Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Main Plot versus Sub-Plot

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 Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards.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

Plot is essential for any story, and most stories feature sub-plots or side threads that run along with the main plot. This is especially true of epics, as this format is defined by its length and complexity.

There are no hard and fast rules about how many sub-plots a story should have, how long each one lasts, etc. But in general, what I have found is that the best way to handle sub-plots is to: a) make sure they relate to the main plot in some way, and b) make sure they don’t detract from the main plot.

Main Plot

When you sit down to write a story, you should have at least some idea of what your main plot is going to be. Even if you’re a pantser, and you have to write two-thirds of the book to discover your main plot, that’s okay – when it’s all over, there’s still one main plot.

The main plot of Babylon 5 is war encroaching on peace. The very first episode begins with an assassination attempt and a surprise attack. Even as the series winds down in “Objects at Rest” – the last episode before the finale – there is conflict. War is the main plot of Babylon 5’s epic story.

The main plot should be introduced fairly early on. Even in an epic story, where things can be expected to take longer to develop, the main plot should be apparent within the first few scenes. You don’t have to begin with a bang the way Babylon 5 does, but if you’re a third of the way into your tale and are still in intro mode, some revising might be in order.

Sub-Plot

Most every story has a sub-plot or a semi-related side plot. Epic fantasy – because of the length and the conventions of the genre – is a great place to explore multiple plot threads. Babylon 5, being a five-book series, after a fashion (each season was like a complete book, with the episodes as chapters), was filled with sub-plots.

Each season (or “book”) had its own plot. Season 2 – called The Coming of Shadows – focused on the approach of war, with its rumors and threats and darkening mystery. And by season 5 – The Wheel of Fire – two wars had been fought and won, yet the struggle for peace and unity proved to be a war of a different sort. All of these individual plots fall under the series’ main plot of war.

And of course, within each season’s sub-plots were smaller plots: the Mars rebellion, Byron’s telepaths, the madness of the Centauri emperor Cartagia, Dr. Franklin’s struggle with addiction, and on and on.

The key here is that all of these sub-plots are related to and are influenced by the season (or book’s) main story, and the overall series story. It is also important to note that a sub-plot – even an important one – should never completely take over the story. If you’re writing and you discover that your sub-plot is becoming the main plot, there’s nothing wrong with that as part of the writing and discovering process. Just make sure that you eventually figure out what your main plot actually is – even if it turns out to be that storyline formerly known as the sub-plot.

Side Threads

A side thread, as I call it, is smaller and less important than a sub-plot, but it’s an element that adds richness and dimension to the fantasy world of a long epic. Babylon 5’s story is rich with side threads: Garibaldi and Lennier building the old-fashioned motorcycle, Sheridan and Delenn’s multiple dinner dates and adventures with eating flarn, Rebo and Zootie’s periodic visits to the station, and so many more.

The scene involving Sheridan’s less-than-perfect attempt to cook flarn for Delenn had nothing to do with the main plot of the episode, the season, or even the entire series. The Shadow War coming to a head – the main plot of season three Point of No Return – could have been told without Delenn politely choking down Sheridan’s cooking. But that little side thread added another layer to those two characters, and provided a moment of humor in a high-tension story.

Think of side threads as a form of world-building and character development. The little things are the foundations of life – in reality and in fantasy. You can help your readers (or viewers) buy into your world and your story by adding in those little side threads.

What are some of your favorite main plots, sub-plots, or side threads in stories?

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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!

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Foreshadowing

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.

Foreshadowing can be used in any sort of story—not just epic fantasy or sci-fi. Foreshadowing means to show or suggest something in advance, to leave hints and clues for something coming later. Here are three aspects of foreshadowing that are used in Babylon 5, and that can be used in a saga or series that you may be writing, too.

1.       Foreshadowing can be subtle and easily forgotten.

In a long saga or a series, foreshadowing can be taken to an extreme—something mentioned on page three may not prove important for another 800 pages. While this can be exciting for the reader, if they catch or remember that detail, the foreshadowing can easily be lost if too much time passes.

In the first season of Babylon 5, a Centauri seeress comes to the station. She gives several prophecies, including a prediction that the space station will be destroyed in fire. When the station doesn’t blow up immediately, everyone relaxes and scoffs at her prediction. The character never appears again, her prediction is not mentioned again, and the whole thing is quickly forgotten by the audience and the characters.

Until the final episode of the series. The story of the last episode takes place twenty years later, and Babylon 5 is destroyed in fire—but not in the way that everyone expected years before when the moment was foreshadowed.

2.       Foreshadowing can be emphasized by repetition.

An example of repetitive foreshadowing is the telepathic character Lyta Alexander. Periodically during the course of the series, references are made to the fact that Lyta is a P5 telepath, meaning she ranks with just average strength and skill. This emphasis on her “average” ranking foreshadows the ending of the series, when Lyta has changed into a telepath stronger than a P12 (the highest ranking of strength and skill).

It’s important to note with this repetition technique, it still must be subtle. Characters comment on Lyta’s “average” P5 ranking only a handful of times—both before and after her powers start to change and increase. This is just enough to remind the audience that Lyta is either a) normal at the time, or b) ceasing to be normal. It serves to get the audience’s curiosity up about Lyta without making her the focal point of every episode and without beating the audience senseless with obvious clues.

3.       Foreshadowing is not the same thing as prophecy.

Destinies, prophecies, visions, and time-travel are often staples of sci-fi and fantasy. And while these story elements can be used with foreshadowing, it is not the same thing always. My first example did involve a character giving a prophetic vision; however, it served as effective foreshadowing because neither the character nor the vision appeared to be important at the time.

If the main plot of your epic fantasy is about an old wizard who tells a vision to the young farm boy and says that the gods have chosen him to be king and it’s his destiny, that’s not foreshadowing. In that example, prophecy and destiny are the plot, not a clue or hint leading to one specific element of the plot.

In Babylon 5, the storyline involving the Babylon 4 space station relied heavily on not only time-travel, but prophecy and destiny, as well. Both Captain Sheridan and Delenn are told by the alien Zathras that they have great destinies, and Commander Sinclair’s great destiny (which had been foreshadowed earlier in the series) is revealed. But that storyline is not foreshadowing, because destiny, prophecy, and time-travel is the plot.

Foreshadowing can sometimes be tricky, especially in a long tale. Hopefully these guidelines can help you if you’re wanting to utilize the technique. Read some of your favorite stories over again, paying attention to the little details that turn up later.

What are some other good stories that use foreshadowing without it being either too subtle or too obvious?

“The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us; we know only that it is always born in pain.”
-G’Kar, “Z’Ha’Dum”

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Character Development – the Power of Two

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.

All the Characters

Babylon 5, like any good epic, has a huge cast of characters. Minor characters add spice and realism to scenes, and the supporting and main cast take turns in the spotlight as plot threads weave in and out. But even in an epic saga with a large cast, there are usually just one or two main protagonists. This is the character who has the most to lose, for whom the stakes of the story matter the most.

In Babylon 5, the two main protagonists are John Sheridan and Delenn. Coming in a close second, as the two main supporting protagonists, if I could use the term that way, are Londo Mollari and G’Kar.

These two pairs of characters exert the most affect on the overall story of the series. And just as they drive the plot, the twists of the story affect their lives more drastically than the other characters.

No character (at least, in most epics) functions in a vacuum—at some point the protagonist must interact with other characters. And this interaction fuels character development. I paired these four main characters of Babylon 5 this way because they drive the plot, and are affected by the plot, together.

Main Characters

Sheridan and Delenn’s power as a character duo comes from their love. Not only are they the main romantic lead in the story, but they have a great love for the people that they lead. Together they spearhead the war against the bad guys, and together they build a new alliance dedicated to peace. And they have to figure out how to overcome cultural differences and haunted pasts in order to have a successful marriage and raise a baby while doing all of this.

Londo and G’Kar’s power as a character duo comes from their hate. At the start of the series, these two represent the epitome of blind racial hatred. The shaky peace treaty between their two races is one of the subplots. And a force that drives the main plot is Londo and G’Kar trying to figure out how to work together for the good of entire galaxy without killing each other. Through the overcoming of their hatred towards one another they grow as characters.

Put your protagonists in a tight spot, raise the stakes, use another character to test their limits. Give your protagonist someone to love, someone to hate, something they want to do. Not every character development technique (these, or any others) has to be used, but if you’re writing a long saga, there’s plenty of time to introduce new pressures to further grow your protagonist. Sheridan and Delenn’s romance grows over the course of three seasons. And Londo and G’Kar, though eventually calling each other ‘friend,’ never do stop trying to kill one another.

Whether your epic is action-oriented or paced a little slower, whether you have a cast of hundreds or just one obvious hero, remember that other characters, not just the plot, can be the catalyst for character development.

“I am grey. I stand between the candle and the star. We are grey. We stand between the darkness and the light.” -Delenn, “Babylon Squared”

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.

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Beginning 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.

A question that often plagues writers of every genre is “how do I begin the story?” This is more than just a question of choosing the perfect first sentence. It’s about deciding the most appropriate moment of the main character’s life and story to bring in the reader.

This can be especially challenging with an epic story, because, by its very nature, it has a history and long-range repercussions that may not actually be part of the main plot. How do you begin such a long story without giving a boring history lesson?

The Beginning?

The Babylon 5 pilot episode begins with one of the main characters of the series, Londo, giving a brief narration. He explains that this is the beginning of the story of a new space station called Babylon 5, but the audience also learns that it’s really an ending—Babylon 5 is the last of the Babylon stations. Four other space stations and their missions went before this one, and those stories—as yet untold—are the foundation on which the current story is built.

Any truly epic story is always at the beginning, at the end, and somewhere in the middle, because plot threads and characters are intertwined across time or distance. There’s no catch-all answer to the question of “where do I begin my story”—each plot and set of characters are unique. A guideline to consider, though, is beginning with an upsetting of the status quo.

As lovely as it is for real life to pass along without upsets or disasters, it makes for a somewhat tedious story—especially if you’re wanting to tell a long-running saga. Quickly establishing the norm—and upsetting that norm—jumpstarts the action and introduces the audience into the minds of the characters.

In Babylon 5, Londo’s brief narration (notice my emphasis on brief—let’s avoid that boring history lesson) explains that this final Babylon station is dedicated to serving the interests of peace. (This also hints that maybe the previous four Babylon stations didn’t succeed at this mission of peace…but more on foreshadowing in a different post).

Upset the Norm

The norm is established during the first few minutes of the story, through narration and the characters interacting in the setting. This is a space station in neutral territory, serving as a peaceful free port for all cultures, several of whom are rebuilding after long and violent wars. Then the norm is upset—an assassination attempt, cultural misunderstandings, and a surprise attack. Babylon 5’s mission of peace is immediately put to the test. And thus a plot is born.

It should also be noted that while the problem is introduced right away, it is not every problem that ever will be in the plot of the entire epic. In a long saga or a series, there is usually one over-arching plot, and then any number of smaller plots that feed into the main theme of the story. It’s important to establish the main plot fairly quickly. It can then be developed, via subplots, side plots, and other storytelling threads, over the course of the tale.

In this example, the main plot is established immediately—a threat to intergalactic peace. Many other plots feed into this during the course of the series—the Shadows returning after a thousand-year hiatus, the Minbari government crumbling, the enslavement of the Narns, the dictatorship on Earth, and on and on.

But all of these are part of the main plot—war encroaching on peace—and that core concept is the plot that is revealed right away. All of those other plots are not even hinted at right at the beginning. That’s the point of an epic—all of these related plots need time to develop. Upset the status quo as soon as possible, but don’t throw in everything at once. The audience needs time to learn about the characters and situations involved so the impact of each new plot thread will be felt.

I’m not going to discuss world-building in this post, even though that’s a vital element to any fantasy or sci-fi epic. The norm of the world of Babylon 5 is established as quickly as the main theme of the plot. In the first ten minutes of the pilot, we know that it’s in the future, on a space station, and there are humans and aliens from countless cultures all living together. The depth of this world is revealed in more detail as time progresses.

The same can be done in the first few pages of a novel. Establish the basics of the norm—both the setting (world) and the situation. Then when the problem enters the picture, the reader can learn about the world at the same pace that they are learning about the characters and the plot—because both the characters and their world are part of the fixing of the problem.

The trilogy that I’m writing may or may not qualify as an “epic.” And hopefully I’ve followed these guidelines with my own beginning. I guess my critique partners and beta readers will let me know! Keep reading for the next few weeks—I’ll be writing about some more elements of telling an epic story.

“And so it begins.” – Kosh, “Chrysalis”