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JMS: Arc a Fake?

Date: 10-May-96 14:01:14

 Laurence Moroney <100546.50@compuserve.com> asks:
> What I cannot help but come up with is, magnificence of the
> series and storytelling aside, are we being had? Have we been
> subject to sales banter and are still expecting to see what we
> expected? Have we been distracted from our original impressions by
> the sheer brilliance of the show? (i) How come Ironheart who 'knew
> everything' didn't see the fake personality? (ii) We saw
> interaction between Kosh and her in (was it?) 'Deathwalker' which
> resulted in Kosh recording something of her - what ever happened
> to that?

       It's a fair question.  I'm going to try and deal with it as
best I can. The problem, first and foremost, is trying to explain the
craft of writing to someone who isn't a writer.  This isn't intended as
a slight; if a brain surgeon tried to explain his work to me, I'd be
about as much in the dark.  I have no idea where music comes from; I
can sit with Chris Franke for hours, trying to understand that process.
I never will.  I'm not hardwired that way. I *am* hardwired for
writing.  So it's not a judgment, just a minor truth.

       The creative process is fluid.  Has to be.  Consider for a
moment the position in which I find myself.  Let's say I'm writing a
novel.  I start with a fairly clear notion of where I'm going.  Six
chapters in, I get a better way of doing something, so I go back and
revise chapters 1-5, so it now all fits; you never see what went
before.  Now, compare that to a situation where you're publishing each
chapter as you go, and you can't go back and change anything. (This is
pretty much the situation Dickens found himself in, as he published his
works chapter by chapter; you can never back up, only go forward.)

       At the same time, because we're using actors who have real
lives of their own, to whom things happen -- broken limbs, health
problems that may preclude appearing in a given episode, sudden career
changes, you name it -- you have real-life obstacles constantly in your

       The closest thing I can compare this to...is if you're on
stage, in front of a large audience, and you have to do a very
elaborate dance...and all the while people are throwing bowling balls
and chainsaws at you.  You either learn how to accommodate all that,
and keep pretty much on rhythm, or you're dead.

       This show was originally conceived in 1986/87.  About 10 years
ago. Back then, all TV episodic stuff was done pretty much from one
person's point of view, your nominal hero.  Yes, you'd occasionally
dive outside that for a quick scene with other characters, usually to
set up something, but for the most part, it was about that one person. 
In MURDER, SHE WROTE, Jessica Fletcher was always at the heart of every
episode; you had the occasional guest character with whom she'd
interact, and the recurring supporting cast, but none of them ever
changed, and none of them ever really took center stage for more than a
few minutes at a time.  That's how TV has been done up until now.

       Novels, on the other hand, are often omniscient in narrative
structure, and you blip in and out of multiple points of view.  THE
STAND, for instance.

       Now, I've done both; I've written novels and I've written TV. 
When it came time to pull together B5 initially, you go into the "okay,
who is the TV point of view character" question.  Which was Londo's
narration, and which was the way I'd learned to write TV all these
years.  Once the series got going, it quickly became apparent that I'd
have to learn a whole new way of writing TV that was a lot more like
what I'd been writing in my novels, which were multi-POV huge stories. 
It's a kind of writing that's never really been done before for
American TV; and I had to somewhat invent that style or form of writing
as I went, in front of millions of viewers.

       You can't prepare for something like this, as much as you try,
because it's never been done before.

       (On reflection, probably the closest thing to what I've been
doing here was the miniseries The Winds of War, in terms of the
multiple viewpoints involved.)

       Also, in the last 10 years, I've become a better writer,
learned more about my craft, added more tools to my toolbox.  That
means being able to perceive better ways of doing things now than I
could've seen before.

       So here we are.  I sit at my word processor with my notes from
1986, and I see a better way of doing something from those notes...do I
go with what's there, or do I strike off and do the better approach,
PROVIDED that it still takes me where I want to go in the arc?  To
ignore it is to be inflexible.

       I've stayed fluid.  It's the same way I write a novel.  You're
just seeing the *process* acted out right in front of you, a process
which normally the public never gets to see.  That, I think, is some
part of what you're reacting to.

       Also, you have to be careful in how you define an arc.  There
have been definite arcs of character all through this.  Look at Londo
when we first met him...and look at him now.  Same for G'Kar, Delenn,
Franklin... look at Sheridan when he first arrived: happy go lucky,
smiling, glad to be there, fresh fruit and a hot shower, able to take
care of anything and everything, how bad can it be?...and look at the
dark, haunted, almost overwhelmed figure we see now.

       The story has also arc'd, peeling off layer by layer.  The
Minbari war leads to the secret of the Grey Council, which leads back
to the first shadow war, which leads to the current shadow war, each
really on a direct line one from the other.  The slow corruption of
Earthgov, the death of President Santiago, the rise of Clark, the fall
from Earth...all of it a very definite arc.

       It's not just a matter of "living in interesting times."  What
makes a story is *causality*.  A sequence of linked events.  "The king
died, and then the queen died" is not a story.  "The king died, and
then the queen died of grief" is a story.  It is an arc, however small.

       Finally, I'd just note the posts -- public and private -- from
folks who have sat down and watched the *whole show* as a unit, once
per day, or several per day...and the linked aspect, the real *arc* of
the show, becomes far more apparent when watched that way right now. 
It's there.