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What writers can learn from Battlestar Galactica, Part One

February 25th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments
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I’ve recently finished watching all of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. If you’ve watched it too, you’ve probably got an idea of what’s coming. Oh dear, oh dear.

I had already planned to pen an article on the writing of Battlestar Galactica, because it has been consistently excellent. I looked forward to extolling the virtues of well-realised, flawed characters; a definite sense of place; what science fiction is really for, and grounding your story (however fanciful it may seem) in realism.

Since finishing the show, let’s just say the focus of Part One in this series has changed. There may be spoilers ahead.

I want to start by saying it’s such a shame. Seven years of hard work, excellent work, can be ruined by a single episode. What could possibly ruin a great story like that? Why, the ending, of course.

Your Pants are Undone

People watching the series may have had an inkling that Ronald D. Moore and David Eick were making some of this up as they went along. A lot of what happens is unexpected, and you wonder how on Earth it all ties together. It’s part of the intrigue in the show, after all.

The seal of the Twelve Colonies from Battlestar Galactica

I think the last episode confirms that hupothesis, simply by ending many of the story threads unsatisfactorily. And here’s the big lesson, and warning from the show. To all you seat-of-the-pants writers out there, beware! Because as much fun as you’re having surprising your audience and yourself with improvised twists and turns, at some point you’re going to have to sort all this out.

Ride by the seat of your pants for too long, and they start to wear out. Before you know it you’ve got embarrassing holes in your pants, or worse, they’ve disintegrated completely and you’re left standing naked from the waist down, embarrassed and ashamed.

So here’s the tip – be mindful of your story. It’s fine to improvise, and it’s fine to go in without a plan if that’s the kind of writer you are. But pay attention, and know when it’s getting away from you, when it’s becoming too complicated. Know that you’re going to have to tie all those loose ends at some point, and do it in a satisfying manner.

And if you feel you’re digging yourself a hole (with your pants? No, we’ve shelved that metaphor for now, this is a new one), stop. Stop and build yourself a ladder. It doesn’t have to be perfect – there can be a few rungs missing or something, but make sure that you have a general idea of a way out.

How do you do this? I guess it depends (how does a writer do anything?) It depends on the kind of writer you are and the kind of situation you’ve put yourself in. But here’s how I would go about it:

  • start by examining the story and the loose threads you have. This is simply taking stock. Maybe write each one down. Just by focussing on them, an answer may present itself
  • Then I would move on to examining the characters involved and their motivations. After all, they’re likely the ones that got you into this mess. Again, write it all down – this character is here, with this, and is trying to do this.
  • If you feel you really can’t manoeuvre them in the way you need to, it might be time to cut. Take one of those threads and remove it from the story. Did you really need it? Does that free up some of your characters to do what you want?

Cutting solves many improvised problems. It may be that your story has simply become too complicated (and likely too complicated to follow as well).

But the key is – don’t just trust that you’ll figure it out as you go. Without a ladder, or a rope, or some kind of physical (metaphorical) object to get you out of that hole, you are forced to rely on something else; something magical. A skyhook.

Um…. God Did It?

A skyhook (as I understand it) is a term used in discussion to describe a poor structure on which to hang an idea. It differs from a crane for example, because you can see all the parts of a crane and you know how it works. You can see the arguments, in other words, that are holding up the idea.

A skyhook simply hangs from the clouds, its structure – its arguments, invisible and likely non-existent. It is being held there, presumably, by magic.

For those who have seen the Battlestar series, contrast the Cylons’ and Starbuck’s roles later in the show. We know an awful lot about the Cylons, even the ‘special’ ones that are revealed later. We discover why they are there, and why they forgot they were Cylons, and their reveal explains some previous aspects of the story that had seemed mysterious at the time.

Starbuck’s story on the other hand, grows more and more mysterious as the show goes on – exactly what is she? Why is she there? What can she teach us about the history of the humans in the story? How did she survive that event, or if she didn’t, how did she reappear? Her character is a source of many of the WTF moments in the show.

But we never really find out. No structure is revealed on which to hang the idea of Starbuck and the mysteries she represents.

Instead, the writers are left desperate, having to tie up a series they may not have anticipated ending so soon. All the elements of the story that they had gleefully thrown in to give us surprises are coming back to haunt them. We can sort that out later? Turns out later is now. The hole is deep; it’s dark down there, and their ladder only gets them halfway. What to do with the other half?

It’s true that religion has played a fascinating role throughout the four series of Battlestar Galactica. But that makes the answer, when it comes (rather clumsily, in an unlikely speech by Gaius Baltar during a tense standoff) no more satisfying. “We’ve all experienced things we can’t explain,” says Gaius, more or less, “so maybe God did it?”

It’s an almost visible shrug from the writing team; a defeated admittance that in the end they just didn’t know what to do. If I were Katee Sackoff, I’d be so pissed off.

The disappointment is somehow made worse by the fact that there is a definite ending there. There was a lot of talk in interviews etc. about making sure that the series ended properly – that there could be no doubt that this is the end. It is clear that was the team’s primary goal. And it’s an admirable one, given what a monumental task that was.

And sure, if the ending was somewhat wishy-washy, deliberately leaving room in case they wanted to come back in a few years time, it would have felt like another kind of cop-out. But given what the ending was, it’s achingly obvious that there is no chance to revisit the show and fix it. Which is a shame, because given another couple of series and the fantastic writing that had gone into it so far, I have little doubt that they could have finished everything off much more satisfactorily.

Still, as it is, it serves as an excellent four series with a bitterly disappointing ending, hard to recommend, and equally hard not to recommend. But perhaps more importantly for us, it serves as a warning to the pantsers. Be mindful of your story, and build a crane, don’t magic up a skyhook.

So say we all.

I had intended to make this a series of posts, but since finishing the show, I haven’t had the heart to write the others. Maybe some time in the future, but I’d rather leave my series unfinished than have it end badly, so we’ll see.

Until next time, folks!

  • Craig

    I think the problem Battlestar had wasn’t at all that they didn’t have enough seasons to finish the show, but that it dragged on waaaay too long.  This is perhaps the most major problem (i feel) of episodic (particularlyarc-story sci fi) TV in the states.  If the show isn’t popular enough, then it gets cancelled leaving an unresolved cliff-hanger, or worse yet, as you mentioned, an ending gets rushed which is unsatisfying for the fans (the new V springs to mind here).  if on the other hand, a show is very popular, then it will get dragged out long after its use by date, or beyond the length of its supposed arc (there is no more clear example of this that Lost – which incidentally, I feel is a much better example of what can go wrong when a supposedly strongly structured arc-series is made up as they go along)

    Battlestar had, what, five seasons?  (The fourth split in two for budget/meddling executive reasons)  But it couldn’t – in my opinion, sustain that length of time.  The danger of course in all episodic tv is when exactly the show jumps the shark.  And personally, i felt the show jumped the shark when it revealed who the final five cylons were, which actually flew in the face of what had already been established for those characters.  The weakness is – and this is perhaps where your point on the dangers of seat of your pants writing comes into play – that the writers had painted themselves into a corner, so they re-wrote what had previously been established as Canon.  And we all know that you NEVER re-write Canon.  Not once it has been established.  Sure, if you have to change it in the editing process BEFORE any material has entered public domain (or writing yourself out of those holes you mention) thats fine.  I’ve had to do that on several projects, and as painful as it is, if its what is needed to make a piece work, then so be it.

    The other problem is, episodic TV is never written by just one person.  it is downright impossible to have the ENTIRE series plotted out from the get go.  If you have a six season outline, then you’re never going to be able to have every detail mapped out.  So in a way, a certain degree of flexibility is required.  You have to find that middle ground between planning everything in detain, and writing by the seat of your pants.  Have an outline, a plan, but be prepared to deviate as needed.

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    The fourth was split in two because of the writers strike.

    I guess you could argue that it went on for too long, and therefore became convoluted. The only criteria I use for if something goes on too long is, am I bored with it?I was most definitely not bored with BSG. Loved it right up to the end. I might feel differently if I’d followed it for years, but I doubt it. The only thing that truly ran out of steam was Baltar, who they couldn’t really find a purpose for after his trial.