Writing and Creative Quotes from Babylon 5

I’ve recently become a fan of the science fiction show, Babylon 5.   As I head into the middle of the third season,  I strongly recommend this show to anyone who loves complex, three-dimensional characters, deep storylines, with dashes of quirky humor thrown in.

This wonderful site:  http://www.midwinter.com/lurk/lurker.html has interviews with the show’s creator and main writer, Michael Straczynski, after each episode.

Here are some quotes from Mr. Straczynski:

1 Would it be fair to compare Cagney and Lacey with NYPD Blue? After all, they’re both cop shows. But in fact, they’re not the same kind of cop show; they share the same genre, but there ends the overlap. The two shows are distinct, separate entities, just as Harlan Ellison’s work is distinct from Bill Gibson’s work, even though both incorporate elements of SF.

The ST pilot existed in its own universe, and was primarily an action show. The B5 pilot exists in its own universe, and primarily sets the stage for a political mystery/intrigue series. It wasn’t meant to serve the same functions as the ST pilot.

It seems to me that many SF fans continue to compare everything to ST because that’s their primary frame of reference, and they continue to apply it whether it’s relevant or not. My suggestion…get another frame of reference.

2. What the soul was, who’s right, and even whether this is SF or Science Fantasy, was it explained enough to merit one over the other … how can I put this…? I don’t want to spoon-feed stuff to people. What I want is not to hit someone with a MORAL, or a message, or “This is what a soul is,” or “This is what makes it an SF series,” I want to start discussions. Arguments. Preferably a bar fight or two.

We present an issue. Here are the sides. Now…what do YOU think about it? I want this show to ask, “Who are you? Where are you going?”

3.  I confess I don’t see the problem. In real life, some women are scientists, and doctors, and atheletes…and some women dance in bars, some women hook part- or full-time. Some men are scholars and diplomats and teachers…and some men are gigolos and thieves and *also* dance in bars. Where exactly is the problem in portraying both sides of this? Have we become so concerned with being politically correct that we can not show a legitimate part of human existence?

4.  Correct; the title of “The War Prayer” is a nod to Twain’s piece of the same name, which should be read by *everyone*. Given the growing problems with illiteracy, I try to refer not to pop society so much, as to literature…Tennyson, Twain, even writers whose last names don’t begin with T.

5.  Re: B5’s roster of strong women characters…this is something of a bugaboo/obsession with me. I *love* writing strong women. (For that matter, I love strong-willed, independent, smart women in real life as well; I love being outsmarted, love it when someone can go toe-to- toe with me on something.) Generally, and this isn’t entirely intentional, women on shows I work on tend to get some of the best lines, as is often the case with Ivanova. It’s not a case of being “one of the boys,” but being one of the *people*. There’s a subtle difference.

6. You don’t think that “Believers” was SF. Tough.

No, it didn’t have warp gates, or tachyon emitters, or lots of technobabble…it was about people. And the dilemmas they face.

Part of what has screwed up so much of SF-TV is this sense that you must utterly divorce yourself from current issues, from current problems, from taking on issues of today and extrapolating them into the future, by way of aliens or SF constructs. And that is *precisely* why so much of contemporary SF-TV is barren and lifeless and irrelevant…and *precisely* why such series as the original Star Trek, and Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone are with us today.

Like Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry and Joe Stefano and Reginald Rose and Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin and a bunch of other writers whose typewriters I’m not fit to touch, my goal in part is to simply tell good stories within an SF setting. And by SF I mean speculative fiction, which sometimes touches on hard-SF aspects, and sometimes doesn’t. Speculative fiction means you look at how society changes, how cultures interact with one another, how belief systems come into conflict. And as someone else here noted recently, anthropology and sociology are also sciences; soft sciences, to be sure, but sciences nonetheless.

7.  A lot of our episodes are constructed to work as mirrors; you see what you put into it. “Believers” has been interpreted as pro- religion, anti-religion, and religion-neutral…”Quality” has been interpreted, as you note, as pro-capital punishment, and anti-capital punishment. We do, as you say, much prefer to leave the decision on what things mean to the viewer to hash out.

  • A good story should provoke discussion, debate, argument…and the occasional bar fight. The thing about “Believers” is that, really, nobody’s right, and in their own way, from their point of view, everybody’s right.
  • 8.  Sometimes, there are no-win scenarios. And what matters then is how your characters react, what they do and say, and how it affects them.

    9.  The choice *had* to be either/or. That was the point; to put the characters in a situation of conflict and see how they handle it. Sometimes in life there are ONLY two choices, neither of them good. Your message comes from a position of trying to avoid the hard choices. But the episode is ABOUT hard choices. It *has* to be either/or.

    10.  You have an introduction, a rising action, a climax, and then a denouement. Aside from experimental theater kinds of things, that is the basic underlying structure to all movies, plays and television series.

    “Twin Peaks,” which you cite, really isn’t a very good example because, in my view, TP *never* resolved ANYthing. Thus it became an exercise in viewer frustration that eventually was a major reason why the show was canceled.

    11.  I like humor. I like that characters can show another side of themselves. If there is any real test of sentience, one of them must surely be the possession of a sense of humor, since it requires self reflection. And there is always unintentional (on the part of the character, at least) humor.

    SF-TV has generally taken itself either too seriously, with rods up butts, the humor forced…or it’s not taken itself seriously at ALL, and gone campy. This show takes itself seriously, but not in quite a way that lets it fit in either category.

    For me, as a viewer, I enjoy the shows that are roller-coasters, that take you from something very funny…and slam you headfirst into a very dramatic scene. Hill Street was like that, Picket Fences is like that now…why not SF? I’ve also found that humor can help you reveal things about the characters. The Londo/G’Kar scene at the elevator in “Signs and Portents,” for instance. It says something about both of them without coming out and *saying* it.

    12. Ivanova is jewish. Ivanova is russian. Of the two, she tends to see herself as a russian first. There’s no value statement there, that’s just the way she is. Her parents were both russian, going back many generations on both sides. Some in her family tree were jewish, and some were not; there was some intermarrying. That may be part of why she sees herself as more russian than jewish, but it may be just a quirk.

    (And to the protest of, “Well, you created her,” yes, I did. But there comes a time, if you’ve done your job right as a writer, when the character more or less takes over, and starts telling YOU who and what he or she is. There are times I mentally turn to Ivanova and say, “Okay, what do *you* think?” And she talks to me in my head, as do all of my characters. It’s part of making your characters real.) 

    ….The problem with this discussion is that it has very little to do with who Susan Ivanova *is*, and more to do with the politics of what a russian or a jew or a russian jew *should be*. She is what she is, like it or not.

    13.    Someone complains about the characters not staying the same

    Losing the characters she’s come to enjoy? No. But the characters are changing. That’s the point, and that’s been the intent from day one. But what’s the alternative? I’ve heard ST fans complain loudly and bitterly that after 7 years of TNG being on the air, nobody’s really changed, nobody’s been promoted into different ships or major changes in responsibilities…they’ve had Riker as XO for seven years, which in the real military would mean his career is *over*.

    Change is the only other option.

    The goal, from the start, was to create an overall story, but which would also require arcs for every single major character. They’re all going somewhere. In many cases, that “somewhere” plays into the larger arc; in some cases, not. If a woman is single, then gets married, then gives birth, and she’s your friend, have you “lost her” just because she’s gone through these changes? Of course not. She has changed, in good or bad ways, but she’s still the same person.

     14.  Re: being fooled into thinking the crystal construct in Delenn’s quarters was nothing more than a meditation thing…in general, it helps to remember that I subscribe to Anton Chekov’s First Rule of Playwriting: “If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two. If you fire a gun in act three, scene two, you must see the gun on the wall in act one, scene one.”Waste nothing.

     15.  Obviously, clearly, and irrefutably, an actor brings a *lot* to any role. No question. But it tends to begin with what is created. I’ve seen it said here, repeatedly, that none of the characters are uninteresting; they all have lives, and agendas, that make them fascinating to watch: Londo, Morden, G’Kar, Delenn, Garibaldi, Ivanova…what those characters are came out of my head, in terms of who tey are, what they say, what they believe, where they came from and where they’re going. Why would I invent a new character that was any less involving, or interesting, or multifaceted? Particularly knowing that he’s going to be a central character?

  • 16.  Tom: the quibble you raise is one of the points I’m trying to make. You say someone from 1890 would go crazy. I vehemently don’t agree. Go back and read letters from the 1890s. Heck, go read letters from 1776; the language, the emotions, they’re all very much the same. The chrome of technology has changed, some social styles and attitudes have changed, but people still go through school (usually), get married, raise kids, hold jobs, and look to a better future one day.

  • 17.  The only way to make a viewer feel a character’s pain is if you feel it in the writing, and a lot of that came through. I live with these characters running around in my head 24 hours a day…and when I’d finally finished “Shadows,” it was as if they all sorta stopped and looked at each other, and at me, and said, “Gee, thank you EVER so fucking much, jeezus, why don’t you just go pluck somebody’s eye out while you’re at it?”To which the only reply is, “Now that you mention it….”

  • 18.  Things you don’t expect to happen…that’s kind of one aspect I was after here. By way of comparison….
  • There’s one great thing about The Shining, despite some other flaws in the film: they set up Scatman Cruthers (sp?) as the one guy who understands what’s going on…he gets the Shining, he’s a potentially heroic character, and when all hell breaks loose, he’s the one to get into the snow plow, cross terrible weather, we’re all sure he’s going to get there and fight the menace… he overcomes weather and nonsense to get there… he blows through the front door, ready for action… and gets an axe in the middle of his chest and dies.I *loved* that, and always kinda wanted to something of that nature, where you set someone up to be that kind of character, the future, whatever, then you yank it back and let the audience say, Oh, hell, NOW what?
  • Because stuff happens. Because rocketry was the hope of the German Luftwaffe to win the war. Didn’t work out that way. Just because a character says it, doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to happen at all times. A parent can look at a child and say, “He’s our hope for the future,” and the next day the kid gets turfed by a semi-truck. Stuff happens. Nothing is guaranteed in the B5 universe; any character — ANY character — is vulnerable. That, for me, is part of what’s exciting.
  • There’s no rule that every person who is hoped to help solve the problem in real life is gonna make it to the end or BE that solution. So if you delete that person, now it’s “Oh, hell, NOW what’re they gonna do?” which is more intrinsically interesting to me than the other option.Generally speaking, about once a year, toward the end of the year, I kinda look around at the characters with a loaded gun in my hand, and say, “Hmmm…if I take out *that* person, what happens? Is there anyone here I can afford to lose? Would it be more dramatically interesting to have this person alive, or dead? What is the absolute bare minimum of characters I need to get to the end of the story and achieve what I have to achieve?”

  • 19.    RE: alternate lifestyles…I said when stuff happened, we wouldn’t make a big deal out of it, it’d just be there…and I said we’d address it in our own way, in our own time. We’ve done a bit here, we’ll do a bit more down the road. I won’t give you or anyone a timetable; I’ll do stuff as the integrity of the story permits, not sooner, not later. I will not allow this to become a political football. If you do nothing, folks yell at you for ignoring it; if you do a little, they yell for not doing more; if you do more, they yell for not doing it sooner. Screw it. I do what the story calls for, as the story calls for it.
  • Susan and Talia had been dancing around one another for months; that night, though, would’ve been the first time they got physically intimate. 
  • See, here’s where I start to have a problem. For starters, I don’t do any thing to be politically correct, or politically incorrect, I do what I do in any story because that’s what the story points me toward. Anybody who says “It’s not necessary” isn’t entitled to that judgement, frankly; you don’t know what’s necessary to the story. And by framing it in the “is this NECESSARY?” way is designed to make you defend your position when such defense isn’t the point; is it NECESSARY to have humor? to have a romance? to have correct science? No, *nothing* is NECESSARY. It’s what the writer feels is right for that scene, that story, that character.
  •  20.  one of the most consistent comments I get, in email and regular mail, is the spirituality conveyed in the show, that we have shown, and will continue to show, tolerance toward religion, even created sympathetic religious characters. “Thank you for your tolerance,” they say…until we show somebody or some action THEY don’t like…and at that point suddenly it’s a lot of tsk-tsking and chest thumping and disapproval; so okay, how about I just stop all positive religious aspects of the show?

    It seems to me, that if I do *all that* with religion, and with thje (the) simple act of showing maybe ONE PERSON in all the long history of TV science fiction across 40 years has a different view of life, that the show is somehow degraded, or downgraded, or dropped in opinion…this simply reinforces the notion, held by many, that a lot of folks in the religious right wish to make sure no other perspective or lifestyle is ever shown on television, at any time, unless in a negative fashion.

    The thing of it is, while on the one hand I’m getting praise from religious folks for addressing spirituality in my series (speaking here as an atheist), I’ve gotten flack from others who think it has no place in a SCIENCE fiction series, and why the hell am I putting something in that goes right against my own beliefs? *“Because,” I tell them, “this show is not about reflecting my beliefs, or yours, or somebody else’s, it’s about telling this story, about these people, with as much honesty and integrity as I can summon up. That means conceding the fact that religious people are going to be around 260 years from now.” Well, fact is, all kinds of people are going to be around 260 years from now. And what did the anti-religion folks say specifically about including spirituality in my series? “It’s not *necessary*,” they said.

    Translation: they didn’t like it. Well, tough. It was right for this story, and this show. And it seems to me rather hypocritical for some folks, who applaud the show for tolerance, for my standing up to those who want to exclude religion from TV, to then turn around and say the show is diminished because it showed that same tolerance…to another group or perspective. I guess tolerance is only okay as long as it’s pointed one way.

    My job is not to reinforce your personal political, social or religious beliefs. My job is not to reinforce MY personal political, social or religious beliefs. Then it isn’t art or storytelling anymore, it’s simply propaganda. My job is to tell this story, about these people, AS people, as mixed and varied as they are today. And there is no outside objective criteria as to what is, or isn’t *necessary* in a story; that is the sole province of the author. You may or may not like it. You may or may not choose to watch it.

    * bolding mine.   Since it goes along with my number one rule:  be true to the characters and their story

    Deadly Crinoline



    Ladies sauntering down halls array  in crinoline. 

    This image of the Victorian woman is so memorable, that it is easy to forget that the famous metal-cage was actually reviled by many in its time. 

    The crinoline was invented by R.C. Milliet, and introduced  in the summer of 1856.

    At first, it was welcomed with great relief.  For by the 1850s, females wore up to fourteen pounds of petticoats in order to achieve  the wide skirts which gave an illusion of a tiny waist.    With this  intolerable weight, alongside  tight-lacing, it is not surprising that women were apt to swoon. 

    Not only was the crinoline much lighter in weight, it also gracefully moved  the skirt in alignment with its wearer; swaying  side to side as a lady walked down the street.

    The same lightness that made the crinoline much more comfortable,  however, also caused skirts to flare up in the wind, and nearly smack them in the face if they sat down incorrectly.   Heaven-forbid a woman should fall, the cage held her skirt straight up, revealing  all.  

    In time, the wideness of skirts grew and grew.  By 1860, dresses measured ten yards around the hem.    With skirts so huge, hostesses discovered a taxing problem.   Before,  three ladies could sit comfortably together on a sofa,  now only one could fit.  What was a hostess to do?    A parlor could only have so many chairs.  Also,  unaware of the edges of their skirts, vases and other bric-a-bracs were constantly being knocked over as women strode across the heavily decorated Victorian rooms.

    These fashionable follies were a boon to satirical magazines such as Punch.

    Unfortunately, aside from these humorous annoyances, the crinoline proved incredibly dangerous.   Reports circulated of heavy winds knocking women off piers and into the water below, where the steel cages tied to their waist, quickened their drowning.  Hoops got entangled in carriage wheels dragging women to their deaths.  Factory girls were mutilated when their skirts got caught in machinery.  Unsuspecting women knocked over candles,  catching their skirts on fire.  

    On December 8, 1863,  approximately 3,000 people died inside a cathedral in Santiago, Chile.  After a gas lamp caught fire,  the highly flammable silks and cottons of the dresses fed the flame.  As the occupants ran towards the doors, they were blocked from reaching the exit by the width of the skirts.

    It is perhaps not surprising, that the crinoline fell out of favor for the safer bustle of the 1870s.



    “A Splendid Spread”- by George Cruikshank, from the Comic Almanack

    Published in: on May 17, 2009 at 1:29 pm  Comments (46)  
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    Agatha Christie: Quotes on Writing


    From, Agatha Christie:  An Autobiography

    1.  “I myself was always recognized, though quite kindly, as ‘the slow one’ of the family.  The reactions of my mother and my sister were unusually quick- I could never keep up.  I was, too, very inarticulate.  It was always difficult for me to assemble into words what I wanted to say……It  is probably one of the causes that have made me a writer.”

    2.   “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of creative work before you can in any way evaluate it.”

    3. “You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence.  If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there has to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in exercise book buoyed up with exaltation.  You then get into difficulties, don’t see  your way out, and finally manage to  accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time.  Having finished it, you know it is absolutely rotten.  A couple of months later you wonder if it may not be all right after all.”

    4. to a friend who wished to be in one of  her novels, “I don’t think I could put you in.  I can’t do anything with real people.  I have to imagine them.”

    5.  “It is awfully hard for an author to put things in words when you have to do it in the course of conversation.  You can do it with a pencil in your hand, or sitting in front of your typewriter- then the thing  comes out already formed as it should come out- but you can’t describe things that you are only going to write; or at least I can’t.  I learned in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written.  Criticism after you have written it is helpful.  You can argue the point, or you can give in, but at least you know how it has struck one reader.  Your own description of what you are going to write, however, sounds so futile, that to be told kindly that it won’t  do meets with your instant agreement.”

    6. “Your criticism is bound to be that you yourself would have written it in such and such a way, but that does not mean that it would be right for another author.  We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves.”

    7.  ” An early story of mine was shown to a well-known authoress by a kindly friend.  She reported on it sadly but adversely, saying that the author would never make a writer.   What she really meant, though she did not know it herself at the time because she was an author and not a critic, was that the person who was writing was still an immature and inadequate writer who could not yet produce anything worth publishing.  A critic or an editor might have been more perceptive, because it is their profession to notice the germs of what may be.   So I don’t like criticizing and I think it can easily do harm.”

    8.  “The only thing I will advance as criticism is the fact that the would-be-writer has not taken any account of the market for his wares.  It is no good writing a novel of thirty thousand words- that is not a length which is easily publishable at present….You have got something you feel you can do well and that you enjoy doing well, and you want to  sell it well.  If so, you must give it the dimensions and the appearance that is wanted….It is no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius- some people are, but very few.  No, one is a tradesman- a tradesman is a good honest trade.  You must learn the technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas; but you must submit to the discipline of form.”

    9.   “The disadvantage of the dictaphone is that it encourages you to be much too verbose.  There is no doubt that the effort involved in typing or writing does help me in keeping to the point. ”

    10.  “There is a right length for everything.  I think myself that the right length for a detective story is fifty- thousand words.  I know this is considered by some publishers as too short.  Possibly readers feel themselves cheated if they pay their money and only get fifty-thousand words- so sixty- thousand or seventy-thousand are more acceptable.  If your book runs to more than that I think you usually find that it would have been better if it had been shorter.”

    11.  “When you begin to write, you are usually in the throes of admiration for some writer, and, whether you will or no, you cannot help copying their style.  Often it is not a style that suits you, and so you write badly.  But as time goes on you are less influenced by admiration.  You will admire certain writers, you may even wish you could write like them, but you know quite well that you can’t. If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Sparks, or Grahame Greene, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t, and it would never occur to me to attempt to copy them.  I have learned that I am me,  that I can do the things that, as one might put it, me can do, but I cannot do the things that me would like to do.”

    Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (33)  
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