Last December, the Story Toolkit Podcast spoke lovingly about the incredible work of J. Michael Straczynski‘s Babylon 5 and the art of Long Form storytelling. For my money, Babylon 5 remains as one of the pinnacles of how a single writer can tell a novel over the medium of television.
The show may be growing a little dated in many respects, but one thing that doesn’t age is how JMS can create a story that spans episodes, seasons, and even actors. Modern television has been taking on the Babylon 5 style of storytelling for some years now, as continuity and long-ranged plots have become the norm. But it behooves us to remember who broke the mold in North America and presented the world with this multi-award winning series.
No stranger to television, Mr. Straczynski knew he had many challenges, some would be budgetary, and others would require flexibility in storytelling. In short, he would have to create “Trapdoors”.
Trapdoors in a story represents the writers ability to identify all the pieces of a long tale so that if a character doesn’t work- actor issues, illness, network concerns, etc… the story doesn’t fall apart.
In Babylon 5, JMS’s main epic could have entirely derailed when Michael O’Hare stepped down from the show after Season One. Straczynski has created an important back story that needed to be told about the Earth-Minbari war. Instead of shelving his ideas, he had already a backup character which was performed expertly by Bruce Boxleitner that was not only able to carry on the greater story, but also add to its richness. While O’Hare’s Commander Sinclair was the reason why the Minbari surrendered, Boxleitner’s Captain Sherridan was the only one who ever defeated the Minbari in combat- and that’s just one of many examples.
Audio Drama, especially free audio drama has similar perils. I’ve had to deal with the pain of shelving several old projects because of casting issues. But maybe just better planning is all that is needed. Don’t fall in love with your characters, fall in love with your story.