot and set of conflicts, but all were part of the overall plot of the series: war encroaching on peace.

War in Micro – Internal Conflict

While less flashy than space battles or sword fights, the internal battle of an individual character can be just as important for the story. A well-rounded character – even the most perfect of good guys – should have darkness or imperfections lurking deep within. This is not only realistic, it provides another sort of tension and conflict for the story.

The character of Londo Mollari is one of the main protagonists of Babylon 5 – but calling him one of the Good Guys might be a stretch. He is one of the most conflicted characters of the story, one who is constantly at war within himself. The Good in him wants to serve and protect his people, but the Evil in him drives him to make dangerous choices and hurt many people. Though the Good in Londo causes him to feel tremendous guilt about his actions, ultimately the Evil triumphs and leaves him a broken man with a wake of destruction behind him.

In contrast, G’Kar starts out violent and filled with hate, giving free reign to every Evil aspect of his nature. But during the story, he grows as a character and begins to listen to the Good within him; in the end, he finds personal peace and overcomes the internal conflict. These two characters of Londo and G’Kar are almost reflections of one another, or opposite sides of a coin. Their personal stories within the larger story are every bit the archetype of Good versus Evil.

Good vs Evil – Sometimes it’s Gray

In real life, Good and Evil aren’t always so black and white. And even in an archetypal Good versus Evil fantasy tale, having that gray in-between area brings depth and realism to the story. In Babylon 5, there is never any doubt that the Shadows are the bad guys – they’re bent on war and destruction, and nothing will change their minds.

But even the evil Shadows have a reason for their actions – and it’s guided by their belief that they are right. Right and Good are not necessarily the same thing, especially in a story, but this brings a humanizing element to the bad guys.

Similarly, the Vorlons – touted for the first three seasons as being the good guys and creatures of light – turn out not be as pure and Good as everyone thought. The battle is still about Good versus Evil throughout Babylon 5’s story. But the lines often blur into gray and the characters struggle to decide who or what they are fighting, and why.

“War encroaching on peace” – the main overall plot of Babylon 5 – does not have to be the main plot of your epic fantasy tale. But the Good, the Evil, and the Gray in between should be present; explore that tension in the macro and the micro, and you have the foundation for a tale of epic proportions.

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last best hope for victory.” -Susan Ivanova, third season intro

The ABCs of Writing Fantasy

This isn’t so much a list of do’s and don’ts or advice. It’s more of a list of elements that I’ve found to be common in most fantasy tales. Feel free to make suggestions about what words you’d pick for this list!

A – Adventure. What good fantasy tale doesn’t involve an adventure? It doesn’t have to a thrill-a-minute tale, or involve more traveling than Frodo’s hike from the Shire to Mordor, but “going on an adventure” is a foundational element in many fantasy stories.

B – Bad Guys. Whether the villain is the personification of evil itself, or a conflicted, misunderstood character, it’s not much of a story without an antagonist.

C – Creatures. Everyone expects some sort of fantastical beasts in a fantasy story. Whether traditional or made-up just for that one tale, a creature not found in real life should make an appearance.

D – Destiny. Not a requirement for fantasy, of course, but it’s a common theme in many tales. It can be as complex as a prophecy, or as simple as the hero choosing the righteous path to determine his own destiny.

E – Epic. Again, not a requirement for a story of the fantasy genre. But more so than most any other genre, fantasy easily can lend itself to epic tales that span decades or centuries and scores of characters.

F – Fights. Everybody likes a good fight scene. Sword fights, orc battles, slaying a dragon…there’s usually a battle or two in any fantasy story.

G – Good Guys. Somebody’s got to oppose the Bad Guys, right?

H – History. Most fantasy tales involve complex world-building, and that word includes a history that may or may not impact the current story. Also, real world history is often a great source of inspiration for fantasy writers.

I – Imagination. Without it, there would be no stories – fantasy or otherwise.

J – Journey. Frodo takes the Ring to Mordor. It’s a long trip, but he also goes on a personal journey as the story progresses. Good fantasy involves either kind of journey, or both.

K – Kings and Queens. Or emperors, or evil over-lords. Somebody’s got to be in charge, to either fight for or fight against.

L – Life and Death. Isn’t this the subject of every good tale?

M – Magic. Pretty much a staple of the fantasy genre. The great thing about magic, though, is that it’s different in every tale. Anything is possible – and believable – with magic, as long as it fits within the rules of the fantasy world of that story.

N – Non-humans. Similar to Creatures, but other non-humans are often sentient races like elves, rather than a monster like a dragon. Not a requirement for fantasy, but usually expected.

O – On-going. There is such a thing as a stand-alone fantasy tale, but fans of epic fantasy enjoy the on-going series, or at least a nice thick trilogy.

P – Plot. A plot is required for most any fiction, really. But fantasy is usually far more plot-driven than, say, character-driven literary fiction.

Q – Quest. Like a journey, many fantasy stories involve a quest for a treasure, a cause, or a person.

R – Reluctant hero. There’s something appealing about the reluctant hero, the character who is forced to adapt to a strange situation or is trying to hide from their true calling.

S – Setting. This is a part of world-building, but the setting is primarily the physical location, rather than creatures and cultures and everything else about the world. Fantasy provides for settings of most any kind, from castles to mountains to haunted forests and beyond.

T – Treasure. The treasure in a fantasy story doesn’t have to be the dragon’s gold or the king’s long-lost magic sword. But conflict often can be driven by desire for something of value – a treasure – to the characters and their world.

U – Unexpected. While fantasy readers may be expecting and wanting magic, destiny, and epic battles, they also want something different and new, too.

V – Vision. This can apply to a lot of different things in fantasy. Vision can refer to a character with magical sight or prophetic talents. Vision can be the rich visual details that the author paints to describe the world and the characters. Vision can be the broad scope of the over-all plot that runs through an epic.

W – World-building. This is necessary for the fantasy genre – even if the tale is urban fantasy set in the real world. The rules of magic, the types of non-human beings, places and names – all of that is part of the world, and needs to be fully realized by the author, even if not every detail makes it into the book. The fantasy world has to feel full and real.

X – Excitement. See adventure and unexpected. Anticipation and tension and a riveting plot keeps a reader interested.

Y – YA. This stands for Young Adult, an age-range and literary genre that is very popular for fantasy stories right now. YA is enjoyed by young and old alike, though, and even if the main character is under the age of 20, most stories are relatable to readers of any age. Harry Potter, anyone?

Z – Zeal. Zeal is having passion and enthusiasm for someone or something. This can describe many characters in fantasy stories, as well as describing the fans. Being zealous is a good thing – life can be pretty dry if you have no excitement for anything.